Monstrous Sea Serpent of Gloucester
conception of the Gloucester sea serpent. (Copyright
They told me of a sea serpent, or snake, that
lay quoiled up like a cable upon the rock at Cape Ann; a boat
passing by with English 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...
The report by John Josselyn in 1638 is one of
the earliest sightings of an animal that would haunt the coast
of New England, and especially the port of Gloucester, for more
than three centuries and be seen by hundreds of people. The
report is of a creature that science says does not exist: A
The harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts is located
just north of Boston on the lower part of Cape Ann which juts
out into the Atlantic Ocean. Gloucester has always been a seafaring
town. Its harbor is well protected from Atlantic storms, making
it a destination for ships hauling cargo. In the 17th century
fish abounded off the coast ready to caught by enterprising
and brave men willing to go to the sea in boats. If any group
of people should have known the sea and local inhabitants, it
should have been the fishermen and sailors of Gloucester.
Obadiah Turner reported the following incident
with a similar creature off Lynn, Massachusetts three years
Some being on ye great beache gathering of calms
and seaweed wch had been cast thereon by ye mightie storm did
spy a most wonderful serpent a shorte way off from ye shore. He
was big round in ye thickest part as a wine pipe; and they do
affirm that he was fifteen fathoms [90 feet] or more in length.
A most wonderful tale. But ye witnesses be credible, and it would
be of no account to them to tell an untrue tale. Wee have likewise
heard yt Cape Ann ye people have seene a monster like unto this,
whch did there come out of ye land mch to ye terror of them yt
did see him.
Although sea serpent incidents occurred occasionally
off the coast of Cape Ann and the rest of New England during
the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn't until the 19th century
that the arrival of the sea serpent off the coast became a nearly
seasonal phenomenon. The real action started in August of 1817
when two women claimed they had seen the creature swimming into
the harbor. The same sea-serpent was seen at almost the same
time by the Captain of a coasting vessel. A few days later Mrs.
Amous Story said she saw what appeared to be a tree trunk washed
up on the rocks of Ten Pound Island which lies in the harbor.
As she watched it through a telescope, it moved and when she
looked again, it was gone. William Row reported seeing a creature
saying "its head was as broad as a horse or more so, but
not quite as long." The same day Amos Story also saw the
It was between the hours of twelve and one
o'clock when I first saw him, and he continued in sight for
an hour and a half. I was setting on the shore, and was about
twenty rods from him when he was the nearest to me. His head
appeared shaped mach like that of the sea turtle, and he carried
his head from ten to twelve inches above the surface of the
water. His head at that distance appeared larger than the head
of any dog I ever saw. From the back of his head to the next
part of him that was visible, I should judge to be three or
four feet. He moved very rapidly through the water, I should
say a mile or two or, at most, in three minutes. I saw no bunches
on his back. On this day, I did not see more than ten or twelve
feet of his body.
Two days later on August 12th Shipmaster Solomon
Allen III saw
the Gloucester sea serpent:
His head formed something like the head of
a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of horse. When
he moved on the surface of the water his motion was slow, at
times playing in circles, and sometimes moving straight forward.
The creature was even shot at two days later by
ship's carpenter Matthew Gaffney from a boat:
I had a good gun, and took good aim. I aimed
at his head, and I think I must of hit him. He turned toward
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
Gaffney also mentions the motion of the creature
through the water was "vertical, like a caterpillar."
caption of this engraving read "taken from life as
appeared in Gloucester Harbour, August 23, 1817."
There were eighteen sightings of the "sea
serpent" that year. Most from Gloucester, but a few from
different parts of New England. Most of the reports were very
similar: A snakelike creature, sixty to one-hundred feet in
length, with the head the size of a horse and the body the diameter
of a barrel. Observers noted that the creature swam with a vertical
motion and his body appeared as "humps" behind him.
This report from Cheever Felch aboard the United States schooner
His colour is dark brown with white under his
throat. His size we could not accurately ascertain, but his
head is about three feet in circumference, flat and much smaller
than his body. We did not see his tail; but from the end of
the head to the farthest protuberance was not far from one hundred
feet. I speak with a degree of certainty, behing much accustomed
to measure and estimate distances and length. I counted fourteen
bunches on his back, the first one say ten or twelve feet from
this head, and the others about seven feet apart. They decreased
in size towards the tail. These bunches were sometimes counted
with and sometimes without a glass. Mr. Malborne counted thirteen,
Mr. Blake thirteen and fourteen, and the boatman the same number...His
motion was partly vertical and partly horizontal, like that
of fresh water snakes. I have been much acquainted with snakes
in our interior waters. His motion was the same.
Reports off the New England coast continued strong
through the 19th century. Twelve sightings in 1839, nine in 1875
and thirteen in 1886. A total of 190 for the whole one hundred
years. Sea serpent reports became fewer in the twentieth century:
A total of 56, and most of those before 1950.
So what was the Monstrous Sea Serpent of Gloucester?
Most such reports are attributed to simple misidentification.
Dolphins leaping in single file might look like a series of
humps. The sixteen-foot-long elephant seal might look like a
sea monster to someone unfamiliar with the giant seal.
In many of the Gloucester reports, though, observers
first felt they were viewing something quite normal, but then
changed their minds when they got closer (Opposite to what you
would expect in a case of misidentification). For example, this
report by John Brown, published in 1817:
...I discovered something about three or four
miles distant, about two points on the weather bow, which appeared
as a mast, as it rose and sunk in a perpendicular manner, once
in about eight or ten minutes. I kept the vessel directly for
it, and after look at it with my glass, I observed to my mate
that i was a wreck, as I could see timbers &c.. sticking
up, but as we approached nearer, I found what appeared like
timbers to be a number of porpoises and black fish playing and
jumping around a large Sea-Serpent, which we had supposed to
be the mast.
Some sea serpent reports are hoaxes either perpetrated
by individuals, or in many cases by newspapers. Hoax
journalism is an art which was alive in the 19th century,
but has almost disappeared today. While many of the reports
have been found through period newspapers, others show up in
private letters, which indicates they were not part of a hoax
journalism story. Even in the case of the newspaper stories,
many of the references to the Gloucester sea serpent seem to
lack the kind of sensationalism that was often a part of hoaxed
So how do we explain the many sightings at Gloucester
and along much of the coast of New England? Was there really
a sea serpent swimming along the shores?
The idea that there might be such a thing as a
sea serpent is not as preposterous as it sounds at first. We
certainly know that millions of years ago, at the time the dinosaurs
ruled the land, giant marine reptiles,
some 80 feet in length, ruled the seas. Some people have suggested
that some version of these creatures managed to survive the
great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Era that killed
dinosaurs. They think that the snakelike body reported might
be the long neck of a Elasmosaurus or the back of a Mosasaur.
The Gloucester sea serpent might not necessarily
be Cretaceous leftover, though. Plenty of sea-snakes are alive
today living in tropical waters. While these are much smaller
than any sea-serpent reported in New England, one water snake
does nearly reach the sizes mentioned: The Anaconda.
Anacondas live in South
American waters and have been reported at up to 37 feet in length
with the girth of a telephone pole. They mostly live in fresh
water and rarely venture into the open sea. However, is it so
incredible to believe that there might be a cousin of the Anaconda
which is twice the length and diameter and lives in the open
Gone for Good?
early drawing of the sea serpent off Cape Ann.
If the Gloucester reports are genuine and accurate,
why are there so few in twentieth century and almost none in the
past few years? J.P. O'Neill, author of The Great New England
Sea Serpent, theorizes that the deterioration of the once-fertile
fishing areas off of New England by over-fishing may have caused
the creature to find another place to eat, or even go extinct.
Ironically that would mean that a hundred years ago there was
once a population of sea-serpents, but now they are gone. The
last sighting in New England was off the coast of Marshfield,
Massachusetts in 1962. There were no reports in the 1970's or
1980's at all.
With careful protection of the fisheries, though,
hopefully the population of fish may rebound. Will it be in
time to help the Gloucester sea serpent, assuming of course
that this creature ever really existed at all?
Perhaps there is some hope. In 1997, after over
thirty years of silence, a report came from Fortune Bay, Newfoundland.
It turned its head and looked right at us.
All we could see was a neck six feet long, a head like a horse,
but his dark eyes were on the front of his face...
Perhaps the sea serpent is not dead, but just
waiting to return to his summer feeding grounds near Gloucester
The Great New England Sea Serpent
Lee Krystek 2000. All Rights Reserved