Widows’ Walks: 3

In Nantucket, Uncategorized on November 6, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Photograph of antique bottles, North Side.

As I ponder all this, in later years, I try not to romanticize. Life was hard in Nantucket, and many of these wives were neglected, beaten, cheated on, and ultimately widowed. Even a longshoreman could fall ill and die in the frigid Atlantic air. Such a small town still bred bad behavior, such as larceny and love-affairs, and not every family could afford a house. Some women exhausted their lives as domestic servants, or escaped on the first boat to the mainland. Humble days by the fireplace were not for everyone.

But the story that melts me is of Maria Mitchell.

Mitchell spent many years as a teacher and librarian, but she felt particular passion for the cosmos. On an island as flat and lonesome as Nantucket, the sky is wide and open. Mitchell’s father was an amateur astronomer, and together they studied the stars using the family telescope. In 1847, when she was only 29 years old, Mitchell aimed her telescope and spotted the faint streak of a comet. She catalogued this two days before Francesco de Vico, a man she’d never heard of, spotted the same celestial body. After some dispute, Mitchell was awarded a prize by King Frederick VI of Denmark, and she became world-famous.

Few people remember Mitchell today – the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and professor of astronomy at Vassar College. But this Nantucket woman was neither whaler’s wife nor old biddy. When she took to the roof, she strayed from the widow’s walk – and when she discovered the streak later dubbed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” Mitchell used the roof of the Pacific National Bank. If women ever whiled away their hours staring out to sea, they were few and far between. The glory is spent on the men who chased humpbacks across the waves, but if history only whispers of their wives, then it should be known that they never sat still.


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