Voices From Beyond the Grave: Mad Jack Percival and Patience Cobb the Planter

As some may know, I've been working on and off for many years on a genealogy, biography, and memoir of my great-grandfather the sea captain, William Ernest Parker of Yarmouth, NS and Lynn, MA. This maritime ghost story is an excerpt from that memoir that splices one strand of my own maritime heritage to my love for Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution.
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Captain William Parker's family first came to Canada as New England Planters in 1761. Daniel Parker Jr., his father Daniel Parker Senior, and grandfather Robert Parker all left Tollend, CT for Kings County, Nova Scotia. There they took up land grants vacated by the Acadians in the Great Expulsion (Le Grand Dérangement), which is another story that I tell in my intepretive programs L'Acadie and Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

The Planter Robert Parker was named for his own grandfather, Plymouth colonist Robert Parker (1640-1684) born in Barnstable, MA. This first Robert Parker in America was among the more comfortable settlers of the Plymouth Colony. He was certainly a prolific one, fathering five children with his first wife Sarah James and 14 more (a baker’s dozen and one to spare!) with his second wife Patience Cobb. Not bad for a man who died at age 44. 

Several years ago, I visited Patience Cobb’s grave in Barnstable, and had an unintentionally haunting experience. I wasn't intending to go there, but clearly my Parker ancestress had a message for me from beyond the grave.

It started with a sea chantey, or more properly a ballad, of a Boston sea captain in the Age of Sail. Mad Jack Percival (1779-1862) had been a captain of the USS Constitution, flagship of the US Navy and the pride of us all here in Boston.

I’d learned his story from Schooner Fare, and picked up the song to sing at a concert for the Cape Cod Maritime Museum sometime in the early 2000s. It's become a favorite at the Boston Area Chantey and Maritime Sing (BACAMS) that we hold at the USS Constitution Museum.

In a tumbledown graveyard in Barnstable, Mass.,
Hangs a humble reminder to those who might pass
And notice the shingle high over the grave,
That honors the bones of Mad Jack.
He was born Johnny Percival, on Scorton Hill,
A contrary lad from the goin'
He ran off to sea just to prove he was free,
And was sixty long years in returnin'.
With just nine months of school he departed the land,
He moved up from cabin boy hand-over-hand,
Impressed by the English to service their king,
As he jumped overboard they could all hear him sing:

 Come a sailor, come a soldier, come a captain, a king,
 If you dare me to do it I'll do anything,
 I'll take up the fight, I'll even the odds,
 I'll do what is right or I'm not from Cape Cod,
 I'm Jack the cantankerous cuss from Cape Cod.

During rehearsals for the Cape Cod Museum gig, my chantey buddy David Kessler and I had decided to hunt down Mad Jack’s bones and sing the ballad on his grave on the way home from the gig. I dug into FindaGrave.com to answer the question of which of Barnstable’s fourteen cemeteries was our target.

In the process, I discovered that some of my own ancestors were buried not far from Mad Jack.  I told David what I knew of Abner and the Parkers, and asked if we could make one more stop on the way back to Boston. But first, we were on a mission.

As a heritage interpreter, I am devoted to the philosophy that interpretation is most effective “in the presence of the subject.” The idea of singing Mad Jack’s song on his grave fired our imagination. 

It was a hot, sunny day in August when we pulled up to West Barnstable Cemetery, and the cicadas were buzzing in the long grass. I lugged my guitar out of the car while David hunted along the rows of stones for Mad Jack’s grave. As it turned out, the marker was not directly over his plot, which had apparently been lost. But behind the stone wall, we found a headstone that told us that “in this cemetery lie the mortal remains of Captain John Percival, known as Mad Jack.” We declared victory, tuned up the guitar, and settled down by the American flags to pay our respects. 
 
Did you hear how Mad Jack saved "Old Ironsides" too,
From the scrapheap of flagships too old to renew,
At sixty-five years he inspected each shroud,
And promised the Navy he'd make her stand proud.
He collected the finest ship-riggers around,
From Boston, New Bedford, and Old Portsmouth Town,
He rigged her and jigged her and made her stand tall,
Then he sailed her around the world once and for all.

 Come a sailor, come a soldier, come a captain, a king,
 If you dare me to do it I'll do anything,
 I'll take up the fight, I'll even the odds,
 I'll do what is right or I'm not from Cape Cod,
 I'm Jack the cantankerous cuss from Cape Cod.

Captain Jack sailed USS Constitution around the world in 1844, the year Abner Parker Jr. married a captain’s daughter in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and settled down to work in the booming shipyards as a ship’s carpenter and caulker. I liked to imagine that Abner too had been one of the “finest ship-riggers around” in those glory days of sail. I wanted to know more about Abner's roots so near to my own.

Just a few miles away from Mad Jack’s grave was the grave of Abner’s third great-grandfather, the Pilgrim Robert Parker and his wife Patience Cobb. We headed over to Lothrop Hill Cemetery and hunted again, this time in the cool of the big trees that shaded the lawn down a long hill. 

At first we found the more modern headstone provided in 2004. At least it was proof we were in the right place, and that Patience Cobb had been buried here.

I liked Patience Cobb, because she was a tough old bird. “She outlived all of the children of her first husband's first marriage, all of her second husband's children (by his first wife) and four of her own eight children.”  Here was a grande dame indeed. When her second husband, Deacon William Crocker, died in 1692, he left Patience not only “the liberty to dispose of all the estate” and forty pounds of her own, but “my best bed and bedstead with all the furniture thereunto belonging.” Unlike William Shakespeare, who only 75 years earlier had left his wife his second-best bed, Patience had not found herself left second best.  

Patience herself was Robert Parker’s second wife, but it’s clear she was far from second best in her first marriage as well. When she married Robert in  Barnstable in 1667, she was 26 and he was a young widower of 27, perhaps still grieving the death of his first wife Sarah James three years ago. They had married at 17, and Patience would become stepmother to Sarah’s five children. She and Robert would have 14 children of their own, losing only one in infancy, in the 17 years of their marriage. 

Patience was clearly a thrifty housewife and a capable manager, since she was left house, lands, and a third of her husband’s estate when he died at age 44.  It was no small sum, as Robert Parker owned two farms and several acres of salt marsh, healthy livestock fed on salt marsh hay, and a comfortable collection of household goods, with even a purse and silver to spare.

Among the lands left to Patience Cobb Parker was a section of marsh at Scorton, later to be the birthplace of Mad Jack Percival. Here Patience had a seven-year lease of three or four acres “to be improved by the said relict toward the bringing up of the small children.” In 1685, the eldest of these was Thomas Parker, whose son Robert would later emigrate to Nova Scotia after a sojourn in Connecticut. There were seven more children younger than Thomas, each mentioned in Robert’s will. “The five sons the said Robert Parker had by the said Patience shall have £30 in the lands (and other estate wherein the Lands come short) and the daughters £20 apiece of ye moveables and the residue to the widow for bringing up the same small children.” 

Patience evidently brought them up well enough to become a redoubtable grandmother.  “The will of her son, Daniel Parker, dated 10 Sept. 1724, gives certain property to Daniel's son, Samuel Parker, with the provision that the latter fulfill "to his grandmother", the testator's obligation.” She had three years to enjoy her bequest before her own death at the doughty age of 87, remarkable for the time period. We were never able to find her husband Robert’s grave, but we eventually tracked down Patience. Her original gravestone was way down in the back, under the trees at the bottom of the slope.

 “Here Lyes Ye Body of Mrs. Patience Crocker, wife of Deacon William Crocker, who died October ye 23rd, 1727, in ye 87th year of her age.”  

We delighted in the scalloped skull and diamonds that decorated Patience’s fine slate headstone. I loved that headstone so much that I was sorry not to have taken a rubbing of it. Each year at Wellfleet Oysterfest, I toast my ancestress Patience Cobb with a pint of oyster stout and a dozen raw oysters for breakfast, in memory of that doughty alewife buried in Barnstable. 

In October of 2010, on our way home from Oysterfest, I convinced my husband Phillip to take the scenic route home along the north side of the Cape for a stop to visit Patience and show off her headstone.

Dead leaves were crisp underfoot beneath bare skeletons of trees. We admired the ghoulish skull, and lay down full length in the grass to photograph the right angle on the shallowly incised letters  in the late afternoon light. The sun was setting, and the shadows made it hard to see well enough to get a good picture. We sighed and gave up.

The dusk was gathering as we made our way back to the car, and a chill was in the air.  We headed home to the lights of the big city. 

Halfway home, Phillip patted his pockets at the wheel and said suddenly, “Where’s my cell phone?” I rustled around under seats and down into side pockets, but came up empty. “No problem,” I said. “There’s an app for that.” I whipped out my iPad and fired up Find My iPhone—and groaned. Sure enough, a little blue dot glowed on the map way back in Barnstable, an hour south in the wrong direction. Fatalistically but graciously, althought we were both hungry and cross with it, Phillip pulled off at the next exit and turned us around the way we had come.

The sign to Lathrop Hill Cemetery glared white under a lone streetlight. Black shadows pooled into absolute darkness down the long black hill. I gave Phillip the iPad to use as a flashlight, and fired up the Flashlight app on my own cell phone. With a gulp and a giggle, we stepped into the graveyard and began to scan the ground in the gloomy dark. We had explored a fair amount of the cemetery earlier, so it was anyone’s guess where the phone could be.

Patience’s grave was way down the hill toward the back, invisible in the gloom. As Phillip moved away from me, tracking the dot of the lost phone on the iPad’s map, I saw the ghastly glow of the screen turn his face into fantastic greenish, bluish shadows against the black dark. I thought of the skull on the headstone. It didn’t seem so delightful now. 

He disappeared into the shadows. I kept my eyes focused on the path of the iPhone flashlight, trying to orient myself and read the headstone names in its narrow beam. Its light was bright but concentrated, throwing sharp shadows at the edges of the illuminated cone. It made the darkness loom larger all around me. A chill breeze ran down my neck, and I shivered. My hands were cold. 

Out of the dark came a voice. “Call it!” 

What? I jumped, blundered into a headstone, grabbed at it, and leapt back into another one. 

“Call it! Use your phone to call mine!” 

Duh. Of course. We were close enough now to hear the phone if it rang—always supposing the ringer wasn’t set to stun, and if it hadn’t run out of battery. I laughed nervously, and pressed the Home button. “Siri, call Phillip.” I was glad to hear my own voice sounding normal. 

The phone rang, and rang, and rang. Suddenly, out of the dark, a ghostly glow appeared far down  under the trees. A tinkling electronic tune played totally incongruously, which somehow made the whole scene even weirder. “It’s Patience!” 

And it was. While trying to snap a photo of her headstone with the iPad, Phillip had dropped his own phone out of his shirt pocket. It was lying directly on her grave. We snatched it up and skedaddled. Once safely back in the car, we collapsed into helpless laughter. We would never know what Patience meant to tell us from beyond the grave. And she hadn’t even left a message. 

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