Follow @listofsurprises Brain Fever and Bravery on the High Seas
The Matterns have been on something of a feminist streak lately, thanks to a feminist blog we read non-stop. Once you start noticing sexism, it’s hard to stop.Trust me, flipping through a magazine will give you a hernia. I encourage all of my friends (male and female!) to get on board with this, but only if you don’t mind being annoyed all the time. I recently had an impassioned discussion on wage discrepancies with a female friend in engineering, getting angrier than I have since the finale of LOST. God help the man who dares to catcall me on the street: my glare will dent your car. Even my mom got into the action last week, angrily beeping at a man parking in a spot reserved for pregnant woman outside of Staples. You’re not fooling anyone, buddy. That’s just a beer gut.
The upside to all of this, besides making me a little gutsier, has been that I’ve started to keep an eye out for particularly gangsta ladies of past and present. Up today is Mary Patten: kicking butt and taking names.
In 1857, 20 year old Bostonian Mary Patten was a newlywed. Her husband, Joshua, was the captain of a clipper ship, Neptune’s Car, sailing out of New York harbor. Clipper ships, as the name kinda suggests, were speedy square-masts vessels that hit it big in the 19th century. Cut narrow, they ‘clipped’ their way through the ocean. While they couldn’t carry as much freight as some bulkier ships, they were great for low-volume, high-price cargoes that needed to get to someplace fast, like tea. They were also handy for passengers. Neptune’s Car was known for being particularly fast.
In July, the clipper started a race with four other ships. They were to leave New York and head down around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, where seas are notoriously choppy and dangerous. All participants hoped to get around the Horn and to San Francisco first, both so they could sell their cargoes before the others and so they could win a cash award.
In the age of sail, ladies were not usually allowed on ships except as paying passengers. The notable exception were captain’s wives and daughters, who often were the only women onboard a vessel. These women usually hung tight in the captain’s quarters or apart from the crew on deck, rarely having much interaction with any of the men but the officers. In the less than elegant atmosphere of wooden ships filled with stinky men, rats, and disease, they kept on keepin’ on. These women were unbelievably cool. While many of their friends may have never left their hometown, they were roughing it on the high seas and seeing the world. Sometimes they would go months without seeing another woman.
Mary had no experience sailing before she became Mrs. Patten, but she was a good mathematician and liked to help Joshua navigate (oh, also: no Tom Toms). That was to come in handy on this trip around the Horn. Neptune’s Car had a hard time from the start. Joshua found his first mate sucked, falling sleep on the deck during his watch and failing to keep the vessel on course. He removed him from duty and started to do the work of two men. Things were still saying afloat, however (haha) until Joshua fell ill in the Straits of Magellan. While newspapers of the time say he had “brain fever,” the poor Captain may have had a stroke at the ripe old age of 25.
The second mate took over, but he was no better the first. Clearly, Neptune’s Car had a lousy HR manager. He had no idea how to navigate, so Mary stepped in. She started to set the ship’s course and basically take on all the roles of the captain. At the same time, she set up a nurse’s station in the captain’s quarters to tend to her delirious husband. Since captains doubled as doctors aboard 19th century ships, there was no one else to do the job. While Mary had no medical training, she relied upon reference books aboard the ship to keep Joshua as comfortable as possible.
The first mate wrote Mary a letter and asked if she was sure that he couldn’t step back into his role. She replied that since her husband had deemed him unfit for duty, she’d take a rain check on the offer. He was annoyed, and tried to get the crew to mutiny. The men, who had originally bristled at the leadership of a lady, had grown increasingly impressed with her confidence. They refused to cooperate, pledging allegiance to their "little lady."
Going around the Horn, the ship encountered a brutal storm. Neptune’s Car was pounded by 60-ft waves. Miraculously, they survived relatively unscathed even as water poured onto the deck. A few weeks later, Mary got the first mate to promise he would do better and let him resume his post. Her husband was no longer in immediate danger of dying, but he was still in no physical or mental condition to help out in running the ship. She had decided she could use an extra hand.
The obnoxious first mate (who probably liked to moor his ships in docks reserved for pregnant women) thanked her for her forgiveness by being a total jerk. When he took the wheel at night, he would secretly change the ship’s direction, taking her off course. He hoped to direct Neptune’s Car to Valparaiso, where he would alert local authorities to Capt. Patten’s condition and make them turn over leadership to him, instead of Mary. Mary figured out what he was doing and removed him again from duty. Right around this time, her husband went totally blind and deaf for about 25 days. Talk about a stressful month at the office.
120 days after they had left their home port, Neptune’s Car reached San Francisco safe and sound. Mary had been in command for 56 days of the voyage, and they were the second competitor to arrive. The first mate took off as soon as they reached shore, eager to escape total shame. Mary had kept her husband alive, warded off mutiny, survived a killer storm, navigated a ship with no formal training, and outsmarted a villainous first mate. Now here’s the kicker: Mary gave birth to her first child four months after docking in San Fransisco. That’s right: SHE WAS PREGNANT THE WHOLE TIME.
The public was captivated by the brave young woman, dubbing her “the Florence Nightingale of the Ocean” and “the Hero of Cape Horn.” Bostonians donated money to help Mary care for her ill husband back on shore, with local ladies raising over a thousand dollars for the cause. Joshua Patten died in 1857, and Mary followed him four years later. They are buried side-by-side in Everett, MA. She remains a legendary figure in maritime history. That's how we do it, ladies.
“Heroic Conduct of a Lady.” The Hobart Town Mercury. 25 May 1857. http://newspapers.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/3243970
"A Heroine of the Sea.” New York Daily Tribune February 18, 1857.
The Maritime History Project. http://www.maritimeheritage.org/captains/pattenJoshua.html
“Mrs.Patten and the Ship Neptune’s Car.” The Public Ledger and Newfoundland General Advertiser. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=a8kHAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ojUDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3186,2247040&dq=mary-patten&hl=en