The brief correspondence between Eliza Emery Burditt and Capt. John Crowninshield offers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. The story of young Mr. and Mrs. Burditt’s courtship and early married life of is told here.
But just to recap the outline of their romance, Burditt commanded the brig Telemachus. Imagine him dashing and handsome. Eliza booked passage from Bordeaux to America on the vessel. Think of her as demure and attractive. Under normal circumstances, Burditt would have been too busy to pay much attention to his passenger. However, disaster struck the voyage when British privateers took over the ship just outside of Bordeaux and sailed it to Guernsey where the Admiralty Court condemned the ship and its cargo. Burditt and his crew booked passage back to America. Eliza traveled aboard the same vessel. With no other demands on his time, David Burditt courted the young Frenchwoman. The couple married and lived in New York a short time before David left her to visit his family in Salem. At first David provided funds and corresponded with his wife, but in February 1812, the letters stopped. Eliza pawned her watch. By May, she was distraught, penniless, and worried. But, she not entirely without potential family support.
It appears one of Eliza’s sisters traveled with her from Bordeaux to New York. This seems likely, because it would be unseemly for a young woman to travel without a chaperone. Eliza also has a married sister in America, the one she expected to visit. In her letters to John Crowninshield, Eliza mentions two male relatives, a Mr Emery, whom she identifies as her brother or father; and a Mr Sutton who may have been her brother-in-law. For whatever reason, it does not appear either of them took up her cause.
“Dear Capt. Crowninshield . . .”
On May 29, 1812, Eliza Burditt finally put her nabbed pen to paper and made Capt. John Crowninshield aware of her situation. She knew John owned the Telemachus, that he had employed her husband, and that he lived in Salem with his family. No doubt Eliza hoped he would put her in contact with her husband. He might even send her funds to tide her over. Eliza was also aware that Capt. Crowninshield has stayed in Bordeaux some years earlier and knew her father. These threads of acquaintance were important to establish a relationship.
On June 5, Capt. Crowninshield replied that he had seen David Burditt a few days ago. As if to soften the blow of her husband’s neglect, Crowninshield mentions that David Burditt’s sister recently died after a long illness. One wonders why he thought the excuse would mollify Eliza. Crowninshield goes on to say he remembers her family, will assist her with further information, and will deliver a letter to her husband if she wishes to send one.
Eliza replies immediately, telling this virtual stranger the history of her courtship and marriage. She encloses a letter for her husband.
A month passes. On Aug 5th, Eliza writes to Capt. Crowninshield again. Apparently David Burditt replied to her letter, though his response crushed all her hopes. It is clear David abandoned her. She intends to return to her family, and requests further information about her husband.
In my mind’s eye, I think Capt. Crowninshield may have sighed a bit about Eliza’s predicament. She is, as they said at the time, “ruined.” The captain provides a few more details. David came from a respectable family of modest means and worked as a clerk in the Crowninshield store before going to sea. He was perceived to be a good man and industrious worker.
Capt. Crowninshield writes there is no reason for Eliza to come to Salem. Her husband shipped out on the privateer John and will be gone several months. She would be better off, he suggests, relying on her own family.
There the correspondence ends. Eliza is ruined. David suffers no punishment. And Capt. Crowninshield feels awkward about the situation but probably consoles himself with the fact that Eliza is not without male family members who can provide her with shelter and perhaps a passage back to Bordeaux where she could start again with no one the wiser about her American “adventure.”
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Woman Holding A Rose, 1809.
Woman at Writing Desk by Johann Ender. 1820.
Portrait of a Gentleman by James M. Pearce.
Study of a Fallen Woman. 1880
Eliza Burditts to John Crowninshield May 29, 1812, June 5 1812, August 4, 1812. Box 5, Folder 3. John Crowninshield Non-Family Correspondence 1806-1812. Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.