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Swampscott residents take a voyage back to the late 1800s

Anne Barrett of Topsfield portrays the life of Mary Chipman Lawrence during the three-and-a-half years she spent aboard the whaler Addison in the 1850s's with her husband Samuel Lawrence and daughter Minnie. (Spenser R. Hasak)

SWAMPSCOTT — Residents learned Saturday what it was like to live aboard a whaling ship in the late 1800s.

Mary Chipman Lawrence, wife of Captain Samuel Lawrence, wrote a journal about the 3½-year sea voyage her family took aboard the Whaler Addison with their five-year-old daughter Minnie, from 1856 to 1860. Theatrical performer and Topsfield resident Anne Barrett put herself into the wife’s character and brought her story to life at the Swampscott Public Library.

“I was looking for women characters to portray, ones that aren’t usual or whose stories aren’t being told,” she said.

Barrett was in full costume with an antique setup where she read from “The Captain’s Best Mate: The Journal of Mary Chipman Lawrence on the Whaler Addison, 1856-1860.” She put her own spin on Lawrence’s journaled words, but she also researched original sea chanteys and incorporated those songs into the cozy production as well.

According to Barrett’s interpretation of the journal, the captain’s wife recorded her first whale sighting on Jan. 13, 1857. Lawrence’s diary described the sea animal as a “formidable creature indeed.”

Barrett theatrically read Lawrence’s stories of making women’s clothes from whale bone, which back then was sold for $1.50 a pound, getting poisoned by fish turned bad, making friends in Maui and the “Sandwich Islands,” which are now considered Hawaii, and braving the Arctic waters, which were uncharted territory at the time.

She also read of the many hardships Lawrence fished while out at sea, including the loss of the 18-year-old cabin boy who fell overboard three days after Christmas in 1857.

“The business of whaling was fraught with danger,” Lawrence wrote.

The Lawrence family returned home to New Bedford, Mass., in June 1860, right before the American Civil War began. Unable to continue whaling during the war, Samuel Lawrence took a job as a steamship captain. After the war ended in 1865, Captain Lawrence moved his family to Brooklyn, N.Y.

Those in attendance were highly impressed with Barrett’s portrayal of the sea captain and her vocal skills.

“I was more than pleased,” said Pam Mansfield of Marblehead. “She was fantastic.”

Swampscott residents Alice Avanian and Larry Welch said Barrett’s interpretation was spot on and her vocal skills were mesmerizing. They saw an exhibit on whaling ships once at the Peabody Essex Museum and were both interested in finding out more.

“It’s interesting to hear about what life was like on a whaling ship in those times,” said Welch. “It was such a great presentation.”

The Swampscott Historical Society hosted the event and President Molly Conner was beyond pleased with how it turned out. Conner said she worked with Barrett before when she came and did a lecture on baseball for the town. Barrett makes a living giving theatrical lectures and portraying other characters, such as Martha Washington and Belva Ann Lockwood.

“It made sense to have her come and portray the captain’s wife given our town’s history of fishing,” said Conner. “It was a win-win for us.”

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