“It appeared so strange and wonderful…”

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

Nathanael Low’s almanac, 1818
Detail from Nathanael Low’s almanac, 1818

You will see in the paper an account of a strange animal, denominated a Sea-Serpent, seen last week in the harbour of Cape-Ann. The account is undoubtedly correct in the main, but is so general as to leave us in much doubt and perplexity what to think of this formidable visitor and how to class him.

This excerpt comes from a letter by John Davis of Boston, Mass. to his son-in-law Rev. Ezra Shaw Goodwin. The correspondence of Davis, Goodwin, and other family members was recently acquired by the MHS.

John Davis (1761-1847) was a U.S. District Court judge for 40 years. He was also the president of the short-lived Linnaean Society of New England, an organization established in 1814 to promote the study of natural history. The society hosted lectures, organized tours, and operated a museum, but may be best remembered for its investigation into sightings of an alleged sea serpent in Gloucester Harbor.

According to an article published in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 18 August 1817, a “prodigious snake” had been sighted in the harbor by “hundreds of people” over the course of several days. The animal was described as somewhere between 50 and 100 feet long and as thick as a barrel, with a head the size of a horse’s head (but resembling a dog’s), and was said to move acrobatically through the water at tremendous speed. Attempts to shoot it or capture it had failed.

The Linnaean Society was on the case. Members of the society went to Cape Ann to see if they could catch a glimpse of the mysterious animal. A committee—composed of Davis himself, Jacob Bigelow, and Francis C. Gray—was appointed to interview witnesses and prepare a report for publication and distribution to scientific societies around the world. The Linnaeans were very excited, but accounts varied widely and might be unreliable, as Davis warned in a postscript.

Still, as the animal was seen so imperfectly and in swift motion, great allowance must be made, and it is difficult to say what part is to be received as inference or conjecture.

Over the next few months, Davis kept Goodwin apprised of developments. In his letters, he compared the Gloucester sea serpent to similar sightings in Penobscot Bay, Me. (“it appeared so strange and wonderful that the Academy declined publishing it”) and Plymouth, Mass. Could this be the same creature? Some even claimed an animal had washed ashore as far away as the Orkney Islands “to which our portentous stranger may be supposed to bear a resemblance.” Fortunately, although the Gloucester sea serpent was “sufficiently terrific indeed” and thrashed about in the water “little mindful of Boats,” it showed no signs of “a mischievous or malignant temper.”

On 27 September 1817, Gorham Norwood, a resident of Gloucester, discovered and killed an unfamiliar snake on the beach. The snake was only about three feet long, but had a strange “undulating” spine, so it was brought to the Linnaean Society for examination. Based on its proximity to the harbor sightings (and apparently not much else), this specimen was assumed to be the “progeny of the great serpent.”

Fold out plate of Scoliophis atlanticus
Fold-out plate from the Linnaean Society report, 1817

The Linnaean Society’s report was finished by November 1817, and Davis sent a copy to Goodwin. What was its conclusion? The sea serpent was not only real, but an undiscovered species! The society classified it Scoliophis atlanticus.

Davis admitted, “It was rather bold to come out with a new Genus, in the present advanced state of Natural History, but we thought the characteristics of the creature required it.” Goodwin agreed, but would the scientific community? The Linnaeans had based their case entirely on eyewitness testimonies and the serpent’s alleged offspring. Davis wrote, “We shall see the result in due time – time also the great discoverer will doubtless shed new light on the subject.”

Indeed, the Boston Society of Natural History definitively debunked the Linnaean Society’s findings in its Proceedings of 1863 (vol. 9, p. 245) and 1868 (vol. 12, pp. 184-5). The “progeny” of the serpent, preserved in the Linnaean Society’s collections for decades, was reexamined and found to be a common black snake (Coluber constrictor) with a deformed spine. And the sightings were attributed to mistaken identity, a “humpbacked whale scooping fish” being the most likely explanation. The Scoliophis atlanticus was declared a “myth.”

When cataloging this collection (incidentally, the first time I’ve used the Library of Congress subject heading “sea monsters”), I found that the MHS holds a few pamphlets on the subject of the Gloucester sea serpent, including a copy of the Linnaean Society report, an account by Hon. David Humphreys of the Royal Society of London, and Nathanael Low’s 1818 almanac, with drawings and a summary of the story. For a three-dimensional representation, visit the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Mass., which is home to a statue of the Gloucester sea serpent by sculptor Chris Williams.