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

An uncommon serpent, 1746 & 1817

Ah, the sea serpent! Horsey of head and keggy of body, it enthralled observers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who—ah, human nature!—immediately went after it with muskets and harpoons.

Newspapers of the time, of course, copied from each other, and the Boston Intelligencer and the Essex Register probably received their information from a Gloucester newspaper. It would be good to see the original story, but the two newspapers together give a detailed and entertaining portrait of the uncommon creature sporting and playing and reeling from musket fire off the coast of Massachusetts. Interestingly, the “fish” of the Essex Register becomes a “serpent” and “SNAKE” in the Boston paper, which certainly got information from the Register. Both papers use the old spelling of “shew” for “show”—a reminder that spelling rules have changed over the last 200 years. Punctuation gets a little … obscure in the Intelligencer—an obscurity I haven’t tried to clear.

A couple notes: The serpent was first seen Monday, August 11. “Cepede” was Bernard Germain de La Cepede, a French zoologist who described fish in 1798.

“Uncommon Serpent.” Boston Intelligencer [Boston, Massachusetts] 16 August 1817 [Saturday]; p. 2.

We have in our possession an extract of a letter from John Low, Esq. to his son in this town dated Gloucester, Thursday afternoon August 14, 1817.

“There was seen on Monday and on Tuesday morning playing about our harbour between Eastern Point and Ten pound Island—a SNAKE with his head and body about eight feet out of water—his head is in perfect shape as large as the head of a horse,—his body is judged to be about Forty-five or Fifty feet in length—it is thought he will girt about 3 feet round the body, and his sting is about 4 feet in length

While writing the above a person has called in, who says that there are two to be seen, playing from the Stage-head into the harbour inside of Ten pound Island.

The spectators are Mr. Charles Smith and Mr. John Proctor and several others. A number of our sharp-shooters are in pursuit of him but cannot make a ball penetrate his head. Another party is just going in pursuit with guns, harpoons, &c.—Our small craft are fearful of venturing out a fishing.

The above can be attested to by twenty different people of undoubted veracity.”

Salem Gaz. Office.

In addition to this account the Salem Register states, that the Serpent is extremely rapid in its motions which are in all directions—that it shews a length of 50 feet; that a man who discharged his musket within 30 feet of the fish, says its head was partly white and that he hit it—that a large sum had been offered for it: that “it appears in joints like wooden buoys on a net rope almost as large as a barrel,”—that musket balls appear to have no effect on it—that it appears like a string of gallon kegs 100 feet long.” [sic]

The editor of the Register quotes an account of a Sea Serpent seen on the coast in 1746, something like it. It had a head like that of a horse—and as he moved he looked like a row of large casks following in a right line.

The Essex Register did, indeed, include a description of an earlier sighting, off the coast of Norway: the sighting by Lorenz von Ferry.

The Register recalls an earlier sighting (from the Essex Register [Salem, Massachusetts] 16 August 1817; p. 3.

Yesterday information was received in this town from Gloucester, of the appearance of an unusual fish or serpent in their harbor. The letter represented, that the head of it, eight feet out of water, was as large as the head of a horse, and of great length. It was afterwards said that two had been seen. A party was soon provided to take him with muskets, harpoons, & every instrument which good marksmen and whalemen could use. We soon after received a letter informing that the fish had been seen for several days, and that it was first discovered by the fishermen. All attempts to take the fish had been ineffectual. Quite different accounts are given of its length, which all agree to say is great, and that its body is round. That it is very quick in its motions, and in all directions. The person adds, I have just seen the fish, sporting in the water, and it shews a length of 50 feet, within a quarter of a mile from the shore, and adds, we have never seen any thing like it. A man who discharged his musket within 30 feet of it, says he struck the fish, and that its head was partly white. The inhabitants were determined to repeat their attempts to take it, and a large sum had been offered for it. Another letter says, I have had an opportunity to see the fish, and the street is full of persons who are going to enjoy the sight of it. “It appears in joints like the wooden buoys on a net rope, almost as large as a barrel. Two muskets were fired at it, and appeared to hit it on the head, but without effect. It immediately disappeared, and in a short time was seen a little below, but in the dark we lost sight of him. It appears like a string of gallon kegs 100 feet long.”

After reading this account, we recollected one not altogether unlike it. A Danish Captain of the Navy reported that he saw in 1746, near the coast of Norway, a Sea Serpent of very great size and length. The head, which he saw out of water, had some resemblance to that of a horse, and he remarked something hanging from his neck like long black hairs. As he moved at a distance, he looked like a row of large casks, following in a right line. He moved with uncommon swiftness. We plainly see an agreement in these different accounts, and are led to believe that the fish seen at such a distance of time and place, may have been of the same kind. To what size the fish of the northern seas may grow, is not known, but Cepede, comparing a fossil tooth in the family of sharks, with those known to belong to the largest known, gives the fish which must have used it, more than double the length of any fish of the family now known. We are pleased to see the excitement which the fish has made, and the determination to take it. We know no men more expert, and we hope they will be rewarded from the bounty as well as curiosity of others, if they succeed. The Danish Captain observed that the Norway fishermen were much alarmed for the safety of their boats, and one of the letters from Gloucester says, our small craft are fearful of venturing out a fishing.

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