Still An Incredible Story
One hundred and eighty-five years ago next month, on August 12, 1819, the whaler Essex sailed out of Nantucket on one of those multi-year whaling voyages of the old days. More than a year later, on November 22, 1820, she became one of New England’s most bizarre and, to my mind, intriguing legends. Yes, on that long-ago day she was rammed and sunk by a huge bull whale, a historical event well noted by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, written 30 years later. But for a good hundred years afterward, the gruesome aftermath was pretty well hushed up.
I could be wrong but as far as I know, YANKEE Magazine’s graphic account of the entire episode in the November 1960 issue was the first truly detailed description of what happened during the three months the Essex crew drifted about the Pacific in lifeboats before eight of the original 20 were rescued. As we all know now, they survived on cannibalism. In fact, a member of the prominent Nantucket Coffin family (of the Jared Coffin House fame), one Owen Coffin, was one of the victims. Poor Owen, then a young cabin boy, lost a drawing and then very willingly and bravely allowed himself to be shot by crewman Charles Ramsdell, after which his body was shared by the others. These details are only vaguely referred to in the 19th-century descriptions I’ve read, and the survivors were understandably reluctant to discuss it. For instance, there is the story of the Nantucket lady who asked a survivor’s daughter about the vessel. “Miss Mollie,” she was told, “here we never mention the Essex.”
The captain of the Essex, George Pollard, one of the survivors, went to sea again, was wrecked again (but not by a whale), drifted for days in an open boat again, but did not resort to cannibalism. He wound up being rescued on an island near Tahiti and there, for the first time, divulged some of the Essex details to two missionaries. But in the meantime, because of the whisperings of those close to the survivors, a full-blown New England legend was already entrenched.
In his old age, Captain Pollard became a fire-watcher on Nantucket and old-time islanders relating the story today say his mind slipped a little. A reporter from Boston once asked him, shortly before died, if he could remember Samuel Reed, who had been in one of the Essex lifeboats.
“Remember him?” the old captain is said to have replied. “Hell, son, I ate him!”