Was There a Real Moby Dick?

In this preliminary sketch for a large mural painting in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, painter and illustrator Richard Ellis portrayed Moby Dick in a shoal of sperm whales. ODHS # 2011.92.20

Moby Dick, the sperm whale in Herman Melville’s novel by the same name had several distinguishing characteristics. The first was that it was an albino – a white whale. He was also unusually large, had a peculiar spout and was covered in the remains of broken harpoons from past encounters with whalers.

Portrait of Amos Smalley, circa 1900. ODHS # 1996.37.12

Melville was an American whaleman. He sailed on a voyage to the Pacific in 1841 and this voyage was undoubtedly an inspiration for his great novel. He read enormously and many of the sources for his ideas can be traced back to his reading. Among them was adventurer Jeremiah N. Reynold’s (1799-1858) story “Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal, of the Pacific,” a tale that Reynolds allegedly heard during his travels. Reynolds claims to have heard the tale from the first mate of a Nantucket whaler and in the story he gives a good description of the animal:

“But to return to Mocha Dick – which, it may be observed, few were solicitous to do, who had once escaped from him. This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool! Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar… he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, “a genuine old sog,” of the first water.”

There was an actual white sperm whale that, like Tashtego, the Gay Head Indian harpooner on Melville’s Pequod, a real-life Gay Head Indian harpooner killed.

Bark Platina of New Bedford outward bound, circa 1906. ODHS # 2000.100.915

In 1902, the same year that the Kathleen was sunk, Amos Smalley, a harpooner from Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard onboard the bark Platina of New Bedford using a darting gun struck a white sperm whale on the “Western Grounds” in the North Atlantic and killed it with a bomb lance.

The whale was spotted by Walter Thompson, a boy at the time, from the masthead of the Platina but the Platina’s master, Thomas McKenzie, was incredulous that the all-white creature was a sperm whale but other crew members confirmed the spout and the boats were lowered away. Smalley later described the whale as being very large and old.