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Theodore Turley: A Biography
Richard E. Turley, Jr.

[This is another in a continuing series of newsletter articles that together will make up the first rough draft of a biography of Theodore Turley. The draft will undergo considerable revision before being published in book form. I invite all family members to read it critically, make suggestions, and offer additional information for possible inclusion. Feel free to e-mail me.]

34 “Sickness, Vomiting, Groaning and Bad Smells”

Not long after the steamer tugged the North America into the open sea, the ship’s mate climbed down into the steerage area between decks where Theodore Turley and two hundred America-bound Latter-day Saints were crowded with their trunks, boxes, and other baggage. The mate “ordered all boxes fast as they expected a good rocking that night,” recorded Theodore’s assistant, William Clayton.1

“All was even” so, Clayton wrote. “The wind blew hard[,] the vessel rock[ed,] and many were sick all night.” The English Saints were largely, if not entirely, landlubbers, folks unaccustomed to life at sea. The continual rocking and pitching of the ship brought on seasickness with a vengeance. “This was a new scene,” Clayton said. “Such sickness, vomiting, groaning and bad smells I never witnessed before.” The scent of sickness added to “the closeness of the b[e]rths almost suffocated us for want of air.”2

Church leaders and the English Saints had scraped to get enough money to send the group to America.3 The steerage passage that they booked lacked the fine, separate cabins and good food that first-class passengers enjoyed. Instead, Theodore and the passengers under his leadership were crammed together sardine-like in a tight space between the ships upper and lower decks.

After studying Theodore’s trip and many others, Mormon immigration historian Conway Sonne described the experience of traveling in steerage passage. The space between decks, he wrote, “was a confined area with tiered bunks ranged along each side. A ladder or steep stairs provided the only exit, and during storms the quarters were hatched down to prevent water from flooding the hold. The only light came from a few lamps hanging in strategic locations and shedding a dim yellow glow. The only sanitary facilities were buckets or chamber pots. . . . [D]uring severe storms sometimes lasting for days steerage passengers were hatched down and could not get to the deck.”4

Fortunately, the morning of Wednesday, September 9, “was a little more calm,” and Theodore “ordered all the company on deck to wash.” Standing on the deck as the boat rocked on the waves, the Saints “had a pleasant view of the North of Ireland as we sailed on that side,” Clayton wrote. But the wind picked up in the afternoon and “blew a gale until Saturday morning,” September 12. “I was in bed nearly all this time”, Clayton observed, and so was many of the company. “Elder Turley was sick a little.”5 Theodore had more experience crossing the ocean than the overwhelming majority of other passengers, and thus better sea legs.

During the three-day gale when most of the Saints were ill and many lay in bed, those who were not sick attended to their needs and helped maintain order and cleanliness the best they could. But it was still an awful experience. Despite the best efforts of captain and crew, the ship drifted northward. “I have been told that we were in two whirlpools near to a rock and the captain expecting us to be dashed against it,” Clayton wrote. “We was in great danger but the Lord delivered us.”6

To keep the ship from being blown backward, the sailing crew decided to “reef” the sails, meaning to lower, roll up, or tie down the canvas sheets to keep the wind from catching them. During the storm on Thursday night, the crew managed to reef “all the sails except about 4 and were endeavoring to Reef these” when “there came a gust of wind that took away 3 of the sails,” including one of the main sails. On Friday night, the ship “lost another sail and some of the blocks.”7

Despite the near-suffocation of steerage passage, it proved in some ways a blessing during the storm. Unlike the sailors and the people in first-class cabins, the steerage passengers did not have easy access to the upper deck or a view of the sea and thus were sometimes unaware of the danger the ship was in. Still, the sound of the waves crashing against the hull, the wind howling, and the timbers of the ship creaking under pressure could be harrowing.

“On Friday night,” Clayton wrote, “a little girl belonging to a family in the second [class] cabin was frightened by the storm and lost her reason.” Yet the Saints in steerage generally remained calm. “The company were composed,” Clayton explained, “but we were ignorant of our danger.”8

Finally, on Saturday, September 12, the gale “somewhat abated,” and the company’s spirits began “to brighten a little.” Then on Sunday morning, the voyage experienced its first death: the little girl in second class who had lost her senses on Friday night. She was not a member of Theodore’s company, but the death of a child must still have sobered all on board.9

Captain Alfred B. Lowber invited Theodore to preach a sermon in the latter part of the day. Besides being the Sabbath, the day was likely one of mourning for the passing of the little girl. Theodore chose as his text the first chapter of the book of John in the New Testament, a chapter that speaks of God, creation, light, darkness, and the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Theodore preached for about forty-five minutes.10

On Monday, Captain Lowber again called on Theodore, this time to “read the burial service” for the little girl. After Theodore finished, “the body of the child was committed to the deep.”11 Sailing ships had no way to preserve bodies for later burial on land, making sea burials a necessity. But the thoughts of sending a loved one’s remains overboard to sink in the sea and be devoured by sharks or other ocean creatures could bring agony to those left behind.

As the appointed leader of the two hundred emigrating Saints and the recognized spiritual leader of the ship, Theodore bore a heavy weight of responsibility. He had held up well under the stress of the first week of the voyage. But the worst was yet to come.

[Next issue: “‘Much Grieved in Consequence'”]

© 2007 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the October 2007 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. James B. Allen and Thomas G. Alexander, eds., Manchester Mormons: The Journal of William Clayton, 1840 to 1842 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Peregrine Smith, 1974), 173.
  2. Manchester Mormons, 173.
  3. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, September 8, 1840.
  4. Conway B. Sonne, Under Sail to Zion, conveniently located online https://user.xmission.com/~nelsonb/sailing.htm (accessed November 4, 2007).
  5. Manchester Mormons, 173.
  6. Manchester Mormons, 173.
  7. Manchester Mormons, 173, 176.
  8. Manchester Mormons, 173-174.
  9. Manchester Mormons, 174.
  10. Manchester Mormons, 174.
  11. Manchester Mormons, 174.