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

The sea serpent returns, 1817

Keeping an eye on the sea serpent frisking off the coast of New England in 1817 meant tracking it from one feeding ground to another, but New Englanders were up to the challenge—and also up to the challenge of making a pleasant joke.

“The Grand Serpent.” Salem Gazette [Salem, Massachusetts] 26 August 1817 [Tuesday]; p. 2.

The Grand Serpent

Was seen on Saturday last behind Ten Pound Island, Gloucester, faring sumptuously amidst millions of herrings. A number of gentlemen from Boston were at Gloucester on Sunday last, in hopes of getting a sight of the monster, but being stormy all day he chose to keep off, to get out of the wet.

The Essex Register noted the attention being given this “wonderful marine animal” and that John Beach’s portrait of the serpent had gotten more ambitious.

“The Cape-Ann Serpent.” Essex Register [Salem, Massachusetts] 27 August 1817 [Wednesday]; p. 3.

The Cape-Ann Serpent

Was distinctly seen on Saturday morning last, by several persons, at the entrance of Gloucester Harbor. Several parties from Gloucester, Marblehead and Salem were out on Saturday, for the purpose of watching an opportunity to attack him, but he was not seen again on that day, and on Sunday the weather was stormy. Yesterday, being a fine moderate day, they were again on the look-out for him, but we have not learnt whether he was seen.

Gen. D. Humphreys, who has been at Cape Ann [sic] several days, yesterday passed through town, having obtained a number of depositions of the most respectable persons at Gloucester, who have seen the Serpent. These depositions, which were taken for the use of the Linnæan Society, agree in every essential particular with the description we have before given, and establish beyond a doubt the existence of a wonderful marine animal, respecting which Naturalists have heretofore had but very vague and unsatisfactory accounts.

Mr. John Beach, jr. who has now in the hands of the Engraver, a view of the Serpent on a small scale, is engaged in Painting, for exhibition, a view of him, on a canvas of 26 by 14 feet, including a view of the Town and Harbor of Gloucester.

The weather having cleared, the sea serpent was eventually sighted. Mr. Story’s description has the creature in repose, lying quietly on the surface of the sea. The Columbian Centinel printed the new description on one page and noted two references in literature on another page.

“The Sea Serpent.” Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 27 August 1817 [Wednesday]; p. 2.

This Aquatic Novelty did not continue long off Kettle-Island, (Manchester); but returned to his old feeding place, the entrance to Cape-Ann harbour. On Saturday morning he was seen distinctly by two credible persons, who were then near what is called the Eastern Point.

The Linnæan Society having requested several gentlemen to obtain facts respecting this Prodigy, on oath, one of the persons, Mr. Story, gave a deposition of having seen it, before the Hon. Mr. Nash, on Saturday evening.—He deposed, that he and his family, saw the Snake (as he is usually called at Cape-Ann) on Saturday morning soon after sun-rise, that he lay stretched at his whole length on the surface of the water, then very smooth, between a ledge of rocks near the Eastern Point, called Black Bess, and Ten Pound Island; and continued dormant during the space of half an hour—and that he appeared as if reposing.—He judged the length of the part of his body visible (his head and tail being both under water) to be at least 50 feet, and, generally, that his body was round, and about the size of the body of a man.

Many hundreds of the citizens of Cape-Ann, have seen this novelty, and the only interesting fact, of its being of the snake kind, is attested by the opinion of a great majority of the spectators. On Saturday afternoon, about fourteen of the citizens of Marblehead, entered Cape-Ann harbor, in a sloop and boat, and continued plying in all directions, in search of the monster—having all the necessary apparatus for killing and securing him.—But the weather became boisterous and unfavorable; and after dusk they anchored in the outer harbor.—On Sunday, the weather continuing stormy, they returned to Marblehead. We are confident, from the spirit and energy they displayed, and the perfection of their apparatus, that their enterprize wanted nothing to insure complete success, but their falling in contact with the Serpent.

POSTSCRIPT. A gentleman who arrived in town last evening from Cape-Ann, informs, that the Serpent was seen in the outer harbour of that town yesterday morning.

A letter to the editor of the Centinel pointed out a biblical parallel, which gave the Centinel an excuse to reprint the page-eating section from “Madoc” that had appeared already in the Boston Intelligencer.

“The Sea Serpent,” by K. Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 27 August 1817 [Wednesday]; p. 4.


Newton, Aug. 24, 1817.


Sir—It is pretty evident that the Sea Serpent, which engages the attention, and excites the wonder of so many in this vicinity, was often seen, and known by the ancients under the name “Leviathan,” as may be seen by turning to the divine oracles. See the 41st chapter of Job: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose?—Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? None is so fierce that dare stir him up:—When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid;—the sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold—he esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.*—He maketh a path to shine after him.” Psalm 104th, “There go the ships; there is that leviathan thou hast made to play therin.” Isaiah 27th, “In that day shall the Lord punish leviathan, the piercing Serpent, even Leviathan that crooked Serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

I am Sir, yours,

*This description is not more terrific than that described by Southey, in “Madoc,” of the death of the Snake-God, which we have copied from the Boston Intelligencer, viz.

“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 gulphs, 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.”

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