The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Bragging Rights

The practice of attaching additional items (newspaper articles, photographs, etc.) to correspondence obviously is not a new custom. Attachments generally provide more detail about the subject matter discussed in the associated correspondence. However, I found an interesting letter in the S. Lothrop Thorndike papers in which the letter is meant for one individual and the attachments are intended for others.

The two articles enclosed with a letter from the Canton, China bound Samuel Lothrop Thorndike on 27 May 1852 tell fascinating stories about a wager on a ship race to Hong Kong and cyclonic gales encountered along the way in the Philippine Sea. The younger Thorndike clearly leaves mention of these events out of the letter, addressed to his father Albert Thorndike. He includes these grand adventure stories as attachments, intended for his college friends.

At 22 years of age, Samuel Lothrop Thorndike left Harvard College in the middle of his senior year to accompany fellow Harvard student William Sturgis Hooper on a voyage to China. These two young scholars obtained a faculty leave of absence to make the voyage, and traveled on the new ship Courser. Sturgis’s father, shipping merchant Samuel Hooper, dispatched the Courser from Boston to California then to China in January 1852.

The letter to Albert Thorndike contains little more than a greeting, a note that the son has not yet received mail, and reassurance of good health and love. Postscript directions from son to father request that the two enclosed attachments be given to young brother William “Bill” Thorndike, who will see that “the fellows in Cambridge” – Harvard classmates Joseph Hodges Choate and Peter Chardon Brooks – receive the articles.

The first newspaper article recounts a ship race from San Francisco to Hong Kong between the Courser and the Witchcraft. Seemingly unaware of the race, the clipper ship Invincible simply loses by nearly two weeks.

TON. – The ship Courser, Capt. Cole, of Boston,
sailed from San Francisco May 29 for Canton, where
she arrived July 11. The clipper ship Invincible,
Capt. Johnson, of New York, sailed from San Fran-
cisco May 16, and arrived at Canton July 11. The
clip ship Witchcraft, Capt. Rogers, of Salem,
sailed from San Francisco May 30, and arrived at
Canton July 19. We understand that bets were
made in San Francisco that the Witchcraft would
reach Hong Kong ten days before the Courser, but
the event proved that the C. which is not a clipper,
beat the Witchcraft full six days, and beat the In-
viscible thirteen days.

The second article briefly describes the cyclonic gales in the Philippine Sea that Thorndike and Hooper weathered during the Courser’s voyage.  

Very heavy cyclonic gales were experienced in the China
seas, from the 3d to the 7th of July. The Am ship Courser
encountered one on the 5th, in about lat 18 N, lon 128 E.
The Invincible on the 6th in lat 20 N, lon 119 E.

Thorndike does write to his father in reassurance, “I never was in better health and spirits in my life.” However, he does not mention the betting, race, or the gales. He essentially left all the fun and danger out of his letter to his father. But he dispatched the articles to his Harvard classmates as bragging rights.


permalink | Published: Friday, 25 July, 2014, 1:00 AM