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A Lump of the Old Jersey

Aug 25, 2011 3:17 PM | 0 comments

That infamous hulk, the Old Jersey prison ship, in which upwards of 11,000 American prisoners lost their lives during the Revolution, lay rotting in the Wallabout mud for over a century. And well it deserved to rot. Crowded between airless decks, starved or compelled to eat raw meat and drink filthy water, infected with smallpox, yellow fever and dysentery, the prisoners died by the dozen. Their bodies, hastily thrown into trenches on the shore, were often washed out by the waves at high tide, so that the whole Wallabout beach became a bone-littered charnel house.

Among the keys, buttons, bottles, cups and other memorabilia that have somehow found their way into the Brooklyn Collection despite a collection development policy that expressly favors print and manuscript collections, a lump of wood occupies an archives box that is just a bit too big for it. A label written in a fluid, old-fashioned hand and stuck to the flatter of its two sides reads "His Majesty (sic) Prison Ship Jersey sunk off Navy Yard in time of Revolution." The marks of the saw scar the surface of the hard wood that might be teak on one side; on the other side, worms and tides have scoured it into hills and gullies; and a two inch crack splits it longitudinally part way down the middle.

This is, or purports to be, a piece of the Jersey. We do not know exactly how it found its way here, but a pair of Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles pinpoint October 1902 as the date when a hull was found in the mud of Wallabout Bay, during the building of the U.S.S. Connecticut. An engineer named Bellinger, who was in charge of the work on the Connecticut,  said confidently that "there can be no doubt that the hull which has been found is that of the prison ship." Of course there always can be doubt especially in light of its murky provenance; but we consider it very possible that our lump of the Old Jersey is a true relic, and with the many Brooklyn students who pass through here, we enjoy the special frisson that comes from touching something so old and so freighted with the nation's history.