Fish Tales and the Archive

ECHO underway, posted Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A simple search for “shark” in Connecticut History Online (now Connecticut History Illustrated), the terrific archive of thousands of images and documents, yielded unexpected and intriguing results.

Take, for example, this broadside, dated August 17, 1840. “The Shark Story Refuted” is a lengthy and humorous poem about a party of Guilford men (with several visitors from New Haven). All are named.

On a lark, this party sailed out past “Falkland Island” (now Faulkner’s Island) “to catch a PORPOISE, SHARK or WHALE.” They returned with a shark, and bets on the beast’s weight led to some other, stronger spirits—champagne and amber ale.

For reasons that go yet unexplained at this point in the poem, one of the party, having finished his amber ale, used his umbrella to thrust down the shark’s throat the empty bottle. That’s the image you see in the broadside.

Off to the doctor’s office, who cut open the shark to find a “porter bottle, cork’d and seal’d”—with a message inside!

“Wondr’ing spectators gape and stare,
And every one, from age to youth,
Believed it was the solemn truth.”

Now, here is the “fish story,” the “shark story refuted”—the gang had convinced the doctor that this message was, indeed, sent by the lost crew of the ship Ontario, mentioned very early in the poem. Our versifier writes of Dr. Foot, “He was most shamefully deceived,/ For what he saw, what he believed.”

The names mentioned in the poem, we’ve discovered, do correlate to the U.S. Federal Census of 1840, and it looks like several of the pranksters were neighbors. We’re still looking for the Ontario—many ships shared that name. A famous British warship during the American Revolution sank in Lake Ontario, with all hands and American prisoners lost. In summer 1840, however, the whaleship Ontario was on the high seas as well.

And we’re still looking for more information of the author of the poem, who reveals himself in several ways: He was born in “PARSON WHITFIELD’s house,” the stone house that now is now the Henry Whitfield State Museum. And he notes that he was not born on April Fool’s Day—another clue to the practical joke the poem recounts. His name, we learn, at the end of the poem, where we also find that he may have been a tavern keeper advertising his business in this broadside:

“They’ll learn it all of ROSSTER PARMELE.

An honest man not over meek
Where all who seek the best of fare,
Will always find it ready there.”

For the historian, a wealth of information is contained in this document—friendships that may have gone undocumented, popular culture and community high-jinks, and alas, the fate of sharks unknown.