Today I am thrilled to host a return visit by Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic, and of the blog post on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy… In this post Gill links her latest book on the sinking of the William and Mary in 1853 with a subject close to my heart – my next book is about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – and the story she tells is one of horror as we witness illness and death on a boat totally unequipped to deal with medical emergencies…My sincere thanks to Gill for this piece and having read the book I can heartily recommend it. Gill has a real talent for bringing true stories to life and it is a thrilling read. Links to all her work are in the text and at the bottom of this post.
Many things shocked me when researching a strange case of attempted mass murder at sea for my new book “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson”. What seems to stand out for many readers – apart from the despicable actions of the captain and his crew when their ship wrecked in the Bahamas – is the lack of medical resources on board, or, more specifically, the prescription of bacon to treat high fever.
Emigrant vessels in 1853 were meant to have a ship surgeon on board for their voyages across the Atlantic or between Britain and Australia, however this was not always the case, and it was also fairly easy for someone to use forged documents to work their passage as a ship surgeon then disappear once they reached dry land. Captain Timothy Stinson, the inexperienced and inadequate master of the William & Mary, didn’t bother hiring a surgeon for his ship and at least 14 of the 208 passengers on board suffered horrendous deaths as a result.
The William & Mary was a newly built vessel making its first journey as an emigrant ship from Liverpool to New Orleans when people started dying on board in the spring of 1853. Many of the British, Irish, and Dutch passengers were afflicted with seasickness and unable to keep food and water down for the first few weeks of the voyage. This made them more susceptible to disease and one by one the unluckiest died of measles, typhus, and similar conditions, as their bunkmates listened to them howl in pain.
Instead of a ship surgeon, Captain Stinson relied on a pamphlet he kept in his breast pocket, and used this to guide him when doling out medical advice including such gems as giving bacon to people with a high fever. It would have helped if he’d also allowed his passengers their full allotment of provisions instead of starving them with half measures for weeks on end.
Luckily for the pregnant passengers on board, there were two medically trained emigrants present. Both the doctor and the midwife were members of the Dutch party seeking to settle a town in Wisconsin. This was the same year that Queen Victoria used chloroform while giving birth to her son Leopold, rendering pain relief during labour acceptable, but the Irish women delivering children still shocked their helpers by making liberal use of the whiskey they had available. It is unclear why, with so many dying on his ship, Captain Stinson failed to make more use of this doctor or to take better care of the people he was responsible for. The fact that emigrants paid up front rather than at the conclusion of a successful journey, dead passengers (in the short term) resulted in more profit than live ones, and a shipwreck with no surviving emigrants meant little or no compensation would have to be paid out, may have been a factor but it’s difficult to tell after over 160 years.
Once the ship had wrecked in the Bahamas, and Stinson and almost all of his crew had abandoned their remaining passengers to the sharks, the lack of ship surgeon became less noticeable – especially after several passengers had been murdered with a hatchet. But the Dutch doctor had to take a break from pumping the hold and instead assist the midwife in delivering a premature baby while its teenage mum was up to her waist in seawater. It is unlikely Captain Stinson and his pamphlet could have helped with this, but since he made every effort to ensure all aboard died in the Bahamas, it’s doubtful that if he was still there he would have even tried.
For further reading on maritime medicine try David I. Harvie’s “Limeys: The Conquest of Scurvy” (The History Press, 2005 http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/limeys/9780750939935/) and Kevin Brown’s “Poxed and Scurvied: The Story of Sickness and Health at Sea” (Naval Institute Press, 2011 https://kevinbrownhistorian.wordpress.com/poxed-and-scurvied-the-story-of-sicknes-and-health-at-sea/).
Gill Hoffs is the author of “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat. If anyone has any information regarding the wrecks and the people involved, they can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.