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COLLECTION Identifier: A/P66; M-16

Papers of Helen Jackson Piper, 1901-1959 (inclusive), 1901-1903 (bulk)


Bound hardcover manuscript and journal (typed), family correspondence, etc. of Helen Piper Jackson.


  • 1901-1959
  • Majority of material found within 1901-1903

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Helen Piper Jackson, as well as copyright in other papers in the collection, may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


2 folders

The papers of Helen Jackson Piper provide a first-hand account of life on board the Benjamin Sewall and represents the only surviving record of its last voyage. The online content consists of a bound, hardcover manuscript (typed) entitled The Girl in the Lifeboat. The typed pages, which were renumbered, contain edits and comments added by Piper some years after the 1903 shipwreck, as well as editorial revisions possibly made by William and Esther Prosser for publication in Down East: the Magazine of Maine. The manuscript was originally dated 1872-1958, but the beginning date was changed in pencil to read 1882. Piper's account is organized in sections, and include a "journal," which offers details of daily life on board ship, including food preparation, observations about the ship's crew, maintenance of the ship, the impact of weather, and descriptions of various foreign countries. Piper uses racial and ethnic slurs in some of her observations and descriptions. Portions of the journal were later published in Ship Benjamin Sewall, written by Douglas Egan in 1983. Also included are transcriptions of family correspondence.


Helen Jackson Piper, was born in Damariscotta, Maine, the eldest daughter of Charles and Carrie Hall Piper. She attended the local grammar school and completed her secondary education at Lincoln Academy, a private high school in Newcastle, Maine. In November of 1901, at the age of 18, Piper traveled from Maine to Vancouver, Canada where she boarded the Benjamin Sewall, a ship headed for Fremantle, Australia to deliver a cargo of Canadian lumber. She was accompanied by her aunt, May Hall and her aunt's husband, Jack Hoelstad, the captain of the ship.

Over the course of nearly two years, Piper documented her shipboard experience. The ship arrived in Freemantle in May 1902, and after unloading its cargo took on a shipment of teakwood for the Singapore market. On October 5, 1903, the Benjamin Sewall was shipwrecked by a typhoon in the Pescadores Islands, an archipelago of 90 islands and islets in the Taiwan Strait. Approximately 23 passengers and crew were forced to escape in two lifeboats. Captain Hoelstad, his wife, Piper, and other crew members were in the first boat that landed at the southern tip of Taiwan. They were rescued and recuperated at the American Consulate in Yokohama. There were conflicting accounts of what happened to crew members in the second lifeboat, which reportedly landed on or near Botel Tobago, an island situated near the Formosa coastline. Surviving crew members described ill-treatment by islanders, which subsequently became an international incident.

After returning to Maine, Piper decided to pursue a career in education. She attended the Farmington Normal School, which provided formal training for school teachers. She then pursued a degree from Columbia University's Teachers' College where she served as president of her class (1921-1922), and eventually earned an MA in education. Following graduation, Piper served as principal of the Jewish Center in New York City for several years. She then relocated to Prescott, Arizona and taught at an elementary school for seven years. Piper later worked as an Elementary Supervisor in Lynn, Massachusetts for thirty years, overseeing 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes. She was credited with the concept and supervision of the History Stories of Lynn, written and illustrated by her classes, and eventually published by Nichols Press (Lynn, Massachusetts). Piper was also the founder of the Massachusetts Supervisors Club, and held memberships in the English Speaking Union and the Society of Mayflower Descendants.

Prior to her retirement in 1950, Piper decided to publish her account of the ill-fated sea journey; a story based on her journal, correspondence, and memories. Despite impaired vision, she enrolled in a writing course and wrote the narrative forGirl in the Lifeboat, which went through many revisions. Before the manuscript could be fully completed, Helen Piper Jackson died of lung cancer in June of 1958. In 1959, her family donated a copy of her partially completed manuscript to Radcliffe College, currently known as Radcliffe Institute. An abbreviated version of the book was published posthumously in Down East: The Magazine of Maine, in October, 1960.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession number: 85-M245

The papers of Helen Piper Jackson were donated by Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Piper, Mrs. Edward Pierce, Esther Schell Prosser, and Mabelle Piper Haynes, 1959-1985.


All of the collection except The Girl in the Lifeboat is available on microfilm (M-16, 1 reel, 35 mm.) at the Schlesinger Library.

Processing Information

Processed: November 1985

By: Christine Marshall and Elen Roklina

Updated and additional description added: January 2021

By: Emilyn L. Brown

The Schlesinger Library attempts to provide a basic level of preservation and access for all collections, and does more extensive processing of higher priority collections as time and resources permit.  Finding aids may be updated periodically to account for new acquisitions to the collection and/or revisions in arrangement and description.

Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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