Cannibals: Owen Chase and Samuel Fisher

Tonight I saw the American Experience story on whaling, “Into the Deep,” very good and moving.  It was largely about the Essex, an American whaling ship that was wrecked by a sperm whale in 1820.  The survivors were at sea for 93 days, three months, in a small whaling boat.  They resorted to cannibalism to keep themselves alive, eating first the men who had died, then choosing others by lot, shooting them, and eating them. 

Here is one of the survivors, Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex.  “Late in life he began to hide food in his attic, had headaches beyond his control, and eventually had to be institutionalized.”

There’s no picture of Samuel Fisher: no portrait and certainly no photograph.   He came over from England in 1740.  He was about 17.  The boat on which he came over would be called “the Starved Ship.”  The man who victualled him and his fellow emigrants didn’t approve of their religion, and he gave them bad food.

Halfway across the ocean, they discovered they had nothing left.  It was too far to go back. 

“The vessel was so scantily provisioned and the voyage so unusually long, that before it was nearly completed, the rations had to be divided among the passengers and crew, each person receiving one pint of oatmeal and a small quantity of fresh water. Samuel Fisher later recalled going to the mate with a tablespoon to obtain some water, which was refused him, there being but two-thirds of a bottleful on board on which to survive. Samuel Fisher's custom was to take a spoonful of meal, moisten with seawater, and eat it raw.”

Eventually people began to die, and like the crewmen of the Essex, the survivors began to eat the bodies. Eventually those who were going to die did and the rest began to get well.  They chose by lot.

Samuel Fisher got the short straw.

That was on a Sunday, and one cannot kill one’s fellow man on a Sunday.  They determined to kill him on the Monday morning.  And early on the morning of that day, they sighted a ship, coming out from America and still well-suppied with food.

“So deep an impression did the horrors of this passage make upon the mind of young Samuel that, in later life, he could never see, without pain, the least morsel of food wasted, or a pail of water thrown carelessly on the ground. He always afterward had more than ample supplies of food stored in his root cellar.”  He became a deacon of the church in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and is buried there, in back of Mack’s Apples.  The Macks are among his descendants, and so am I.

I see him here, in a photograph from the 1860s, fifty years after he died.  I imagine him looking out at the apple trees of Londonderry, with the same thousand-yard stare as Owen Chase, and telling over to himself, obsessively, the number of jars, of bottles, of barrels of food stored in the cellar.

  • Information about Samuel Fisher from Helen Gibson, via <http://www.sprague-database.org/genealogy/getperson.php?personID=I87397&tree=SpragueProject>; most of it is also to be found in The Family of Samuel Fisher
  • "Into the Deep":  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/whaling/
  • On one of his whaling voyages, the young Herman Melville met Owen Chase's son, who gave him a copy of Chase's book about the experience.  Haunted by the story, Melville used the tragedy of the Essex as the basis for Moby Dick.
  • Read the book, Nathaniel Philbrick's Into the Heart of the Sea

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