1851-1931Captain Harty’s CommodePeople and Communities, 400 Stories Project

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On top left is a photo of Captain Charles Harty in the early 1900s.

Credit: Gloucester Daily Times. Bottom left is a modern photo of the Kent Circle home where Capt. Charles Harty once lived. Bottom right is a photo of Capt. Harty’s commode making itself useful and holding the author’s beautiful mandevilla plant. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are owned or credited to the author, Cindy Hendrickson.

Captain Harty’s Commode


Not everyone is lucky enough to own a historical Queen Ann Victorian home in Gloucester, built in 1899 for a prestigious Gloucester sea captain, master mariner, and fish broker. His name was Captain Charles Harty, and he built this lovely home for his wife, Mary, because that’s what they did in the 19th century. Fishermen could be at sea for four years—or even more. It was the wives who did most of the living in these homes.

My husband and I bought the house in 2016. The home has been in my family since 1957. It has “good bones,” people tell us. That’s because they don’t have to pay for repairs and updating.

But fortuitously, we own an “antique” from Capt. Harty’s home that has remained in our house: a commode.

“How old do you think that commode is?” I asked my husband Brian. “And why do you think it belonged to the Harty family?”

“Well, by the time the Hartys moved out of the house, they were no longer using commodes in homes,” he replied. “And just look at that thing. Does it look modern to you?”

Frowning, I looked at the old square pine box’s cover—which had seen better days—and said, “So you’re saying we should keep it?” The word “gross” forming on my lips.

“It wouldn’t hurt. The cover looks tough, but the inside looks, well, clean at least.”

So, like the rest of the what-should-we-do-with-this-stuff, the commode was stuck in a corner in the attic. Until it found a purpose. At least, in the sense that if you put something on top of it, like a pretty cloth with a lovely red mandevilla plant, you could forget all about the fact that it was a commode.

Until one day, I couldn’t forget. After six years of faithfully bringing the commode outside in the summer and carefully replacing the decorative cover, I felt nausea setting in. This was it for me.

“Brian, this thing has to go. If you want to go on Antiques Roadshow with it, be my guest. Just don’t mention my name on national television as housing it.”

“Ok,” he said. “I’ll bring it down and get rid of it.”

Subsequently, he brought it down to our front porch. Where nothing ever seems to get disposed of. All kinds of stuff lands on top of it: recycling bags, shoes, a plant or two, umbrellas.

Then, one day, I felt sad for the commode. It was like a kid who had been left in a closet under the stair-case, and everyone forgot about him. I asked Brian to put it back upstairs. He made it as far as the guest bedroom on the second floor.

I lovingly—well, perhaps not lovingly, maybe respectfully is the better adverb here—once again covered the commode, then placed a candle and a pretty dish with a Nautilus shell next to the candle. I had gotten the ornamental plate at a local consignment store. Ironically, the Nautilus shell is a symbol of beauty and perfection. Go figure.

It was inevitable that I would Google “commodes” and scout out their history. After seeing the elaborate kind, I scrolled across the page and immediately found a commode that looked remarkably like our “treasure.” The first thing I saw on the website was “Table commode, mid-late 19th century (1831–1900).” Eureka! Our home was built in 1899, and the Hartys moved there from The Fort in 1900. Capt. Charles and his wife Mary could have brought it from their former digs! Again, sentimentality was creeping into my brain.

The description continued, “With the lid shut, this object looks like a piece of ordinary house-hold furniture. In fact, it is a discreetly disguised toilet called a commode. The lid reveals a seat, underneath which a chamber pot would have been placed and emptied after use.”

Thank God there was no actual “chamber pot” in ours, potentially emptied thousands of times. But wait—would it be worth less without the chamber pot? I must admit, a part of me did want to be on Antiques Roadshow.

The article continued, “It is unclear what the metal container in the lid is for. Most likely, it was a container for toilet paper or perhaps a ‘sliding’—the commode would have been owned by a wealthy family for use by an elderly or sick relative.” Oh no! Another Roadshow roadblock! No metal container, which I would have preferred, came with it versus an actual chamber pot. Were Mary and Capt. Harty wealthy? This made me hesitate.

Research Begins

With so many questions about Mary and Capt. Harty, I ventured to the Cape Ann Museum, where I found an article by Martha Oaks, a curator who studied Capt. Harty’s history here in Gloucester.

As Ms. Oaks explained in her story, “Captain Charles Harty was born in Gloucester in 1851, his parents having come from Nova Scotia. Mary, born in 1856, was also born in Gloucester, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Both families were part of the great wave of immigrants who arrived just prior to the Civil War to find work on Cape Ann in our two main industries: fishing and granite quarrying.”

My own family consisted of stone cutters who arrived from Finland as well as Irish fishermen who landed in Gloucester via Nova Scotia. I now felt a kinship with the Hartys. Suddenly, their commode meant the world to me. And to think, I might have thrown it out or brought it some-where to have it discreetly disposed of.

As my research progressed, I learned that Charles (April 28, 1851–May 21, 1931), although coming from a modest background, made a substantial living as a fisherman, master mari-ner—a lovely way to refer to a captain—and later in life, a fish broker.

The Gloucester Daily Times archives collection provided significant information about Capt. Harty, called “Charlie” by his friends, because he was too down-to-earth and fun to be “Charles.” Not that there’s anything wrong with Charles as a name. You may find me interchangeably calling him Capt. Harty or Charlie in this story, as now that I have learned about him, I feel like we’ve become friends. But I digress…

Capt. Harty’s father was also a fisherman, and so Charlie began his fishing career at age nine. By 1871, at the age of twenty, he already possessed his own fishing vessel.1

Success in Mackerel Fishing

Capt. Harty made his fortune as a mackerel fisherman. Hard for me to believe, especially since you couldn’t force me to eat one, but mackerel was a big deal back in the mid to late 1800s. Apparently, mackerel excel at spawning mass batches of eggs, resulting in gazillions more of them.

Charlie was a famous “seiner” (pronounced “saner”) schooner captain. I didn’t know much about ways of fishing before my research, and certainly not types of fishing from the nineteenth century. Apparently, seine fishing employs a surrounding net, called a seine, that hangs verti-cally in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Seine nets can be deployed from the shore as a beach seine or from a boat.

It’s not a coincidence that Captain Harty made this list in the Boston Daily Globe in 1897:

1897 Gloucester Fisherman: Master Mariners List—Careers of Men Who Caught the Most Fish and Sold Them Profitably. Captain Charles Harty #2 mackerel “as a seiner his reputation has been made.”

Even further back, in 1887, Capt. Harty netted $19,500 on a five-week fishing trip.2 The number of men on his schooner, the Fredonia, is unclear, but that amount of money would be worth close to $650,000 today. Even dividing it with his crew would be a nice chunk of change. What a catch! How these terms can have alternate meanings. My dad thought that my mother was quite a catch! Holy Mackerel—of course, he did.

Even Julian Dimock, a famous photographer of people and landscapes in both the United States and Canada (1873–1945), took note of Capt. Harty’s success in mackerel seining. See photo on right.

Racing Schooners

Yes, Capt. Harty was quite the mackerel fisherman. But he was also known for his expertise as a racing captain. Harty was a take-charge guy who commanded racing schooners—some of the fastest that ever went around Gloucester’s Eastern Point. He placed second in the first fisherman’s race in 1887 in one of the schooners built for him, the Isaac I. J. Merritt.3

Other schooners built for Capt. Harty were the Mary E. Harty, named for his wife, and the Grayling, both designed by skilled craftsman Captain McClain of Rockport. Capt. Harty also commanded the vessels Alice M. Lewis, David J. Adams, Horace Albert, Gussie Blaisdell—the list continues.4 He was no slouch.

But Capt. Harty’s connection to the schooner Esperanto is the most intriguing. Harty was the first skipper on the maiden voyage of the Esperanto on July 7, 1906.5 He stayed just for that season, moving on to yet another mackerel-killing vessel.

Fourteen years later in 1920, when Capt. Harty was almost seventy and no longer fishing, he enjoyed viewing the races from his window on Kent Circle. That year, Esperanto had the honor of winning the first International Fishermen’s Cup Race. As the very first skipper of the Esperanto, Capt. Harty served as an advisor for this race between Gloucester and Halifax, Nova Scotia. On October 26, 1920, he was invited to sail as a dignitary, leaving the vessel prior to its journey to Halifax.6 The schooner won $4,000 in prize money. A “Triumph of Americanism” is how Vice President Calvin Coolidge described this win. Now known in Gloucester as the Schooner Festival on Labor Day weekend, the original trophy from Esperanto’s victory is given to the modern race’s winner.

We now are blessed to see schooners every day from the same spot Capt. Harty sat in. The home is still comfortable, not to mention safe, especially since we got rid of our old knob and tube wiring, which was high-end back in 1899. Our new and improved wiring allows us to sleep better at night without worrying about the house burning down. Our home does shake a lot during a storm, but what are the chances it could fall over after all the money we’ve put into it? And it is sort of romantic. Just think of all those couples in movies kissing passionately in a rainstorm. My husband holds me tightly since I’m the one shaking like the house is.

When not gazing out his window, enjoying the sunrise or sunset over Ten Pound Island or the Eastern Point Lighthouse, Capt. Harty was still working. He had a busy profession out of Newport, RI, buying fish for New York “concerns.” Great word as a noun, concerns. But instead of meaning worry or anxiety, it is cheerier—like interests or desire.

An Unexpected Death

On May 21, 1931, Capt. Charles H. Harty was found dead in the room he rented while working in Newport. Shortly before he died, Capt. Harty had spoken to his wife, Mary, to let her know he wasn’t feeling well.7 I wonder how often they talked on the phone. I am glad that she got to hear his voice before he died. I would like to believe that every couple who lived in our house had a happy marriage.

The Gloucester Daily Times described our Capt. Harty as mild-man-nered, kind, gentle, and polite. Just like my father was, I thought. I hope to keep the most recent inhabitants of our home on Kent Circle that way.

This well-respected fisherman and master mariner was 80 when he died. My mother died at 80 as well. But living to age 80 in 1931 was quite rare in the generation before my parents were born. Especially considering the occupation which I may have mentioned was on the dangerous side.

I have become fascinated with Capt. Harty’s history and accomplishments. I envision him sitting in our parlor, reminiscing about his captivating life on the ocean in his “cool, moderate way, and with a twinkle in his bright eyes.”

I imagine Mary and Capt. Harty walking hand-in-hand down Stacy Boulevard, over the Cut Bridge, greeting friends along the way. Just the same as my parents did. And like Harty, they never tired of the view of Ten Pound Island, nor the half-mile long granite breakwater that kept them in the harbor, far enough away from the frequently uprearing of the ocean.

Back to the Commode

Now, after all my research, as I periodically water my beautiful mandevilla plant, I am grateful that Mary—since she lived longer than Charles—left the commode. And I’ll bet it was well-ap-pointed, with a superior antiseptic powder box and other luxurious features.

I must admit, however, that I did feel discouraged when, on Etsy, I found an Antique Victorian commode on sale for only $595.00. And it had arms!

“We’re not dragging our commode around to Sotheby’s and Christie’s,” I frowned. I can’t even imagine our remnant of the Hartys leaving our home.

Then I brightened. “I have a new idea. Let’s bring it outside, cover and protect it from the weather, and deco-rate it. I have some pinecones, and we can cut some holly off one of the bushes out front.”

I thought of my red mandevilla. It’s sentimental as well because I bought it over ten years ago. During our cold months, I keep it in our bay window, where it thrives every winter. Plants are kind of like kids. After long days/ evenings staying inside, you suddenly say, “Outside, everybody!”

“Spring will be here soon; we can switch those decorations to include daffodils and tulips,” I said. “When it warms up enough for a tropical plant to survive outside, we’ll replace the spring flowers with our mandevilla.”

“Wait a minute; you want to plant daffodils in it this spring?” asked Brian, shaking his head.

“Right. Bad color.”

The commode will be moved again. But only on our property. Because this home, with all its flaws, holds a legacy of one of Gloucester’s finest skippers. A man who loved and respected the ocean. A fisherman and talented mariner who lived a life of courage and adventure. And now, it is also loved by an ocean-loving couple who, all because of an antique commode, discovered the person responsible for reinforcing what we already knew: our house is a gem.

And we promise to take good care of Mary and Capt. Harty’s commode. As long as we both shall live.

1 The Boston Globe, 3/03/1910, “Captains of Bay State Fishing Fleets,” Page 14.

2 Gloucester Daily Times, 5/22/1931, “Sudden Death Claims Captain Charles Harty,” Pages 1 & 7.

3 Gloucester Daily Times, 3/24/1910, “Won Fisherman’s Race in 1887. Capt. Charles H. Harty, Owner and Master of Schooner Oriole,” Page 6. See Author’s note at end of story. And, GDT, 8/05/1905, “Famous Craft Here,” Page 1.

4 Gloucester Daily Times, 3/24/1910.

5 Gloucester Daily Times, 7/07/1906, “Maiden Trip: Handsome New Schooner Esperanto Sailed Seining Today,” Page 4.

6 The Boston Globe, 10/24/1920, “All Hands Set for Salt Sea Classic When Gloucester Races Lunen-burg,” By George Noble, Page E6.

7 Gloucester Daily Times, 05/22/1931, “Sudden Death Claims Captain Charles Harty,” Pages 1 & 7.


I would like to thank Martha Oaks at the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives; the Sawyer Free Library and their staff for introducing me to their digital resources focusing on Cape Ann’s history; and the Cape Ann Savings Bank for the complimentary printing of Gordon W. Thomas’s 1952 edition of the book “Builders of Gloucester Prosperity.” I am very grateful for my fellow Finish Line writers. Special thanks to my dear friend and cheerleader, Juana Chicoine, for her input and support. Of course, thank you to my husband, Brian Carlson, for playing along with the commode section of my story; thank you for being a good sport.

And last, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the Stories Project Director for the Gloucester400+, Terry Weber Mangos, for her research and editing assistance.


Research about Captain Charles Harty is ongoing and evolving. In Footnote 3, I noted a discrepancy in the source material: the headline refers to Capt. Harty as winning the race in 1887, but the body of article says he placed second.

The Cape Ann Museum - Perspectives, Summer 2016, “The Influence of Phillips & Holloran on Cape Ann’s Built Environment,” by Martha Oaks, Pages 4–5. Builders of Gloucester Prosperity, “Esperanto” by Gordon W. Thomas, Pages 20–22, Publisher: Cape Ann Savings Bank. Atlantic Fisherman Magazine, March 1921, “Work of Mayflower Processing,” Page 6. Science Museum Group. Commode, Europe, 1831–1900. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/ objects/co147767/commode-europe-1831-1900-commode.
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