Fogg y Facts& Fictions nantucket legends 2013 Exhibition in the Peter Foulger Gallery at the Nantucket Whaling Museum
By Betsy Tyler, NHA Obed Macy Research Chair
Walk down Main Street on a busy August afternoon, and you’ll likely overhear someone telling a story about Nantucket’s history — a tale of the day a sea serpent visited the island, or how Main Street came to be paved with cobblestones. This season, the Nantucket Historical Association will explore some of the tales — those rooted in documented history and those of fantasy — that are integral to how the island community understands its history and presents Nantucket to the world. Nantucket Legends: Foggy Facts and Fictions will take a close look at some of Nantucket’s colorful stories: the 1821 sea serpent, the first Nantucket tea party, the legend of General Lafayette’s cheese, Tony Sarg’s sea serpent hoax, the origin of roof walks on Nantucket houses, and Nantucket Reds. Visitors to the exhibition will learn that it isn’t always possible to distinguish fact from fiction, but that stories told about the events, places, and people of Nantucket change over time to reflect the identity and interests of the storyteller.
Sea S At 9:30 in the morning of September 27, 1821, twentyseven-year-old Francis Joy Jr. climbed the steps in the tower of the Second Congregational (now Unitarian) Meeting House on Orange Street. With the objective of looking for vessels approaching the island, he used his telescope to scan the south shore, where he spotted what seemed to be an enormous sea serpent. Joy promptly descended from his perch, found Justice of the Peace Josiah Hussey, and prepared a sworn statement relating his discovery and the description of the creature: about a hundred feet long and as big around as a barrel, with its head raised six feet above the water. He sent his statement, along with a sketch of the sea serpent, to the Nantucket Inquirer, where it was printed and published on October 4, 1821.
The serpent had been seen in New England waters sporadically since 1817, when residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts, first spotted it and reported it to be eighty to a hundred feet long, as big around as a flour barrel, with a peculiar manner of motion窶馬ot winding laterally as snakes commonly do, but moving in an undulatory way
that, because of its great length, made it appear to have several humps on its back. It was reported off Cape Ann and Long Island a month or so later, and more than once it was spotted near Nantucket. In 1827, Captain Coleman of the sloop Levant of Hartford, Connecticut, reportedly saw the sea serpent off Gay Head soon after he sailed from Nantucket, and described it in the same terms as Francis Joy had six years earlier. The Inquirer was quick to report that Captain Coleman was “a person of indisputable veracity, very little inclined to deal with the marvelous, and not at all disposed to indulge in gossip.” For the next decade, the Inquirer printed news of sea serpent sightings, as well as parodies and scientific debunking, since there were frequent reports of sightings, but, in the days before cameras, no proof. No one managed to kill or capture a giant sea serpent, nor to find a dead one, or even part of one. When the serpent was reported to be twenty-five miles off Cape Cod in May of 1833, the Inquirer noted: “We believe it is about the usual season for raising the ghost of this nautical nonentity.”
1. Gloucester sea serpent. 2. Cape Ann sea serpent.
3. Nantucket sea serpent seen by Francis Joy. 4. Colorful painting of the “sea monster” balloon that Island artist Tong Sarg created in the 1960s.
There were believers in the sea serpent, however, among them two (of the three) owners of the sloop Fame of Nantucket: David Joy and Peter F. Ewer. On July 25, 1833, they agreed to allow a group of citizens to charter their vessel “to leave Nantucket for Nahant or thereabouts and cruise for the Sea Serpent as long as may be concluded upon.” A report in the Inquirer on August 7 stated: “The Fame found the celebrated marine monster—missing. . . .
And so ends the expedition—and so also ends all our little faith—every particle—in the existence of any creature whatever, bearing the least similitude to the alleged ‘sea serpent’ —so often dreamed of and described by credulous visionaries and fabulists.” Despite the newspaper’s dismissive assessment and general skepticism, various sightings in New England waters continued until mid-century. In 1849, respected Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz proclaimed: “There are many who will doubt the existence of such a creature until it can be brought under the dissecting knife; but it has been seen by so many on whom we may rely, that it is wrong to doubt it any longer.” After an absence of sightings for two decades, the serpent returned in the 1870s and was seen here and there in the Atlantic for another several decades.
TONY SARG’S SEA SERPENT With those sea serpent stories as inspiration, multitalented artist, designer, and puppeteer Tony Sarg, creator of the original giant helium-filled balloons featured in Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, decided to play a little trick on the people of Nantucket, where he had a summer home. One of his designs for the 1937 Macy’s parade was a whimsical balloon in the shape of a sea monster, and in order to publicize the parade and attract some recognition of Nantucket, Sarg conspired with some of his island acquaintances to stage a hoax involving a sea monster. Alleged sightings and presumed “footprints” at Madaket and Coatue were reported over several weeks in the Inquirer and Mirror, and even received press coverage in the New York newspapers.
1. Gilbert Manter (left) and Ed Crocker (right) measuring sea monster footprints in Madaket, 1937. Unknown photographer. Gift of Jean Louise Allen. 2. Sea monster footprints in Madaket, 1937. Unknown photographer. Gift of Jean Louise Allen. 3. Tony Sarg with the sea monster on South Beach, 1937. Photo by Lawrence Adam Pivirotto Jr. (1911–96) 4. “A Rubber Sea Serpent,” 1937. Unknown photographer.
Did Nantucketers really send a 500-lb. cheese to General Lafayette in thanks for his services on their behalf to create a favorable market for American whale oil? In the French edition of his popular “Letters from an American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur reprinted a letter purportedly published in “Les gazettes de New Plymouth” in 1786, claiming that the people of Nantucket collected the milk from their cows during a specified twenty-fourhour period and made a 500-lb. cheese that they shipped to General Lafayette in France. Crèvecoeur’s interest in Nantucket–French relations may have led him to concoct the story, since there is no documented evidence of the event, nor has an account been found in any New England newspaper of the period.
1 1. LaFayette as a lieutenant general, in 1791. Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court. 2. Thomas Starbuck Liverpool pitcher Creamware, circa 1800. NHA purchase with funds from Jason Tilroe.
1 1. Excerpts of a letter from the New Plymouth Gazette which Crèvecoeur included in the 1786 French edition of “Letters from an American Farmer.” 2. Independence Day Float, 1938. Unknown photographer. Gift of Ellen Holdgate.
I n t h e J aw s
Whaling art of the nineteenth century frequently portrayed dramatic scenes of â€œstoveâ€? whaleboats and sperm whales attacking their hunters on the open sea. But how often did these violent scenes really occur in the fishery?
Whaling was an extremely hazardous profession. Injury and death threatened whalemen on shipboard, and risks only increased as the mariners chased whales in small open whaleboats in all seas and weather. Journal and logbook entries indicate that sperm whales commonly attacked whaleboats using their large heads, jaws, and bodies, but especially their powerful flukes. Whalemen called these aggressive animals “ugly whales.” One such whale attacked a whaleboat of the New Bedford whaleship Ploughboy in 1849. Albert Wood of Nantucket was caught in the whale’s jaw and suffered extensive injuries to his head, back, and legs. More than thirty years later, his obituary in the Nantucket Journal captured the strength of memory in recounting Wood’s “remarkable encounter with a huge leviathan.” Whaleboats, the small craft from which whales were harpooned, were designed to bear the brunt of an attack and could be easily repaired or rebuilt. Crew members were not so easily replaced. On average, up to a third of a whaleship’s crew did not return to port with the vessel, through causes including illness, death, and desertion.
1. Captain Albert Wood and Obed, circa 1880s. Unknown photographer.
2 and 3. Woodcut illustrations by J. J. Lankes from the pamphlet “In A Sperm Whale’s Jaws: An Episode in the Life of Albert Wood,” edited by George C. Wood (Hanover, New Hampshire: Friends of the Dartmouth Library, Dartmouth College, 1954). 4. “South Sea Whale Fishery” by William John Huggins (1781–1845), colored aquatint, 1825. Gift of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association. 5. “Sperm Whaling No. 2: The Conflict,” by J. Cole, colored lithograph, 1859, published by Charles Taber & Co. NHA Purchase.