Business and Labor

The Jonah of Cape Cod: A Whale of a Tale

Much like fracking today, the whale industry in the 1800s drew countless men to the business because of the wealth that could be acquired selling whale oil. The price at one time exceeded $1.75 per gallon, and the rarer varieties used in perfumes commanded even greater prices.

whaleMen were willing to overlook the obvious dangers of the trade to chase their fortunes, and many died in the process. There were, however, men who suffered close encounters with whales and lived to tell about it. Two such men were Cape Codders: Captain Edmund Gardner and Peleg Nye.

Nye’s run-in occurred in March of 1863, according to the Mammoth Book of Maneaters. While much of the nation’s attention was focused on the ongoing skirmishes of the Civil War, Nye was serving aboard a whaling ship.

Nye had the misfortune to fall overboard directly in to the mouth of a sperm whale. As he would tell the tale later, when he was known as the “Jonah of Cape Cod,” the whale dragged him well below the surface before it spit him out. His fellow crewmembers, thinking him dead, were astounded to discover him later floating in the ocean. They hauled him back aboard, and a legend was born.

Gardner’s story is similar. A Quaker, he lived in Nantucket in the days before it was overrun with vacationing Wall Street financiers. In 1816, he toppled in to the ocean and was grabbed hold of by a whale.

Gardner was rescued, but the incident left him the worse for wear as he went through the rest of his life with a stump for a left hand that appeared crippled, but retained some uses. It was described in Captain Edmund Gardner of Nantucket and New Bedford, His Journal and His Family, thusly: “the stump, or what was visible below the coat-sleeve, look(ed) like a twisted rope’s end, but still retaining clutch enough to carry the chowder-spoon to his mouth…Four of the whale’s teeth were driven into him! one entering his skull, a second breaking his collar bone, a third breaking his arm, and the fourth crushing his hand – the remainder of his body being simply squeezed into a jelly. The healing of the wound in the head left a cavity like the inside of an egg-shell.”



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