On this date in 1821, a first-time whaleship crewman named Owen Coffin was executed by a comrade to feed three starving mates.
Coffin was the second-to-last victim of an event which shocked the whaling community and inspired the novel Moby Dick.
Owen Coffin was a 17-year-old aboard a doomed whaling vessel called the Essex. He was cousin to George Pollard, Jr., who was making his first trek to the Pacific whaling grounds as a ship’s captain.
The Essex sailed from Nantucket Island in 1819, one of dozens of ships to leave port in search of whales and, ultimately, whale oil. In spite of the large numbers of whales slaughtered by whalers around the world, the Essex had the unfortunate honor of taking part in the first documented violent encounter by a sperm whale on a whaleship.
Of the whales available to the whalers of the day, the sperm whale was most prized: aside from the typical blubber found on all whales, which could be processed for its “oil” (actually a free-flowing form of wax), this whale’s head was filled with the clean-burning substance called spermaceti, a name inspired by its resemblance to the sexual fluid. Spermaceti fetched a high price at market when sperm whales were in sufficient abundance to hunt them.
There Once Was a Crew from Nantucket
At the time, Nantucket Island was the center of the whaling world.
The industry was primarily run by Quaker businessmen, who negotiated profit-sharing rates for young, largely local crews willing to risk their lives in search of whales. To fill out the ship numbers, poor non-Nantucketers were imported from other New England ports. The Essex was no different: the ship originally held 21 crewmembers, eight of whom came from off-island.
The ship’s journey began inauspiciously by being flattened in a squall, but after repairs, she continued on in pursuit of whales. The ship made its classic trip around the southern tip of South America, put in to port in Ecuador, then traversed 2000 miles of ocean westward in search of a recently-discovered sperm whale hunting ground.
And the crew did find whales and made a mildly successful trip of it … until it really pissed off the wrong whale.
The Essex discovered a group of sperm whales consisting of two females and one male. When the call went out, the three small whaleboats — built to be light and fast for the pursuit — launched.
These boats separated the females from the male, and one of the crews made a kill. It was around that time that the male, probably already distraught at being partitioned from his group, first ran into the 38-foot Essex. The jostle, which may have been accidental, apparently further upset the abnormally large whale, which briskly left the area, made a sharp turn, then swam all-out on a direct collision course with the Essex.
The old timber ship didn’t stand a chance.
The crew which had stayed aboard the main vessel watched in horror as the Essex was shattered beneath them. Two of the whaleboat crews noted the sinking and returned quickly, and Captain Pollard immediately set his crew about saving as many of the provisions as they could, including water and food.
But the speed with which the Essex went under left them with too little of both. As the final whaleboat made its way to the carnage, it was clear that the full crew complement was doomed to a long trip on a trio of very small boats.
Call Me Ishmael
Pollard and first mate Owen Chase hatched a plan (crewman Thomas Nickerson indicates that it was largely Chase who pushed the plan) to set sail for South America, thousands of miles distant and through unfavorable currents and winds, rather than for the Pacific Islands, about half as far away and in the direction of both favorable winds and currents.
The choice was sealed by fear of the unknown and a century of tales of South Pacific cannibals. Hopefully they came to appreciate the irony.
The crew went through its supplies in the first month at sea, and finally came ashore at Henderson Island, a raised, uninhabited coral reef that they mis-identified.
The fortunate crew found a temporarily available freshwater spring from which to refill their casks, and they subsisted on local fauna for several days while deciding their next course of action. Though Tahiti lay just a few hundred miles westward (again, in the direction of favorable winds and currents), our wayfarers opted to continue towards South America.
Three of the crew decided to stay behind. The remaining 17 crewmembers set out in late December 1820, and again quickly depleted their supplies.
One of the ships — carrying the second mate but no navigational equipment — was separated from the others during a storm and never heard from again, leaving two to carry on under increasingly desperate circumstances.
Passengers on both boats began succumbing to want and exposure, and their starving former comrades had little choice but to devour their remains.
The boat containing Owen Chase, Thomas Nickerson, and Benjamin Lawrence was eventually rescued by the Indian off the coast of Chile, and both Nickerson and Chase wrote accounts of the the survivors’ cannibalism.
Yet it was aboard Pollard’s boat that the most gruesome events unfolded.
The deaths of two crewmen had provided for the others — but not nearly enough to hope for landfall.
Short on food and water and despairing of bringing all four remaining souls to port, Charles Ramsdell suggested that the quartet draw lots to both remove one consumer from the boat and provide for the remaining three. Pollard objected to subjecting his crew to such a fate, but Barzillai Ray and Owen Coffin agreed to the plan. The lots were cast, and Coffin pulled the black spot. The other three cast again to decide his executioner, and Ramsdell was chosen.
Pollard’s account indicates that he immediately spoke up for Coffin, offering himself up in place, but Coffin demurred and prepared himself for the execution.*
The following day, February 6, Coffin dictated a short note to his mother and declared, as per Pollard’s diary, that “the lots had been fairly drawn.”
Charles Ramsdell shot Owen Coffin, then joined Ray and Pollard in consuming his remains.
Ray died just days later, and Ramsdell and Pollard barely survived the next two weeks. When the Dauphin came up alongside the whaleboat on February 20, its crew thrilled to the spectacle of Ramsdell and Pollard sucking on the bones of their dead crewmates, emaciated beyond recognition.
Based on their statements about the events of the previous 95 days, a vessel was dispatched to find the three Henderson Island survivors. Because the crew had mis-identified the island, however, the search took longer than expected. Not until April 5, 1821, were the three located … out of fresh water and also scarcely alive.
A few books about the Essex
The Essex was a legend in its own time, and the story of the sinking and the harrowing events which followed continue to circle around Nantucket Island. Though the island’s economy collapsed less than 30 years later, Herman Melville kept the story alive through his literary classic Moby-Dick, whose story revolves around the captain of a whaling ship attacked by a vengeful whale.**
It is also suspected that a portion of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1838 novel† The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is based on the Essex disaster.
Closer to modern times, the rock group Mountain’s album and eponymous song “Nantucket Sleighride”, which was used as the theme song to London Weekend Television’s Weekend World, is dedicated to Coffin.
Coffin is not the only sailor adrift ever selected for cannibalism by lot, but his case is unusual because the particulars are so well-documented. Several other cases are provided in Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Arthur Gordon Pym uses a victim by the name of Richard Parker, coincidentally the same name as a man who was actually cannibalized in 1884‡ in an affair leading to the famous common law case R v Dudley and Stephens, wherein the killers were charged with murder and sentenced to 6 months in prison — unlike the 1835 incident of the Francis Spaight, which saw the crew acquitted for three such killings.
* One of the crueler accounts of such lot drawing occurred aboard the Peggy, where crewman David Flatt pulled the short straw. However, prior to the execution the following morning, the crew was rescued. Flatt, however, had a breakdown in the intervening hours and suffered mental illness which persisted even after their rescue.
** He was also inspired by the story of Mocha Dick, a notorious white whale which survived dozens of encounters with whalers and is now available in trenta sizes.
† Arthur Gordon Pym is Poe’s only full-length novel.
‡ Richard Parker was also the name of a man executed for the Nore Mutiny, as well as one killed in the wreck of the Francis Spaight in 1846 — not to be confused with the Francis Spaight on which cannibalism occurred 11 years prior.