Duke University Alumni Magazine

History Through Paper Windows
Diligently Seeking Susan
by Catherine Petroski
© 1997 Catherine Petroski

Historical bark: similar design as the J.J. Hathorn
"Who was this plain-spoken, intelligent, industrious Down East woman who was by turns serious and playful, at once revealing and reticent?" A researcher investigates the diary of Susan Hathorn, a sea-captain's wife of the 1850s.
n April 20, 1993, Susan Hathorn appeared at the Special Collections window at Perkins Library. She was wearing her blue marbled-print (a little worn at the corners) and had wrapped herself in a full-length manila file folder. She had with her a page-long manuscript-dealer's letter of introduction that had led her to Duke sometime in 1983. Susan Hathorn's had been a long and somewhat arduous trip, and naturally she was a little tired. After all, she was getting on in years--though here in Special Collections, she was just a mere slip of a girl.

     "I was wondering when you'd get here," Susan Hathorn seemed to say as I opened her diary for 1855 and began reading her entry for Monday, January 1:

Susan Hathorn

     This begins another new year. What strange things may happen ere its close none now know. I have passed it very pleasantly indeed--begun to work a pair of shoes for Jode, and considering how many interruptions I have had through the day, have accomplished considerable. This morning was cloudy and we did not get an altitude until past eleven which was not of much use.... But Jode had calculated correctly--at three, we made the lighthouse on the Grand Turk. They hoisted a signal which Jode hardly knew how to interpret--but finally concluded it must mean that he should lay by and not attempt to go through the Passage until morning. As soon as he put the ship about, the signal was lowered, which proved he guessed correctly.

     Ginny Daley, Women's Studies archivist at Perkins, had heard of my interest in writing done by women at sea and suggested I look at the diary. The more I read of it, the more I wanted to read and to know about the woman who left this amazing account of her year as a sea-going bride. I read the diary straight through to December 31, 1855, when she wrote with understatement that I already recognized as characteristic "how differently we are situated from the first day of this same year. Then I had no care--was far from home and friends.... How the 'little one' claims my attention--Jode is many a league away."

January 1, 1855, entry from Susan's journal

     Just as tears formed in my eyes, questions had begun to form in my head. Like a siren, Susan had beckoned, Follow me! Who was this Jode, the husband whom Susan, in her demure but unmistakable terms, so adored and longed for? Where had Susan and Jode Hathorn come from and where were they going on this voyage? And what ever became of them? And why, and how? And what of this "little one," whose name Susan never gives in her diary, and whose gender she only divulges some ten days after the baby is born?

     But the most basic question of all was about Susan herself. Who was this plain-spoken, intelligent, industrious Down East woman who was by turns serious and playful, at once revealing and reticent? What, for example, was I to make of her incessant, nearly compulsive sewing, and how was I to balance this with her intellectual side? She could do the trigonometry to find the J.J. Hathorn's position and she was a voracious reader--the Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott, a handful of popular romances of the day, the travel writings of fellow Maine writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, the works of the Irish poet Thomas Moore, and the sea poetry of Lord Byron. And what could be more romantic than this honeymoon voyage, on which the bride sailed on her young sea-captain's first voyage in command of the vessel that bore their name?

Writer Petroski: Susan's story "was etching itself into my life";
Photo: Les Todd

     I went home and thought about Susan Hathorn, and I probably even dreamed about her. That April and May, each morning I walked to Perkins Library through Duke Gardens and observed the daily progress of wisteria, azaleas, peonies, and roses, and each morning, I met with Susan. While I transcribed her nearly 40,000-word diary on my laptop computer, her story was etching itself into my life. As she wrote of the rise of the full moon over Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountain range, her visits to the Cuban ports of Santiago and Trinidad, and the transatlantic race to get a seriously injured mate to London to save his life, she spun a web of words that had caught me fast.

     I admired and liked Susan, but she was so mysterious, and much about her diary was incomprehensible to me. The Maine maritime world of the 1850s was very different from ours, which meant research to fill in gaps and understand nuances. And something about Susan and her diary made me uncomfortable--its "architecture." Fiction with beautiful "architecture" was one thing, but Susan's diary seemed a little too "just so." My imagination lurched into overdrive: Could the diary be a latter-day forgery--or even a work of quasi-fiction authored by Susan Hathorn, telling about a life she had only wished she had led?

     In the Special Collections folder with the diary was a typed, single-spaced "dealer's description" of the manuscript--less a description than a synopsis of Susan's year of 1855: her voyage to Cuban and British ports, her return to Savannah and then Maine, the birth of her first child in November. The dealer divulged nothing of the diary's provenance. Special Collections' William Erwin A.M. '60 gave me the manuscript dealer's name, and I began to trace the manuscript backwards. After several months, I hit a literal dead end at the shop of a respected but recently deceased maritime antiques and manuscripts dealer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I set my misgivings aside and determined that, on the strength of the diary's internal evidence, I would do my own authenticating.

mong the most private of documents, a personal diary is by its nature fragmentary. It is a collection of many allusions and implications understood only by the writer and therefore often enigmatic to a latter-day reader. Fortunately, Susan Hathorn was a careful, diligent, and inclusive diarist who laid a clear trail for a reader with the time, inclination, and resources to follow it. As for the last, Duke's Special Collections and Reference Department at Perkins accommodated my endless, oddly-varied requests and inquiries. Duke's Interlibrary Loan filled far-ranging orders for everything from microfilms of an 1850s shipping record newspaper (the New York Commercial and Shipping and Prices Current) to dusty dissertations to scarce copies of the then wildly popular romances that, along with Scott's Waverley novels and a great deal of poetry, Susan and her husband read while at sea. Clearly, no one could undertake a project like this without the support of a major research library like Duke's.

     Perhaps I've always wanted to be a detective, and Susan left such enticing clues. On Saturday, February 17, 1855, at sea between Trinidad de Cuba and London, she wrote, "Concluded the week by putting wardrobe in order, after the Holyoke Custom." I wrote at once to Mt. Holyoke College: Did they have a student there in the late 1840s or early Fifties whose name would have then been Susan H. Lennan? I had a quick answer from Elaine Trehub, the college archivist, to whom my inquiry had been referred: Yes, Susan attended Mt. Holyoke Seminary, as it was then known, during 1851-1852. Moreover, Trehub informed me, the college had in its archives two of Susan's writings: a letter written while Susan was a student describing daily life at Mt. Holyoke to a friend and her final essay for the academic year 1851-52, titled "A Three Years Cruise in the Ship Graduate." These two documents add further dimensions to Susan's personality and her aspirations.

     In Maine, with the help of local historians and genealogists, I began to piece the Ha-thorn-Lennan puzzle together. Genealogists are a breed unto themselves who keep our ancestors straight by poring over countless documents--census rolls, vital statistics, military musters, family bibles, and church and cemetery records. One Maine genealogist named Jay Robbins in Richmond led me to Evergreen Cemetery, where the Hathorns were buried: Jode's parents and grandparents, his sister and brother-in-law, his younger brother, and his daughter. And their headstones bore information essential to solving the puzzle. Here, too, I learned of Jode's death in May 1856, of the baby's name (Josephine) and her death in 1858, and of the loss at sea in 1861 of both Jode's younger brother and the very bark on which Susan and Jode had sailed.

Above, J.J. Hathorn port of call, Bute Dock, Cardiff, Wales

     Maine Maritime Museum, which overlooks the Kennebec in Bath, has a research library that is the major resource for mid-coast maritime history, particularly materials on Ken-nebec River shipbuilding and shipping. Here, in Nathan Lipfert's low-tech, cross-referenced card file of Kennebec area captains and vessels, I learned still more about the Hathorns and other Maine captains mentioned in Susan's diary, and of the many vessels associated with Captain Jefferson Hathorn, Jode's father. At the Maine State Archives, I searched in vain for details on Jefferson Hathorn's term as a senator in the state legislature, but found, in a wild stroke of serendipity, the Civil War diary of Dr. Abial Libby, Susan's second husband. Somewhere during all this process, I, too, got hooked on reading census rolls, a highly dangerous addiction. Richmond's censuses between 1830 and 1880 give a rich picture of the changing shapes of families, households, and neighborhoods, as well as providing self-declarations of education, occupation, and net worth.

     At the National Archives, Angie Vandereedt, a specialist in maritime civil records, performed miracles, locating the J.J. Hathorn's original registration and other key documents about the vessel, including a cargo manifest and crew lists for the year during which Susan sailed with Jode. She guided me to consular reports showing the J.J. Hathorn entering and leaving ports during 1855 and to a series of documents relating to Jefferson Hathorn's exploits as a shipowner and captain, all of which were filling in the maritime background for Susan Hathorn's diary. My daughter Karen put me on to the Internet maritime history list, MARHST-L, which proved to be the source of countless important leads and put me directly in touch with several world-renowned maritime historians. In New York City at South Street Seaport's Herman Melville Research Library, maritime historian Norman Brouwer found information and pictures of the two steamers Susan tells of taking in September 1855, as she returned to Maine for the birth of her baby.

     In London, I set out in search of America Square, where the Hathorns stayed in a boarding house owned by "the Misses Bragge" while in port. From the commercial directories of the 1850s, I had formed a mental picture of the America Square Susan visited, just a short walk north from the Tower of London. But I also knew that World War II bombing had taken a heavy toll on America Square, so finding two curtain-wall, high-rise insurance company buildings on the site of the Misses Bragge's boarding house was no great surprise. The Angel, a public house in the old directories (but not Susan's diary), still flourishes at the corner. At the Guildhall Library, I read the London census of 1851 for the area and discovered sketches of the Georgian buildings in which the Hathorns had stayed. At the Public Records Office at Kew, I learned that the Port of London records for the nineteenth century, being so voluminous, had not been preserved. (I also observed in the PRO a high-tech repository that shows little respect for the materials they go to such lengths to keep electronically secure.) The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, though a fine place to visit and stand astride the prime meridian, held in its libraries nothing of use in the Hathorns' story. At Gravesend, where the Thames widens to empty into the sea, stands the pilot house whose drunken denizens caused Jode Hathorn no end of headaches. The Hathorns spent over a week in Cardiff in 1855, and there, at the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum of the National Museum of Wales, I found an 1850s lithograph showing a sailing vessel being brought out of Bute Dock by a little steam towboat, with a captain and his lady being rowed ashore in the foreground. Here too I learned that the "iron" that Susan described being loaded onto the J.J. Hathorn, bound for Savannah, was rails for the building of the Georgia railroad system-- perfect sense, since they had taken a "locomotive and tender in 24 pieces, complete" from Philadelphia to Savannah at the start of their wedding voyage in the fall of 1854.

hough I had reconstructed the J.J. Hathorn's itinerary and learned as much as possible about Richmond, Maine, the Lennans, the Hathorns, and mid-nineteenth-century maritime history, the biggest problem of all--what to do with all of it?--loomed ahead. How would I ever begin to order the material into coherent, manageable form? An edition of the diary was one possibility, but wouldn't Susan be a more compelling figure for the reader if Richmond and the Hathorns and Lennans and maritime life in the 1850s could all be interwoven with her diary's narrative? I recalled that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich decided when working on the midwife Martha Ballard's diaries to "listen to the material." Editors always say a work will find its own shape and length. And so it did.

     The book's shape, of course, lay right there in the marbled-paper covered diary that Susan Hathorn carried with her that year and that has, by chance or miracle, survived. I would simply follow her year chronologically and use each month to develop an appropriate aspect of the background. January's chapter includes the research on the logistics of port arrivals and the documentation on the bark J.J. Hathorn itself. February, when Jode had to get the U.S. consul's help to deal with the crew's mutinous refusal to work, includes the material about maritime law and consular reports. July's chapter discusses Susan's prescient final essay, "A Three Years Cruise on the Ship Graduate," in which she articulated her geographical vision of the world of ideas. September includes background on the Hathorns' trip north from Savannah to Maine by steamers, and October includes material on shipbuilding in Richmond, Maine, and the Hathorns' place in that activity.

     Susan herself provided several other frames of reference that I decided I would intersperse as appropriate and also use as appendices. She listed her 1855 expenditures in an account-book section at the back of her diary, information which places her on the socio-economic scale and defines her personal interests and priorities. She learned to "get the sights" and faithfully recorded the vessel's position in her diary, thus giving the J.J. Hathorn's course.

     She was a needlewoman of practically compulsive dimensions. Hardly a day in the entire year passed when she did not mention doing some form of sewing, knitting, crocheting, or embroidering, and these evolving projects serve as a gloss on the year, following the changes in Susan and her situation. (When the embroidered slipper tops she begins for Jode on January 1 turn out not to fit him, she adapts to the situation, keeping the misfits for herself and making him two other pairs. By June, when Susan is in London, we find her purchasing "baby fixings," to which she adds when in Savannah. When Jode takes her back to Richmond in September, she fusses mightily over his clothing, making shirts for him right up to his departure. Then on the very day he leaves, she throws herself headlong into the business of "baby fixings.") For all her romantic reading, Susan was a highly organized and disciplined woman.

     In the end, I had to admit that my fears of a forgery looked rather foolish. A diary this deeply immersed in the maritime world of 1855, the lives of the Hathorns of Richmond, Maine, and the rich detail of a woman's everyday life could only be genuine. No one could have fabricated her complex account, and I had come to know that Susan would never for a minute have contemplated such a hoax. She had, in very real time, recorded her bride's passage--from a slightly giddy captain's wife of January to the grass widow and young mother of December--and left us an intelligent, complex, and fascinating woman's real-life story, one that I felt enormously lucky to have chanced upon.                     

Petroski lives in Durham. Her fourth book, A Bride's Passage: Susan Hathorn's Year Under Sail, will be published in February by Northeastern University Press. She has taught writing in Duke's English department. Her other Duke connections include her husband, Henry Petroski, A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering, and their children Karen '90 and Stephen '96.

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