A sailor’s woeful tale on a striking illustrated broadside

P. Russell / H.C. Southwick, THE LINES ON THIS SHEET, Were composed by P. RUSSELL, while lying in IRONS, in the Moro Castle, who has been prevented from obtaining a LIVELIHOOD in the ordinary pursuits of Life, by WOUNDS received in BATTLE. New York, [ca. 1808-1820] .
Letterpress broadside on laid paper. Four lines of headline type surmounting four quadrants of verse, each surrounded by a mourning border. The whole adorned with numerous cuts. Printed area 24 ¼"h x 18 ¼"w on a 26"h x 20 ¼"w sheet.

A remarkable and unrecorded record of an American sailor’s adventures during the Napoleonic Wars.

The broadside tells the tale of one P. Russell, a sailor from Merrimac, New Hampshire who-if his tale is to be believed-suffered an incredible run of bad luck while in the merchant service. Within the space of a few years he was captured by a French privateer, escaped, was captured by the Spanish while serving on a smuggling vessel, was released, was captured by another French privateer and imprisoned at Basseterre on Guadeloupe, escaped, was captured by the Spanish, escaped again, and was recaptured and held for two years in Havana’s Moro Prison before being freed and returning home, never to “venture again where the billows do road.” In all, Russell had

“been in ten different engagements and skirmishes at sea-endured seven captivities-received six wounds-and remained two years in a Dungeon in the Moro Castle, without once beholding the light of the sun.”

These adventures took a terrible toll–“With painful diseases my vitals are wasting”-and Russell has taken this last opportunity to commit his story to paper.

The broadside comprises several lines of headline type followed by six songs arrayed in four quadrants, each surrounded by a heavy mourning border. The context is provided by “Russell’s Adventures,” which narrates the unfortunate sequence of events described above. The other songs include an ode to his mother (“Filial Affection”); two mournful tunes dedicated to his love Charlotte (“The Lover’s Parting Epistle” and “Love and Misfortune”); the triumphant “Escape from Bas’terre” (which became a popular ballad often appearing under the title “Brave Dighton”); and a meditation on his own impending death (“Russell’s Reflections”). Though the songs were purportedly composed while Russell was imprisoned in the Moro Castle, the “Adventures” end with him a free man, ruined in health but back on “his own native shore.”

Numerous early broadsides reprinted one or more of Russell’s songs, but this example is extraordinary for its extreme rarity (no reference in Shaw-Shoemaker, OCLC, &c) and its wealth of ornamentation. The title block alone features seven cuts, including three eagles and a vignette of the New York State Artillery, which seems to have more to do with printer H.C. Southwick than with Russell. The left and right margins each feature eight cuts, each illustrating a different letter of the alphabet and presumably taken from blocks for a children’s book. The overall effect is impressive and even exuberant, in stark contrast to the doleful subject matter of the text.

The broadside can be dated to roughly 1808-1820. A terminus post quem is provided by “The Escape from Bas’Terre” which occurred in 1805, after which the narrative of Russell’s adventures continues another two or three years. On the other end, a review of the AAS catalog and OCLC indicate that printer H.C. Southwick was active in New York only through 1820.

This broadside is unrecorded, but other broadside versions of Russell’s versified biography are known, though none is remotely as spectacular as that offered here. The American Antiquarian Society holds three variants bearing similar or identical poetry arranged in quadrants, but each with different titles and lacking the large title vignette, flanking ornamentation, and H.C. Southwick imprint. Only one of these is listed in Early American Imprints (Shaw-Shoemaker #51243). OCLC confuses matters by listing a number of variants, many described carelessly as “Early American Imprints no. 51243.” None however match that offered here.

In light of its considerable size, lively ornamentation, superb condition, and extreme rarity the variant offered here should be considered the most desirable of the Russell broadsides.

Not in Early American Imprints (Shaw Shoemaker) or OCLC.


Old folds and some soiling, but excellent for a large-format early broadside