Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mercy Ann Hall

Among the more remarkable objects in the Hall Papers at the Smithsonian is a small printed form, one of an unknown number prepared by the widow of Charles Francis Hall in the wake of his death while commanding the USS Polaris expedition in search of the North Pole. Hall was, it's true, in a somewhat unusual position on the Polaris, even before his death and probable murder -- a "Captain" who had no navigational experience (these duties were delegated to Budington in Hall's orders), a commander with no military or naval rank, and an explorer whose sole credential was having explored before. His death thus left his surviving family with no benefits, pension, or other funds as would have been automatically granted had Hall been, say, a naval officer. Thus it was that in 1874 Mercy Ann Hall petitioned the US Congress for some payment in recognition of her late husband's "fourteen years of arduous and dangerous toil," during which he was "unsparing of himself or his family." The latter part of her claim is, if anything, an understatement; in all the years after Hall first left Cincinnati in 1860, he had seen his oldest son -- Charles Jr. or "Charlie" as he was known -- only twice, and only for a few days on each occasion. By the time of this petition, Charlie was seventeen, and his younger sister was thirteen -- to them, alas, their famous father was a man they hardly knew.

It was common for petitioners to circulate these small forms, which, signed by representative citizens from a given congressional district, could be distributed en masse in the hopes that a bill would be sponsored and introduced. I have searched available records, and cannot find specific evidence that such a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, but it must have been, as Mercy Ann Hall's request appears later in the Congressional Record under the heading "Petition for assistance for the heirs of Captain Hall," sponsored by one George William Allen of Hall's home state of Ohio. The debate on this bill does not seem to have survived, although it appears it was referred to the Committee on Naval Affairs, and there's a small item in the Boston Evening Transcript saying that "a number of persons interested in the case of the widow of the late Captain Hall of Polaris fame appeared before the committee" and that they discussed "whether it would be better to vote her an amount of money at once or place her on the navy pension list."

A few days later, newspapers around the country reported that "The House Committee on Naval Affairs have agreed to report favorably on giving the widow of Captain Hall, of the Polaris, a pension of forty dollars monthly, and the pay due to her husband, amounting to about $2,000." Though seemingly generous --$40 would be about $750 in today's money -- this was in fact substantially less than the pension that would be given an actual US Naval Captain, which would have been more like $130 a month (more than $2,500 today). Alas, of the subsequent lives of Hall's widow and children, there seems to be very little record, and so it's difficult to say how long they lived to enjoy this pension, or whether they thrived in future years.


  1. Well done, Russell. This is a good illustration of how explorers' families were affected by their doings. It's very imporatant to put the effects of exploration in context in this way.

  2. Thanks Glenn! That means a lot to me.

    I also would add that, having just done a bit more searching on the Library of Congress's Chronicling America website, I must revised these figures a bit -- the actual amount of Hall's salary that was found to be in arrears was not $2,000 but rather $1,836. At the same time, the committee authorized the purchase of Hall's papers from his previous expeditions, "at a cost of not over $15,000" -- so if this indeed did go through, then Mercy Ann Hall would have been much more generously compensated (the Hall papers are in the Smithsonian, but had been in the military history collection, which is where they would have ended up had the Navy paid for them).

  3. More news just in ... I think I have found "Charlie" -- thanks to the LDS site, which includes many older death certificates. Charlie evidently worked as a conductor on a Cincinnati streetcar line (the certificate says "Traction") and lived until February 6th 1935. The cause of death is listed as "paralytic dementia" with an onset of "several months" -- his memory must have been failing, which may explain why his father is listed as "Francis Charles Hall" rather than "Charles Francis Hall" and his mother as "Mercy Ann ---- ?" The Informant is given as "Franklin C. Hall," a son I am assuming, which suggests that, even if the exploits of his father were not much remembered in later years, Charlie still thought the name "Franklin" worth bestowing on an offspring. Will post more on this blog as I find more ... my goal is to track down a living descendant, if any.

  4. Russell, I cannot think of a more poignant posting from you in recent years. I cannot get the matter out of my mind - you've truly given us all much to reflect on. Many many congratulations to you for unearthing this heart-rending subject. You really are something special, and all followers of your blog are forever in your debt. Please continue your research on this. It would be absolutely wonderful if you succeeded in tracing a living family member. We await with great interest your next contribution. Joe O'Farrell, Ireland

  5. Joe, good to see you here, and thanks for the kind words. I will keep after finding some Hall descendants, but as you will see in my last two posts, I got sidetracked in my genealogical research by my own family's Franklin connections!