Digital Tradition Mirror

Captain Billy and the Whale

Captain Billy and the Whale
(George Ward)

In the year of eighteen fifty-five,  July the thirteenth day,
The whaling bark Eliza from old  Hudson bore away;
Her crew stout hearts and seasoned  hands, but one would cost her dear,
A farm boy down from Cropseyville,  still wet behind the ears.
     She left Manhattan town astern,  bound for the arctic ground,
     Where every man aboard her hoped  his fortune would be found;
     But to their great confusion, in a  voice that rasped and shook,
     The lookout hollered,'Thar she  blows! " a mile off Sandy Hook.

Chorus: There's cider on.the table and the scuttle's full of coal,
     The teams are winter-pastured, and  we've scrubbed the decks and hold;
     We're mudlarked here 'til April, and the wind it blows a gale,
     We'll deal a hand and sing of Captain Billy and the whale.

"Away, all boatsl the captain cried;  'tis a whale to bring us luck!'
And so it seemed, for soon the farm boy's boat the whale had struck.
The hundred-fathom line played out, the whaleboat bore away,
On a wild Nantucket sleighride, up the tide through New York bay.
     Past ships at anchor waiting for the turning of the tide,
     Past steamers, lighters, ferrys, up the Hudson she did glide,
     Past the Palisades and Harlem, with the farm boy doing fine
     'Til he dropped his oar and panicked, grabbed the axe and cut the line.

Now Captain Billy McIntosh, a canaller bold and true,
Sailed out of Bushnell's Basin, hauling salt, and timber too;
He was last boat of an upstream tow on the laker Betsy G.
When he spied that rogue cetacean, headed inland from the sea.
     He never stopped to count the cost, but bolted down his rum,
     And hollered to his driver, "Cast us loose, ye lazy scum!"
     He seized the Betsy's boathook; and as the whale flew past,
     He gaffed the trailing harpoon line, and swiftly made it fast.

Oh, what a race there than ensued, for Betsy, she was light,
And the whale towed her northward, all that day and half the night;
They swept right past the tug and tow, they crossed the Tappan Zee,
'Twas off Storm Ki
     Of Bill aboard the whale's head, in the early morning light;
     For the tug was claiming salvage and Bill was cussin' blue,
     But it cost him twice the rate, to tow the whale and Betsy too.

But when they came to Albany, and Billy hired a crane,
His driver went to Mass, and swore he'd never drink again!
Bill laid the whale on Betsy's deck, and on its side he wrote,
In six foot letters, "Fifty cents, to see what's down my throat!'
     He hired a gang of sidecut idlers, dosed 'em up on rum,
     And marched 'em down its gullet, like the saints to Kingdom Come.
     Knives and pumps and picks and shovels, wheelbarrows hauled the horrors
     In a week he'd cleaned her slick as any sportsman cleans a trout!

When the sheriff came to dockside, with complaints about the smell,
Bill's genius reached for pinnacles no mortal tongue can tell;
For he bought a load a whiskey, off a scow in from the west,
And embalmed the whale in fourteen tons of old Kentucky's best.
     The whale's nose lay on Betsy's bow, the tail draped o'er the st
     Bill rolled a length of carpet down the whale's gaping throat,
     And lit the way with gas lamps, off a wrecked excursion boat.

As west they towed from Albany, the news flew on ahead;
And many a stout lock-tender, swore he wished old Billy dead!
For crowds trooped down that carpet, paid the price and took Bill's dare
To rock where God sat Jonah, in Bill's mother's rocking chair.
     A window in the whale's side-its curtains neatly pressed-
     Cast light on Billy' s maiden sister, Amy (primly dressed),
     At a wheezy parlor organ, oh it made great many weep,
     To rock while Amy pumped, 'Rocked in the cradle of the deep"!

But all good tales have endings, sure, and this one's sad to tell;
In spite of Bill's embalming skills, the whale began to swell.
It stuck fast in the weighlock shed at Syracuse, you see;
And it cost Bill all he'd cleared, to hire the teams to drag her free.
     The commissioners decreed the whale could go no further west;
     So they towed north to Oswego, for some thinking and a rest.
     Bill took a tow f

Some say that Billy made the land, while others say he drowned,
But every lush that walked the streets of old Oswego town,
Was ready on the shore next spring, with nets and poles and sticks,
For the eighty-nine proof salmon run of eighteen fifty-six!
     And away down south in Jersey, by the shores of Sandy Hook,
     An old man runs a boarding house; he's harmless by his look,
     Though he rambles in his stories and spends every summer's day,
     With a boathook, on the seawall, gazing east across the bay.

Copyright  George Ward

 Well,  the story has almost two beginnings  really, one is the official story.
The one  that was promoted was that the whale, in June of 1888, was killed off
the coast of Cape Cod. And at the  time it was supposedly  the largest whale
ever  killed off American waters. It weighed 75 tons, I believe, and was  65
feet long. One story  has it was a sperm  whale-I'm not too  sure.  That's the
official start of the story.  The unofficial story  is that the whale was ac
tually killed in a  collision with a ship in  New York Harbor. I'm  not really
sure which  one is true, but they're  both pretty good sto ries.
     Either way,  when  this ship, or when this  whale was killed, it was
decided not to process  the whale, they did process its tongue. Its tongue- oh
boy, I'm going to  start forgetting numbers now-but it weighed quite a bit and
produced  quite a lot of oil, I think 120 gallons of oil ... I think  that the
tongue weighed like close to 1000 pounds.  It was big!
     So instead of processing the entire whale, it was  decided to take this
marvel on tour ... [and to]  embalm it. And it took, I believe, 1500 gallons of
nuid at a cost of $3000 to ernbalm the whale.  And, of  course, embalming fluids
back then weren't what  embalming fluids are today, and one rumor had it  that
rnost of` the fluid was made up of whiskey.  Anyway, the whale went on tou
alrnost always was  whiskey.
     So eventiually the whale lnade its way to Seneca  Falls on the
Cayuga-Seneca C:anal. It was, I believe,  Novemher 1890, and the promoters
charged 15  cents for adults and 10 cents for children to come in  and see the
whale. And they guaranteed that if for  any reason you could prove that the
whale was not genuine, you would getyour money back. And appar ently it was a
real whale.
     Now when they took the whale on tour they fitted  its mouth out as a
reception room, and they boasted  that a 6 foot tall gentleman could stand
upright with  his hat on in the mouth of  the whale. And they also  boasted that
at tirnes they had  25 young ladies  and  their teacher having tea in the whale.
A nd once there was even a gathering of a doz c gentlemen  men having an  oyster
dinner in the mouth of the whale. So this was  quite a marvel. And of course the
further inland you  went, the more exciting the idea of seeing  a whale would
     But as I said, the whale was beginning to get really  ripe after two years
no nicc way of saying it, they set fire to the  whale. And the whale  was, well
one story was that the whale was completely destroyed. Another which I've
heard... had it that the whale was pretty heavily  darnaged by the fire, hut not
completely destroyed.  And after that disaster thepromoters tried to get the
whale back into the Erie and float the whale to  Rochester. And you've got to
understand the whale  wasn't just floating o n the water of course, it was on a
barge. But when they tried to get it to Rochester the  health officials barred
it from the city.  I don't blame  them one bit.
     Well disappointed but not without always having  tresh ideas, the promoters
backed it down the canal,  took it rlp the Oswego Canal and out into Lake
Ontario with the hopes of`going by lake to Rochester to promote the whale.
Unfortunately, before they got to Rochester, a storm came up and swamped the
whale, whichsent the whale to thebottom of Lake  Ontario. Which means that
somewhere, someday,  someone is going to do some lake bottom

Thanks to Mudcat for the Digital Tradition!

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