Is the Whale a Fish?

The answer to this question was debated and decided in the affirmative by a New York Court, according to the following article from the Baltimore Patriot of January 1, 1819:

” A WHALE IS A FISH.  The question has been very gravely discussed in Court whether a Whale is a Fish–and Doctor Mitchell has declared on oath, that in his opinion, a Whale is NOT a Fish–speaking as a man of Science.  The case originated under a late Statute of our State, appointing an Inspector of FISH OILS, and making a penalty to sell any Fish oils without inspection.  A suit was brought by the Inspector against a seller of three casks of Whale oil–and the question arose on this subject, whether Wale oil is Fish  oil, or, in other words, whether a Whale is a Fish.  The court was very much crowded at the trial, and the empire of the Whale was attacked with such force and science, that for a while it appeared he was about to be deposed from his throne as King of Fishes.  But General Sampson finally routed General Bogardus, who was well backed by Dr. Mitchell–and the Whale by a verdict in his favor is still master of his throne.  He was admirably well supported by his old friends, the whalers, tho’ he was most sorely beset by the Fish and the modern literati.  Counsel for Plaintiff, Sampson Anthony and Fay.  For the defendant, Bogardus and Price.  We understand the trial is about to be printed from the pen of Sampson, and it will appear that the Whale and Sampson together are quite irresistible.” 


Dr. Mitchill, famed far and wide for his interest in flora and fauna, however, did not change his opinion that A WHALE WAS NOT A FISH, as the following letter, printed in the Baltimore Patriot  on May 24, 1820, directed to G. C. Langdon, demonstrates:

“There is an excellent opportunity now afforded by your successful exertions to settle the question lately agitated in New-York and Albany, whether a Whale is a Fish.  The creature killed on Saturday last a few leagues from Sandy Hook, is of the cetaceous order, and of the kind called Balona, by naturalists, or the bone whale, or right whale, by people in general.

Among other interesting particulars to be observed on the present occasion, the following are prominent:

  1.  This animal resembles other mammiferous beings, in having an ear, or passage through which sounds are communicated.  The external ear is indeed wanting; but the meatus or passage to the external organ of hearing, is very plain, resembling that of the seal.

  2.  The eye of this whale differs from that of a fish, it being furnished with eye lids like those of land animals.  It is plain to every observer, that fish have naked eyes, which they can never close.  But, any person may satisfy himself, that the eyelids of the whale, are as distinct as those of the cow or the horse.

  3.  There is reason to believe, that this whale feeds upon the molluscous animal living in the Atlantic ocean, and occasionally driven ashore by tempests on Long Island and New Jersey.  This is known by the name of the great sea clam, whose shells are cast ashore plentifully on Rockaway Beach.  As captain Jenkins has explained how the whale rooted up from the sands, the bushels of these clams contained in his mouth, it appears very probable, that their visits to our coast is for the purpose of obtaining food.

  4.  Fish have fins with rays of bones, giving them a fan like appearance.  But the whale has no fins with radiating bones running thru them.  They are, on the contrary,  in the nature of arms of men, or of fore legs in beasts.  There is a near resemblance in the organization of the two pectoral appendages (fins as they are called) to the arms of a man; there being a shoulder blade, humera cubit, wrist and imperfect hand, all invested in one common covering of skin, as a man’s hand is if enwrapped in a mitten or close glove.

There are several other points of observation which the persons who visit your exhibition, will not fail to remark.  They are sufficient to put the question forever at rest.

As to the actual condition of the body this morning, when I was at the place where it lies, I found nothing to alarm me on the score either of comfort or health.  The removal of the more perishable parts, the free application made of lime and charcoal, and the coolness of the atmosphere, all conspire to favor the wishes of the citizens to gratify their rational curiosity.

Your assurances to me that you will, without delay, remove the carcase before it degenerates to nuisance, and in anticipation of all municipal orders, convinces me that you have that just and proper sense of private right, which forbids it to encroach upon public feeling.

Considering you, and your associates, as contributing to aid the study of zoology, and to promote researches in science, I beg you to accept the assurance of my esteem and regard.



About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden