sea monster
An Uncommon Serpent; or, The Great Sea Serpent Hunt of 1817 & 1818

Earlier monsters, 1793-1815

Of the sightings of huge sea serpents there seems to have been no clear beginning. They appeared whenever and wherever sailing ships roamed the deep oceans—and in big inland lakes. American newspapers printed and reprinted stories of the sightings, sometimes adding editorial comments.

Even the early monsters were described as a series of tropes: the head shaped like that of a horse; the body as big around as some sort of barrel; the vast length.

One such sighting was that of Captain Crabtree, who described a gigantic creature gamboling off the coast of Maine in 1793. It’s an interesting piece which includes details that would be repeated in reports 24 years later: the head shaped like a horse’s head; the enormous length; the dark brown color; the comparison of the creature with barrels. It’s a fine tidbit of cryptozoology.

Note: “Frenchman’s bay” is probably Frenchman Bay, in Hancock County, Maine, bounded on one side by Mount Desert Island. Cranberry Island is nearby.

“Sea Monster.” The Salem Gazette [Salem, Massachusettes] 20 August 1793 [Tuesday]; p. 4.

Portland, August 3.

SEA MONSTER.

Capt. Crabtree, who lately arrived at Frenchman’s bay, and now in this town, gives the following extraordinary account of a sea serpent, the authenticity of which may be depended on:—

“On the 20th of June last, being on my passage from the W. Indies, in the morning, having just made Mount Desert Island, distant nearly ten leagues, I suddenly got sight of a serpent of an enormous size, swimming on the surface of the ocean, its head elevated about six or eight feet out of water, rather prone forward. That part of the body which was out of water, I judged to be about the size of a barrel in circumference, but the head larger, having some resemblance of a horse’s. According to the most accurate computation which I made in my mind of his length, I think it could not be less than from 55 to 60 feet, and perhaps longer. That part of the body which was not elevated, but of which I had a distinct view several times, was larger than the part out of water. The body of a dark brown. I was within two hundred yards of it near an hour, during which time, as it discovered no inclination to molest us, myself and the whole crew observed it with the minutest attention; nor was its attentionless fixed on us. The eye was perfectly black, sharp and piercing. I was so near it as to observe clearly that there were no fins or external appendages to the body; but that is motion was by the writhing of the body, like other serpents. During the time it was with us, several flocks of birds flew near, which it eyed very narrowly. I observed in it the greatest agility and quickness of motion.”

There is no doubt but this is one of two which have been seen in these parts. All accounts agree respecting their size and appearance. Two of them (perhaps the same) were once seen on the shore of the Cranberry islands, but immediately took to the water on being discovered. These are the first ever seen in our seas, that we have any account of, tho they have been seen on the coast of Norway.

A New Hampshire sighting three years later was brief, but included both the enormous size and the ever-important comparison to a barrel.

Sighting at Portsmouth. The Oracle of the Day [Portsmouth, New Hampshire] 1 September 1796 [Thursday]; p. 3.

During the last week was seen off Portsmouth harbour, a Sea SERPENT, which was supposed to be near one hundred feet in leng[t]h, as it shew [sic] itself out of water 40 feet; it was as big round [sic] as a barrel.

Large lakes also could harbor a sea serpent, four men “of respectability” apparently discovered in 1805. Lake Ontario’s connection with the sea via the St. Lawrence River provides the connection of this energetic critter with the sea serpents gamboling off the eastern coast of North America.

“Extraordinary Snake, in Lake Ontario.” Reprinted from the Rutland Herald [Rutland, Vermont] 10 August 1805; in The Weekly Wanderer [Randolph, Vermont] 19 August 1805 [Monday]; p. 3.

EXTRAORDINARY SNAKE,
In Lake Ontario.

Extract of a Letter from a young Gentleman residing near the black River, in the State of New-York, to his correspondent in Castleton—dated, “Watertown, June 30th 1805.

Sir,

“Four men of respectability, who belong to this place, were returning from Kingston, last week, in a boat across Lake Ontario, who, when about half way home, espied a distant object lying off in the Lake; which they supposed to be a boat with her bottom up. They immediately steered towards it, with a design to make a prize of her; when, with the swiftness of an arrow, it darted towards them, and they discovered it to be a monster in the form of a SNAKE. They were dreadfully frightened, and pulled with all their might for the shore, which they soon gained, it be at no great distance. The Monster closely pursued them, till gaining shoul [sic] water, it played backward and forward before them two hours. This afforded them leisure to recover from their surprize, to approach and survey it. It contracted itself in a spiral form, which they judged to be nearly eighteen feet in diameter. From the center of the curl, the head projected across the folds, lying even with the circumference, almost as large as a hogshead; the eyes nearly the bigness of a pint bason; the mouth frightfully large, and aspect terrible. The length, as it appeared above the water, they judged to be 150 feet. The body appeared to be about the size of a barrel. After playing around, as stated above, he steered his course for a vessel, which had left Kingston at the same time with themselves, bound to Niagara, and was out of sight in a moment.

“I understand that the Indians have frequently seen the same. He once attempted to pick a man out of a schooner, who saved himself by jumping into the cabin. A number of boats have been lost in the Lake, which many have conjectured were destroyed by this monster. It is supposed to be the same kind with that which infests the seas of Norway, as it is not difficult for it, when young, to come up the river St. Lawrence.”

[However incredible the above account may appear, the frighted [sic] imagination of these spectators, have not represented this monster of a Serpent, to be of such an enormous size, as the Sea-Snake which was shot by the Master of a ship, in the Norwegian seas, in 1756. The length of that, it will be recollected, was more than a hundred yards. The boat and ship masters in those seas, seem to dread being overset by this Sea-Monster; and, on that account, provide themselves with quantities of Caster, as they are known to have a remarkable aversion to the smell of that drug. It is probable that many who cross the Ontario would be happy to obtain a substance, equally efficacious, for their security.—Rutland Herald.

The story of the monster of Lake Ontario seems to have become a cause célèbre, being reprinted in innumerable papers all down the eastern part of the U.S. A wag in Albany, New York, informed the editor of the Albany Centinel that of course the serpent wasn’t an allegory for the troubles of the Merchants’ Bank, then an unincorporated bank seeking legitimacy. (See note #1 for the letter from Oliver Wolcott, jr, to Alexander Hamilton for more information.) “Cheetham” probably refers to James Cheetham, editor of the American Citizen [New York county, New York], who wrote several pieces about the Bank controversy.

“Dreadful Snake,” by “Tandy.” The Albany Centinel 3 September 1805 [Tuesday]; p. 3.

Dreadful Snake.—I am not of opinion that the account which has been published in some of the late papers, of a large snake seen in Lake Ontario, is intended for an allegory. Though when the idea is suggested, it would seem to have this appearance, yet it is not obvious enough for such a purpose, and would not occur to one of a thousand readers.

To interpret the “four men of respectability” who saw the snake, to mean the four goodly looking gentlemen who came up last winter to Albany in order to stop the Merchants’ Bank, and the “boat with her bottom up” to mean the bank itself which they supposed they had upset, is rather strained. Nor is it natural to say, that what they took to be a boat “darting towards them and they discovering it to be a monster in the form of a snake” signifies the incorporation of the bank. The only thing here which may lead any to think that there is a reference to the bank, is the expression “monster in the form of a snake;” and the gentlemen, immediately afterwards, being said to be “dreadfully frightened and pulling with all their might for the shore.” But however monstrous a thing the bank is conceived to be, & though the gentlemen got safely home before it “darted towards them;” that is, was incorporated, yet the relation, as it strikes me, ought to be understood literally. This is my humble opinion.

It may be urged that the description of this snake, having a “head in circumference almost as large as a hogshead; the eye nearly the bigness of a pint bason; the mouth frightfully large, and aspect terrible; the length 150 feet; the body about the size of a barrel,” can apply to no other object than the Merchants’ Bank, which threatens to swallow not only the “four men of respectability,” but to gulp down republicanism itself at a single meal. Still I cannot alter my opinion; and could show, with as much plausibility, that the writer refers to the very gentlemen who were so “dreadfully frightened.” Did not Cheetham stretch his eyes to “the bigness of a pint bason” when he heard that the act of incorporation was passed? Has not his mouth been “frightfully large” ever since, devouring like a crocodile, both man and beast? Has not the junto in the city of New-York “contracted itself into a spiral form, the HEAD in the centre; projected across the folds,” spreading and hissing like a viper? What sort of an allegory is it which is capable of such various applications? Let not the enemies of the Merchants’ Bank imagine that they can thus turn into ridicule its friends. Let them look at home. They are snakes with big heads, greedy eyes, and frightful mouths, who would swallow offices, characters, and every thing precious among men, and still expand insatiable jaws. I conclude with repeating it as my deliberate sentiment, after the closest examination, that the letter about the snake seen in Lake Ontario, is simply a narrative of matter of fact.

Tandy.

Another wag agreed, adding that the sightings of gigantic rattlesnakes near Charleston, South Carolina, indicated an increase in democratic thinking that he found worrisome.

“Another Snake,” by “A Naturalist.” The Albany Centinel [Albany, New York] 17 September 1805 [Tuesday]; p. 3.

Another Snake.—“A Rattle Snake, upwards of six feet long, and having twelve rattles, was, on Sunday last, killed in a small garden adjoining the grave yard of St. Philip’s Church, by Mr. Carver, farrier. This Snake had been seen, at different times, within this month, about the Church yard, and whenever pursued would descend into one of the graves. The circumstance of so enormous a reptile, making its appearance in the very centre of so large a city as Charleston, is singular and astonishing.”—Charleston pap.

The account of this snake is not so particular as that which was lately given of one of the same species, and found in the same country. Nothing is said of its thickness nor of the length of its teeth. The difference in age, however, between the former and the latter was great, if years are to be computed by the number of rattles—The former had seventy-three, the latter only twelve. From a comparison of the two, we may conclude that a serpent of this kind seldom exceeds six or seven feet in length; and that after a certain age, it grows, as some bodies do, in thickness.

A late writer has successfully combatted the opinion, that the snake seen in Lake Ontario, which pursued “four men of respectability,” signified the Merchants’ Bank, and the four men who took a trip last winter to this city, in search of adventures. But though convinced by his reasoning, yet I cannot help thinking that the appearance of so many snakes this season, denotes the increase of democracy. It is, certainly, fitly represented by the rattle snake, the most venomous of the snake-kind. As the bite of this is fatal to the body, so is the infection of democracy to the mind. The circumstance, however, of one snake having been found dead, and another having been killed, affords some consolation.

A Naturalist.

A letter-writer to the Utica Patriot [Utica, New York] was less waggish than skeptical, finding the sensationalism of the serpent story suspicious and speculating about what the observers really saw. Oh, and adding to the local mythology.

Letter to the editor, by “Unco.” Reprinted from the Patriot [Utica, New York]; in the True Republican [Norwich, Connecticut] 16 October 1805 [Wednesday]; p. 4.

Mr. Editor,

Your paper has taken no notice of the delectable story of the mammoth’s [sic] Serpent, said to be in Lake Ontario, and large enough to take in a boat’s crew at mouthful. It would seem by this omission, you are one of those cautious believers who require extraordinary proof to substantiate an extraordinary fact; or feel indifferent about gratifying the love of marvellous prodigies and “chimeras dire,” so prevalent in us your readers. You ought to recollect, that a great story raises great sensations, which are always pleasant; and that the account of a monster, or a thing without likeness to any thing above or below, is much more interesting than a plain tale of common occurrences, or any description of nature’s regular and useful productions. A proper calf, nobody but its owner regards; but a calf with two heads or six legs, obtains the honour of a place in a museum; and certainly any of us would go farther to see the Irish giant, whose hand was as long as the arm and hand of a common-sized man, or the dwarf eighteen inches high, than any well-made gentleman whatever. We love to be surprised, astonished, perplexed, and even terrified. We like to hear of a fact or a creature that cannot be arranged under any known class of facts or creatures. It is suggested whether, according to general practice, a conspicuous place should not be given to all plausible narrations of wonderful appearances of nature, physical and moral, marvellous and frightful.

With respect, indeed, to this Ontario serpent, your withholding the intelligence may admit of an apology, if it shall appear, that, tho’ it is attested by honest & sober men, they were probably misled by their frightful imaginations; that they took a large elevated piece of timber upon a heap of driftwood for a great snake; and that the object being suddenly obscured, perhaps by a cloud intercepting the moon, they thought it had suddenly fled from the shore with the swiftness they describe; for they represent, if I recollect, that they moved faster than the serpent when he was pursuing them; but when he turned to go away, he darted through the water with such velocity as to disappear almost in an instant. It is said the Indians believe in this monstrous being. There is another Indian opinion of the same kindred—that there resides under the shore of the Cross Lake, in some dreadful cavern, a being in the upper part like a man, and in the lower like a musquetoe, [sic] who is the king of the swarms of those insects that infest the lake, and who occasionally snatches an Indian out of his canoe to serve as a supper for himself and his colony: consequently the aboriginals are very careful, in passing the lake to observe a profound silence, lest he shall get notice of his prey.—Unco.

[We confess ourselves to be among those “cautious believers,” who have not published the story of the wonderful Snake. As, however, the circulation of the tale, thro’ other papers, has been pretty general, the drift of the above handsome satire will be readily perceived by most of our readers.—Budget.]

Waggish skeptics aside, there was scientific interest in the strange creatures of the sea, with natural historian Patrick Neill presenting a paper describing the remains of a gigantic snake that had washed ashore in Scotland. The discussion of Neill’s paper appeared in more than one American newspaper.

“Remarkable Sea Monster.” Vermont Republican [Windsor, Vermont] 13 August 1810 [Monday]; p. 4.

Remarkable Sea Monster.—Mr. Neill lately read before the Wernerian Natural History Society, extracts from different authors extracts [sic] to show the existence of the great Snake of the northern ocean, and concluding by stating, that within a few weeks, a vast marine animal, shaped like a snake, and not described in the works of systematic naturalists, had been cast ashore in Orkney. This curious animal, it appears, was standing in Rothesholm bay, in the Island of Stronsa (coast of Scotland.) The creature was dead when it came ashore, and the tail seemed to have been injured and broken by dashing among the rocks. The body measured fifty five feet i[n] length, and the circumference of the thickest part was equal to the girt of an Orkney poney. [sic] The head was not larger than that of a seal, and was furnished with two blow holes. From the back a number of filaments resembling in texture the substance called Indian sea grass, hung down like a mane. On each side of the body were three large fins, shaped like paws and jointed. Before measures could be taken for securing this rare animal for the inspection of naturalists, a violent tempest unfortunately occurred, and beat the carcase to pecies. [sic] Some fragments, however, have been collected by Mr. Malcomb Lang, and are deposited in the museum of the university of Edingburgh. [sic] Mr. Neill concluded with remarking that no doubt could be entertained that this was the kind of animal which had served as the prototype of all the wonderful sea snakes, whose appearance is on record; and that although the unfortunate destruction of the specimen by the storm may probably render it impossible to form a correct generic character on Linnean, principles, yet a place (if it should be n appendix) could no longer be refused to the Serpent Marinus Magnus of the bishop of Bergen.

Gigantic serpents could still cross the path of American ships, as Captain Cleveland reminded readers when the Trim came into port at Alexandria, Virginia, with its load of lead and pig iron. The report has a certain charm, with its early spelling of “coil” and “tush” as an alternate for “tusk”, and the wonderful word “curvely.” It’s also a little creepy, with the coiled serpent lurking just beneath the surface of the sea off the coast of Morocco.

Captain Cleveland investigates a sea serpent. Alexandria Gazette, Commercial and Political [Alexandria, Virginia] 9 December 1815 [Friday]; p. 3.

The brig Trim, Capt. Cleveland, on her passage from Gibraltar to this port, on the 25th of October, in lat 31, long 20, passed a substance in the water about 25 or 30 feet from the vessel, which, from its extraordinary appearance, induced the captain to tack ship with a view to examine what it was—the wind being light from the W. S. W. caused the boat to be lowered down, and sent the mate with two men to make discovery. On their return they gave the following description:—When we came in sight of the before mentioned substance, turned the boat and backed her stern nearly over him, then about four feet under water, lying quoiled up with his head on the top of the quoil—the head being pointed and about 12 or 14 inches in length, with upper and lower tushes or teeth, appeared from 3 to 4 inches outside the jaw shut within each other, appeared curvely like the tush of a hog, and extremely white. His body had the appearance in size of about three to 3 and a half feet in circumference, tapering towards the tail—his colour was of the deepest crimson, and reflected the water some yards round. The boat being to leeward of the reptile, the little wind and sea, while they stood viewing him, drifted it off about 30 to 40 feet, the mate then concluded to hook him; the noise of the oars at the first stroke started him, he threw himself out his length with his head towards the boat and came very near, raising himself nearly to the surface of the water in an attitude of attack, it was judged best to make for the vessel. His length could not have been less than 30 to 40 feet, and we judge him to be in form and appearance like to a sea serpent.

So, sea serpents lurked everywhere—and their existence had been proved by scientists. Having survived an earthquake (New Madrid, 1812), a war with Britain (1812-1815), and the attempted destruction by fire of the seat of American government (1814), Americans were primed to make much of a sea serpent on the coast of New England.

next: An uncommon serpent appears!