When New England Saw The Serpent

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Recently I went down to Cape Ann and stood on the Stage Rocks overlooking Gloucester Day. There were a few sailboats in sight and occasionally a fishing trawler would round the Dog Bar Breakwater. A strong odor of fish hangs over the town as it has for several centuries, but the air over the Stage Rocks was clean and the visibility was excellent. I stayed there for some time, trying to visualize the bay as it must have appeared in August, 1817, when something occurred that put this spot in all the newspapers of the world.

One day that month the skipper of a coasting vessel, forced into Gloucester by bad weather, came into Lipple’s auction room with a curious story. At the entrance to the bay, he said gravely, he and his crew had seen a terrible creature that looked like a sea serpent—sixty feet long! He was laughed out of the room, but in two weeks all Gloucester was in an uproar. Everyone seems to have seen it—or, by local usage, him. He was colored like an eel. He made the bay his home. Sometimes he lay extended on the surface; sometimes he played like a porpoise, but mostly he preyed on the herring, caught in record numbers that year. When he swam with his head raised above the surface, his head and long neck moved slowly from side to side, while his body proper seemed to move with the vertical motion of a caterpillar. Most witnesses agreed that they saw neither horns, gills, teeth, or scales on the snub-headed animal, though some women claimed that his eyes were “as large as pewter plates.”

He was the strangest, biggest fish that New England had ever seen, and the professional cod catchers and sailors of Gloucester determined to kill him, skin him, and place him on exhibition. They baited shark hooks and attached them to buoys anchored in the bay; they set out nets. The revenue cutter had a brush with him and took on extra four-pounders; Nantucket whalemen came with their harpoons to try for an announced reward of $5,000.

For a month the serpent basked in the public eye. “He was seen by two hundred, at one time, sporting (he whole afternoon, under Wind-Mill Point,” wrote David Humphreys, a former aide-de-camp of Washington, who had received Cornwallis’ colors at Yorktown.

If the “Great American Sea Serpent” (as European naturalists jocularly called him) was a mass hallucination, he at least provided some exciting moments. On August 14 a local marksman named Mathew Gaffeney fired a one-ounce ball at him from a distance of, he claimed, thirty feet. Someone else in another boat said it was closer to thirty yards. It didn’t really matter much, because the creature sounded, reappeared in the distance, and sped away from his pursuers. On August 20, we arc told, an unwarned ship from the banks arrived off the hay, saw him, and fled in horror. There were a few later reports of sightings from Long Island Sound, off Connecticut, and then—silence.

One would expect a diminution of excitement. On the contrary, the situation now took a chilling turn for the worse. Soon after, a Cape Ann farmer pitchforked in his seagirt pasture a three-and-one-hall-loot snake with humps like the monster’s. Boston’s Linnanean Society, to whom the snake had been brought, decided it was the serpent’s progeny. They dissected it, made an engraving of its innards, and named it Scoliophis atlanticus . This piece of news from the Hub sent small fry along the coast in a frenzied hunt for sea serpent eggs until a French naturalist pointed out that the reptile in question was actually a common black snake in a diseased condition. It was a bitter blow for the Linnaean Society (which really included some very eminent people) but then, in July and early August, 1819, another vintage sea serpent year, an event occurred which provoked even more of a sensation than n the serpent’s original visit. In die dog days of that year he showed up off Nahant, then a resort of Boston’s wealthier families. Hundreds of people watched him disport off Long Beach; certain Cabots wrote detailed reports of him for the Boston newspapers.

And on August 26, almost two years to the day since the monster had last been seen in Gloucester Hay, he was spotted there by a naval surveying vessel, permitting the Reverend Cheever Felch, who taught navigation to the midshipmen on board and prided himself on making measurements, to add a further detail. The length of the monster from his head down to the last hump on his back, he estimated, was at least one hundred feet—not counting the tail.

Such was the Leviathan’s last stand on the New England coast. Hacked now by science, naval authority, and the Cabots, one Boston newspaper decided it would print no further news of him. After all, as the editor told his readers, “the existence of this fabulous animal is now proven beyond all chance of doubt.”