Gail Reiber describes a “Sailor’s Valentine,” ca. 1900. The “Sailor’s Valentine,” a hinged shell mosaic, was brought to her family by her grandfather, Captain Edwin Barnard Rumill from Seal Cove, ME.



Oral History:



Oral History Transcription: 

Gail Reiber (GR) interviewed by Timothy Garrity (TG) along with Lily Besen-McNally for History Harvest at her home in Somesville, ME.


TG: Thank you for bringing this object to our attention and allowing us to photograph it. Tell us what we have.

GR: We have what is called a Sailor’s Valentine. They were made in the South Islands, a number of islands, of shells and seeds, and sometimes used the little door that a snail would shut when it went back into its shell: it’s called an operculum. There are many shells, many different kinds; their colors are all natural. The people who made them in the islands sold them to tourists and lots of them to seamen who were on the way home after an adventure at sea probably shipping cargo or possibly taking travelers or tourists, but mostly it was cargo trade through those south islands.

TG: So where are the South Islands?

GR: Mediterranean, Gulf of Mexico, or wherever they were coming from, but my mother only referred to them as the South Islands, so I can’t be more specific. Although, I do know that Grandfather, whose name was Captain Edwin Barnard Rumill from Seal Cove, ME, sailed not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but around Africa and in to parts of Europe. He was usually shipping cargo. He had a state room, his wife went with him for a few years after they were married, but she was troubled by seasickness, so she didn’t keep it up, and then once their children started coming along she had to stay home. He stopped in the South Islands several times and my sister has a similar Sailor’s Valentine with these mottos of fondness and missing persons, so a gift to take home to the wife or the sweetheart or the daughter at home. They were packaged in this same way that this one is as a double picture and that each side was basically a box, a six-sided box, with a hinge between the two halves and they could be closed with a little latch. The motto was similar, but it was only on one side, as far as I know. Now, there probably were great variations in the design of these boxes of shell pictures, but these are the only two I have seen in the flesh. I have seen articles written about them, but not recently and I don’t remember how the phrasing was, and they might even have been just plain, a floral design of some kind. This would have been back, I’m guessing around 1900 my grandfather was killed by mutiny in 1905, so it would certainly not have been after that. Through that era of the turn of the century.

TG: What sort of ship did he sail?

GR: He was sailing for a company out of New York which shipped cargo although the captain was assigned the job of arranging for the cargo on whichever wharf he had the ship at. He sailed squared riggers with big, huge square sails. He left school at about age 14 we understand, we can’t find his exact records because the town office burned at one time and they were all lost, so we don’t know exactly how old he was when he left school, but he shipped on his first trips as cabin boy and then worked his way up through to sitting for his captaincy.

TG: Do you know what year he was born?

GR: 1860

TG: You said that he died in a mutiny: how terrible. Can you tell us about that?

GR: Yes, a little bit without taking up a lot of time. Basically each trip that he made he would have to hire the crew. They would be workmen that were wandering around on the docks and looking for work and sometimes he knew them sometimes he didn’t because they might have shipped out with him before. In this case other ships had left and taken crew with them and there were only a few people left on the docks and he had to take what was there.

TG: Do you know where that was?

GR: I’m trying to remember and I’m not certain, so I won’t say, I’m thinking it might have been down around Philadelphia. In his trading travels he often shipped cargo along the East Coast and then down into the Gulf, Biloxi primarily, and then to South America eventually as he got ships that could sail longer and farther and then eventually with the square riggers they were sailing to Africa and went around the cape, Cape Horn several times and the Cape of Good Hope as well. I think he went around that cape three times.

TG: He’s not within your memory.

GR: No, he’s hardly in my mother’s memory because she was only 9 when he died. He was very seldom at home. He would be gone for years.

TG: What do you remember of your grandmother?

GR: I don’t remember much of her, but I have a sense of her presence. I remember as a little girl looking over her shoulder as she was sewing and admiring a little thimble which she was wearing. It was a gold thimble and it had a little circle of birds and animals and I remember seeing that move up and down through the fabric.

TG: This was a gift from your grandfather to your grandmother?

GR: The shell picture was, yes. I should go on about my grandfather’s mutiny because you did ask. When he completed hiring the crew that he needed he realized that one fellow he had recognized from a previous trip and he’d had trouble with him. He was apt to stir up the crew and keep something going all the time. One day he decided he took a couple of his friends aside in confidence and said ‘we’re gonna start trouble today. We’re gonna complain about the coffee at breakfast and then we will take care of the crew,’ the white crew, they were all black crew that group was, ‘ and then we will wreck the ship and claim salvage rights and we will be all set.’ Basically most of that happened. The complaint came from the kitchen at breakfast time and everybody complained. The two friends he had taken in confidence were very reluctant. They didn’t really have issues with the captain or the rest of the crew, but they were dominated by this particular man named Scott, that was his last name, and I can’t remember his first name. He disappeared for a while from the deck and came back and said he had taken care of the captain. We assume because there was no evidence of him anymore that he had killed him with a knife and threw him overboard.

TG: Was he ever brought to justice?

GR: Yes, eventually. As it turned out, a friend of Grandfather’s recognized an alarm signal that someone in the crew hung off the tail of the ship. He recognized the ship as being Grandfather’s. He caught up with the ship, went aboard and took the miscreants in chains and took them ashore.

TG: Do you know what was the name of the ship?

GR: I know it very well, and I can’t say it. I know it very well, but I’m at the age when I forget things. The two who had been coerced into this plot announced the did not want to be part of it and were not part of it and they independently hired a lawyer. The other one was treated separately and just put right into jail and treated very slowly by the courts. Eventually the two, the case came to the Supreme Court, which is surprising today, but evidently was not that surprising back then, to settle this problem. The two that had been coerced were pardoned by the President, and kept in jail for 13 more years because they were black, and then finally let free. It was a long jail term that they served. Scott was eventually hung and paid for his deeds that way. I don’t know how I can complete this story. My grandmother knew of the circumstances of the murder, but she didn’t know how it turned out because she had passed by that time. My sister and I feel relieved that we finally heard the end of the story. Over the years Mother had a number of things of Grandfather’s log books, deck books, diaries, charts, and personal objects, and would caution us ‘no don’t go near that was Fathers, that was Fathers.’ It was his and she worshipped him, though she really didn’t remember him. She had an older brother and when Grandfather came home it was the son that he took with him to go visit his friends and tell stories with, and Mother didn’t go. She was probably too little, but she also probably wasn’t as welcome as a girl in those days. She had a sense of she knew he was home, he was around, but he never stayed around very long. We always felt that he was torn. When he was home he missed the sea, and when he was at sea he was homesick. He was torn no matter where he was. I finally before my mother died my sister and I decided that it was time to do something about all of ‘Fathers’ things in the house. At the time, the director of the Historical Society, Jaylene Roths, was stepping down because her first daughter was born and she wanted to take care of her herself. I said, “What are you gonna do with all that spare time while the baby sleeps?”  and she said, “Oh I might write something.” Bingo! I said, “Let me call my sister,” so we agreed with Jaylene that she would go through these things and probably be able to answer some questions we never had been able to because she has a masters in maritime history. Perfect! So, we do have a biography of Grandfather. I have just recently loaned it to a friend, but I will get it to you. There is a copy at the Society. It has a picture of him on the cover it’s a binder, a three ring binder. You can read the details of the trial and all, but he had it was interesting life. Their letters back and forth were interesting in that they neither of them felt they had much to say and they both had a very interesting life. Grandmother alone with her two children, keeping house also she has a sister who was taking care of their elderly father. There was lots going on –– the community in Pretty March was very active then –– and there were lots of social events and things going on. They did not have any transportation, so they would have to hire a buggy if they were going to Southwest when the ship would come into the dock if Grandfather was coming home. He would take a steamer up the coast from Boston into Southwest Harbor and she would go down to meet him with a stage and horse.

TG: Well, Gail, it’s an amazing story attached to this object.

GR: This gift that he brought back to home to his family, his wife really.

TG: Thank you.

GR: Pleasure.