Monday, December 13, 2010

Women At Sea: The Lady George

The American whaling industry suffered mightily during the U.S. Civil War. It wasn’t any lack of ships or whales, but a lack of men that ground things close to a halt. So, when a sturdy looking young man with rough hands and a lack of stubble on his face showed up to sign on to the whaler America in the fall of 1862, no one batted an eye. Or troubled to ask many questions. Captain John Luce was satisfied with George Weldon’s story that he had fought for the Confederate army, was wounded, sent to a local hospital by the Union and released. Now he needed to make his way, and whaling seemed better than combat.

America put out for the South Sea whaling grounds and George quickly became a favorite among the crew. Documentation of America’s cruise tells us George danced the best jig and sang in a beautiful, tenor voice. He was not the most easy-going crewman, however. By the time America reached the Pacific, George had established himself as a fighting man with a short fuse. He tangled with the “big black cook”, coming away the winner of the fight. At the time the third mate, Jethro Cottle, remarked that if George “… wasn’t such a mean hard cuss, I’d say he was a woman.”

On January 9 of 1863, George’s temper got the better of him again. This time he was out in one of the whaling boats hunting for prey with second mate Robert Smith in command. George was at a larboard oar and, after two hours of heaving, decided to take a brake. Smith perceived this as insubordination and, taking up a wooden paddle, smacked George upside the head with it. George pulled a knife and went after Smith. The other members of the boat’s crew pulled George off the mate and restrained him. Smith ordered that the boat return to America where he promptly reported George Weldon to Captain Luce as a mutineer. Luce, not the type to tolerate such business, ordered that George be flogged.

Of course, as on any ship, a flogging involved stripping the culprit to the waist on deck in front of all the crew. George, the mean hard cuss, asked for a private moment with Captain Luce. When this was granted he, quite grudgingly, confessed to being a she. George Weldon was in fact Georgiana Leonard an apparent orphan from some Southern state who, as she explained when she signed on, was simply making her way in the world. Luce seems not to have been much troubled by the revelation. He told Georgiana that she would not be working on a boat any longer and gave him the job of his steward, who took her place whaling. The Captain’s log entry for January 9 states:

Two whales, six sightings; clear and warm. Barometer steady. This day found out George Weldon to be a woman. The first I ever suspected of such a thing.

Georgiana continued to wear men’s trousers and did her duty by Captain Luce for the next six months. Her mates seem to have accepted her gender-bending without much concern. Third mate Cottle later wrote that:

We couldn’t think of her as a woman at all… when you have come to look on a mate as a tough fellow, smoking tobacco and dancing jigs and fighting with the cook, it’s hard to change your mind and regard her as a woman.

It seems, in fact, that America’s crewmen were sad when she put into port at the island of Mauritius and Georgiana disembarked. Captain Luce had arranged for her to work her way home as a stewardess aboard an acquaintances’ clipper ship. The Americas got their first glimpse of Georgiana in corset and crinoline before the two ships went their separate ways.

It is a rather surprising coincidence that both the clipper and America were back in Mauritius in June of 1864. Georgiana was still working as a stewardess and her whaling mates were happy to see her. She confided her plans to marry the Second Lieutenant aboard her ship and, as Cottle tells it, the Americas were pleased with the idea once they, like doting big brothers, had sized up the Lieutenant for themselves.

Georgiana returned to the states and married her Lieutenant but her legend preceded her. When America returned to New Bedford, her crew was pestered for reminiscences of the lady sailor. A pub in town, The Sailor Boy, was named in Georgiana’s honor and Cottle published his version of her story in a chapbook. The penny press took up the tale as only it could. The story was turned it into a racy melodrama that cast Captain Luce as a leering villain who would gladly have stripped and flogged the fair Georgiana, woman or not. As an example:

It is unnecessary to portray the astonishment… which took possession of everyone present when the garment having been stripped from her shoulders, the snow white bosom of the maiden suddenly burst upon their view in all its voluptuous beauty.

That gem is from Ephraim C. Hine’s novel Orlando Melville, the scene being allegedly based on another case of a woman masquerading as a man at sea.

In fact, Georgiana and John Adams Luce carried on a life long friendship. After the Captain retired, Georgiana and her Lieutenant would visit his Martha’s Vineyard home every year or so. What exactly became of Georgiana Leonard, the woman whaler, is not known but her story – or one vaguely similar to it – continued to be told and the titillation of the whole thing never seemed to grow old. One wonders how she personally felt about that, or if she paid any attention at all.

Header: The Ballad Singer by Rowlandson


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Sounds like she was a good sport about the whole thing... Other than her temper, which seems to have been her biggest problem. Although I suppose you had to be ready to fight pretty much all the time when you had her kind of upbringing...

Karen Maeby said...

I came across your blog via The Bloggess' website. I love it! The perfect read for the pirate lover (which is me 100%)! I'm glad I came across your blog, I'll be coming back often to read.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Karen and Timmy!

Karen: I am so pleased you enjoy Triple P. Please do stop in and leave me a comment when you can. Love to have you among the Brethren!

Timmy!: Georgiana's life does have a bit of Oliver Twist to it so you're right; it's not a wonder that she was up for the occasional brawl. Back in her day all parties would have rested quite assured that marriage to the Lieutenant settled her down.