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On Exhibit: Right whale skeleton “Mayflower”

July 8, 2013

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.

articulated skeleton of right whale hangs in Coastal North Carolina hall

The right whale skeleton, Mayflower, hangs in the Coastal North Carolina hall. (Photo by Margaret Cotrufo/NCMNS)

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.

nterior of the Museum showing bones of right whale under a table of wood specimens. Photo taken between 1876 and 1894.

Interior of the Museum, between 1881 and 1894, showing bones of right whale under a table of wood specimens. The curved object under the table is a whale bone. Note the spittoons at the end of the exhibit cases. The ornate balcony was part of the building which was formerly a hotel. (Photo from the Museum’s archives.)

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.

Right whale skeleton on exhibit in Museum

Economic Mineral Room, circa 1900. Note the peacock in the background. It is currently on display in the Museum Store. (Photo from the Museum’s archives.)

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.

small whaling boat on land

The last Outer Banks whale boat, circa 1940s, last used by John E. Lewis. (Photo from the Museum’s archives; donated by Mrs. F. C. Salisbury.)

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.

Whaling tools including harpoon and bomb gun.

Collection of whaling tools purchased from Capt. Lewis, in storage at the Museum. The tools were exhibited from 1920s to 2000. (Photo from the Museum’s archives.)

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.”

page from a handwritten letter

Portion of the letter from Capt. John E. Lewis, Sept 18, 1926. “came in on the hook” is Cape Lookout — look at a map, you’ll see the hook-like shape; Mayflower was not a “he,” she was a female. (Letter from the Museum’s archives.)

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.

Preserved baleen from a Minke whale, formerly on exhibit in the Museum.

Preserved baleen from a Minke whale, formerly on exhibit in the Museum. (Photo by Margaret Cotrufo/NCMNS.)

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.

Right whale skeleton, Stumpy, on exhibit in Museum

The skeleton of Stumpy and her near-term fetus are on exhibit in the Museum’s Nature Research Center. Stumpy’s weight was 77 tons. She is 10 feet longer than Mayflower. (Photo by Margaret Cotrufo/NCMNS)

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.

Southern right whale breaching

Southern right whale breaching. (Photo by Michael Catanzariti/WikiMedia Commons.)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2013 8:16 pm

    great and well written story. Very interesting

  2. Hannah Murrill Warren permalink
    October 4, 2013 3:37 pm

    Josephus Willis, Jr, was the captain of the “Mayflower Crew” that killed this whale. He was my great, great grandfather.

  3. Hannah Murrill Warren permalink
    October 4, 2013 3:37 pm

    correction: Josephus Willis, Sr. was the Captain. His son was Josephus Willis, Jr., my great grandfather.

    • October 7, 2013 2:30 pm

      Hannah, thanks for your comment. I neglected to indicate that it was Josephus Senior who killed the whale. According to the “The Heritage of Carteret County”, Josephus Willis Sr. (1830-1881) was born about 1830 and lived most of his life in Diamond City on the Outer Banks. His wife was Rebecca and his children were Garrison, Walter, Mark, William, Josephus Jr., Armeida, Polly Ann, Harriet and Abby. Five of the sons were part of the Red Oar Crew. In the 1870 census Josephus Sr. is listed with the occupation of fisherman (which would have included whaling) and in 1880 his occupation is Assistant Lighthouse Keeper. I hope you have been able to visit the Museum to see the whale skeleton.

  4. Julia Charles permalink
    October 13, 2013 8:45 am

    Margaret- wonderful information and photos, thank you. I had posted this link in my Promise Land Heritage FB group which Hannah is a member of as well as many other “Ca’e Bankers” descendents. We have been searching for the truth of a photo which we believe is of Capt. Seef, but another Willis family from Bogue Banks claim it as one of theirs. I found the photo captioned on someone’s Ancestry tree as “Officially retired, but still mending nets on Core Banks (NC Division of Archives and History).1903. Have you by any chance seen this photo or have any information on it? Thank you.

    • October 14, 2013 4:18 pm

      The photo of Jospehus mending a net is in the book I mentioned in my previous comment. As to the authenticity of who is in the photo I can’t say. I assumed the caption was correct. Currently, the ownership of the photo is with the Carteret County Historical Society ( The image is also published in “Images of America: Carteret Co”, p. 11 with the photo credit as Nettie Murrill, private collection. Apparently Nettie Murrill donated her collection to the Historical Society. When I called The History Place, they said the photo is with them now. They also said that Josephus died around 1901, not 1881. I tried to verify this by looking at but there are too many Joseph Willis. Find A Grave has a Joseph Willis, Carteret Co., 1849-1902. This may be Josephus jr. since he is not old enough to have adult children in 1874. I checked the Division of Archives and History catalog and it appears they only have negatives, not the original photo, and the negatives were made in 1978 and 1990. Does the person in Bogue Banks have an original photo? What is the source of their information (is it a primary or secondary source). I suggest contacting The History Place. Maybe they have more information. Or perhaps the Government and Heritage Library (NC State Library) has genealogy information on the Willis family.

      • Julia Charles permalink
        October 14, 2013 7:19 pm

        Thank you so much for your reply and your research. This seems to be a complicated issue, as I have also found another Josephus Willis family from Hatteras that seems to think the photo may be their relative as well! This is the link to the gravestone of the Capt. Seef of the Red Oar Crew. Nettie Murrill was Hannah’s mother. There are several family members who have a copy of the photo. David John Willis was an Uncle. I am not sure if we will ever be able to document this photo to everyone’s satisfaction, but I certainly appreciate your time and the effort you have put into this.

  5. Hannah Murrill Warren permalink
    April 29, 2014 10:27 am

    I see Julia Charles has contacted you about the picture of Josephus Willis, Sr. Thank you so much for your information and help. When some of his descendants purchased permanent cemetery markers, there was a discussion about his date of death. He was NOT in the 1910 census, but my mother (who was a local historian) said he died in 1910, the year before she was born. We went with that date.

    • April 30, 2014 12:22 pm

      Thank you for the information. I tried looking in the census records again and found Josephus easily; don’t know why I found it difficult last time I looked. In 1900, Joseph, senr is widowed and living with son Armedo and his family in Morehead City, so obviously not dead! Both are listed as fisherman. In 1910, Armedo shows up with his family and no Joseph, so Joseph died between 1900 and 1910. The death date, 1881, came from the caption of the photo in a book on Carteret County history. I noticed that the caption has Joseph dying in 1881 and then rescuing the crew of the Crissie Wright, posthumously, in 1886. The caption also has one of the children’s names incorrect. I think the caption is not to be trusted! Hannah, does your mother have any stories of Josephus and the wreck of the Crissie Wright.


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