American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ELLMS, CHARLES (1805-1851). The elusive Charles Ellms was a Boston stationer who, after 1830, turned to popular writing and compiling almanacs. Little is known of Ellms, his birth, education, or even his death. Before he turned to writing a series of books on pirates* and shipwrecks,* Ellms operated a stationery business, most likely in association with Samuel N. Dickinson, a printer. He published a “comic” almanac in 1831 and then both comic and more traditional almanacs from 1833 to 1837. It was, however, through four popular books that Ellms left his mark on sea literature.

Ellms published The Pirates Own Book in 1837. Printed by his associate Dickinson, this was his most popular book. Reprinted in 1841, 1859, 1924, 1993, and 1996, the work also appeared under the title The Pirates: Authentic Narratives of the Lives, Exploits, and Executions of the World’s Most Infamous Buccaneers, including Contemporary Eyewitness Accounts, Documents, Trial Transcripts, and Letters. It is a collection of pirate narratives that highlight swashbuckling corsairs during the “golden age of piracy,” 1690-1725. In 1836 Ellms published Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea, a set of highly exciting shipwreck and nautical tragedies. In 1841 The Tragedy of the Seas was published, another collection of highly popular stories of disasters on lakes and rivers, as well as at sea. Ellms followed the success of his other books in 1842 with Robinson Crusoe’s Own Book (with later printings in 1846 and 1848), seizing upon Daniel Defoe’s best-seller, Robinson Crusoe (1719).

While Ellms’ books are all based in history, the author did not hesitate to embellish the lives of pirates or details about the shipwrecks. Some later critics conclude that it is difficult to determine where accuracy ends and Ellms begins. The fact remains that the mysterious Ellms did much to preserve exciting sea stories and tales of pirates. [See also MAROONED LITERATURE]

Boyd Childress