Advertising businesses weren’t shy about using the sea serpent; a paint business in Hartford, Connecticut, used an image of a ferocious sea monster in its advertisements in 1818 and 1819.

An enterprising oyster seller in Salem, Massachusetts, no doubt charmed and enticed customers to the opening of his business on September 1, 1817, with his tongue-in-cheek advertisement announcing that his oysters are more tasty than the serpent—and hinting that the serpent was a hoax:

“Nothing like the Serpent” (from the Essex Register [Salem, Massachusetts] 30 August 1817; p. 3)

Nothing like the Serpent.

The public are hereby notified, that a more palatable fish than a Sea-Serpent will make his appearance on Monday next, at the new establishment in Front street, and will not come alone, but in such quantities as may best suit purchasers. The supposition is that few of my customers can swallow a serpent, and but few that are not fond of swallowing an OYSTER. Now know ye, gentlemen of Salem and vicinity, that an

Oyster Establishment

will be opened on Monday next in a neat little building, well fitted up between the Auction Room of Messrs Samuel Leach & Co. and Messrs. Ware & Pond’s Store, Front street, where the best of Oysters and good attendance will be provided.

Let them be roasted, stew’d or fried,
Or any other way beside,
You’ll well be served’, or ill betide

JOHN REMOND.

Few events escaped the attention of 19th-century amateur American poets, and the sea serpent was no exception. A whimsical poem printed in the Newburyport Herald was answered by another in the Boston Patriot, and neither will be recorded as great moments in American literature.

(Notes: The “monster on Parnassus” would be a less-than-lyrical poet, Parnassus being sacred to the god Apollo, who oversaw poetry, among other things. At this time, “non-descript” meant “not described,” in the sense of a biologist describing the characteristics of a species.)

“The Sea-Monster,” by “Jonathan” (from the Newburyport Herald, Commercial and Country Gazette [Newburyport, Massachusetts] 2 September 1817; p. 4)

Jonathan catechiseth the Great Serpent,—talketh with him in a friendly manner,—and showeth that there is as monstrous a monster on Parnassus as there is in Cape-Ann harbour.

Good mister Monster, pray how big art thou?
What is thy shape?—How art thou made?
Art fashion’d like a fish, snake, horse, or how?
Come to the land and talk with me;
Be not afraid
And I will tell thee what folks think of thee.

Tis said, when stretch’d at length upon the coean,
That thou wilt reach a half a mile, or so,
Looking like rum-casks swimming in a row;
And when thy train thou writhest to and fro,
The sea is thrown in terrible commotion.
Like other bloated reptiles, fill’d with pride,
Thy head thou rearest high above the tide,
And seem’st, in op’ning thy huge jaws, to say,
Like them, ‘ye pigmies, keep out of my way.’

Where are there kept to sell
The raw materials of thy ball-proof shell?
A coat like yours would be a clever thing
For many a war-like President and King.
What is thy colour? Diff’rent people say
That thou art black, white, brown, and green & grey,
And that thy eyes, not with “hell’s sparkles” glow,*
But that they are two hells in embryo.

Thou’st fond of mutton, too, they say;
For sometimes thou wilt sweep
Out of the sea to catch a harmless sheep:—
How many hundreds could’s thou eat a day?

Pray, great Sir Monster, whither dost thou roam?
And tell us wherefore thou hast left thy home.
Where is thy home?—What ocean gave thee birth?
Wast born in frozen regions of the Pole,
Where Northern seas their icy billows roll,
And Hecla’s thunders shake the solid earth?
Hast heard the Baltic with hoarse clangour rave?
Or, as thy beard and whiskers say indeed,
Art thou a Musselman of Turkish breed?
And hast thou bath’d in the Ægean wave?

Why hast thou left thy home?
Like Europe’s peasants, have you learn’d to hate
Your native clime, and hence expatriate?
Or dost thou hither come,
Flying from justice, a French refugee,
To this “asylum of oppress’d humanity?”
Or art thou,—like the Yankies [sic] who, of late,
Expect to find, sans labour, care, or money,
A place which overflows with milk and honey,—
To western lands about to emigrate?

In one thing thou hast been more wise than they,
Who to this earthly Eden beg their way;
Thy monstrous shoal of herring long will last
To give thee, ev’ry day, a rich repast:
Twas kind in thee to drive them to Cape-Ann,
Where every being is a fisherman.

Didst ever see a whale? Some folks there are,
Who say thou art a whale, and e’en declare,
The very one, in whose capacious crop
Old Jonah liv’d, like King in butcher’s shop.
That thou art the Behemoth some believe,—
Some, the Leviathan of which Job writ,—
Some, the same serpent that beguiled Eve,—
And some that thou are Satan from the pit.
Thou seem’st whate’er folks say, whate’er thou be,
At least, the mighty Mogul of the sea.

*A spark of hell lies burning on his eye.
Airs of Palestine.

JONATHAN.


“The Sea-Serpent’s Answer to Jonathan,” by “Ora” (from the Boston Patriot and Daily Chronicle [Boston, Massachusetts] 26 September 1817; p. 2)

As late I trod the sounding shore,
And listen’d to the ocean’s roar;
Sad gazing o’er the wat’ry way,
My thoughts with one that’s far away;
I saw the curling waves divide,
And floating proudly on the tide
The Serpent came! his glitt’ring crest
Rose high above the billow’s breast;
His brilliant scales of varied glow
Reflected in the wave below;
While flash’d his eye with glance severe
Like sun-beam on a glitt’ring spear:
Pow’rless, inert, I stood amaz’d,
While haughty round, the monster gaz’d;
Then spoke; his voice was like the breeze
Rushing amidst the forest trees:—
What first he said, I could not hear,
My senses were benumb’d by fear;
He seem’d to speak of some address
Made through the medium of the press,
Then cried, “I wish that man to see,
“Who fram’d this strange address to me,
“For he must be, (none can deny)
“As much a non-descript as I;—
“He asks me many a question wise}
“About my form, my shell and eyes;}
“To those I scorn to give replies:}
“Some few I’ll answer of the best;
“Who pleases answer all the rest.—
“He asks, “what ocean is my home?”
“ ’Tis through each ocean’s depths to roam:
“I have no home, is my reply,
“The wandering Jew of ocean I.
“He asks, “what ocean gave me birth?”
“I was not born on sea or earth;
“I sprang to life, at God’s command,
“Ere Man was moulded by his hand;
“Then I possess’d the pow’r to rove
“O’er hill or dale, through mead or grove;
“Aloft, on any a circling spire,
“With scale of gold, and eye of fire:
“Admir’d, admiring; fearing none,
“In splendid pride—unmatch’d—alone—
“Curs’d be the day I left the main,
“To sport on earth’s enamel’d plain!
“Or sought the gates of Paradise,
“And wanton’d in its groves of spice.
“Wearied, at length, I sank to rest;
“I woke with dreadful weight opprest!
“In vain I strove, with artful wile,
“To free myself from Satan’s toil;
“In vain I sought to reach the wave,
“I felt myself a passive slave;
“A fire was in my breast and brain;
“I know not how I reach’d the plain
“Where rich in fruit and fragrance stood,
“The Test of Man, the Tree of God!
“Near it, array’d in ev’ry grace,
“A faultless form, an angel’s face,
“The Woman stood; I will not tell}
“The guilty act by which she fell.—}
“ ’Tis mourn’d in Heaven, and prais’d in Hell!}
“With rapid speed I left the tree,
“I felt again that I was free;
“By instinct urg’d I sought to fly,
“Joy swell’d my heart, and hope mine eye;
“For, from the taste of that dread tree,
“I knew that speech remain’d to me;
“Short was my rapture—judgment came;
“Well is my sentence known to fame!
“Still does that fire in me remain;
“And I a tenant of the main.—
“Five thousand years and more, have flown,
“And still I live, and live alone.
“My life must last while earth remains;
“Fain would I die, but Heaven restrains:
“On me how useless are your arts!
“Pow’rless your balls—pointless your darts:
“Vainly your puny nets are spread;
“My Fate withholds me from the dead!
He ceas’d—and plunging in the sea,
Left me from fear, and danger free.
With rapid step I left the shore,
Nor saw the “Great Sea-Monster” more.

ORA.

Not unexpectedly, pursuit of the sea serpent off the coast of New England in 1817 quickly took a mercenary turn, as fishermen were inspired by a $2000 bounty for its skin. Science had a nibble, too, with the Linnaeus Society pursuing descriptions of the creature and its activities. And other creatures were pursued, some of them apparently standing in for the sea serpent’s young.

Some notes: The $2000 offered for the skin of the sea serpent would have been about $32837 in 2020. “Rees’ ” was The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, a British work by Abraham Rees then being printed in the U.S. by Samuel F. Bradford.

“The Sea Serpent” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 30 August 1817; p. 2)

Yesterday we conversed with an intelligent gentleman from Gloucester, and learnt that the Sea Snake had not been seen there since Tuesday last. The hopes of taking him become less daily.

Two fishing boats from Sandy Bay, (Gloucester) sailed last Saturday in pursuit of the Sea Serpent, with nets and other implements for taking him, but did not succeed.

In searching for the Sea Serpent some fishermen on Monday caught a fish about nine feet long, off Cape-Ann harbor; which being an uncommon one, has been skinned, stuffed, and sent to the Salem Museum. It has been hoaxingly reported, that this fish is one of the progeny of the Serpent. Apropos—We have heard persons express their fears, that the visit of the Sea Serpent to our coast is to cast its spawn!

Capt. Tappan, from Newburyport, reports, that on his passage here on Thursday, about 10 o’clock A. M. he saw the Sea Serpent in the vicnity of Cape-Ann, passing very rapidly through the water, with his head extended several feet.


NEWS! from the Serpent via New-York.

NEW-YORK, AUG. 26. Capt. Doyle, who arrived here yesterday morning in three days from Cape Ann, informs us, that the day before he sailed, a number of boats went out in pursuit of the Serpent; that the Serpent soon turned upon his pursuers; and that they, with great difficulty, succeeded in reaching the shore. Two thousand dollars had been offered for his skin.


MORE EVIDENCE.

The following statement of a gentleman of unquestionable veracity, will tend to establish a desideratum in Natural History—proofs of the existence of Sea Serpents; and with the other facts which the appearance of the Aquatic Animal at Gloucester has brought to light, will, we trust satisfy the doubts of the English Encyclopediaists on the subject; and add an interesting article to the edition of Rees’ now publishing in Philadelphia. The Linnæan Society have requested several gentlemen in Gloucester, to take the depositions of the persons who have seen the Monster that has appeared in that harbour; which they will unquestionably make public; and Gen. Humphreys, in his late visit to that place, has obtained copies of some, which, we learn, he intends to transmit to Sir Joseph Banks, in London; that the British public may be made acquainted with authenticated facts on the subject.

[Included is Joseph Brown’s description.]

Keeping an eye on the sea serpent gamboling off the coast of New England in 1817 meant tracking it from one feeding ground to another, but New Englanders were up to the challenge—and also up to the challenge of hunting it down for glory or gold. Mr. Story’s description has the creature in repose, lying quietly on the surface of the sea. The Columbian Centinel printed the new description on one page and noted two references in writing on another page.

“The Sea Serpent” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 27 August 1817; p. 2)

This Aquatic Novelty did not continue long off Kettle-Island, (Manchester); but returned to his old feeding place, the entrance to Cape-Ann harbour. On Saturday morning he was seen distinctly by two credible persons, who were then near what is called the Eastern Point.

The Linnæan Society having requested several gentlemen to obtain facts respecting this Prodigy, on oath, one of the persons, Mr. Story, gave a deposition of having seen it, before the Hon. Mr. Nash, on Saturday evening.—He deposed, that he and his family, saw the Snake (as he is usually called at Cape-Ann) on Saturday morning soon after sun-rise, that he lay stretched at his whole length on the surface of the water, then very smooth, between a ledge of rocks near the Eastern Point, called Black Bess, and Ten Pound Island; and continued dormant during the space of half an hour—and that he appeared as if reposing.—He judged the length of the part of his body visible (his head and tail being both under water) to be at least 50 feet, and, generally, that his body was round, and about the size of the body of a man.

Many hundreds of the citizens of Cape-Ann, have seen this novelty, and the only interesting fact, of its being of the snake kind, is attested by the opinion of a great majority of the spectators. On Saturday afternoon, about fourteen of the citizens of Marblehead, entered Cape-Ann harbor, in a sloop and boat, and continued plying in all directions, in search of the monster—having all the necessary apparatus for killing and securing him.—But the weather became boisterous and unfavorable; and after dusk they anchored in the outer harbor.—On Sunday, the weather continuing stormy, they returned to Marblehead. We are confident, from the spirit and energy they displayed, and the perfection of their apparatus, that their enterprize wanted nothing to insure complete success, but their falling in contact with the Serpent.

POSTSCRIPT. A gentleman who arrived in town last evening from Cape-ann, informs, that the Serpent was seen in the outer harbour of that town yesterday morning.


Like most early American newspapers, the Columbian Centinel regularly printed and reprinted poetry. New sightings of the sea serpent, along with a letter to the editor, gave the Centinel a reason to reprint a dramatic section from a poem by a popular British poet, Robert Southey (known by folklorists and children’s lit scholars as the author of an early version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”).

(Some notes: Madoc was a legendary Welsh prince who made his way to North America in 1170. “Foined” is an archaic word for “lunged.”)

“The Sea Serpent,” by K.; & a selection from “Madoc,” by Robert Southy (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 27 August 1817; p. 4)

THE SEA SERPENT.

Newton, Aug. 24, 1817.

MR. RUSSELL,

Sir—It is pretty evident that the Sea Serpent, which engages the attention, and excites the wonder of so many in this vicinity, was often seen, and known by the ancients under the name “Leviathan,” as may be seen by turning to the divine oracles. See the 41st chapter of Job: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose?—Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? None is so fierce that dare stir him up:—When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid;—the sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold—he esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.*—He maketh a path to shine after him.” Psalm 104th, “There go the ships; there is that leviathan thou hast made to play therin.” Isaiah 27th, “In that day shall the Lord punish leviathan, the piercing Serpent, even Leviathan that crooked Serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

I am Sir, yours,

K.

*This description is not more terrific than that described by Southey, in “Madoc,” of the death of the Snake-God, which we have copied from the Boston Intelligencer, viz.

They press him now, and now
Give back, here urging, and here yielding way,
Till right beneath the chasm they centre him.
At once the crags are loosed, and down they fall,
Thundering. They fell like thunder, but the crash
Of scale and bone was heard. In agony
The Serpent writhed beneath the blow; in vain,
From under the incumbent load, essayed
To drag his mangled folds. One heavier stone
Fastened and flattened him; yet still, with tail
Ten cubits long, he lashed the air, and foined
From side to side, and raised his raging head
Above the height of man, though half his length
Lay mutilate. Who then had felt the force
Of that wild fury, little had to him
Buckler or corselet profited, or mail,
Or might of human arm. The Britons shrunk
Beyond its arc of motion; but the Prince,
Took a long spear, and, springing on the stone
Which fixed the monster down, provoked his rage.
Uplifts the Snake his head retored, high
He lifts it over Madoc, then darts down
To seize his prey. The Prince, with foot advanced,
Inclines his body back, and points the spear,
With sure and certain aim, then drives it up,
Into his open jaws; two cubits deep
It pierced, the monster forcing on the wound.
He closed his teeth in anguish, and bit short
The ashen hilt. But not the rage, which now
Clangs all his scales, can from its seat dislodge
The barbed shaft; nor those contortions wild,
Nor those convulsive shudderings nor the throes
Which shake his inmost entrails, as with the air,
In suffocating gulphs, the monster now
Inhales his own life blood. The Prince descends;
He lifts another lance; and now the Snake,
Gasping, as if exhausted, on the ground
Reclines his head one moment. Madoc seized
That moment, planted in his eye the spear,
Then, setting foot upon his neck, drove down,
Through bone and brain and throat, and to the earth
Infixed the mortal weapon. Yet once more
The Snake essayed to rise; his dying strength
Failed him, nor longer did those mighty folds
Obey the moving impulse; crushed and scotched,
In every ring, through all his mangled length,
The shrinking muscles quivered, then collapsed
In death.”

Speculation often ran with joyous abandon through newspaper pieces about the sea serpent spotted off the coast of New England in 1817. Editors piqued by the unusual incident ransacked each other’s papers for any wisp of information or engaging text to reprint.

This little piece had no real news to offer its readers, so it satisfied itself speculating that the “great aquatic serpent” was cruising off the coast of New England because of an unusually large school of herring that year. Interesting enough, but more entertaining is a bit of information buried in a sentence: that the serpent apparently took herring fed to it by observers.

Was someone joking? Maybe: early 19th-century Americans loved a good (or even a bad) prank. But it’s still a charming image in one of the weirder moments of American culture.

“The Great Aquatic Serpent” (from the Boston Patriot and Daily Chronicle [Boston, Massachusetts] 25 August 1817; p. 2)

The Great Aquatic Serpent remained, at the last accounts we have yet received, at Kettle Cove, which place is several miles this side of Gloucester. We understand that herrings and other small fish are found in great abundance in this cove, and that the serpent has actually received herrings when offered to him.—Whether he will be taken remains doubtful; but we learn that a party well prepared were to have gone in pursuit of him from Marblehead on Saturday morning last. We have not yet ascertained whether they went, or if so, what was the result of their expedition. Should any person or persons be so fortunate as to take him, they might calcula[t]e upon a receipt from the exhibition of his skin and skeleton, which would well reward them for their labor and expense. It is said one of the hsarks, which was lately in company with him, has been taken in the harbor of Gloucester.

It is probable that this uncommon creature has been attracted to our shores by the immense shoal of herrings which are known to have lately entered the Eastern rivers. Several weeks before the appearance of the serpent, we noticed this uncommon swarm of herrings, and quoted some account of their migratory movements from a European writer, who says, that “their migration commences at their rendezvous in the Icy Sea, within the Arctic circle, where they collect their several colonies into one grand army, and begin their march about the middle of winter. They afterwards separate, one division pouring down along the coast of America, the other towards Europe.” It is probable that the Icy Sea, far from the usual haunts of men, is the place of residence of this enormous creature, and that he has crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of the herrings.

Editors filling column inches with reports of the great sea serpent spotted off the coast of New England in 1817 were quick to patch together earlier accounts of sea serpents and puzzled ship captains and really big snakes. The Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot (unsurprisingly, published in Boston, Massachusetts) added Roman soldiers to the patchwork of extracts in its issue for August 23.

It’s a pretty good story, with fighting and dead soldiers and a classical angle that adds a touch of ancient glamor to our cryptozoological mystery. And it starts off the Chronicle’s selection of pieces from the Salem Gazette: Captain Cleveland’s experience in 1815; the 100-foot sea snake crossing the Marblehead vessel; and the rather delightful paragraph about the Serpent’s companion sharks.

Like the other bits, this extract soon became a staple in collections of reprints; the Newburyport Herald, Commercial and Country Gazette (Newburyport, Massachusetts) included it on August 26, and the Rutland Weekly Herald (Rutland, Vermont) reprinted it in a page-filling compendium on September 3.

(A note: Cadmus was a mythological hero who slew a dragon and sowed the ground with its teeth to create a group of companions who aided him in his quest.)

from “Sea Serpent” (from the Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot [Boston, Massachusetts] 23 August 1817; p. 2)

In Rollin’s Ancient History, under the head of “First Punic War,” we find the following account of an enormous serpent which was slain by the Roman army under Regulus, after the departure of his colleague Manlius for Rome. The monster seems to have borne a strong affinity to the one lately seen in the harbor of Gloucester:

“In the interval, betwixt the departure of Manlius, and the taking of Tunis, we are to place the memorable combat of Regelus and his whole army with a serpent of so prodigious a size, that the fabulous one of Cadmus is hardly comparable to it. The story of this serpent was elegantly written by Livy, but it is now lost. Valerius Maximus, however, partly repairs that loss: and, in the last chapter of his first book, gives us the account of this monster from Livy himself. He, Livy, says, that on the banks of Bagrada, an African river, lay a serpent of so enormous a size that it kept the whole Roman army from coming to the river. Several soldiers had been buried in the wide caverns of its belly, and many pressed to death in the spiral volumes of its tail. Its skin was impenetrable to darts; and it was with repeated endeavours that stones, slung from military engines, at last killed it. The serpent then exhibited a sight that was more terrible to the Roman cohorts and legions than even Carthage itself. The streams of the river were died [sic] with its blood; and the stench of its putrified carcass infecting the adjacent country, the Roman army was forced to decamp. Its skin, 120 feet long, was sent to Rome; and if Pliny may be credited, was to be seen, together with the jawbone of the same monster, in the temple where they were first deposited, as low as the Numantine war.”

While covering the appearance of the sea serpent off New England’s coast in 1817, editors sometimes provided readers with collections of tasty extracts from other newspapers. The Salem Gazette already had printed several of the items it reprinted in its August 22 issue. Now the editor added information from other newspapers, sprinkled in some other historical sightings, and bundled everything up under the title “The Sea Serpent.”

The patchwork includes Captain Crabtree’s 1793 sighting and the caterpillar-like undulations described in the Boston Daily Advertiser. But there were more, the Gazette points out: “Since the appearance of the … creature in Gloucester harbour, many recollections of similar animals are called up.”

And indeed they were. Here’s Captain Cleveland’s sighting in 1815, with its early spelling of “coil” and “tush” as an alternate for “tusk”; it’s a little creepy, with the coiled serpent lurking just beneath the surface of the sea off the coast of Morocco:

ALEXANDRIA, DEC. 9, 1815.—The brig Trim, Capt. Cleveland, on her passage from Gibraltar to this port, on the 25th of October, lat. 31, long. 20, passed a substance in the water about 25 or 30 feet from the vessel, which, from its extraordinary appearance, induced the captain to tack ship with a view to examine what it was: the wind being light from W. S. W. caused the boat to be lowered down, and sent the mate with two men to make the discovery. On their return they gave the following description:—When we came in sight of the before-mentioned substance, turned the boat and backed her stern nearly over him, then about four feet under water, lying quoiled up with his head on the top of the quoil—the head being pointed and about 12 or 14 inches in length, with upper and lower tushes or teeth, appeared from 3 to 4 inches out-side the jaw, shut within each other, appeared curvely [sic] like the tush of a hog, and extremely white. His body had the appearance in size of about 3 to 3½ feet in circumference, tapering towards the tail—his colour was of the deepest crimson, and reflected the water some yards round. The boat being to leeward of the reptile, the little wind and sea, while they stood viewing him, drifted it off to about 30 to 40 feet, the mate then concluded to hook him; the noise of the oars at the first stroke started him; he threw himself out his length, with his head towards the boat, and came very near raising himself nearly to the surface of the water in an attitude of attack: it was judged best to make for the vessel. His length could not have been less than 30 to 40 feet, and we judge him to be in form and appearance like to a SEA SERPENT.”

Gigantic sea snakes would become a staple in these quilts of extracts, with one incident appearing again and again:

“A gentleman of this town informs us, that thirty years ago a Captain of a Marblehead vessel stated to him, that being on the coast of Surinam a monstrous Serpent actually crossed the deck of his vessel, entering from the sea on one side, and passing into it on the other; and that, on being questioned as to its length, he answered that he supposed it might be near 100 feet.”

The Boston Daily Advertiser provided even earlier sightings:

“We learn that there is now living at Deer Island, in Penobscot Bay, several people who have repeatedly mentioned having seen near that island, in the year 1783, a monster, which is described as similar to that which has now visited Cape-Ann Harbour.”

That was page 2 of the Gazette. Page 3 was salted with two bits of information about the current sea creature, which had companions hitherto unmentioned:

“We are told that two Sharks appeared to be almost constantly in attendance on the great Sea Serpent at Gloucester … whether as his humble servants, or as a reconnoitring party, to see what sort of gentleman he is, or to find some vulnerable part and watch some favourable opportunity to attack and destroy him, is not known.”

And on page 3 readers were informed that the creature had a new address, possibly because it had eaten everything at the old one:

THE SERPENT

“Has quitted Gloucester, and yesterday was discovered in Kettle Cove, amidst schools of bait fish; none of these have been seen in Gloucester harbour since his disappearance from thence.”

The sea serpent visiting the harbor at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1817 was a boon for newspaper editors all down the coast. It could be described; it could be set in context; it could fill a few inches of print.

The Boston Daily Advertiser provides us with a detailed look at the critter and its movements, as it undulates like a caterpillar toward the shore on warm days and rests quietly at night. Appropriately for a creature of the sea, the sea serpent was amazingly protean, appearing to change shape as often and as quickly as the sea god, Proteus. Originally horsey of head, it’s become more doggy; it’s developed scales which can be flattened to the extent that the beast appears completely smooth; it now has a jaw and teeth like a shark; and in some descriptions it’s grown “protuberances” which are here dismissed. And, yes, from 40 feet, the serpent has lengthened to at least 80 feet, and more probably 100 feet. The Advertiser gives us a monster that’s a real pleasure to imagine.

And what an education in early 19th-century American spelling, grammar, and word use! ”Shew“ for ”show“; ”harbour“ for ”harbour“; ”inclose“ where we might use ”enclose“; ”an hundred“ for ”a hundred.“ A “staple” was an iron hoop.

A couple notes: The poetry quoted is by George Gordon, Lord Byron (from ”Manfred,“ freshly published in 1817) and won’t be the last bit of poetry associated with the creature. Captain Beach’s drawing may have been printed, but it certainly wasn’t the only portrait of the beast to appear before the public. (Stay tuned!)

”Sea Serpent“ (from the Boston Daily Advertiser [Boston, Massachusetts] 21 August 1817; p. 2)

Sea Serpent.—A gentleman who has been in Gloucester has given us the following account of this animal.

It was still seen in the harbour of Gloucester on Sunday afternoon, and Monday afternoon. On Tuesday the weather was rough, and he did not make his appearance. From what has been observed of his habits, it seems he approaches the shore, and shews himself above the surface, when the water is smooth and the weather warm.*

On Sunday and Monday very distinct views were had of him by various persons. Gentlemen who have been at Gloucester, and attended to the accounts of those who have seen him at different times, and in different situations, think there can be no doubt that the animal is a serpent, in kind; that he is at least eighty, and more probably an hundred feet long, and nearly of the size of a flour barrel, at the largest place. As to the bunches, or protuberances, which have been mentioned, these are thought to be nothing more than the appearances occasioned by his manner of motion. He does not wind laterally along, as serpents commonly do, but his motion is undulatory, or consisting in alternate rising and depression, somewhat like the motion of a caterpillar. Mr. Johnson, a young man, who went in a boat to visit a vessel in the harbour, on Sunday, in the dusk of evening, came very near to him, before he discovered him, so that he might have reached him with his oar. He was quite still, and appeared to be reposing. He was round and smooth, and had nothing like bunches. His head, though in its front it is circular, is not flat, like a common serpent’s, but the top is elevated, prominent, and round; and owing to this latter circumstance a side view of his head a little resembles that of a dog’s. Capt. Beach, who appears to have examined him very often, and sometimes in favourable situations, says his head is the size of a common bucket.—He has seen him with his mouth open, his under jaw and teeth like a shark’s, his head ro[u]nd, with apparently very thick scales, and its whole appearance very terrific. Credible persons aver, that they have seen him swimming into the harbour, with great speed, holding his head eight feet above the water. More often he moves along, with his head under water, shewing the line of his back, or with his head immediately above the surface. He appears to be round with large scales, which, when he contracts his folds, gives a rigid appearance to his back, but when he extends himself the scales inclose, and do not prevent his appearing smooth. His general colour is dark brown; his head dark brown, intermixed with white. He often turns very quick, bringing his head near his tail, and putting himself into the form of a staple. Capt. John Beach, jr. has completed a drawing of him, which is to be engraved. As he has seen him several times, it is probable his likeness will be tolerably just. The people of Gloucester however intend to be able to give a better account of him, if he should stay longer in their harbour. Shark hooks, variously baited and attached to buoys, have been set afloat in the harbour, and several boats, well manned and armed, were destined to attack him yesterday, if he shewed himself.


*”In the blue depth of the waters,
Where the wave hath no strife,
Where the wind is a stranger,
And the Sea Snake hath life.

The sea monster frisking about off the coast of New England in 1817 soon collected around it a concretion of tropes and phrases and— Okay, we’re going to call this a “literature review.”

Today, people seeking general information on a new subject look it up on Wikipedia; in 1817, an encyclopedia was the source. Which one? Apparently the Encyclopédie, published 1751 to 1766. (“Encyclopediasts” is now more usually “Encyclopédists.”)

It’s fun to watch the editor of the Salem Gazette puzzle over the subject, because what he found in the Encyclopedia was … not helpful. A creature this bulky surely would have been seen quite often, yet … Okay, that must mean there aren’t many of them, or that they live “chiefly beyond the view of man.” After all, they’ve been spotted around (checks the Encyclopedia) Greenland and the northern oceans. And, according to the article in the Encyclopedia, the sea serpent existed in 1734 to be described and in 1756 to be shot; but the author of the Encyclopedia’s article says it couldn’t actually exist. And, yet, here was one gamboling off the coast of Massachusetts, as witnessed by “hundreds” of observers. So those earlier observations may be questionable, but, the Gazette’s editor concludes happily, our sea serpent really, really does exist. Really.

Real or not, the 1817 sea serpent was expanding. Earlier descriptions put its length at 40 to 50 feet. Now it’s 60 to 70 feet, except when it’s 100 or 150 feet long. And it’s developed some sort of shell. And the hunt was ongoing, musket fire being supplanted by “strong nets.” After all, the monster may have driven a large school of herring into Gloucester Bay for fishermen to catch, but destroying it for the sake of curiosity and to keep it from frightening fishermen was more important.

A few notes: “Friday last” would have been August 15 in 1817. ”Egede” is possibly Hans Egede, a Scandinavian missionary to Greenland who died in 1758. “Fabulous” in this context implies that something doesn’t exist. A Vulcan would be someone like the Roman god Vulcan, a smith who created wonderful objects. And in the early 19th century, something “embarrassed” was tangled up in something.

“Sea Serpent” (from the Salem Gazette [Salem, Massachusetts] 19 August 1817; pp. 2-3)

For some days past there has been seen in the harbour of Gloucester an uncommon sea animal, which, from the accounts given of it, seems to be of the serpent kind. It has sometimes been seen with its head several feet out of water, represented to be as large as a horse’s head; its body round, and variously estimated to be in length from 50 to 100 feet, and of quick motions. In this situation no very accurate description can be supposed to be obtained; the following account was received in a letter on Friday last: “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 it. It appears like a string of gallon kegs, 100 feet long.”—In the Boston Intelligencer are the following particulars, communicated by persons from Gloucester:—“The head appeared mixed with black and white, and to resemble that of a large dog—the back of the body is black, and the opinions both as to its length and thickness vary considerably. Those persons who have approached the nearest to it, or within 10 or 15 yards, consider the length to be from 60 to 70 feet, and the size of a barrel in thickness: Its motions serpentine, various, and of extreme rapidity—sometimes forming nearly a complete circle in turning quickly round—and sometimes with its head out of water, darting forward at the rate of a mile in three minutes, leaving a wake behind of half a mile in length.”

Since collecting the above, we are informed that on Saturday this creature was not to be seen, but that on Sunday he was playing sometimes within 15 or 20 feet of the shore, affording a better opportunity to observe him than had before occurred. Gentlemen from Gloucester state that he appeared to them of even greater magnitude than had before been represented, and should judge from their own observation that he was as much as 150 feet in length and as big round as a barrel. They saw him open an enormous mouth; and are of opinion that he is cased in shell. The Boston Daily Advertiser says, “It is conjectured that he has resorted to Gloucester harbour for the purpose of preying upon a very numerous shoal of herrings which have lately appeared there; and if instrumental in driving them in has rendered an essential service to the town.”—The chance for taking or killing this creature seems to be small: it requires not merely the club of a Hercules, but the cunning contrivance of a Vulcan. We understand, however, that it is proposed to make a number of strong nets, in the hope of entangling and embarrassing him, so as to be able to get him into a situation to kill him; in which we rather wish than expect they may prove successful.

This kind of animal must either be very few in number, or their haunts chiefly beyond the view of man, as they are seldom seen. Now and then, at great distances of time, report is made of some such monster of the deep, which however gains but little credit, and is given up as fabulous, or finally forgotten. The northern seas about Greenland, the coast of Norway, &c. have generally been given as their places of habitation. The Encyclopedia, under the title of Sea Serpent, quotes a marvellous account of this monster, as given by Guthrie; who states, “that in 1756 one of them was shot by a master of a ship: its head resembled that of a horse; the mouth was large and black, as were the eyes, a white mane hanging from its neck; it floated on the surface of the water, and held its head at least two feet out of the sea; between the head and neck were 7 or 8 folds, which were very thick; and the length of this snake was more than 100 yards, some say fathoms.” Guthrie gives some other particularities of this animal, which he says would be incredible, were they not attested upon oath; and then adds, that “Egede, a very reputable author, says, that on the 6th July, 1734, a large and frightful sea monster raised itself so high out of the water, that its head reached above the main-top mast of the ship; had a long sharp snout, broad paws, and spouted water like a whale; the body seemed to be covered with scales; the skin was uneven and wrinled, and the lower part was formed like a snake. The body of this monster is said to be thick as a hogshead, his skin variegated like a tortoise shell, and his excrement corrosive.” The Encyclopediasts however doubt the existence of the Sea Serpent: they consider its reported bulk to be so disproportionate to all the known animals of our globe, as to require more than ordinary evidence to render it credible; and the evidence in the two cases cited, so feeble and unsatisfactory, that no man of sound judgment would think it sufficient to establish the truth of an extraordinary fact.—In the present case, however, there are hundreds who can testify to the existence of a creature of a very wondrous and marvellous bulk and form, and such as was never before seen upon our coast.

Like a lot of people, I grew up reading Beverly Cleary’s books. (I even got to write about them!) She was a wonderful writer, and in the last week I haven’t been surprised to find appreciative fans all over the internet.

Cleary always had a gift for noticing what children focused on and worried about and were excited at. Ellen Tebbits and her dress with the monkeys printed all over it (oh, I envied her that dress!). Henry Huggins’ embarrassing difficulties with an energetic toddler named Ramona Quimby. And Ramona, herself, worried about the picture of the gorilla in one of her books, splashing herself with blueing in an effort to make sailing a toy boat more exciting.

Ah, Ramona, who taught me about point of view in fiction. As a child reading the Henry Huggins books, she was an irritating little brat. As an adult reading the Ramona Quimby books—wow: she’s one of the most realistic portraits of a child in American literature. (Another is Rollo Holiday, the most popular child character in early-19th-century American lit.) Point of view makes the difference. Henry felt humiliated by the antics of an excited toddler. Seeing things through Ramona’s eyes, we understand how she could get herself into any number of predicaments. When money was being collected for the statues in the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, I bought a t-shirt declaring that “I am a friend of Ramona.”

But here’s why as a professor of children’s literature I used a Ramona book in class only once, and why I should have known not to.

The class was intended for graduate-level education majors and met one night a week. These students had earned college degrees in subjects other than education, but had decided to go back and earn the kind of degree that would allow them to teach children. (Really, people: if you want to be a teacher, go for it! You wouldn’t believe the number of stories I heard of undergrads bowing to the desires of their parents and earning degrees in something “practical” and “well-paying,” instead of getting the teaching degree the undergrad actually wanted; and then, actually doing the job they’d been educated for, realizing that they couldn’t bear to spend the rest of their life doing this, so they had to go back to earn a more expensive university degree, while juggling school, job, and family. If teaching is what you want to do, get that degree and go out and do it!)

So, thought I, I’ll have them read Ramona the Brave, which will clue them in on what those kids they’ll be teaching will be thinking! It’s a funny book, I reasoned, and it focuses beautifully on its theme, and—and—and— Won’t we have a good time discussing it!

Reader, we did not have a good time discussing it.

That evening class is still vivid in my mind: me bouncing into the classroom, ready to discuss this marvelous, hilarious book; them glaring at me because I was chirping about how hilarious this book was. It was not funny, I was informed; there was nothing amusing about it. And—it was implied—me finding the book humorous just reinforced their understanding of how heartless I was. It was a … deflating professorial experience.

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to figure it out. Because I’d read all of Cleary’s pieces on writing that I could find; and she’d addressed this very thing. Nothing, Cleary realized once she’d had children of her own, was funnier to children than the goofy things they’d thought or said or done when they were younger. When they were younger. Because now they were older, and they were past that stage; so all that stuff they’d taken so seriously as itty-bitty children was funny now. This is why the Ramona in Ramona the Pest may be in kindergarten, but the book isn’t for kindergarteners, but for older children. Same for Ramona the Brave, in which Ramona is in second grade.

What I’d forgotten was that a number of the students in that class had children around Ramona’s age; and they knew just how deadly serious Ramona’s experiences are to second-grade children. And, thoroughly immersed in parenting, my students just could not find Ramona’s predicaments amusing.

Lesson learned; I never again used a Ramona book in class.

I’m still a friend of Ramona, though, and I have the t-shirt to prove it.