Back Then

Photograph by Angie White

The secrets of a pirate lie within a well-traveled, ink-splattered manuscript in the Galvin Rare Book Room at Boatwright Library. Its worn brown cover protects nearly 260 faded pale-blue pages of cursive handwriting, scribbled numbers, and sketches that transport the reader aboard ship in the mid-19th century.

The manuscript documents at least four different voyages, although the log entries record varying levels of detail. Many are dated and often include the longitude and latitude of the vessel and information about the weather. The intent of the various sailings was clear, no matter the ship: The author was hunting whales. On Sept. 4, 1858, for example, he documented that the crew “saw a very large school of sperm whale which is something uncommon in this latitude & longitude.” Sketches and drawings of whales highlight some pages, especially when the hunt was successful.

One story begins with sailing out of Provincetown Harbor, Mass., on April 7, 1851. The entries that follow record inventory lists, accounting notations, and various literary elements. One page notes a recipe for cottage pudding alongside a reminder to purchase cologne. Later pages offer a summary of the travels of the author between 1846 and 1862 and a handwritten copy of the Confederate States of America's 1861 act regulating privateering. Poetry in the manuscript includes works from George Linley, lyrics to popular songs, and many other unidentified lines. Several entries mourn a lost love.

The hope is to chip away, piece by piece, at the mystery.

Who might be the author of these pages? Our research indicates that the most likely candidate is Vernon Guyon Locke, whose signature appears prominently throughout the manuscript. Born in Nova Scotia, Locke worked along the eastern coast and throughout the Caribbean. A known privateer and pirate, he was an accomplished forger, preferring to steal ships using phony documents over violence. Little is known of his life prior to 1860, so perhaps our manuscript finally tells his tale. Or so we hope.  

With no documentation on how his manuscript arrived at the library, we have only its words as clues to its origin and author. Volunteers and staff are helping unmask our mysterious pirate by transcribing the entries. The hope is to chip away, piece by piece, at the mystery. Our digital exhibit, Sail Away (see sidebar), provides a look at the progress to date and allows folks to browse the full manuscript, follow the first voyage on an interactive map, and learn a bit more about Vernon Locke.

Lynda Kachurek is head of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boatwright Memorial Library.