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1891, February: James Bartley, the ’Modern Jonah’

In 1891, American newspapers were abuzz with the story of a singular event that was claimed to have happened in February of that year; the earliest the story seems to have hit the papers is in July, after the sailing vessal Star of the East docked at New London, Connecticut, in the United States, completing a two and a half year trip. A statement of a remarkable nature was presented by a thirty-eight year old sailor aboard the ship by the name of James Bartley, which was vouched for by the captain and crew.

        In February 1891, the Star of the East was near the Falkland Islands off South America, when the lookout sighted a large whale. Two longboats were dropped and the hunt was on. Two harpoons, one from each longboat, were sunk into the whale, which fought hard. The whale dived and the harpooners started to pull the slack line back into their boats, when the whale re-surfaced and started to beat wildly with its tail. One of the longboats managed to get away, but the other was struck by the animal's nose and tipped over... by the time the second longboat could perform a rescue, one man had drowned and one was missing and presumed drowned.

        Within a few hours the dead whale was pulled alongside the Star of the East, and the crew was busy cutting it up and retreiving the fat. The job took up the rest of the day, and a good part of the night, and then work resumed about noon the next day. It was on the second day that something strange was discovered; as the stomach was freed and brought to the deck for rendering, it was seen that something bunched up within it was showing spasmodic signs of life. When the stomach was cut open, they discovered the missing sailor -- James Bartley -- curled up and still alive, though just barely, thirty-six hours after he went missing!

        He was laid out on the deck and splashed with sea water; the whale's gastric juices had bleached Bartley's face and hands to a deathly white and wrinkled them. For two weeks he was kept in the captain's cabin; physically, he recovered fine... but mentally he was unstable. But by the third week Bartley had fully recovered, and had resumed his duties.

        After he recovered his senses, Bartley told how he remembered being thrown from the boat and into the water, where he was engulfed by darkness and felt himself slipping along a smooth passage that seemed to move and carry him foreward. He came to an area with more room in it, and was able to reach around. Upon feeling a yielding, slimy substance as the walls, he realized he had been swallowed. There was plenty of air, but it was terribly hot in the stomach and this drained his energy; that and the horror of his eventual fate caused him to lose his mind and pass out. The next thing he was reasonably sure of was waking in the captain's cabin.

The Implications

Bartley being swallowed.
Illustration from an 1896 newspaper [Larger version here]

        Right from the start, newspapers dubbed James Bartley "a modern Jonah," in direct reference to the story in the Bible of the prophet Jonah being swallowed by a great sea creature and then expelled alive three days later... and, not surprisingly, religious groups soon grabbed onto Bartley's story as proof that the Biblical story of Jonah had a basis in fact.

        The timing was perfect from the point of view of these religious groups. Scientifically minded people had been ridiculing many stories in the Bible as being sheer fantasy since, scientifically, they didn't make sense; and this always came with the implied idea that these stories were therefore a form of nonsense. In short, scientific authorities were competing with religious groups for people's beliefs. Bartley's story changed that dynamic.

        The veracity of Bartley's story was soon being defended by marine scientists from France and England explaining that whales had been found with squids larger than a man in their stomachs (ignoring that squids had no bones, and so were relatively easy to swallow in comparison). In addition, within a year of the first report, newspapers that repeated Bartley's story now tended to assert that whaling ship captains -- never named -- stated that men were often swallowed by whales, and that Bartley just happened to be the only one known to survive.

        So Bartley's experience was essentially taken as proof that the Biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a great creature and then living to tell the tale, which was one of the most scientifically ridiculed stories in the Bible, was in fact scientifically possible. The Bartley story became so well known that it actually changed the text of the Bible itself; previous to 1891 most English versions of the Bible tell of Jonah being swallowed by a 'great fish', and after 1891 most English versions of the Bible tell of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

        For fully sixteen years, Bartley's story was considered proof of the Biblical tale of Jonah, and was quoted not just in newspapers and magazines, but also in scholarly studies of the Jonah story in encyclopedias and journals. Then, in 1907, new information came out in The Expository Times. A gentleman name A. Lukyn Williams had made some basic inquiries with the hope of getting a statement from the captain of the Star of the East concerning the incident. He found that the Star of the East was a British ship that had sailed from Auckland, N.Z., on December 27, 1890, and had docked in New York on April 17th, 1891, and was commanded by a Captain Killam. On November 27, 1906, the captain's wife wrote to Williams from Yarmouth (Nova Scotia):

"My husband asked me to write. There is not one word of truth in the whole whale 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."

        This was taken as damning evidence, and skeptics gleefully jumped on the statement while believers quietly divorced themselves from Bartley's story... but no one asked two very important questions: Why didn't Captain Killam make this statement at the time of the original reports, when newspapers were claiming he supported Bartley's story? And, secondly, if Killam originally supported the story, why had he changed his mind? One possible set of answers is that the story may have only been told in July, after Captain Killam had set back out to sea and couldn't refute it... but there is no evidence to support this thought either way.

The Return of the Legend

        Not surprisingly, interest in the Bartley tale seems to have died down after the denial issued by the wife of the Star of the East's captain... but it wasn't the end of it. Many religious groups still repeated the tale in their small magazines, continuing to see it as a useful way of confirming the possibility of the Jonah story in the Bible to their followers. It was from one of these publications that James Bartley's questionable story of survival was to once again rise to fame.

        Sometime in the 1920's -- I don't have the exact date, but I've seen the publication myself -- the tale of James Bartley's survival was featured in an extremely well-known syndicated cartoon strip. While this may sound like a minor event, this publication once again revived the story in popular culture as an accepted, though strange, fact. This is because the syndicated strip it was featured in was Ripley's Believe It or Not!

        Created by Robert Ripley in 1918, the Believe It or Not! strip soon grew to amazing fame as Ripley daily presented a seemingly endless list of bizarre, but supposedly true, events and facts in a simplified cartoon fashion. Ripley grew to have a reputation of only printing stories he could prove true, often defending himself successfully against doubters, until it became a simply accepted idea that any story he printed was true, no matter how outlandish it might seem.

        This wasn't a correct assumption, however. In many cases Ripley didn't defend the truth of a story he printed, but rather that he could show that he was presenting it as his source of the story presented it... leaving the possibility that his source might be incorrect, but that wasn't Ripley's fault. In the case of the Bartley story, Ripley's source was one of the small religious magazines that had repeated the tale as confirmation of the possibility of the Jonah tale in the Bible. So Ripley had not double-checked the story... yet his presentation of it in his regular syndicated strip was essentially proof to the public at large in the United States and Canada (and possibly Europe, depending on when it was printed) that the tale of James Bartley's survival was, theoretically, a statement of fact.

        As such, Bartley's tale once again began to pop up in newspapers and magazines as a strange 'fact'... but what tended to be mentioned was just the minor details that had been featured in the Ripley's cartoon, stripping the legend down to a very basic story: February 1891, James Bartley, swallowed by whale, survived after many hours in its stomach. For the most part, the statement of Captain Killam's wife was now completely forgotten, as evidenced by the continuing attempt of skeptics of the story to insist on either the impossibility of a whale being able to swallow a human, or the impossibility of a human surviving such a fate. There was a definite disagreement among skeptics on the question of whether or not a whale could swallow a man.

        In April 1947, Natural History magazine printed a letter that they had received from a reader that summed up an account of the James Bartley story the reader had run across; the magazine was asked if the story was true. The magazine's response was to have an expert on whaling and whales, a Dr. Murphy, respond to the letter in the same issue. The response was very succinct: the story was false, and mostly because it would be impossible for a man to survive within a whale's airless stomach any longer than they would if held under water. Surprisingly, the expert admitted that men had probably been swallowed by whales from time to time, but none had ever been recovered and certainly never would they be found alive.

        This simple exchange led to wonderful fruit, for two months later in the June issue of Natural History, another letter was printed... and it told a remarkable tale.

The One that DIDN'T Get Away

        The letter was written by Dr. Egerton Y. Davis, Jr., from Boston, Massachusetts, who wished to tell of his experience as a young surgeon on the ship Toulinguet in February or March of 1893 or 1894. He was working with the sealing fleet out of St. Johns, Newfoundland, when a young sailor out hunting had the unfortunate luck to become separated from the other hunters on the ice and to fall into the ocean... and in full view of his comrades, an out-of-place sperm whale swallowed the poor man. One of the small sealboats managed to hit the whale with its cannon, and the wounded creature headed out to sea. The whale was found floating belly-up by one of the longboats searching for seals on the following day. It was impossible for the small crew to bring the whale to the main ship, but through an extrodinary effort they managed to cut open the whale and remove it's gas-filled upper stomach; this they brought to the young Dr. Davis in the hopes of recovering the young man's body to return to his home.

        Dr. Davis quickly found that his scalpal had no effect on the tough stomach, and had to trade up to a sharp galley knife (which I hope didn't then go back to the galley!). Once opened, the stomach expelled an "overpowering stench;" the man's body was partially digested where the skin was exposed, and covered with a layer of snail-like mucous. The man's chest had been horribly crushed, so he was likely well dead before he reached the whale's stomach. Strangely, some lice on the man's head still showed signs of life despite the circumstances. Given the horrific appearance and smell of the body, it was quickly decided that a burial at sea was a far better choice than sending him home to friends and family.

        And so ends the amazing tale told by Dr. Davis.

        Natural History magazine was in the habit of not printing July and August issues of their magazine, so the next volume wasn't available until September of 1947; and between the June and September issues, more letters were received regarding Dr. Davis' statement. The most interesting one was from one Yorrick M'Connachie of Chicago, Illinois. According to Mr. M'Connachie, he had an uncle who had served as a seaman on the Toulinguet that had often told the story of his unfortunate shipmate's fate. The uncle had apparently claimed to have been on the longboat that cut up the whale, and also claimed to have been the only man to stay with Dr. Davis during the long examination of the body... which was an extrodinary corraboration of the doctor's tale.

        But there was soon further developments in regards to the story... and not good ones. First, it was noticed by the staff at Natural History that the "modest check" sent to Dr. Davis in thanks for his letter and story had remained uncashed. Attempts to contact him elicited no responses. Then a letter was received from a woman named Mrs. May C. Sax that pointed out some unfortunate information: Dr. Davis' letter had reminded her of the famous physician Dr. William Osler. Why? Because Dr. William Osler loved to play practical jokes; and because when he did so, he liked to use a different name... and that name was Egerton Y. Davis!

        As if this detail wasn't bad enough, Mrs. Sax also added two more little details: first, that Sir James M. Barrie had also used an assumed name when playing practical jokes... the name "M'Connachie." And, secondly, that the "Y" in the name Egerton Y. Davis, stood for the name "Yorrick," the name of the jester from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. So not only was Dr. Davis' letter likely a fake, so too was the second letter from "Yorrick M'Connachie"!

        Finally, before the Sepetember issue of Natural History went to press, the staff heard back on the check they had sent to Dr. Davis. The magazine received a letter from the director of "one of the country's foremost hospitals" which was nowhere near Boston, which Dr. Davis had given as his address. The check had been endorsed, but not cashed...and since no one in the hospital could locate a Dr. Egerton Y. Davis Jr. anywhere, they chose to mail the check back to Natural History magazine. So Dr. Davis had vanished as completely as the credibility of his story, which Natural History officially set to rest in the letters section of their September 1947 issue. And so ended the only other claim of a man being swallowed by a whale that I know of.

        But none of this drama had any effect on the popularity of James Bartley's tale, which was now associated with a newly rising interest in not just strange stories, but paranormal stories as well. Bartley's account started to appear in longer versions once again in various magazines devoted to stories of ghosts, UFOs, and psychic powers. It was from this strange venue that the legend was to be re-sculpted one last time into the modern version.

The Continuing Growth of the Legend

        The last re-working of the legend came in 1959 from popular radio personality and author, Frank Edwards. In his book Stranger Than Science, in a short section titled "A Modern Jonah," Edwards recounted Bartley's tale once again, but with some notably new details. This was not an odd practice for Edwards, and most of the supposedly 'true' stories in this volume were enhanced with new -- but fictional -- details to make the stories more exciting and appealing. Unfortunately, the sheer popularity of this book pretty much cemented his new details into the common public version of Bartley's legendary encounter with the whale. In brief, the Edwards version of the legend runs thus:

In February 1891, the Star of the East was sailing a few hundred miles east of the Falkland Islands off South America, when the lookout sighted a large sperm whale and the longboats were sent out. the whale was harpooned, one of the boats was capsized, and the two men were lost, both presumed drowned. The men started work on the whale's carcass, and it was around eleven that night that they noticed the stomach moving. The ship's doctor was called to find an explanation; having none, he cut the stomach open. Inside was found James Bartley, one of the two missing men, curled up and unconcious, but alive! He had been in the whale's stomach for fifteen hours, and it showed; all the hair on his body was gone, his skin was bleached white, and he was nearly blind. Although he was quickly revived, it was a month before he was both healthy and rational enough to make sense of his experience. He remembered being flung in the air, and seeing the whale's huge mouth come towards him when he hit the water; he felt stabbing pains as he dragged across the mammal's tiny teeth, and then he slid down a slimy tube to where warmth and a lack of air knocked him unconcious... then nothing, until he came to his senses a month later. It had been Bartley's first day as a sailor, and, understandibly, his last. He spent the remaining eighteen years of his life working as a cobbler in his native Gloucester; when he was buried, his tombstone featured a brief account of his adventure and a footnote: "James Bartley -- 1870-1909 ... A modern Jonah."

        I will also add that Edwards further stated that the unnamed doctor aboard the Star of the East wrote a record of the event at the time it happened, which was signed by all members of the ship's crew. This would certainly be worth finding... if it existed, which I see no reason to expect. Oh, and James Bartley's home town was identified in the July 1891 newspaper account of the incident as New Bedford, not Gloucester.

        Although a few other prominant authors have altered the details of the legend (Charles Berlitz comes to mind), none have had the same effect on the popular idea of Bartley's story. This is because no other author on strange topics ever had the sheer public exposure that Frank Edwards had. He presented stories such as Bartley's on a weekly radio program; and when he published collections of the stories he told (most of which he got from FATE Magazine), the books fairly flew off the shelves and went into multiple printings in the first few years. As a matter of fact, I have a copy of Stranger Than Science published in Japanese that I bought while visiting Japan in 2000... so Edwards' version of Bartley's tale has been seen worldwide, and is the likely version for newspapers and magazine to quote when they feel a need to refer to Bartley's experience.

        Ironically, the final coffin nail was driven into the Bartley story in 1991... ironic because no one seems to have noticed. Edward B. Davis, associate professor of science and history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, did his own research into the story of James Bartley's survival. He queried the Maritime History Archive at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, for documents relating to the Star of the East, and recieved both the captain's full name -- John Killam -- and a complete listing of the crew members that served on board the ship during the fateful year of 1891... and James Bartley's name wasn't on the roster. Yet still the story is repeated, and people ask if it's true. In the end, some stories will survive, not because they are true, but because many people think they should be.