Segment from Finding Americana

Whale on a Train!

Between 1880 and 1882, a whale visited towns in the Midwest on the back of a train. Scholar Jamie Jones has traced the story of the show men who put the whale on display, and reconstructed its increasingly smelly journey across the US.

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Nathan Connolly: Okay, Brian. Here’s a question for you. What would you do if you really wanted to see a whale and the Discovery Channel wasn’t due to be invented in about another hundred years or so?

Brian Balogh: Gotta admit, Nathan, that’s a question I’ve really never thought about.

Nathan Connolly: You just wait for the train.

Brian Balogh: The train?

Nathan Connolly: For two years between 1880 and 1882, a whale toured the Midwest on the back of a train. People came from far and wide to see the sideshow attraction like no other and the best part, it was called The Prince of Whales.

Brian Balogh: No, it wasn’t!

Nathan Connolly: There’s more. Because of course, the longer the whale was on tour, the worse it smelled. Jamie Jones is assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and she has traced the story of the whale and the two entrepreneurs that put it on the train.

Jamie: The two proprietors were George Newton, a lawyer and sometimes a real estate agent from a small town in Massachusetts called Monson. He’d had an idea for a long time that it would make a great Barnum-esque sideshow exhibition to get a whale and tour it around the country.
In fact, George Newton wrote to P.T. Barnum initially in 1880 before he eventually teamed up with his partner to see if Barnum did want to get to him and Barnum’s secretary wrote back to him and said quote that Barnum’s time was so taken up that he could not give any speculations to such attention, although I think we can read between the lines and see that Barnum thought this was a bad idea, a smelly idea.
But eventually George Newton partnered with a man named Fred Engleheart who was a sports promoter and former sports journalist in the Midwest, in St. Louis and Chicago. Fred Englehart had a lot of connections. He knew how to set up these pop up exhibitions. He had a lot of contacts in the Midwest.
He partnered with George Newton and they formed the Pioneer Inland Whaling Association in 1880.

Nathan Connolly: You have to walk me through the logistics of something like this. How do you take a living animal the size of a whale from the ocean, presumably on the East Coast, and get it on a train heading west towards Chicago?

Jamie: What happened is George Newton went up and down the east coast meeting with whaling captains and by this point in 1880, the U.S. commercial whaling industry is really on the decline. Starting in the 1860s, petroleum, a rock oil, came into the market to replace whale oil as a source of machine lubrication and illumination.
Commercial whaling for whale oil was really on the decline and I think that Newton might not have been able to find a whaling captain to bring him a whole whale if in fact the market for whale oil had been stronger. In some ways, the fact that this whale made it to shore at all I think is a testament to the decline of this industry and the rise of fossil fuel mineral extraction and consumption.
Newton goes up and down the east coast looking for a whaling captain who is willing to harpoon a whale as close to shore as possible, tow it back to him on shore. Sounds like from Newton’s letters that he tried a lot of different whaling captains before he finally found one in Provincetown.
Then in November of 1880, he got a telegram saying that his contact in Provincetown had captured him a whale. Newton then hired someone to tow the whale from Provincetown Harbor to Boston Harbor which is a good distance.
There at Boston, they contracted with the dry dock people to create a kind of cradle, something that might be used to lift a large ship out of the water and bring into dry dock for repairs, but they adapted all of this dockside infrastructure for a whale and they lifted it out of the water and put it on two specially reinforced rail cars that had been built for the purpose of exhibiting this whale.
From what I understand, although the proprietors are very cagey about the details for reasons you can probably imagine, it seems like the whale was at least partially cut open and gutted and filled with a combination of salt and ice.

Nathan Connolly: This sounds like an extraordinarily expensive proposition.

Jamie: It does seem like a very expensive proposition but it also seems like for awhile, at least, it was a money making proposition. During the whale’s exhibition in Chicago especially in January, it made a lot of money.
It seems thousands and possibly even on some days tens of thousands of visitors who are paying something like 25 cents a head to come into this exposition hall and view the body of the whale. For awhile at least, I think that the whale also made a lot of money.

Nathan Connolly: The whale’s debut is in Chicago. Is that right?

Jamie: The whale was debuted at this huge exposition building in Chicago which was very near the lake and near a lot of the railroad connections at that time. It’s actually at a site that is now the site of the Chicago Institute of Art, so this place where there were a lot of industrial trade shows in Chicago and it was a place where big public exhibitions like this could be staged.
The whale debuted to great acclaim. A lot of people came, visitors were invited to come and peek inside the mouth of the whale, which was called ‘the place where Jonah went in’. This whale’s body, as it’s being exhibited, is also being embedded in all of these cultural stories about whales from the 19th century going all the way back.

Speaker 6: A visitor begins his observation generally at the head of the fish, looks into his capacious mouth, feels of the long, bony hair that supply the place of teeth. Hunts for the eyes, the snout, and then the ears. Walks along the side of the creature. Catches hold of the huge fin, punches the monster in the side as if to ascertain if it is ribless. Finally, brings up at the tail of the huge fellow where the broad flukes are spread.

Jamie: After Chicago, the whale goes to Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit.
Now, in April, things were starting to go bad. The whale is starting to smell and Newton, from the very, very beginning, Newton’s very anxious about how long this show’s gonna last. In his letters home to his son, he nicknames the whale ‘the bird’.
He writes constantly “if the bird gives out, we go out of business for a while.” He’s very worried about the bird giving out and in April of 1881 in Cleveland, the bird was giving out. Newton and Englehart tried their first big spectacular effort to try to preserve the body of the whale and make it fit for exhibition.
They hired a team of butchers to treat the whale’s body with some kind of chemical substance and they said in some reports that they fumigated the whale or that they coated it or that they embalmed it. There’s a lot of this language of decontamination or even preparing the body as if for a funeral.
Because Newton and Englehart are masters of publicity, they’re writing about their efforts to remediate the whale to save the whale from it’s own putrefaction and they’re making another press event out of the whale’s decline because they are such geniuses of publicity and promotion.

Nathan Connolly: In spite of these efforts, I have to imagine that as the whale starts to rot, people do start to slow down to a trickle.

Jamie: That’s right. The news coverage of the whale show really changes starting even as early as February but intensifying around April and May. The coverage is less about the spectacle of the whale and what a marvelous exhibition it is and more about how ungodly it smells and how you can smell the whale for miles before you see the whale.

Nathan Connolly: I can only imagine.

Jamie: I can only imagine, too. I had the opportunity to see a beached whale in Connecticut a couple of years ago in fact and just the smell, it really is overpowering. I can only imagine how it’s been from November to April. It’s been six months that the whale has been out of the water and decomposing.
It seems as though the whale show itself was thrown out of Toledo because of the enormous smell and civic leaders were getting involved and treating the show as a public nuisance in some places.

Speaker 6: Toledo. Phew! What a smell. Fishy smell. To the heavens it seemed to swell. We asked our friend if he is acquainted here. He says, no. To do no good to ask why this aroma. But passing along a hand bill is thrust into our hands, telling us of the whale dead and in bad odor being in the city and then we understood whence this all pervading perfume. The Kalamazoo Telegraph, May 1881.

Jamie: They tried their second last ditch effort to preserve the whale or rebuild it or keep it a going show in the summer of 1881. Again, a very highly publicized event, Engehart set up in rural Michigan, a site that he called Camp Bailene, again kind of publicizing and making myth even out of the disaster of this show, where he hired a team of taxidermists from Detroit to come up and rebuild the whale from the inside out.
Englehart’s account of Camp Bailene is very colorful. Newton by this point has gone home to Massachusetts. Who can blame the guy? And Englehart writes home to Newton to give him a report on how the project of rebuilding the whale is going.
At one point Englhart says this, “We are here. In saying that, I say almost all that can be said. Mosquitoes, flies, bugs, and snakes predominate and form the largest part of the atmosphere. The work is terrible. You have no idea.”
But to the press who are trying to find this site and visit it and see exactly what kind of alchemy is going on at Camp Bailene, Englehart is nothing but positive, talking about the genius of these Detroit taxidermists and the fact that the whale will be ready for its grand redebut in just a few short weeks or months.
Again, Englehart is making of this a great spectacle of publicity even as the whale itself is rotting down to nothing.

Nathan Connolly: And the fact that I guess that whaling itself was literally a dying trade is also not lost on some of the observers.

Jamie: Right. Absolutely. Whale oil production reached its peak, peak whale oil in the 1850s. In the 1840s and 50s were when the U.S. commercial whaling industry was booming.
For example, during the decade of the 1840s, we know that at least 2,363 whaling voyages were launched from U.S. ports. By the 1880s when the Prince of Whales is making its tour across the U.S., only 736 whaling voyages are leaving.
That’s, I think, because the market for whale oil in the U.S. is declining very rapidly given the abundance and the relative cheapness of producing petroleum that’s coming from the oil fields in Pennsylvania.

Nathan Connolly: What’s the ultimate fate of this giant carcass?

Jamie: It’s hard to know. The archive starts to run cold in the spring of 1882 and 1883. I know that things are not always what they seem as exemplified in the case of this whale. The skin and tail of this [inaudible 00:23:42] of the vast deep was all that it purported to be but it’s frame, alas, was of iron and hickory and it’s flesh of sawdust and other deceptive lightweights.
Which I think, in some ways, allows us to reverse engineer what happened perhaps at Camp Bailene or in Cleveland when Newton and Englehart were frantically trying to remake the body of the whale to keep it on the road as it decomposed.

Nathan Connolly: I was talking to Jamie Jones, assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is working on a book about energy, obsolescence, and the decline of the U.S. whaling industry.

Ed Ayers: And on the subject of whales, check out our wonderful two part show, Thar She Blows and Thar She Blows Again. You’ll find that alongside Jamie Jones’ interview at