James Bartley The Modern Jonah
By James Donahue
Over the years the story of Jonah in the Bible has been challenged by scholars as being a fable that
could not have happened. They claimed that the largest known animal in the sea, the whale, was incapable of swallowing a man
in one piece, or if it happened, that such a person could survive for any length of time.
Yet there occurred a story in 1891 that involved a young man who actually was swallowed by a whale
and survived after being trapped in the animal’s stomach for 15 hours. The event was recorded in the ship’s log,
which gave the story some credibility.
His name was James Bartley. He was a novice sailor making his first trip at sea aboard the English
whaling ship Star of the East. It was February and the whaler was working in the Southern Hemisphere where the weather was
more favorable to sailing ships on the high seas. The vessel was operating a few hundred miles east of the Falkland Islands
in the Atlantic when the crew successfully harpooned a large sperm whale.
As the story was told, the whale dove, pulling 800 feet of line before it went slack. This was an
indication that the whale was rising to the surface again. The huge animal resurfaced right under one of the longboats, smashing
it to pieces and throwing the men in it into the water. The other longboats pulled the survivors out of the sea and discovered
that two men were missing. They could not be found.
Later, the whale rose again, this time floating dead and close to the side of the whaling ship. The
crew pulled the carcass alongside the ship and began the dirty job of cutting it up and storing the body parts in the ship’s
That night, while working by lantern, when the whale’s stomach and liver were raised to the
deck the men noticed movement in the stomach. When the stomach was cut open, they found James Bartley, curled up and unconscious,
but still alive. He had been in the whale for 15 hours. That was long enough for the animal’s digestive system to do
its damage. They said all of the hair on Bartley’s body was gone, his skin was bleached white and he was nearly blind.
It took weeks for him to recover.
Bartley said he remembered being flung into the air and seeing the whale’s big mouth coming
at him when he hit the water. He said he felt stabbing pain as he was dragged across the whale’s teeth, then sliding
down a slimy tube where it was warm but the lack of oxygen soon rendered him unconscious. He did not come to his senses for
the next month.
Bartley never returned to the sea. He lived the rest of his life in Gloucester as a cobbler. He died
in 1909. It is said his tombstone is marked: "James Bartley – 1870-1909. A Modern Jonah."
The story is so incredible that many scientists and historians are challenging it even to this day.
At least two books have been written that include the Bartley story. They are Stranger Than Science by Frank Edwards
and Charles Berlitz’s World of Strange Phenomena, by Charles Berlitz.
Our own research turned up a photograph of Bartley, indicating that this man really existed.
Is the story true? You be the judge.