Myth Monday: The Gloucester Sea Serpent (Cryptids)
By Kara Newcastle
I really love the beach. I also like to freak people out with stories of cryptids, so this works out perfectly.
Gloucester Harbor was first explored by Samuel de Champlain (coincidentally, also the guy who gave his name to Lake Champlain, home of the lake monster Champ) around 1605-06, and again in 1614 by Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame (and also no stranger to weirdness on the high seas, once claiming to have witnessed mermaids swimming alongside his ship.) The town of Gloucester itself was settled by the Dorchester Company in 1623, then incorporated as a town by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642, making it the third oldest settlement in Massachusetts history.
Due to its location, Gloucester quickly became a maritime powerhouse. Ship construction and trade were key aspects of life there, but what really made the town successful was its fishing industry; the waters of Cape Cod Bay were extraordinarily fertile, and fishermen hauled in huge catches of cod, herring, halibut and other fish daily. Fish was in high demand in Europe, since Catholics would abstain from eating red meat on holy days, so fishermen in New England were making some nice profits. Gloucester grew rapidly as more and more families came seeking a reliable living by fishing.
However, humans weren’t the only ones interested in the fish back then. Local Native Americans told the settlers to be aware of a massive, snake-like creature that would enter into the bay at the beginning of summer, that it would stay for several weeks cruising the waters, then depart with the onset of cold weather. Considering the mixed-bunch of people who dared to colonize Massachusetts at the time, I’m sure opinions on the serpent were split; some of the Europeans were remarkably scientifically-minded for the time, and probably treated the idea of a sea serpent as a fairy tale. The rest of them were a superstitious lot who accepted the story without question … which is probably why the first recorded sighting of the Gloucester sea serpent was written so bluntly.
The earliest recording of the Gloucester sea serpent made by a white man date back to 1638. John Josselyn, an Englishman traveling through the frontier, took extensive notes and observations of the new colonies, the native people and of the plant and wildlife. While many people of the time were often inclined to hyperbole and ravings, Josselyn is considered to be an intelligent and credulous witness. He himself did not see the monster, but learned the story second-hand from others and never implies any doubt about their honesty.
In his book, An Account of Two Voyages to New England, Josselyn recounts a story of two Englishmen and two Indians who were sailing along the coast of Cape Ann when they noticed a very large, black animal lying “quoiled (coiled) up like a cable” on a rock near the shore. The two Englishmen were ready to shoot the creature, but the frantic Indians insisted that they leave it alone, because, “if he (the monster) were not killed outright, they would all be in danger of their lives.” Three years later, an Obadiah Turner recounted that a sea serpent was reportedly seen off the coast of Lynn, and that it was very much like a sea serpent seen in Cape Ann that was known to come out of the water and coil itself up on the beach.
Sightings of the giant snaky beast continued around Gloucester, Cape Ann and Provincetown at regular intervals for the next two hundred years, with sightings of a very similar animal around Long Island Sound, New York, Casco Bay of Maine (affectionally called “Cassie” there, and there’s a petroglyph of a dragon-like monster on a boulder in the Kennebunk River), Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. The monster would appear in early summer, apparently following the schools of fish that returned to the bay. When the fish left in the fall, the sea serpent would go with them (once in a while sightings would come in as late as December.)
The serpent has been described as ranging from as small as eighty to as much as one hundred feet long. The body appears snake-like, with no apparent fins or flippers and possibly scaly skin. The skin itself is dark brown or black, with black mottling or speckles, and a white or gray underside.
The head is usually described as horse-like, a feature reported in the majority of sea serpent sightings worldwide, and was sometimes said to have a horn or stinger measuring about one to four feet long jutting out of the center of its forehead. Some have stated that the serpent had some kind of mane on its head, and a few claim that they had seen a red-forked tongue flickering in and out of its mouth (given how few reports of this there are, I’m chalking the tongue sighting up to either hysteria or embellishment, personally.)
The body was described as being as thick around as a wine cask (according to wineindustryadvisor.com, that’s 59 gallons), but so flexible that the monster could double-back on itself. The serpent could lift its head about a foot out of the water and then plunge it back in to dive or hunt. It was said to swim very quickly. Most sightings are of a single animal, though I have found a few stories reporting at least two of them together. There have even been a few sightings of the creature in the company of sharks or dolphins.
As far as temperament goes, the Gloucester sea serpent appears downright docile compared to its other briny brethren. Stories of the serpent say that it would swim alongside boats and ships, as if curious about what the big wood fish-thing was. With that being said, there are tales of people firing at or crowding around the monster, causing it to whip around and attack. Most of the attacks are very brief, and I haven’t found any record of fatalities on either side. One of the more dramatic encounters occurred in 1818 off of Cape Ann; Captain Joseph Woodward recounted in an affidavit that he and his crew surprised a sea monster which then spent five hours harassing his ship.
The year 1817 suddenly became the year for sea serpent sightings in Gloucester, with a total of 18 reported, from July to October, and the bulk of the sightings taking place in August. The first sighting was made by the captain of a fishing boat on Aug. 6, but he was literally laughed out of the auction room where he made the claim. A few days later, Mrs. Amos Story, a woman well respected in town, saw something that had washed up on the beach of Ten Pound Island. She thought it was a tree trunk … until it moved. Amos Story (likely her husband but it wasn’t made clear) got a good look at it on August 10th and reported it in detail.
The August sightings were really kicked off on the 10th when two Gloucester women walking along the shore saw the serpent swimming into the bay. For nearly two weeks after, the serpent was seen almost every day. Most reports came from groups of people on the shore, and at least four reports came from people sailing on the water.
On August 14th, ship’s carpenter Matthew Gaffney saw the serpent moving through the water “like a caterpillar” (meaning it was plunging up and down like a caterpillar as opposed to weaving side to side like a snake) within thirty feet of him, and he managed to take a shot at it from the deck of his boat. Gaffney, who had seen the beast several other times before, stated that he was sure he hit it in the head. Whether he did or didn’t, the irritated creature turned in the water and headed straight for the boat. Gaffney and his crewmates (his brother Daniel, one Augustin M. Webber and more than thirty others) thought the serpent was going to ram them, but instead it dove down, swam under the boat, then reemerged a hundred yards away from them on the other side. It paced them for a little bit before moving on.
Newspapers began to print the sightings, and the stories were so dramatic that people from Boston and surrounding cities began to come to Gloucester to see for themselves. The moment the serpent was spotted, people would jump into boats or race up and down the beaches for a better look. In 1819, a report from the Linnaean Society of New England (whom we’ll discuss more in a minute) stated during that August about two hundred people witnessed the serpent or similar creature off the coast of Nahant, Massachusetts over the course of two weeks. Affidavits were collected, and people were generally very similar in their descriptions.
With the furor of the sightings, in 1817 the Linnaean Society of New England (an offshoot of the Linneaen Society of London, a group dedicated to the study of natural history and evolution) decided that they would finally look into whatever this thing was swimming around the bay. It seems that the group was fairly divided on what the sea serpent was (an actual prehistoric beast? Leviathan, straight out of the Bible? A massive strand of dark seaweed spotted by some rum-swilling sailors?) but feelings changed drastically when a corpse arrived at their offices. Gloucester resident Gorham Norwood had found a bizarre-looking critter on the beach, killed it, and sent it straight to the society. Though it was only a few feet long, it was skinny, had no fins, flippers or feet, was black, scaly, and riddled with humps.
Because of its unusual appearance, its similarity to the monster, and its discovery on the beach near where many of the sightings had taken place, the Linnaean Society rushed their findings to print, claiming the discovery of the body of a juvenile, previously unknown reptile they then dubbed Scoliophis Atlanticus.
You’re probably wondering why you haven’t heard of this before. The confirmed discovery of an honest-to-God sea monster? Why isn’t this in every biology textbook everywhere?!
Simple: these geniuses got a little too excited and rushed their findings. They did not possess a dead baby sea serpent; what they had in their possession was in fact a dead black snake with spinal tumors, confirmed by other, more rational naturalists like Charles Alexandre Lesueur who came to study the creature. Unsurprisingly, the Linnaean Society of New England dissolved a few years after that.
Following its jaunt through Gloucester Harbor in 1817, the sea serpent wriggled its way up to New York before disappearing for the winter. It, or something like it, made several more appearances up and down the East coast in 1818, but it seemed to have found its newfound fame annoying … that, and a Captain Richard Rich and his crew were hired to go out and harpoon the monster in 1818 (the only thing he caught was a bluefin tuna, a monster in its own right), so that didn’t help any. After another tour of the bay in 1820, sightings of the sea serpent tapered off to just a handful every year after that.
By the 20th century, sightings of the serpent were so few and far between that it largely was dismissed as folklore, and people who did actually see it during that time were reluctant to come forward and report it for fear of looking like lunatics. Thanks to one of the godfathers of cryptozoology, Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, and Dr. Antoon Oudemans, the Gloucester sea serpent was saved from urban legendization (“legendization” is a real word … I invented it just now) by their research, uncovering reports of the monster from the 1600s to the 1960s. The wealth of information they found shows that the Gloucester sea serpent is one of the best documented sea monsters—and likely one of the best documented cryptids—ever.
But they still never concluded what it actually was. As with, well, every other cryptid sighting out there, theories abound about what it is, and skeptics are quick to label it as a common but misidentified animal. If you recall the Gloucester sea serpent’s description, you might remember that some of the original witnesses claimed that the beast had a horn in the center of its head. Coupled with the mottled coloring, many researchers believe that the Gloucester sea serpent was no serpent at all, but instead a pod of narwhals (causin’ a commotion.) Pods of narwhals can number up to as many as twenty, and as each one breaches the surface of the water just enough to breathe, at a distance they can sometimes give the appearance of a bunch of humps bobbing in and out of the water. Males have tusks and females usually don’t (thus why some sightings of the creature had horns and others didn’t), and narwhals hunt fish like cod and halibut, which are found in Cape Cod Bay.
Narwhals typically live much farther north than Massachusetts, which is practically tropical to them, but it’s not unheard of for a pod to make a visit. So when you take a large group of animals, swimming at a distance, led by a horny male, in an area where they are not frequently seen, and are seen by a bunch of paranoid religious fanatics living in an area that was about as alien to them as Mars is to us now … well, you can see how they could have been mistaken for a scary sea monster.
But that doesn’t explain all of the sightings, or all of the descriptions of the sea serpent. The serpent had no fins, was snaky, could coil itself up, it could lift its head out of the water, it was said to have a horse-like head … that doesn’t sound like narwhals. Anacondas might fit the bill, as they grow up to 37 feet long and are as thick around as telephone poles, but they live in South America and don’t usually go into salt water. Could it have been a giant squid? It’s possible; Captain Woodward said that the monster that attacked his ship had some resemblance to a squid. However, when I looked into it, I couldn’t find any notable reports of any kind of squid near Gloucester, except for a few articles noting that the increase in ocean temperature is drawing more squid in now. And once in a great while we even get a wayward manatee up here, and while I can see the head bearing some resemblance to a horse’s head, the rest of the body just doesn’t match.
Okay, so, inevitably, we must now turn to the possibility of a hoax. For the sightings occurring between 1638 and 1817, I have to say no; aside from the fact that nobody had the means to put together any kind of fake monster back then, there was just no sense in it. People didn’t have the time to waste putting together a hoax, and if they had, people back then might have been so scared that they might not have risked going fishing again, leading to not only a major loss of revenue but also starvation for many. Plus, in the 1600s this was a society that issued the death penalty for basically anything and everything, so it wasn’t worth risking one’s life for a joke. During the big sighting events of 1817-1820, I think it’s safe to say that most of the sightings were either misidentified objects or just plain mass hysteria. Sightings were likely inflated to help draw in tourists to the area as well. (That’s a claim made in William Crafts’s 1819 play The Sea Serpent; or, Gloucester Hoax: a Dramatic jeu d’esprit in Three Acts, written in response to the monster madness.)
Sightings have dropped off sharply since 1950, with monster-believers theorizing that the serpents had quit the harbor in favor of better hunting grounds or found the rising water temperatures too uncomfortable. One of the last publicized sea monster sightings in the bay happened in 1962. Two tourists from Italy were sailing along the harbor when they saw several very large, dark humps in the water. Initially, the couple thought they were seeing a group of seals, until they realized that the humps were all moving perfectly synchronized with each other. Before that moment, they had never heard of the legend of the Gloucester sea serpent. Since then, no one has come forward with any new sightings.
But don’t give up hope just yet! Remember how I said that the serpent was seen as far away as Newfoundland? Well, on May 4, 1997, fishermen Charles Bungay and C. Clarke were out in Fortune Bay when they saw what looked like garbage bags floating in the water. Deciding to be good citizens and retrieve the litter, they came within fifty to sixty feet of the bags … only for one of the bags to raise its head up and look dead at them. The two men both described a horse-like head topped with six- to eight-inch-long horns or ears with a pair of forward-facing eyes staring at them. The thing had scaly skin and was thirty to forty feet long. It looked right at the shocked men, then slipped under the water and disappeared.
I’m not sure what it was, but I would love to hear more stories if anybody’s seen them … also, it’s a shame that it doesn’t have a cute nickname like Nessie, Cassie and Champ. If it ever comes back, let’s start calling it “Glossie.”
Have fun at the beach!