Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Slocum Wives

The website of the Joshua Slocum Society calls Joshua Slocum (1844-1909)  “the patron saint of small-boat voyagers, navigators and adventurers all over the world” and just about anyone with interest in sailing will know he was the first man to sail solo around the world towards the end of the 19th Century.

All of his achievements are so well-documented they need not be detailed here, but some entries on his time-line about his two wives caught my eye and set me off wanting to know more about both of them.
  • Married an American girl, Virginia Albertina Walker, on January 31, 1871, at Sydney, Australia.
  • In the same year [1884], his wife Virginia died (July 25) and was buried in Buenos Aires.
  • Married Henrietta M. Elliott ("Hettie") in 1886.
Wikipedia on Slocum gives more information about both women under the “Family Life” section and the biographical book Capt. Joshua Slocum, written by Virginia's son, Victor, offers some impressions of what his mother was like – cheerful, musically talented, brave, and even a good shot with a pistol. She had beautiful golden eyes, said to be an inheritance from her Leni Lenape Native American ancestors - “I have seen such eyes on our golden eagles”, said Victor.  More details on Virginia and an image of her tombstone on Argentinian cemeteries. Also see this website by Slocum descendants.

A recent re-edit by Tim Flannery of Slocum's famous work, Sailing Alone Around the World expands further on Virginia, although obviously describing her as “Australian” isn't quite correct – she just happened to have lived in Sydney when she met Joshua Slocum. Her American father, William Walker had originated from New York. He had been a “forty-niner”and left California for Australia when the gold rushes of the 1850s were in full swing.

"Golden Eagle Eyes"
Virgina Slocum, nee Walker
Virginia, who had been born in Staten Island, New York, in 1849, found life in Sydney too conventional and boring and knew Joshua was the man for her the moment she laid eyes on him. It was a whirlwind romance – almost considered an elopement as it was not approved of by her father. Both Victor Slocum and Flannery suggest that her father was prominent in the social life in Sydney, and ran a stationery business, but this marriage notice from newspaper, The Empire, Sydney, of 13 February 1871 describes him being from the “Survey Department” - although perhaps he was in charge of ordering the stationery there!
On the 31st January, by the Rev. James Greenwood, Captain Joshua Slocum, ship Constitution, Boston, Mass., U.S., to Virginia Albertina, daughter of William H. Walker, Survey Department.

Virginia's life with Slocum would be a difficult and challenging one, as for any woman at sea with her husband during the 19th Century. It is said she had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports although only four survived. 

Flannery's book contains this incredibly poignant letter to her mother that she wrote from the Philippines in 1879:
You must excuse me for writing you so short a letter. I have been very sick since the 15th of last month … I have not been able to eat anything till lately. Dear Josh has got me everything he can think of. My hand shakes so now I can hardly write. Dear Mother, my dear little baby died the other day and I expect that is partly the cause. Every time her teeth would start to come she would cry all night. If I cut them through, the gum would grow together again. The night she died she had one convulsion after the other. I gave her a hot bath and some medicine and she was quite quiet. In fact I thought she was going to come round, when she gave a quiet sigh and was gone. Dear Josh embalmed her in brandy, for we would not leave her in this horrid place. She did look so pretty after she died. Dear Mother I cannot write more.
Although their times together were not all sad and often exciting and adventurous, ultimately Virginia's health suffered. She died of heart failure in 1884 aged only 34 on board their vessel Aquidneck at Buenos Aires, leaving Slocum distraught and with four children to care for.


Less than two years later he had married again. This time to a cousin almost half his age, Henrietta Miller Elliott, born in Nova Scotia in 1862 and known as Hettie, and described as “pretty and vivacious”. 

The new young wife's honeymoon bed on the Aquidneck was probably the same one in which her predecessor had died which probably didn't augur well for the marriage.

During her voyages with Slocum, Hettie endured much including the loss of the Aquidneck, her husband shooting a man for mutiny and facing a trial, cholera and smallpox, and a sensational return home to America on the somewhat flimsy 10.5 metre Liberdade - “half dory, half Japanese sampan”. 

She certainly didn't cope with the sea as well as Virginia might have done but she wouldn't let it shorten her life. When the Liberdade arrived in Boston, she said, when asked by a reporter if the life of a captain's wife agreed with her, that she'd rather “take the train” and “I have had enough of sailing to last me a long time.” 

Hettie continued to look after Slocum's children even after the couple went their separate ways. Little is known about her later years and she died aged 90 in Massachusetts in 1952.

Her name appears as a contributor on this small booklet, reproduced in its entirety on Millicent Library website.

It was after Hettie left that Slocum made preparations for his solo round-the-world voyage in Spray and for which he is most famous. But Slocum's mental and physical state deteriorated in subsequent years and he was lost at sea on his final voyage in 1909.