Sag Harbor Whalers: Entombed at Sea


by Jim Marquardt

An imposing, white marble shaft representing the broken mast of a ship stands tall in the Oakland Cemetery off Jermain Avenue. The inscription on the base says simply “Entombed in the ocean, they live in our memory.” The names of six Sag Harbor whale ship captains who lost their lives hunting their huge quarry in the far reaches of the oceans are engraved into the sides of the base – John E. Howell, master of the France, killed July 1840 “In an encounter with a sperm whale in the 28th year of his age.” Captain William H. Pierson of the American, age 30, killed in the Pacific, June 1846. Captain Richard S. Topping of Thorn, age 29, killed in the Atlantic, February 1838. Captain Alfred C. Glover, 29, of the Acosta, killed in the South Atlantic, January 1836. Captain Stratton H. Harlow, 27, of the Daniel Webster, killed in the Pacific, October 1838. Captain Charles W. Payne, 30, of the Fanny, killed in the South Atlantic, January 1838.

Sadly, the monument is missing the names of other captains in those years who never returned – a typhoon in the Pacific swept overboard Captain Ludlow of the Governor Clinton. Captain Howett of the Telegraph was lost near the Marquesas Islands. Captain Brown of the Ontario was killed during “cutting in,” perhaps struck by one of the sharp, iron spades used in stripping blubber from a dead whale. (You can see these heavy tools in the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum.) 

Some whales fought for their lives against their aggressors and actually attacked the whale ship and its boats. Alexander Starbuck writes in his History of the American Whale Fishery that the chief weapon of the right whale was its powerful tail, which could smash and sink boats; the sperm whale used its toothed jaw or simply its great bulk. On a number of occasions a sperm whale deliberately charged into a whale ship, most famously in the woeful tale of the Essex out of Nantucket. An 85-foot whale twice attacked the 240-ton ship and sank her, forcing the crew into small boats. Adrift for months, the last survivors sustained themselves on the bodies of their dead shipmates. Herman Melville used the Essex as a source for his classic novel Moby Dick.   

Male sperm whales normally grow over 60 feet long and weigh up to fifty tons. According to Eric Jay Dolin’s book Leviathan, they have the largest skull of any whale, the largest head of any animal, and the largest brain of any species. They can dive thousands of feet and stay underwater for an hour.

When there weren’t deaths, there were dozens of serious injuries. Captain Jacob Havens, born on Shelter Island, commander of the brig America and later the Myra, barely escaped the jaws of a sperm whale that crushed his whaleboat off the coast of Brazil. A glancing blow from the whale’s teeth fractured his skull but he recovered with the help of a trephining operation at a Rio de Janeiro hospital, a risky procedure over 150 years ago in the early days of surgery..

George Page made three voyages with Captain Havens on the Myra, had several battles with whales and always managed to survive. Once after a right whale broke his leg with a whip of its tail, he and the boat’s crew tossed for hours in icy cold waves, clinging to their overturned whaleboat. Years later off the West African coast a big cow whale towed Page’s whale boat far out to sea until the exhausted beast finally succumbed. He and his boat crew lived on whale meat for four days, declaring it “nourishing if not exactly Delmonico fare.” An English frigate picked up the lost sailors and returned them to the Myra off the mouth of the Congo River.

Before becoming a ship’s master, James R. Huntting was a boat steerer. When a sperm whale smashed and capsized his boat, he came up under it, tangled in line. He succeeded in freeing himself and rose to the surface, but a loop of the line attached to the sounding whale caught his ankle and dragged him under. He thought his life was over but when the whale slackened its plunge, he was able to pull himself forward and with his sheath knife cut the line below his foot. Huntting popped above water, nearly drowned and with a broken ankle. Patched up crudely on the ship, he limped for the rest of his life. One of the names on the Oakland Cemetery monument is Richard Topping, master of the Thorn. When a whale stove in his boat, he jumped into the mate’s boat and continued the pursuit. Topping, the mate and five crewmen never returned, no one left alive to describe their final struggle.

Robert R. Newell in The Grisly Side of Whaling compiled a grim accounting of the hazards that killed sailors during the long heyday of the whaling industry. Eleven crewmen fell to their deaths while working aloft in the tall rigging. Native savages on remote tropical islands slew 66 officers and crew members. Thirty-six men died from scurvy and 75 from other ailments. Thirty-three captains – at least nine from Sag Harbor — were killed by whales along with 71 mates and 242 crewmen. Thirty-six were dragged under by fouled lines and four men were killed while cutting in. In all, 386 sailors died fighting whales and 602 lives were taken by drowning and accident.

Starbuck writes that between 1800 and 1876, 368 whaling vessels were lost, foundering in gales and hurricanes, wrecked on often uncharted shores, destroyed by fire or crushed by Arctic ice. In the 21st century there may be a temptation to look back on whaling as a picturesque, even glorious part of Sag Harbor history. But the deaths and maiming of countless sailors, and the heartbreak it brought to families waiting years for their return, prove it was an arduous and dangerous business.