Sarah Gray, of Liberty Hill, Connecticut, wife of the rather oddly named Slumon Gray, sailed first on the Newburyport of Stonington, leaving in June 1844, at the start of a remarkable sailing career.
Her exploits were first noted by the third mate of the Charleston, Daniel Baldwin, who wrote in his private journal on August 17, 1845, that his ship had spoken the Newburyport: “Capt. Gray had his wife with him and a husky boy born since they came from Home. He first saw the light in Talcahuano in South America. He was born on board the ship and Christened by a Roman Catholic priest ... Success to him.” Mary Brewster (wife of the captain of the Tiger of the same port) met Mrs. Gray at Lahaina, October 7, 1846, writing, “Called on Mrs. Grey with whom I was very happy to meet she was a sister sailor had been [out] about 27 months saw her little boy who born on the ocean in Talcahuano harbor.” Mrs. Gray must have been good company, for Mary Brewster visited her each of the three days after that.
The Newburyport arrived back in Connecticut on March 5, 1847 ... and William, the little boy who had been born in Talcahuano, died just five weeks later, on April 11, aged two years, three months. It was a tragic Spring. His sister, Josephine, was born on May 7th, and died on the 21st, aged exactly two weeks.
In August Sarah sailed on the Jefferson of New London. Slumon left her on shore at Honolulu (pictured above) while he took the ship into the icy north Pacific. And there she met Martha Brown of the Lucy Ann of Greenport, Long Island. Martha was “in circumstances’, and “Mrs. Gray was with me dureing my confinement and did for me and my child, as an own sister would have done,” as Martha noted in her journal a month after the event, in her entry for September 27th. The Jefferson arrived back in Honolulu a couple of days after that, and the Grays took Mary Ann, the young daughter of Captain Cornelius Hoyer of Honolulu, with them when they sailed for the States, on October 16th. “Mrs. Gray felt very bad when she left,” wrote Martha Brown. “When we left the ship, she stood waving her pockethanderchief and crying. She is a nice woman—has one of the kindest hearts a human being ever possesed. The least I can say of her is I love her like a Sister, and if I am ever permitted to meet her at home I am sure it will be pleasent for both.”
The Jefferson arrived home in March 1849, and in September that same year Mrs. Gray embarked on the Hannibal of New London, along with a six-week-old daughter, Kate. So, counting back, it seems that she was pregnant during her passage home on the Jefferson. It is remarkable, considering the sad deaths of her first two children, that she consented to take the infant along. But she did.
Not only did little Kate survive infancy on board a rough whaler, but Sarah kept up her reputation for sociability. According to a journal kept by the steerage boy, Nat Morgan, the Hannibal spoke many vessels, quite a few of them petticoat whalers, for the fashion for taking wives to sea a-whaling had taken a hold by then. Nat portrays Mrs. Gray as the timid, weak stereotype of a Victorian woman, weeping when her husband (who was the stereotype of a rough, foul-mouthed master) lowered alone in the Arctic and disappeared in the fog, and agonizing when Captain Gray fell ill and imagined himself dying for a while.
However, the image seems wrong, for Sarah Gray's deeds were remarkably doughty. On the way home, in January 1851, Sarah not only went a-fishing off the Falkland Islands, catching the crew a fresh mess, but went a-shooting at the same time, bagging a number of ducks. Then, one month later, in February, she presented Captain Gray with a son, named Asher after her brother-in-law Asher Atkinson of Ellensville, New York.
The Hannibal arrived home in March 1851, after a most profitable voyage. Captain Gray invested the profits in buying ten acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut. On April 5, 1852, he was admitted in Lebanon as an elector. Tragedy had struck in the meantime, however: the little boy, Asher, died on January 30, 1852, two days short of his first birthday. Of four children only one - Kate - had survived.
In September 1853 the Grays sailed again, on the Montreal of New Bedford, taking Kate with them. Again, Sarah was pregnant, and a little boy, Slumon junior, was born off Cape Horn. Again, it was a very successful voyage, completed in April 1857. The Grays settled in Liberty Hill at this stage, Captain Gray buying property worth $1,600 from William Irish on May 5, 1858, taking on a mortgage that was finally paid off on July 17, 1863.
The Gray house was a substantial one, set in ten acres. Curiously, a recent researcher found fragments of broken tombstones about the grounds, bearing the names of various Gray children. A large number of the window panes have been scratched with dates and initials, most noticeably the name "Kate" on one of the upstairs bedroom windows - so it seems that the children had access to diamond rings.
It is possible that Slumon Gray intended to retire permanently from the sea, for in the 1860 census he described himself as "gentleman," and he certainly lived the life of a gentleman farmer. In the meantime another daughter was born, on September 25, 1857, and named Tryphosa. She was delivered by Dr. Ralph E. Green, and died on April 6, 1860, aged two years, six months, no cause given in the records.
Then Nellie S. was born, on October 31, 1861. She survived. The Grays' eighth and last child, Sarah Frances, was born on November 5, 1863, and died of consumption on April 13, 1864. And so five of the Grays' eight children died before the age of three. It was by no means an uncommon story, back then. Life was precarious, and particularly so for children.
Six weeks later, the Grays embarked on their final voyage, on the James Maury of New Bedford, leaving June 1, 1864. In retrospect, it is hard to understand why Gray made up his mind to go back to sea. He had a comfortable life in Liberty Hill, and was apparently much respected, for back in April 1863 he had been appointed as one of the two local representatives to the General Assembly. Additionally, the Civil War was raging on the sea as well as the land.
Whatever his reasons, it was a bad decision. On Wednesday March 22, 1865, about 400 miles east of Guam, Gray fell ill of inflammation of the bowels. Two days later, he died. The log for March 24, 1865, reads, "Light winds and pleasant weather. At two PM our Captain expired after the illness of two days at 5 PM." Refusing to allow him to be slid into the sea like an ordinary man, Sarah insisted on pickling the corpse, and so the log for the following day reads, “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather, made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”
As maritime historians know, putting bodies into spirits was not unusual. Being buried at sea was not considered romantic then, and the higher the rank of the corpse, the more effort was made to preserve the body for burial at home. Many of us have heard ghoulish stories of straws inserted into bungholes and members of the crew getting mysteriously drunk: it was for this reason that after the Battle of Trafalgar rum was jocularly known as "Nelson's blood." There is no evidence that this happened in this case. Instead, the ship was taken by the Confederate raider Shenandoah.
Sarah Gray was still on board with her children, not having been able to get a passage home. According to the various accounts kept on the Confederate ship, when the James Maury was boarded she was in a hysterical state - and who can blame her? The ship was bonded instead of burned, purportedly because of Southern gallantry towards the widow, but probably because Captain Waddell of the cruiser had taken so many prisoners from the whaling fleet - 222 of them, to be precise - that he needed somewhere to put them. Then he sent the grossly overcrowded ship off to Honolulu.
It is not known how Sarah, Kate and Nellie got back to Connecticut, but they had certainly arrived by April 17, 1866, when Sarah Gray first appeared in the probate court. She was granted $400, to live on during the settlement of the estate - a paltry amount, considering that she was accustomed to spending freely.
It took a full year for probate to be settled, but finally she got the money to pay the various bills she owed, one being eleven dollars for the carter who had hauled her husband's remains (presumably still in the cask) from New Bedford to Liberty Hill. The total debt that had to be repaid out of the legacy was just over two thousand dollars - quite a substantial sum for one woman to spend in one year, in those days. Thus, one imagines - she was able to settle down to a life of reasonably affluent widowhood.
In March 1868, intriguingly, Sarah Gray handed over the guardianship of her children to George Spencer, town clerk, dry goods merchant, storekeeper, and local entrepreneur. It is interesting to look for a reason for this, and it may be very relevant that he sold off the rest of the property - including the house - just nine days later. So perhaps it was a device, so that the children's share of the legacy could be sold, while they were still minors and could not sell in their own right. As we have seen, Sarah was extravagant, and she might have needed the extra money in a hurry.
That is one theory. Another, much more popular one, is that Sarah did not give up custody of her children of her own free will, but was forced to hand them over, for the most ghoulish reason possible ... but we shall come to that in a moment or two.
What Sarah did after the house was sold is unknown, but it seems very likely that she was already settled in Ellensville, New York, where her two sisters were married to substantial citizens. Kate had gone to school there - a very select school, considering the fees, which were well over three hundred dollars - and Katie died there, of a protracted and painful illness, in June 1869. Her body was shipped by train to Willimantic, and she was buried by her father and sisters and brothers in Liberty Hill, the top of her headstone bearing the evocative little phrase "Our Katie."
Sarah died on November 10, 1892, and duly joined the little group in the Liberty Hill cemetery, next to "Our Katie," and alongside the five small stones commemorating the deaths of the five children who died in infancy, each one surmounted by a lamb. Her name was added to her husband's headstone ... but the sensational yarns lived on.
That encounter with the Shenandoah is fertile ground for journalistic imaginations, for a start. "Capt. Gray was a privateer - a kind of licenced pirate," exclaimed the "Willimantic Daily Chronicle" in August 1970, getting the facts completely back-to-front.
The rest of the account is correspondingly dramatic. When he encountered the Shenandoah a peppering contest with cannon balls ensued, and Gray was hit and mortally wounded "as he barked commands from the bridge," the tale continues. According to the narrator, the bereaved widow instantly assumed command. How Sarah escaped the Shenandoah was beyond even journalistic imagination, but much was made of the problem of preserving the body. "However, the ship had recently taken on a large cargo of rum - as ballast! Thus, Sarah's problem was easily fixed. And so Captain Slumon Gray's corpse was carried to Connecticut, and buried cask, rum and all, in the graveyard at Liberty Hill."
But that's not the only sensational myth that has lived on...
But that's not the only sensational myth that has lived on...
There's the mystery of why Sarah gave up the guardianship of her children. And, as already hinted, an equally thrilling theory has been propounded for this. Sarah's children were removed from her care, it seems, in order to save their lives.
"It is said that Kate joined her father on most of his whaling trips," begins another account in meaningful tones, "while Mrs. Gray sailed less often, remaining in Lebanon where she was better known for her domestic accomplishments."
Further along in the story, the insinuation is made abundantly clear. "Daughter Kate outlived her father by only four years and was buried next to him and her five brothers and sisters!!! It seems the siblings had all died under mysterious circumstances before or around their second birthday while they father and Kate were away! No one knows the cause of the deaths, but it is believed that Mrs. Gray's cooking was a major factor and that Kate survived as long as she did because she was always at sea. The suspicion of mysterious doings strengthened when Kate died four years after her father, Captain Gray. Mrs. Gray outlived everyone by twenty years and the legend and strange tale lies with them in the Liberty Hill Cemetery."
And so this sister sailor is popularly supposed to have murdered her own children -- and the house where she lived, and her little children died is popularly considered to be haunted. (I have been told tales of strange sounds and ghostly spectres, myself.) Nowadays, we are so accustomed to modern childcare and modern medicine, that the idea of losing five children in infancy seems so incredible that infanticide seems a plausible answer ... but is this just a modern theory?
Did people in Liberty Hill, back in 1867, whisper that the strange woman who had sailed off a-whaling just as easily as her neighbors crossed Long Island Sound to Long Island had murdered her own daughters and sons? After all, those Pacific Islanders that Sarah Gray had hobnobbed with were famous for infanticide, along with all other kinds of pagan practices!
And it's much more fun to think that Sarah Gray was a murderess, rather than merely extravagant.
My eternal thanks to Alicia Wayland, of Lebanon, Connecticut, who became so fascinated with my early stories of Sarah Gray that she hosted us several times so we could explore the graveyard and visit the Gray house (where, interestingly, I found a visiting card-portrait of herself and Edwin, left there by Martha Brown), and also researched every possible detail of her life, finding not just the genealogical details, but the sensational newspaper stories, too.