A PASSION FOR WHALING Introduction and Acknowledgements by Susan Tamulevich, Executive Director, New London Maritime Society

While the riches and detritus of New London’s whaling heyday are evident throughout its downtown, there is some sense that this city surrendered the legacy of its adventurous whalers’ spirit to the nearby Mystic Seaport and to New Bedford – two places where the 19th century whaling enterprise is given its due.

So last August, when the Maritime Society received the gift of a whaling journal, it came as a surprise. Although for several decades New London was one of the leading whaling ports in the world, the Custom House did not have a whaling journal, nor did we have a single whaling log. The City has not retained its artifacts. They are almost all in Mystic and New Bedford.

Founded in 1983, New London Maritime Society’s Custom House Maritime Museum came a little late to the dance. Over 38 years, largely through gifts and loans we have developed some very good collections, among these Ellery Thompson seascapes, sailor ‘woolies’, vintage diving gear, lighthouse lenses. But we have surprisingly little primary material having to do with whaling – the industry that built the city.

New London, itself, came to whaling later than some places in the northeast; the city’s early maritime interests focused on the triangle trade. Only after the 1808 Transatlantic Slave Treaty put an end to the import of enslaved Africans did New London turn its eye to whaling. By 1833, when this custom house was built, the City was one of the world’s leading whaling ports, at times second only to New Bedford. The wealth of the whaling companies endowed the City’s architecture, hospital, art museum, schools, and statuary. 

As the global business of whaling waned in the mid to late 19th century, New London’s former whaling captains and crews formed a social group -- the Jibboom Club. The Club had its own museum made up of whaling items and exotic objects collected by its members. The Club dissolved in the 1950s, and its collection ended up in one of the white pillared houses on Whale Oil Row in the Tale of the Whale museum operated by Carl and Alma Wies. When that museum closed, most of the collection was sold to Mystic Seaport.

When the Custom House museum opened it had some small whaling items in its initial collection and slowly it has acquired more. Recently, the Seaport loaned us several Jibboom Club artifacts and in 2019  Citizens Bank donated a dramatic whaling scene, painted by the Noank artist Lars Thorsen. 

But it was not until Edwina Badger gave us the Merrimac journal last August that a true pent-up passion for New London’s whaling legacy became evident. Nothing prepared us for the flood of community support that materialized when the museum announced the project of transcribing the 156-page hand-written journal as a community event. Within weeks, we had 80 ‘citizen scrivener’ volunteers at it. 

That generosity -- that enthusiasm – means a great deal to this little museum. 

I specifically want to thank Edwina Owens Badger for the donation of the journal, historian Skip Findley for working to find the journal a good home, research librarian Bow Van Riper of the Martha's Vineyard Museum for determining New London was the rightful place for the book, NLMS librarian Laurie Deredita for suggesting the community transcription approach and for managing what became a rather large undertaking, and Brian Hallenbeck of the Day for chronicling this gift and getting word of the project out. 

This could not have happened without our generous volunteer transcribers. Armed with a simple transcription ‘key’, they blew through the 156 hand-written pages in a matter of weeks, faster than we ever would have imagined. 

Our ‘citizen scriveners’ volunteered for a variety of reasons. Several are descendants of whalers and wanted to know something of that hard-knock life, others are maritime historians, local history buffs, former school teachers (notoriously good at deciphering misspellings and difficult handwriting). It was the perfect COVID-era project and many scriveners signed on just to try something new. Thank you!

Amongst the volunteers, several individuals with special expertise stepped forward to help with work beyond the transcription. Genealogists and researchers, including Sandi Brewster-walker, Daneen Roth and Peter Francis, helped to determine the journal’s author, who until now had been a mystery. Steven Purdy contributed an insightful interview about the economics of whaling. Craig Showalter created a parallel readable text. Barbara Nagy helped mightily with the editing. 

The transcription is done! We now can read the exploits of our journalist aboard the Merrimac and in far distant lands – revealing anecdotes that make clear why former whalers wanted to congregate in comfort and relive those experiences -- both harrowing and mundane -- with fellow sailors at the Jibboom Club.

This was a most-gratifying community undertaking. Thank you, all.

Merrimac journal transcribers:

Heidi Adams

Bill Adler 

Jennifer Ahern 

Lisa Louise Arnold

Kate Berger 

Pamela Berry  

Eleanor Boba

Deanna Bossdorf

Sandi Brewster-walker

Richard D. Brown

Stephanie Burns & family

Barbara Claire 

Shirley Cowles  

Douglas Craig

Karina Danvers

Deanna Davies

Denise Davies  

Kimberly Deveau

Jackie Allen Doucot  

Jean Doyle

Jackie Duda

Lisa Ford

Michelle Fox

Peter Francis

Ardith Franklin 

Dick & Maureen Fraser

Fuji Fulgueras  

Alejandra Garcia

Stephen Gibbs

Siobhán Kelly Gordon

Sandy Griesbach

Kit Hartford

Natalia Iwanczuk

Nan Jay

Rebecca A Joy-Buck

Margaret Ival Stratford Kovner

Margaret LaCroix

Dirk Langeveld 

Jennifer LaVoie  

Susan Lennon

Jane Lescoe 

Kenneth Marangell

Linda Mariani 

Rebecca Marshall

Helen Miller

Jimnahs Miller

John Mock

Elizabeth Montgomery 

Joann Morris  

John & Patti Murray

Barbara Nagy 

Jane Newpeck

Margery Nicholls

Carol Nicolucci 

Greg Nole

David Oat 

Patty Oat

Steve Purdy

Marie Ricketts 

Karen Roberts

Lucy Rossi-Reder

Daneen Roth

Pam and Roger Ryley

Callie Scheetz

Susan E. Schopp

Leona  Schwartz

Craig Showalter  

Shiela Siegel

Tony and Andrea Skiff 

Michael Tagg

Ayla Taylor-Robichaud 

Eric Thomas  

Gerald Timpe

Joan Tracey 

Melissa VanRiper 

Annette Whidden

Marie Tyler Wiley

Walter & Tita Williams

John Wirzbicki  

A PASSION FOR WHALING Introduction and Acknowledgements by Susan Tamulevich, Executive Director, New London Maritime Society