Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: “Crossing the Threshold of the Preexistent State”: Hugh J. Cannon, David O. McKay, and the Seasick World Tour

Guest Post: “Crossing the Threshold of the Preexistent State”: Hugh J. Cannon, David O. McKay, and the Seasick World Tour

By: Kevin Folkman - March 06, 2012

It gets some of us on long car trips, others on airplane flights, and often at Disneyland or Lagoon. Motion sickness can drive even the most hearty and healthy individual to their knees in humility. I’ve suffered the queasy feelings myself a time or two after a few spins on the Tilt-a-Whirl, or even in a fairly small boat on the waters of the Puget Sound.

For many church members, historically, a long sea voyage while emigrating or departing on a mission often was the first experience with the peaceful, gentle swells of the oceans, the graceful rocking of the ship, and accompanying gastrointestinal gymnastics involved in trying to keep food down once you had eaten it. Just on a whim, I’ve started looking at accounts of seasickness in various journals and letters, and found some truly epic descriptions. Spoiler alert: Cargo is discharged, fish are fed, and metaphors are thrown up in wild abandon here. Be ye therefore of strong stomach, before you read this account of Hugh J. Cannon and Davd O. McKay and their adventures with seasickness on a world wide tour of the church.

Apostle McKay and Liberty Stake President Hugh J. Cannon were called in 1920 to conduct a tour of the church congregations and missions throughout the world. Their travels included, among other places, Japan, Korea, China, the South Sea Islands, India, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Great Britain. This journey helped to impress the future president and prophet with the world wide nature of the church, and was chronicled in a book written by Bro. Cannon, but only recently rediscovered.[1] Not surprisingly, most of the long distance travel as well as many of the shorter trips occurred by ship. As a result, the book is full to overflowing with accounts of seasickness that seemed to afflict someone at almost every exposure to the effects of waves and currents. Mission presidents and local church leaders often accompanied McKay and Cannon on the shorter voyages, and they were equally afflicted. For those of us seeking some vengeance against Bro. Cannon for his magnum opus about the expatriate Nell Redfield, we get some small measure of satisfaction.

Cannon did seem to fare better than McKay. But here is his description of how the voyage began upon departure from Vancouver, Washington:

Numerous invitations to dinners and other social affairs where rfreshments were served were extended to the special missionaries during the weeks immediately preceding their departure. Such acts, intended as kindness and greatly appreciated, were poor preparation for a rough ocean voyage. Some of these delightful dinners were destined to come up later in a most distressing manner. Have you ever been aboard a vessel on an extremely rough sea? Have you felt it roll and toss and plunge, then when struck full force by a mighty wave which washes its decks, felt it shudder and tremble as though it had received a death blow and must assuredly sink? And all the while the stomachs of the sensitive passengers are performing
similar evolutions and are dancing about as wildly as the ship itself. Frequently not more than a dozen people out of several hundred passengers were at meals.

It wasn’t long before McKay began to feel the effects. He wrote a good-natured letter about the experience, which is included in Cannon’s book:

Brother Hugh J. and I were in prime condition, I thought, when we boarded the Empress of Japan on the evening of December 7, 1920. Kind friends had showered us with good wishes and blessings, had feted and dined us for weeks previous, and had sent along with us boxes of the choicest cream chocolates to make our journey sweet and delightsome. Even as we walked up the gangplank at Vancouver, we were accompanied by a score of Elders and Saints, who, with President Iverson, bade us a heartfelt Bon Voyage.

It was storming when we left port, and the movement of the boat was keenly perceptible even before we went to sleep. The pitching of the vessel in the night awoke me and every nerve and muscle of my body responded to the movement of the boat. As this movement became more pronounced and intense, the contents of my digestive organs joined in unison with nerves and muscles. Twenty-one years ago, one morning on the Atlantic, I had experienced a similar feeling, so I knew I had better dress carefully and get on deck. At that moment Brother Cannon jumped out of bed as bright and pert as a ten-year old boy. He would steady himself as though he were anchored.

I concluded to take his advice, when he said: “If you aren’t feeling well, I suggest you don’t look in the mirror.” “No, I wouldn’t eat breakfast, probably would feel better if I fasted…”

However, before attempting to dress I ate an apple which Hugh J. handed me. Without hurry I put on my clothes and started for the deck; but the swaying staircase and the madly moving world of water stirred my feelings with a desire for solitude. Yielding, I hurried to my room, where in less time than it takes to tell you, the apple and I parted company forever.”

Feeling somewhat better, I started again for the deck…At any rate, I had company in furnishing amusement for the chosen few. This time I reached only the top of the stairs when that intense yearning to be alone drove me back to my cabin. Good-bye last night’s dinner! Good-bye yesterday’s luncheon! And during the next sixty hours, good-bye everything I had ever eaten since I was a babe on Mother’s knee! I’m not sure I didn’t cross the threshold into the pre-existent state.

Thursday I managed to eat a little soup and retain it…Brother Hugh hadn’t been quite so brisk as usual, and I noticed that his rosy cheek had a somewhat faded hue; but he went to breakfast as usual…About 10:30 he came in somewhat flushed about the face but pale about the mouth and eyes. For a moment, neither of us said anything; then the humor of the situation getting the mastery, he said, ‘I guess I might as well confess to you that I’ve just had my turn.’ …He explained that after breakfast he went to the library to write some letters, when all at once he became aware of an unpleasant feeling creeping over him. With the instinct of his sea-faring ancestors, he started for the pure sea breezes that were blowing on deck; but suddenly the company of fellow passengers became most objectionable and turning his back upon them, he started downstairs most unceremoniously. Fortunately, he managed to reach the passageway leading to our room, when, Presto! He reached seclusion, but the deck behind him looked like the ‘milky way.’ The incomprehensible thing to me is that this spontaneous outburst ended his seasickness.

I have already collected a number of select accounts of seasickness in other missionary journals. I’d be interested if any of you Keepa’ninnies are aware of any accounts of seasickness that you’ve run across in family history accounts or your other research. I think there is a great story to tell here, if you are willing to share.

[1] Hugh J. Cannon, David O. McKay: Around the World; an Apostolic Mission, Prelude to Church Globalization, Spring Creek Book Company, Provo, Utah 2005, p 14-17. (Reprint). The trip was also serialized via letters in the Deseret News throughout 1921.



  1. Rudger Clawson fed the fishes and lived to tell the tale; also, the advice to young ladies from the early 20th century suggested ways to avoid seasickness.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 6, 2012 @ 6:52 am

  2. Fun post, Kevin!

    I don’t have anything as detailed as your story from President McKay, but here are four references to seasickness.

    Edwin Pettit was an orphaned teenager when he crossed the plains in 1847. He left for California shortly afterwards to mine for gold. He said:

    We arrived in San Bernardino…then made our way down to Los Angeles…..We disposed of our cattle for a good price, and went down to San Pedro… As it was considered a very dangerous harbor, a vessel would only stop there once in a great while. Here we engaged passage in an old sailing craft for San Francisco at $25.00 each. I was very seasick about half the time while on the boat. We caught a shark while on board, and we all helped to eat it.

    And then the story of Frances Ann Mathews Litson:

    The Saints broke the monotony of sailing by singing hymns, reading and helping the sailors turn the sails. Sometimes a ship would go by and they waved to those aboard. Often they saw sea pigs [dolphins or porpoises] jump out of the water which amused them. On days that the sea was rough, huge waves dashed at the front of the ship and as they lashed at each other they looked like huge mountains. Many people would get seasick on such days, and would have to remain in their berths. [Frances Ann] was among those and felt pretty bad for a few days. However, she soon got used to the sailing and enjoyed herself on sunny, smooth days, but felt rocky and kept to her bed on rough ones.

    George Jarvis was a sailor and had been all over the seas from the West Indies to China. When he and his wife and five little children emigrated from England, his wife thought she’d finally get to spend some time with him. But:

    the cook became seasick, and George was given the position of chief cook, which lasted all the voyage, as the other man did not get well enough to take over. With only one helper, George cooked for 815 passengers, leaving his wife to care for the little ones.

    And, finally, from Fritz Zaugg who was on the same ship as one of my ancestors:

    In a little over 8 days we had made the trip from Liverpool to New York. About 1 p.m. the ship anchored about a mile from shore. We passed the remain[ing] night on deck, no one was seasick any more. We saw the Brooklyn Bridge with its crown of gas lights. It had just been dedicated. It was a beautiful sight and a wonder….It was a wonderful thing to anticipate putting my feet on this wonderful and great land of America.

    Comment by Amy T — March 6, 2012 @ 8:11 am

  3. This makes me think that David O. McKay was just likening the scriptures to himself. As in Nephi’s exclamation, “Oh retched man that I am!”

    [insert groan here]

    Comment by David Y. — March 6, 2012 @ 10:20 am

  4. David, *Groan*

    I had forgotten Rudger Clawson’s detailed description. Seasickness played a part in the meeting of my great grandparents on the Manhattanin 1869. Charlotte Senior was traveling to Utah with her family, and Frederick King was one of four missionaries on board. He apparently took sick the moment the ship left the dock, and stayed below deck for the first three or four days. His sudden appearance after being at see for several days did not go unnoticed by Charlotte, and they married a year and a half later.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  5. I believe it was Dickens who described the condition as “Not ill, but going to be”.

    John Maxtone-Graham’s The Only Way to Cross contains several pages chronicling how the various transatlantic steamship lines dealt with seasickness.

    Comment by JimD — March 6, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

  6. Oral history here–my dad and the rest of the 66th Infantry Division crossed from New York to Southampton in November 1944. The old ocean liner that had been re-fitted as a troopship could have made better time, but they were in convoy and so zigzagged across the North Atlantic for 14 days.

    In each of the staterooms there were two stacks of four bunks, made of canvas stretched taut on a steel frame. The frames were hinged so they could be folded up against the wall–there was scarcely room for a soldier to stand between the bunks when they were all folded down, and there certainly wasn’t room for his pack and rifle and other gear.

    Each soldier hung his helmet on the corner of his bunk–with the liner removed, it was a useful container for catching the contents of ones stomach–if you managed to hit it. .350 was a good batting average in major league baseball–and apparently it was about what the soldiers hit.

    Dad said he discovered early in the voyage that the clearest air was right at the prow of the ship–so he and some buddies tried to get up early every day and claim their spot, upwind of any of the other 10,000 soldiers who might be losing their breakfast along the rails behind them.

    He heard from someone that a diet of boiled eggs and boiled potatoes would help. He wasn’t sure that it did–but he says he ate a lot of boiled eggs and boiled potatoes that fortnight.

    The heads were another lovely part of the accommodations. There weren’t anywhere near enough, and they didn’t drain well. But, to try to keep the rest of the ship cleaner, the hatches were sandbagged at the bottom–which worked some, by making the heads filthier.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 6, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

  7. Gee, Mark, thanks for sharing some extra detail that I don’t recall being in your earlier retelling of this account. But then, I asked for it.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  8. If I remember any more details I’ll be happy to “cough them up.”

    And, if you’d like, I could add some “seasickness” stories that occurred on dry land.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 6, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  9. Mark, was this the Aquitania, by any chance?

    Comment by JimD — March 6, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

  10. No, it was the George Washington.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 7, 2012 @ 8:48 am

  11. McKay’s letter detailing this experience is also recorded in his son’s “Home Memories of David O. McKay.”

    Groberg includes his thoughts on the topic in his memoirs of his journey to Tonga as a young missionary.

    I went halibut fishing early one spring in the rough waters of Alaska, and know firsthand that being sicker than a dog while everyone around you seems cheery and unaffected is the pits. Luckily, mine was a day trip and didn’t last a week…

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 7, 2012 @ 9:34 am

  12. Great story! Thank you for sharing. I remember reading a few years ago in Greg Prince’s book David O McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism an experience that may be the same voyage you describe here. Nothing says “Prophets are but mortal men” like stories of tossing you cookies!

    I will ask my dad if he has anything in his missionary journal relating to seasickness. He went to New Zealand in the early 1950s and did all of his travel by ship. Spent the majority of his time in the Cook Islands and so a good portion of his mission was spent on a boat either traveling or fishing with the villagers, which missionaries could do back then.

    Comment by Sonny — March 8, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

  13. kevinf, here’s one I just ran across, written by returning British Mission Elder John McQuarrie in June 1883:

    “I love the sea as a little boy does his Pa’s pipe: it is all very good till he takes a few puffs, and then he forgets the lovely sensation that the first puff brought him. It will be unnecessary for me to relate all my experience int his regard: suffice it to say that the screaming sea-gulls followed our path, and gorged while I disgorged the good ‘grub’ which I ate at the Liverpool Conference house. Next morning brought different scenery to our view, the sea looked like a great sheet of glass, glistening in the sun, my stomach became settled and retained its ‘hash,’ and the sea-gulls bade us a lamentable farewell.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 9, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

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