No. 424
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 21, 2019

The Gloucester Sea Serpent

January 24, 2012
...
...


Chapter 2
This broadside comes from the National Library of Scotland’s vast collection of print ephemera, “The Word on the Street”. Account of the Execution of Elizabeth Nicklson, or Shafto, or Jeffrey, when was Executed in front of the Jail, this morning, for a Double Murder, 1st, with administering, on the 4th October last, to Ann Newal […]
More...
ExecutedToday.com - 5/21/2019


`
Coming in May! Warps and Wefts is excited to announce the publication of “Dressing Miss Lizzie”, a collection of paper …

Continue reading

More...
Lizzie Borden : Warps & Wefts - 4/23/2019
Montreal Gazette, October 13, 1857, via Newspapers.com William Townsend was, on the whole, a very ordinary sort of villain. His numerous grim deeds were brutishly uncomplicated, wholly lacking any of the originality, enterprise, or even flashes of humor that go to make some crimes permanently capture the public imagination. Townsend, in his private life, had a talent for mimicry that in
More...
Strange Company - 5/20/2019

Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
More...
Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
In July 1890, a man came into the 126th Street Police Station in Harlem, New York City, to report a conversation he had overheard in an elevated train. A young man and woman sitting near him were talking about the mysterious disappearance of Miss Goodwin from the Storm King flats on East 126th Street. They believed that she had been foully dealt with by “professional malpractioners.” The woman
More...
Murder by Gaslight - 5/18/2019
I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street. Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too. “S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the […]
More...
Ephemeral New York - 5/19/2019
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
More...
Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
A Plucky Elberon, N. J., Girl | A Characteristic Present

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) [more]

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
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.

<Hydrarchos sillimani
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.