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

When a sea serpent was spotted in the waters off the coast of New England in 1817, New Englanders were enthralled. They pursued it; they shot at it; they wrote poems about it; they analyzed it; they joked about it; they used it in advertisements; and they reprinted every description they could find of strange creatures sighted in the waters in earlier years.

After the first report in August 1817, news of the mysterious citizen of the deep rolled through New England like a wind-whipped tide. Early reports recalled earlier sightings, and a cryptozoologic phenomenon came to life. Stories were printed and reprinted, splashing out of the papers of New England and more southerly papers, which sometimes took a skeptical view.

Why the excitement? Today, we would say the story went viral; and to some extent this on-going saga of a legendary monster probably had some of the features of stories that absorb attention today: something out of the ordinary, entertaining, inconsequential. Some readers no doubt enjoyed the shiver of having a legendary creature spring into ordinary life. Certainly the skeptical were entertained by satires on the critter and its fans. Definitely newspaper editors appreciated the inch-eating text that could be copied into their papers—then, basically four-page advertising circulars sprinkled with articles and some poetry, and often reliant on other newspapers for content. And, recent history had been a bit jostling: the New Madrid earthquake (1811-1812) pointed up that earth beneath Americans wasn’t unmoveable; the War of 1812 (1812-1815) and the attempted destruction of Washington, DC, by the British (1814) hinted that the political climate wasn’t completely stable, either.

And it was scientific! Years earlier, American newspapers had reprinted Patrick Neill’s description of a gigantic sea serpent washed up on the coast of Scotland—a description taken from a paper read before a Scottish natural history society. The Linnæan Society wanted the details of current sightings. Surely this implied that a real creature really lurked off the very real coast of North America!

Descriptions quickly adopted various tropes. The sea serpent was big; no, bigger than that; no, even bigger than that. Its head was shaped like a horse’s head. It was as big around as a keg; it was as big around as a gallon keg; it was as big around as a barrel; it was as big around as a flour barrel; it was as big around as a 60- or 80-gallon cask. (And its head was as big as a four-gallon keg.) It looked like several barrels or casks or kegs roped together. It was dark brown.

And it was energetic. It gamboled in the ocean and sped up rivers and at least once was accompanied by posse of varied sea creatures. It fought with whales. It bunched along like a caterpillar and coiled beneath the surface of the water, lurking. It crawled ashore. It shook off musket fire. And it migrated south for the winter.

Reactions to the serpent were … human. Some shot at it. Fishermen were too terrified to risk being swamped by it. Poems were written about it. Its portrait was painted—and exhibited for money.

And, of course, it was pursued. A bounty of $2000 (almost $33,000 in 2020) was put on it in 1817. Much of 1818 appears to have been dedicated to its capture, with Captain Richard Rich and his crew doggedly chasing and finally harpooning the wily critter. Church bells rang the joyous news when the good captain and his men triumphed.

Why the bells fell silent is also part of the story.

This collection of pieces about the Great Sea Serpent Hunt is taken from contemporary newspapers. Newspapers are fearfully ephemeral, and sometimes the transcription has of necessity been taken from a reprint of the original piece. Illustrations will disappoint, but are included. Some aspects of the articles may be unexpected for 21st-century readers. Editors were focused on printing the text and weren’t especially careful proofreaders; sometimes words appear to be left out of a phrase. Not all pieces got a headline.

Pieces appear in this exhibit more or less in chronological order, and publishing information for each piece appears in square brackets at the end of the transcription. My comments are set off with borders. A list of the web pages in this online exhibit, a list of the pieces transcribed, and a chronological list of sea monster sightings are on a separate page.

A note about spelling: Early 19th-century American spelling rules were different from those in the 21st century. Some words had extra letters; the word “show” often was spelled “shew.” I’ve retained the early spellings and have used “[sic]” only when it would appear to modern readers that I may have made a typographical error.

One early encounter with a sea serpent off the coast of Norway was referred to again and again. This sighting by Lorenz von Ferry supposedly occurred in 1746; some American papers give the date as 1756, possibly repeating an error in their original source. The details of von Ferry’s encounter (and marksmanship) were attested to by the witnesses in 1751 and were reprinted in 1892 in The Great Sea-Serpent; And Historical and Critical Treatise, by A. C. Oudemans:

In the latter end of August, in the year 1746, as I was on a voyage, on my return from Trundheim, on a very calm and hot day, having a mind to put in at Molde, it happened that when we had arrived with my yacht within a mile of the aforesaid Molde, being at a place called Jule-Naess, as I was reading in a book, I heard a kind of murmuring voice from amongst the men at the oars, who were eight in number, and observed that the man at the helm kept off from the land. Upon this I inquired what was the matter, and was informed that there was a sea-serpent before us. I then ordered the man at the helm to keep the land again, and to come up with this creature of which I had heard so many stories. Though the fellows were under some apprehension, they were obliged to obey my orders. In the meantime the sea-snake passed by us, and we were obliged to tack the vessel about in order to get nearer to it. As the snake swam faster than we could row, I took my gun which was loaded with small shot, and fired at it; on this he immediately plunged under water. We rowed to the place where it sank down (which in the calm might be easily observed) and lay upon our oars, thinking it would come up again to the surface; however it did not. Where the snake plunged down, the water appeared thick and red; perhaps the small shot might have wounded it, the distance being very little. The head of this sea-serpent, which it held more than two feet above the surface of the water, resembled that of a horse. It was of a greyish colour, and the mouth was quite black, and very large. It had black eyes, and a long white mane, which hung down from the neck to the surface of the water. Besides the head and neck, we saw seven or eight folds, or coils, of this snake, which were very thick, and as far as we could guess there was a fathom’s distance between each fold. (p. 123)

[A. C. Oudemans. The Great Sea-Serpent; And Historical and Critical Treatise (np: A. C. Oudemans, 1892; pp. 122-124; available at google books)]

first: Earlier monsters, 1793-1815

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