Clara and Henry Leffingwell - An English, Australian, and American Story
Australian Convict Ship Neptune Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Clara Leffingwell ‘s twenty eight year search across the world for her husband Henry came to an end at the Union Depot in Cleveland, Ohio, on Friday, November 27, 1868, after decades of hard travel and heartbreak.
According to a story in the Cincinnati Times the Leffingwell’s saga began in early 1840 when Clara Leffingwell and her husband Henry lived near the suburbs of London, England.
The Leffingwell’s England – 1840
During the nineteenth century, Britain faced prevalent and persistent poverty, population, and crime problems. The author Charles Dickens took many of his scenes and stories from the conditions he observed every day. His novels including Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, are graphic word pictures of the realities of the workhouse and life on the streets for England’s impoverished people and those of modest means.
Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, estimated that after 1740, the population of England and Wales had risen dramatically from a stable six million.The Industrial Revolution displaced much of the European population and created unemployment for many people. Out of desperation, many resorted to petty theft and other crimes to survive. The government tried to find an alternative to confining people in overcrowded jails, especially in Britain where the overcrowded jails caused the authorities to use hulks from the Seven years War as floating prisons.
In 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, London had become an overcrowded city filled with unemployed people. Crime posed a major problem that the British authorities tried unsuccessfully to solve by appointing a watchman for every parish. Since Britain didn’t have a police force, informers caught all criminals or their victims denounced them to the local court.
By the 1770s, 222 crimes in Britain carried the death penalty and almost all of them were crimes against property. A person could be executed for petty theft. Law makers decided to make punishments less harsh, but they still wanted to prevent people from committing crimes.
Some Victorians declared that a “criminal class” existed within the population of working class people and this “criminal class” posed a danger to British society and had to be controlled and ideally removed from society. Transportation, or deporting an offender to a penal colony like Australia often seemed the best solution to the crime problem.
Henry Leffingwell Was Branded a Criminal
Henry Leffingwell didn’t belong to the “criminal class.” He earned a profitable living as a mechanic and he and Clara lived comfortably and happily until one day in March, 1840, someone committed a theft near where the Leffingwells lived. The narrative thread in the newspaper articles telling Henry and Clara Leffingwell’s story, including the Southland Times in Zealand, implies that someone denounced Henry to the authorities for larceny, and they falsely accused Henry of committing the theft.
One of the stipendary magistrates- a paid magistrate that dealt with police cases- committed him for trial, and in April 1840, Henry Leffingwell was convicted and sentenced to hard labor for ten years in the Australian penal colony. Just a week after his sentence had been pronounced, he sailed on a prison ship bound for Australia.
Henry Leffingwell’s Convict Reality
Australia was not always a destination for British criminals. From the 1620s until the American Revolution, the British authorities transported their criminals to their colonies in North America. Historian Dr. John Dunmore Lang estimated that about 50,000 prisoners taken in battle from Ireland and Scotland along with common criminals were deported to New England and the rest of the colonies and some of them were sold to the Southern states as slaves. In 1733, with the blessing of the British Crown, James Oglethorpe founded Georgia as a colony where poor people languishing in English debtor’s prisons could begin life anew on a new continent.
After the American Revolution, the British government looked elsewhere to send their criminals. Australia, which Captain James Cook had discovered and claimed for England in April, 1770, seemed the perfect place to send criminals to labor and help develop the new country. Bounty immigrants and assisted immigrants came to settle Australia as well as paying passengers, but the British government also sent convicts to Australia for various periods of time.
Most of the convicts had been convicted of larceny in big cities like London, Liverpool, and Manchester. If a person had committed simple larceny, or robbery, they could be transported to Australia for seven years. Compound larceny which meant stealing goods worth more than $50 in modern money brought a sentence of death by hanging. Usually men had prior conviction records, while women were transported after a first offense. Most of the convicts were working people with a wide variety of skills.
At least seventy percent of the convicts the British government sent to Australia were English and Welsh, twenty four percent were Irish and five percent were Scottish. The Government sent convicts from British outposts like India, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean.
Once they arrived in Australia, both male and female convicts could redeem themselves. Convicts could obtain a Ticket of Leave, a document that gave them freedom to work and live within a specified district before their sentence expired of they received a pardon. If they maintained good behavior they could earn a Certificate of Freedom Conditional Pardon, or an Absolute Pardon. The Government could withdraw any of these privileges for misbehavior.
In 1868, when the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia, Great Britain had transported more than 162,000 men and women to the various Australian penal colonies on 806 ships.
Henry Leffingwell’s Journey Began
Clara Leffingwell so firmly believed in her husband Henry’s innocence, that she prepared to follow him to Australia so that she could stay close to him while he remained in prison. When his Ticket of Leave came she wanted to be the first with good counsel, comfort, and love.Henry’s convict ship arrived safely in Australia, and the authorities immediately transferred its cargo of convicts to the Government Work House.
Charles Bateson’s, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, is considered the definitive work on Australia’s convict ships and he and other researchers and writers have documented conditions on board the convict ships. The First Fleet which arrived in Australia in 1788, deposited the convicts in fairly good conditions, but as the 18th century wore on, compassion on the convict ships seemed to wear out and conditions on the ships deteriorated for the remainder of the century.
Convicts were usually confined in chains and behind bars below decks and brought up only for exercise and fresh air. They were packed together and slept on hammocks and all of them were susceptible to diseases like scurvy, dysentery and typhoid. When they landed in the various Australian penal colonies, convicts endured cruel masters and harsh discipline.
In 1801, the British authorities monitored and evaluated the systems and changed the sailing procedures. They began scheduling the ships to sail twice a day, at the end of May and the beginning of September to avoid the dangerous southern hemisphere winters. Independent Surgeon Superintendents responsible for the convict’s health and well being replaced the surgeons accountable only to the ship’s captain. Charterers of the ships also received a bonus to disembark the prisoners safe and healthy at voyage end.
By 1840, the time of Henry Leffingwell’s voyage, more enlightened convict ship practices were in place, including a ship’s Religious Instructor who educated the convicts and ministered to their spiritual needs. Henry Leffingwell’s ship arrived safely and he and his fellow convicts were transferred to the Government Work House.
Clara Leffingwell’s Journey Began and Continued
Clara Leffingwell did not fare as well on her journey. The ship she traveled on had reached the halfway point to Australia, when a fierce storm broke. The waves buffeted her ship for two days and then it foundered and sank. Mrs. Leffingwell and the crew escaped on a hastily built raft and were adrift on the Pacific Ocean for several days before an American ship, the North Wind, bound from New York to China, rescued them.
Eventually, Clara Leffingwell landed in Japan, her hopes of finding Henry fading on the horizon. After she patiently waited and watched for several months, the American consul at Tokyo, Japan, helped her get a passage to Cuba, where according to the newspaper stories and not geographical distance, her chances of reaching Australia greatly improved.
For the next year and half, Clara Leffingwell passed through several trying experiences, but eventually she landed in Australia, not knowing Henry’s whereabouts. Each convict landing from a ship received a number so his keepers could identify him, and she didn’t know his number. For the next four years, she desperately asked ship’s captains and other authorities about Henry, but when they asked her “His number, ma’m?” she couldn’t tell them because she didn’t know it.
Clara spent four years searching for Henry. She exhausted her funds and had to work at menial labor to sustain herself and her search. One day she picked up a Sydney paper and to her astonishment read the story of her husband Henry’s release and that the real criminal had been caught and deported. The story matched her husband’s number and the facts of his conviction and deportation so closely that she knew it was her husband, Henry Leffingwell. She went to the prison authorities at Sydney and she learned that Ticket of Leave Man No 186, her husband Henry, had left Australia for the United States two weeks after his release.
Scraping together her few remaining funds, in June 1847, she found herself once more in a ship on the ocean bound for the United States of America. She arrived in New York City without being shipwrecked, and she spent the next fourteen years unsuccessfully searching for Henry.
Henry and Clara Leffingwell Served in the American Civil War
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Clara Leffingwell still had not heard a word about her husband Henry. She answered the first call for nurses in the hospitals and all during the war she nursed wounded soldiers. While she worked at one of the hospitals in Washington D.C., she nursed a man to life and strength who had known her husband in the Union Army. In fact, the man had been Henry’s messmate and close friend and while delirious from his wound, had repeatedly called for Henry to help him.
When Clara Leffingwell discovered that Henry’s friend had passed the crisis and recovered, she questioned him about her husband and discovered that he was in a Pennsylvania regiment and that he had enlisted from Pittsburgh two years before. Immediately, Clara wrote her husband a letter telling him the story of her trials and tribulations in her efforts to find him. Thanks to Army mail snags, her letter never reached her husband. Clara watched and waited hopefully, but she never received an answer to her letter.
Finally, the American Civil War ended in 1865, and Clark Leffingwell traveled to Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh she discovered that Henry’s term of enlistment had long ago expired and his where abouts were once more unknown. She placed advertisements in numerous Pennsylvania papers searching for his location and one again, she watched and waited.
Time crawled along, and Clara Leffingwell had nearly given up hope of seeing Henry again, when one day in late November 1868, she received a letter from someone who came across one of the advertisements she had put in the paper in 1865. Her informant told her that her husband lived in or near Cincinnati, and that he knew that she was coming. Clara left Pittsburgh on Friday morning, November 27, 1868, and arrived in Cleveland in the afternoon of the same day.
Climbing down from the train at the Union Depot in Cleveland, Clara went to get something to eat for her midday meal. Suddenly, she came face to face with her husband, Henry Leffingwell! For several startled minutes they just stared at each other. Then both following the same impluse, they rushed into each other’s arms, oblivious of the crowds of people who stopped to stare at their reunion.
During their separation, time had silvered the heads of Clara and Henry and left lines of care on their faces, but it hadn’t changed their love for each other. At seven o’clock that evening, they took the train home for Cincinnati, happy and reunited at last.
Can Henry and Clara’s story be documented using English, Australian, and American records? They are two people in the vast pool of human history, but their story if it happened the way the newspapers narrated it, is human, touching, and historical.
Baker, Donald. Preacher, Politician, Patriot: a Life of John Dunmore Lang, Melbourne University Press, 1998.
Bateson, Charles. The Convict Ships, 1787-1868. Sydney, London: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1974.
Emsley, Clive. Crime and English Society 1750-1900. 2nd edition, Longman, 1996.
Emsley, Clive. The English Police: A Political and Social History. 2nd edition, Longman, 1996.
Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America. The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. Clarendon, 1990.
Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding. Vintage Books, 1988.
Lang, John Dunmore. Reminiscences of My Life and Times, Both in Church and States in Australia, for Upwards of Fifty Years, an autobiographical manuscript, unpublished in Lang’s lifetime. Edited by Donald Baker. Heineman, Melbourne, 1972.
Shaw, A.G. L. Convicts and the Colonies. Melbourne University Press, 1977.
Newspapers that Carried the Leffingwell’s Story
Cleveland Herald, November 28, 1869
Southland Times, New Zealand, 1869
Brooklyn Eagle, December 8, 1868
Morning Chronicle, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1868