By BEN SHATTUCK
On Nantucket, eighty-year-old Connie Congdon and I sat in her dim living room looking at the 120-year-old plaster dildo that a mason had found in her chimney. It now rested in a pink dress box on her lap. At my feet, three sweet-faced Australian shepherd dogs snapped at houseflies. A catbird sang in the street. Her house is an old colonial buried deep in a nest of lanes in the historic downtown.
Connie said she usually kept the box in the pantry, near the urn of her daughter’s cat, Spanky. In the box were the other antiques the mason had found with the dildo: six charred envelopes from the 1890s addressed to Captain James B. Coffin; letters from the same James B. Coffin to Grover Cleveland and Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Dehl; a dirty and frayed shirt collar; a pipe that still smelled of tobacco when I fit my nose in the bowl; and a green glass laudanum bottle. These items must have been hidden in the chimney by James’s wife, Martha “Mattie” Coffin, sometime between when the letters were dated and when she died in 1928. The fireplace was later sealed up, and a closet was built in front of it. With these valuables, Connie kept a CD recording of her late husband, Tom, being interviewed about the dildo for Nantucket Public Radio. “It’s the only recording I have of his voice,” she said.
She unwrapped the stony phallus from its pink tissue paper and handed it to me. It was heavier than it looked. The head had been painted wild-berry red. The shaft was off-white and touched with light brown stains. Through the center was a hole no thicker than a straw, as if it had been skewered for drying. Saw marks streaked the cross section of the flat base, and it had been circumcised with whittling scrapes. “No mistaking what it is,” Connie said, as I turned it in my hand.
Connie is tall with a long face and heavy white hair. She wore a white blouse patterned with blue flowers the size of dimes, and a thin gold necklace holding a small crucifix. Later that day, I passed a photograph of her taken by Francine du Plessix Gray for a 1970s issue of Vogue. She’s in a chair by a fireplace, wearing an antique Victorian dress, arms up behind her head, looking elegant and imperial. “Would you like to see the chimney?” she asked after I had measured the dildo. Five inches long, an inch wide. “It’s in the other room.”
Connie Congdon holds a box filled with five artifacts a mason found in the chimney of her Nantucket home: 19th-century letters; a man’s shirt collar; a pipe; a laudanum bottle; and a plaster phallus.
On the walls throughout the house were centuries-old paintings of ships and Tom’s stiff-necked Nantucket ancestors, who baked hardtack (rocklike crackers) for whalers. By the door to the dining room was a stuffed oriole in a bell jar beside recent photographs of girls on the beach wearing seaweed crowns. The wooden floors undulated underfoot from room to room, warped from countless winters and summers. In the dining room I pointed out a framed letter from C. S. Lewis to Tom.
“Isn’t that something?” Connie said. “He wrote an article for Tom.”
Though he passed away from complications due to Parkinson’s disease five years ago, Connie talked about Tom often: one of the first things she said to me after I sat down with her was, “Tom would be able to tell this story better than I.” He was the editor at The Saturday Evening Post for twelve years before he became editor in chief of Dutton and later started his own imprint. He worked with Russell Baker on Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Growing Up. He was the one who encouraged and paid Peter Benchley to write a book about a great white shark terrorizing a beach town. He interviewed Richard Nixon and Jesse Jackson. He hung out with Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson, and Abbie Hoffman. Dear Mr. Congdon, C. S. Lewis began, I nearly died last July and am just crawling back to life.
We walked into the second, even darker living room. “Tom was worried about chimney fires,” Connie said. “Instead of getting the car we needed, we got all the flues relined.” She pointed to the shallow brick hearth and picked up a flashlight from its wide wooden mantelshelf. Resting on the brass andirons was a checkered fan, indicating that the fireplace hadn’t been used in a long time. She bent at the waist, snapped on the flashlight, and peered up the chimney. “Up there,” she said, motioning me to kneel down beside her. “It was on the flue shelf.” I craned my neck. Her light swept over the chimney’s charred innards. The damper ledge where the dildo had been hidden was an arm’s length away.
Nantucket was the birthplace of American offshore whaling, and remained the heart of the industry until the late 1700s, when shipbuilders and owners started moving to New Bedford, Massachusetts—where Herman Melville sends Ishmael in chapter 3 of Moby-Dick. With its shallow harbor and distance from the raw materials needed to build the newer, behemoth ships, Nantucket couldn’t keep up with the mainland. The island’s world-renowned status had formed before the Revolutionary War, and the fleet only shrunk into the 1800s—though Nantucket maintained a fleet and relied on whaling (and sheep) to sustain its economy through the mid-1800s. New Bedford’s fleet, on the other hand, increased from ten to 329 vessels from 1815 to 1857.
The first owner of these artifacts, Martha “Mattie” Coffin, was born in 1850, during the decline of Nantucket’s famous whaling industry. “The Nantucketer,” Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “He alone resides and rests on the sea.”
As America’s whale fishery ballooned to the largest the world had ever seen, voyages sent men away for years. They traveled farther to hunt increasingly scarce whale populations from the Atlantic into the Pacific by way of the deadly hairpin turn at Cape Horn. In 1852, 220 ships were hunting whales in the Arctic, north of the Bering Strait. By 1830, the average length of a whaling voyage was thirty months, but they were often longer—Nantucket wives were dubbed “Cape Horn widows,” because their husbands might be gone for eight years. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, that of the past forty years of “making war on the horrors of the deep” he’d only been ashore three, leaving only “one dent in [his] marriage pillow.” “[W]ife?” Ahab rages, “wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!” The dildos, called “he’s-at-homes” in some books on the history of the Yankee whale fishery, were meant to be some insurance of fidelity for a husband who was rarely present.
What could more perfectly complicate the image of starched, buttoned-up, nineteenth-century Quaker women—the ones pacing the widow’s walks and sitting around the stitching circle? And yet there is some Yankee logic to it, some characteristic practicality in dildos supplanting traveling husbands. As with opium: In the 1980s, construction workers digging to Nantucket’s sewer lines found heaps of opium bottles buried in the ground. An eighteenth-century French visitor to Nantucket noted, “A singular custom prevails here among the women…. They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence.” Easing into the day with a hit of opium on a small and possibly boring island might even, at a stretch, smack of Yankee problem-solving, nothing to be embarrassed by.
I’d read about he’s-at-homes in a few books—in Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick’s Away Off Shore: Nantucket and Its People, 1602–1890 (1994) and his In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex(2000), and in Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket (2004). In no text had I found a physical description, though Conroy went so far as to say that the he’s-at-home was a “common domestic item.” I wondered if the artifacts expressed the era in an appropriately Victorian modesty: an obscure shape, a vague cylinder, a wonky shaft. I wanted to see one. That’s where it all started—I was just curious. Finding a real he’s-at-home would be easy, I thought. Embarrassing, but easy. After all, in a place like Nantucket, relics were frequent and cheap: an islander had told me that sperm whale teeth were so common in old homes in the 1960s that they sold for “a dollar and a half.”
To begin my search, weeks before I arrived at Connie’s house, I called a friend at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library. The museum has enormous stockpiles of whaling-era artifacts: hundreds of scrimshaw pieces fill the second floor; harpoons and lances line the walls; a half-sized whaleship towers in a room filled with full-sized whaleboats; a dried whale penis and inner ear bone were, for some short time, on display by walrus bones; and arching beneath the lobby’s ceiling are whale skeletons. If any place would have a he’s-at-home, it’d be the New Bedford Whaling Museum. If Nantucket had them, New Bedford had them. Before I called, I imagined they organized their he’s-at-home collection in flat files, side-by-side, in varying thicknesses and lengths and degrees of wear, on beds of cotton, identification tags strung around each.
I was at a loss when my friend said not only did the museum not have any, he was sure, but he’d never even heard of he’s-at-homes. As compensation, he e-mailed me images of an erotic scrimshaw made sometime between 1830 and 1840. In the scene carved on one side of the sperm whale’s six-inch yellowed tooth, a man dressed in a tailcoat—with the fall-front flap of his trousers down—stands behind a woman and lifts her dress, as she bends at the waist over a chair. (Both adults have notably tiny feet.) He holds to her bottom his penis in one hand as she lifts a leg, on tiptoe. On the other side of the tooth, the woman lies on a fainting couch while the man gathers her dress in one hand and reaches to her breasts with the other. The man and woman stare at each other, rendered crazy wide-eyed by the dot mark of the engraving tool. It’s not hard to dream up a whaleman years out at sea, feverishly waking, finding the tooth in his sea chest, and turning it over under the dull light and creaking boards. The residual smell of burnt whale blubber would be on his clothes, and the mass of ocean profoundly under him.
After failing in my search at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, I drove to Mystic Seaport’s Collections Research Center, where the archivist hadn’t heard of he’s-at-homes either. Then I called the Nantucket Whaling Museum, where a docent said, “No, no, no,” they didn’t have one, but she had heard of them being found in old chimneys. She suggested I get in touch with construction workers on the island who might have done restoration work. By now, the journey to see a he’s-at-home had become far more complicated and long than I’d expected. I thought I’d just have to drop into the New Bedford Whaling Museum one afternoon, have a look, and call it a day. But now I found myself calling down the white pages’ list of masons in Nantucket with surprising determination. “I found five dead squirrels in a fireplace once,” one husky-voiced mason said. “I’ve also found a driver’s license, a checkbook, and a passport. All stuffed up a chimney. There’s a mason in Boston who found gold bricks in an old ash dump at the footing of a fireplace. I know one guy who found a huge whale jawbone under his stairs. Worth, like, sixty grand. But no dildos.”
“The he’s-at-home stories are mostly myth,” said the collections manager at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library. In the silence that followed, I was happily prepared to call my search quits, cursing the sheer surplus of lore around whaling. “But try Connie Congdon on Pine Street,” he said. “I haven’t seen it, but I know she has one.”
Connie’s daughter, Pammie, answered the phone. After I meanderingly suggested that I had heard her mother might have an artifact of interest, from the nineteenth century, of a kind of specific purpose, she laughed. “She does,” she said. I apologized for not being more direct. “You did fine,” she reassured me. “I just wish I had a tape recorder so I could have played that back to my family.” I got on the ferry to Nantucket that week.
Charred letters, addressed to Captain James B. Coffin, hidden on the chimney’s flue shelf for decades.
Connie and Tom, from New York City, bought the house in 1979 after spending years renting around Nantucket. I’d later link the complete deed chain of the house at the town clerk’s office, seeing that the Congdons bought the house from the Conway family, who bought it from the Mathisons. The Mathisons bought it from Grover Cleveland Coffin—son of James B. Coffin and Mattie (the supposed dildo owner, I realized when I saw her name attached to James’s). Mattie and her siblings, as teenagers, bought the house jointly from a woman named Susan Mitchell in 1874 for $550. The house might date back to the early 1700s: it was given to Susan Mitchell by her mother, Alice Barnard; given to Alice by her husband, Thomas (who died at sea in 1808); given to Thomas by his father, Shubael; given to Shubael by his father, Matthew; and given to Matthew by his father, John, grandson of one of the original purchasers of Nantucket in the year 1659.
Husbands away for years on whaleships gave their wives “He’s-at-Homes,” according to Nantucket lore. Women whose husbands rounded Cape Horn were called “Cape Horn Widows.”
“After the mason showed us what he’d found,” Connie said, “Tom and I brought everything down to the Historical Association. The woman there said, ‘Well, we want these letters. But the rest of this, we don’t want.’ She said they had too many of them. The he’s-at-homes. Can you believe it? Tom later found out that they didn’t have any there.” The woman who received the letters and rejected the dildo has since passed away, so I couldn’t ask for her reasoning.
“Tom later heard that the he’s-at-homes were bought in China and given to the wives as gifts. Made from porcelain or carved ivory.” The crude plaster one in the box certainly wasn’t of the Asian porcelain or ivory caliber—maybe this was domestically made, which complicated the question of whether it was, in the supposed tradition, gifted.
I told Connie that I’d looked high and low for one and that hers might be the only survivor. “Oh, good,” she said. “Maybe this one is going to pay off my home equity loans.” I suggested other owners were too embarrassed to go public with their he’s-at-homes. I assumed that there might be other owners. After all, during my search, plenty of people had claimedto know about them: “Dildos have been found in chimneys,” one mason had told me. “It should be obvious why they kept them there.”
“Why?” I had asked, encouraged.
“To keep warm.” Not for the first time, I had felt like I was hearing the punch line of a far-too-long-running joke that had bled into history.
But the he’s-at-home story couldn’t be a joke, could it? A funny rumor? How, then, would I account for Connie’s artifact in the living room? I suppose hers could have been the one that started the rumor—but what about the porcelain and ivory types Tom heard about? I couldn’t imagine that this one example might have sparked an entire island to invent a nuanced cultural history of longing and fidelity. But, then, could I? Was I underestimating the strength of rumor, how it scrambles chronology and facts? Or, what if the rumor was much older than Connie’s, much older than 1979? What if the rumor was alive and well when the letters in the chimney were dated, in the 1890s—could it have been gifted to the original owner as a kind of joke? That would account for the dearth of other examples. Standing by the chimney with Connie, I saw three possibilities. One: Connie’s was, in fact, the last surviving artifact of a fascinating and undocumented history of which we find ourselves without much evidence, which was suffocated from secrecy into oblivion by its raciness. Two: This artifact was a product of a joke, either of the far past or of the recent past. Or three, and least probable: The he’s-at-home fiction had somehow stumbled into fact when, one day in 1979, a mason had actually recovered a specimen that looked remarkably close to evidence of the story—as if a Loch Ness serpent were suddenly hauled ashore.
“Tom and I stopped talking about it for a while,” Connie said, “because people were so weird and uncomfortable. But we thought it was just a lark. When we first found it, I wanted to get one of those glass-covered coffee tables that people put shells in. I recently took it out at a dinner party, and the only people who weren’t shocked were me and another old person. People don’t like to hear about it. But it’s life. Life went on here in Nantucket.”
Sex, desire, and loneliness, she meant, went on in nineteenth-century Nantucket. But we all know that; I don’t think most of us are shocked when we hear it. What happened in the bedroom two hundred years ago remains pretty much the same—because here we are, the products of all that coupling. What I think people are shocked by is that the dildo—that uncomfortable, erect object—doesn’t fit the image of a nineteenth-century woman. Would anyone be “shocked” to know that a man separated from a woman for years masturbated? It’s the equipment that charges the shock. To satisfy desire, a tool had been labored over and secreted away, and therefore freighted with uncomfortable importance.
Connie showed me the rest of the house. In her attic, mattresses lined the floor. “Soon there’ll be nine people staying in the house, with my granddaughters’ friends,” she said. “We love being here, together, for the summer.” Walking back to the first floor, she paused midway down the back stairs. “But at the end of August,” she said, “after everyone leaves, my house looks like it’s lived in by Quakers again. It’s so empty.” I wondered how Mattie Coffin thought of the house after her husband passed away.
After my visit to the town clerk’s office, I walked over to the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library, where I found that Mattie was twenty-six, James forty-two, when they married in 1876. Before she married him, her father and four brothers had died. I found a picture of her younger son, Grover Cleveland Coffin, which is the closest we can get to what Mattie might have looked like. He’s blond and wears a Peter Pan collar and a jacket buttoned up tightly and decorated with bows. He has downturned eyes, which, at least in the sepia photograph, look pale enough to be blue or green. Timid and hemmed in.
Mattie died at seventy-eight, in 1928, from a stroke. She had chronic myocarditis, an inflamed heart. At some point in the thirty years since James had passed, it seems, she’d gathered what she had left of him and stuffed it up the chimney, along with her dildo. All of it was small enough fit on a damper ledge, and later inside a pink dress box. James and Mattie didn’t get to curate what they left behind, didn’t get to clean up.
Often, in death, you exit in a rush, with your things scattered about, your life exposed, your desk drawers a mess. That will be the case for all of us—leaving behind more than what we’ve accounted for. The valuables and debris of your life reach equal status at death. They are simply everything that’s left behind. Everything that was once yours. You will have thought of money, jewelry, maybe car or house, but you will not have thought of your toothbrush, your old slippers, letters from your first girlfriend you could never bring yourself to throw away, a favorite book, your child’s baby teeth. These items will be found, puzzled over, and either tossed out or kept in the back of a drawer to follow the next generation and maybe the one after that. There will also be those items you always intended to throw out but which your death will have safeguarded. I recently found in my great-grandmother’s correspondences a few letters from the secretary of state talking about the kiss they’d shared in her bedroom (she was sixteen at the time). Burn this letter, he’d written in red ink on the top of each one she saved.
Connie invited me to stay for a fried-chicken dinner with her daughters, Pammie and Lizzie, and her granddaughters. We didn’t talk about the he’s-at-home, but even the teenage granddaughters knew why I was there (the awkward introductions—“What are you researching?”—had happened earlier in the day). Two bottles of red wine. Candles across the dinner table and stuck in the overhead candelabra. Connie was at the head of the table, smiling. She seemed surprised by her own good fortune, all her descendants before her, the house full. “Stay the night if you want,” she said to me suddenly. “You can sleep in the borning room.” That’s what it was used for, back in the 1800s, she explained, taking a bite of fried chicken. “Babies were born there.”
After she went to bed, after her granddaughters had gone into town, after another wine bottle had been emptied and the candles spilled more wax, Pammie and Lizzie and I toasted the dildo. What were we toasting? The myth? The discovery? The wondrous artifact that had sat in the dark for so long, suddenly brought to light? Between the three of us, then, we didn’t know its provenance (who made it for whom, and why, and when, exactly?), and maybe that was what we were toasting: the enigma of this intimate item, this bright flame flickering through time’s long night. Who knows where it came from, but who cares?, we might as well have said as we gulped wine. What a quirky life, where dildos are stowed up chimneys!Whatever sadness and loss the house might have held was bleached away by our laughter and drinking. They asked if I wanted to join them to walk the dogs through town. “Laning,” they called it.
Fog passed in sculptural shapes between the streetlamps. Most of the houses would be empty on this weeknight. The town was so quiet that I heard the dogs’ toenails ticking on the concrete. I wondered if Melville’s dreamy Ishmael would be disappointed in what the town had become: a shell of the working port it used to be; expensively preserved; landscaped, prettified, and hyper-managed. Evacuated on weekdays and in winter—half of Nantucket’s households are now seasonal. The skilled and wandering inhabitants whom Ishmael praised are long gone. He said:
And thus, have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders…. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and rests on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships…. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails and layshim to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
The fact that these houses looked the same as they did two hundred years ago was what made their emptiness so present. Stagelike, post-performance.
When searching for more information on Mattie after leaving Nantucket, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the thinness of her paper trail: birth certificate, death certificate, land deed. The rest is guesswork gleaned from her husband’s record and the correspondence found in the chimney. James B. Coffin was at sea most of his life, captaining whaling ships, schooners, and brigs. Mattie was his second wife; a decade after they married, he was appointed U.S. consul and took her to Saint Helena, where Napoleon had been exiled, way down in the southern Atlantic. It took two months to sail there. She lived on Saint Helena from 1888 to 1893, when her husband was removed from his position after rumors had circulated back in the States that he was a Republican sympathizer (though they had named their son Grover Cleveland Coffin to show dedication to the Democratic Party). They moved into the house on Pine Street that Mattie and her siblings had bought as teenagers.
She saved all the letters James had drafted to Washington—to Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Dehl and to Grover Cleveland—at first ingratiating, pledging his loyalty as a Democrat and begging to go back to Saint Helena, and then, when he realized he was not going back, becoming irate, annoyed, pedantic. In these later letters, he lists all the furniture and domestic items that he and Mattie were unknowingly forced to leave behind on Saint Helena. (When they returned to Nantucket for what he thought was a vacation, he was informed that his replacement had already set sail southward.) James’s letters turned from elegant paragraphs articulating his political loyalty to stark inventories. Besides the iron washstand, soup tureen, porcupine card box, turtle-shell workbox, finger bowls, gilt teacups, tins of ginger, tins of clove, tins of white pepper, mosquito curtains, and chamber commode, there are a few items I imagine were Mattie’s: a bamboo handbag, two pearl shells, two comb cases, two nautilus shells, a piece of feathered coral, a china box. Then there are the listed wine glasses, the feather pillows, the tea kettle, the side table that she fell asleep beside every night.
In all, James listed 126 household items in his inventories, which is both a great feat of memory and a testament to the preciousness of objects back then. How many objects in my house could I list? And would I pay for them to be shipped on a boat for two months? But what I wouldn’t give to find their turtle-shell box or Mattie’s piece of feathered coral—to hold this person’s private treasure, the provenance and story of which I knew exactly, from across a 120-year chasm. In his final years, James became keeper of the Nantucket almshouse, and then, in 1898, died from blood poisoning after a chicken scratched him on the hand. Mattie never remarried.
Fog pushed on the dark, empty houses as we continued walking through the cobblestoned lanes. I thought of Mattie Coffin, her husband gone, unable to discard his things and storing the dildo he may or may not have given her out of sight. Keeping a stash of her own past, of a younger life. What would she say if she walked in the room to see me measuring the thing? Reducing it like that? Earlier in the day I’d asked Connie if there were ghosts in the house. “Yes,” she’d said quickly.
I fell asleep that night in the borning room with the window open. The streets were silent. I listened for the ocean washing the shore, as it had done for the past sixteen thousand years, since a glacier bulldozed the seabed to make Nantucket.
Later in my research of Nantucket women in the whaling days, I combed through lots of old letters. No luck finding any mention of a he’s-at-home, but I caught up on what nineteenth-century interoceanic correspondence between husband and wife looked like. I feel sorry for historians in the next century who will have to hunt for expressions of yearning in the electronic snippets blown through today’s e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages. In the 1800s, women in whaling ports sent letters from Atlantic to Pacific only as fast as the wind could push a boat, each page crowded with inky, barbed writing and months of desire. Susan Gifford, in 1859, wrote to her husband:
I felt very bad after you had gone. I did not know what to do with myself. I went up stairs and cried till my head ached and felt most sick. Mother came up said I must not give way to my feeling so if I did I should be sick so I went down stairs but everything seemed so lonesome and dreary that I felt as though I did not care whether I did any thing or not…. It is dark and cloudy out to night and I expect you feel rather lonesome. I judge by myself. I have such a sense of loneliness come over once in a while that I don’t know what to do. You was all the World to me and now you are gone.
In the 1820s, Joan Waterman wrote to her husband, “I feel quite gloomy lonesome and homesick…. I feel full of something that I can’t express with pen or ink. It seems as though I could fly to you and hug you to my breast…. you may think I am foolish to write so much nonsense but I feel so much Love for you that I cannot help writing it.”
“My dear husband,” wrote Ann Burgess in 1829, “it is impossible to write what I feel…. I long to see you. I sit to the window and watch for you as I us’d to, but you do not come.”
Writing from the Pacific in 1842, Elijah Case asked his mother to tell his sweetheart “that she must cheer up, for it is only 40 months more before we shall put away for home.”
Sarah Pope went so far as to send her fiancé a cake to accompany her letter. She preserved the cake in too much alcohol, so that when he opened the package, it exploded. He wrote that he was “nocked higher than a kite” but still ate the cake.
But for as much connubial longing as there was, promiscuity was also alive and well. A nineteenth-century ad in one of Nantucket’s local papers read, “Nervous? I will spend the night with thee. 25 cents.” William Davoll of Westport, Massachusetts, wrote to his brother, Edward, who was in the Indian Ocean and had requested to “acknowledge” Sallee Brown:
I should consider you as insane indeed if you were to marry a girl that was not virtuous….[I]t can be proved to a demonstration that a certain chap in Westport did stay with Sallee the night before he sailed and she having the flowers [euphemism for menstruating] did paint a map of the world on his shirt tail, and when he went a board he gave it to davy Jones [threw it overboard]. She has turned of her beau and some think that you will marry her yet [but] I consider you as having stood on the verge of an awful precipice and crawled back just in time to save your neck &c.
Edward later married another woman. In his letter to her, he signs, “From your devoted and fond Husband. / ES Davoll / I am in good health likewise all on board / Good night / Kiss little Carrie for me and here is one, a kiss for you.” The “kiss for you” is circled with a heavy line of ink.
This is the shape of separation: a fat ink circle deformed by a hand pressing too hard and for too long on paper. I started on this journey to see what a really old dildo looked like. But I was starting to see what loneliness looked like, and the weird quality of how heartache from long ago feels so freshly sad—perhaps because those separated by distance are now separated by death. Edward, his wife and daughter are now forever separated, so the ink circle is the mark of their unending relationship. Mattie Coffin and her husband are forever apart, and so the he’s-at-home is the truest bond they have. The above quoted letters could read like journal entries to the deceased: “You was all the world to me,” thought Susan Gifford, “and now you are gone”; “I long to see you. I sit to the window and watch for you as I us’d to, but you do not come.” Loneliness petrifies over time, because it’s our last state, isn’t it? As we’re closed off from the world by last breaths. The fossils of our living loneliness, the letters and shirt collars and photographs boxed up for another generation to find, have eternal shelf lives, timeless as obituaries, fresh today as the ancient honey we keep discovering in Egyptian tombs. Connie’s comment—“Life went on here in Nantucket”—rang with new definition, for her own life, and the life of the dildo owner. Maybe she wasn’t talking about sex at all—maybe she was talking about life going onas it does, or must, for the bereaved.
Before I left the next morning, Connie gave me the CD of Tom’s interview for public radio. “It’s the only recording I have of his voice,” she said, for a second time, and she made me promise to send it back to her.
On the ferry to Hyannis, I plugged in my headphones and put the CD in my computer. I looked through the window at lakes of sunlight on the water. The clouds hung low, and Nantucket disappeared under an illuminated gray fringe.
“It’s a 1750 house, plain and simple Quaker house.” Tom’s voice came through the headphones. It was melodic, patient: one of those voices that seemed to be produced by more than vocal cords, as if the belly and chest and throat and age had all mixed together. “We did no reconstruction. It’s a crime to reconstruct these beautiful houses. It looks very much the way it must have looked in 1750.”
He told the story beginning to end: the mason calling them in New York and later revealing something “sculpted to look like male sexual equipment,” being rebuffed by a “tall patrician woman with tightly curled white hair” at the Historical Association, showing it off at dinner parties. Contrary to what Connie said, she had told the story as completely as he did. “It was obviously used for—to console women whose husbands were away for great periods of time. A way of making love when your lover wasn’t actually with you.” At times, I felt like he could be talking to Connie from the other side of life, consoling her in her widowhood: “The men were all away on whaling ships, leaving their wives, for three or four years at a time. The women had to be tremendously self-sufficient. Nantucket is an island thirty miles away from the Massachusetts mainland. Even today it takes two and a half hours by car ferry. In those days, it must have seemed like a very lonesome place, especially in the winter.”
Weeks after I left Connie—with questions about the he’s-at-home fresh and unanswered in my head—I happened to meet Frank Conroy’s widow, Maggie, at a dinner party on the mainland. Frank was the author of Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket,which called the he’s-at-home a “common domestic item.” Assuming Maggie might know something of Frank’s assessment, I told her of my own experience tracing the history of the he’s-at-home, and what I’d found at Connie’s. She responded, smiling, “I think I might have started that. Before me, nobody was talking about he’s-at-homes.”
Maggie and Frank lived together on Nantucket through the 1970s and 1980s until he became director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Maggie was a performer in the early 1970s, researching for a monologue on Maria Mitchell—the first female professional American astronomer, who lived on Nantucket and discovered a comet in 1847. In Nantucket’s Peter Folger Museum, Maggie found a number of unmarked boxes “filled with women’s diaries,” she said from across the dinner table. She remembered the words “he’s-at-home” sprinkled throughout one anonymously authored diary. “The words didn’t make any sense to me. He’s. At. Home. The diarist wrote, for instance, ’He’s at home is on the mantel.’ I thought I was misreading it.”
“I wish I could find that diary,” Maggie said. “The one that mentions he’s-at-home on the mantelpiece. But my notes are lost. Plus there was no name on it. I’m sure it’d be impossible to find.” Only after Connie Congdon, Maggie’s longtime friend, found Mattie’s dildo in 1979 and it had been identified as a “he’s-at-home” by born-and-bred Nantucketer Edouard Stackpole (who wrote twenty-eight books on whaling and whom The New York Timescalled a “leading expert on whaling” in his obituary) did Maggie finally understand what she had been reading. As far as I know, Edouard Stackpole was the first one to resurrect the term “he’s-at-home” and describe its etymology. He was the primary source for those who know the word today, and perhaps the only one who could explain to me the shocking dearth of surviving artifacts. He died in 1993.
“You’ve seen Connie’s,” Maggie said to me near the end of dinner. “Hers is plaster. I took artistic license in the play and made it a ceramic penis, and made it hollow to be filled with warm water.” She included a ceramic dildo in her monologue “A Short History of a Colonial Dame,” performed through the 1990s in Nantucket, New York, and Iowa City. It was during those performances that she thinks she was spreading the term “he’s-at-home” and securing its role as the “common item” that her husband later wrote about in Time and Tide. In her monologue, she’d hold a box and pull from it copies of the items found in Connie’s chimney. “And at the very bottom,” her script reads, “a ceramic penis. [Hold up penis]. In perfect condition.”
“Islands are rumor mills,” Maggie said. “Could it be that I just made all this up from one diary? Because, why aren’t there any more displayed at museums? It just doesn’t make any sense that there aren’t any others besides Connie’s.” At first glance, the he’s-at-home might be an example of bad fact-checking—the old whaling dildo being too juicy a detail to disregard. The books on Nantucket’s history that discuss he’s-at-homes all reference each other in their bibliographies; echo-chambers of research should raise red flags. The thought that I’d had while standing beside Connie’s chimney weeks before rose again: What if this was all a big joke? What if the he’s-at-homes were part of the island’s oldest gossip, started back in the 1800s and washed ashore 150 years later in a smattering of books and a monologue, spread through the island’s collective consciousness, and now accepted as historical fact?
The only complication, of course, was Connie’s “evidence.” But that evidence does have its eyebrow-raising complications, the biggest one being that it was owned by a woman born in 1850, at the tail end of Nantucket’s whaling industry, and who married in 1876, a long time after the last Nantucket whaleships had made their final journeys around Cape Horn. The he’s-at-home, as the term and literature describe, was meant to keep a wife faithful during the long separation from her husband. But Mattie Coffin never was left for any long voyage; she was with James almost all the time—so she wouldn’t need one, right? According to the euphemism. Also, there’s the comical berry-red tip and crude whittle marks. It looks fake in its lewdness. The finely crafted, hollow, water-filled, ceramic he’s-at-home in Maggie’s performance would make a more believable artifact.
And yet, the dildo’s chronological authenticity is preserved by the fireplace sealed up with time-sensitive artifacts—e.g., the old letters to Grover Cleveland filled with correct details about James Coffin’s life; the laudanum bottle. Without any artifacts besides Connie’s, a second, surely implausible possibility arises: that each he’s-at-home owner had somehow destroyed her artifact before passing away. A third possibility seems likeliest to me: female sexuality is so routinely repressed from history that the he’s-at-homes were swept under the rug, so to speak—present but too uncomfortable for discussion, snubbed from record. Why else would the museum so quickly claim to both know of them and already have them? Only rumors of their existence would be left to echo through the port towns, stoked every few decades by Maggie Conroy’s discovery of the anonymous diary and by Connie’s artifact.
That affords a last, enchanting possibility: Somewhere on Nantucket and New Bedford and New London and all the other whaling ports, under the ground, scattered throughout old houses, in the harbors, or in forgotten boxes in museums or closets is a cache of countless he’s-at-homes waiting to be rediscovered.
I called Connie after I talked to Maggie. It was early fall, and the summer people had left the island. “The house is empty now,” she said. “It’s like a tomb.” We talked about Tom’s radio recording. I noted how calming his voice was. “He had a lovely speaking voice,” she said. I said it was frightening sometimes how little we have left of people when they’re gone. “Tom was going to write his memoir later in life,” she said. “But when Parkinson’s set in, he lost his memory, so he couldn’t write it.” Tom’s life—all of the millions of images snapped into his memory—had left him, washed away.
“One last question,” I said. “Did you always keep the he’s-at-home in the pantry?”
“No. After the docent rejected it for the collection, we kept it in a safety deposit box. But when Tom passed away, I went to the bank and took it out and put it in the pink box and stored it in the pantry. When both parents die, you know, the safety deposit box is opened at the bank in front of everyone. We didn’t want the he’s-at-home to be with our belongings. What would people think when they found it?”
Ben Shattuck is a writer and painter from coastal Massachusetts. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Worskshop. He has been awarded a Bread Loaf Scholarship in Fiction, the E. Geoffrey and Elizabeth Thayer Verney Fellowship at the Nantucket Historical Association, and the Tin House Scholarship in Nonfiction, among others. He has written for Salon.com, The Paris Review Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Morning News. Visit www.benshattuck.com.