Mysterious Theatrical Scenes

As previously stated, I love a good scrimshaw mystery, and have solved one or two. See: A Scrimshaw Mystery Solved!. Unfortunately, the scrimshawed images on the reverse side of this whalebone busk remain in the “unsolved” category.

Image #3 - Busk Scene OneThe obverse side images are obvious & common: 5-point star; crossed arrows; empty 4-point diamond pattern; fouled anchor; torch(?); basket with flowers; initials “AG”; empty 4-point diamond pattern; and an inverted crown with two 5-point stars at base.

The reverse side also contains a few typical images: windmill & tree scene; large 6-pointed star; and a minimal, scroll vegetation decoration at base.

But two images are far from common, and both are theatrically dramatic. Scene #1 depicts a long-haired man (note CROSS on chest) stabbing a woman, who is wearing a veil over her face, and a wreath on head.

Scene #2 depicts a walking Victorian woman, bleeding from head, who has dropped a long knife, followed by a boy, and a standing man praying in background. Both scenes seem to depict prop stages, one possibly the prow of a ship.

Why are these two unusual images scribed onto a woman’s busk? What stories do the scenes depict? Were the scenes important to the busk owner?

These theatrical images are being researched for context. One suggestion is that the scenes could be copied from a paper playbill of a Victorian-era melodrama. Whalers were known to transfer paper images to ivory or whalebone for scribing. Another suggestion is that the woman who wore this busk may have been an actress who portrayed the women in these scenes. I ask readers to share any ideas on this subject.

Image #4 - Busk scene twoA recent suggestion is that these two scenes may be related: sort of “during and after” snapshots. Notice that the women’s dresses are quite similar, and have the same sleeves. The man in each scene has long hair, parted in the middle. Are they the same people? Two scenes from the same story will be easier to research than scenes from two separate stories.

A knowledgeable collector suggested that this smooth, speck-free surface could be elephant ivory. To determine matrix, I consulted with scrimshaw expert Paul Madden. After viewing high-resolution photos of this busk, Paul stated “panbone can be so dense, that it can be translucent when cut thin” (like this one). He also said that certain sections of panbone have microscopic Haversian canals (capillary tunnels) which can only be viewed with extreme magnification (microscope, not a loupe). He congratulated me on a good buy, and said that this antique scrimshawed whalebone busk was “right”.

I have submitted high-resolution scans of both scenes to professors of several University Drama/Theater Departments, with no luck on recognizing the scenes. I would love to hear ANY ideas form WorthPoint members, as well as suggestions as to whom else I can submit photos with an inquiry. Please reply directly to

Douglass Moody
Long Beach CA

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