Daily Event for August 25, 2010

The internet has provided everyone with a vast number of tantalizing tales, we all get the occasional email with the subject line "This is really true" or something to that effect. Two recent emails that I have received come to mind, a five headed snake which had some religious significance to Hindus and the story of the chap in England who dutifully collected parking fees for a local authority for a number of decades never missing a day. Then one day he was gone and it was learned that there was no parking fee for that lot and the writer calculated that the man had collected several million pounds over the years.

These fanciful tales are skillfully crafted by clever storytellers who use a standard formula, they start with a plausible story, one that could be believed, add an unexpected twist and a surprise finish. They are many times backed up by photographic evidence, usually a small digital image that has been photoshopped, usually rather poorly. The size of the image is small and the quality very bad, so people look at them and think that it could happen that way.

I remember after Sept. 11, 2001 an email was circulating around the net that said that the attack on the U.S.A. had been foretold in the Qur'an, the email even gave chapter and verse, so I went and checked the said book and found nothing of the sort, just another clever story. With email it is possible for such fairy tales to be sent round the world in seconds, millions of copies sent to millions of people, in a few days hundreds of millions of people have seen the story and a large number of them believe what they read, after all the subject said it was "true."

Over 100 years ago however such hoaxes were more difficult to perpetrate, but those that were became harder to disprove and many became history. These urban legends, as they are now called, have been published in books, magazines and even scientific journals. Those who perpetrated the tale are now long dead, and those who knew the story was a hoax are as well, so all we are left with is the published accounts having no way to prove or disprove what we are reading. Such a case is the subject I have chosen for today.

On August 25, 1891 a British ship named Star of the East was whaling off the Falkland Islands (it is far more likely that the "incident" happened in February of 1891 as the Star of the East sailed from Auckland, New Zealand on Dec. 27, 1890 bound for New York, where she arrived on Apr. 17, 1891.) They had seen a large whale in the distance and sent off two boats to take the creature down. The boats soon overtook the whale and a harpoon was landed on the creature. This apparently angered the whale and the whale took off at great speed dragging the boat along with him. He swam for five miles then suddenly turned and headed back toward the other boat.

When the whale neared the other boat it surfaced and was speared again, causing great pain which "crazed" the whale. The beast thrashed about so violently in the water that the men in the boats feared they would be swamped and drowned, but the dying whale made another run, this time with two boats in tow. After about three miles the whale stopped. It appeared to the men in the boats that the whale had died, the ropes were slack and there was no movement so they began to haul the dead whale up.

As the ropes began to tighten up the great creature rose to the surface with a vengeance, flailing its tail and crashing its head terrifying the men in the boats. The men began to withdraw to save their lives, but only one boat was lucky enough to escape the wrath of the dying beast. The unlucky boat was struck by the head of the whale and capsized, drowning one unnamed crewman (I was not able to find the name of this man in any source,) the other man was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after this the whale died and the two men in the other boat began looking for their fellow crewman, one James Bartley. Neither Bartley nor his body could be seen and they assumed that the force of the whale's tail had forced his body underwater and he had drowned and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. They returned to the ship and soon the Star of the East had the body of their victim (the whale) alongside and the crew then began the grizzly task of cutting up the whale, a task that would take the better part of two days.

When they reached the stomach they were shocked to find that something, that appeared to be alive, was inside, and when it was brought up on deck and opened they found the missing James Bartley curled up and unconscious. He was revived with sea water and taken to the captain's cabin where for three weeks he, mostly out of his mind, recovered. When he was finally able to he told a fantastic story.

"He says that he remembers the sensation of being lifted into the air by the nose of the whale and of dropping into the water. Then there was a frightful rushing sound, which he believed to be the beating of the water by the whale's tail, then he was encompassed by a fearful darkness, and he felt himself slipping along a smooth passage of some sort that seemed to move and carry him forward. This sensation lasted but an instant, then he felt that he had more room.

He felt about him, and his hands came in contact with a yielding slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch. It finally dawned upon him that he had been swallowed by a whale, and he was overcome by horror at the situation. He could breath, but the heat was terrible. It was not of a scorching, stifling nature, but it seemed to draw out his vitality. He became very weak, and grew sick at the stomach. He knew that there was no hope of escape from his strange prison.

Death stared him in the face, and he tried to look at it bravely but the awful quiet, the fearful darkness, the horrible knowledge of his environments, and the terrible heat finally overcame him, and he must have fainted, for the next he remembered was being in the captain's cabin....he says that it was many weeks before he could pass a night without having his sleep disturbed with harrowing dreams of angry whales and the horrors of his fearful prison."

Versions of the story claim that he was treated at a London hospital (the name of which is never identified) and had no apparent lasting effects to his health with the exception of his skin which was described as having the appearance of old parchment, rather yellowed and wrinkled. One account I was able to locate was published in 1906 and said the following.

"James Bartley, says the source of our information, is well known as one of the boldest whalers, but the mental emotions he underwent in the belly of the whale were so violent that he not only lost his reason for a time, but continues to be troubled with fear-inspiring hallucinations. He imagines himself to be constantly pursued by a whale, which swallows him afresh. Through the actions of the gastric juice of the whale, the skin of this modern Jonah has become like parchment. But his general health has not been seriously impaired by his enforced sojourn in the quarter in question.

By the way, the captain of the whaling-ship informs us that it is not such a rare thing for infuriated whales to swallow a man, but that this is the first occasion when the victim of so fearful a fate has been known to emerge from it alive."

This passage lends the reader to believe that the writer had in fact met with James Bartley in person, but I have to say that it is not at all clear to me that a James Bartley ever existed at all. Prof. Edward B. Davis conducted an investigation into this story in the late 1980's and published his results in 1991, one hundred years after the incident, his paper might well be considered the definitive work on this story, but nowhere in it did I read that Mr. Bartley actually existed.

One thing that is clear is that the story is a hoax, but this has been known since at least 1907. A letter from the captain's wife that was published in The Freethinker on May 19, 1907 says the following.

"My husband asked me to write. There is not one word of truth in the whole story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea-yarn. I wish, if it is not too much trouble, to send us one of the papers with the yarn in."

If James Bartley did not exist, the Star of the East did. She was built by Charles Connell & Company in Scotstoun, Scotland in 1876 and was 183' long and 757 gross tons with three masts. She was wrecked on Jan. 19, 1907 at Axim, Ghana. So at least one part of the story is true, much like the never ending internet fables, but because the story was published over and over again, in the minds of many it remains a true story and likely will for many, many years to come. As late as Oct. 1967 a well respected national publication ran the story again, this time with a new twist. Boy's Life published a story entitled "A Modern Jonah" by J. R. Westbrook, it had many of the elements of what has already been related, but with a new ending, the story ended this way.

"When he died, a tombstone giving an account of his experience was erected above his grave. It has a footnote that reads James Bartley 1856-1909... a modern Jonah."

They fail to identify the location of the grave, nor offer any photographic evidence to back up the claim.

This Bartley story was first published in the Journal des Debates in Paris on Mar. 14, 1896 and was written by by Henri de Parville, the scientific editor of the publication, who was so reluctant to believe the story it took four years of research and interviews before he went to press, one wonders how he got it so wrong. The most recent account I was able to find was published in 1999, again with no disclaimer. So here we are over 100 years later and the story, by some, is still swallowed whole, one must wonder how many of the modern "Jonah" stories will be believed 100 years from now. Sir Winston S. Churchill once said " A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on," how right he was. Then again perhaps I have got it wrong as I was not there and nobody living today can attest for sure to the veracity of the story, can we ever know for sure which story is the correct one... perhaps not.

On June 11, 2021 a new whale story was written. Not as fanciful as that of James Bartley's to be sure. A Mr. Michael Packard, (who actually exists) claimed he had been swallowed by a humpback whale off Provincetown, Massachusetts. He stated that he was only in the whale's mouth, and was not swallowed into the stomach of the creature, and his ordeal lasted only 30 seconds or so. The whale engulfed him and his scuba gear while he was 45' below the surface. Only he knows if the story is true or not.
© 2010 Michael W. Pocock