The Tale of the Whaling Ship Essex | Still An Incredible Story
Welcome to the August 2014 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
Still An Incredible Story
We all know the ship Essex was sunk by a whale. It was a bizarre enough event for the instant creation of an oft repeated New England legend. But now it’s time to tell you once again about the very gruesome aftermath…
One hundred and ninety-five years ago this month, on August 12, 1819, the whaler Essex sailed out of Nantucket on one of those multi-year whaling voyages of those old days. A bit 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 in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick written thirty years later. But for years afterwards, the gruesome aftermath was pretty well hushed up. The November 1960 issue of Yankee Magazine may well have been the first to present a detailed description of what happened during the three months the Essex crew drifted about the Pacific in lifeboats before eight of the original twenty 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 the others shared his body. These details are only vaguely referred to in the nineteenth-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 there. But in the meantime, because of the whisperings by those close to the survivors, a full-blown New England legend was already entrenched.
In his old age, Captain Pollard became a firewatcher on Nantucket and old-time islanders relating the story today say his mind had slipped a little. A reporter from Boston once asked him, shortly before he 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.”