05 October 2012

5 October - An Immense Sea-Serpent

This is Saint Faith's Eve, and those ladies looking to dream of future husbands may find the formula and instructions here, before slipping into the arms of Morpheus.


Remember all those medieval and renaissance maps of TERRA INCOGNITA with wonderful aquatic creatures entered on the perimeters and the words, “Here Be Dragons”?  Well, one of the dragons incognita is named Nellie.

On 5 October 1817, a large marine creature was sighted for the second time in Long Island Sound, the first sighting having been two days previous.  After comparing notes with witnesses in Massachusetts, the general consensus was that the creature was a ‘Sea Serpent’.

Prior to 1815, there were few reports of Nessie’s sea-going American cousin, (christened ‘Nellie’, according to Robert Cahill’s book “New England’s Marvelous Monsters”) but in that year, it was spotted twice near Plymouth in Cape Cod Bay.  After another year’s hiatus, it then surfaced repeatedly during the month of August 1817 in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with occasional side trips to nearby Cape Ann harbor, and was attested to by 28 individual witnesses, along with the crews of several fishing and commercial vessels.  By October, it seems that Nellie – or one of its kin – had moved south (like a lot of New Englanders), being seen twice in Long Island Sound before disappearing for the winter.  In succeeding years, it would again be seen in Massachusetts waters during the summer months.

(In 1886, the editor of the Warren (RI) Gazette suggested that the current sighting was due to the fact that Massachusetts had not got Prohibition.)

Of the sighting on October 5, 1817, Judge Thomas Hertell wrote:
“On Sunday, the 5th inst. at 10 o’clock A.M. while standing a few rods from my house on Rye-Neck, I observed at a small distance to the southward and east ward of Mr. Ezekiel Halsted’s dwelling on Rye Point, and perhaps not more than a half mile from the shore, a long, rough, dark looking body, progressing rapidly up sound (towards New York) against a brisk breeze, and a strong ebb tide.  Viewing it with my glass convinced me it was a large living animal. – His back, forty to fifty feet of which was seen above the surface of the water, appeared to be irregular, uneven, and deeply indented.  I did not at this time remark that his head was more elevated above the water than the ridges or humps on his back.  Some trees standing near the water, Rye Point soon intercepting my view of him, I hastened to a situation from which I obtained another sight of him as he passed that part of the sound opposite Hempstead bay.  At this time he appeared to be nearly in the middle of the sound – his body more depressed below and his head more elevated above the water, going with increased velocity in the direction of Sand’s point, creating a swell before him not unlike that made by a boat towed rapidly at the stern of the vessel.  From the time I first saw him till I lost sight of him, perhaps could not have exceeded ten minutes, in which short time he had gone probably not less than six or seven miles.”

“I was yesterday informed on creditable authority, that on the day on which I saw the above mentioned animal, he was seen by some persons at or in the vicinity of the light house on Sand’s Point.”

“That is was a sea animal of great bulk, to me is certain. – That it is what is usually called a Sea-Serpent, and the same which appeared in Gloucester harbor, is only probable.”

Representatives of the newspapers had swarmed over Gloucester in August; now they duly reported on the monster’s movements south.  Niles’ Register wrote: “The sea serpent that lately visited Gloucester &c. about which so much has been said in the news papers, is supposed to have been in Long Island sound, on the 5th ul:  – moving rapidly, at the rate of a mile in a minute, and shewing what was thought to be from 40 to 50 feet of his back above water.  We have seen a colored print which is said to be a correct representation of this animal: it is truly terrific.” Niles’ Register, November 1, 1817, p. 160.

The same paper at the end of the month added this exciting tidbit: “ A sea serpent has been seen in Long Island Sound.  The wild fowl are said to have appeared much alarmed by the visitor, flying in every direction as he approached them.  And a letter from a passenger on board the ship “Cotton Plant” from New York to Savannah, to a gentleman in that city dated “Savannah, 12th Nov. 1817, says – “P.S. I forgot to mention for the information of S.L. that, while lying to in latitude 33,15, there was a great substance passed us through the water, the head of which was elevated some 40 or 50 feet, supposed to be the big serpent, which supposition was confirmed, as we were soon surrounded by a school of long fish, which we made out to be his spawn!...” Niles’ Register, November 29, 1817, p. 223.

The stamp of authenticity was given by the Hon. David Humphries, a Fellow of the Royal Society when he wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Society, on November 5th 1817, that he had gone to the town of Rye to satisfy himself as to the truth or falsehood of the rumors, and came away convinced that “rumor was founded on undeniable fact.”  After paying tribute to the “moral and intelligent” characters of the witnesses James Guion and Thomas Hertell, he transcribed their statements – that Mr. Guion, a Mamaroneck merchant, had seen at a small distance from the rocks called the Scotch Caps, “an animated body (of which fifty feet was visible) moving with great rapidity on the surface of the water” at a speed of about a mile a minute.  Two days later, Judge Hertell saw in the water “a huge, dark-looking, deeply indented substance” which he first thought was a mast or a long piece of timber, until he noticed the speed with which the substance was making headway against the tide. The subsequent description is much the same as that in Hertell’s letter.  Based on his observations in New York and his previous visits to Massachusetts, Humphries ends his letter suggesting that vessels be armed for making a surprise attack on the monster, not only in the interests of science, but “should the offspring of this uninvited visitor infest our coasts, great mischief might, in reality, result from the exposure of our unarmed fishermen to new alarms and dangers…”

Kill it, because it might – just might – at some future, uncertain point, become a problem.  That’s our answer to everything.

What I’d like to know is where the aquatic creature spent September of that year.  August in Massachusetts, October in Long Island Sound.  Could it have enjoyed the beauties of Narragansett Bay in between?  The Smallest State didn’t have Prohibition in 1817, so anything’s possible.

“American Sea Serpent” from Monsters of the Deep and Curiosities of Ocean Life by Armand Landrin, (1875) p. 138.

“Nellie off Cape Ann, 1638”.  Swiped from Wikipedia.

“Taken in life as appeared in Gloucester Harbor, August 23, 1817” aka “Nellie in Armor”  Swiped from Wikipedia. (Gloucester sea serpent)

My own favorite sea-serpent, Cecil, and his pal Beany.