Women Sailors

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E. W. Carryl, Army and Navy Goods (Philadelphia, 1861).

Mary Lacy. The Life, Travels, Voyages, and Daring Engagements, of the Celebrated Paul Jones. To Which is Added The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Mary Lacy; Giving an Account of Her Leaving Her Parents Disguised as a Man. New York: Printed for E. Duyckinck, 1809.


Mary Lacy lived and worked for over a decade disguised as a man named “William Chandler.” Working as a domestic servant, Mary decided to run away: “ . . . a thought came into my head, to dress myself in man’s apparel, and set off by myself.” She boarded the ship Sandwich and sailed for four years. She then began a carpenter’s apprenticeship. A rumor spread that she was a woman, and when the carpenter and mate confronted her, she confessed. Amazingly, they agreed to keep her secret and she completed the apprenticeship. She later was found out to be a woman again, at which point she returned home to live her life as a woman. Lacy was granted a pension and eventually married.

Phillip Wilson & Co., The Soldier’s Friend (Philadelphia, 1861).

Mary Lacy’s Sex Discovered by the Workmen in Portsmouth Dock Yard. Aquatint, ca. 1800. Gift of Helen Beitler.


After serving several years as a male sailor on board a ship, Lacy continued her life as a man as a shipyard apprentice at the Portsmouth Dockyard. Ill health, rather than the revelation of her true gender, ended Lacy’s time at the dockyard.

R. Newell & Son, Ordnance Dept. Phila. Navy Yard . Albumen print photograph (Philadelphia, ca.1862).

Ellen Stephens. The Afflicted and Deserted Wife: Or, Singular and Surprising Adventures of Mrs. Ellen Stephens. New York: C. F. Daniels, 1842. Gift of Lloyd P. Smith.


Ellen Stephens wrote about her experiences as a cautionary tale about the importance of choosing a husband. She married an intemperate gambler who “not only deserted me penniless, but absconded with my innocent babe!” Hearing that he boarded a steamboat with another woman and her child, she cloaked herself in her husband’s clothes and pursued him. She worked as a cabin boy travelling on the Mississippi River tracking them. After six months, while living with her parents, her husband finally returned with the child.

Parr’s Patent American Camp Chest (Philadelphia, 1861).

Annexed is the Still More Surprising Exploits of Almira Paul, Who, Garbed as a Male in the Capacity of Cook, &c., Served on Board Several English and American Vessels for the Space of Ten Years, Without Betraying her Sex. New York: C. F. Daniels, 1842. Gift of Lloyd P. Smith.


A widow with two children, Almira Paul found herself destitute without a means to support the family. Leaving her children to the care of their grandmother, Almira dressed in her late husband’s clothes and joined the Dolphin as a cook’s mate. Her pride in being as capable as the male sailors is evident: “Solicitous to obtain a complete knowledge of a seaman’s duty, and to convince the world that the capacities of WOMEN were equal to that of the men, there was not a piece of rigging on board a ship, but what I could name, and no duty but what I could perform.”

Chas. Laing & Co., Military Dress Hats and Fatigue Caps (Philadelphia, 1861).

Emma Cole Hanson. The Life and Sufferings of Miss Emma Cole, Being a Faithful Narrative of Her Life. Boston: M. Aurelius, 1844.


Nineteenth-century fiction often used the cross-dressing character as a plot device. Here is a sensational tale of an orphan who dresses as a male sailor. Her adventures include being captured by pirates and heroically saving a child from drowning.

James Robinson, The American Watch (Philadelphia, 1861).

A Sketch of the Life of Elizabeth Emmons, or The Female Sailor. Who was Brutally Murdered While at Sea, Off the Coast of Florida, February 3d, 1841. Boston: Graves & Bartlett, 1841.


This is a fictional tale that describes the outrageous exploits of Elizabeth Emmons as a sailor and as an Indian-fighter in Florida. She reveals her true identity to a young man who proposes, and they marry. Through a letter, it is revealed to the reader that Elizabeth was killed by a crazed, drunken sailor who accidently shot her.