Poison Hand Darted Harpoons and Lances

(Note: Because prussic-acid lances are so closely related and important to the overall concept of poison implements, they are included here with poison harpoons.

Poison Harpoon

Robert Christison Prussic Acid Harpoon. (Author's collection).

The development of the harpoon aimed to create designs that would both secure and kill the whale simultaneously. A harpoon capable of killing the whale would reduce the chances of it escaping and eliminate the hazardous task of hand lancing. In the Arctic, such a harpoon would prevent the danger of a whale towing a whaleboat into ice floes or forcing the crew to cut the line if the whale dived under the ice.

Attempts to create a harpoon that could also kill the whale date back to as early as 1810. Francis Rotch of Nantucket suggested heating a standard two-flue iron in a chafing dish—a small fire built in a pan within the whaleboat. The idea was that the hot harpoon would raise the whale's blood temperature, causing death. However, practical issues such as maintaining a fire in a wildly rocking whaleboat and the insufficient heat of one or two red-hot harpoons made this approach impractical.

Robert Christison Prussic Acid Harpoon




Christison Prussic acid harpoon, 1831. Overall length is 36", distance between barb tips, closed, is 9". Maker's mark stamped on boss behind head and also on the socket, IA. (Author's collection)

The first significant attempt to design a hand-darted harpoon that would both fasten to and kill a whale originated in Scotland in 1831. The firm W. and G. Young, engaged in the northern whale fisheries, sought a harpoon that could kill a whale quickly to prevent it from diving under the ice. They consulted Sir Robert Christison, a renowned poison expert at the University of Edinburgh, to develop such a harpoon using poison as the lethal agent. Christison eventually agreed to the challenge and selected pure hydrocyanic acid, or prussic acid, due to its extreme toxicity. Christison's prussic-acid harpoon featured two glass cylinders for the poison, each about four inches long and three-fourths of an inch in diameter, together containing nearly two ounces of poison.

The Christison harpoon was generally a two-flued type, but with pivot barbs extending the flues. Directly behind each flue, the iron had a concave section about four inches long to accommodate the poison vials. A protrusion cast with the head at the rear of this concave section positioned and held the vials in place. The flues protected the glass containers during penetration, allowing them to enter the whale without obstructing the iron's penetration. There were also provisions for attaching a copper wire to the head to secure and crush the tubes after the harpoon was darted. In 1860, Christison described his design in an article titled "On the Capture of Whales by Means of Poison," published in the New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal.

It remained necessary to devise a method for discharging the poison from the glass tubes at the appropriate time. After various trials, the plan selected involved attaching one end of a strong copper wire firmly to each side of the harpoon near the blade. The other end of the wire passed obliquely over the tube, securing it in place, then through an oblique hole in the shaft near the upper end of the tube, and finally to a bight in the rope where it was firmly secured. This setup ensured that the rope could not be drawn straight before breaking the copper wire. The wire was strong enough that it could not be broken without first crushing the tubes. To facilitate this, a spiral indentation was made on the tubes for the wires to lie in.

Christison head detail showing attachment points for the wire and oblique hole through which the wires passed to the whaleline. (Author's collection)

Christison was required by the Youngs to keep his invention secret, and he honored this until 1860, after the Youngs had died and their heirs were no longer involved in whaling. Once released from his promise of silence, Christison shared his design, believing that advancements since 1831 might make the poison harpoon more practical and beneficial for the whaling industry.

Christison later discovered that the Youngs had made a slight modification to his design. Instead of using copper wire to crush the glass vials, they extended the pivoting barbs on the part forward of the pivot pin. When the barbs pivoted open, the inner portion pressed against the glass, breaking it and releasing the prussic acid. This change also eliminated the need for the oblique hole cast in the boss. Although no known example of this later improvement survives, Christison provided a sketch in his article Christison Harpoon Modificationin The New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, along with dimensions: the distance from the barb tip to the shank is 4-1/8 inches, the distance between barb tips when closed is 8-1/2 inches, and the area where the poison tubes are lodged is 4 inches long, 9/10 inch wide, and 1 inch thick. Note the absence of the oblique hole through the boss for the copper wire in this second version.

In 1832, the ship William Young of Leith, Scotland, was outfitted with these prussic-acid harpoons, but it was crushed in the ice before the irons could be used. Another whaleship, the Clarendon, was sent out with prussic acid in 1833. Christison described the use of poison during that voyage:

"A harpoon-gun was provided, and a seaman reported that he fired it for the first and only time it was used. The harpoon buried deeply in the whale, which immediately 'sounded,' or dived perpendicularly downwards. However, in a very short time, the rope relaxed, and the whale rose to the surface quite dead. The men were so appalled by the harpoon's effect that they declined to use any more of them."

Sketch from Robert Christison, "On the Capture of Whales by Means of Poison," The New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, n.s., xii, i (July 1860), p. 75.


Poison LancePoison lance

Poison lance; length is 41-1/4" (origin unknown).

Although Christison kept silent about the poison harpoons, crew members did not, and soon rumors and stories began to spread. Others started designing similar harpoons. One such implement, a lance, used the same mechanism for releasing poison as the Youngs' modification to Christison's harpoon—when the pivot barb was opened by withdrawal forces, the inner portion pressed against and crushed the glass vial. An additional improvement involved placing the fragile glass container of poison within the shank, protecting it from accidental breakage.

A United States patent was granted to Dexter H. Chamberlain of Boston, Massachusetts, on August 17, 1835, for a prussic acid harpoon very similar to Christison's design. Unfortunately, all records of this patent were lost in the Patent Office fire of 1836. However, a brief article in the Mechanics' Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements, vol. VI, No. 1 (July 1835), provides some information:

"Mr. Chamberlain has constructed a harpoon upon a new principle, which conveys to the bottom of the incision a small vial of prussic acid, the most deadly of all known poisons, as the vital energies seem to be overthrown very soon after this liquid contacts the blood. The harpooner throws the instrument with all his might, without regard to the spot, aiming to inject the poison. When the whale starts, reacting to the line attached to the harpoon, the vial is instantly crushed, and death is released within its frame. There is no escape for the whale—it must die, for it is a warm-blooded animal."

The mechanism is very similar to Christison's, and the description fits the poison lance pictured above. Chamberlain's patent date, 1835, is only a few years after Christison's invention in 1831. It is plausible to speculate that the lance shown above may be Chamberlain's design, but without a patent drawing, known example, or other description, this remains conjecture.

Ackerman's Poison harpoon

Detail of Ackerman Iron

Paul Ackerman Poison harpoon and lance, with detail of the harpoon. Marking on the lance reads, "P. ACKERMAN INVENTEUR / TURBEUF AU HAVRE." Similar markings appear on the harpoon. The length of the harpoon is 38-7/8 inches; the lance is 47-3/4 inches long.

A prussic-acid harpoon and a prussic-acid lance were patented in France on May 17, 1845 (French Patent No. 1443), by Paul Ackerman. In Ackerman's design, a glass container of poison was loaded into the hollow shank of the implement through an opening in the head. This opening was concealed by a small hinged cover that slid forward to latch in place. The cover extended back to conceal a slot in the shank section containing the poison, sliding in a dovetail arrangement. At the rear of the sliding cover was a lever that opened to a right angle with the shank and folded flat when not in use. When the implement penetrated deeply enough, the lever contacted the whale's side, forcing the sliding cover back and exposing the poison. A stop on the shank prevented the cover from sliding back too far. Both the lance and harpoon operated on the same principle.

Fixed head Poison Iron

Fixed-head prussic acid harpoon.

Photograph courtesy of History of Technology Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

Although there is no record of prussic-acid harpoons being used in the American whale fishery, they were carried on some vessels, including Susan of Nantucket, Fame of Nantucket, and America of New Bedford. James Templeman Brown, an assistant in the Department of Art and Industry at the U.S. National Museum during the late 19th century, wrote in The Whale Fishery and Its Appliances (1883) that two poison instruments "were made in France and brought to Nantucket as patterns by which others might be made and introduced into the American fleet." These two implements are now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. One of these was a fixed-head type, shown above, with a separate part that was free to slide back and forth approximately four inches in a large slot cut through the heavy square boss behind the head. The fixed head was a two-flued configuration with a pivot barb for each flue. Perpendicular to the head, and on each side of it, was an additional small barb. The sliding piece also had two pivot barbs in the same plane as those of the fixed head. When the sliding part was in its rearmost position, a glass container of poison could be placed into the slot between the head and the sliding part. After penetration, when tension was applied to the whale line by the running whale, the withdrawal forces acted to close the gap between the fixed head and the sliding part, thereby crushing the vial of poison and releasing it into the whale.

Adjustable Head Poison Iron

Adjustable-head prussic-acid harpoon.

Photograph courtesy of History of Technology Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

The second type of prussic-acid harpoon referred to by Brown was the adjustable-head type. The head of this harpoon had the same general configuration as the fixed head of the previous iron and was made with a large rectangular bar immediately behind it. The bar fit into an opening in a widened section at the forward end of the harpoon shank and could slide back and forth in it. The sides of the bar were concave to accept two vials of poison, one on each side. Two slots cut through the sides of the widened section where the bar was placed corresponded with the concave sides of the bar and allowed the glass vials to be positioned partly in the slots and partly in the concave bar when the head was in its rearmost position. A large steel pin placed transversely through the rear of the bar extended into the slots, preventing the head and bar from becoming detached from the main body of the harpoon.

When the head was pushed back, a glass vial of poison could be placed in each slot. After the iron penetrated the whale and tension was applied to the whale line, the withdrawal forces caused the transverse pin through the bar to bear against the vials and crush them, releasing the poison.

It is doubtful that these irons were actually used as models for poison harpoons made in the United States. Other designs were in use. James Templeman Brown mentioned that the whaleship Fame of Nantucket carried prussic-acid harpoons. These were designed in the early 1830s by William Coffin, Jr. of Nantucket. In the History of the American Whale Fishery (Waltham, Mass., 1878), Alexander Starbuck recorded that in July 1883, Fame "Sailed in search of whales, sea-serpents, &c.; was armed with a patent harpoon charged with poison." In November of the same year, Susan sailed from Nantucket carrying prussic-acid harpoons. Brown noted, "Mr. Samuel Tuck ... of Williamsburg, N.Y., formerly agent of the Susan, says that a harpoon similar to the old double-barbed iron was made by a Nantucket blacksmith, with slots for bottles of acid, but it was not used at all during the voyage."

"Mechanicus" Poison Harpoon

Mechanicus DrawingsMechanicus harpoon

Left: Drawings by Mechanicus. ...........Right: Author's interpretation of the Mechanicus Poison harpoon.

In August 1833, an inventor who called himself "Mechanicus" described his own hand-darted poison harpoon design in a letter titled "Sea-Serpent Harpoon" to the editor of the Mechanic's Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements. He wrote:

"In these days of inventions and of sea-serpents, I deem it meritorious to contrive something for the destruction of such ugly looking monsters as have lately furnished such wonderment to the good people down east. Now, sir, if any of your readers should ever take a notion to go either whaling or sea-serpenting, I would advise them to be provided with some half dozen of the machines of which I send you the drawings."

Mechanicus's harpoon featured a two-flued configuration with a narrow hole drilled from the tip to the boss of the shank behind the head, connecting to a hole through the side of the boss where a nipple for a percussion cap was screwed in. The longitudinal hole through the head was filled with a potent and fast-acting poison. The firing mechanism, located on the side of the boss, included a spring-loaded hammer and a two-pronged trigger to hold the hammer cocked. When the harpoon was darted into a whale, the blubber pressed the trigger back, releasing the hammer and detonating the percussion cap on the nipple. This explosion forced the poison out through the head of the harpoon, similar to a hypodermic needle, aiming to kill the whale. A flaw in this design was that the poison was injected as the harpoon entered, which was likely too early to have a significant effect. No known examples of this harpoon exist, and it seems it was patented in 1833. However, a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 destroyed all records from before that time.

Crews on whaleships quickly recognized the dangers of the poison contained in various types of poison harpoons and refused to use them. James Templeman Brown elaborated on this in The Whale Fishery and Its Appliances:

"The use of this kind of harpoon was soon abandoned, as several of the crew of a French ship were poisoned when handling the blubber of a whale killed by the acid. Although instruments of this type were carried by several American vessels, notably the ship 'Susan' of Nantucket and others, none of them, so far as the record shows, have been used, the crews having been deterred by the disastrous results experienced by the French."

An additional perspective on the use of poison in whaling was presented in an article on January 27, 1867, in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript, a weekly publication in New Bedford. This article, quoting the London Post, expressed concerns about fish consuming the remains of whales killed by poison. The article stated:

"But if an ounce of the poison will kill a whale in a few minutes, it would be adequate to the destruction of a whole shoal of small fish, which themselves would be devoured by others, and so on indefinitely. ... Such a destruction of fish would be deplorable in itself, but as the quantity of the poison would be continually diminishing according to the number of fish through which it passed, the dose at last might become so small as not to kill for hours, or even days, and the fish might be caught while yet alive, and brought to market. The method appears adequate to diminish the risk of human life incidental to whaling, and to be humane as regards the whale itself, which it kills so rapidly; but even these advantages would be purchased at too dear a rate if all the other fish in the sea are liable to be poisoned as well as the whale."

Realizing the many dangers of poison harpoons, whalemen sought alternative solutions for simultaneously fastening to and killing a whale with a hand harpoon. In the early 1840s, attention shifted to explosive harpoons that employed gunpowder as the primary development focus.

© Website originally created by Thomas G. Lytle.

Back to Main Menu

Bibliography  Harpoons  History  Knives  Lances  Links  Markings  Non-Whaling

Patents  Poison  Processing  Shoulder-Guns  Shoulder-gun Irons  Spades  Swivel Guns and Irons