Buried in a Barrel: the story of Captain Sluman Gray~6 min read
We’ve probably heard of metaphorically being “over a barrel”, but what about literally being in one?
This is the curious sea-farin’ tale of Captain Sluman Gray of Lebanon, in Connecticut (and what happened to him after his demise and burial), even though the gulf between the story and the truth can be as wide as the ocean itself.
Well, for a long time, the story regarding Capt. Gray went something like this: an experienced whaling captain, Gray—with his wife Sarah and their children in tow—put out aboard the James Maury in June 1864 from New Bedford, Massachuset, headed for luxurious hunting grounds in the South Pacific.
However, while it was amidst the hostilities of the Civil War, the James Maury came under attack from a Confederate raider, the Shenandoah, which directed a full onslaught on the weaponless and defensless whaleship. During the fray, the valiant Capt. Gray was mortally wounded, and subsequently expired.
Rather than letting her husband be buried at sea as was the custom, the newly widowed Sarah Gray appealed to the Shenandoah’s captain, begging that Capt. Gray’s body be kept on board for proper burial at their home, in Connecticut.
The Confederate crew conceded but, with no better options available, it was decided to preserve the dearly departed captain in a barrel of rum.
And then after returning home, rather than being unpacked, Capt. Gray was laid to rest in Lebanon—barrel and all.
An interesting story, no doubt, but reality is just as compelling.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea itself was hazardous.
Fortunes were made or lost. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. And, in some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.
Also Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship.
Sluman was really the captain of the James Maury, which sailed from New Bedford in June 1864 in pursuit of whales. And he really did die while at sea during this fateful voyage, although the circumstances were much less dramatic than the popular story.
Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. Thanks to his whaling and navigational skills, in 1842, in his late 20s, he became a highly successful whaling captain.
His wife Sarah joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for 20 years. Yes, rare, but not unheard of as captains were allowed to bring their families on trips. And three of their eight children were born during their voyages.
He commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, Connecticut, to the Indian and North Pacific oceans; the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, Connecticut, to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific oceans; and the Montreal of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the North Pacific Ocean.
While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded on board, and he did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah once reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. But, to their chagrin, he recovered.
As Capt. Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut, and lived there for seven years, where his house still stands. But this bucolic life did not last, and Capt. Gray returned to whaling.
With his wife and three children — 16-year-old Katie, 10-year-old Sluman Jr. and 2-year-old Nellie, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864, on the James Maury, to steering the course toward hunting grounds in the South Pacific.
Although New England whalers had long hunted the waters of the Atlantic, increased competition from other countries forced them to travel farther from home ports. By the 1860s, ships were regularly venturing to the South Pacific and even to the Arctic to find whales, making for arduous journeys that often spanned years.
After more than nine months at sea, the James Maury was in the South Pacific near Guam when, rather than being caught in the crossfire of the Civil War, Sluman Gray suddenly became seriously ill.
After two days, he was dead.
The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2 p.m. our Captain expired after an illness of two days.”
He was 51 years old.
Later in a letter, Sarah would describe the fatal illness as being “an inflamation of the bowels.”
Unfortunately, such a poor description could have been anything from a regular flu to food poisoning, so it’s not known what ultimately did in Capt. Gray.
Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who died in infancy, and she could not bear to bury her husband at sea as it was anything but romantic.
But how would Sarah embalm the body?
It was recorded that Capt. Gray had been preserved “in spirits”, likely rum, although probably no one never toasted his memory with any of that alcohol.
And the voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic: death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season.
The “death in battle” story also doesn’t fit the timeline of actual events as the James Maury didn’t encounter the Shenandoah until a few months later, in June, when the vessel, with the widow Gray, her children and barrel-bound husband still on board, had continued its voyage.
Historically, even if the Civil War had actually ended two months earlier without official word, the Shenandoah was still engaged in following orders to wreak havoc on the Union whaling fleet. (Interestingly, the Shenandoah would actually fire the last shot of the Civil War a few weeks later.)
Under Lt. Commander James I. Waddell, the heavily armed ship captured 24 unarmed whaling vessels in June 1865 alone, part of the 38 Union vessels it would take in total.
Waddell, had not heard — or refused to believe —that the South had already surrendered.
Despite most ships were sunk or burned, with crews taken prisoner, the presence of Sarah Gray and her sons spared the James Maury, as Waddell assured her that the men of the South did not make war on women and children.
And so, the James Maury was ransomed and sailed to Honolulu with the Grays among the 222 prisoners on board.
Following their release, the widow and her children made their way home over the next few months, finally arriving in Lebanon in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11.
He was then finally interred in Liberty Hill Cemetery, Connecticut, in a sparsely populated area of town, on a gentle hill surrounded by tree.
But the question is: was Sluman Gray buried, barrel and all?
Yes, it’s possibile, as apparently there are no payments by Sarah Gray in the record of her expenses for purchase of a coffin or fee to a carpenter for making one.
And, unfortunately, there’s no indication of anything other than his formerly spirit-soaked remains being few meters underground.
On the other hand, Capt. Gray’s tombstone has an anchor on the front and says “Husband.” The inscription, which is weathered and very hard to read reads the captain’s name and only says, “Aged 51 yrs. 4 mos. Died onboard ship “James Murray” near island Guam”.
In any case, one thing is for certain: after a long journey, Capt. Gray is finally at rest.
Sarah died 20 years later and was buried next to her husband. The graves of some of their children who died young, marked with lamb figures atop each, are next to them.
There has been some stories that Sarah Gray may have intentionally killed some her children, although it’s mostly…stories.
Images from web – Google Research