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

The sea serpent vs. the Encyclopedia, 1776-1817

The uncommon visitor to the waters off New England was still fascinating the inhabitants of New England—or, at least the editors of New England. This action-packed little summation of events includes bits from the Encyclopedia—which wasn’t sure such serpents existed—a passage from a poem—about another serpent entirely—a paragraph about the fight between the Romans and the African serpent—with details not in an earlier description—and a summary of the serpent’s appearance and habits. Also the pertinent details of other encounters with various sea serpents.

A clergyman’s meet-up with a sea serpent in Penobscot Bay may be the encounter in 1783, being written up in 1797. But other encounters don’t seem to have been picked up by other newspapers, though the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] liked the poetry well enough to reprint it in their 27 August 1817 issue (p. 4). Capt. George Little’s observation of a monster during the American Revolution appears to be mentioned nowhere else. Neither is the sighting of the 1817 sea serpent by an unnamed master of an unnamed coasting vessel a few days before John Low watched it. The unnamed observer was mocked into silence and thus lost his place in weird history.

Some notes: Madoc was a legendary Welsh prince who made his way to North America in 1170; “Madoc,” published in 1805, is an epic poem by Robert Southey, a popular British poet who was the first to publish the folktale that became “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” “Foined” is an archaic word for “lunged.”

“Sea Serpent” & “Latest of the Serpent.” Boston Intelligencer, and Morning & Evening Advertiser [Boston, Massachusetts] 23 August 1817 [Saturday]; p. 2.

The accounts given of this “huge and hideous” monster, were considered so marvellous, that its very existence is doubted by the editors of the Encyclopedia. After reciting the description given by Guthrie of its venomous bulk, they observe: “Notwithstanding the belief of Guthrie and the testimony which he produces, we cannot help doubting of the existence of the Sea Serpent.—Its bulk is said to be so disproportionate to all the known animals of our globe that it requires more than ordinary evidence to render it credible.”

Extraordinary accounts of land serpents however, have been credited, from the earliest ages and the same writers cite the following facts, as worthy of belief:

“We are told that while Regulus led his army along the banks of the river Bagrada in Africa, an emormous serpent disputed his passage over. We are assured by Pliny that it was 130 feet long, and that it had destroyed many of the army. At last however the battering engines were brought against it; and these assailing it at a distance it was soon destroyed. Its spoils were carried to Rome and an ovation decreed for his success. The skin was kept for several years after in the capital, and Pliny says he saw it there.”

Since the appearance of the prodigious Snake at Cape-Ann, a number of circumstances which had previously occurred have been reccollected, [sic] which coupled with the recent facts respecting it, place the existence of this remarkable animal beyond the reach of further dispute. About twenty years ago a paper was transmitted to the American Academy of arts and sciences in Boston, communicating some intelligence respecting the appearance of a monster of this kind in Penobscot Bay. A Clergyman and his daughter were crossing the Bay in a boat, and such a snake made his appearance and swam towards them—the lady fainted—the father was frightened—but the animal did them no injury. The description of the phenomenon was considered so remarkable, as to be incredible, and the academy refused to publish it. A search for the rejected paper is now making, in the hope that it will throw some light upon the question.

Capt. George Little, who afterwards commanded the U. S. Frigate Boston, is recollected to have described a similar creature, which appeared in the same bay during the war of the revolution. He was sent out in a boat to examine it, but the snake disappeared before he could approach sufficiently near to make an attack. The papers during the present week have republished a letter from Capt. Crabtree dated 1793, giving an account of a serpent which he saw near Mount Desert in the month of June of that year. It’s [sic] head was elevated 6 or 8 feet,—larger than a barrel and somewhat resembling that of a horses—the body of about the same circumference was of a dark brown colour and appeared to be from 55 to 60 feet long. It shewed no disposition to molest them and remained near an hour within view of the vessel. Its eyes were black and piercing, and its motion was rapid.—Verbal information has been communicated by other individuals of another serpent similar in its appearance and character which has formerly been observed on this coast.

This testimony assists us, in giving credit to the information received from Cape Ann. The earliest account which the inhabitants of Gloucester received of their snake visitor was from the master of a coasting vessel. He went on shore and mentioned, that a horrid monster was discovered by him, with his head round the bow and appearing to be resting upon the cable—his body extending along the sides and passing beyond the stern of the vessel, which measured about 80 or 90 tons. So little belief was awarded to the story, that the master was glad to seek refuge from derision, on board his sloop.

A subsequent account however, given by a credible person, who lives upon an extreme point of the harbour, excited the curiosity, though it was not calculated to remove the doubts of the inhabitants. He described the monster as elevating his head 8 feet from the surface of the water—dashing it majestically about him, and moving through it with astonishing and terrific rapidity.

A few days afterwards doubt gave way to certainty—“what yesterday was fact to day is doctrine,” and the people of Gloucester have seen the monster themselves. The following description from all the information which could be obtained at the place, is as accurate as the circumstances would admit, and is not contradicted by any testimony of a less extraordinary character.

He seldom swims with his head elevated; but it has been partially seen by some persons and wholly by a few. It is a frightful object. Its colour is a dark brown, mixed with some streaks of a lighter hue, and resembling from its hard and scaly appearance “a weather beaten rock.” It is broad and of the size of a Hingham bucket;—the shape is round—in front, the conformation of the upper jaw is something like a Spaniel’s, the under one like a Shark’s and both are armed with formidable teeth. The side of his mouth is about nine inches long,—but it is well known the mouth of the serpent has great capacity of extension, on account of such a stretching muscular skin which holds the joints together, that he can gorge a prey much thicker than his body.

His body, upon comparing all accounts of him is at least 90 feet long—perhaps 100—and nearly of the size of a flower [sic] barrel in his largest part, which is about ten or fifteen feet from his head. It is of a dark brown, covered with large scales, which, when he is in motion, appear rife with life, and are at angles with the line of incurvation formed by his folds.

His common motion is undulatory, making curves perpendicular to the surface of the water, which has given rise to the account of his presenting the appearance of a succession of casks strung together. The flexures of his body above, have alternate spaces of water between them which have corresponding depressed bends underneath. A serpentine motion of the hand up and down will be an accurate indication of his movement. With amphibious snakes, the windings on earth are perpendicular and in the water are parallel to the surface; this animal has the vertical motion in the water. He makes very short, sudden and rapid turns, so that in bringing his head and tail within a few feet of each other, he resembles a pair of reins. He is sometimes seen at rest with his back out of water; but the celerity of his motion underneath the surface, is much greater than when any part of his body is exposed to view.

Whether the people of Gloucester will ever be able to destroy him is very uncertain. They have Shark hooks attached to tight casks for buoys, baited with various kinds of food—boats are placed upon the watch and if he should gorge a hook of this kind—we think he will be certainly taken—though not without much difficulty.* They will in that case be aware of the place of his situation, and profit by the embarrassment of his motion: but at present they have no clue to guide them to him, chance only can give them an opportunity of seeing him—and they are not able with their best boats, to equal his rapidity.

*The following description of the death of the Snake god, in the poem of Madoc, by R. Southey—may be found interesting in this place—

“They press him now, and now

Give back, here urging, and here yielding way,

Till right beneath the chasm they centre him.

At once the crags are loosed, and down they fall,

Thundering. They fell like thunder, but the crash

Of scale and bone was heard. In agony

The Serpent writhed beneath the blow; in vain,

From under the incumbent load, essayed

To drag his mangled folds. One heavier stone

Fastened and flattened him; yet still, with tail

Ten cubits long, he lashed the air, and foined

From side to side, and raised his raging head

Above the height of man, though half his length

Lay mutilate. Who then had felt the force

Of that wild fury, little had to him

Buckler or corselet profited, or mail,

Or might of human arm. The Britons shrunk

Beyond its arc of motion; but the Prince,

Took a long spear, and, springing on the stone

Which fixed the monster down, provoked his rage.

Uplifts the Snake his head retorted, high

He lifts it over Madoc, then darts down

To seize his prey. The Prince, with foot advanced,

Inclines his body back, and points the spear,

With sure and certain aim, then drives it up,

Into his open jaws; two cubits deep

It pierced, the monster forcing on the wound.

He closed his teeth in anguish, and bit short

The ashen hilt. But not the rage, which now

Clangs all his scales, can from its seat dislodge

The barbed shaft; nor those contortions wild,

Nor those convulsive shudderings nor the throes

Which shake his inmost entrails, as with the air,

In suffocating gulps, the monster now

Inhales his own life blood. The Prince descends;

He lifts another lance; and now the Snake,

Gasping, as if exhausted, on the ground

Reclines his head one moment. Madoc seized

That moment, planted in his eye the spear,

Then, setting foot upon his neck, drove down,

Through bone and brain and throat, and to the earth

Infixed the mortal weapon. Yet once more

The Snake essayed to rise; his dying strength

Failed him, nor longer did those mighty folds

Obey the moving impulse; crushed and scotched,

In every ring, through all his mangled length,

The shrinking muscles quivered, then collapsed

In death.”

Latest of the Serpent.

The sea serpent has pro[b]ably left the harbour of Gloucester, he was certainly seen on Thursday morning off Kettle Island, between Cape-Ann and Manchester, and he was probably seen yesterday morning. We have conversed with a gentleman who went out from Cape-Ann yesterday with a party, to the place where the snake had been seen the day before—but he did not appear. The person of whom it was reported, that he saw him yesterday morning—was unfortunately out of the way, and the party did not converse with him.

Capt. John Beach, Jr., who has made a very satisfactory, because we believe it is an accurate drawing of him, is we understand in town, and his intention is to have the picture engraved for the satisfaction of the publick. [sic]

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