Friday, September 24, 2010

Chasing Lobsters- Mythical and Real

Recently I was on a boat tour of the Essex River, Massachusetts when the tour guide told the tourists a nice story about how the prisoners kept in a certain island jail were fed so many lobsters they became ill, necessitating a law restricting their number of lobster meals to twice a week. I was shocked. My husband had to give me one of his looks, or I would have spoken up and spoiled the nice boat ride. Again, here is another myth being perpetuated by a tour guide (See my blog posts here and here). I’ve never seen real evidence of any such law in New England.

And today I read this myth again in the “10 Best Lobster Shacks in Maine” from the prestigious Travel and Leisure magazine. Check it out yourself. This is another famous legend of masters being forced by contract to limit the number of lobsters fed to servants or to prisoners in jails. The same tour guides and travel writers brag that lobster was so common you could gather them in a basket at the high tide line along the beaches of New England. Lobsters were food for paupers.

This myth is so popular in New England, that I’ve often heard it quoted on tours. Yet, earlier this year, J. L Bell in his popular blog “Boston 1775” stated, “Of course, if anyone does find an apprenticeship contract, or a law in Maine, or a petition in the Massachusetts archives that limits the number of lobster meals, I’d be happy to quote it here on Boston 1775.” I noticed in the comments section of this blog, no one has yet found proof.

Go ahead. Try it yourself. Google “ Laws against serving lobster to servants” or “prisoners” or “whatever” . I got 87,200 results for the first search. While in Alaska I heard the same myth from a tour guide but the vile lobster had been replaced with the ubiquitous local salmon. Hmmmm! This Google search gave me 289,000 results, including this real whopper from Burt Wolf, the CNN travel writer, who repeated the salmon myth in a story about Basel, Switzerland.

The icing on the cake came just the other day I read in George Wingate Chase's History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, published in 1861 where he declared: “It is well authenticated, that at one time it was nowise uncommon to stipulate in the indentures of apprentices, that they should not be obliged to eat salmon oftener than six times a week!” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for writing this in 1861, but it goes to show you how long this story has been repeated.

Finally, I did find a gold nugget story amongst all this dross . This website page is labeled “The Debunk House” and is right up my alley. The author clearly gives some reasons why these myths may have evolved.

Obviously I have too much time on my hands since I am choosing to chase this story across the internet tonight instead of writing a serious genealogy story! And this is the second time in two days I have written about food!


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Chasing Lobsters- Mythical and Real", Nutfield Genealogy, posted September 24, 2010, ( accessed [access date]).


  1. Oh my gosh, lobsters! So iconic of New England. This post makes me homesick. I often crave fish and chips, with vinegar for dipping my fries... Mmm...

  2. great post, Heather. Digging into genealogy and history and food all together! I'll hoist one to that!