To the memory of Ben Huggins of the Lovely Matilda
Updated: Sep 21
So, I was taking a break from designing my grave good memento mori and doing my semi-regular browse of auction sites for skeletons (you've got to have a hobby) when I came across this curious item.
Okay, so it's not a real skeleton, but it is an intriguing little thing; especially because of the inscription on the back of the coffin:
"In Memory of Ben Huggins 1st Mate,
Ship Lovely Matilda of Philadelphia Died Whaling off Newfoundland
3rd Sept 1825"
Well, colour me intrigued. It's cutely similar to the Arthur's Seat Coffins (now in the Museum of Scotland, a collection of 17 found fetish/totem/talisman/charm/amulets, reputed to be linked the possible 17 Burke and Hare murders. It's hard to know, because they have no inscriptions or labels from the maker.)
So, of course, I search for someone called Ben Huggins, who died 3rd September 1825. I expected maybe something from Ancestry.com to pitch up. Google found a few other links to auctioneers who had listed such an item previously.
Okay, so it's been bought and sold a few times over. Maybe it just hasn't found the right home yet. (I drift off briefly imagining giving it a loving home.)
Maybe it keeps being sold because it's cursed!
(Daydream quickly changes into thoughts of living with ghosts.) So I check out the other auction house hits - to both get an idea as to the guide price accuracy, and see better images of the item.
Instead what I find explains the other odd word in the original description. "A COPY of..."
These are NOT the same object! And yet, they are really similar... suspiciously TOO similar to be even the same man deciding to make the same memorial to a dead sailing chum unless he is insistently copying from one image of a sailing ship with two whalers in a small boat chasing a whale tail with strangely specific similar waves!
After some careful checking of the skeleton details (holes in the pelvis bone, shape of the skull...) as well as the details of the very-similar-but-it-turns-out-not-the-same whaling ship scene on the front turns up no less than 7 different times.
And though whale-bone carved coffins are allegedly typical scrimshaw work of Nantucket whalemen, I must admit to strong suspicions of a trinket industry as the coffin bottom right has the same whaling scene again, but no inscription and no mention of Ben Huggins. But is just ripe for adding one to make it a better "historical item".
There are other skeleton coffins made, not even all by "whalers", some were purportedly made by Prisoners of War. (and, for a second there, I thought there might be a technical term for them... Salmagundi! Thanks pinterest... you're as useful as ever. Sarcasm face).
But why keep using the same inscription for Ben Huggins? It's easier to figure that not a unique, thoughtful item (or, maybe not after the first one) than if you looked up any random list of sea deaths and used new details each time.
Maybe he was much beloved. Maybe the whole of Nantucket (note, not even that near to Philadelphia where the ship was from) really loved him. Maybe his family commissioned a whole bunch of them to help remember their son. Maybe I'll get another free trial on ancestry.com and see if I can find him for real.
But I have learned one thing - put your name on your memento mori!
If you're more local to Brighton and Hove, the auction item is here, and sells on Friday!
The mini-coffin sold for £110. And a search on Ancestry.com (because there was indeed a free trial) revealed no such person. And a friend told me that he had one of those coffins... but his was to George Tale off the Lovely Marie, who died whaling off Baffin Bay, 5th July 1826! There was obviously a style to these (I've found another George Tale had been sold at auction too, so there are two copies at least of that one!). Meanwhile, much communication from museums around the US East Coast and other Whaling Museums has revealed nothing similar from that era. I still suspect that there is an original somewhere... but then copied as it was such a good idea!