The Damned Story: We’ve heard of metaphorically being “over a barrel,” but what about literally being in one? Sit thee back and enjoy the peculiar sea-farin’ tale of Captain Sluman Gray of Lebanon—and what happened to him after his demise and burial.
Of course, like any yarn spun from days of yore, the gulf between the story and the truth can be as wide as the ocean itself.
For a long time, the narrative regarding Capt. Gray went something like this: An experienced whaling captain, Gray—with his wife Sarah and their children in tow—put out aboard the James Maury in June 1864 from nearby New Bedford, Mass., headed for prime hunting grounds in the South Pacific. As it was amidst the hostilities of the Civil War, the James Maury soon came under attack from a Confederate raider, the Shenandoah, which directed a full onslaught on the weaponless and defensless whaleship. During the fray, the valiant Capt. Gray was mortally wounded, and subsequently expired. Rather than letting her husband be buried at sea as was the custom, the newly widowed Sarah Gray appealed to the Shenandoah’s captain, begging that Capt. Gray’s body be kept on board for proper burial at home in Connecticut. The Confederate crew conceded, and with no better options available, it was decided to preserve the dearly departed captain in a barrel of rum. And then after returning home, rather than being “unpacked,” Capt. Gray was finally laid to rest in Lebanon—barrel and all.
A fun story, no doubt, but reality is just as compelling.
Let’s start with the basics. Sluman Gray and his wife Sarah were from Lebanon, and he was indeed the captain of the James Maury, which sailed from New Bedford in June 1864 in pursuit of whales. Sluman Gray also did die while at sea during this fateful voyage, although the circumstances were much less dramatic than the popular story.
Thanks to the efforts of Lebanon town historian Alicia Wayland, who has researched the story in great detail and wrote about it at length in Connecticut Explored (Summer 2013), we also know that Sarah Gray often accompanied her husband on his whaling voyages, which was rare but not unheard of as captains were allowed to bring their families on trips. On this particular journey, the Grays were joined by three of their eight children.
Only 51 years old, Sluman had prospered well from his numerous whaling expeditions and had purchased land in Lebanon, which he had also represented in the Connecticut legislature. He had a reputation as a harsh skipper, not above flogging crew members for minor infractions, but apparently was quite kind to his wife.
Although New England whalers had long hunted the waters of the Atlantic, increased competition from other countries forced them to travel farther from home ports. By the 1860s, ships were regularly venturing to the South Pacific and even to the Arctic to find whales, making for arduous journeys that often spanned years.
After more than nine months at sea, the James Maury was in the South Pacific near Guam when, rather than being caught in the crossfire of the Civil War, Sluman Gray suddenly became seriously ill. Then, according to the ship’s logbook, on March 24, 1865, “Captain Gray expired at 2 p.m. after an illness of 2 days.” Later in a letter, Sarah would describe the fatal malady as being “an inflamation of the bowels.” Unfortunately, such a vague description could have been anything from influenza to food poisoning, so it’s not known what ultimately did in Capt. Gray other than it wasn’t a Confederate bullet. It was recorded that he had been preserved “in spirits”—although chances are no one toasted his memory with any of that alcohol!
The “death in battle” anecdote also doesn’t fit the timeline of actual events as the James Maury didn’t encounter the Shenandoah until a few months later in June. By that point, the James Maury—with the widow Gray, her children and barrel-bound husband still on board—had continued its voyage, sailing to the Bering Sea for the summer hunting season.
Even though the Civil War had actually ended two months earlier, without official word, the Shenandoah was still engaged in following orders to wreak havoc on the Union whaling fleet. (The Shenandoah would actually fire the last shot of the Civil War a few weeks later.) Under Lt. Commander James I. Waddell, the 230-foot-long and heavily armed ship captured 24 unarmed whaling vessels in June 1865 alone, part of the 38 Union vessels it would take in total. Most ships were sunk or burned, with crews taken prisoner. The presence of Sarah Gray and her offspring spared the James Maury, as Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.”
The James Maury was ransomed and sailed to Honolulu with the Grays among the 222 prisoners on board. Following their release, the widow and her children made their way home over the next few months, finally arriving in Lebanon in March 1866—with Capt. Gray’s cask still intact. He was then finally interred in Liberty Hill Cemetery.
But one last question remains: Was Sluman Gray buried, barrel and all? Historian Alicia Wayland’s educated guess is that he was, as she pointed out to us via email: “There are no payments by Sarah Gray in the record of her expenses for purchase of a coffin or fee to a carpenter for making one.” As far as she knows, no one has ever suggested an archaeological excavation to find out for sure.
Although the back of the weathered stone is difficult to read (at right), there’s no indication of anything other than his formerly spirit-soaked remains being six feet below it.
Either way, one thing is for certain: After a long journey, Capt. Gray is finally at rest.
Our Damned Experience: We trekked out to Lebanon to visit Liberty Hill Cemetery in April 2015. Unlike Capt. Gray’s long and arduous whaling excursion, our trip took less than an hour. And no one ended up in a barrel.
The cemetery is in a sparsely populated area of town, on a gentle hill surrounded by tree. There’s a stone wall in front, and on the day we went, the ground was pretty soft.
We didn’t know where Capt. Gray’s stone was located, so we started in the front and worked our way toward the back. Of course as it turns out, the Gray family plot is in the back of the cemetery, almost in the last row. (If we had started in the back, it would’ve been in the front, right?)
As you can in the photo at the top, Capt. Gray’s tombstone has an anchor on the front and says “Husband.” Sarah Gray’s stone is next to his, and the graves of some of their children who died young—marked with lamb figures atop each—are buried next to them. There has been some speculation that Sarah Gray may have intentionally killed some her children, although it’s mostly unsubstantiated.
As mentioned, there’s no mention of the barrel on Sluman Gray’s tombstone. The inscription, which is weathered and very hard to read lists the captain’s name and only says, “Aged 51 yrs. 4 mos. Died onboard ship “James Murray” near island Guam.
We didn’t notice anything else unusual here—safe to say, the only spirits in this cemetery are any that might still be in the barrel containing Sluman Gray.
If You Go: Liberty Hill Cemetery is located on Route 87, approximately a mile north of the Lebanon green. Like many cemeteries, it is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk year round.
As always, we ask if you visit, please be respectful of all those interred there, including Capt. Gray and his family. And of course, it is NOT BYOB—no bringing your own barrel.