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Captain John Percival
Captain John Percival
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 Captain John Percival

[quoted from William Dana Orcutt?s Good Old Dorchester. Cambridge: 1893]

Captain John Percival, or ?Mad Jack,? as he was popularly known, was a native of Barnstable. He went to sea when but a boy, and later entered the merchant service. While still young he was impressed on board the British vessel ?Epervier,? but managed to escape by placing his pistol at the sentry?s head.

During the War of 1812 Captain Percival became the sailing-master of the ?Peacock,? and, by a strange coincidence, had an engagement with the ?Epervier,? on board of which he had been impressed. His services during the wear were so valuable that he was promoted to the line officers, and became lieutenant and afterwards captain. Congress gave a further proof of the esteem in which he was held by his country by presenting him with a handsome sword.

After the war he was sent in the United States sloop ?Cyane? to the West Indies, to destroy the pirates, who were at that time committing many indignities to those came within their reach; and Captain Percival?s efforts were so effective that, before he left the scene of so many depredations, he had broken their force, and they were no longer to be feared. Few men had led such eventful lives as that which fell to his lot. Hairbreadth escapes followed one another, and on many occasions it seemed as if death was staring him in the face; but he passed through all in safety, and died a peaceful death at his home in Dorchester.

A single anecdote may be related to show what dangers he survived. On one occasion he set sail on a sloop from Africa with only a boy and an old man on board for crew. When they were hardly out of sight of port, Captain Percival and the old man were taken down with African fever, and the boy alone was left to man the sloop. It was not long before the boy was washed overboard, and the vessel left entirely at the mercy of the water. Captain Percival was able to summon strength enough to lash the helm, and then went below again, caring little, in his wretched condition, what might befall the vessel. The sloop sailed in the trade winds, and in time arrived at a port, when Captain Percival came on deck, and inquired where his course lay. Much to his astonishment, he found that without guidance the vessel had continued in her course, and that better voyage could not have been made had she been manned by an entire crew.

Captain Percival and the ?Constitution? took their last trip around the world together, the captain dying in 1862. His Dorchester home was the site on which the Catholic Church now stands at Meeting-House Hill, on the corner of the street now called by his name. The house was originally built by Dr. Harris for his son, before it came into Captain Percival?s possession. This house was moved back at the time of the erection of the church, and still stands on ?Percival? Avenue. The life of Captain Percival was so eventful that it has been made the subject of a romance, entitled ?The Cruise of the Juniata.? The captain is not called by his real name in the story; but as ?Captain Percy? he has become in fiction the hero that he proved himself to be in life.

Note: Percival is described in an article in American Heritage for April, 1971, vol. XXII, number 3, titled: ?Mad Jack? and the Missionaries. -- Although an affable man under most circumstances, he was fiery tempered. His rages, quickly triggered and as quickly ended, had earned him the name of ?Mad Jack? or Crazy Jack? among the sailors. He was a great favorite with the men, who accepted his swearing as a mark of affection; he shared the cabin wines with the sick, and when there were fresh provisions to be distributed, the men on the gun deck shared equally with the officers. Percival?s methods were unconventional, as might be expected of a naval officer who had begun his career as a sailing master. A colleague described him as ?the roughest old devil that ever was in his manners, but a kind, good hearted man at bottom.? Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was to meet Percival at the Boston Navy Yard in later years, thought he saw ?an eccentric expression in his face, which seemed partly willful, partly natural ... He seems to have moulded and shaped himself to his own whims, till a sort of rough affectation has become thoroughly imbued throughout a kindly nature.?


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Created: July 20, 2005   Modified: July 20, 2005