I have long-since stopped worrying about whether I am writing too often in this blog. Let anyone who wants to, follow it--everyone else can sample from the Archives if they are so inclined. I know that some people do, as I see the Archives link appear in my top 30 stats.
I knew immediately, when I first read the four or five examples of Mathew's "Ethan Spike" letters which are appended to his biography, in 2005, that he embedded a great deal of his own life into them, often in "code." That biography also indicated that he was a drinker, at least in his early years, and then again in later life. I learned, from studying his work over the next several years, that Mathew became a Temperance man in mid-life; that he imitated many different dialects, not only the Yankee dialect (as in "Ethan Spike"); and that he appears to have run away to sea for a year or so, when he was about 14 years old, after a fight with his father about being denied a higher education.
When I discovered Mathew's work in the New York "Constellation" of 1829-1832, I found a piece in which a sailor describes being put in the "watch house" overnight, for public drunkenness. Immediately, or very soon after reading it, it struck me that this was probably veiled autobiography. In 1834/35, writing for the "Constellation's" successor, the New York "Transcript," Mathew would cover the blotter, or the "Police Office." But this, I believe, is a veiled account of his own brush with the law. However, the question arises as to just how did he develop such a command of sailor lingo? I think it's because he lived that life for a time, as a boy, and had ample opportunity to study and absorb it.
The complaint is often made, by disparaging historians, that 19th-century humor is so dated with period references, that the humor is all but lost. I would say that that complaint is very much exaggerated, at least where Mathew's work is concerned. This one, in my estimation, is timeless, even if they don't have wooden beds in the local jails. (Note that as regards the "N-word," Mathew wouldn't typically have used it, himself, but he didn't clean up his characters.)
The dead giveaway to this story's autobiographical underpinnings is the ending, where the "sailor" is let off because he is "good-looking" (Mathew was handsome), and because it's his first offense. Mathew, at the time of this writing, is 17 years old.
The New York "Constellation"
June 5, 1830
Tom. Did you ever lie on the soft side of a board, Jack?
Jack. Ay, ay, Sir, I have done such a thing in my day. But why do you ax?
Tom. O merely for information, Jack, that's all. I've no curiosity to inquiry into matters and things that dont concern me.
Jack. Then I should say, consarn ye, Tom, you've no business to consarn yourself at all about my consarns.
Bookins. Why, how is this, Jack? the fellow seems to hint that you have slept somewhere besides in a hammock. What can the saucy knave be driving at?
Jack. [Aside.] Split my seams! but I think he must have heard of my adventure last night. [Aloud.] How should I know which way he's laying his course? Perhaps he's heard of a little bit of a row I got into last night.
Bookins.--A row! Indeed, Jack, I thought you were a civil fellow.
Jack. So I am for the most part. But last night I got in a bit of a blow.
Bookins. A gale on dry land, I suppose.
Jack. Yes, a dry land consern; and no sea affair. I'll tell you how it was. I was bearing up Fulton-street, under a stiff breeze.----
Tom. Of gin, or whiskey?
Jack. Raal Holland, with very little water. The night was dark, d'ye see, and having very little water----
Bookins. In your grog.
Jack. Ay, ay, Sir. Well, as I was saying, the night was dark, and seeing a light ahead I steered directly for it, and came full split upon a lamp-post. I pretty soon got off though, with merely the loss of my top rigging; and the wind veering a little, I was obliged to [beat?] up. I made several tacks, and by and by I fell in with a strange sail, a sort of dandy looking craft, scudding under bare poles--
Tom. A dandy under bare poles!
Jack. No; pole-hat, I should have said. Ship ahoy! says I, bear a-helm, or I shall be into you. Don't ye see what headway I'm making? Bear a-helm, I say, The awkward lubber, instead of doing as he ort, came upon the wrong tack, and first I knew, he was on his beam ends in the gutter, and I was sprawling beside him. A watch! a watch! says he. D-----n your eyes, says I, and hit him a poke in the peepers. By this time, I righted myself and was about being off, when I spied a stout looking chap, rigged in a leather cap and a pea-jacket, with a wooden poker in his hand, something like a hand-spike; and I concluded I would tack about me and be off. But I met another just such a chap in the rear, and first I know'd, they had me tight and fast. Avast there! says I. Ay, ay, says they, you're fast enough--come, my boy, you must go to the watch-house. To the watch-house, says I, what's that? You'll know shortly, says they. Split my seams! says I, if I care about knowing. But they took me away you see, because there was two to one. They carried me down into the hold of the City Hall, led me along between two walls of stone, opened a side door, and pushed me in.
Bookins. And that's the way you became acquainted with the soft side of a board, ha, Tom?
Jack. Ay, ay, Sir, exactly so. Well, pretty soon I began to get sleepy, and looked about for a hammock; but the devil a hammock was there. Shipmate, says I, where do you swing your hammocks? We have no hammocks here, says he. "No hammocks! says I; what sort of a craft do you belong to? Recollect, young man, says he, you're not at sea now, but in the watch-house; and if you want to sleep, there's a bed for you, says he, pointing to a sort of bench, built up slantwise, with a foot board to keep you from slipping out, and a wooden pillow. Ay, ay, Sir, says I, for I thought there was no use in botherin--though I didn't half like the looks of the consarn--Ay, ay, Sir, I'll turn in while you take your turn to watch. So I got upon the wooden bed, which was big enough to hold a score, or thereabouts, of such chaps as lodge in the watch-house.
Bookins. How did you like it?
Jack. Like it, or not like it, you know, 'twas all one: there was no escape. So, as I was saying, I threw myself on to it, and began to think about sleep. But I'd hardly shut my winkers, when a land lubber, who lay next me, began to heave. Avast, there! messmate, says I. I-I c-c-cant avast, says he. What are you about? says I. I'm a he-eh-heavin up my--well, d----n your eyes, says I, heave ahead, or I will. Upon that I was about getting out of his reach, when he let the whole of his lading right into my face. Avast, there! says I again; you smell worse than bilge water. With that I seized the fellow by his fore-rigging and the starn of his breeches, and threw him overboard. He went down like a log. Stop your fightin, there, says the captain, or I'll have you hand-cuffed in two minutes. Ay, ay, Sir, says I, and I moved to another part of the wooden bed, where I found myself upon the larboard side of a great he nigger, as drunk as Chloe, and snoring like a porpoise. By this time, I got pretty well sobered, and thinking I'd got about enough of the watch-house, says I, captain, if you please, I'll go ashore--I've got no further business here. I don't like your vessel; she's a cursed foul craft, and I begin to repent I ever 'listed. What say you, captain, shall I go ashore?
Tom. Then you began to be sick of your accommodations, ha, Jack?
Jack. Ay, indeed I was. But the captain says he, you must stay till morning and go before the P'lice. But, Sir, says I, if you please I've no desire to go before the P'lice. But you must, says he, and there's no more to be said about it. Well, seeing matters were as they were, I once more mounted my wooden hammock, and made shift, by shifting from side to side, to lie till morning. The captain brought me out and twenty more, before their Honors, the P'lice. A shabbier crew I never saw.
Bookins. Than the Police?
Jack. No, not the P'lice; their Honors were very civil. The first that was called up was a she-nigger, for boxing in the street the night afore. Her peepers were closed up and as black as my tarpaulin. After giving her a blessing they sent her to Bridewell.
Bookins. Would you call that a blessing?
Jack. Ay, ay, Sir, a Scotch blessing. Well, the next was a white chap, who had run foul upon a bit of caliker, at a dry goods store, and carried it off with him. Their Honors told him he must give bail; and because he had nothing to bail with, they sent him to Bridewell along side the she-nigger.
Bookin. Along side, did you say?
Jack. Ay, ay, Sir; I said so. What I meant was, that both were sent to the same old hulk that's moored in the Park there, where they stow away all sorts of live stock, black, white and mixt--he-male and she-male. Well, the third was the landlubber that heaved up his lading in my face. He was put in the watch-house for being found on his beam ends in the street, having capsized with a cargo of whiskey aboard. This was the 'leventh time he had been picked up by the watch in the same way--and he was sent, along side the she-nigger and the caliker pirate, to Bridewell. Thinks I, if this is the way they sarve 'em, what'll they do with me?
Tom. You might see a sailor begin to tremble then.
Jack. Not exactly--though I acknowledge I felt somehow rather queer about the bows: but I kept a stiff upper lip, and when my turn came, and the Commodore of the P'lice axed me how I come to be in such company, as good a looking chap as I was?--when he called me good looking, I felt a little better--says I, your Honor, I got into a bit of a breeze last night, and was heaving up Fulton-street, when I come close upon a dandy looking craft, scudding under a pole-hat. I told him to bear away, or we should run foul. The lubber went upon the wrong tack, and sure enough we both capsized in the gutter. Then what does he do, but bawl out, a watch! a watch! I should soon have silenced his cannon; but just then two leather-headed chaps grappled me and------here I am, your Honor. I'm very sorry to see you here, says the Commodore. You're too good a looking chap to be catched in company with such people as are brought to the watch-house. You've never been here before, I believe, says he. No, your Honor, says I, and by ------ I was a going to say something worse--but you know 'twould'nt do in the P'lice--and says I by Niptin, the King of the Seas, I hope I never shall be here again. I hope you never will, says he; and so after preaching me a little bit of a lecture on the sin of intostication, he let me go.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Audio opening this page: "The Mermaid," traditional
(taught to me by my father, and sung here by Paul Clayton)