Modern history

Chapter 9

Life After Death

Then hurrah! for the mighty monster whale,

Which has got 17 feet 4 inches from tip to tip of a tail!

Which can be seen for a sixpence or a shilling,

That is to say, if the people are willing . . .

William McGonagall

‘The Famous Tay Whale’

‘Have you seen the whale?’ was the interrogation that met one on every hand in Dundee and its neighbourhood yesterday. To give a negative reply to the query was to put oneself in the position of a person justly entitled to universal and unbounded pity; and it may be surmised that there were few who had the courage to deny a visual acquaintance with the monster that has added so much to the fame of the ‘silvery Tay’. As a matter of fact, however, almost everybody has seen the whale . . . The Dundonians are, naturally, proud of their whale, but it may be questioned whether a good many of them would not have preferred that his whaleship had been allowed to enjoy his large life in his native deeps, instead of being laid on his back in an oil yard . . . It would, of course, have been too much to expect that he would have taken up his quarters permanently in the Tay; but he might have taken kindly to the beautiful estuary, and paid it periodic visits – and surely this would have been honour enough to Dundee. But this is mere idle sentiment. Whales exist only to be captured and converted into oil and other things of commercial value. Therefore, when one appeared in the Tay last month the desire to get hold of him, for the purpose of converting into as much money as possible, was one of the most natural that could be entertained.

The Advertiser

January 1884

The Procession travelled the half-mile to John Woods’s yard without further mishap, but Further Mishap had simply travelled faster than the laborious progress of the whale and was lurking just inside the yard. Greasy Johnny’s preparations had been so swift and the results so spectacular that some overlooked shortcoming was more or less inevitable. It kicked in on his doorstep. The huge weight of the bogie, with the addition of the 26-ton whale, encountered the soft earth of the yard and declined to go any further. Its wheels bedded down and stuck fast. The only solution was to jack up the bogie, a slow, filthy, malodorous, labour-intensive slog of an operation. The result was that the whale reached its destination (though far from its final resting place) more or less 24 hours after it had begun its weird landward journey half a mile away at Victoria Dock.

And Further Mishap had one more little trick up its mischievous sleeve. A nicely turned paragraph in the anonymous 1884 pamphlet, The History of the Whale, explains:

At the conclusion of the operation an incident occurred which, without reaching the dignity of the previous accidents, narrowly missed outshining them all. A number of naphtha lamps had been used for shedding light on the work of getting the fish in at the gateway, and at the close these were stored in one of the outhouses on the premises. Some of the oil had been spilled and caught fire, which rapidly spread. Mr Woods and some assistants promptly threw a number of saturated cloths over the flames, and fortunately succeeded in quelling the fire, or the fish, which had already been shot, drowned, and hanged at the crane, might have missed its destiny of boiling, by being prematurely roasted.

Considering all that had gone before and all that was about to befall the Tay Whale, a swift roasting might have been kinder. Meanwhile divers recruited by Greasy Johnny carried out one of their more unlikely operations: they recovered the whale’s tongue from the Victoria Dock. God knows why, or what was done with it once it was brought to Woods’s premises, and once it was weighed. (It weighed half a ton.) What can you do with the tongue of a whale that has been dead for more than a week, a tongue whose condition was surely not improved by spending a night at the bottom of the Victoria Dock? But that was the least of the indignities that lay in wait. At least the tongue fell out of its own accord. The rest of the whale had to be forcibly excavated before Greasy Johnny’s masterplan could be implemented.

By the following Saturday, he was ready to start receiving paying guests at his yard. He had already paid out over £400 to bring the whale home, including what some saw as a niggardly half-sovereign a man to the Dundee crews who harpooned it. He was now ready to recoup his investment. He opened his gates to the world, and invited them to come in and see the whale – for a small fee: between 9 a.m and 4 p.m. the fee was one shilling; between 4 p.m and 9 p.m it was sixpence. He had anticipated brisk business. He alerted the railway companies who laid on special excursions from Perth, sundry Angus towns and from Fife. That first day, 12,000 people came. Many more were turned away. Say for the sake of argument that 8,000 paid a shilling and 4,000 paid sixpence, which is a reasonable enough estimate. At 20 shillings in the pound, that’s £500 on the first day. Greasy Johnny had struck pay-dirt.

Early the following week, local newspapers carried an advertisement that began: ‘THE TAY WHALE. Now on exhibition at Mr Woods’ oil establishment, End of East Dock Street, until further notice. Mr Woods takes this opportunity of apologising to the Thousands of People disappointed on Saturday, but . . .’ and the gist of the ‘but’ was that they should try again. They did, and in two weeks, 50,000 people had paid for the privilege of eyeballing the Tay Whale at close quarters.

And then, just when I had become convinced that Woods was an opportunist money-grabbing son-of-a-bitch, I stumbled on this among the old press reports: ‘Mr Woods has kindly arranged for the free exhibition of the whale to the boys of the Morgan Hospital, the boys and girls in the Royal Orphan Institution, the Deaf and Dumb Institution, the boys of the Industrial School, Baldovan, the girls of the Industrial School, Ward Road, and the inmates of East and West Poorhouses.’

One hundred and twenty-five years after the event, Greasy Johnny is not an easy figure to pin down, and I suspect it was no easier at the time. Besides, Greasy Johnny was not the only one to cash in on the phenomenon of the Tay Whale. Local photographers periodically set up a table and chair inside its propped-open mouth, and for three shillings you could sit there for a portrait. Why you would want to is another matter, but there were many takers, the fashionable formality of the poses rather at odds with the surroundings and the niggling suspicion among viewers of the subsequent portraits that here were people trying very hard to hold their breath just a little longer.

I was horrified when I first read about this. Perhaps it was a joke? I hoped against hope that even in the economic and social climate of the 1880s, when the only good whale was a dead whale, even in Dundee that made such a good living out of dead whales, the natives’ sense of just the most basic, common decency would have stopped well short of posing for a photograph inside its mouth, and that somehow adding the table and chair was surely a kind of Addams Family twist to the joke in execrable taste. But it was no joke. It happened, and as with everything to do with the Tay Whale’s commercial life after death, business was brisk.

And if you thought the idea of a human being wandering into the open mouth of a whale only happened in the Bible and was about as credible as fitting two of every species on earth into an ark, be assured there was room to spare in that mouth not just for a table and chair but also for a three-piece suite and an upright piano. Here, for example, is a more reliable witness than Jonah, Roger Payne writing in Among Whales:

When you and I say the whale opens its mouth ‘wide’ we may have a kind of mental picture about the process . . . But I can assure you that no-one is ever properly prepared for the degree to which a humpback whale can open its mouth. I have witnessed a humpback repeatedly open its mouth more than ninety degrees. And I have, by making an off-the-cuff calculation, satisfied myself that it could have comfortably engulfed a medium-sized car in the cavern of its gape. I have a friend who was studying humpbacks in Alaska when one of them rose beneath his boat. The next thing he knew he and the boat were inside its widely opened mouth, a situation that only lasted for a second as the whale was apparently as surprised as he and instantly backed off. But he observed that when his Zodiac was in the whale’s mouth it was not grounded on the whale’s jaws but was floating freely, with water under its keel.

The man from the Advertiser, who clearly revelled in his reporting duties throughout the saga of the whale, and took more than his share of liberties, was there when the gates of Greasy Johnny’s yard were finally closed to the public. He offered this retrospective:

Although he has not been looking quite his best since he was brought to terra firma, his appearance has certainly made a great impression on the public mind. Thousands of people have flocked to his matinees and his evening parties on the invitation of Mr Wood, his enterprising purchaser. Every day, however, he became less attractive to the eyes and especially to the noses of his visitors. It has been a source of disappointment to a great many people not previously acquainted with whales that his only recognisable feature was his tail. This slight defect in his appearance, it may be mentioned, is now intended to be remedied, for we understand that, after the work of removing the too-rapidly decomposing portions of his structure has been completed, these are to be replaced by a wooden framework, which will give what is left of him, as nearly as possible, his proper outline.

The worst appearance, without exception, that ever the gigantic cetacean made was yesterday . . .

Ah yes, the dissecting and embalming had just begun.

Professor John Struthers of Aberdeen University, who came second to Greasy Johnny at the Stonehaven auction, had nevertheless continued to follow every twist and turn of the whale’s afterlife. He and Greasy Johnny had both realised at more or less the same time that each could be of use to the other in pursuit of their very different ambitions for the whale, and struck up an unlikely relationship. It survived Greasy Johnny’s change of mind about the final destination of the skeleton. He had originally agreed to the professor’s request to give it to Aberdeen in exchange for services rendered, but such was the level of interest in the creature in Dundee, he had sat down a few days before the professor’s arrival and written the following letter:

East Dock Street,


21st January, 1884

To the Provost and Magistrates of the Royal Burgh of Dundee

The Tay Whale


I have much pleasure in intimating to you that when done exhibiting the above monster, and when dissected by the learned professors, I will be happy to hand over the remains to you for presentation to the town of Dundee, so that the skeleton may be secured for our own museum.

Yours very truly,


The letter was warmly received at a special meeting of the council, where it was agreed that Mr Woods should be thanked for his patriotic gesture in the face of strong interest from many other museums which had been ‘anxious to secure the fish’.

The relationship between Greasy Johnny and the professor even survived the professor’s discovery, when he arrived in Dundee to perform the partial dissection and embalmment of the whale, that he had been cast as a kind of head clown in a setting that owed more to a circus than a scientific laboratory. Greasy Johnny, of course, was the ringmaster.

Again, you can’t help but be impressed both by the speed and general efficiency with which he made things happen, all of it with a certain dramatic flair that veered between the outrageous and the hideous. So the professor, aided by Mr Robert Gibb of the Aberdeen Anatomical Museum and Mr George Sim who is simply described as ‘a naturalist’, arrived at the Woods yard to find an area enclosed by small grandstands, and in its centre a large wooden platform on which the whale lay, belly-up as he had requested. The grandstands were for invited guests, including medical experts from the city and its surrounding area, clergymen (Why clergymen? Did they expect the first incision to unearth a Jonah-like revelation?), whaling captains (as if they hadn’t seen enough dead whales in their time) and sundry civic dignitaries. The guests may have been invited, but they were expected to pay sweetly for the privilege of being invited – half a crown. Greasy Johnny probably reasoned that (a) they wouldn’t want not to be on the list and (b) they could all afford it. The whole area had been floored with sawdust, and as if that didn’t serve the illusion of a circus well enough, Greasy Johnny had hired a band. Much to the irritation of the professor, the band of the Forfarshire Rifle Volunteers played ‘appropriate music’. It was a tough gig for the band. One of many press reports noted: ‘Shortly before eleven the band of the 1st F.R.V. marched into the enclosure . . . It may be presumed that the conductor had found it impossible to arrange a programme consisting of music appropriate to the dissection of a whale, for the airs discoursed during the day were of a popular and lively character.’

Something like ‘Whale Meat Again’ perhaps? (‘Whale meat again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but there’ll be whale meet again some sunny day . . .’)

But the gathering was there to witness the surgical humiliation of the whale and, just as likely, to be seen to be there, for by now the whale was an object of endless fascination for the nation’s press as well as the only subject in town worth talking about. Professor Struthers made the first incision near the tail and carried it forward to near the mouth. The skin, with its four-inch-thick layer of blubber, was drawn back using a block and tackle, which sounds more industrial than surgical, but then the incision was made with a flensing knife, not a scalpel, and in Dundee in 1884, there were few things more symbolic of heavy industry than a dead whale. The stomach was thus exposed. ‘The viscera, together with pelvic bones and rudimentary hind limbs and surrounding flesh were placed in casks . . . the vast quantity of matter in the inside of the whale created great surprise among uninitiated observers.’ God knows why. But three hours fairly flew by while the flesh and blubber were cut away from the skeleton and carefully stowed in barrels to be boiled for oil. This was, it should be remembered, still an oil merchant’s yard and not a university campus and not a circus, and for all the oil merchant’s dramatic flair and entrepreneurial skills, he was still an oil merchant. Meanwhile, the viscera were finally exposed, and the band played on while the disembowelment proceeded.

The tail muscle was exposed. It was ‘nearly the girth of a man’s body’. But it seems that everyone wanted to see the heart. It proved to be ‘a ponderous mass of flesh and quite filled a large barrel’. We know this because a squad of whalers had also been recruited to delve into the whale’s innards and remove those organs, bones and other items of scientific interest that the professor identified. Irony doesn’t get much grimmer than this. Some of the very men whom the whale had defeated in the last hours of its life, and who were consoled by Greasy Johnny with a half-sovereign apiece, now added to their income from the whale they had failed to deliver by wresting the very heart from its body. It is fair to say that more than the irony was grim. The frightful nature of that particular labour would have to be seen to be believed, and for that matter, it would have to be smelled to be believed too. Among the eye-witness reports was this: ‘The proceedings at first were watched with a good deal of interest by the spectators . . . but as the work progressed, the stench emanating from the carcase proved too strong for a good many. Those who had first crowded round the operators gradually retreated to a safe distance and held their noses . . .’

So sundry barrels of whale components – including much of the skeleton – were readied for transport to Aberdeen University, and over the next two days the innards of the whale were embalmed with vast quantities of carbolic acid. Then a wooden frame was pushed into the skin, effectively replacing the skeleton, and yet more vast quantities, this time of straw, were stuffed into the skin until it once more began to bear a passing resemblance to a humpback whale. It was in this guise – devoid of blubber, flesh, heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, bone and muscle, to name but a few shortcomings – that the Tay Whale was readied to go on a tour of Britain, a journey by a humpback whale that never touched water. It is hard to imagine a more outrageous fraud, or for that matter a more comprehensively insulted and exploited animal. And this, remember, was a whale that might have travelled the oceans of the world for 200 years.

Something of the unsavoury flavour of all this was caught in a report in the Scotsman which more than hinted at the circus element of Greasy Johnny’s approach, as it appeared to coincide with a certain London circus owner’s attempts to palm off a piebald elephant as genuine:

It was naturally expected that this would be the ‘beginning of the end’ so far as the career of that unfortunate whale was concerned. After affording exciting sport to the whalers in the Tay, giving startling exhibitions of the giant strength with which he was endowed, dying a lingering death in the solitude of an unknown sea, being lost and found, bought and sold, exhibited to gazing thousands, and making a ‘pile’ of goodly proportions for an enterprising purchaser – the whale might surely have been allowed to complete his mission by submitting his several parts to the process which the Dundee oil merchants had decreed for whales. But it has been decided to keep up the excitement in the public mind for some time longer, and after the straw or other substance has been substituted for the internal fittings, and the body has been submitted to some kind of embalming process, his whaleship will go on tour.

He is first to ‘star’ in the provinces, and will ultimately find his way to London, about the period when perhaps the Cockneys have completely settled in their minds that the piebald elephant is a zoological humbug, and that Barnum has been to some extent ‘bamboozling’ them. As a piece of enterprise, this tour seems to reflect credit and courage and pluck upon the party who has turned the excitement over the whale to such profitable account. It indicates a canny appreciation of the importance of striking while the iron is hot. The scheme has been gratuitously advertised. Barnum could not have wished better luck in this respect if the whale had been his, and he had sent it on tour. In fact, the great showman will be jealous lest his precious pachyderm should shine with greatly diminished splendour when he comes into competition with the whale of the Tay.

But from another point of view – the sanitary aspect of the subject – it is doubtful whether the interests of the public are consulted by allowing this putrefying mass of oil and blubber to be paraded through the country. Those who saw it in Dundee many days ago are under the impression that they smell it still. The question may, therefore, suggest itself to local authorities whether this whale is not being carried a little too far.

Ah, if only, but by the time that particular scribe put pen to paper, there was an unstoppable head of steam fuelling the whale’s progress, and the smile on Greasy Johnny’s face was wide enough to accommodate a table and chair and a photographer’s model, and the boost to his bank balance would have quite filled a large barrel.

But Greasy Johnny, Professor Struthers and sundry photographers were not the only ones intent on advancing their careers on the back of the Tay Whale. There was another face in the stands at Greasy Johnny’s yard who took advantage of a lull in the repertoire of the band of the 1st Forfar Rifles Volunteers to peddle his wares. He was ‘a long-haired gentleman in a black surtout and slouched hat calling the attention of the spectators to a poem, apropos of the whale, of which he proclaimed himself the author . . .’

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