Hal Roth - December 2008

The Great Sea Serpent


Hal Roth

   The first reported sighting of a sea serpent in North American waters appears in John Josselyn’s An Account of Two Voyages to New England, published in 1641: “They told me [in 1639] of a sea serpent or snake, that lay quoiled up like a cable upon a rock at Cape Ann; a boat passing by with English on board, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying that if he were not killed outright, they would all be in danger of their lives.”
    Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a long way from Delmarva, and the distance seemed even farther in 1817; but have no doubt that residents on the peninsula were paying rapt attention to reports of a remarkable creature that appeared in the New England port during the summer of that year, then headed south, inspiring hundreds of newspaper articles, letters to editors and other speculations at home and abroad. The monster was first sighted on August 15.

  August 21, 1817 – The appearance in Gloucester (Cape Ann) harbor of an uncommon Sea Animal has been the topic of conversation and wonderment for several days past. A number of gentlemen of information and veracity have asserted that they have seen such an animal off and in that harbor, reposing at times on a smooth sea; and had thereby an opportunity to see and judge of its form and dimensions. Their accounts, though in some instances dissimilar, all agree that this animal is of the species called the Sea Serpent. It is described as having its head (like those given to serpents in prints) at times out of the water; that to some it appeared as large as the head of a horse – to others, varying, perhaps, according to distance, as that of a large dog; – that its body was round, like a snake’s, but connected by joints, which to some appeared like a row of ten-gallon kegs, and to others like barrels; – that its length was estimated by some to be 40 feet, by others 80, 100, and over; – that its motion was serpentine, erratic, and rapid for an animal of its bulk; – that it has been seen lying on the surface of the water, with parts of its body from 6 to 18 inches out of the water, and its tail nearly on a line with its head; – that it frequently forms circles in its movements; and in its progress sometimes leaves a wake of half a mile in length.
    Measures have been taken, and others are contemplated, for killing and exhibiting this animal. It is hoped they will succeed. The Encyclopediaists have doubted the existence of such animals as Sea Serpents; – which have been described by some navigators, particularly by Egede as frequenting the Greenland seas – some of whom have been described as extending its head as high as the main-top-mast of a ship, its body being as thick as a hogshead, its skin variegated like a tortoise shell, and its excrement corrosive.
    We are informed that on Saturday this creature was not to be seen, but that on Sunday he was playing sometimes within 15 or 20 feet of the shore, affording a better opportunity to observe him than had before occurred. Gentlemen from Gloucester state that he appeared to them of even greater magnitude than had before been represented, and should judge from their own observation that he was as much as 150 feet in length, and as big round as a barrel. They saw him open an enormous mouth and are of [the] opinion that he is cased in shell. It is conjectured that he has resorted to Gloucester harbor for the purpose of preying upon a very numerous shoal of herrings.
    The chance for taking or killing this creature seems to be small: it requires not merely the club of a Hercules, but the cunning contrivance of a Vulcan. We understand, however, that it is proposed to make a number of strong nets, in the hope of entangling and embarrassing him, so as to be able to get him into a situation to kill him; in which we rather wish than expect they may prove successful.
    Corroboration. – Capt. Obear, who has arrived at Beverly, reports that on Sunday last he put into Cape-Ann harbor, where he and his crew were astonished at the sight of a monstrous creature lying upon the water, which appeared to have the form of a serpent.
    Whatever doubts may have existed on this subject, there are hundreds who can testify to the existence of some creature of a very uncommon bulk and form, and such as was never before seen upon our coast.
    The bold adventurers who are fishing for the Sea Monster at Cape Ann ought to be furnished with the implements mentioned in the following lines: –

His angle-rod made of a sturdy Oak,
His line a Cable that in storms ne’er broke;
His hook he baited with a Dragon’s tail,
And sat upon a rock and bobb’d for whale.

   August 25, 1817 – THE SEA SERPENT. We are informed that the Animal of this species, which had been so long in the harbor of Gloucester, has not been seen since Monday, and it is not unlikely he may have taken his leave for the present season. He has, however, exhibited himself sufficiently to enable observers to gain a pretty good account of his form and motions; and Capt. John Beach, Jun. who has taken every opportunity to view him with the eye of an artist, has completed a drawing of him, which is to be engraved, and which no doubt will be accompanied with such a history of him as his appearance has enabled the spectators to obtain.

   August 30, 1817 – A party well prepared were to proceed on Saturday morning to attack the great Sea Serpent, if he could be found. On Friday some firing was heard from that place, and some faint hopes were entertained that a successful attack had been made upon him. Several persons from Boston have gone towards Cape Ann in hopes to get a sight of the monster.
    The Serpent has quitted Gloucester, and yesterday was discovered in Kettle Cove, amidst schools of bait fish; none of these have been seen in Gloucester harbor since his disappearance from thence.
    The Serpent was seen on Friday morning off Kettle Island, between Manchester and Cape Ann; he was following and feasting on a large school of alewives. The arrangements made in Cape Ann to take him were ready for operation on Friday morning – and if skill, courage, and strong apparatus can effect the desired object, their success is certain. We conversed with Capt. Beach, Jun. who has seen this animal from twelve to twenty times, and has taken an accurate drawing of him for exhibition. He describes him as being, in his most contracted state, about 70 feet in length, and of the size of a flour barrel. A number of our enterprising citizens have been at Cape Ann some days, to encourage and assist in the destruction of the monster.
    We are told that two Sharks appeared to be almost constantly in attendance on the great Sea Serpent at Gloucester – whether as his humble servants, or as a reconnoitering party, to see what sort of gentleman he is, or to find some vulnerable part and watch some favorable opportunity to attack and destroy him, is not known.
    A gentleman of Salem informs us that thirty years ago a Captain of a Marblehead vessel stated to him, that being on the coast of Surinam, a monstrous Serpent actually crossed the deck of his vessel, entering from the sea on one side and passing into it on the other; and that, on being questioned as to its length, he answered that he supposed it might be near 100 feet.

   September 6, 1817 – The Sea Serpent is not only the object of much speculation, but much frivolity, in the Southern papers.

   September 10, 1817 – Yesterday we conversed with an intelligent gentleman from Gloucester, and learnt that the Sea Snake had not been seen there since Tuesday last. The hopes of taking him become less daily.
    Two fishing boats from Sandy Bay sailed last Saturday in pursuit of the Sea Serpent, with nets and other implements for taking him, but did not succeed.
    In searching for the Sea Serpent some fisherman on Monday caught a fish about nine feet long, off Cape Ann harbor; which being an uncommon one, has been skinned, stuffed, and sent to the Salem Museum. It has been hoaxingly reported, that this fish is one of the progeny of the Serpent. Apropos – We have heard persons express their fears that the visit of the Sea Serpent to our coast is to cast its spawn!
    Capt. Tappan, from Newburyport, reports that on his passage here on Thursday, about 10 o’clock A. M. he saw the Sea Serpent in the vicinity of Cape Ann, passing very rapidly through the water, with his head extended several feet.
    MORE EVIDENCE. – The following statement of a gentleman of unquestionable veracity will tend to establish a desideratum in Natural History – proofs of the existence of Sea Serpents; and with the other facts which the appearance of the Aquatic Animal at Gloucester has brought to light, will, we trust, satisfy the doubts of the English Encyclopediaists on the subject; and add an interesting article to the edition of REES’ now publishing in Philadelphia. The Linnaean Society have requested several gentlemen in Gloucester to take the depositions of the persons who have seen the Monster that has appeared in that harbor; which they will unquestionably make public; and Gen. Humphreys, in his late visit to that place, has obtained copies of some, which, we learn, he intended to transmit to Sir. Joseph Banks, in London, that the British public may be made acquainted with authenticated facts on the subject.

   October 4, 1817 – We have seen the young of the Sea Serpent. The head was much injured, but from the protuberances, we fix him unequivocally in the family of the Sea Serpent. The Serpent, when we saw it, was on its way to Boston from Gloucester, and we only took care to observe the protuberances. At Boston, it will undergo an entire examination, and the internal structure of the fish will be seen. The great resemblance to the fish which was delineated by Capt. Beach has given a full conviction that this is the real young of the fish, which has been seen in our waters.

   October 6, 1817 – It is now ascertained that a spawn of the Great Sea Serpent, who has been dallying in the waters of Cape Ann for some time past, has been caught. He is thus described in several letters from Cape Ann, announcing his capture: “A young snake was taken yesterday by a Mr. Colby and others in Loblolly Cove, near Thatcher’s Island where the Monster of the seas has been often seen. They were so much afraid of him at first that they used more violence in killing him than was necessary, and they have very much bruised his head. They might, by wounding, have taken him alive. He is now preserved in spirits and furnishes the most ample confirmation of the existence of the Sea Serpent and fully justifies the confidence which we have maintained of its existence, size, form and properties.”
    Another letter says, “I have now in my house one of the children of the Serpent or the Devil, for in all my travels on land and sea, I have never seen any snake like this one.”
    Other Particulars. – At about four inches from the head of the infant Serpent is a rising protuberance, which is succeeded until within four inches of the end of the tail, by thirty-one others. His back is of a brownish color, with scales; his belly cream color and straight. The cove in which he was discovered is near the lighthouse on Thatcher’s Island. He was on the beach, making his way to the water when discovered by two boys, who called their father, and they all succeeded in killing him among the rocks and seaweed. The last time the Serpent was seen was near this cove. It is conjectured she deposited her spawn in the sand of this beach; that this has been hatched and was seeking the water when discovered.

   October 10, 1817 – The Panorama of the Great Sea Serpent is now completed and will be exhibited this Evening at Merchant’s Hall. The delay of this painting has been occasioned by the recent capture of a Spawn of the Serpent, which we learn has also been painted and will be exhibited with the panorama.

   October 29, 1817 – On Sunday the 5th inst. at 10 o’clock A. M., while standing a few rods from my house on Rye Neck, I observed at a small distance to the southward and eastward of Mr. Ezekiel Halsted’s dwelling on Rye point, and perhaps not more than a half mile from the shore, a long, rough, dark looking body progressing rapidly up Sound (towards New York) against a brisk breeze and a strong ebb tide. Viewing it with my glass convinced me it was a large living animal. – His back, forty to fifty feet of which was seen above the surface of the water, appeared to be irregular, uneven, and deeply indented. Some trees standing near the water, Rye Point, soon intercepting my view of him, I hastened to a situation from which I obtained another sight of him as he passed that part of the sound opposite Hempstead Bay. At this time he appeared to be nearly in the middle of the sound – his body more depressed below and his head more elevated above the water, going with increased velocity in the direction of Sand’s Point, creating a swell before him not unlike that made by a boat towed rapidly at the stern of a vessel. From the time I first saw him till I lost sight of him, perhaps could not have exceeded ten minutes, in which short time he had gone probably not less than six or seven miles.
    I was yesterday informed on creditable authority, that on the day on which I saw the above mentioned animal he was seen by some persons at or in the vicinity of the lighthouse on Sand’s Point.
    That it was a sea animal of great bulk, to me is certain – That it is what is usually called a sea serpent, and the same which appeared in Gloucester harbor is only probable. – THOS. HERTTELL.

   November 29, 1817 – On board the ship Cotton Plant, from New York to Savannah, 12th Nov. 1817: While laying too [sic] in latitude 32º.15, there was a great substance passed us through the water, the head of which was elevated some forty or fifty feet, supposed to be the Big Serpent, which supposition was confirmed, as we were soon surrounded by a school of long fish, which we made out to be his spawn.

   December 2, 1817 – Boston Intelligencer: THE SEA SERPENT. The name of this animal is the Scoliophis Atlanticus, according to a pamphlet just published by the Linnaean Society in this place. This is a report of a committee who were appointed to investigate the subject, and consists 1st of twelve depositions from Cape Ann, given by eye witnesses of his various movements – 2nd of documents in relation to the circumstances attending the appearance of a similar animal in June, 1815, near Plymouth – 3rd an account of a Sea Serpent in Penobscot Bay, in 1800 – 4th, another description given by Pointopiddan, Bishop of Bergen, in Norway, of a Sea Snake agreeing with the description of the Scoliophis in many particulars – and finally a minute statement, resulting from the examination of a young serpent, supposed to be the progeny of the great one. The committee opened the animal and found his spine entirely distinct from any other snake described by naturalists. It has often been stated that he had a row of protuberances upon his back; it is now ascertained that these are formed by the flexures of the spine. The body could be bent with facility upward and downward, and those parts of the spine which were straight admitted much less motion in a vertical direction than those parts which were curved. The peculiar internal conformation of the animal leads to the conclusion that he has superior flexibility and greater strength in vertical motions than any other Serpent. The Committee came to the following conclusions: – Considering the Serpent as a nondescript they have deemed it necessary to constitute a new genus. They have adopted the descriptive name of Scoliophis, and have added the local specific name of Atlanticus. Its scientific character stands thus: SCOLIOPHIS – Scuta on the belly – Scutellae on the tail – Spine flexuous. ATLANTICUS. SCOLIOPHIS.

   The last newspaper report I discovered was dated January 27, 1818: “An Account of the Sea Serpent Seen in Gloucester Bay is for sale at the Gazette Bookstore.”

   If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.