Runaway Turtle!

“How to Live Among People Who Among Other Atrocities Want to Turn You into Soup”

This month, I’ll be celebrating the paperback launch of You Never Forget Your First by introducing you to historians and scholars I admire. So far, you’ve met Jessie Serfilippi in “Chernow Gonna Chernow” and Kelvin Parnell Jr. in “After All that, who is J. Edgar Hoover to her?”  To promote them, I’m keeping the posts public, but I do hope you’ll sign up. (The weekly edition is free!)

ICYMI, I was interviewed by Professor Jeffrey Engel at The Center for Presidential History. I wrote a list of Presidents’ Day book recs for Good Morning America. I’ll be making a couple of appearances on MSNBC tonight, likely from midnight on. On Monday around 11:30am, you can hear me on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and later on in the week, I’ll be on Slate’s “Dear Prudence” podcast. On February 19, I’ll be interviewed by Professor John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. 

Years before they dueled, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dined at the Hoboken Turtle Club, heralded by TheNew York Times as “one of the weightest assemblages of solid men to be found between Wall Street and the Treasury Department.” 

But what about the turtle, the weightest among them? For that perspective, I turned to Dr. Mary Draper, a historian of early America, who sent me an ad from 1761 for a runaway turtle. 

Alexis: I’m inclined to hear the turtle’s side of the story first. How much do we know? 

Mary: In all likelihood, this turtle was a green sea turtle, known as Chelonia Mydas. These turtles live in the more temperate regions of the globe. They join loggerheads, hawksbill, and several other species of turtle in calling the Atlantic Ocean home. Some of these species — like the hawksbill — boast beautiful shells that were turned into combs, jewelry, and other trinkets. The green sea turtle, though, became renowned for its fatty meat.


Alexis: Turtle soup was served at the inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and William Howard Taft. Was turtle reserved for fancy events and dining out or was it for home cooks, too? 

Mary: In the 18th century, colonists throughout British America loved eating turtle. No one compared it to chicken (that I know of), but people routinely likened it to venison or veal. Merchants would ship live turtles in the hulls of vessels — alongside the other goods they bought and sold in the Atlantic world. They kept them alive by dousing them with salt water every few days. When these vessels cruised into port, their arrival was cause for celebration. Merchants took out ads in local newspapers. Tavern keepers announced turtle feasts. And members of the early American elite attended “turtles” — elaborate parties where guests dined on turtle meat and caroused late into the evening. You can find accounts of these events in the writings of the founding generation. Members of the Adams extended family, for example, attended a turtle in 1786. Elizabeth, Abigail’s sister, described it as “one of the happiest, and most agreeable Parties.” These turtle parties were the talk of the town.

Alexis: Oh, dear. So “it was intended to be dreffed to-morrow” means “dressed tomorrow?” I don’t know what that means for a turtle, but a dressed fish is one you prepare to be cooked by chopping off its head, tail, and fins, and gutting and scaling what’s left.

Mary: Unfortunately, yes. This turtle was destined to become someone’s dinner. And for anyone curious about the type used in “dressed,” 18th-century printers used the now-abandoned “long s.” Ss ended up looking like Fs on occasion.

Alexis: The turtle escaped the day before it was to be cooked and eaten! What drama! But why is “CW” on the turtle’s shell? I hope it was painted, but I’m guessing it was carved. 

Mary: Sometimes, these turtles were destined to specific people from the moment they were loaded onto a vessel. A local merchant might solicit a ship captain, asking him to acquire a turtle. Or someone living in a more tropical location might ship a turtle to friends elsewhere in the Atlantic world. When this happened, the turtle was marked with the recipient’s initials. I’ve come across other ads and letters that mention these markings and, sadly, they seem to be carved. In 1776, The Pennsylvania Evening Post chronicled the capture of a ship sailing from Jamaica to London during the Revolutionary War. On board, there was a turtle to be delivered to Lord North, the British Prime Minister. His name was “nicely cut into the shell.” In that instance, the recipient was obvious. In the ad above, though, the initials “CW” provide less information to go on.

Alexis: Who was this Mr. Bernard character? The tavern keeper? 

Mary: James Bernard (sometimes spelled Barnard) was an innkeeper near Kings-Bridge.  Today, Kingsbridge is a neighborhood in the Bronx. But in Bernard and the turtle’s time, it referred to a bridge that crossed Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Bernard managed an inn there and took out several advertisements in TheNew-York Gazette that give us some insight into his life and his inn, Bunch of Grapes. In several of them, he announced the sale of canaries “in full plumage and song” which he evidently bred himself. In others, he asked for help catching the runaway turtle.

“A scene in the Royal yacht. George IV kneels at the feet of 'Lady Hell-fling-stone' who is seated, expressing delighted acceptance….Curtis, even more burlesqued than before, enters carrying a tureen of steaming [turtle] soup.” (1822 via the British Museum) 

Alexis: Bunch of Grapes! What kind of tavern was it? Who could we find there? 

Mary: Based on these ads, his inn catered to people who wanted to show off. Dining on turtles and purchasing canaries weren’t for the everyday New Yorker. Rather, these were the activities of high society. 


Alexis: Tell me everything you know about the turtle’s great escape. 

Mary: First, we have to talk about crawls. Once turtles were off-loaded from vessels, they were placed in a crawl. This was an enclosed fence-like structure that was partly underwater. It allowed innkeepers and merchants to keep the turtles alive until the moment they were dressed.  But they weren’t the most secure containers. Storms and high tides, like the one Bernard mentioned, could flood crawls and give turtles the perfect opportunity for escape. Hopefully, this turtle made its way back to the Atlantic Ocean, but we’ll never know.

Alexis: I hope so! For those of us who are imagining the modern day Bronx, what did the turtle’s path to freedom look like? 

Mary: The Spuyten Duyvil Creek runs along the northern boundary of Manhattan island. Its path has changed a bit since the 18th century, but it still would have connected the Hudson and Harlem rivers. So all this turtle needed to do was head south down either river and wind its way into the Long Island Sound or the Atlantic Ocean.

Alexis: How long have you be into turtles?

Mary: My love of turtles dates to summer 1997, when I saw some hatch in Sunset Beach, North Carolina. But my scholarly interest in turtles is far more recent. While in graduate school, I came across some letters from the governor of Jamaica in the 1680s. He was writing to officials in London, complaining that Spanish vessels kept harassing English turtlers. Not only was he concerned about the turtlers’ safety, but also the security of the turtle trade. Many people within the colony of Jamaica dined on turtle. There it wasn’t a delicacy but a staple of the local diet. This episode is the basis of my first article. More recently, I’ve been researching how green sea turtles were shipped and consumed throughout British America and the greater Atlantic world in the 18th century. I’m curious how this Caribbean staple became a renowned delicacy. Why, how, and where did people eat it? This research has led me to comb 18th-century newspapers, diaries, and letters, peruse shipping records, and revisit Alice in Wonderland.

Over time, demand outweighed resources. Turtles were overhunted, populations depleted. Turtle meat prices shot up. By the 19th century, Campbell, Heinz, and other mass producers offered a more reasonably priced canned “mock turtle soup,” often made of boiled calf heads. Still, turtles became endangered, and federal restrictions were instituted. (not dated via Getty)

Alexis: Ah, yes, it’s all coming together. The Mock Turtle soup! Was it like an imitation crab, meant to make it more accessible to the masses? 

Mary: Exactly! Londoners also developed quite the appetite for turtles. But, it was harder to keep a turtle alive during a transatlantic voyage. Those that survived the journey were often sold for high prices. As a result, English cooks developed a substitute: calf’s head. The resulting “mock” turtle soup was said to taste exactly like green turtle soup. It only lacked its distinctive green color.  

On a related note: 

So the turtles formed a committee to address

How to Live Among People Who Among

Other Atrocities Want to Turn You into Soup.

The committee was also charged with wondering

if God would mind a retelling of their lives,

one in which sea turtles 

were responsible for all things

right-minded and progressive, and men

and women for poisoning the water.

The oldest sea turtle among them knew

that whoever was in control of the stories

controlled all the shoulds and should-nots.

But he wasn’t interested in punishment,

only ways in which power could bring about

fairness and decency. And when he finished speaking 

in the now-memorable and ever-deepening

waters of the Gulf, all the sea turtles

began to chant, Only fairness, only decency.

—Stephen Dunn, “The Revolt of the Turtles”

To receive a turtle soup you must first chop a hard boiled egg very fine in the bottom of your plate. Then you squeeze into the egg the juice of half a lemon, and pour into it, also, a teaspoon full of mellow old Otard brandy from a bottle, which furnishes you a drink at the same time. The egg is to prepare the plate, and the drink is to prepare the stomach. Then your plate is filled with soup, and while the egg struggles from the bottom to float on the surface, you lay aside all earthly thoughts, forgive all your enemies, and forget all your creditors and put a teaspoon full of it into your mouth. Then you remove the spoon and shut your eyes, and your soul, on the wings of sensuous thought, passes outward into lotus land, and for a time you are lost in a dream that is so still, so perfect, and so all absorbing that you wish, lazily and sadly, it might never end. But you swallow the soup and open your eyes, discover that the face of nature is unchanged, and then, your intellect having reasserted its sway, you conclude that the turtle, like the swan, yields its only perfect symphony in its death.

—New York Times, 1887

The weekly edition is free, but the production of history is not! Please support Dr. Mary Draper by following her on twitter and reading her paper, “Timbering and Turtling.” If you’re able, she suggests donating to the Sea Turtle Conservatory, and for those who have checks and stamps handy, the Sunset Beach Turtle Watch, which protects turtles on the North Carolina beach she mentions above.

See you next week! Until then, tell everyone you know to subscribe to this newsletter, follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and find my books at your friendly (virtual) bookstore and Amazon