Sluman Gray was a prosperous whaling captain from Lebanon, Conn., harsh with his men but kind to his wife Sarah.
Stiff competition for whale oil forced American whalers to sail as far as the South Seas to find whales. In the summer, the whaling fleet sailed for the Bering Sea. The voyages could take years.
The James Maury was off the coast of Guam after nine months at sea. Sluman Gray suddenly took ill and died two days later of ‘inflammation of the bowels.’
Pickled Whaling Captain
Rather than bury her husband at sea, Sarah Gray decided to preserve his body in a cask of spirits, probably rum, and take him home to be buried. The March 24, 1864 log reads, “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather, made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”
The James Maury, carrying its pickled whaling captain, then turned north with the whaling fleet to hunt for whales in the Bering Sea.
The whalers had the misfortune to encounter the Confederate ship Shenandoah, which preyed on the North’s commercial shipping. Its captain, Lt. Commander James Waddell, either didn’t get the news that the Civil War had ended or refused to believe it. In June 1865, the Shenandoah captured 24 unarmed whaling ships. The vessels were sunk or burned and most of the crewmen taken prisoner.
Waddell spared the James Maury because Sarah Gray and her children were aboard. Southern men, explained Waddell, don’t make war on women or children. The ship was taken to Honolulu with 222 prisoners aboard – and the pickled remains of Sluman Gray.
Sarah Gray and her children found their way back to Lebanon in March 1866, with their cask of rum and Sluman Gray intact. He was buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery.
According to local legend, Sluman Gray was buried in his cask. Though his body may have been moved to a casket, town historian Alicia Wayland said there is no record of Sarah Gray buying a coffin or paying a carpenter to build one.
Waddell learned the war ended on Aug. 3, 1865, from a Liverpool barque he encountered at sea. He lowered his flag, the last Confederate sovereign flag to be furled.
Waddell feared returning to the United States. The North hadn’t extended amnesty to commerce raiders, and he was in danger of being hanged as a pirate. He surrendered in Liverpool on Nov. 6, 1865.
Only six years later, the U.S. whaling fleet would suffer another blow when 33 whaling ships were crushed by Arctic ice.