Featured image: hoax photo by early Ipswich photographer George Dexter.
The earliest recorded sighting of a Sea Serpent in North American waters was at Cape Ann in 1639: “They told me of a sea serpent or snake, that lay coiled up like a cable upon a rock at Cape Ann; a boat passed by with two 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 be in danger of their lives.” —John Jossellyn, 1638
In 1817, reports spread throughout New England of a sea serpent sighted in Gloucester harbor. The Linnaean Society of New England collected evidence and published a pamphlet in which it announced the discovery of an entirely new genus, the Scoliophis Atlanticus. There were mass sightings of a serpent off the coast of Nahant in 1819.
A similar creature attacked a British sailing ship, the British Banner in 1859. General David Humphreys traveled to Gloucester to interview witnesses. Witnesses said that the creature was 60 to 70 ft. long and that it’s head, which it held above the water, had a spear about twelve inches in height, and six inches in circumference at the base. It moved rapidly in a serpentine fashion, was very agile and no one had been able to kill it.
A committee appointed by the Linnæan Society of New England prepared a lengthy report:
“The affidavits of a great many individuals of unblemished character are collected, which leaves no room to apprehend anything like deceit. They do not agree in every minute particular, but in regard to its great length and snake-like form, they are harmonious. An animal of similar appearance was again seen, in August 1819, off Nahant, Boston, and remained in the neighbourhood for some weeks. Two hundred persons witnessed it, thirteen folds were counted, and the head, which was serpent-shaped, was elevated two feet above the surface. Its eye was remarkably brilliant and glistening. The water was smooth, and the weather calm and serene. When it disappeared, its motion was undulatory.”
The Nahant Sea Serpent
Samuel Adams Drake wrote about the Cape Ann sea serpent in “A Book of New England Legends and Folk Lore” published in 1884:
“There is one topic with which the annals of Nahant are inseparably associated that we feel a natural diffidence in approaching, yet cannot in conscience ignore, and that is the sea serpent. Words are inadequate to describe the wide-spread consternation which the apparition of such a monster created among the hardy population of our New England seaboard. He was soon perceived to possess none of the attributes of sportive and harmless fish but to belong strictly to the reptile tribe.
And what a reptile! The most exaggerated reports of his length prevailed throughout all the fishing towns of Cape Ann and up and down the length of the coast. One skipper swore that he was as long as the main mast of a seventy-four; another would eat him if the steeple of Gloucester meeting could hold a candle to him for length.
Still another declared upon his solemn affidavit that having sighted the shaggy head of the snake early in the morning with a stiff six-knot breeze and everything full he had been half a glass in overhauling his snakeship’s tail as he lay motionless along the water. For a time nothing else was talked of but the wonderful sea snake which was repeatedly seen in Gloucester Bay in August 1817, and occasionally also in the waters of Nahant Bay by hundreds of curious spectators who ran to the beaches or pushed off in boats at the first news of his approach.”
The sea monster appeared again off Nahant in July 1833.
“It was first seen on Saturday afternoon, passing between Egg Rock and the Promontory, winding his way into Lynn Harbour; and again on Sunday morning, heading for South Shores. It was seen by forty or fifty ladies and gentlemen, who insist that they could not have been deceived.”
In 1877, a sea serpent was observed by beachgoers and fishermen in Nahant. The July 19th issue of the Boston Globe describes the what people saw:
“That shiny sea serpent which has been such a terror along the New England coast during the past few years has made his debut in Nahant waters this season. He was seen on Monday and again this morning, and the circumstances of his presence are given in such detail by astonished beholders that there is general credence given to the statement that an unusual and prodigious serpentine monster is [displaying] himself in the waters of Massachusetts Bay.”
Mysteries of the Deep Sea
Excerpt from “Sea and land ; an Illustrated History of the Wonderful and Curious Things of Nature Existing Before and Since the Deluge ” by J. W. Buel, published in 1887
There appeared in the United Service Journal of August, 1819, a letter written by an eye-witness of the great sea-serpent off the coast of Nahant, which contained, among other statements, the following:
“I had with me an excellent telescope. When I reached the strand I found many persons assembled, and soon afterward I saw appear at a short distance from the shore, an animal whose body formed a series of blackish curves, of which I counted thirteen ; other persons estimated the number at fifteen. The monster passed thrice at a moderate speed, traversing the bay, whose waters writhed in foam under its huge bulk. We could easily calculate that its length could not be less than fifty or sixty feet. This at least I can affirm, without presuming to say to what species belongs the animal which I have just seen, that, at least, it was neither a whale nor cachalot, nor any strong souffleur, nor any other enormous cetacean. None of those gigantic animals have such an undulating back.”
A SEA-SERPENT RESEMBLING A CHAIN OF HOGSHEADS
In addition to this letter describing the sea-serpent, there followed the statement of a sea-captain made in the form of a deposition before the officials of Essex County, Massachusetts. It read as follows :
” I, the undersigned, Gresham Bennett, second master, declare that on the 6th of June at 7 a.m., while navigating on board the sloop Concord, on her way from New York to Salem, the vessel being about fifteen miles from Race Point, in sight of Cape St. Anne, I heard the helmsman cry out and call me, saying that there was something close to the ship well worth looking at.
I ran immediately to the side he pointed out and saw a serpent of enormous magnitude floating on the water. Its head rose about seven feet above the surface; the weather was clear and the sea calm. The color of the animal in all its visible parts was black, and the skin appeared smooth and free from scales. Its head was about as long as that of a horse, but was the perfect head of a serpent, terminating on the upper part in a flattened surface. We could not distinguish its eyes.
I saw it clearly from seven to eight minutes; it swam in the same direction as the sloop and nearly as quickly. Its back consisted of humps or rings the size of a large barrel, separated by intervals of about three feet. These rings appeared fixed and resembled a chain of hogsheads fastened together; the tail was beneath the water. The part of the animal which I actually saw measured about fifteen feet in length; the movement of its rings seemed undulatory.”
After the age of motorized ocean travel reports of a sea serpent subsided, and it has been speculated that if such creatures existed they may have been warned off by the sounds of ship engines. Reported sightings have continued to this day in Nova Scotia. On Sunday, November 15, 1970, a “sea monster” washed ashore at Scituate south of Boston. In the next three days over 10,000 people saw the creature. Discoverers of the carcass claimed it was at least 50 feet long, but souvenir seekers hacked off many pieces before authorities from the New England Aquarium arrived to investigate.
The giant Plum Island Squid
It could be that some of the sightings were of a giant squid similar to the one that washed up on Plum Island in 1980.
Sightings of the giant squid or “Kraken” have been reported for centuries but the creature was long considered to be mythological. In the 18th Century, Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen in his book “The Natural History of Norway” claimed that the kraken was sometimes mistaken for an island and that ships could be sunk by the whirlpool left in its wake.
The massive giant squid has eight arms and two long tentacles, but was rarely seen and never taken seriously by the scientific community until it was categorized by Danish zoologist Johan Steenstrup in the 1840’s. A squid estimated at 30 ft. long was captured near St. John’s Newfoundland in 1873, and three years later a 65 ft. specimen was found in New Zealand. Perhaps the giant squid accounts for some of the reports of “sea monsters” off the coast of Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
In 1980 a giant squid was discovered on the Plum Island beach about 3.5 miles south of the entrance to the Parker River Wildlife Refuge in a section that is part of Rowley. The specimen was a female weighing 440 lbs. Had the two feeding tentacles not been missing, it would have measured about 30 ft. It was the third body of a giant squid to be found on U.S. shores.
Sources and Further reading:
- Biodiversity Heritage Library
- Oudemans, A. C. (Anthonie Cornelis), 1831-1895: The great sea-serpent. An historical and critical treatise…With 82 illustrations
- Gould, Charles “Mythical Monsters” published in 1886
- Magnus, Olaus, “History of the Northern Peoples“
- Buel, J. W., “Sea and land : an Illustrated History of the Wonderful and Curious Things of Nature Existing Before and Since the Deluge, published in 1887
- Drake, Samuel Adams: “A Book of New England Legends and Folk Lore” published in 1884
- O’Neill, J.P.: The great New England sea-serpent
- Johann Ludwig Gotfried, Newe Weld and Americanishe Historien
- Report of a committee of the Linnæan society of New England, relative to a large marine animal, supposed to be a serpent, seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August 1817 by Linnaean Society of New England