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Those amazing Smith brothers

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published December 15. 2013 4:00AM

A New London fortune teller told Robert Smith that he would have an accident involving a long snake. Although Robert didn't take this puzzling prediction seriously, five months later he drowned during a "Nantucket sleigh ride," tangled in a long snake-like harpoon line pulled by an angry whale.

Years before this fatal event, Robert had dodged death when he was captured during the War of 1812 and held for months in a British prison before being released in a prisoner exchange. (While Robert was missing, his mother had consulted the seer who correctly foretold his safe return.)

The Smiths weren't very lucky. In 1812 Robert's father drowned off Long Island, and a few years earlier Robert's brother, John, fell to his death from a ship's rigging off the coast of Africa. Despite these tragedies the four surviving brothers, James, Richard, Parker and Franklin, chose to follow the sea.

James may have been the most colorful Smith. Mark Twain met him on a trip to Hawaii and used him as the inspiration for a character in his book, "Roughing It." Twain described James as a "devastating typhoon" of a man with a tender heart. The author was especially amused by James' practice of holding Sunday morning prayer meetings followed by Sunday afternoons spent roaring profanities at his crew.

Richard and Parker were both sea captains. Parker went on to become a partner in the highly successful whaling agency, Haven & Smith. (We have the New London Public Library thanks to Henry Haven's generosity.) But perhaps of all the brothers, Franklin's experiences best exemplified the financial highs and lows of 19th-century New London life.

Franklin was known as "the only whale man (who could) fill his ship to the hatches every time." This was a remarkable reputation in a city whose whaling industry was only surpassed by New Bedford.

Franklin must have been born with sea legs. He sailed coastal boats throughout his teens and by age nineteen he was whaling off South America. Rising quickly through the ranks, he was just 24 years old when N. & W.W. Billings gave him a command of his own. By 1838 he was working for Haven & Smith and was one of the first New Londoners to visit Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean.

In 1842 Franklin retired from active whaling to join Perkins & Smith as a junior partner. When word reached the firm of an untapped source of elephant seal oil on Heard Island near Antarctica, Franklin left his desk and went after a share of the bonanza, adding to the firm's already considerable wealth.

Life was good. Franklin and his wife lived on Bank Street, not far from the Custom House, enjoying a gracious lifestyle supported by earnings from Perkins & Smith. Other income came from his investment in the Pequot House, a fashionable hotel that attracted ambassadors, generals and presidents. Franklin also owned farmland down at Fort Trumbull (bounded by Smith, Chelsea and East streets); the produce from this property helped provision the Pequot House kitchen.

Everything changed with the Panic of 1857, an international economic meltdown. Railroad stock owned by Franklin collapsed, the Pequot House had to be turned over to a new proprietor, and the value of Perkins & Smith's investments plummeted. By 1861 the firm was liquidated and Franklin's assets, including his lovely home, were seized. He spent the rest of his life trying in vain to recoup his losses.

Franklin's son James also became a whaling captain but changed careers in 1871; it was clear that whaling's best days were over.

The Smith women have compelling stories too: Elizabeth, the family matriarch who endured loss and constant worry; Mary Caroline, Franklin's wife, who survived an unattended birth 10,000 miles from home; and Chelsea, the baby for whom Chelsea Street is named. Next month, a little more about whaling women.

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