His Whaleship: How To See A Real Whale in 1881

The  Columbus Evening Dispatch,  Saturday August 27, 1881, front page.

The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Saturday August 27, 1881, front page.

In the early 1880s, the Great International Menagerie, Aquarium, and Circus touted its exhibit of “A Leviathan Whale, a grand and magnificent specimen, the King of the Deep” as “…the only show in the world that exhibits a WHALE.” 

And by WHALE, the Menagerie meant an actual dead whale that was quasi-taxidermied and carted around from one American town to the next.  (Not to be outdone, the Burr Robbins Circus exhibited a giant paper-mâché whale a few years later.  The two whales dueled their way across the United States fighting for audiences, often picking up on each other’s publicity.)  For decades, this Music Man-like showmanship was how the American public saw real, genuine whales.

The  Columbus Evening Dispatch , Tuesday, March 8, 1881, front page.

The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Tuesday, March 8, 1881, front page.

At each town’s stop, the carpenters for Great International Menagerie built a staging area for the whale exposition.  The show, the bustle of activity, the anticipation of the WHALE something so singularly extraordinary, never failed to draw huge crowds.  Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see for yourself this marine curiosity.  The Menagerie’s King of the Deep arrived in Columbus, Ohio, on 8 March 1881.  The headlines in the Columbus Dispatch screamed, “He is coming! He is coming!  The Monster Whale! The Monarch Supreme of the Ocean! The Giant of the Gigantic Creation of the Universe!  Don’t Fail To Bring The Children!”

When the whale showed up, it was a mob scene.  (“It requires a great deal of elbow room, because his whaleship is sixty feet long in the clear,” the Dispatch reported.)  Although intrigued with something as exotic as the whale, it was the story of how the whale went from a living marine mammal to a dead exhibit traveling through Columbus, that really captivated audiences.  Visitors invariably wanted to know how the exhibit was possible – exactly how the whale’s entrails were removed and replaced with first ice and then chemicals, how the sawdust underneath the whale corpse kept the whale’s leaking in check, how yet more chemicals on the outside the whale kept the skin from decomposing, and how iron hoops within the whale’s body kept His Whaleship from collapsing.  Columbus Dispatch readers were encouraged to attend the show by reports that the exhibit was “free from unpleasant odor.”

For the nineteenth-century Menagerie-goers, seeing the real whale in the flesh – more or less – wasn’t really so much about the actual whale itself, but about how the whale’s keepers had so effectively cheated the decay of death to bring the whale to them. 


Fred Pfening, “Moby Dick on Rails,” The Bandwagon, 1987, 14–17