No. 451
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
December 06, 2019

The Gloucester Sea Serpent

A snake with his head and body about eight feet out of the water, his head is in perfect shape as large as the head of a horse.
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The Gloucester Sea Serpent

Gloucester Sea Serpent

Gloucester, Massachusetts, August 11, 1817—“There was seen on Monday and Tuesday morning around the harbor between Eastern Point and Ten Pound Island, a SNAKE with his head and body about eight feet out of the water, his head is in perfect shape as large as the head of a horse, his body is judged to be about FORTY-FIVE or FIFTY FEET IN LENGTH. It is thought that he will girt about 3 feet around the body, and his sting is about 4 feet in length.” (Salem Gazette) 

For several weeks in August 1817, a giant sea serpent took up residence in Gloucester Harbor, and unlike most monster sightings, then and now, this strange animal was seen by dozens, if not hundreds of sane and sober individuals. There was some disagreement over the length of the serpent—conservative estimates put it at forty-five feet, but Lonson Nash, a Gloucester magistrate, said the two ends were not visible at one view with a telescope, so he judged it to be seventy to a hundred feet in length. Some said it had a horse’s head, some saw teeth like a shark’s, some saw a tongue, two feet long and shaped like a harpoon.

Gloucester-sea-serpent-2
Gloucester Sea Serpent

But all agreed on the way it moved. Unlike land snakes or eels, the sea serpent moved by undulating vertically rather than horizontally. It was always seen with up to eight “distinct portions, or bunches, apparently caused by the vertical motion of the animal.” Using this unique and inexplicable mode of travel, the serpent could cover a mile in four minutes. This information was gathered in sworn statements taken by Mr. Nash, and the New-England Linnaean Society came to Gloucester to investigate. By the end of August, the sightings had stopped; the serpent had left the harbor.

There were, of course, skeptics. Professor Benjamin Silliman, a Yale chemist and geologist, declared that the Gloucester serpent was actually a steamboat being established in Boston to coast along the shore, “and from its powers and capabilities competent to injure the business of small boats, was described as a sea-serpent.” The people of Gloucester took this metaphor seriously and believed there was a real sea serpent in their midst. The eye-witness accounts were, no doubt, due to the Commonwealth’s well known tendency toward mass hysteria.

The years between 1817 and 1847 were a high point in sea serpent sightings in America. The monsters were seen at many points along the Atlantic coast including Nova Scotia, Maine, South Carolina and the Gulf of Mexico. Belief in sea serpents became widespread and even Professor Silliman came around - in 1827 he recognized the existence of sea serpents.

Bogus-Serpent
Hydrarchos sillimani

But when Americans believe strongly in something, it’s an open invitation to fraud.  In 1845, “Dr.” Albert C. Koch put on exhibit at the Apollo Saloon on Broadway in New York City, a full skeleton of a sea serpent. He named the new species Hydrarchos sillimani, or “Silliman’s Master-of-the-Seas," in honor of Benjamin Silliman’s recognition of sea-serpents. Koch claimed he had unearthed the Skeleton in Alabama and asserted that it proved the existence of sea serpents.

A quick examination by a trained anatomist revealed that Koch’s sea serpent was actually an artful assembly of fossils from at least five different specimens of whale. Silliman insisted that his name be removed from the fraudulent serpent. Koch agreed, renamed the exhibit and took it to Europe.

After 1817 sea serpents were seen sporadically along the coast of Massachusetts, but Gloucester’s sea serpent never returned.


Sources:

  • Babson, John J.. History of the town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: including the town of Rockport. Gloucester, [Mass.: Procter Brothers, 1860.
  • Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the sea. New York: Knopf, 1994.
  • Timbs, John. Knowledge for the people, or, The plain why & because: familiarizing subjects of useful curiosity and amusing research. Boston: Lilly & Wait, 1832.