Capt. Thomas Seabury Taylor (1840-1919) | Hamilton.
Perhaps a man who has faced death more than once makes a good undertaker. Captain Taylor, one of the last great whalers of Provincetown, had his share of close calls in the fishery before settling down to run a funeral home at 309 Commercial Street. His first command, according to the 1938 Whaling Masters directory, came in 1865, at the helm of M. E. Simmons, which then hailed from Provincetown. He took charge of Quickstep the next year and Gage H. Phillips for sailings in 1867 and 1869. Simmons was back under his command in 1870 and 1872.
It was 1873 that Captain Taylor’s 24-year career began as master of the 69-ton schooner Rising Sun. He purchased her outright in 1877, not long after she was involved in an international incident in the keys of Cuba, then a Spanish colony. On 23 May, Captain Taylor and his first mate, John W. Atkins, took two whale boats out from the schooner in pursuit of whales. They had just caught one when a small, schooner-rigged Spanish coast guard cruiser, which had sailed between the whale boats and their mother ship, began firing on them. Captain Taylor was then detained for about an hour and a half aboard the cruiser. Atkins was imprisoned for five days before being released. The situation remained in a tense stalemate for those five days until a Spanish gunboat arrived. Taylor demanded to know why he and his crew had been attacked and detained. “There are a good many scamps in the world, and we don’t know whom to trust,” an officer from the gunboat replied.
When William M. Evarts, the United States secretary of state, learned of the interdiction by Spanish authorities of Rising Sun, Ellen Rizpah, and Edward Lee, he was outraged. He directed the American ambassador in Madrid (none other than the poet James Russell Lowell) to protest the incidents and remind King Alfonso XII that United States citizens “are more than ordinarily jealous of the maintenance of their national dignity” and that a “continuance, or even a single repetition of such surveillance over their commercial industries and pursuits … might tax their forbearance to a degree which would render its control difficult even to their own government.”
Lowell sent a communiqué to Spain’s minister of state, Manuel Silvela y de Le Vielleuze. How, he asked, could the coast guard cruiser have mistaken the whalers as suspicious? “A vessel engaged in whaling announces her character to more senses than one,” Lowell wrote in his protest. “Her boats, her kettles, her barrels, and the very condition of her decks are in themselves ample evidence of the nature of her occupation.” Because Cuban agitation for independence from Spain was at high pitch, Lowell said, “Lamentable occurrences such as these are the raw material out which the emissaries and allies of the Cuban insurgents in the United States manufacture sympathy for their criminal undertakings.” In response, Silvela said that the Spanish government was prepared to pay $10,000 damages to Rising Sun and Ellen Rizpah (nearly $225,000 today), “as a matter of equity and considering its desire to give therein a proof of its friendly feelings.”
A decade later, in the Charleston fishery, Captain Taylor met the largest and fiercest sperm whale he had ever seen — “a giant of the deep who did not purpose to die without getting a run for his money,” The Scrap Book magazine would later say. Captain Taylor took the first of two boats out from Rising Sun in pursuit of the giant. They landed a harpoon. But the tables were turned after the whale was struck by a bomb lance. It astonished its tormentors by rising up in a leap nearly perpendicular to the ocean’s surface, allowing itself, with “the agility of a dolphin,” to fall backward toward the second boat. When that maneuver failed to destroy the human enemy, the whale grabbed the boat in its jaws and split it into three pieces with a single bite. Captain Taylor then drew his own boat close by, hauling on the line that had been fastened to the creature with the first harpoon. He shot another bomb lance. Once again, the whale soared out of the waves and thundered back down, engulfing the entire front of the first boat into its mouth. “Captain Taylor was in the bow — practically in the throat of the whale,” John Newton Swift wrote in The Scrap Book. “One slight contraction of the creature’s jaw muscles was all that was required for the instant crushing of boat and men.” It was only because the whale let go of the boat that Captain Taylor was spared — spared to fire off another bomb lance, which ultimately proved to be the death blow.
I would have quit then and there, but Captain Taylor continued his whaling voyages, sailing in 1878, 1879, 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1886, 1896, and 1897. He then retired from the sea and went to work in the mortuary business, operating a funeral home at 309 Commercial Street, overlooking the tracks that led to Railroad Wharf. His son Hersey D. Taylor continued the funeral chapel, moving it 140 Bradford Street. Another son, William W. Taylor, opened Taylor’s Restaurant at No. 309, which proved to be a great success despite (or because of?) its history. [Lot No. 69.]
¶ Last updated on 11 March 2018.
Provincetown’s Historic Cemeteries and Memorials, Key H-47, Page 10.
Find a Grave Memorial No. 153514022.