On Exhibit: Right whale skeleton “Mayflower”
The right whale in the Coastal North Carolina hall is the first of the whale skeletons obtained by the Museum. In fact, it is probably the longest-exhibited of any item currently on display.
The skeleton was donated to the Museum in 1876 by Col. John D. Whitford, president of the Atlantic and North Carolina railroad. At that time, the Museum was a collection of fossils, soils, minerals, and woods — the result of a state-mandated geological survey of North Carolina’s important mineral resources. This geological survey collection was housed on the third floor of the Briggs hardware building on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh.
There was no skilled preparator on staff at the Museum therefore the whale bones were laid on the floor under a table in approximately the correct order. There they remained for about 18 years until1893 when the state hired a local naturalist and taxidermist by the name of H. H. Brimley.
Brimley immediately set to work cleaning years worth of tobacco juice, oil, and dust from the bones. He attached the bones in their proper order with rods and wires. Despite a lack of published information on whale anatomy, he completed the task in about three months. The whale was hung up for exhibit in April, 1894 on the first floor of the Museum.
Some thirty years later (1926), Brimley, now director of the State Museum, learned the whale was the most documented and best remembered of the whales killed off Shackleford Banks, NC. According to his friend and whale man Captain Joe Lewis, Mayflower was, by all accounts, the most vigorous fighter ever killed near Shackleford Banks.
Whaling was an important source of income for the residents of Cape Lookout. Whaling in North Carolina began in the late 1600s and continued until about WWI. In the 1800s there were many whaling settlements along Shackleford Banks and Core Banks. The men practiced shore-based whaling, meaning the men hunted whales from shore — jumping into small lapstrake pilot boats and rowing out to the whale.
Whaling season lasted from late December to early June, with the peak from February to early May. At the beginning of the season three to four crews consisting of six men each would build a camp near shore. The boats and whaling implements were placed in readiness nearby. The old men of the community were lookouts, waiting high in the dunes sometimes all day.
Early in the morning on May 4, 1876*, Absalom Guthrie spotted a pod of whales that included at least ten cows (adult female whales). Six boats went out. Each boat was manned by a crew of six men armed with harpoons and whaling guns.
In the 1870s, the captains of these crews were Elsie Guthrie, W. C. Guthrie, James Lewis, Samuel Windsor, Reuben Willis and Josephus Willis. Josephus’ crew was famous for being the only all-family whaling crew and for having brightly-painted red oars. It was Josephus and his Red Oar Crew that are credited with killing Mayflower.
Cpt. Lewis further describes in his letter of 1926 the capture of Mayflower: (Skip this if you are squeamish)
“He was one of the biggest ever killed in these parts, and perhaps the most vicious, since it took fully half a day to kill him. There were six boats in action, containing six men each; four men rowing, with the captain in the head [bow], directing, and the steersman in the stern taking orders and steering the boat….The whale came in the hook that morning, soon, and all six boats headed for him. Captain Reuben Willis was the first to strike him with the shackle [toggle-iron] and then the big fight began. All the guns were shot and he had to be finally killed with the irons and harpoons. He fought and slashed about at the six boats for hour… and whenever a captain in either boat could pick a chance when his tail was not slashing in his direction, he would rush in and harpoon him.”
The other crews took at least two more whales that day. It was customary for the whalers to name the whales. Mayflower was named for the month she was killed and for the flower-like markings on her side. Two other whales were taken that day — the “Lady Hayes” and the “Hain’t Bin Named Yit”. Mayflower provided the whalers with 40 barrels of oil and 700 pounds of baleen which was taken to Beaufort to sell. The oil was sold for use in lighting lamps and the baleen was sold for making corset stays and buggy whips.
According to Capt. Lewis “It was a hard and dangerous life, but was so thrilling and fascinating that it seemed to grip and hold the men; so that once a whale man, always a whaleman.”
The right whale skeleton is both educational and valuable as a research specimen. In 1987, a marine mammalogist removed a sample from the bone for use in a study that may help establish genetic relationships among whales and give clues to their evolution.
Another right whale skeleton on exhibit at the Museum, Stumpy, is also significant to scientists. Stumpy, named for her damaged tail fluke, was a female right whale that was tagged in 1975. She gave birth to 5 calves and was pregnant with her sixth when she died. Stumpy’s death removed a valuable breeding female from a seriously depleted population of endangered Atlantic right whales. But Stumpy’s death provided valuable data on whales killed by ship strike. Scientists examined Stumpy’s injured jaw and were able to determine a top safe speed for freight ships sailing in right whale migration routes. No whales died the year after the slower speeds were enacted.
The right whale skeleton was the first of several whales eventually put on exhibit at the State Museum. Mr. Brimley’s fascination for large mammals, combined with Mr. Davis’ willingness to cut up large foul-smelling carcasses, gave the Museum prime whale specimens of species represented by very few other museums. The Museum now has six whale skeletons on exhibit and several in storage.
* There is conflicting evidence for the year that Mayflower was killed. In the past, our exhibit stated the year as 1874. After researching the subject, I believe 1876 is most likely correct however 1872 is also a possibility.