It’s hard to work at the Maryland Historical Society and not be familiar with the R.H. Eichner & Company color lithograph entitled “Go See the Whale at Tolchester, 1889.” An original of this iconic print lives in our library, and posters depicting it grace the halls of the Education Department and the offices on the building’s third floor. It is also prominently featured in Maryland in Prints, 1743-1900 by Laura Rice, a book we often reference when assisting researchers. It is one of our favorite prints.
Despite the print’s depiction of a large dead whale, it is surprisingly charming. The behemoth lies on the beach almost playfully, seemingly in his prime, and looking far from dead. Its jaw appears to have been braced open in a permanent smile, and on its tongue a table, a few chairs, and a Persian rug. Its beckoning smile draws in tourists, allowing them entrance for a small fee. Several well-dressed men and women are enjoying this quiet past-time, feasting in their very best clothes, as families surround the huge curiosity. It literally looks like a healthy whale just splashed up on the beach at Tolchester.
What kind of person would take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit in a dead whale’s mouth? Would this be an enjoyable experience? What would it have been like? The more we discussed the image the more questions we had. What was the truth of that summer day at Tolchester Beach? We began our journey into the belly of the beast…..
According to an article in the May 30, 1899 issue of the Baltimore American newspaper, a seventy-five ton (species unspecified) whale was captured off the coast of Cape Cod on June 5, 1888. The Egyptian Balm Company in Boston then embalmed the beast for the not-so-small sum of $3,000. When the process was complete, the whale, having dried out and shed some blubber, was down to fifty tons. Why would someone do that you might ask? Well, the gentle giant was to be a star attraction during the opening week of a new season at the Tolchester Beach resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The whale was placed on a barge, the Thomas J. Campbell of Philadelphia, while it was prepped to sail to Tolchester. Though the resort was unveiling a wide assortment of new facilities for the 1889 season, the most important was a new iron steamship called the Tolchester, that would bring people to the resort from Pier 16 on Light Street in Baltimore twice a day throughout the season. The idea was to drum up some publicity for the new ferry service.
The presumably monumental task of embalming a whale creates some logistical problems. How does one go about preserving a creature that is large enough to accommodate lunch guests in its mouth? Does someone have to make like Jonah and travel inside its belly to hose it down? Do you hold it by the tail and dip it in a large tub? How many gallons of embalming fluid were used? How bad was the stench? It would seem that in the best case scenario, the final product would more closely resemble the Montauk Monster than the Great White Whale of our iconic print.
After conducting fairly exhaustive searches of Maryland newspapers we still weren’t able to uncover any evidence verifying that the event actually happened. The only items we turned up were a few articles mentioning that the whale was being prepped for the event. More proof was needed – a document or eyewitness account confirming the story, or even better, a photograph of someone inside the whale would be our (cough) white whale…
Luckily the Tolchester Beach Revisited Museum exists and when contacted, curator Mr. William Betts, kindly added some clues.. He was indeed quite familiar with this image as well as the article from the Baltimore American. He even offered a story of one visitor’s mother or grandmother who did see the whale – but again nothing but hearsay. Mr. Betts also sent us a clipping of an article from the Kent County News dated June 1, 1989, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the whale’s visit. But alas, no concrete evidence of people actually entering the whale’s mouth at Tolchester turned up. We remained unsatisfied.
Since options were running thin, there was only one place left to turn. We entered the unverifiable, out of context, anything goes, dark hole of a research machine, known as Google – and struck pay dirt. Apparently, embalmed whale curiosities, much like hanged elephants, were quite an attraction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.. These dried monstrosities traveled across the country, attracting flocks of spectators while bringing in a modest fee. An online article called “Memory Dredges up a Whale of a Tale”, produced by the Onondoga Historical Association, references a whale that traveled to Seneca Falls, NY in 1891. The story sounded quite familiar. Like our Tolchester leviathan, it too was 65 feet in length and weighed 75 tons when it was caught near Cape Cod in 1888. The article goes even further, naming a Captain Nickerson as the man who landed the behemoth with a boom lance. Interestingly enough this article also contains the following line: “the poster claims the whale was so big twelve gentlemen sat in its mouth and enjoyed an oyster supper.” Is it a coincidence such similar copy was included in the poster referenced here and the R.H. Eichner & Co. lithograph of our investigation? More importantly, both of these were posters – anyone can draw a whale, right? The claim of people sitting inside the whale’s mouth was beginning to sound more and more like sensational advertising of the time.
Then we found some photos on this web site.
This wasn’t the exact evidence we were looking for, but it seemed to confirm our suspicions. Though the photograph shows a couple of people in the mouth of a whale, it definitely does not resemble the scene from our Tolchester print. The men certainly do not look like they could be enjoying an oyster dinner. One can see how this shriveled, crusty, sun-baked monstrosity would not make for a handsome print.
Though there is a lack of evidence about the whale at Tolchester, its existence isn’t really called into question. We aren’t calling the print completely fraudulent, just misleading. It is an advertisement – why would we expect the truth? The mythology of the event surely has developed a life of its own. The fact that the only remaining existing document is a misleading advertisement plays no small role in our collective cultural memory. Did men and women put on their finest clothes and gaily feast, while sitting on top of a whale’s putrid tongue on a hot summer day in Maryland? We doubt it. So until our loyal readers can point to evidence that proves otherwise (backed up by primary documents) we will continue to be quite skeptical about the truth of that June day at Tolchester Beach.
It should be noted that by June 9, 1889, less than one week after the whale was displayed as an attraction, it was quickly forgotten. Our fishy friend was soon replaced by cannonball catcher Charles P. Blatt. Known as “The Great, The Only,” Blatt drew large crowds as he caught 35 pound balls shot out of a cannon with his bare hands. **
“Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too? – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
(Debbie Harner and Eben Dennis)
*The authors were overwhelmed with all the possible titles for this post.
** Family members joined Blatt in Tolchester that summer. Their gig was to submerge themselves in a large tank of water…their record was four minutes. They should have invited the whale to join them…
“Excursions,” The Baltimore American, May 30, 1889
“The Improvements at Tolchester,” The Baltimore Sun, May 30, 1889