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Was Swedish Singer
a Portsmouth Figurehead?

PT Barnum made "Nightingale"
Jenny Lind a household word


Jenny Lind Figurehead Want to be a millionaire? Just answer this simple trivia question: What do Eliot, Maine, a Swedish antiques dealer, a slave ship and PT Barnum all have in common? More hints? Well, it's made of wood, really old, looks like a lady, and is coming to the Portsmouth Music Hall in June. Stumped? You are the weakest link!

But don't pine. History trivia rarely gets more convoluted than the knotty saga of the Jenny Lind figurehead. I first reported the story in 1997 after making contact with Swedish antiques dealer Karl-Eric Svardskog who was in the USA trying to drum up interest in a mysterious figurehead that he claims belonged to a Portsmouth-built clipper ship. But grab your notebooks, and I'll tell you the whole yarn from the beginning.

The Phenomenal Jenny Lind

The baby destined to become the most famous female singer of the 19th century first vocalized in Stockholm, Sweden in 1820. Born to an impoverished mother and a deadbeat dad, Jenny the soprano "nightingale" became the toast of Europe in her early 20s. Plain looking and painfully shy, Jenny turned down the marriage proposal of children's author Hans Christian Anderson, who legend says, penned "The Ugly Duckling" in her honor. Jenny toured Europe with composer Felix Mendelssohn. This time she fell in love, but Mendelssohn was married.

Jenny Lind Figurehead Think of Jenny Lind as the Victorian version of the Beatles. Her British tour led an explosion of popularity called "Jenny Rage." People mobbed her concerts. In 1850, entertainment promoter PT Barnum brought Jenny to the United States. Barnum later formed the famous touring circus that bears his name. Think of Barnum as the Ed Sullivan who introduced Jenny to America in nearly 100 concerts. Jenny was bigger than all of Barnum's acts before her -- bigger than the midget Tom Thumb, more popular than Jumbo the elephant, more curious than Chang and Eng the Siamese Twins and the Feejee Mermaid all rolled into one.

The Clipper Nightingale

During the Jenny Rage, people named towns, furniture, their schools and their kids after Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind, North Carolina, took her name because, historians there claim, she sang a song beneath a tree nearby. At least four contemporary ships were named in her honor, including the Nightingale, which many believe was the fastest and sleekest clipper ship ever constructed in the Portsmouth Harbor area, perhaps in the world.

In 1851, the same year Jenny Lind arrived in Boston, the Nightingale (originally named Sarah Cowles) left its berth place in Eliot, Maine. It was towed up the Piscataqua River to Boston, Mass.. Owners planned to use the fast, sleek clipper to whisk 50 first-class passengers ($125 round trip) to the London World's Fair that season. The idea fell through. In Boston the carved figurehead of a woman resembling the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind was added. At least, that's what Karl-Eric Svardskog believes.

The Nightingale traveled around the world at record speeds, but finding enough passengers who could afford the rapid transit clipper proved difficult. Passengers were replaced by cargo, as a series of new owners struggled to make the ship profitable. One owner transformed the ship into a slaver since it could outrun the English and American authorities. 960 enslaved Africans were crowded into a ship built for 50 wealthy tourists. Another Portsmouth-built ship, the Saratoga, was instrumental in capturing the Nightingale. The passengers were freed, but horribly, nearly 200 had died of illness, starvation and abuse.

Sold again and again, Nightingale was for a time owned by the US Navy and used to haul coal. One of the world's fastest clippers was reduced to transporting lumber when it was finally abandoned off Norway in 1894. By this time both PT Barnum and Jenny Lind were gone. Lind died in 1887 after a long self-imposed retirement. Wealthy and isolated, her 1850s whirlwind tour of America turned out to be her last.

Jenny Lind Figurehead

The Scarecrow in the Barn

Fast forward to 1994. That's the year antiques hunter Svardskog was told about a large carving of woman that a Swedish family had once used as a scarecrow. He found it in a hayloft, one arm sticking out of the hay, where it had apparently lain for a century. Compelled to track down the origin of the life-sized ship's figurehead, Svardskog searched six years for clues to its origin. He traced the carving to Boston artist John Mason and matched it to publicity pictures of the famous Swedish soprano. Of the four ships named in honor of Lind, only the Portsmouth-area clipper matched the timeline necessary to validate Svardskog's theory. But didn't that Nightingale sink off the coast of Norway in 1894?

In his research, Svardskog discovered that the Nightingale had actually been in the vicinity of the town where the figurehead was discovered. In 1874, workers had refit the ship in Norway nearby. The bow of the ship was damaged on a reef off the coast of Kargero. Svardskog theorizes that the Jenny Lind figurehead was removed during the repair work, and did not go down with the ship years later. The original boathouse of the Nightingale, removed during repair, is still at the repair yard in Norway. Transporting the heavy carving to Sweden was possible, he says, because there was a railroad line that once ran between the shipyard and the farm where the "scarecrow" was found.

Jenny Tours Again

The story of the Jenny Lind figurehead is far from over. Karl-Eric Svardskog, playing a modern day PT Barnum, brought the carved Jenny back to America this summer. His new book, published by the Portsmouth Marine Society and Peter Randall, chronicles the story of Svadskog's efforts to prove his theory. His case, though supported only by circumstantial evidence, is strong.

Svardskog has done his homework. Studies of documents, tests on the wood and paint of the figurehead, all line up with his theory that the carving may indeed be Jenny Lind from the Piscataqua clipper Nightingale. Revell Carr of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut is one of many experts impressed by Svardskog's evidence. Carr notes in the new book that only a dozen of Mystic's 70 carved figureheads have been accurately identified.

On June 16, Svardskog unveiedl the figurehead for an audience of concert-goers at the historic Portsmouth Music Hall. The concert  featured two winners of a Jenny Lind contest for sopranos - one American, one Swedish -- another testament to Lind's enduring fame. Ironically, for reasons unknown, Jenny Lind refused to perform in Portsmouth during her 1851 American tour. Despite the snub, Portsmouth presented three Jennies that night - two singing like nightingales, one as silent as a block of wood dramatically lit at the back of the stage. It was a memorable sight.

Jenny Lind photo The Evidence in the Email

Two years ago this July, I got an email from a reader of my website who had seen my article on the Jenny Lind carving. She said her great-grandfather Christian Ingebretsen had been one of the final owners of the clipper Nightingale. The reader had an oil painting of the Nightingale flying the Norwegian flag. I saved the email. She wrote: " The oil painting that I have clearly shows a figurehead that appears to be a woman with blonde hair. It appears very much the same as the photo [of the carving] on the website with the ship and the Jenny Lind figure superimposed."

I contacted Karl-Eric who happened to be in the United State at the time working on his book, and told him about the email. When the reader sent photos of the painting, the author, with publisher Peter Randall, rushed expectantly into my office. This, he said, might be proof he had been searching for. We studied the digital picture on the computer screen, staring at a magnified image until our eyes ached. The tiny speck on the bow of the painted Nightingale looked like the figurehead of Jenny Lind. Absolutely!!. But, on closer examination, it also looked, well - like a speck.

Was Jenny Lind really the original Portsmouth Clipper? The jury is still out. And will the mysterious figurehead find a home and the respect her 21st century impresario fells she is due? Stay tuned.

At a Portsmouth, NH reception, after uncrating the heavy statue, Svardskog gazed at the now familiar image as it turned slowly on an automated pedestal. "She haunts me," he said. "She is like a ghost."
Jenny, like a ghost, did not respond.  

Photos courtesy of Peter Randall and Portsmouth Marine Society publishers of "Jenny Lind and the Clipper Nightingale Figurehead" by Karl-Eric Svardskog, 2001. Bottom photo courtesy Lill Ann Parry.

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.
For more salty seacoast maritime tales visit THE SHIPYARD

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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