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Nomi Dayan

The Mulford Farmhouse. Photo from East Hampton Historical Society

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Before George Washington, Paul Revere and Alexander Hamilton, the first – and feistiest! – patriots were none other than Long Island whalers. The first Colonists were English Puritans who arrived to the east end of Long Island in 1640. At the time, the area was considered an extension of Connecticut and New England – seen as remote and separate from the Dutch-ruled western end of Lange Eylant. 

These pioneers were initially farmers, but they quickly became seasonal entrepreneurs after they noticed their enormous marine neighbors spouting by their shores: blubber-rich right whales.

Whaling companies were launched during the winter months, hunting whales in rowboats on frigid beaches with the labor of local Native Americans. In large iron trypots on the sand, whaling crews stewed blubber until it melted into liquid gold – whale oil. Whale oil was used chiefly for illumination, and later in time, for a variety of manufacturing purposes. Oil even served as a currency (local schoolteachers were paid in whale oil). 

For the next 20 years, Colonists worked to perfect this trade. Whaling quickly became part of community life, with required whale-spotting shifts from able-bodied men. School even let out from December to April so children could help spot and process whales. Oil was shipped to New England rather than New Amsterdam to avoid Dutch taxes.

This trade route was suddenly halted when new commerce rules were set in place by England. The entire Long Island was now a part of New York. All goods were to be exported through New York City. The whale was a “royal fish,” from which the crown demanded a 20 to 50 percent tax. Eastenders were horrified.   

The battle between whalers and England began. Whalers were outraged at taxation without representation – foreshadowing the defiant Boston Tea Party a century later. They rebelled by turning Long Island into a smuggler’s haven, avoiding taxes by continuing to ship their oil to Boston or New London.  

The Mulford Farmhouse is one of the oldest in Suffolk County

A string of upset New York governors tried to enforce the tax – generally unsuccessfully. When the Duke of York investigated how many whales were caught in the past 6 years – and what his share was – he found no records had been kept. Lord Cornbury, a later New York governor, whined that “the illegal trade” was still carrying on between Long Island and New England. 

With Colonists’ protests falling on deaf ears, the towns of East Hampton, Southampton and Southold bypassed the governor of New York and submitted a petition to the court of England to be made a free corporation or continue under Connecticut rule. Their detailed list of complaints is similar to the tune of complaints in the Declaration of Independence. Their plea was denied. Their solution? Ignore the whale tax anyway. 

Colonists continued to smuggle the majority of oil to New England. New York merchants themselves were also flouting the law, which required all international trade to go through England. Instead, they traded directly with the West Indies, exchanging whale oil for rum, sugar and cocoa. 

Taking international trade into their own hands, New Yorkers who felt particularly courageous loaded up their ships and sailed with their goods to Madagascar, where there was an anarchist colony of none other than – pirates! Doing business with pirates was highly profitable, since it was all tax free. An inspector noted that in 1695, Long Island “was a receptacle for pirates and the people generally a lawless and unruly set.”

Whalers continued to protest. One of the pluckiest whalers who objected to the whale tax was Samuel Mulford of East Hampton, who lived from 1644 to 1725. He was a bold and somewhat quirky fellow. He championed the cause of the whalers, himself a financially successful owner of a whaling company of 24 men. 

Elected as a representative to New York Assembly in 1683, Mulford was expelled from the assembly twice for his outspoken demands; Colonists simply re-elected him and sent him back. When he sailed to London to protest the whale oil tax, he sewed fishhooks in his pockets to deter pickpockets during his long wait outside Buckingham Palace. 

Ultimately, the crown eased taxation. Mulford didn’t get to see this victory, as this announcement came five years after his death. Encouragingly, various acts were passed by the British Parliament to support the lucrative whaling industry, but Colonists’ frustrations toward their relationship with England never really went away. During the Revolutionary War, which brought whaling to a standstill, locals repurposed whaleboats for guerilla warfare against British efforts.

After America won its independence, a new era opened for whaling. In 1785, The Lucy left Sag Harbor to whale offshore Brazil; she returned with an unprecedented 360 barrels of whale oil. Americans took notice. To encourage trade, George Washington then authorized the first lighthouse in New York State to be built, the Montauk Lighthouse. The hundreds of whaleships that followed The Lucy would have sailed home from their global voyages directed by this lighthouse – illuminated by none other than whale oil.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center.

A trade card advertising a New York confectionery depicts Victorian children playing tug of war with a wrapped hard candy.

By Nomi Dayan

As you reach for a sweet treat this June in honor of National Candy Month, consider how the abundance of candy today is a rather exceptional thing.

For much of human history, sugar was an expensive indulgence reserved for celebratory desserts. Sugary treats were a luxury for the rich. People also used sugar for therapeutic functions, with early candy serving as a form of medicine, including lozenges for coughs or digestive troubles. 

Sugar was also used as a preservative; similar to salt, sugar dried fruits and vegetables, preventing spoilage. But all in all, sugar was carefully conserved. In George Washington’s time, the average American consumed only 6 pounds of sugar a year (far less than the 130 or so pounds consumed annually per person today).

The use of sugar swelled dramatically in the 1800s. Suddenly, sugar was everywhere, and with it came new technological advances in candy production. Sugar shipped from slave-powered plantations in the West Indies became more affordable and available with new, steam-powered industrial processes. 

Candy-making, 1888 by Rosina Sherwood. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

These changes were part of the Industrial Revolution, made possible by prized whale oil and its valuable lubricating properties. In 1830, Louisiana had the largest sugar refinery in the world. The invention of the Mason jar in 1858 drove demand for sugar for canning, and in 1876, the Hawaiian Reciprocity Treaty made sugar even more available. People couldn’t get enough of sweetness.

The availability of sugar brought a slew of new inventions to the culinary scene: candy! Confectioneries sprang up everywhere. The shops’ best customers were children, who spent their earnings on penny candy. Hard candies became very popular. 

As Yankee whaling reached its peak, Victorian-era sweets boomed with a succession of creations: the first chocolate bar was made in 1847; chewing gum followed in 1848; marshmallows were invented in 1850 and, in 1880, fudge. People’s breaths were taken away when sweets with soft cream centers were tasted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

Some candies, especially hard ones, were sold as being “wholesome” and even healthy. Unfortunately, candy was anything but nourishing. Sugar was sometimes adulterated with cheaper plaster of paris or chalk. Other candies were far more toxic.

In 1831, Dr. William O’Shaughnessy toured different confectionery shops in London and had a range of dyed candy chemically analyzed; he found a startling number of sweets colored with lead, mercury, arsenic and copper.

But as ubiquitous as candy was on land, a sweet treat was quite rare at sea, especially on a whaleship. Sugar on board was still a luxury reserved for the captain and officers. The crew had to settle for molasses, which was often infested; one whaler wrote it tasted like “tar.” Candy only makes brief glimpses in whaling logbooks, or daily records. 

On May 22, 1859, William Abbe journaled on the ship Atkins Adams: “Cook & Thompson Steward making molasses candy in galley.” (Earlier on the voyage, he described molasses kegs as “the haunts of the cockroach.”)

Laura Jernegan, a young daughter who sailed with her father and family on a three-year whaling voyage, wrote in her diary on board the Roman, “Feb 16, 1871. It is quite pleasant today. The hens have laid 50 eggs …” Then, an exciting thing happened – she passed another whaleship at sea, the Emily Morgan. There was a whaling wife aboard, too! Laura wrote: “Mrs. Dexter [the wife of Captain Benjamin Dexter] sent Prescott [her brother] and I some candy.”

In other cultures, whales still facilitated the treat scene – no sugar needed. Frozen whale blubber was (and is) a traditional treat for the Inuit and Chukchi people. Called muktuk, cubes are cut from whale skin and blubber and conventionally are served raw.

While whaling in our country is a thing of the past, the years of unrestricted whaling reflect how, in essence, people treated the ocean “like a kid in a candy store,” as noted by author Robert Sullivan. In the 20th century, so many whales were caught so quickly and efficiently that soon even whalers themselves were worried about saving the whales. 

Today, as we continue to gather resources from the sea, we must ensure the ocean can replenish itself faster than we can sweep its candy off the shelves.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Becoming ill is never fun. Becoming ill when away from home is worse. And becoming ill at sea on a whaling ship is the worst of all. “Let a man be sick anywhere else — but on shipboard,” wrote whaler Francis A. Olmstead in 1841 in “Incidents of a Whaling Voyage.”

Whalers who fell ill could find little comfort. Olmstead continued to explain, “When we are sick on shore, we obtain good medical advice, kind attention, quiet rest, and a well ventilated room. The invalid at sea can command but very few of these alleviations to his sufferings.” There were no “sick days” for whalers, who were expected to work during busy times if they could stand. 

The incapacitated whaler would lie on his grimy, cramped straw mattress in his misery, listen to the nonstop creaking of the ship, roll from side to side with the swaying of the ship, and breathe the fishy, putrid air. He would eventually be visited by the “doctor,” a.k.a. the captain. The skipper would rely on his weak medical and surgical knowledge as he opened his medicine chest and offered some powdered rhubarb, a little buckthorn syrup, or perhaps mercurial ointment, chamomile flowers or cobalt. The whaler would then either recover or die. If he passed, the captain would casually mention his death in the next letter home, and perhaps pick up a replacement at the next port.

If the whaler was lucky, he might awaken from his burning fever and shivering chills to hear a soothing voice, feel a cool cloth being gently placed on his forehead, and perhaps taste a bit of food offered to him. He would sit up to catch a glimpse of this angel visiting him with her wide skirt and billowing sleeves.

She was none other than the captain’s wife. Women who lived on board whaling ships with their captain-husbands were primarily there to avoid the widow-like years ashore. Although these wives generally lived a profoundly separate life from the rest of the crew at sea, some wives recorded in their journals how they aided sick crew members as nurses. They wrote how they were bothered to see others suffer, and felt satisfied with their own usefulness in a situation where medical resources were bordering nonexistent.

Even if there was not much she could accomplish medically for a sick or hurt whaler, it seems her presence alone could be a comfort to men: Olmstead lamented that the attention an ill man received from other men “have none of that soothing influence which woman’s tender sympathy alone can impart.”

Mary Brewster, who sailed from Connecticut in 1845, observed that “a whaleship is a hard place for comfort for well ones and much more sick men.” She documented in her journal how “the best part of the day I have spent in making doses for the sick and dressing sore hands and feet. 5 sick and I am sent to for all the medicin[e]. I am willing to do what can be done for any one particularly if sick.”

Another wife of a coastal trader, Mary Satterly Rowland of Setauket, reported an unending job tending maladies and injuries: “First came Jack, a dose of salts. Second case Nick with a sore leg knocked off the skin on launching day. Thirdly Gardner taken cold and confined to the forecastle several days. Fourth, Cook Rheumatic pain and in bed sick … Fifth case Lawrence cut his toe.”

Martha Brown of Orient also played nurse at sea to an unfortunate young man, John. “I went into steerage this afternoon to give him some medicine, and asked him how he felt. His answer was ‘Mrs. Brown, I feel bad.’ My heart was touched. It is very hard to see him gradually growing worse and can do nothing for him.” One can imagine Martha’s grief watching him die shortly after. He was buried at sea.

One whaling wife’s experience as a nurse led her to falling in love with her patient. When 29-year-old first officer Will Williams was badly injured, Elizabeth Stetson nursed him all night, and continued to visit him when he was hospitalized. She washed his hair, cleaned his nails, and chatted – and chatted – and chatted, growing emotionally closer to him until she admitted in her diary, “I hope that Charles [husband] does not mind if I do love Willie so much.” Once he recovered, though, and rejoined the ship months later, she continued to get to know him – and his faults – and the spell was broken.

Most wives were happy to feel valuable and help contribute to the voyage’s success. Some took the initiative to go beyond their nursing roles: Calista Stover of Maine persuaded the crew of a sailing ship to swear off tobacco and alcohol while in port (the pledge didn’t stick). Others tried to reform men’s swearing. However, women tried to improve the crew, their support gives understanding to the root of the word “nurse,” which is Latin for “nutrire” – nourish. No wonder Charles. W. Morgan wrote, “There is more decency on board when there is a woman.”

Nomi Dayan is the executive director of The Whaling Museum of Cold Spring Harbor. In honor of National Nurses Week, the museum is offering pay-as-you-wish admission for nurses (with current ID) and their families (up to 6 people) from May 7 to 12, as the museum recognizes the importance of nursing roles which whaling wives often took in the whaling industry.

Artist John Scarola’s latest masterpiece heads to Main Street

John Scarola, above, installed the sculpture on the front lawn of the museum over three days in August, after laying out the design at his studio. It has since been painted a sea blue. Photo courtesy of The Whaling Museum

Visitors to the Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor in August were greeted with a new sculpture, courtesy of local artist John Scarola. Titled “Breaching Whale,” the project was started in March and received its final coat of paint this week, just in time for an official dedication ceremony this weekend.

It all began with a thought … “Two Schools of Thought,’ actually.

Scarola has been creating with wood for decades, but when an opportunity came in 2009 to create a public art piece for The Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding’s exhibit, Embracing Our Differences at The Long Island Museum, he jumped at the chance.  

“I heard about the Embracing Our Differences exhibit and was interested in the assignment of creating a visual representation of equality. The idea for ‘Two Schools of Thought’ actually came from an episode of ‘Star Trek’ combined with midcentury wall decor in the form of wire fish,” explained Scarola. The piece went on to earn Best in Show. 

When Embracing our Differences ended, “Two Schools of Thought” moved to its current location in Cold Spring Harbor’s Billy Joel Park, appropriately overlooking the harbor. Fast forward to 2017 and another opportunity came along, this time for an NYSCA Decentralization Grant, administered by the Huntington Arts Council. 

Marc Courtade, Huntington Arts Council’s executive director, explained the process. “Huntington Arts Council is proud to administer the DEC grants for Nassau and Suffolk counties, helping to foster the arts in our communities. Only the projects with the highest artistic merit and community service receive funding. The grants not only validate the artistic merit for the recipients, but allow them to further explore their creative visions and enrich the cultural landscape of the Long Island community. The panel [thought] John’s project was innovative in the use of materials and that the scale would be attractive to the community.”

So how did the sculpture end up at The Whaling Museum? “I felt the museum was an obvious choice for my sculpture because I am passionate about environmental issues. The museum provides great programs in that direction. My goal is for the sculpture to provide visual impact to get passers-by to stop in and see all that the museum has to offer,” said Scarola. 

After fine-tuning the plans for the 15-foot-tall sculpture, the artist began the installation at The Whaling Museum in August. Having grown up in the area and on the waters of the North Shore, Scarola is happy to have two of his sculptures book-ending the town of Cold Spring Harbor. 

“Great public art fosters a pride of place and enhances a community’s identity. John’s sculpture indeed accomplishes that as this mammoth whale celebrates our Island’s deep ties with the sea,” said Whaling Museum Executive Director Nomi Dayan. “We are grateful to John and the Huntington Arts Council for enriching our space with this new focal point, a wonderful reflection of the exciting things going on in our museum building.”

“Breaching Whale” was officially dedicated to The Whaling Museum during its annual SeaFaire & Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29. Scarola was hand for the ceremony and set up his own “workshop” space offering demos of some simple wood-working techniques. He, along with other crafters, offered items for sale at this family-friendly event. The museum’s new exhibit, Heroines at the Helm, also officially opened on Sept. 29 with interactive exhibits for visitors of all ages.

The Whaling Museum & Education Center is located at 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor and specializes in the culture and history of local maritime heritage as illustrated by the Cold Spring Harbor whaling industry of the 1850s. Learn more by calling 631-367-3418 or by visiting www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.

A ‘Bill of Health’ certificate stating that the whaling vessel Splendid is free of plague or disease with 28 men on board, including the master, Richard P. Smith, on Oct. 27, 1853. From the Whaling Museum Collection

By Nomi Dayan

Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health? If so, you have spoken like a sailor. 

Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners. 

The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.

Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed work boats, which were awkward to control

Bitter end: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel

Clean bill of health: A document certifying a vessel had been inspected and was free from infection

Dead in the water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving

Down the hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck

Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship

Foul up: To entangle the line

Fudge the books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it to a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)

Give leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course

High and dry: A beached ship 

Jury rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material

Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel   

Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel

Letting the cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a “cat o’ nine tails,” normally kept in a bag  

Passed with flying colors/Show one’s true colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships

Pipe down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck

A new slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over

Slush fund: The ship’s cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers

Steer clear: Avoid obstacles at sea

Taken aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion 

The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

From left, Museum Executive Director Nomi Dayan, Museum Board President Patricia Aitken, Receiver of Taxes Jillian Guthman, Councilwoman Joan Cergol, Town Historian Robert Hughes, Supervisor Chad Lupinacci and John Newkirk from The WG Pomeroy Foundation. Photo from Whaling Museum

MAKING HISTORY 

In a time when most towns are losing their historic significance as older buildings get torn down for newer, modern designs, the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling museum received recognition from the Pomeroy Foundation for their 1894 offices, on May 11. 

The reception saw townspeople, board members, and museumgoers, as well as many of Huntington’s town leaders, and representatives from Senator Gillibrand’s office come out for the unveiling. Following speeches, Joan Lowenthal, one of the museum’s interpreters, led the crowd on a walking tour through Cold Spring Harbor Village, highlighting the many historic structures along the way.

“It’s amazing coming to work every day in such a special piece of history, while we work on history programming,” explains Assistant Director Cindy Grimm. “It really makes you appreciate how fortunate we are to have these structures standing today; in fact most of Cold Spring Harbor is the same as it was in the 1850 whaling boom.” 

The Captain James Wright house was built in 1894 for the coastwise captain, who also fought in the civil war and was a Huntington town constable. When he died at home after a short illness in 1923, his daughter, Eva (who was the operator of the first telegraph in Cold Spring and later a librarian at the Cold Spring Harbor Library), remained in the home until she sold it to the Whaling Museum in 1956. It was partially rented out until the 1980s, when the museum moved its offices to the building.

For more information, call 631-367-3418.

The Captain James Wright House, 1894

COLD SPRING HARBOR: The Whaling Museum has been a Cold Spring Harbor fixture since opening its doors in 1942. What many people don’t know is that the museum offices are housed in the historic home located next door to the museum — the Captain James Wright House built in 1894. On Friday, May 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., a dedication ceremony will take place honoring the installation of a new Pomeroy Historic Marker celebrating the Wright House.

Captain James Wright served in the Navy during the Civil War and went on to become a successful Coastwise Captain on many ships, including the Excelsior that sailed out of Cold Spring Harbor. The exterior architectural detail of his home has remained intact, from the stained glass windows down to the captain’s wheel adorning the porch gable.

The William G. Pomeroy Foundation awarded the marker to this museum, to highlight the Captains Row residence of a noteworthy individual who was part of Cold Spring Harbor’s rich maritime history. The Whaling Museum purchased the home in 1956. 

“It has been a pleasure working with The Whaling Museum to commemorate the historical significance of the Wright House and Captain James Wright through our Historic Roadside Marker Program,” said Paula Miller, executive director of the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. “We hope that bringing a marker to this site on Captains Row will give the public another opportunity to discover local history in Cold Spring Harbor.”

The dedication ceremony is open to the public and will take place on the museum grounds with several local dignitaries as well as a representative from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The museum will be open for a wine and cheese reception, followed by a historic walking tour through Cold Spring Harbor village. Donations will be accepted to support the museum’s maritime history-based education programs.

The Whaling Museum & Education Center is located at 301 Main St. in Cold Spring Harbor and specializes in the culture and history of our maritime heritage as illustrated by the Cold Spring Harbor whaling industry of the 1850s. Hours are Tuesday to Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and weekends from 11a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-367-3418 or visit www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.

By Nomi Dayan

Nomi Dayan

Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea was hazardous. Fortunes were made or lost. Whale hunts were perilous, as was the processing of the whale. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. In some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.

Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship. Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. His whaling and navigational skills must have been precocious, because in 1842, in his late 20s, Gray became a whaling captain — and a highly successful one. 

His wife Sarah joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for 20 years. Three of their eight children were born during global whaling voyages. Gray commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, Connecticut, to the Indian and North Pacific oceans; the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, Connecticut, to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific oceans; and the Montreal of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the North Pacific Ocean.  

While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded by a cabin boy on the Hannibal in 1843. Gray did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah once reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. To their chagrin, he recovered.

As Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut, and lived there for seven years, where his house still stands. 

This bucolic life did not last, and Gray returned to whaling. With his wife and three children — 16-year-old Katie, 10-year-old Sluman Jr. and 2-year-old Nellie, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864, on the James Maury. Built in Boston in 1825 and sold to New Bedford owners in 1845, the James Maury was a hefty ship at 394 tons. Gray steered the course toward hunting grounds in the South Pacific. 

Unexpectedly, after nine months at sea in March 1865, he suddenly became ill. The closest land was Guam, 400 miles away. Sarah described his sickness as an “inflammation of the bowels.” After two days, Gray was dead. The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2 p.m. our Captain expired after an illness of two days.”  He was 51 years old.

Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who sadly died in infancy. She could not bear to bury her husband at sea. Considering how typical grand-scale mourning was in Victorian times, a burial at sea was anything but romantic. It was not unheard of for a whaling wife to attempt to preserve her husband’s body for a home burial. But how would Sarah embalm the body?

Two things aboard the whaleship helped: a barrel and alcohol. Sarah asked the ship’s cooper, or barrel maker, to fashion a cask for the captain. He did so, and Gray was placed inside. The cask was  filled with “spirits,” likely rum. The log for that day records: “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather; made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”

The voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic; death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season. 

However, there was another unexpected surprise that June: the ship was attacked by the feared and ruthless Confederate raider Shenandoah, who prowled the ocean burning Union vessels, especially whalers (with crews taken as prisoners). The captain, James Waddell, had not heard — or refused to believe —that the South had already surrendered. 

When the first mate of the Shenandoah, Lt. Chew, came aboard the James Maury, he found Sarah panic stricken. The James Maury was spared because of the presence of her and her children — and presumably the presence of her barreled husband. Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.” Instead, he considered them prisoners and ransomed the ship. Before the ship was sent to Honolulu, he dumped 222 other Union prisoners on board. One can imagine how cramped this voyage was since whaleships were known for anything but free space.

A year after the captain’s death, the remaining Gray family made it home in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11. 

Captain Gray was finally buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in Connecticut. His resting place has a tall marker with an anchor and two inscriptions: “My Husband” and “Captain S. L. Gray died on board ship James Maury near the island of Guam, March 24, 1865.” Sarah died 20 years later and was buried next to her husband.

It is unknown if Gray was buried “as is” or in a casket. There are no records of Sarah purchasing a coffin. Legend has it that he was buried barrel and all.

Nomi Dayan is the executive director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

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A handwritten and hand-drawn excerpt from ‘Descriptions of Whales’ by Capt. Thomas W. Roys. Image from Whaling Museum
Mystery solved: Beware of artifacts on eBay!

The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor discovered that a recently purchased artifact, the first description of the natural history of whales, had been stolen from the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

In spring 2016, Nomi Dayan, the Whaling Museum’s executive director, received a call from the museum’s past curator and scholar, Fred Schmitt. He alerted her that a one-of-a-kind document was up for auction: the handwritten and hand-drawn “Descriptions of Whales” created by Capt. Thomas W. Roys (1816-1877).

A handwritten and hand-drawn excerpt from ‘Descriptions of Whales’ by Capt. Thomas W. Roys. Image from Whaling Museum

Considered to be the most prominent Long Island whaling captain, Roys is the American founder of the modern whaling industry. With humble beginnings as an upstate farm boy, he joined a whaling crew out of Sag Harbor as a green hand and rose to master in only eight years, devoting his life not only to hunting whales but to the scientific study of whales. Roys was an inventor of modern whaling tools — even blowing off his left hand in an experiment with the first rocket-powered harpoon and was the first American to sail through the Bering Strait as well as the first industrial whaler to discover the bowhead whale.

While commanding the Cold Spring Harbor whaleship, the Sheffield, in 1854, Roys received a query from Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury asking about his knowledge of whale species and their habits. Roys enthusiastically responded with a detailed manuscript: a 24-sheet booklet filled with pencil drawings of whale species; his observations about their size, appearance and behavior; their products; and when and where to best hunt each species.

“This is a one-of-a-kind artifact penned by a key figure in our local and national whaling history,” said Dayan. “Not only is ‘Descriptions of Whales’ a clear snapshot of the foremost scientific understanding of whales at the time, but today the manuscript is viewed as the first whale textbook.”

The museum acquired the piece at Skinner Auctioneers for $1,599. However, when Schmitt visited the museum to view the item in person, he was struck by a sense of familiarity. He had seen the piece before — 30 years ago. It fact, there was a picture of it in a biography about Roys he had authored. When Schmitt and Dayan flipped through the book to find the photo, they were puzzled to see the image was credited to the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia. Had the document once belonged to the Mariners’ Museum? Why was the piece at an auction house? And why did the item look like it was ripped out of a larger volume?

Dayan consulted with Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, director of Collections Management at the Mariners. After sleuthing through its archive collection records, Willoz-Egnor confirmed that the piece indeed did belong to the Mariners’ Museum — and it had been internally stolen and sold.

Willoz-Egnor explained how Roy’s manuscript was one of thousands of pieces systematically stolen from the institution over a six-year period by the Mariners’ archivist, Lester Weber, who sold the items on eBay. Unprocessed and uncounted collection items were raided and items were cut from scrapbooks. To cover up his actions, he rearranged the collection’s storage area, instituted a new numbering system and methodically erased donor and acquisition information.

Astoundingly, six years of rampant thievery passed until the Mariners’ Museum received a phone call in 2006 from a collector in Switzerland. He had purchased a number of the items through eBay and had become suspicious about the never-ending source of such high-quality materials. Weber’s eBay account was listed under his wife’s maiden name, Lori Childs, which never yielded any information in internet searches by the collector. However, when Childs happened to include her middle initial on a return address on one occasion, the collector was finally able to link her name online to an obituary about her mother where there was mention of Lester Weber, who worked at none other than the Mariners’ Museum.

An investigation led to Weber’s termination, who continued to sell stockpiled stolen artifacts even after his arrest. Research indicated at least 6,456 items were removed from the collection between 2000 and 2006. In 2008, Weber and Childs both pled guilty to more than two dozen counts, including theft. In 2008, Weber was sentenced to four years in prison, his wife to 15 months, and was ordered to make restitution of the $172,357 he made from the sales, even though the museum valued the stolen items at $500,000. Weber was released from prison in June 2012.

Today, 5,500 pieces remain unaccounted for, but “Descriptions of Whales” will be returning to its original home. The finding also led to the detection of several other items that had been stolen from the Mariners’ Museum and were sold in the same auction lot, including the 1776 logbook of the whaling ship, the Minerva.

Howard H. Hoege III, the president and CEO of Mariners’, stated, “It is difficult to fully express how grateful we are to The Whaling Museum & Education Center at Cold Spring Harbor for their diligence and compassion regarding the Roys manuscript. All of us at The Mariners’ Museum were incredibly proud and humbled that our fine colleagues in Cold Spring Harbor would go to the lengths that they did in an effort to make us whole.”

“Uncovering the circumstances behind this item’s whereabouts was bittersweet,” said Dayan. “It is unfortunate for our museum to lose this tremendous scholarly importance to our collection, but rewarding to do the right thing and return this object home.”

The Whaling Museum & Education Center, located at 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor, specializes in the culture and history of local maritime heritage as illustrated by the Cold Spring Harbor whaling industry of the 1850s. Learn more at www.cshwhalingmuseum.org.

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Above, a 19th-century glass plate portrait of mother and infant in Australia. Photo courtesy Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences
Whaling wives in the 19th century faced daunting challenges
Nomi Dayan

By Nomi Dayan

As I prepare to become a mother for the third time around, I am brought to reflect on one of the most dirty, reeking and unlikely places possible to birth a baby: a whaleship. Today’s challenges with pregnancy and childbirth pale in comparison with the experience of the 19th-century woman — and even more so, the challenge whaling wives faced at sea.

 

Because whaling wives saw so very little of their husbands, some resorted to going out to sea — a privilege reserved for the wife of the captain. Aside from dealing with cramped and filthy conditions, poor diets, isolation and sickness, many wives eventually found themselves — or even started out — “in circumstance.”

In the 19th century, pregnancy was never mentioned outright. Even in their private diaries, whaling wives rarely hinted to their pregnancies. Some miserably record an increase in seasickness. Only the very bold dared to delicately remark on the creation of pregnancy clothes. Adra Ashley of the Reindeer wrote to a friend in 1860, “I am spending most of my time mending — I want to say what it was, but how can I! How dare I!” Martha Brown of Orient was more forward by mentioning in her diary in 1848 that she is “fixing an old dress into a loose dress,” with “loose” meaning “maternity.”

Once the time of birth approached, women at sea faced two options: to be left on land — often while the crew continued on — or to give birth on board. Giving birth on land was far preferable, as the mother would be theoretically closer to medical care and whatever social support was available. Martha Brown was left in Honolulu — much to her personal dismay to see her husband depart for 7 months on the Lucy Ann — but fell into a supportive society of women, most left themselves in similar situations.

During Martha’s “confinement” after birth when she was restricted to bed rest, a fellow whaling wife nursed her. When Captain Brown returned, he wrote to his brother: “Oahu. I arrived here and to my joy found my wife enjoying excellent health with as pretty a little son as eyes need to look upon. A perfect image of his father of course — blue eyes and light hair, prominent forehead and filled with expression.”

Giving birth on land did not always ensure a hygienic setting as one would hope. Abbie Dexter Hicks of Westport accompanied her husband Edward on the Mermaid, sailing out in 1873. Her diary entry on the Seychelles was: “Baby born about 12 — caught two rats.”

Some whaleships found reaching a port before birth tricky. In 1874, Thomas Wilson’s wife Rhoda of the James Arnold of New Bedford was about to give birth, but when the ship arrived at the Bay of Islands of New Zealand, there was no doctor in town. A separate boat was sent to search up the Kawakawa River for 14 miles; when a doctor was finally found and retrieved, the captain informed the doctor that it was a girl.

Some babies were born aboard whaleships — either by design or by accident, despite hardly ideal conditions. Births, if recorded in the ship’s logbook, were mentioned matter of factly. Charles Robbins of the Thomas Pope recorded in April 1862: “Looking for whales … reduced sail to double reef topsails at 9 p.m. Mrs. Robbins gave birth of a Daughter and doing nicely. Latter part fresh breezes and squally. At 11am took in the mainsail.”

Captain Charles Nicholls was in for a surprise when he headed to New Zealand on the Sea Gull in 1853 with his wife. Before the birth, fellow Captain Peter Smith had told him during a gam (social visit at sea), “Tis easy,” and advised the first mate be ready to take over holding the baby once it was born. When the time came, Captain Nicholls dutifully handed the baby to the first mate, only to return several minutes later shouting, “My God! Get the second mate, fast!” — upon when he promptly handed out a second infant.

Captain Parker Hempstead Smith’s wife went into labor unexpectedly: “Last night we had an addition to our ship’s company,” seaman John States recorded on Feb. 18, 1846 on board the Nantasket of New London, “for at 9 p.m., Mrs. Smith was safely delivered of a fine boy whose weight is eight lbs. This is quite a rare thing at sea, but fortunately no accident happened. Had anything occurred, there would have been no remedy and we should have had to deplore the loss of a fine good hearted woman.”

He also added his good wishes for the baby: “Success to him — may he live to be a good whaleman — though that would make him a great rascal.”

A pregnant Martha Brown had two options, to be left in Honolulu while the crew continued on or to give birth on board. She chose the first.

The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center, 301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor.

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More reading:

▶ Joan Druett, “Petticoat Whalers.” Auckland: Collins, 1991.

▶ Anne MacKay, Ed. “She Went a Whaling: The Journal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown.” Orient, NY: Oysterponds Historical Society, 1993.

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