To the memory of Ben Huggins of the Lovely Matilda
Updated: Apr 19
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!
***UPDATE*** October 2021
The ship Lovely Matilda had a VERY BAD day on the 3rd of September 1825. It lost not only Ben Huggins, but also James Armstrong, who was ALSO the First Mate of the very same ship!! Yes, I've spotted another coffin up for sale this one at Hannam's Auctions in Hampshire, lot 762, up for sale next week, and with the same details EXCEPT the change of name of the First Mate! I'm sure they thought changing the name might mean evading detection in their mass-produced memento mori factory but they'd be wrong!
***UPDATE APRIL 2022***
Not one but TWO more turned up this month. Neither had even bothered with the scrimshaw lid, but had the same style of skeleton and the same style of memento mori carving on the base.
Marshall Kent was the First mate of the Ship Lovely Matilda of Philadelphia who Died Whaling off Newfoundland on the 3rd September 1825, and was on sale from Hanman's Auction house on the 5th of April 2022. Perhaps he was promoted to that position after the much loved Ben Huggins, and the very short-serving James Armstrong. And, is it just me, or does the handwriting between these two now look familiar?
At almost the same moment (probably as fast as the Captain of the ship Lovely Matilda was promoting First Mates), I saw another on sale at Rowley's auction house in Ely, which sold on the 9th of April 2022.
Yes, poor Old Ned Buckly! And, that handwriting is definitely looking familiar. Except, that is, for the bit where they have changed the name to Old Ned Buckly. That seems to be a less careful hand. Sad for a memento mori. It's enough to make you sit up in your grave.
And, as I was researching this (as Wix seemed to be down last week), I found what I presume is yet another, on sale this week (21st April) at Swan's Fine Art Auctions in Oxford (lot 90). But, sad to say, they aren't sharing details of the memento mori inscription on the base.
I have sent the auction house a question about the inscription, as this is less of a memorial as a statistical database. I worry that Swan aren't sharing the image of the inscription as searching for it may bring up this blog and make people question the authentic uniqueness of these antiques that seem to be being churned out at a quicker and more careless rate. I really miss the scrimshaw lids!