Thursday, December 22, 2011

Capt. Abby & Capt. John Pennell

It is certainly a tough assignment to tackle a biography of 2 people who are so interesting that a Pulitzer-prize winning author has already beaten you to the task. But despite the full and justified treatment Abby Reed Pennell & John D. Pennell received at the hands of Robert P.T. Coffin in his book Captain Abby & Captain John, here we go anyway!

Abby (sometimes spelled "Abbie") J. Reed was born on August 22, 1835 on Orr's Island in Harpswell to Arthur Reed (1809-1879) and Elizabeth Jacobs Reed (1807-1899). Growing up in what is now the oldest house on the island and granddaughter to an Orr for whom her birthplace was named, Abby had quite a family history to live up to. Though her father's side of the family made careers as sea captains--a career Abby's brother Elias followed as well--she was probably not prepared for how her own life would be spent on the ocean.

Abby Reed Pennell's childhood home still stands today, a Colonial built in 1756 by Joseph Orr. In 1784 it was one of only 2 houses listed on the island, along with a number of "logg camps." Harriet Beecher Stowe mentioned this house with it's distinctive gambrel roof in her book The Pearl of Orr's Island. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1982.28.2.53.
Like his future wife, John D. Pennell was also born into a seafaring family. Pennells had been living and building ships in Pennellville, Brunswick for nearly 50 years when John was born there on April 14, 1828. One of 8 boys & 3 girls born to Jacob (1778-1841) and Deborah Dunning Pennell (1780-1861), John grew up in a Cape Cod-style house built in 1794. Though his father had died by the time he turned 13, John followed him into the shipbuilding business and helped manage the Pennell Brothers shipyard with his cadre of siblings. The shipyard, which reached its heyday from 1834-1874, was cited as "one of the largest of the century" (whether this refers to the acreage, number of ships launched, or some other measure is unclear!).

Interestingly, John's first trip to sea (at age 24) was not on a Pennell ship but another Brunswick family's, the Skolfields. After that, however, John stayed within the family, working in the yard to build the United States in 1855, of which he would become First Mate. He returned to Brunswick in 1857 and, on December 3 of that year, married Abby. As Coffin describes the young couple in his book, "They were both serious-minded, rather soberish & very sure all things were right in the sky, and would turn our for the best, on every part of the sea." (86)

Though there journeys together on the sea would not begin until after they had been married a year (John spent the year away from his new wife, sailing across the oceans), John's new position as captain of the William Woodside meant that Abby finally had a place on board. The couple set sail in 1859 and spent the next 19 years together on the sea. Though she kept herself busy with knitting, sewing, needlepoint, cooking, reading, learning navigation from her husband, embroidery and even shopping while they were in port, Abby suffered from seasickness and never fully adapted to the constant motion of the ship. But Abby was determined to be by her husband's side, later writing "I often think of my feelings when John went away, when we were first married, and left me at home. I said then, if he lived to get back again, he never would go without me again. And he never has so far. And I don't think he ever will." (183)

After the William Woodside, Abby & John moved to the Deborah Pennell (named for his mother) when John earned the captain's position on that ship in 1861. It was on this ship that the couple's first child, a son, was born on September 5, 1862. Sadly, the baby died just a few weeks later on September 22 after being "sick with convulsions" (208-209). Wishing to bury their baby in their plot in Pine Grove Cemetery back home in Brunswick, Abby & John took the unusual step of preserving their son's body in a barrel of rock salt, "salt pickle" and liquor, then lashing the barrel to the mainmast. A year after his death, the unnamed boy was sent back to Brunswick on another ship. When the body arrived in Brunswick, the barrel was opened--and despite all the efforts the couple had made to preserve the tiny corpse, it was in such poor condition that immediate burial was necessary.

The footstone of Abby & John's unnamed son, buried in Pine Grove after being crudely preserved in a barrel of brine for a year.

Despite their grief for their loss, Abby & John continued their travels, ultimately making it around Cape Horn (tip of South America) 7 times, the Cape of Good Hope (tip of Africa) 4 times and completely around the globe once. Along the way, the couple had 2 more sons-- Arthur Reed (1864-1903) & John "Freddie" Frederick (1870-1958)--both of whom would later graduate from Yale. John Frederick would later share his parent's diaries, letters and other papers with Robert P.T. Coffin, who used them as the source material for his book about Abby & John.

Abby & John's life voyage together ended on July 5, 1878 in Rio de Janeiro. John was captaining the Benjamin Sewall and had been feeling unwell for over a year since hitting his head during an earthquake while off the coast of South America. After experiencing severe headaches and fever, he died in a Rio hospital with Abby by his side. Learning from their earlier attempt with their first son, Abby had John's body professional embalmed and traveled back to Brunswick with it and her two boys. Once they were home, a service was held for John (with Alpheus Spring Packard providing the funeral sermon) and he was buried with his unnamed son in Pine Grove Cemetery.

Close-up of Pennell family monument, showing John's birth & death dates. This obelisk stone is located in the 8th row from the right, near the flag pole.
Abby lived a long life and watched as her 2 sons grew into successful careers (though she would lose another son, Arthur, in 1903). She died in Edgewater, New Jersey on February 23, 1909 and was brought back home to be buried with her husband & children in the granite-curbed family plot--the final resting place of a remarkable seafaring family.

The last ship the couple would sail together, the Benjamin Sewall, also met a tragic demise. To learn more about the ship's October 5, 1903 run ashore in Taiwan and the resulting international incident, follow this link.
The Benjamin Sewall under construction in the Pennell Brothers shipyard, circa 1874. Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1983.72.1.
"Abbie J. Pennell." The Brunswick Record. 12 March 1909, page 4.
"Capt. John D. Pennell." Brunswick Telegraph. 2 August 1878, page 2.
"Capt. John D. Pennell." Brunswick Telegraph. 16 August 1878, page 2.
Coffin, Robert P.T. Captain Abby & Captain John, 1939. Pejepscot Historical Society, acc#1982.97.118.
Falconer, Deborah Pennell. Pennell Family Geneaological Trees. Pennell Vertical File, Pejepscot Historical Society.
"From the Falls to the Bay: A Tour of Historic Brunswick, Maine." 1980.
Historic Preservation Survey card for the Kitridge House. Pejepscot Historical Society.
"John D. Pennell." Brunswick Telegraph. 12 July 1878, page 3.
"Mrs. Abbie J. Pennell." The Brunswick Record. 26 February 1909, page 8.