The Ballad of the Pickled Whaling Captain from Connecticut


19th century ship 19th century ship
Captain Sluman Gray had a "spirited" ending aboard the ship the James Maury (not pictured). ilbusca/Getty Images

This whale of a tale from the 19th century is actually true. At the close of the Civil War, a whaling ship captain died at sea thousands of miles from his home in Lebanon, Connecticut. To preserve his body, they sealed his corpse in a barrel of rum, where it remained for more than a year until it was finally interred, barrel and all, in a Connecticut cemetery.

Captain Sluman Gray was 51 years old when he, his wife Sarah and three of their eight children set sail on the James Maury from New Bedford, Connecticut in June 1864. Whaling voyages could take years and Gray, known as a demanding and borderline cruel captain, was a softie for his family, who he liked to take along on his far-flung expeditions.

After nine months at sea, Capt. Gray took ill with "an inflammation of the bowels" in the South Pacific near Guam. Two days later he was dead. It was Sarah who decided to preserve his body in a barrel of rum rather than giving him a burial at sea. The ship's log for March 24, 1864, read simply, "Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather, made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits."

If the body-in-a-barrel story wasn't strange enough, the James Maury was then captured by a Confederate warship tasked with disrupting Yankee shipping and whaling routes. This was June 1865, two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, but Lieutenant Commander James Waddell of the CSS Shenandoah either didn't get the news that the war was over or didn't care. He captured and burned 24 whaling vessels in June 1865 alone.

Waddell spared Sarah and the James Maury — "Men of the South did not make war on women and children," he said — transporting the ship and its pickled human cargo to Hawaii, from which Capt. Gray's barrel continued its long journey home.

The story goes that Capt. Gray was buried in his rum barrel in March 1866, but nothing at the Liberty Hill Cemetery indicates anything unusual. New England historian Alicia Wayland told Damned Connecticut that there are no records of Sarah buying a casket or paying a carpenter to construct one. The only way to confirm the barrel story would be to dig up poor old pickled Capt. Gray.