The Gloucester Harbor Sea Serpent

The following is an excerpt from my first book People are Seeing Something:


“Some sea-serpent explainers are in the habit of explaining one single sea-serpent, say by reference to a row of porpoises, and then try to account for others by this suggestion, the upshot of which is that the explainer does no longer see his way clear of the difficulties which beset him, and driven to his wits end, cuts the Gordon knot, leaving a great many serpents unexplained.”

— A.C. Oudemans, The Great Sea-Serpent

A creature that could only be described as the classic, quintessential sea serpent has been frequenting the waters of Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts—the oldest fishing port in the New World—from the 1600s to the 1960s, and perhaps even beyond.

In his writings, renowned traveler John Josselyn mentioned a sea serpent that was spotted at Cape Ann in 1638. Locals told Josselyn of a large serpent that was seen laying on a rock—this would become the first documented sea serpent sighting in North America. The fearsome creature lay coiled and resembled a cable. Those who saw the serpent considered firing at it with muskets; they did not, however, fearing their own lives would be in danger should the shot not kill the beast. The account is recorded in Josselyn’s work, published in 1641, An Account of Two Voyages to New England.

From the first account until 1817, there were sporadic reports of sea serpents in New England. In the summer of 1817 however, Gloucester Harbor’s sea serpent would become world renowned. First observed by multitudes of fishermen, sightings of the serpent became an almost daily occurrence. So much so, that after a short time, nearly everyone in Gloucester had seen the beast cavorting in the harbor. A myriad of witnesses came forward with their accounts, many doing so in sworn affidavits.

Shortly after sightings began, the Linnaean Society of New England opened an investigation into the matter; they recorded the testimony of witnesses and later published their findings. Francis C. Gray, John Davis, and Jacob Bigelow were tasked with collecting evidence of the existence of the sea-serpent. On behalf of the committee, Lonson Nash, the Justice of the Peace, interviewed a number of witnesses whose statements were remarkably consistent: the creature had black eyes and dark colored skin; its head was the size of a horse or large dog; the animal was serpent-like in appearance; the body of the creature was about as thick as a barrel; incredibly, the serpent was between 80 and 100 feet in length.

Report of a Committee

The Linnaean Society of New England went through painstakingly great lengths in their investigation of the sea serpent roaming the harbor. The results of their investigation were published in Report of a Committee of the Linnaean Society of New England: Relative to a Large Marine Animal, Supposed to be a Serpent, Seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts in August 1817. Lucky for us, book titles are not nearly as long today! The committee report is full of sworn testimony from eyewitnesses. The committee set forth strict rules governing the questioning of witnesses, and they established a list of 25 pertinent questions to ask each witness.

One of the most often cited encounters is of a man firing a musket at the creature. The animal survived the gunshot; it submerged after the gun was fired and reappeared about 100 yards away. This is the full account as recorded by the committee:

I, Matthew Gaffney, of Gloucester in the County of Essex, Ship carpenter, depose and say: That on the fourteenth day of August, A D. 1817, between the hours of four and five o’clock in the afternoon, I saw a strange marine animal, resembling a serpent, in the harbour in said Gloucester. I was in a boat, and was within thirty feet of him. His head appeared full as large as a four-gallon keg; his body as large as a barrel, and his length that I saw, I should judge forty feet, at least. The top of his head was of a dark colour, and the under part of his head appeared nearly white, as did also several feet of his belly, that I saw. I supposed and do believe that the whole of his belly was nearly white. I fired at him, when he was the nearest to me. I had a good gun, and took good aim. I aimed at his head, and think I must have hit him. He turned towards us immediately after I had fired, and I thought he was coming at us; but he sunk down and went directly under our boat, and made his appearance at about one hundred yards from where he sunk. He did not turn down like a fish, but appeared to ‘settle directly down, like a rock. My gun carries a ball of eighteen to the pound; and I suppose there is no person in town, more accustomed to shooting, than I am. I have seen the same animal at several other times, but never had so good a view of him, as on this day. His motion was vertical, like the caterpillar.

Q.How fast did it move?

A.I should say he moved at the rate of a mile in two, or at most, three minutes.

Q.Did it appear smooth or rough?

A.I thought it smooth, though I was endeavouring to take aim at him, and will not say positively, that he was smooth, though that is still my belief.

Q.Does he turn quick and short, and if so, what is the form of path that he makes, in turning?

A. He turns quick and short, and the first part of the curve that he makes in turning, is in the form of the staple; but his head seems to approach rapidly towards his body, his head and tail moving in opposite directions, and when his head and tail come parallel, they appear almost to touch each other.

Q.Did he appear more shy, after you had fired at him I –

A.He did not; but continued playing as before.

Q.Who was in the boat with you, when you fired at the serpent I

A.My brother Daniel, and Augustin M. Webber.

MATTHEW GAFFNEY.

Essex: ss. August 28, 1817. Then Matthew Gaffney made oath that the foregoing, by him subscribed, is true according to his best knowledge and belief. Before Lonson Nun, Jus. of Peace.

Though Gaffney’s tale is among the most interesting of all the eyewitness testimonies, the published depositions are remarkably consistent in the character and descriptions of the sea serpent. There can be no doubt that people were seeing something in harbor during the summer of 1817.

Scoliophis Atlanticus

The committee not only investigated and recorded eyewitness testimony, they also reached conclusions regarding the sea serpent. About four weeks after receiving witness depositions, a snake was killed on the shore of Cape Ann. However, this was no ordinary snake; the snake in question fit the descriptions of the sea serpent that had been appearing in the harbor—except in one area—its size. This led to the belief that offspring of the sea serpent may have been killed; its remains were taken to Boston for further evaluation.

The committee’s report described the animal in great length, giving precise measurements and detailed descriptions of the creature’s anatomy and appearance. The animal had the general appearance of a snake, but with subtle differences. There were protuberances running along the spine of the animal, 40 in total. The creature had an undulating body and was brown in color.

The internal anatomy of the serpent was unlike an ordinary snake. The creature was extremely flexible, which differentiated it from known species. The Committee concluded the following:

Your committee considering this serpent as nondescript, and as distinct from other genera of serpents in the flexuous structure of its spine, have deemed it necessary to constitute a new genus, founded on this peculiarity. They have adopted the descriptive name of Scoliophis, and have added the local specific name of Atlanticus. Compared with the genera of Linnaeus and Lacepede its character will stand thus:

Scoliophis.—Scuta on the belly, scutella; on the tail, spine flexuous. Atlanticus. Scoliophis.

Incredibly, shortly after the sea serpent sightings in Gloucester Harbor, a new creature—unknown to science, was possibly discovered. Was the serpent that was killed and studied a juvenile sea serpent? We will never know. However, the committee concluded that there was enough similarity between the specimen and eyewitness reports to justify categorizing the two as the same species:

On the whole, as these two animals agree in so many conspicuous, important and peculiar characters, and as no material difference between them has yet been clearly pointed out, excepting that of size; the Society will probably feel justified in considering them individuals of the same species, and entitled to the same name, until a more close examination of the great Serpent shall have disclosed some difference of structure, important enough to constitute a specific distinction.

Naturally, the committee’s findings were scoffed at and ridiculed by naysayers. The study of the serpent specimen, and the speculations that followed have been widely mocked. The conclusion reached by skeptics is that a regular snake—a common blacksnake—was killed and studied. The black snake studied had one difference though: it was in a diseased condition.

Regardless of the criticism leveled against the committee by disbelievers, the committee made a good faith effort. They studied the phenomenon thoroughly; they went to great lengths to document their findings and to bring forth only credible testimony. Whether or not their conclusions were on the mark or flawed, their attempts at solving the mystery were nothing short of commendable. We could learn a lot from their approach.

Sightings Continue

Did the saga end after the rash of sightings in 1817? Hardly. Throughout the 1800s, there would be sporadic reports; sea serpents would continue to make appearances in the area, albeit with less and less frequency.

A noteworthy sea serpent report occurred in 1930; various newspaper outlets reported the incident. According to a June 6 article in the Lewiston Evening Journal, a Maine newspaper, the captain and crew of the Pollyanna encountered a sea serpent while fishing for halibut. Each crewman, numbering 23 in all, were able to get a glimpse of the creature.

Captain Cecil Moulton reported the incident—which was recorded by Frederick F. Dimmick, the secretary of the Boston Fish Bureau, in his daily report. According to the captain, the serpent, which was estimated to be 150 feet in length, moved at incredible speeds; it swam faster than his boat was moving. It approached the vessel and swam alongside it. As it did, it was clearly visible to the entire crew. The animal was the width of an oil barrel and had dark green skin, almost black in color. The serpent had a horse-like head and about 25 feet of its body was visible above the water.

Revival of the Legend

In 1970, the decomposing remains of what was thought to be a basking shark were discovered on Mann Hill Beach in Scituate, Massachusetts, reviving talk of the region’s rich history of sea serpents. The rotting carcass of the creature was thought by some to resemble a prehistoric creature, if not a sea serpent. The Reading Eagle, in an article reporting on the carcass, mentioned several sea serpent sightings that had occurred in Massachusetts in their November 16, 1970, edition.

One of the sea serpent encounters occurred in 1937, when the Nantucket sea serpent made a possible reappearance after being dormant for some time. According to an eyewitness, the creature was “red-eyed, barrel-headed, seaweed-chested, fire-snorting, tail-thundering, horn-backed, and 100 feet long.” Several boats, being led by Captain C. Rollins Manville, set out in pursuit of the creature.

There were also a couple of sea serpent reports mentioned that occurred in 1964. In May, a creature measuring an estimated 50 feet in length got within 50 feet of the fishing vessel, the Bruce C. Crewman Bjorne Haugen claimed that the animal had ridges running along its back. Perhaps more peculiar, Haugen also noted that the creature had a hole in its head. In July, David Fortier, a mate on a fishing charter boat, reported seeing a creature 70 feet long that looked like “a cross between a camel and a snake.”

Conclusion

Sea serpents have left quite an impression upon the seaside communities and fishing ports that they have visited. The Gloucester Harbor Sea Serpent is no different. Although the regularity with which it is seen pales in comparison to 1817, the creature has become embedded in the local history and folklore; and with good cause, the serpent created quite a disturbance—and it never really went away.

The identity of sea serpent is unclear; we do not know its species and probably never will. Also unclear is why the animal, which was so active for a short period of time, became inactive—with sightings few and far between. As coastal populations grew, did the sea serpent move out to deeper waters to escape ship traffic? Unfortunately, we will never know. The Gloucester Harbor Sea Serpent will remain one of history’s unsolved riddles, but its legend will live on.

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