Supposedly this month in 1891 a sailor named James Bartley was swallowed by a whale and lived!

This story showed up in a number of books and news stories in the late 19th century, and it usually goes like this.

James Bartley was serving on a whaling ship called Star of the East, which was sailing near the Falkland Islands in February 1891.

A member of the crew spotted a giant sperm whale several miles away, so Bartley and several other crew members got in two smaller boats to harpoon the creature.

The accounts say one of the boats did harpoon the whale, but as it thrashed around, it knocked some of the men into the water.

After some 15 hours, the remaining crew started slicing up the whale carcass when they noticed something moving inside the stomach.

It was Bartley, who had turned bright white because of the whale’s stomach acids.

He was also nearly blind, nearly hairless and extremely delirious; it took several weeks for him to recover.

But he’d survived, and long after his encounter with the whale his tombstone called him “a modern day Jonah,” after the Bible story.

That’s the legend.

The Straight Dope took a closer look and found it was almost certainly too good to be true.

For one thing, it’s very unlikely that a person could get through the whale’s relatively narrow throat.

And since there’s no air in a whale’s stomach, they couldn’t survive if they did get in there.

While there was a ship called Star of the East in 1891, it wasn’t a whaling ship.

It also wasn’t near the Falkland Islands at the time, and the wife of the captain said she was on the ship at the time and no crew member ever went overboard.

So where did the story come from?

Well, in addition to the story of Jonah and the whale, there’s the original novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” in which Gepetto lives inside a whale’s stomach for years.

Meanwhile, in June of 1891, a whale beached off the coast of the UK and ended up going on display around England.

The Bartley story could have been invented to piggyback off the real whale story, or to publicize the real whale story.

Or sometimes true stories get mixed up with storybooks and they turn into fish stories – even the ones that feature whales.

This week in Saranac Lake, New York, near Lake Placid, it’s the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival.

For over a century they’ve been building an annual Ice Palace, as well as ice chairs, ice sculptures and much more.

Plus they have fireworks!

The Straight Dope (Chicago Reader)

Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

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Photo by Jim Kravitz via Flickr/Creative Commons