James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale. He was found still living days later in the stomach of the whale, which was dead from harpooning.
The story, as reported, is that during a whaling expedition off the Falkland Islands, Bartley’s boat was attacked by the whale and he landed inside the whale’s mouth.
He survived the ordeal and was carved out of the stomach by his peers when they, not knowing he was inside, caught and began skinning the whale, because the hot weather otherwise would have rotted the whale meat.
It was said that Bartley was inside the whale for 36 hours, that his skin had been bleached by the gastric juices, and that he was blind the rest of his life.
In some accounts, however, he was supposed to have returned to work within three weeks. He died 18 years later and his tombstone in Gloucester says “James Bartley – a modern day Jonah.”
In 1896, an article titled “A Modern Jonah Proves his Story” was published in the New York World; it quoted a brief portion of this story, as told by Rev.
William Justin Harsha, along with some initial observations. This was followed about a week later by another article that briefly summarised some responses from readers, followed by a third article by William L. Stone, who related a similar story involving a massive “man-eating shark”.
The French scientist De Parville published a report of the alleged incident in the Paris Journal des Débats in 1914.
More recently, the facts were carefully investigated by historian Edward B. Davis, who pointed out many inconsistencies.
The ship in the story is The Star of the East; a British ship by the same name existed and sailed during the time in which the incident allegedly occurred and could have been near the Falklands at the right time, but the relevant Star of the East was not a whaling vessel and its crew list did not include a James Bartley.
Moreover, Mrs. John Killam, the wife of the Captain, wrote a letter stating that “there is not one word of truth in the whale story.
I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.”
Davis suggested that the story may have been inspired by the “Gorleston whale”, a 30-foot rorqual killed near Great Yarmouth shortly before in June 1891 that generated a lot of publicity.
While the veracity of the story is in question, it is physically possible for a sperm whale to swallow a human whole, as they are known to swallow giant squid whole.
However, such a person would be crushed, drowned or suffocated in the whale’s stomach. Like ruminants, the sperm whale has a four-chambered stomach.
The first secretes no gastric juices and has very thick muscular walls to crush the food (since whales cannot chew) and resist the claw and sucker attacks of swallowed squid. The second chamber is larger and is where digestion takes place.
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