"And my prayer to God is it be not the serpent of holy scripture, that tempted our great mother, Eve."
--Obadiah Turner, on the beaching of an alleged sea-serpent near Lynn, Massachusetts, 1641.
In 1817, the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine, in particular the area of Massachusetts Bay and Gloucester Harbor, became home to an unidentified serpentine creature-- an apparent sea serpent-- forty to sixty feet in length, which had a row of humps along its back and appeared to travel by undulating up and down in the water. People from every level of society, including clergy, lawyers, judges, housewives, merchants, fishermen, ships' captains and crews, saw the creature and turned in remarkably consistent descriptions. One noteworthy exception is a certain shipmaster, Solomon Allen III, who gave the serpent dimensions that far exceeded those of other witnesses, and added reptilian scales which no one else managed to see.
Spurred by the sheer volume of reports, the Linnaean Society of New England set up a committee of inquiry, consisting of a judge, John Davis; a respected doctor, Jacob Bigelow, and a naturalist, Francis Gray. They in turn appointed Lonson Nash, a Justice of the Peace who had himself seen the beast, to collect as much information as he could about the sightings. He interviewed every witness he could find and obtained sworn affidavits from each of them. He also noted the similarity between this creature and sightings made periodically since the Colonial Era.
As no one could deny the presence of something in the bay, a price was put on the head of the animal, which had already been shot at by several of the witnesses. Watches were established. Traps were set.
The notion arose that it had come ashore to lay eggs, as do other aquatic reptiles, and a search for eggs began. None were ever found. But two boys found something more remarkable in Loblolly Cove .
A serpent, about three feet long and resembling a blacksnake with humps along its back, was discovered near the shore. This they killed and sold for the purpose of exhibition, but not after the Linnean Society's committee were permitted to examine it. They concluded it was a baby sea-serpent and christened the species Scoliopis atlanticus. Francis Gray noted its similarity to the common blacksnake and suggested that the two species were related.
They were: more closely than Gray had realized. The boys' find was a common blacksnake, either mutated or disfigured by disease. The whole incident, which had already met with skeptical derision elsewhere, made the good citizens of the region a laughingstock.
Nevertheless, sightings continued throughout the century (fairly often, into the 1830s) and, with considerably less frequency, into the twentieth century. The creature has been celebrated in American art, received an honorary degree from Harvard undergraduates (who cited it as Magnus serpens maris suppositus), and been reclassified Megaphias monstrosus and Plurigibbosus novae-angliae by hopeful zoologists (the latter classification comes from cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, possibly the first to note the serpent's similarity to the fossil whale, the zeuglodon).
Numerous books and articles have addressed the topic. In 2012, Elizabeth Fama, a writer and biologist, posited an ingenious explanation, at least for the early nineteenth-century sightings. Given that many witnesses compared the animal's humps and its girth to kegs or barrels, she suggests that a whale had become entangled with a purse seine net that used kegs or barrels as buoys-- an unusual, though not unheard of, arrangement. She goes on to note that instances have been documented of animals surviving long-term despite the nuisance of being entangled with large fishing nets. Human perception, she argues, did the rest, turning towed kegs into a serpent. Her solution strikes me as plausible, if untestable.
The New England Serpent lives on in lore. To this day, no agency has ever again attempted a serious investigation.
Richard Ellis. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Elizabeth Fama. "Debunking a Great New England Sea Serpent." Tor.com August 16, 2012. http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/08/debunking-a-great-new-england-sea-serpent.
The Gloucester Sea Serpent. Out of Gloucester. http://www.downtosea.com/1876-1900/seaserpt1.htm
Bernard Heuvelmans. In the Wake of Sea Serpents. Hill and Wang, 1965.
Lee Krystek. "The Monstrous Sea Serpent of Gloucester." The UnMuseum. http://www.unmuseum.org/glserpent.htm
J. P. O'Neill. "The Gloucester Sea Serpent." Sea Serpent and Lake Monsters Shadowlands. http://theshadowlands.net/serpent2.htm#gloucester
...The Great New England Serpent. Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 1999.
Richard Owen. The Great Sea Serpent. 1848.