The Great New England Sea Serpent

Copyright © 1999 by J. P. O'Neill.

The first reported sighting of a sea serpent in North American waters appears in John Josselyn's An Account of Two Voyages to New England, published in 1641, it reads:

"They told me [in 1639] of a sea serpent or snake, that lay quoiled up like a cable upon a rock at Cape Ann; a boat passing by with English[men] on board, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying that if he were not killed outright, they would all be in danger of their lives."

Then nearly one hundred years later, in August of 1817 a sea serpent created a sensation by visiting Gloucester harbor nearly every day for a month.

This part of the history of the sea serpent at Cape Ann is an oft told tale. On August 6th two women and a coaster reported seeing something strange in the water. The women were frankly disbelieved, while the coaster was driven out of Lipple's auction room with derogatory laughter when he reported having seen a 60 foot sea serpent at the entrance to the bay. They were shortly to be vindicated.

By the 14th, when the creature was shot at without apparent effect by Matthew Gaffney, it had been seen by among others Lydia and Samuel Wonson, Amos Story and his wife and by shipmaster Solomon Allen III three days in a row. By the 18th news that fishermen, clergy, statesmen and housewives, watching from various vantage points along what is now Pavilion Beach had seen a sea serpent, traveled to Boston. In response the New England Linnaean Society called a special meeting to establish a committee to "collect evidence with regard to the existence and appearance of any such animal". Thus the committee found themselves in the unique position of conducting the first ever scientific investigation of an unknown marine creature, supposed to be a sea serpent.

Interested parties were flocking to Gloucester to witness the phenomenon first hand, among them was Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins a merchant of considerable substance who with his brother S.G. had opened the China trade at the close of the war of 1812 He later served in congress and was subsequently a benefactor of the Perkins School for the Blind.

This hard headed businessman reported that "all the town was on the alert and almost every individual both great and small had been gratified with a sight of him." He further described viewing with a "fine glass" a chocolate colored creature at least 40 feet long with a foot long marline-spike horn on its head, swimming through the water with the vertical movement of a caterpillar? Of the other recorded testimony only William Foster a local merchant mentions the horn, but all the witnesses agreed that the creature propelled itself through the water at considerable speed with a vertical undulation.

It should be mentioned that in the water only mammals move with a vertical flexure of the spine -- fish, reptiles and amphibians all move with a side to side motion. Still, none of the witnesses reported anything mammal-like in the behavior, the creature did not sound or blow nor had it anything like hair, but was described as either smooth and glossy or scaly depending on the individual giving testimony.

The credit for collecting this testimony goes to the committee of the Linnaean Society or rather their designee. For the committee members did not make the journey to Gloucester themselves, they wrote instead to the local magistrate, Lonson Nash, asking that he undertake the investigation and provided him with a list of 25 questions "to be proposed if not rendered unnecessary by the statement given."

Nash complied "most cheerfully", with the committee's request, collecting eight sworn affidavits from local witnesses which in composite describe a 70 to 100 foot long creature, resembling a "row of casks" or the "buoys of a seine". It was black or brown on the back shading to a lighter yellowish underbelly. It had a snake-like head which was said to be about the size of a horse and which it frequently raised many feet above the water. It was further suggested that the creature had come into the harbor drawn by an abundance of herring which had lately appeared there. Although there is some disparity in the reports collected by Nash all the witnesses agreed on one thing -- they'd never seen anything like it before.

Nash sent his findings to the committee on the 28th. These were gathered together with a statement of a sighting at Plymouth in 1815 and several other documents that included the sworn statements of the master and crew of the schooner Laura who while becalmed off Eastern Point on the 28th had also seen the creature and swore their testimony in Boston two days later. Colonel Perkins brother meanwhile sent the news to his friend Edward Everett in Paris where the scientific community eagerly awaited further reports.

The eye witness accounts relating to this extraordinary visitation might have remained nothing more than an obscure collection of documents had it not been for the coincident appearance one month later of an odd, misshapen snake three feet long in Rockport, Massachusetts.

The peculiar serpent which had been killed at Loblolly Cove was on display at the home of one Captain Beach and naturally people began to speculate that the reason for the creature's appearance was not the herring after all. They believed it had come to spawn.

They were bolstered in this opinion by several accounts of not one but two serpents having been seen together in Western Harbor -- this it should be mentioned is an extremely rare occurrence and there are probably less than a dozen such sightings in all the sea serpent literature worldwide.

The Linnaean Committee acquired the snake, dissected it and had detailed anatomical plates made. Overriding their own very sensible objections to any connection between the 3 foot snake and the 80 foot creature in the harbor, they named their specimen Scoliophis atlanticus (Atlantic humped snake); adding, "It is worthy of remark, that nearly all the circumstances with regard to the appearance of the Great Serpent, stated by the deponents, as facts, agree with the structure of Scoliophis...Supposing that the species of the two serpents is the same, it is not improbable that one is the progeny of the other."

This supposition was to make them a laughing stock on both sides of the Atlantic as it was shortly proved to be not only improbable but untrue. Others examined the specimen and determined it to be a common black snake in diseased condition. There the matter might have rested with a chagrinned Linnaean Society, however the next summer the creature returned.

In June and July of the next year the creature was reported to have been seen off Cape Ann, in the harbor at Portland, Maine and near Salem. By August 16th it was reported at Ipswich Bay where, responding to a large reward offered for its capture, a Captain Richard Rich fitted out a boat at considerable expense and pursued it for two weeks finally bringing in a Horse Mackerel or Thunny (now known as the Bluefin Tuna). This he claimed gave exactly the appearance when swimming that the witnesses had described. His claim however was disputed particularly in the Boston Weekly Messenger where a correspondent pointed out that "the appearance of shoal of Thunny is a thing by no means infrequent" and that "It is hardly probable that in a maritime town like Gloucester, a great portion of whose inhabitants are sailors, familiar with every sea, that any common marine phenomena should have passed as new."

Yet, in his own way, Captain Rich did more to discredit the reports of the sea serpent than had the black snake blunder of the previous summer. The serpent had become a fish and a quite a common one at that.

Nevertheless the next summer the creature was back on the shores of Massachusetts. It was first reported off Cape Ann on June 6th by the master and crew of the sloop Concord. Additional sightings were reported that month off Cohasset, Scituate and at Boston. But some of the best sightings that summer took place in mid August, this time at Nahant where it was watched by as many as three hundred witnesses. Among them James Prince -- Marshall of the District who offered his written testimony to the newspapers. Nor did it shun Cape Ann.

On August 26th it was back, plying between Stage Point and Ten Pound Island as reported by the Reverend Cheever Felch who was participating in a survey of the harbor aboard the schooner Science. Felch reported the encounter in a letter to the Boston Centinel. The somewhat peevish tone of Felch's letter gives us a glimpse at how he thought it might be received.

"Others having taken in hand to give some account of the Sea Serpent, I know not why I should not have the same liberty" he wrote.

"We were proceeding this morning down the harbor in the schooner's boat; when abreast of Dallivan's Neck, (he means Dollivers) William T. Malbone, Esq. Commander of the schooner, seeing some appearance on the water, said there is your Sea-Serpent,' meaning it as a laugh on me, for believing in its existence; but it proved to be no joke.

As he often came near the Point, we thought we could get a better view of him there, than from the boat, of which he seemed suspicious. Mr. Malbone and myself landed; and the boat was sent to order the schooner down, for the purpose of trying what effect a twelve pound carronade would have upon him."

What effect the carronade -- a small, light, ship's cannon -- might have had is unknown as the creature wisely decamped. Still an undaunted Reverend Felch was quick to point out "That there is an aquatic animal in the form of a snake, is not to be doubted. Mr. Malbone, till this day, was incredulous. No man would now convince him, that there was not such a being."

Like many who would follow, Reverend Felch, an experienced Naval officer of excellent reputation no doubt believed that his word give credence to what was at the very least a marine anomaly -- it did not. Although newspaper and first hand accounts report the creature making an appearance almost every summer for the next one hundred years most witnesses found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being frankly disbelieved.

In 1892 a Dutch biologist named Dr. Antoon Oudemans considered the Gloucester reports authentic and included them in the first great compilation of world wide sighting of The Great Sea-Serpent.

Thirty eight years later Commander Rupert Gould published The Case for Sea-Serpents in which he devoted forty-three pages to the New England creature writing that he considered it an established fact.

Bernard Heuvelmans uncovered additional reports of the creatures which he dubbed Plurigibbosus novae-angliae (that-with-many-humps-of-New-England) and included them in his book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents published 34 years later.

With all this evidence one would think that the sea serpent would have emerged from the realm of myth and become the subject of serious scientific study. But it did not. In fact, in the years since Oudemans book was published at the end of the 19th century it began to appear as if the once famous creature had never existed at all. Perhaps it was a mirage or mass hallucination or simply a misidentification due to imperfect observation. No one it seemed reported the creature anymore for fear of ridicule or if they did, they sometimes included details so strange that their stories only added to its status as a creature of the imagination.

But what none of these writers knew was that a Gloucester resident by the name of George Woodbury had been gathering his own evidence. Somehow his collection of late 19th century and early 20th century reports found their way in the archives at the Cape Ann Historical Association where it was inconspicuously labeled Scrapbook #15

Included in the scrapbook are first hand accounts and sketches which have never been published along with newspaper reports dating from the early part of this century which have never seen print since their first publication.

There is, for instance, the account by Joseph O. Proctor Sr. who wrote to Woodbury that on a Sunday afternoon in 1844 he and two friends Robert Fears, and William Gaffney took a small boat to Manchester where suddenly the serpent raised its head and calmly looked around. Although they'd been terrified, the boys did not report their encounter knowing they'd be punished for making such an excursion on a Sunday.

And it was probably 1878, according to a typewritten account in Woodbury's scrapbook, that George Whipple along with a party of boys and girls in two dories set out for a picnic on Plum Island Bluff where they saw a huge snake swimming to and fro not far from shore. Whipple reported that though he had related the circumstances many times he had never previously put it on paper as he was unsure of the date. That he finally did so in 1931 is a testament to Woodbury's persistence as the accompanying note reads "Dear George, Here's something to make you happy. Merry Christmas."

Another example of Woodbury's tenacity can be found in a note accompanying a newspaper clipping from 1912. The clipping from the Gloucester Daily Times begins with the headline The Great Sea Serpent is No More.

It reports that

"the sea serpent which has been a frequent visitor to our coast for the past 20 summers, and an object of dread to all fishermen, will be seen no more, having been killed on Sunday last off Cape Porpoise by the crew of the Boston fishing steamer Philomena, after a desperate combat, lasting two hours.

A small school of mackerel were pulling in the seine when a commotion was noticed among the fish, and the sea serpent, which had evidently been under the seine, made its appearance alongside the boat to the alarm and disgust of the crew, who had never seen anything like it before. In some way it became entangled in the seine, tearing it to pieces, and then started off at a 2.40 gait with the boat, seine and everything in tow, all the mackerel estimated at about 40 barrels getting away.

Seeing that something was wrong, the fishing steamers Victor and Ethel which were fishing in the same location, came to the assistance of the Philomena's men and a pretty stiff fight ensued the combined crews of the three steamers joining in the attack on the serpent, knives, boat hooks, clubs and anything that came handy being used.

At last one of the Philomena's men armed with a knife a foot long reached a vital spot, and after a great splashing the serpent succumbed. Capt. McKinnon the master of the Philomena describes the sea monster as being from 50 to 60 feet in length, its body which resembled in size and shape an immense tree trunk being black with rough skin covered with barnacles.

McKinnon was afterwards sorry that he did not tow the serpent into port, but with a badly exhausted crew and a wrecked seine he concluded it best to cut him adrift. Called "Big Ben" by the fishermen, and dreaded by them so much that they invariably pulled up stakes when he put in an appearance, he has been seen every summer along the coast for many years, although its existence has been doubted by many."

It might be tempting to dismiss this tale because the idea that a 60 foot creature could be finally done in by a foot-long knife seems at best unlikely. However the creature attacked by the crews of three fishing boats was probably done in by the combined effects of many wounds, with the knife delivering the coup de grâce.

Other elements of the story seem perfectly logical. The mackerel are "pulling in the seine" evidently spooked by the creature as it rises toward them from the depths. Perhaps the creature is unable to see the net and becomes entangled as it swims up on a closely packed meal.

Still, it is difficult to explain why McKinnon would not put himself to the effort of towing in this much sought after prize. Could he possibly have failed to appreciate the financial rewards that might accrue from the capture of this creature. Or was it as the newspaper seems to suggest pure Yankee pragmatism that made him cut his losses and head for home.

Did Captain McKinnon and the crew of the Philomena do battle with and kill a true specimen of the sea serpent? Or do we place them in the company of Captain Rich and the whalemen with a misidentified common creature. We shall never know.

What we do know is that 21 years later Woodbury persuaded Captain MacKinnon to acknowledge the account, which he did writing "This account is accurate as I remember it" above his signature.

The Woodbury scrapbook also contains the only known New England reports of a sea serpent during the first world war the first of which appeared in the Gloucester Times June 12, 1914 under the headline SAW SEA SERPENT NEAR THATCHERS.

"The crew of the British sch. Flora M. when Off Cape Ann Tuesday afternoon, sailing with a fair wind, there suddenly appeared above the surface of the water the head and part of the body of a huge marine monster.

Every man on board from Capt. George Brooks to the cook saw the animal, and they are willing to take oath to the fact. They declare that it was no hallucination, and any suggestion that the monster may have been a whale or porpoise is resented. Capt. Brooks declared it was the worst looking "animal" he had ever seen and the other six men bear him out.

Capt. Brooks was averse to telling the story to reporters, fearing ridicule, but finally gave the facts. The skipper has never been a believer in sea serpents and has never before seen anything in his long years at sea that could in any way be mistaken for one...

"At first I thought it was an big gas buoy adrift. It was slanted at a sharp angle and the water appeared to be boiling under it. Then it lifted its great head which resembled more than anything the head of a horse. It gradually rose out of the water until we could plainly see fully 25 feet of its enormous back. The mate sprang for his glass and ran up the rigging to get a better view, while most of the crew followed him.

"I stood on the deck too astonished to move. Suddenly the monster plunged beneath the surface and its entire body disappeared. In an incredibly short time it came up directly ahead of the schooner and closer than before...

"I gave the wheel a twist to swing the schooner away from the monster, and just as we changed course he disappeared, stirring up the water for some distance. If I had a camera I could easily have taken a snap shot of the creature."

Oh for that camera!

Another first hand account in the scrapbook relates to a sighting in July of 1886 it is a letter written and signed by Judge Sumner D. York describing his sighting from Gully Point.

"On the afternoon of the twenty-fourth day of that month while at dinner, between the hours of six and seven o'clock Albert W. Tarr...excitedly called us out to see some strange sea animal which he pointed out to us closely following the contour of the shore and moving moderately in a westerly direction...Mr. Tarr I think had been watching this object through marine glasses for some while before calling us.

Thereupon we all hurried to the edge of the upland bordering the shore which is considerably elevated above the sea level where it gave us an excellent view with the naked eye as the animal approached us so closely that I endeavored to reach him with a stone, but failed by some distance...My knowledge of sea animals is limited to what I have seen in and about Gloucester and Rockport, and I can say that never before nor since have I seen anything of its kind.

As may be imagined, when the report of the incident became public we were subject to the usual ridicule suffered by others who had been said to have seen the sea-serpent. Personally I was asked what sort of glass I saw the animal through, whether one or more, large or small, and I am almost inclined to think that many friends, solicitous as to our reputation for the truth and veracity, regretted the incident. However, if any of you or your friends wish to preserve your peace of mind, I would suggest that if you ever see anything of an animal of this character, unless you can produce the animal in evidence never mention the fact."

Indeed one senses a certain underlying bitterness in the judge's words. It is not after all very pleasant to have one's truthfulness questioned or one's character impugned with suggestions of drunkenness. But Judge York never recanted. In 1947, when over ninety years of age, York was interviewed by Irma Kierman for her booklet The Sea Serpent of Cape Ann, he told her "You know, I've always had the idea in the back of my mind that there was some sort of food along these shores the serpent especially liked. Perhaps it was ripening sea weed...or some sort of small fish, like herring."

This by no means exhausts the accounts of the New England creatures which are perhaps the world's best documented sea serpents. In all 235 reports have been collected from the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Maryland which seem to indicate that the creature(s) made regular seasonal appearances throughout the north Atlantic as recently as the 1960s, (and possibly since) apparently following their preferred prey (herring and mackerel) to the Grand Banks

In fact newspaper and first hand accounts continued with remarkable regularity until the 1930s when on October 21, 1933 both the Boston Herald and the Transcript ran editorials about a challenger to the New England Sea Serpent's supremacy.

The article in the Herald under the title A Sea Serpent Afar began:

"The Pacific coast has annexed what was once a New England specialty. Back in 1818 there was active competition among such towns as Portland, Gloucester and Salem for the glory of sighting and describing that elusive marine monster...Now with some chagrin it must be recorded that the best accounts of these creatures are coming from the Pacific side."

They were of course referring to the creature familiarly known as Caddy because of numerous sightings in Cadboro Bay, British Columbia, which has since 1881 been the source of some of the most consistently curious encounters with an unknown marine creature.

Both Caddy and the New England creatures were soon to be upstaged by an equally elusive and intriguing creature the Loch Ness Monster.

Forty years later it was Champ the lake Champlain monster that was stealing headlines. But by then the world had largely forgotten that in America it was the New England creatures that started it all. In fact many it seems have heeded Judge York admonition to "never mention the fact."

Although there are sporadic reports of the creatures since the 1960s. There are almost no newspaper accounts. Have the editors been keeping sightings out of their papers or are people not coming forward?

There are two comparatively recent sightings. One, collected by Kent Hovind took place in July of 1976 off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia where a local fisherman named Keith Ross and his son were chased by something with a nine foot neck. They'd never seen anything like it before and neither had anyone else so for a while Ross was the butt of local jokes but when it was seen again by others, it began to be known as "That thing Keith saw."

Ross pointed out that when they first saw "the thing" they were handlining with their motor off. This led them to think that the creature avoids the sound of engines. This a popular speculation among sea serpent buffs and cryptozoologists who believe that the change from sail to steam and then diesel have obscured the creatures for the simple reason that they now elude detection by steering clear of the racket of modern fishing boats.

There appear to be no reports from the 80s and it seemed that whatever these sensational creatures were they were now extinct when in 1997 Paul LeBlond an authority on marine cryptozoology was contacted by a friend who recognized the description of an unknown creature in the St. John's Evening Telegram.

The story goes that at about noontime on Sunday, May 4, 1997, two fishermen, Charles Bungay and C. Clarke were out fishing in Fortune Bay on the southern coast of Newfoundland when they saw what appeared to be floating garbage bags. Deciding to haul them aboard, they got within 50 to 60 feet when something reared its head.

"It turned its head and looked right at us," said Bungay. "All we could see was a neck six feet long, a head like a horse, He just looked at us and slid under the water and disappeared."

Sadly, the almost total absence of recent sightings of the New England creatures may mean that it they are gone, or nearly gone, for good. Once though, not so very long ago, these creatures commanded the attention of the finest scientific minds, enticed the curious and confounded the doubters, eluding both capture and classification.

Perhaps their story is best summed up by Granville Putnam who writing some 112 years ago of his sighting at Rockport declared:

"It has been my belief for some years that there is some fitful, gigantic wanderer inhabiting the ocean;...I shall not attempt to classify it. Whether it belongs to the mammalia, reptilia or pisces, whether it be ophidian, cetacean or saurian, I must leave it to the naturalist to determine. I am no stranger to the sea. A love for its beauty and grandeur, in calm and storm, as well as a fondness for the study of its teeming life, both animal and vegetable, minute as well as gigantic, has led me to spend eighteen years upon its very verge. This experience makes me sure that no one who saw what I did would ever entertain the suggestion that it was a school of porpoises, a grampus, or a horse-mackerel. Because some have been deceived by these, or a floating spar or a mass of seaweed, it does not follow that others have not seen a genuine monster.

...I stoutly claim that when one has thrown aside as worthless all the yarns of sailors and the stories of landsman upon which rest the taint of suspicion, there still remains a residuum of evidence which cannot justly be ignored. My own firm belief is based both upon what my eyes have seen and upon the unimpeachable testimony of many men, whose word upon any other subject would be taken without a question."

You will find much more about the Great New England Sea Serpent in J. P. O'Neill's book The Great New England Sea Serpent -- An Account of Unknown Creatures Sighted by Many Respectable Persons Between 1638 and the Present Day.

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Last modified by pib on March 22, 2000.