This was not always the case. Once it was a desolate isolated island. Herman Melville describes it in Moby Dick (1851):
Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it — a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie...This does not sound like the summer playground of millionaires. It was not, but it was the whaling capital of the world. Melville himself sailed on the Charles and Henry, a Nantucket whaling ship, in 1842, which was one of the inspirations for Moby Dick.
Although the Wampanoag who originally lived on Nantucket may have occasionally killed whales, whaling as an industry only began there in 1690 when Ichabod Paddock arrived from Cape Cod. Paddock was a Quaker, an accomplished whaler, and a semi-legendary figure.
|Image from here.|
There are several legends about Paddock. For example, one claims that while he was in the Pacific he threw his favorite harpoon into a whale. The harpoon reached its mark, but the whale escaped. Thirteen years later, he was once again in the Pacific. His ship sighted a whale, which the crew successfully captured and killed. While they were cutting it up they found a harpoon embedded deep in its flesh. It had the initials "I.P." on it. It was the same whale Paddock had harpooned thirteen years ago.
One of the weirder legends tells how Paddock's ship was pursuing a whale named Crookjaw. No matter how hard Paddock's crew threw their harpoons they just bounced off Crookjaw. Even Ichabod himself could not harpoon the whale. Frustrated and unwilling to admit defeat, Ichabod put a knife between his teeth and dove into the ocean. As his terrified crew watched he swam right towards Crookjaw.
Crookjaw opened his mouth and swallowed Paddock whole.
Much to his surprise, Paddock did not die inside the darkness of a whale's stomach. Instead, he found himself inside a comfortable ship's cabin. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and a large feather bed sat against one wall. A table filled the center of the room, and two people were playing cards at it. One was a beautiful blonde woman who had a shining green fish tail instead of legs. The other was a dark-clad man who smelled of fire and brimstone.
When the card players saw Paddock the dark man threw down his cards in anger and disappeared. The blonde woman (mermaid? witch?) smiled at Paddock.
"What were you wagering on?" he asked her.
"Why you, of course." She smiled again.
Meanwhile, the crew of Paddock's ship waited for some sign of their captain. After swallowing him Crookjaw just sat immobile, floating silently as the waves splashed against him. The crew didn't know what else to do. Their harpoons and knives were useless against the whale.
After several hours, Crookjaw opened his mouth and Paddock swam out on a torrent of water. He climbed back aboard his ship. "Boys," he said with a big grin, "We need to come back here tomorrow. I've got more work to do!"
Paddock and his crew came back the next day, and once again Paddock swam into the whale's mouth. His crew waited for hours while Crookjaw floated passively in the water until their captain emerged from the whale. Then they came back the next day. And the day after that.
This went on for quite a while. Rumors began to circulate around Nantucket that Paddock had been seduced by a devilish woman who lived in a whale, and they eventually reached the ears of his wife. Mrs. Paddock was young, beautiful, and unwilling to cede her husband to a witchy mermaid. She developed a plan.
One day as Paddock was about to set sail his wife ran down the wharf to his ship. "Husband!" she cried, "Husband! I have brought you a gift."
In her hands she held a glistening new harpoon. It's sharp tip shone brightly in the sun. Paddock thanked her and set sail for his assignation with her gift in his hand. Mrs. Paddock smiled a cold smile as the ship left the wharf.
When the ship found Crookjaw in his usual spot Paddock prepared to dive into the sea, but one of his crew stopped him. "Captain," he said, "Don't you think you should try that new harpoon your wife gave you? It's mighty fine. Maybe it can pierce the monster's skin."
Grudgingly, Paddock took up the harpoon. He knew it couldn't harm the enchanted whale, and he was eager to see his marine mistress. Still, he needed to keep up some level of appearance. He drew back his arm and threw the shining harpoon at Crookjaw.
The harpoon easily pierced the whale's hide, and with a hideous groan Crookjaw rolled over on his back. He was dead. Mrs. Paddock had asked a local blacksmith to forge a harpoon with a silver tip, and silver is one metal that always defeats witchcraft.
The crew didn't find a ship's cabin inside the whale when they cut open its stomach, just bile and half-digested fish. Paddock searched desperately through the offal for some sign of his lover, but all he found was long yellow seaweed and a few seashells.
This story appears in quite a few places and with several variations. In some versions the seductress is clearly a witch, and in others a mermaid. I found this version in Nathaniel Philbrick's Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602 - 1890. Philbrick notes that Paddock was eventually kicked out of the Quakers after he "sailed about in a vessel where dancing was performed and he a partaker therein." The story about Crookjaw may be a legend but it seems to say something true about Paddock's personality.
Witches and sailors have a fraught (and often sexual) relationship in New England folklore. For example, Captain Sylvanus Rich was seduced by a witch who gave him the "sweet milk of Satan," while Skipper Ireson was ridden like a stallion at night by a witch as punishment. The Paddock legend is more elaborate but clearly fits in this genre.
|Hercules, Hesione, and the Sea Monster, from the Museum of Fine Arts|
Heroes have been swallowed by giant sea monsters throughout history. For example, Hercules was swallowed by a sea monster that came to eat the Trojan princess Hesione. He emerged alive several days later after killing the monster from the inside, but not before losing all his hair due to the acid in the monster's stomach. Two lessons to learn: Hercules is invulnerable but his hair isn't, and sea monster acid is nature's depilatory.
|Jonah and the Whale, Pieter Lastman, 1620|
The most famous person to emerge from a whale's stomach is of course the Biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah was told by God to preach in Nineveh, but didn't want to because he was afraid of the hostile reception he'd get there. He booked passage on a ship going in the opposite direction, but the crew threw him overboard after God besieged the ship with a storm. A whale swallowed Jonah, swam to Nineveh, and vomited him up on the shore. Jonah got the message and started preaching.
In the movie Pinocchio, Gepetto is swallowed by a whale, and Pinocchio eventually goes inside to save him. This act of sacrifice turns the puppet Pinocchio into a real boy.
Hercules, Jonah and Pinocchio find heroism, destiny and redemption inside their respective whales. Ichabod Paddock finds witchcraft, secret sex and the Devil. But after all, this is New England.