- Historic Sites
The Terrible Odyssey Of Howard Blackburn
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
Next morning they filled the tub with cold water and put in some soft soap they made and washed my hands and feet in it. When they took the bandage off the right hand the little finger dropped off.…
The Lushmans made up a cot for me in the main room by the side of the fireplace, where I could lie and look at the stars. In heavy storms the snow, sifting down the chimney, often was blown into little drifts over my pallet. As I recall my bed an old sail furnished the principal protection from the earth floor. The coverlets were tan boat sails and my own clothing. On this rude bed I lay for nearly five months, nursed and fed by those simple, God-fearing people. I could not get up on my feet, so you can imagine the extent of their help in the daily process of breathing, eating and sleeping and the disposal of bodily wastes, to say nothing of the dressings my extremities called for daily.…
After the frost had been withdrawn from my hands and feet, gangrene set in causing the fingers and toes to fall off. The back of my fingers split open and the flesh hung down making it appear as if there were eight instead of four on each hand. Mrs. Lushman cut away the loose flesh with scissors. It is surprising how fast the flesh began to grow back, first above the wrists and then over the bones of the hands. A black scum formed at the stumps of my fingers. It was what you and I would call proud flesh, I have forgotten their term for it. Mrs. Lushman would scrape this off with the scissors so new flesh could grow over the bone. This task was far from pleasant for her and she tried to show her son Frank how to do it. The first time he tried he fainted, so his mother had to continue to do it. The bones at the joints of the fingers never straightened out after being frozen around the oars.
To facilitate the healing process the natives made a white powder from finely ground mussel shells. They collect the shells and dry them in the summer. Ordinary beach stones are used to pound them into dust. This powder, when applied to the wounds, caused the festering sores to exude the pus. Sometimes Mrs. Lushman would discover a swelling at a certain point. With her scissors she would scrape away the flesh and extract a piece of shell that had not been reduced to powder. She knew the cause of the swelling and removed it. In about five weeks my hands were nearly covered with flesh.
When the weather began to moderate in the spring, they put me in an open boat like a skiff. I could not walk but the hut was only about 10 feet from the high water mark in the cove. When I was ready to leave the hut for Burgeo, Mrs. Lushman handed me a small wooden box shaped like a casket. Upon asking her what it contained she said it was the custom of the islanders to save the amputated members to be buried with the body later. I buried mine with poor Welch.
Blackburn lost more than the fingers of both hands—he lost the toes and heels of both feet and had to wear specially fitted shoes to get around. Not that this slowed him down appreciably. In the years following his grisly ordeal, he continued to work and to sail. In 1897 he organized the first group of New England gold-seekers for a trip around Cape Horn to the Klondike, commanding the expedition’s Gloucester schooner, the Hattie I. Phillips, himself. In 1899 he crossed the Atlantic alone in the thirty-foot sloop, Great Western, in a twenty-eight-day voyage to Gloucester, England. In 1901 he did it again, this time to Lisbon in a twenty-five-foot sloop of his own design, Grand Republic, in thirty-nine days. He attempted one more transatlantic crossing in 1903 but was forced to turn back to Sydney, Cape Breton. In later years he was a successful Gloucester businessman and local philanthropist. He died in 1932 shortly after this interview—still a proud, and by this time renowned, dory man .