A Big Fish Story, Part II

Paul S. George, Ph.D

In our last installment of this column, we observed the Herculean efforts of Captain Charlie Thompson and members of his fishing party of twelve who, in 1912, subdued a 30,000 pound whale shark in a thirty-six hour struggle off of Knights Key in the Florida Keys. Even after the struggle, the frisky fish remained a threat to life and limb, smashing a boat that came too close to it with a simple thrashing of its tail.  Additionally, the dying whale shark knocked the rudder and propeller off a three-ton yacht.

During Captain Charlie’s battle with the fish, a wireless operator in the Florida Keys informed Miamians of the drama.  Consequently, when Captain Thompson towed the creature up the Miami River to a boatyard, an estimated 5,000 persons awaited its appearance.  Even at this juncture, the mortally wounded fish again thrashed its mighty tail, breaking the leg of a bystander.  Finally, when the animal appeared lifeless, several imprudent Miamians, including Thompson, insisted on being photographed inside of its mouth.  After the charter boat captain had posed for the photograph and had removed himself from the maw of the monster, its jaws shut tight—after which no further candidates stepped forward for a photograph.

With word of the giant fish, eager scientists scurried to Miami to examine it, pronouncing it a true fish and not a mammal, while concluding that it was a mere baby! Had it been allowed to reach maturity, it would have been, in their estimation, two and one-half times its size at the time of its appearance in the waters off the Florida Keys.  These authorities also believed that the fish was a denizen of depths reaching more than 1,500 feet below the surface of the water, and that it had been blown to the surface by a subterranean or volcanic upheaval, which, presumably, caused its injury. So impressed was the Smithsonian with its uniqueness that the nonpareil museum published a special brochure devoted to the whale shark. 

In death, the whale shark took on a new life, for it went “on the road” soon after it was examined and mounted by a celebrated taxidermist recommended by the Smithsonian Institution.  One of its first stops was next to the new Burdine’s department store on Twelfth Street (today’s E. Flagler Street) near South Miami Avenue. The city first “skyscraper” at five stories, the emporium was also known at the “The Big Store.” There the whale shark reposed until the summer heat exacerbated an already malodorous situation, prompting even the circumspect William Jennings Bryan, Miami’s most prominent resident and a three-time Democratic Party candidate for president and secretary of state in the first administration of President Woodrow Wilson, to declare that the monster’s name should be changed to “The Smell.”

After the fish was finally removed from the Burdine’s location, it began a national tour, being transported from city to city on a flat car.  Later, it was placed aboard the Tamiami, a specially outfitted houseboat, and taken up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Minneapolis, and other destinations. Upon the animal’s arrival in Minneapolis in 1920, the city’s Morning Tribune journal, which characterized it as a “strange and mysterious monster,” observed that scientists believed it was the “largest fish known in history or ever captured in the history of the world.” 

It is not known what happened to it after this journey.  Three decades later, Mrs. Hugh Duffy, the late Captain Charlie Thompson’s daughter, claimed that “We just lost interest in it…It may still be in some exhibit around the country.  I don’t know.”  Yes, but for the fact that it would have been hard for the monster to have gone unnoticed for long.

Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum.  He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Additionally, he teaches classes in Miami/S. Florida and Florida history for the Museum. Dr. George has also led, since 2002, tours of Little Havana as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration, every third Friday, of the culture and history of that quarter.

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