It’s a given that the way to make money during gold rush is … to provide some sort of service to the gold rushers. In Thirty Years in the Golden North, Jan Welzl complained about the merchants and ladies of delight who ended up with most of the gold in the Yukon gold rush. (When a boatload of prostitutes drowned, he pointed out, the miners cheered because it meant fewer hands outstretched for their money.) The California gold rush attracted mediocre actors and stunt performers the way a magnet attracts iron filings; and San Francisco fairly exploded with stores, laundries, and restaurants. (Chinese restaurants were known for tasty and inexpensive food; you recognized them by the triangular yellow banner that flew outside the business.)

It was pies for an unnamed woman who earned enough to build and furnish a cabin. She definitely earned it, too, cutting her own wood and baking in an iron skillet beside a camp fire. The $18,000 she earned was the equivalent of $568,146 in 2020, with a profit that would be the equivalent of $189,382; as of her writing, she was clearing the equivalent of $75,744 a year. The washerwomen clearing $60 a week would be earning the equivalent of $1893—a tidy sum which they most definitely earned by scrubbing and boiling clean tons of wet fabric.

Even if they didn’t process tons of dirt for handfuls of gold (a page of the 1850 U.S. census for El Dorado County, California, reveals that most of the men averaged $4 to $8 dollars-worth of gold a day—$126 to $252 in 2020), women in California could make profits of their own.

(from the Raleigh Times [Raleigh, North Carolina] 2 April 1852; p. 1)

A Housewife of California writes home to her northern friends that she has made $18,000 worth of pies—about one third of this has been clear profit. One year she dragged her own wood off the mountain and cut it, and never had so much as a child to take a step for her in the country. $11,000 worth of the pies she says, I baked in one little iron skillet, a considerable portion by a camp fire, without the shelter of a tree from the broiling sun. But now I have a good cooking stove, in which I bake four pies at a time, a comfortable cabin, carpetted, and a good many “Robinson Crusoe” comforts about me, which, altho’ they have cost nothing, yet they make my place look habitable. I also hire my wood hauled and chopped. I bake on an average about twelve hundred pies per month, and clear $200. This, in California, is not thought much, and yet, in reality, few in comparison are doing as well. I have been informed that there are some women in our town, clearing $60 per week at washing, and I cannot doubt it. There is no labor so well paid as women’s labor in California.

Lovett’s execution for murder in 1834 didn’t end his story. Having admired Junius Brutus Booth, Lovett asked to have his skull handed over to the actor, to be used as a prop when Booth played Hamlet. In 1839, it looked likely to happen.

Alas! poor Lovett. Booth may have known him, but he didn’t want Lovett’s skull, as was revealed in this piece from the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal in 1915. It’s an entertaining read, with large illustrations of Lovett—or his partner, Jones—preparing to murder a light-skinned Tandy, and an over-dressed (would Hamlet wear that droopy feather?) actor contemplating a skull next to a grave.

There are inaccuracies, though, most importantly in the date of Lovett’s execution: it was 1834, not 1836 (a paragraph on the execution of a notorious Bad Guy was reprinted in several newspapers in 1834). In 1839, Tandy is described as a Black man who worked as a driver, not as a wealthy white man. There may be other inaccuracies, given that the 1915 article seems based on the memories of Louisville inhabitants.

Still, it’s a look at some of the weirdness in early-19th-century America. And where’s the skull now? Only Lovett knows.


“The Musty Romance of Tom Lovett’s Skull,” by Robert Barry (from The Courier-Journal [Louisville, Kentucky] 18 July 1915; section 4, p. 3)

When a man to be hanged at sunrise is unable to sleep the night before it is presumed that fear of death or haunting memories of his crime keep him awake. Yet, Tom Lovett, condemned to die for murder, dozing on his pallet in the old jail on Sixth street, north of Jefferson, thought not of what the dawn meant for him.

Scion of one of Louisville’s early prominent families, Lovette [sic] did not dream of bitter consequences his execution would entail to his people; he saw no mental pictures of the gallows; he dwelt not upon hopes for a “strong front;” walls of his cell failed to reflect staring eyes of the morbidly curious crowd he must face, nor did recollections or regrets keep his conscience alert.

Lovett’s prospective gaze extended beyond the springing of the trap and the death grasp of the sheriff’s noose in his plunge into eternity.

Lovett’s Vision.

His vision:

A theater, a great audience, an expectant silence. Junius Brutus Booth, distinguished English tragedian, in a favorite role, Hamlet.

The play has reached the church graveyard scene. It is the day of Ophelia’s burial. Two grave diggers prepare the tomb. Hamlet and his friend, Horatio, stand in the distance to watch the workers, to hear their songs and coarse jests. Lovett, seated with the audience, smiles broadly, as if in keener appreciation than his companions beyond the footlights, when a skull is dug from the ground, placed at the side of the hole. He smiles again when Hamlet speaks of the skull.

Lovett leans forward in his seat as Hamlet and Horatio walk to the grave and speak to the laborers. It is plain the play becomes more vitally interesting to him. Lovett hears the subdued murmur of the audience and joins those about him in admiring, as he has done before, Booth’s skill in just such little scenes.

When Hamlet stoops to pick up one of the skulls turned up by the spade of the grave diggers, Lovett’s expression grows tense and perspiration bursts upon his forehad. The mumbled conversation about him is growing louder. Still what he hears are words of the players. They are discussing the skull.

“Whose do you think it was?” asks the grave-digger. Hamlet replies he did not know.

“A pestilence on him, he poured a fagon [sic] of Rhenish on my head once,” says the workman. “This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.

Scene Progresses.

Lovett becomes greatly animated. The noise about him is becoming a sort of bable [sic] of undertones. It is with difficulty he hears the response of Hamlet:

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hinge those lips that I have kissed I know but how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols your songs? Your lashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen.”

The scene progresses, but the chatter of the audience assumes such magnitude that Lovett no longer can hear the spoken words of the actors. Instead his ears ring with the words of those about him; he hears the thought of the throng, given expression in a score of voices:

“That is Lovett’s skull that Booth is using!”

“It’s the head of that murderer who was hanged!”

“There’s Lovett’s skull!”

All about him he hears it. And then—

Lovett awoke from his dream with a cry. He was himself in the death-cell once more. Again he was the condemned murderer awaiting death.

At sunrise he was hanged.

The legacy he left was a two-fold disposition of his body. All of his anatomy except the head was left to the best friend of his last days, Dr. William H. Donne, jail physician; the skull was to be presented by Dr. Donne to Booth, with the request that he employ it in the graveyard scene. He went bravely to meet death, doubtless with the picture of the theater again before him, a vision of his skull being the object of interest from playgoers throughout the country, as Booth then was at the apex of his career.

It was due entirely to the eccentric nature of the Englishman that Lovett’s wish was not gratified. Dr. Donne fulfilled his part of the “will,” and Booth, after a discourteous rejection of the murderer’s head, sought to obtain it. The actor’s initial refusal, however, had so offended the aged physician that Lovett’s wish never was carried out.

Thus it came about that instead of a world-wide trip in the trunk of the actor, as the day of the “property man” was not yet at hand, Lovett’s skull has remained in Lousiville.

The year of Lovett’s execution was 1836, [sic] yet the skull still exists. For almost eighty years it has been an object of interest at the Jefferson county jail. It now reposes in the pharmacy of the prison, highly prized by the present Jailer, Charles C. Foster, and the jail physicians, Dr. L. P. Spears and Dr. W. M. Dorsey.

Lovett’s crime doubtless created a ssensation at the time of its occurrence. But it has been a long, long time since 1835, and by now even a more celebrated tragedy might have been forgotten. It is scarcely a “famous crime” so much as a famous skull that has kept memory of it green in the minds of historians of outstanding events in Louisville police history.

Records of local crimes become somewhat hazy when any attempt is made to pry into the notable cases of a half century or more ago. There is not much reliable data available for the searcher for facts, and considerable dependence, therefore, must be placed upon the memory of men sufficiently interested when young to have been concerned in police happenings, and more so now, to take the trouble to recall them.

There may be found not a few “old residents” who remember with varying degrees of accuracy some of the notable occurrences as far back as 1850, but their memories as to dates and names and details are not good.

Yet the story of Tom Lovett’s skull is one that has come out of the mist which is all but closed about the “big stories” of a very early epoch in the city’s existence. It has been brought forth with enough dependable information to render it capable of adequate recognition.

Handed Down by Dr. Garvin

To Dr. Samuel A. Garvin, for more than thirty years physician at the jail, and one of the city’s best informed authorities upon crimes of the past, is due credit for preserving the record of the Lovett case. He was the custodian of the skull from 1862 until 1910.

Dr. Garvin recalls with much accuracy of detail the story of the skull as he heard it from Dr. Donne. To him and not to any of the numerous biographers of Junius Booth is due the recollection of the actor’s nearness to having as “props” in his gravemakers’ scene the skull of the Louisville murderer.

The writers, however, dwell upon the eccentricities of the famous actor, and in revival of the Lovett case the fact is brought to light that it was his moods and the oddities of his nature which deprived Lovett’s head of a stage career.

As the story is recalled by Dr. Garvin, Lovett and a man named Jones were charged with the murder of a wealthy man of the city whose name was Tandy.

Lovett Was Wild.

Lovett was related to a prominent local family, one of the most aristocratic in Kentucky at that time. He was described as “a wild young man who believed there were other ways of getting money than by working for it.”

It is related that, with his confederate, Jones, Lovett made the acquaintance of Tandy. The year of the occurrence has been fixed at 1836, a time when Louisville was beginning to “boom” through its strategic location for river commerce, and there were many men coming to wealth. Tandy was believed to carry large sums of money about his person, and Lovett and Jones had designs upon it.

Louisville still was very much of a settlement in those days, as it is recalled in this case that the murder of Tandy was committed in a swamp some distance southwest of the city, now about Tenth and Chestnut streets. As the story is told, “Tandy was lured out beyond the city by Lovett and Jones.” At least it was proved at their trials that they were with him when he last was seen walking along the road to that part of the country.

Tandy’s body was found several days after he had taken his stroll with Lovett and Jones. He had been beaten to death with a club and the condition of his clothes pointed to robbery as the motive. Arrest of Lovett and Jones followed, as did also their trials and conviction. They were sentenced to be handed.

Now at the time of the murderers’ confinement in jail to await their death upon the scaffold, Dr. Donne was the jail physician. Dr. Donne was noted among the city’s physicians for having been the first demonstrator of anatomy in the local medical college.

Donne, Lovett’s Friend.

Dr. Donne and Lovett became friends. The physician was able to do many favors for the condemned man, whose early training, quite naturally, distinguished him from the other prisoners. Lovett became attached to the old doctor and expressed interest in his dissective experiments.

Shortly before he was to die Lovett willed his body to Dr. Donne for experimental work, on condition that the physician would grant him a favor.

The request was that his skull should be preserved until the appearance in Louisville of the actor Booth. Lovett declared he had seen the Englishman as Hamlet and would like to have his own skull used as the inspiration for the reflections of the melancholy Dane. Dr. Donne agreed.

Booth Famous.

Booth then was at the height of his popularity. He had come to America in 1821 after six years’ success in England, where he had grown of sufficient importance to be considered a rival of Edmund Kean. His greatest successes abroad had been as Richard III. and Sir Giles Overreach In this country he had acquired new laurels as Lear, Shylock, Hamlet and Iago, in addition to the other two rols. The Booth of this story was the father of Edwin Booth, America’s distinguished Shakespearean actor, and John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln.

Booth appeared at Louisville’s first theater. He did not have a traveling company, as the stars of those days toured alone, every theater maintaining its own complement of players.

His first appearance in Louisville after the death of Lovett on the gallows was within a short time of the execution. Dr. Donne was true to his promise.

Late in the afternoon of the day on which Booth was to appear as Hamlet, the physician visited the actor in his rooms at the Louisville Hotel. He explained his identity and his mission.

“I have nothing personal in the matter except to fulfill the promise I made to a man condemned to die,” said the physician. “The request that you use this skull in your presentation of Hamlet comes not from me but from the man himself, who admired your acting.”

Far from being flattered at the unusual appreciation of his work, Booth was said to have been not only discourteous, but almost insulting to the doctor. He appeared nettled at the offer of the strange gift.

Booth In Bad Humor.

“I believe the skull I am using now is satisfactory,” he said as he dismissed his caller.

Dr. Donne was surprised and hurt. He had not anticipated any such reception, and he was angered at the haughty disdain with which the actor had rejected the gift. He returned to his office at Seventh and Market streets.

At the performance of Hamlet at the theater that night Booth suffered a change of heart toward the strange offer of Dr. Donne. Not until he reached the scene in the churchyard, and was called upon to muse over the skull of Yorick did he recall the visit of the old doctor.

As he left the stage he inquired the name of the jail physician and the location of his office.

The next afternoon Booth made an attempt to obtain possession of Lovett’s skull. He visited the office of Dr. Donne, but the physician was out in the city attending to his practice. Booth remained for some time, thend eparted.

When Dr. Donne returned he found written upon a slate which he provided for callers during his absence:

Message On Slate.

“Booth drunk; now he wants the skull.”

The injured pride of the physician had not been healed overnight and he still was angry at Booth’s treatment upon his visit to the actor. He did not know who had written upon the slate and was not sure whether the actor himself had done it or some other caller who had arrived at the office at the time Booth was there. Of one thing he was sure, however, Booth was not to get the skull.

Dr. Donne paid no attention to other requests of the actor for the gift, nor did he call upon Booth again or even send a refusal to comply with the tardy acceptance of it. A few days later the tragedian left the city and the incident was closed.

Instead of reposing in a trunk as it traveled about the country to aid a famous actor in his enactment of one of his most notable parts, Tom Lovett’s skull remained in the office of Dr. Donne. He kept it there until his death in 1862, when it passed into the hands of his friend and pupil, Dr. Garvin. The skull was a highly prized possession of the former jail physician during his term of office. He kept it in his office along with other curious. [sic]

When he left the jail about five years ago Dr. Garvin permitted Lovett’s skull to remain behind. It sill remains in a case in the medicine department.

Researching attitudes toward novel reading in the 19th century (very bad; don’t read them; don’t look at them; don’t even think about them), I’ve come across some … unusual episodes in American life. (A truly astonishing number of crimes were blamed on novels.)

But none will surpass the tale of Lovett’s skull in terms of sheer wtf factor: murder, execution, Hamlet … And it’s not even clear who Lovett actually was.

His skull, though, almost had a career of its own, via Junius Brutus Booth, a major tragedian. If his name is familiar, it’s because he’s the father of two actors, one of whom assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Lovett was, unarguably, A Bad Guy. Among his comrades was John Washburn, who first committed murder at age 14; according to Washburn, he and Lovett committed more than one murder together, and several robberies. When Lovett and Jones were hanged, Lovett was blamed for his lack of remorse on the gallows: “Lovett, we understand, denied his guilt and appeared to the last indifferent and unrelenting. Jones acknowledged that he had perpetrated the murder, and exculpated Lovett from any participation in it.” (notice reprinted from the Louisville Journal in the Boston Post [Boston, Massachusetts] 15 August 1834; p. 2)

But it was a murder and robbery Lovett committed with a man named Jones that got him hanged in Louisville, Kentucky, on 1 August 1834. Earlier that year, they killed and robbed John Tandy, for which they were convicted and executed. (Unfortunately, Louisville newspapers for that year are unavailable, so I’m unable to present details of the trial.) Lovett was so infamous that in 1855 he was used as an example of how exciting fiction—tales of the highwayman Jack Shepherd—could inspire evil.

In 1839, though, we find a more bizarre story connected with Lovett: that his skull was presented to Junius Booth, to be a prop in Hamlet—at Lovett’s request.

This story—reprinted from a long-gone Louisville publication—is just filled with nefarious-ness. We have Lovett and Jones, murderers, at least one of whom is being hanged under an assumed name; we have Junius Booth, actor in the morally suspect theater; we have Edward Bulwer-Lytton (referred to here as “Bulwer”), whose novels were considered too degenerate for nice people to read. The hero of Paul Clifford is a highwayman named Paul Lovett, who discovers his true identity when he’s tried for highway robbery. (The novel is more famous for its opening sentence—which begins “It was a dark and stormy night”—and is a famous example of really bad prose.)

This is the earliest version of the story of Lovett’s skull, with a hint that Lovett may have been innocent of the murder after all and a goodly amount of strange sympathy from the original author. And—alas!—also a goodly amount of typographical errors and strange wordings, which I make no attempt to wrangle.


“The Murderer’s Scull” (from The Charleston Daily Courier [Charleston, South Carolina] 24 January 1839; p. 1)

[From the Louisville Literary News Letter.]
“The ruling passion strong in death.”

It may be remembered by some of our citizens, that two men bearing the names of Lovett and Jones, were executed in this city some three or four years since on conviction of the murder and robbery of a negro driver, named Tandy, not long previous. One of these men, Lovett, is said to have been quite a sentimentalist in his villainy. Bulwer’s romance, “Paul Clifford,” was a favorite book with him: even in his convict-cell, he perused its pages with interest, and, indeed, the name which he bore, and by which he was arrainged, sentenced and executed, was assumed from that of the novelist’s hero. His true name is said to have been Eckols. To the last moment of his life, Lovett declared his innocence of the crime for which he suffered; and, Jones his accomplice assumed to himself all the guilt of the murder. Circumstances since developed would seem to confirm their statement; but pure regret at his fate must be greatly diminished, when we consider that he confessed himself guilty of numerous crimes, almost worthy of the sentence he received. All this however, is not the subject of our present paragraph.

At one period of his life, Lovett became intimate under very peculiar circumstances, with the player Booth; and received from him some aid of a pecuniary nature. Strange enough, during the last days of his life, the convict could apparently neither think or talk of any one else but his quondum benefactor. Indeed upon this subject he seemed a perfect monomaniac. He was very anxious that his life and adventures should be published after his death, and agreeably to his request, several gentlemen in succession commenced the detail; but his narrative became so minute, and he was so solicitious that every item should be recorded, that we believe it was never concluded unless by himself. He was also very desirous that his body should be subjected to scientific dissection; and a short period previous to his execution, Dr. Donne, the skilful Demonstrator of Anatomy at our Medical Institute, was summoned to his cell, and the request ws urged that he should superintend the examination, and should preserve the head for Mr. Booth; that it should be presented to the tradegian, with the desire that he should make use of it as Yorrick’s scull, in personating Hamlet on the stage. So thoroughly had this singular idea taken possession of the convict’s imagination, that he continued uneasy and restless until the solemn promise was made him, that his wish should be complied with. With such anxious solicitude, indeed, did his mind dwell upon this subject, that even at that last awful moment, when the cap was drawn over his eyes, and he knot was arranged at his neck, preparatory to the fearful launch into another world, the miserable man demanded of the Sheriff if Dr. Donne was in the crowd at the scaffold’s foot. The Doctor was pointed out to him in the multitude, and he then expressed himself satisfied and prepared to die.

This is one of the most remarkable instances of ambition for posthumous fame with which we have ever met. Ah! if there be any one thing in all the broad circle of human desire, for which the heart of man years with an intensity of craving stronger than for any other, it is, that the memory should live after the poor body is dust! There is no principle of humanity more deep or imperishable. It has existed from the earliest era of time—through every age—in every class of mankind—in every bosom. The monarch upon his throne has manifested its promptings not more decidedly, than the convict upon the scaffold.—It was this eternal principle of our nature which reared the pyramids of old Egypt—it was this which cheered the scarce less gigantic labors of the ancient mount builder’s of this Western Valley.

Whatever may be our sentiments with regard to a principle so deep seated and universal as is this, it doubtless accomplishes the design for which our Maker implanted it in the breasts of us all. The miserable Lovett is said often to have asserted in his prison, that he could fancy Booth, in Hamlet, meditating upon his skull before crowded assemblages of the land. Strange as it seems, we doubt not that this wild idea lighted up the convict’s dusky pathway to another world. In his dreams we are told, that this vision was before him;—and there it burned until quenched with the light of life.

The skull of the confict, agreeably to his request, has been presented to Mr Booth during his present engagement in this city, and the circumstances detailed to him, not without his very “special wonder.” Phrenologically considered the convict’s skull is a far more innocent concern, than many a one now standing safe on a pair of shoulders. There are other incidents connected with this subject, which at another time and in a different form may occupy our pen.

Oh, what a disappointment the Not-So-Great Sea Serpent turned out to be! After Captain Richard Rich’s explanation that the Great Sea Serpent was actually a Great Optical Illusion, the Great New England Phenomenon fell out of the news and into the fertile soil of early-19th-century humorists.

The Idiot; or, Invisible Rambler made great hay of the Great Fish, devoting three full columns to the sea serpent, its observers, and the capture. There was rarely anything delicate about early-American comedy: it was blunt and slap-stick, spiky with ethnic stereotypes and tangled up in puns. “It is All a Hoax,” by “Peggy,” satirizes “Jonathan”’s earlier poem, which is reprinted in “The ‘Big Snake!’ ” A conversation between an American and an Irish sailor pokes at descriptions of the sea serpent (“protuberances”; the serpent being mistaken for a rock). “The Kaleidoscope” includes as a character a showman seemingly modeled on an ethnic stereotype. (Phineas T. Barnum was at this time eight years old and wouldn’t become synonymous with hyperbolic showmanship for several decades.)

The section was headed by a woodcut of an observer gazing raptly at the delightfully horsey-headed and fishy-tailed creature studded with protuberances (and not showing up well in a grab from digitized microfilm).

“The Kaleidoscope,” by “Fudge” (from The Idiot; or, Invisible Rambler [Boston, Massachusetts] 12 September 1818; p. 2)

1818Idiot

The KALEIDOSCOPE,
Or a ‘HORSE MACKEREL’ transformed and magnified into a ‘Terrible SEA SERPENT!’ from 150 to 300 feet in length!

Showman—‘SHENTLEMANS, vill you please to take a peep into mine KALEIDOSCOPE, and tell us vat you see there?’

‘O! Gods of the Sea, protect us!—a frightful SEA SERPENT, nearly athwart the Sloop’s bows!—of the length of her cable!—O, he is surely of the Serpent kind, and has a ‘head like a Horse!’—luff! luff! and bare away, my good fellows, or the frightful Monster will be aboard of us!’

Showman.—‘Valk up shentlemans, valk up, and satisfy yourself that it is surely a Sea Serpent!—please captain to take a peep and tell us vat you see there?’

‘O! I have Gloucester harbour fair in view! now the sea appears greatly agitated, and now the surface appears covered with Herring! and, O! O! O! what do I now see! a Monster! 160 feet at least in length! with motions ‘swift and Serpentile’ he is pursuing and devouring the affrighted herring by tons! he is surely a ‘SEA SERPENT!’ Now I have a fair view of his ‘Horse’s Head!’ and now of the ’Protuberances like gallon kegs’ on his back!’

Showman.—[‘]Valk up, valk up, Shentlemens, and satisfy yourselves—I ax no pays from you but for you to publish and swears to vat you think you see there!—here sir—

Vill you just take a Kaleidoscopean peep,
At the great ‘Leviathan’ of the deep!
—and tell us vat you see there?

‘O! a ‘school of Whales,’ which appear in great agitation!—gracious, how they spout and disappear!—O! now I see a Monster among them, with elevated head, and his tail in motion like a Threshing Flail! beating the poor Hump Backs unmercifully!—this must be the real ‘SEA SERPENT!’ indeed it must, which cannot be less than 160 feet in length, with a head as large as a ‘ship’s long boat!’—I am satisfied.’

Showman.—‘Vell, sir, if you be satisfy ’tis a real ‘Serpent’ please to hand de Kaleidoscope to another Shentleman.—Vill you sir please to take a peep and tell me vat you see there?’

‘See! a Monster! clsoe aboard, with his mouth wide open!—here, here, hand me a musket! dar’n’t fire, now! no, it won’t do! he may be provok’d to swallow us all alive! Now I see his ‘Horse’s Head,’ and now the ‘Gallon Kegs’ upon his back!—I pronounce him the ‘SEA SERPENT!’

Showman.—‘Valk up shentlemens, mine Kaleidoscope is at you service—gad it vill make a Flea look like a Buffaloe!—vont you, sir, take a peep, and tell us vat you see there?’

‘O! I can see Squam; and a boat filled with men with harpoons in pursuit of some terrible Monster in the water!—there, there, they have thrown a harpoon fairly into him!—heaven protect the ‘gallant crew,’ the Monster tows their boat with the rapidity of lightning!—now the whole sea has become of the colour of crimson!—there, alas! the Monster has escaped! and the disappointed crew are looking upon each other with sorrowful countenances—the Monster must have been the famous ‘SEA SERPENT!’

Showman.—‘Ah, de vonderful powers of mine Kalleidescope! vould you, sir, not like to take a peep, and tell us vat you see there?’

‘I think I can plainly see a sloop at anchor, near Squam, with something in tow of an extreme bulky nature—two Whale boats are along side—O! now I think I see something like an Express on the road, riding in great haste—he stops only to announce to the astonished Spectators the ‘positive capture of the SEA SERPENT! not less than 200 feet in length, but could not exactly ascertain, as he was advised not to board the sloop!’—(‘Vill you please to turn the Kaleidoscope a little,’)—O! the sloop is now under way and steering her course for Boston harbour—now she is safely moored along side of one of our wharves, which has become black with inhabitants, eager to get sight of the ‘wonderful Monster of the deep!’

Showman.—‘Vell, Shentlemens, if it be really caught, if you vill just take the trouble to valk down and exmine the ‘Monster,’ you vill acknowledge mine Kaleidoscope a much greater curiosity in transforming and magnifying a ‘HORSE MACKEREL’ into a ‘Monstrous SEA SERPENT!’

“It is all a HOAX!” by “Peggy” (from The Idiot; or, Invisible Rambler [Boston, Massachusetts] 12 September 1818; pp. 2-3)

Uncle Sammy,

By publishing the following silly production, you will oblige your brother Jonathan’s daughter

Peggy.

WHAT do you Boston Printers mean,
To be cutting thus your capers:
To tell us how the SARPENT’s caught,
And print it in your papers!

For two years past you’ve printed much
About the ‘Monster of the Ocean!’
Which all our neighbors have declar’d
A right-down LIE, or ‘Boston notion!’

But, Friday last, Dad went to town,
To see a near relation—
And came upon the gallop back,
To bring the Information.

The ‘SEA SARPENT’ was surely caught,
The Boston prints proclaim so;
That every inhabitant in town
Was in consequence on tip-toe!

A SNAKE! two hundred feet in length,
Had certainly been taken—
With his ‘Horse head’ and ‘Rundlet back!’
Father could’nt be mistaken.

Our neighbors all, both great and small,
(Who seldom dream of evil,)
By times next morn, rode up to town,
To see the ‘wat’ry D—v—l!’

‘Ha! honest friend—your assistance lend,
And tell us where we may view,
The Snake that’s caught, and lately brought
On shore by salem’s brave crew!

Yes! (with a laugh) on Russia wharf,
The ‘Great Leviathan’ now lies;
If there you repaid, you all will swear
It is for the crew a Rich Prize!’

Away went we, paid each our fee,
For nothing I b’leive [sic] could stop us—
The sail was raiz’d, and each one gaz’d
Upon a lusty PORPOISE!!

“The ‘BIG SNAKE!’ ” (from The Idiot; or, Invisible Rambler [Boston, Massachusetts] 12 September 1818; p. 3)

Is it not a little surprising that some of our Boston Printers, after having filled nearly a whole column of their papers of Saturday last, with an account of the positive “capture of the SEA SERPENT!” (which has set thousands ‘on tip-toe,” but which turns out to be an infamous Hoax!) should but barely mention in a few lines of their papers this week, that “the report of the capture of the Serpent proves a mistake!” that “the monster has not been taken, but a Horse Mackerel has, which being very near nine feet in length, is a very great curiosity.” (yes, about as much of a curiosity as a Porpoise or Herring-hog would be!)—now, really, it appears to us, that the public are entitled to something more like an apology, for the Hoax which an attempt has been made to impose upon them, while public exposition ought to be made of the name of the author or authors.

We are informed that in Portsmouth, on the receipt of the Boston papers, containing the false report of the ‘positive capture of the Sea Serpent,’ the bells rang, and the following ode was composed and sung on the occasion:—

In spite of Southern jeers and jokes,
We’ve caught the old SEA SARPENT;
And now those wise prophetic folks
Another tune must harp on’t.

It’s not unlikely, they will now
(Intending to be civil)
Swear that these Yankees will somehow
Contrive to catch the … Devil.

and well for them should it be so,
Though bravely they may jeer him;
Our pious Yankees fully know
Who have most cause to fear him.

In Providence, it is said that on the arrival of the mail containing the important intelligence, business was for nearly two hours suspended, and fifty cents offered and refused for a Boston paper.—In New-York, so highly pleased were the natives of New England, with the success of their eastern brethren, in capturing the terrible “Monster of the Ocean!” (which had been ludicrously termed a Lampre Eel by the Yorkers) that they gave a public dinner!—from farther South, we have not as yet learnt—we shall not be surprised to learn that Mr. Peal, [sic] started for this town, on the receipt of the news at Philadelphia, to attempt the purchase of the “Monster” for public exhibition!

The following conversation between an honest Hibernian, and an American Jack Tar, took place on Long-Wharf a few days since:—

Jack.—“Friend Patrick I have not seen you for these some days—pray have you been taking a cruise?[”]

Patrick.—“O yes, indeed, and fath I have been a small bit by water East, and I came well nigh seeing the Big Snake, too!”

Jack.—“Ah, indeed, pray how was that?[”]

Patrick.—“Why friend, I will be after telling you in short the whole story—about 12, the night before last, our sloop with a terrible jirk made a dead stop, and as our Yankee captain said it was bold water and he knew of nothing to impede her course there, he guessed it must be a snap of the Big Serpent, that held her fast by the keel!—we went to work with the harpoons, but fath, so thick were his scales that you might as well have attempted to peirce [sic] an 18lb. [sic] shot, with a sail needle—we either bent them like fish-hooks or broke them like pipe-stems!—When day-light appeared, as neither head nor tail were to be seen, the captain guessed that we had grounded upon one of his Protuberances—indeed, indeed, it was as much of the colour and appearance of a rock, as two pase!”


Scattered sightings of the sea serpent popped up in newspapers for another few decades, but the Great Spectacle had lost its glitter, and newspaper editors no longer pursued it.

Hard on the heels of the news that the Great Sea Serpent had been captured by Captain Richard Rich, galloped the news that the creature actually captured by Captain Rich was a fine albacore tuna, and that the Sea Serpent was still apparently frisking off the shores of Massachusetts. Newspaper editors were (mostly) sympathetic instead of condemnatory, possibly enjoying the entertaining little story with which they could fill inches. Or maybe just hedging their bets, should the Great Sea Serpent actually turn out to exist.

The Great Mackerel Capture was accomplished on Thursday, September 3; the Great Sea Serpent was identified as a Great Tuna on September 4; by September 5 editors were explaining how a sea serpent turned into a tuna or a tuna turned into a sea serpent, and how the voracious Sea Serpent could still lurk in the deeps.

By September 14, it was Captain Rich’s turn. He had been obliged to dodge bad press fairly quickly, opening an exhibit of the captured creature to a less-than-enchanted public. Days later he defended himself, his crew, and his actions.

The captured fish was exhibited almost immediately, while the sea serpent apparently headed south; a Boston correspondent for a New York newspaper included a multitude of details, as Richard Rich opened his exhibit to a paying—and quickly unimpressed—crowd. The letter was addressed to Lang, Turner & Co., who published the New-York Gazette:

Letter from Boston (from the New-York Gazette [New York, New York] 12 September 1818; p. 2)

Our Boston correspondent, under date of the 9th inst. says, “No news here to-day—no arrivals. We had a tremendous shower of rain last night and this morning, and it blew strong from the N. E. It is still very thick and stormy.”

Capt. Tatem, arrived at Savannah from Philadelphia, says he saw a huge sea-monster, with his head ten feet above the water. See Savannah ship news.

The gentlemen from whom we yesterday received a very polite note, will, no doubt, be much gratified by the perusal of the following extract of a letter from Boston:

Boston, Sept. 9, 1818.

Messrs. Lang, Turner & Co.—Observing in your paper of the 7th inst. that you have given the story of the capture of the “strange fish” brought in here, as evidence of the non-existence of the Sea Serpent, the following statement of the circumstances is presented you, relative to the capture of that fish, which I think will satisfy you, that although the public have been grossly imposed upon, it does not in the least invalidate the evidence of the many hundreds, and it may be said thousands of persons, of respectable standing in society, who have testified to the fact of the existence of the Sea Serpent.

On Thursday evening, of the 5th [sic] instant, a man by the name of Dresser, arrived in town from Squam, (a few miles from Gloucester) on horseback, express, to communicate intelligence of the capture of the Sea Serpent, by the expedition commanded by Capt. Richard Rich. He stated, that he saw the Serpent in tow of the boat, which had her colors flying; that two of the persons engaged in the enterprize, one by the name of Hopkins, informed him, it was 120 feet in length, and that they should probably be in Boston by 12 o’clock that night. The town was immediately thrown into a great commotion, and a great crowd of people soon pressed round Mr. Dresser to learn the particulars of the great achievement, which he repeated over and over again, the account was soon circulated, and the majority of our citizens were satisfied of the fact, that the great leviathan of the deep had been conquered.—But few persons, comparatively speaking, doubted the truth of the story, and those made bets to a considerable amount, individually, that it was untrue; yet the public in general believed it to be a fact. In consequence of this intelligence, two or three boats were despatched down the harbor, with orders to Capt. Richard Rich, not to come up to town, but proceed to Commercial Point (Dorchester), with his prize. Invitations, it was understood, were sent to several surgeons and naturalists, to attend the dessection [sic] of this great monster on the morning following, preparatory to his hide being taken off, stuffed and exhibited to the public, so completely satisfied were the persons concerned in the expedition, of the fact. One of our news-collectors provided himself with a cod line, for the purpose of going down the harbor early in the morning, to take the length, breadth and depth of the Serpent, to give to the public. Until ten o’clock in the evening nothing was heard or talked of but the Sea Serpent. Opinions of people had made him worth from $200,000 to 1,000,000, to the owners of the expedition—various stories were in circulation, such as A. B. had been offered $10,000 for his eighth in the concern; and C. D. $20,000 for his quarter, &c. On the morning following, people were up early, and all was enquiry if the Sea Serpent had arrived. About 8 o’clock, Capt. Rich arrived up to town, and the keeper of one of our news rooms called on him, and obtained an account similar to the one published in the Mercantile Advertiser and your Gazette of the 7th inst. which was recorded on the news book. The public was not a little disappointed on learning that this monster of 120 feet in length had shrunk up to only about 10 feet, but still the singularity of the animal, as described,kept up the curiosity of the public to see it, whether it was a Sea Serpent or not.—About nine o’clock the boat arrived up to town, and proceeded to Russia wharf, where a room had been provided to exhibit this “strange fish,” and much parade with sails to cover the passages from the boat to the store was made. A thousand stories were soon in circulation, that he had contracted, or in other words, had drawn himself up like a turtle into his shell, and would soon extend himself again; that it was not the “Sea Serpent,” but a “strange fish,” which had been brought up here to be exposed to the public to take off their attention, while the real Sea Serpent was on one of the islands below, and persons were engaged in preparing him for exhibition, &c. Soon after this strange fish had been stored, Capt. Rich appeared at the door, and opened the show at 50 cents each person, which was shortly reduced to 25 cents. People were admitted, when, wonderful to relate, the Sea Serpent had suddenly metamorphosed himself, like one of Mr. Maffey’s puppets, into a Horse Mackarel, Albacore, or Thunny, or which of the three you may please to have it; and instead of 120 feet, measured only 8½ feet in length; his hard shell, or scales, had disappeared, and instead of a harpoon not being able to penetrate through his back, a small penknife was thrust up to the handle in every part of him. The imposition now appeared manifest to every one—the more so, as Capt. R. Rich through the day exhibited him, and reported over and over again, that the fish he had taken was what he called the “Sea Serpent;” that it was the only “Sea Serpent,” ever seen off Cape Ann; that it was the animal which every person had taken to be the “Sea Serpent,” and how he could make himself appear in the water 100 or 120 feet in length, was unaccountable to him, and every one else who had seen him. This story was seconded by his officers and crew, which appeared to every one ridiculous and foolish in the extreme. The mortification of the public at being so completely gulled, or hoaxed, was manifest enough by their countenances, and some very severe remarks were made against those employed in the expedition. It has been stated, that a number of persons went from Gloucester to Squam, to see the fish Capt. R. Rich had taken; but he was very careful to keep him from their view by covering him up with sails, and at dark took him on board under deck. Persons engaged in the expedition were ashore at that place, and made no hesitation in asserting they had taken the “Sea Serpent,” when they knew it to be false. Thus it will appear form the circumstance, that a hoax was intended from that very moment to be played off upon the citizens of this town and vicinity, and a greater hoax (it is allowed by all classes) was never imposed upon the town. The owners of the expedition, it is believed, had no hand in it, but were as much deceived as the public; they ought, therefore, to be exonerated from the blame. Owing to this circumstance, persons who before believed the existence of the Sea Serpent on our coast have now changed their opinion; but as observed before, this hoax, on a great scale, does not invalidate the evidence given by so many respectable persons as to the existence of such a monster, which is still believed by thousands.

[Shipping news]

Savannah, Sept. 1.—Arr’d, sch’rs Young Spartan, Chamberlain, Havana, 7 days; W. Gray, Gray, Balt.; Eagle, Conway, do; Caroline, Connello, do.

Sloop Howard & James, Tatem, Philadelphia, 6. 24th ult. off Cape Henry, saw a huge sea-monster, which we supposed to be the wonderment called the Sea Serpent; when first seen, was steering S. W. but afterwards shifted his course to N E.; his head was about 10 feet out of water—we were within 100 yards of him.

How delightful to learn that the Great Sea Serpent was safely on its annual migration south! And how very deceptive Captain Rich appears, as he hides the harpooned tuna from observers until he can get it to a paying audience in Boston and cannot seem to explain how the fish could be mistaken for the serpent.

Now it was Captain Rich’s turn. He was careful to note that he had never seen the sea serpent before undertaking its pursuit, and that he relied on his crew to recognize it. He explored the labor involved in pursuing the volatile sea serpent. He clarified why his apparently deceptive actions were anything but. And he described how a tuna could be mistaken for an enormous sea serpent. First, the editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser reviewed the descriptions of the sea serpent given in depositions by dependable citizens, italicizing sections in which the Great Serpent was observed resting quietly in the water; the importance of those sections would be essential to the theory that what Captain Richard had caught was’t the true sea serpent.

“The Sea Serpent” (from the Boston Daily Advertiser [Boston, Massachusetts] 14 September 1818; p. 2)

We conceive it to be a duty we owe to Capt. Rich as well as our readers, to publish the following communication. Capt. Rich with a very laudable spirit undertook the arduous, and apparently hazardous enterprise of drawing the monster from his hiding place, and of solving, if possible, an important problem in natural history. If the public have been disappointed by the result of his enterprise, it is not his fault. On the contrary he ought to have the credit of the best intentions, as well as of skillful and bold exertions. He has done more than any other person to discover whether there be such an animal as the sea serpent. His doubts therefore are not to be classed with the stupid incredulity of those who have not deigned to examine the evidence which has been offered of his existence, and which by an ill-timed ridicule endeavour to discourage all inquiry. But while due attention is paid to his statement, the mass of evidence published last year ought not to be overlooked. The appearances described by most of the observers who have given their testimony under oath, differ materially from those by which Capt. Rich was deluded. We have made inquiry of the opinions of the gentlemen in Gloucester, and we learn that gentlemen whose names have been mentioned to us, who had the best opportunities of observing in the summer of 1817, and several of those whose statements are published in the collection of the Linnæan Society, are still confident that they could not have been mistaken. We copy a few passages, from the great number of similar statements under oath in the publication alluded to.

Amos Story, in his deposition given Aug. 23, 1817, says, “It was between the hour of 12 and 1 o’clock when I first saw him, and he continued in sight for an hour and a half. I was sitting on the shore, and was about 20 rods from him when he was the nearest to me. His head appeared shaped much like the head of a 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.” He saw him again some days afterwards. “He then lay perfectly still, extended on the water, and I should judge I saw fifty feet at least. I should judge I was forty rods from him this day. I had a good spy-glass both days when I saw him. I continued looking at him about half an hour, and he remained still, and in the same position until I was called away.”

Solomon Allen, 3d. in his deposition given Aug. 21, 1817, says, “His head is formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse.” “When I looked at him from the shore with a glass, at about 200 yards distance, his mouth appeared to be open about ten inches.”

William H. Foster says, in his deposition taken Aug. 27, 1817. “When I first discovered him his head was above the surface of the water, perhaps ten inches and he made but little progress through the water.”

The Hon. Lonson Nash, in his letter dated Sept. 9, 1817, says, “With a glass I could not take in, at one view, the two extremes of the animal, that were visible. I have looked at a vessel at about the same distance, and could distinctly see forty-five feet.”

Matthew Gaffney in his deposition given Aug. 28, 1817, says, “His head appeared full as large as a four gallon keg; his body as large as a barrel, and the part that I saw, I should judge forty feet at least. The top of his head was of a dark colour, and the under part of his head appeared nearly white. I fired at him when he was the nearest to me. I had a good gun, and took good aim. I aimed at his head, and think I must have hit him. He turned towards 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 sunk.”

We leave it to our readers to conclude whether the above testimony made deliberately on oath by men of respectability, is utterly false and groundless. If so we should be glad to know on what grounds human testimony is to be credited. We have no doubt that Capt. Rich has taken an animal which he and others bel[ie]ved to be the Sea Serpent; but whether he has taken the animal described by the above deponents, we entreat our readers to judge for themselves.

In regard to opinions formed respecting this Serpent by naturalists abroad, they are undoubtedly various. The report of the Linnæan Society has been republished in England. The only scientific and literary journals in which we have seen a notice of the subject, consider the existence of a Sea Serpent as proved; and among them are the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Institution, and the Literary Panorama. The French naturalist Cuvier has expressed his opinion to the same effect. The opinion of Sir Joseph Banks (which has been repeatedly inquired for here) appears to be not very different. We understand that in a reply to the letters of Gen. Humphries last summer, he expressed some doubts on the subject. His more mature conclusions formed since receiving the report of the Linnæan Society and other information, may be gathered from the following extract of a letter written by him to a gentleman of this town June 24, 1818. After commenting on some of the newspaper accounts published this season, he says, “I conclude that the last year’s serpent is inclined to lay its eggs again this year and I hope that the brave Americans who were unable last year to find the monster in their cruise for the purpose of harpooning him, will be more successful in the present summer.” These opinions show that a belief in the existence of this animal, on the testimony furnished is not so very absurd as the wiser heads in this country, [vide New York Gazette and Franklin Gazette] have imagined.

“Sufficient time having elapsed for the public mind to cease fermenting, I now offer my statement of facts, without comment, leaving it for others to judge of the good or ill, that it may produce.

Having been fully satisfied in the belief of the existence of a Sea Serpent, (although I must acknowledge, I at first doubted) and feeling confident that means were within the power of man, if rightly used, to overthrow this monster—I determined on a trial—I proceeded to Gloucester and completed my expedition—presuming I had a formidable foe to contend with, I was well prepared for an attack—In selecting my crew, I took none but men of respectability and integrity—and among the whole number (eleven) eight had seen the supposed Serpent, a part of those had made oath to the account already published, of his existence, appearance and character.—I selected such men, in order that I might not be deceived, should he make his appearance, having never seen him myself. When all was in readiness, information was brought us that the Serpent was off Squam Bar. We immediately proceeded thither—there, on our arrival, we were assured he had been seen, and that we might expect his appearance whenever it should be perfectly calm, and the water smooth, for at no other time had he been seen—the next day brought with it a dead calm, and smooth water, with the much wished for appearance of the Serpent—my crew all agreed to a man that what we then saw was the supposed Serpent, which had been seen both at that place and at Gloucester Harbour—I was perfectly satisfied, so precisely did it answer the description that had been given of him—and had I never approached nearer, I could, with satisfaction to my own mind, have given testimony upon oath, that I had seen a Serpent not less than one hundred feet in lengt[h]—We did not keep at a distance and wonder at what we saw, our object was to take it if possible—we accordingly gave chase; each day brought with it, this wonderful appearance, and it was sometime before we could discover the deception—but by following it up closely we have ascertained that the supposed Serpent is no other than the wake of such a Fish as we have taken. I have endeavored to gain the best information possible, and find that what I first saw, answers well the description given—By all the information I can obtain, he has never been seen, except in calm weather, when the surface of the water appears white & smooth, he then making his appearance moving with uncommon velocity, heaving up little waves of the true colour of the ocean, that appear at a little distance like what has already been described—it has been his ode of swimming on the surface, till from twenty to thirty of these waves could be distinctly counted, and then to sink deeper under the water, for a short time and then reappear as before. At other times he would make a circle, producing on the water the same appearance as before. After many unsuccessful attempts, we at length fastened to him, he being under water about seven feet. I was in doubt what to call it. We soon discovered that he possessed great strength and velocity, but soon found ourselves loosed from it—Still anxious to know what it was, that had produced so much astonishment, and had been the cause of so much speculation (for we never doubted this was the cause) we continued our pursuit until the time for which I engaged my crew had expired. I then returned to Gloucester and discharged them.—Being unwilling to relinquish the undertaking, and in the fullest conviction, that I had seen what was called the Serpent, and finding a part of my crew willing to continue the cruise, we again returned to Squam, with a determination to capture if possible, whatever had produced this singular appearance. The third day he reappeared and on the fifth we succeeded in taking him—believing it to be an uncommon fish for this climate, (having never seen the like) and feeling convinced that we had taken out of the water, that which had caused so much wonder, and had excited so many speculative opinions, I thought proper to bring it to Boston, not doubting that those who were interested, would be satisfied with what I had done. As I went upon a private expedition, I left this town privately; but few people knew of the undertaking, till I had gone. During my cruise I had never given my opinion, not even to those who were with me. After I had obtained the object of my pursuit, it was my intention to have returned to Boston, as quietly as I had left it. I did not go on shore, nor did I allow any one to come to me, except those of my crew—when I sent the boat for my baggage, I requested the crew to answer no questions that might be put to them.

The Express that came to this town, came without my knowledge and certainly against my wish—had I have know it in time, I should have prevented it. I publicly defy the man on earth, to say I sent him express, or had any knowledge of it—and now let me ask what I could have done more to please, or said less to offend any person. It was not possible for me to make a Serpent, to answer their speculations, but all that has been pointed out to me as the Serpent, I [have] taken, but not without some difficulty and labour. Many persons from Gloucester have been witnesses to the object of our pursuit while we were in chase, and all with whom I have conversed, agree in the opinion I have here given, which is, that this fish has caused many of the opinions that have been given of the supposed Serpent—of this, my Boat’s Crew are well convinced, and its existence on this coast has been in part founded on the testimony they have given.

If I am asked, how it is possible for a Fish like the one taken to produce such a wonderful appearance, by his motion in the water (with thousands of questions besides) I can but answer.—“His peculiar movement added to his velocity, has produced to my eyes a greater deception than I ever witnessed before, and finally I repeat, that what I saw answered the description so minutely—and the describing his body, as being like kegs fastened together, struck me so forcibly, that had I not followed it up and discovered the deception, I should have added my testimony on oath, to the long list already given, of the existence of a Sea Serpent on our Coast.

I now take my leave of the public, but am ready to answer verbally any questions that may be put to me, hoping they will do me the justice to say that I have used no deception.

RICHARD RICH.”

So the Great Sea Serpent was instead a Great Optical Illusion! Still, New Englanders—or at least New England newspaper editors—wanted to believe. Sightings of sea serpents are sprinkled through newspapers during the next few decades, but never one was captured—a rather satisfying conclusion for such a marvelous monster.

Alas! Having been captured by Captain Richard Rich on Thursday, September 3, 1818, the Great Sea Serpent was disappointingly revealed before the end of that week to be … a nice-sized albacore tuna.

Oh, the disappointment! Oh, the humanity! Oh, the many ways newspaper editors came up with to explain why the tuna was or wasn’t the sea serpent, or how it could or couldn’t have been mistaken for something less fishy than snakey.

And, oh, the adventure in 19th-century spelling and publishing! The creature is a “tunny” and a “thunny”; it’s an “albacore” and an “albicore”; it’s a “mackerel” and a “mackeral”; and its scientific name is … just all over the linguistic map. Many newspapers of the time were weeklies, published Saturday, which meant that some papers on September 5 were trumpeting the capture of the Great Serpent, while others were announcing the capture of the Great Tuna Fish. It wasn’t long, however, before everyone had caught up with the news.

“The Sea Serpent Not Taken” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 5 September 1818; p. 2)

Yesterday Capt. Rich returned to port from his spirited and praiseworthy expedition in search of the Sea Serpent. He has been unsuccessful in capturing that animal, but having availed himself of taking an aquatic animal seldom on our coast, called the Albicore, or Tunny, (Scomberthynnus) the capture gave rise to the reports of the acquisition of the Sea Serpent; which a zealous wish to add to the stock of natural history, and to resolve the doubts of the existence of such animals, induced it to be generally credited. We regret the present disappointment of the meritorious adventurers, and the public; but are confident it cannot invalidate the mass of evidence which has been adduced by hundreds of witnesses in favour of the appearance of such an animal on our coast.

The fish taken is about nine feet in length and six or seven in circumference, and probably weighs 7 or 800 wt.

The Boston Intelligencer seemed more bereft, comparing the news of the Great Serpent’s capture to that of the end of the War of 1812; it also was more descriptive. And delightfully coy about what the piece was about to announce to readers:

“The Sea Serpent, Again!” (from the Boston Intelligencer [Boston, Massachusetts] 5 September 1818; p. 2)

No account, since the news of peace, has put the inhabitants of Boston into more commotion, than the reports attending the supposed capture of the SEA SERPENT, on Thursday evening.—A man came up express from Gloucester, with the information, having tired out two horses on the road, with his rapid travelling. After his arrival reports of all shapes and dimensions were circulated, some true, but generally false.

We were told, the Serpent had become quite afraid of the Whalers since his first wound—and endeavoured to elude all attacks—but fortunately on Thursday forenoon about 11 o’clock he was struck with a harpoon—when he went off with the power and velocity of a spermaceti Whale[.]—After an hour spent in fatiguing him, he was conquered—though not without bringing the boat gunnel under several times. Another account, carried the boat 15 miles at the rate of 70 miles an hour. A third made him 170 feet long—but the most prevalent opinion was that his length exceeded 100 feet. All agreed in the fact of his being captured, by the unexampled enterprise and intrepidity of Yankee Whalemen—and upon no other coast in the world, it was exclaimed, could this formidable animal, the existence of which has been affirmed and denied from Bishop Pontoppidan, down to our times, have been attacked and conquered. Arrangements were made for dissecting, and preparing him for publick inspection. Already had anticipation given enormous profits to the speculation, and the liberal bounty which each seaman was to receive, was in imagination returned four-fold. These and various other stories “amazed the unleanred,” and were swallowed by the most judicious. But, alas, for poor human nature, the Serpent still reigns the triumphant sovereign of the sea, and the Whalers only caught a Tunny Fish!

Morning came, and with it the truth—but rumour yet assumed various shapes. The real Serpent had been certainly taken, and he had shrunk in his dimensions, only on account of his uncommon power of contraction, by which, shutting himself up like an Opera glass—or, one of Mr. MAFFEY’s Puppets, he diminished his length and increased his diameter. His head and shoulders were covered with a hard shell like that of a Tortoise, which could resist the harpoon of the most powerful whaleman. Curiosity was still alive to see this unusual monster of the deep, but disappointment and complaint at being hoaxed soon succeeded; and the existence of the Sea Serpent itself is now stoutly denied. In this opinion we do not agree. It is much more easy to believe, that the persons engaged in the expedition, perceiving a rapid movement in the water, by a large fish, were deluded with the idea of his being the Serpent—than to suppose the testimony, under oath, of 50 or 60 respectable individuals, could be unfounded in truth. The length, diameter, appearance, motion and form of the Serpent, has been published under the strongest sanctions—and a young animal of the Serpent species, was last year discovered and taken in the same place, to which the Sea snake resorted. This specimen, agreed with the depositions relative to the old one in regard to the protuberances on the back; and the vertebræ of the back bone, instead of being streit, [sic] as in other snakes, conformed to the undulatory shape of the surface. Besides which the young Serpent, was found entirely different from any other snake, ever described by the naturalists. We therefore are still believers in the existence of the SEA SERPENT.

The fish now exhibiting has been well known from the earliest ages—it is the TUNNY FISH, of the Mackerel genus. It is sometimes entitled the great Mackerel—and by seamen generally called the ALBACORE.

Pennant gives an accurate representation of this fish; He says “they are not uncommon in Lochs on the Western Coast of Scotland, where they come in pursuit of herrings; and often during the night, strike into the nets, and do considerable damage. When the fishermen draw them up in the morning, the Tunny rises towards the surface, ready to catch the fish that drop out. On perceiving it a strong hook baited with herring and fastened to a rope is instantly flung out, which the Tunny seldom fail to take. As soon as hooked it loses all spirit; and after a very little resistance submits to its fate.—The pieces when fresh look like raw beef; but when boiled turn pale and have something of the flavour of salmon.

“The one which was taken when I was at Inveraray, in 1769, weighed 460 pounds. The fish I examined, was 7 feet 10 inches long—the greatest circumference 5 feet 7 inches. The body was round and thick, and grew suddenly very slender towards the tail, and near that part was angular. The irides, were of a pale green, the teeth very minute. The first dorsal fin consisted of thirteen strong spines, which when depressed, were so concealed in a deep slit in the back as to be quite invisible until very closely inspected. Immediately behind this was another, tall and falciform, almost opposite to it was the anal fin of the same form. The spurious fins were of a rich yellow colour; of these there were eleven above and ten below. The tail was in the form of a crescent, and 2 feet 7 inches between tip and tip. The skin on the back was smooth [and] very thick and black—on the belly the scales were visible. The colour of the sides and belly silvery, tinged with cerulean and pale purple—near the tale marbled with grey.”

“Mr. Maffey’s Puppets” is a reference to an entertainment then playing in Boston: a French puppeteer who was touring the East Coast of the U.S. On 5 September he advertised a “New & Interesting Spectacle” which would premiere on 7 September; it would include “the Fairy Pantomime of Harlequin’s Descent into the INFERNAL REGIONS. A GRAND SPECTACLE. A DIABOLICAL BALLAD, Performed by Dæmons, in which Harlequin will be carried away on the back of a Monster, with a Superb Scenery, representing PLUTO’S EMPIRE.” Also, “a Grand Allegorical Metamorphoses, in honor of Gen’l. Washington”; the evening would conclude with “the Grand View of the Outer Harbour of Gloucester, and the taking of the SEA SERPENT; This Perspective is the first that has yet been exposed to public scrutiny. The movement and displaying of the boats, the Serpent and men attending the expedition, are as natural as life.” [Boston Intelligencer [Boston, Massachusetts] 5 September 1818; p. 2] All this for $1—children half price!

The Boston Daily Advertiser counted on readers already knowing the sad truth, but like other papers pointed out that the capture of a tuna meant that the Great Serpent was probably still out there, uncaught; “M.” ’s “Communication” discusses the problems with the theory that observers had been describing a mackerel the whole time.

“The Sea Serpent” (from the Boston Daily Advertiser [Boston, Massachusetts] 5 September 1818; p. 2)

We lament, in common with the public, the disappointment of the hopes that had been raised by the report of the capture of this remarkable animal.—Capt. Richard Rich and his party on Thursday last terminated a cruise of nearly three weeks, in pursuit of the Serpent, by the taking of a fish not very common in our waters, which, from its singular appearance in the water, they had been led to believe was the Sea Serpent so often described. The intelligence of the capture of this fish, and the assurance of some of the crew, who either believed, or wished others to believe, that this was in fact the animal which has been the object of so much curiosity and speculation, occasioned a general belief that the leviathian [sic] of the deep had yielded to the skill and enterprise of our seamen. The rumor produced a very great excitement in this town, and in proportion as curiosity was raised, disppointment has been severely felt. There were a few whom we will do the justice to say, that they did not believe the intelligence; and the further justice to say, as far as we are informed, that they doubted intuitively, without taking any trouble to examine the testimony on which the proposition rested.

The fish taken by Capt. Rich, and which he brought to town and exhibited yesterday, is of the Mackerel tribe, and is the Thunny or Horse Mackerel. It is not remarkable nor rarely met with. The inquiry naturally arises, can this fish, or any number of them, be the monster so often described as a Sea Serpent? We answer decidedly, no. The existence of some remarkable animal in our waters last summer, particularly near Cape Ann, was proved by the most satisfactory testimony, and the appearances which he presented are not in any degree to be accounted for by supposing any numbers of the fish now taken. The descriptions which we have had this season of the Serpent, have been less consistent and satisfactory, and undoubtedly often exaggerated. But neither these exaggerated descriptions nor the error of persons who by mistake have been pursuing what had nothing of the remarkable and characteristic appearances of the Sea Serpent, ought to lead us to suspect all former testimony. On this subject we are happy to publish the following remarks of a correspondent:—

COMMUNICATION.

Mr. Hale—Since the great excitement occasioned last summer by the appearance on our coast of an animal supposed to be a marine se[r]pent, public expectation has been on the watch for the return of so extraordinary a visitor. Whether the same animal has since been in our waters, or whether the name of sea serpent, has been this year applied to objects unlike the original one, is a point on which opinions differ. It is not surprising that to persons prepared to see this aquatic monster, almost every unusual marine phenomena should be identified with the expected serpent. Various animals of large size have been described in our newspapers under the name of sea serpent, some with their heads equalling a ship’s boat, others, with tails elevated to a prodigious height, but in most instances evidently distinct from the animal of 1817. There can be little doubt that the spouting of whales, and the tumbling of porpoises have in their turn personated this monarch of the seas. Lastly, after public expectation had been excited to a high pitch, by the reported successful termination of a three weeks’ chase of the monster, we have nothing served up to satisfy our eager appetites, better than a Thunny Fish, ten or a dozen feet long.

As we may not this season be gratified with a nearer interview with his serpentine majesty, than through the person of his representative the Thunny, it may be well to examine how far the pretensions of the latter give him a right to be considered a legitimate connexion of the former.

The Thunny (Scomber Thynnus) is found in almost all seas, and particularly abounds in the Mediterranean. It is extremely voracious, feeding upon herrings and other small fish. It frequents the shores in the spawning season, swimming in vast shoals with great swiftness, accompanied by a hissing noise. They are said to form in swimming a regular paralellogram. The size of the Thunny is usually from 2 to 10 feet in length, with the back and belly considerably convex.

From this account it does not seem probable that a single fish of this kind could produce, by any means, appearances like those ascribed to the sea serpent. Yet it is possible that a shoal of them, especially if swimming in a row with their heads above water, might represent very well the continuous bunches of the serpent. If swimming in different directions, they would represent the mode of turning of the serpent, and as for his sinking like a rock, it only requires that every fish in the train should take care of himself.

Thus far the correspondence of the two appears specious. But as those of us who have never seen the one nor the other, are obliged to make up our opinions from the representations of those who have been more fortunate as spectators; it is fair that we should take into view the whole of the evidence before we make conclusions.

Every one allows that the phenomenon in Cape Ann harbour last summer, had a head. This was carried several feet above the water; it was seen by many, accurately described by a number, and actually fired at, from the distance of about a rod. Now a feature of this kind could not well belong to a train of separate animals, unless one travelled in the air and the rest in the water.—Again; the Gloucester Serpent was often seen at rest, as well as in motion, with a great length of back uncovered by the water. This was repeatedly described as being 40 or 50 feet in length, not only by the spectators at Cape Ann, but Judge Hertell and others, of New-York, who reported his appearance in Long Island Sound.

The appearance of shoals of the Thunny, is said to be a thing by no means unfrequent. It is hardly probable that in a maritime town like Gloucester, a great portion of whose inhabitants are sailors, familiar with every sea, that any common marine phenomena should has passed as new.

The singular coincidence in appearance of the small Serpent taken last year at Cape Ann, is certainly an evidence not to be neglected in forming our conclusions on this hitherto obscure subject. This animal has been pronounced by Cuvier, the celebrated French naturalist, to be a Serpent sui generis, specifically distinct from all hitherto described. The circumstance that no other of the kind has been satisfactorily examined renders it probable that its residence is in the water, where it eludes the detection of the naturalist. It is not the only species of which a single individual only has been submitted to close inspection. The animal cast ashore at Stroussa, and described in the Wernerian transactions, was nearly equal in length to our supposed Sea Serpent, yet none other of his species has been seen before nor since.

The Portsmouth Oracle was filled with chagrin—and pointed out that the Serpent was seen gamboling in the sea while its imposter was being harpooned elsewhere:

“The Sea Serpent” (from The Portsmouth Oracle [Portsmouth, New Hampshire] 12 September 1818; p. 2)

It is with regret and mortification we state that the article copied into this paper last week from the Boston Daily Advertiser was destitute of truth. Capt. Rich returned on Saturday to Boston without effecting the object of his expedition, the capture of the Serpent, and it is due from him to explain the motive of suffering so gross a falsehood to be imposed on the publick as that alluded to in the article mentioned above. We learn from respectable authority that the Sea Serpent was near Rye Beach on Thursday last week, the day on which Capt. Rich harpooned the Albacore.

The Boston Commercial Gazette held out hope that the Great Sea Serpent was still available for capture:

“The Tunny Fish—No Serpent” (from the Boston Commercial Gazette [Boston, Massachusetts] 7 September 1818; p. 2)

On Thursday last, the party who have been cruising for some weeks past in search of the Great Sea Serpent, which is well ascertained to have again visited the waters in the neighborhood of Cape Ann, succeeded in capturing a large, and in our seas, a rare animal, which, on examination is found to be the Tunny Fish, of the Mackeral [sic] genus, measuring in length about 9, and in circumference about 8 feet. On the first news of this capture, the public mind was considerably inflated, and as is usual, on such occurrences, the report of his size, character and species, were as numerous as the finny tribe, and as extravagant as imagination could form them; but the delusion soon passed away; and we have yet to look forward, with a pretty confident expectation, that the Sea Serpent, which has been so often descried, and his length and protuberances so distinctly traced, will yet be caught, as we understand a more formidable expedition will be sent in chase of him, and that he was again seen, on Friday afternoon, by some pleasure boats, between Fawn bar and Nahant, exhibiting similar marks, at first of an undulatory motion, and then darting through the water with incredible rapidity, as described by those persons who have attested to the fact of his existence in our neighborhood.

And, reprinting the above, the New-Hampshire Gazette—printed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—rewrote the triumphant poem by “Jonathan” that was published in the The Portsmouth Oracle—also printed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—with the news of the Sea Serpent’s demise; the word “cute” is here short for “acute”:

“Jonathan” (from the New-Hampshire Gazette [Portsmouth, New Hampshire] 8 September 1818; p. 2)

“JONATHAN,”
In the last Oracle, whistling his tune with some trifling variation, as the case requires.

Alas the Southern jeers and jokes
About the old SEA-SARPENT;
And now we cute snake-catching folks,
Another tune must harp on ’t.

Its [sic] not unlikely they will now
(Intending to be civil)
Swear that we Yankees will somehow
Lie like the very—Devil.

Well may they say, since it is so,
His friends—he will keep near them;
And surely now, “Old Cloots” must know
He has no cause to fear them.

The New-England Museum humorously hedged its bets while advertising its exhibit of the Great Whatever It Was:

Advertisement (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 27 September 1818; p. 3)

SEA SERPENT,
Or no Sea Serpent! Albicore, Tunny Fish! Horse Mackerel! or what you please to call it.

The large, curious, and uncommon FISH, caught by Capt. Rich, while in pursuit of the Sea Serpent, and supposed by him to be the Old Serpent himself, is now deposited at

THE NEW-ENGLAND MUSEUM,

No. 76, COURT STREET,

for the inspection of the curious. It is undoubtedly a great curiosity, though somewhat short of public expectation. He is ten feet long, and weighed when taken, upwards of 800 wt. There have also been just added to the Museum, a large Sun Fish, a live Aligator, [sic] two small live Turtles, from the Island of Ascension, of that species of marine Turtles, which, when full grown, weighs 8 or 900 lbs. Many other additions have lately been made—among them, cabinet of several hundred specimens of Minerals, put up by a Professor.

By summer 1818, the sea serpent seems to have become a fixture of the Atlantic coast, bunching along through the water and gobbling up small fish. Observers wove their descriptions around several tropes: the length of the serpent (100-120 feet); a comparison with various sizes of barrels; the extent to which the serpent’s head rose out of the water (5 feet); and the color of the summer visitor (dark brown). As the summer wore on and the critter was pursued, the Columbian Centinel tracked sightings in the Atlantic.

The Great Serpent was, it seems, fondest of summering in Massachusetts, with many sightings there. Mr. Sargent’s encounter occurred on 23 July; Captain Beach’s rendition of the beast appeared in an issue as yet unseen:

“Sea Serpent Again, and Brood” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 25 July 1818; p. 2)

We yesterday received a letter from a correspondent at Gloucester, dated on Thursday, which says:

“The Great Serpent has again appeared in our harbor. She is accompanied by three young ones, and they make great destruction among the bait. The fish exhibit the utmost terror at their approach; and as the Serpents pass along, seizing and devouring their food, the fish spring above the water to escape their enemies, but in vain, for the Serpents rapidly pass and repass, devouring as they go.—A Mr. Sargent, of this place, had a fair view of one this day. She passed under his boat, and he says, the head and protuberances on her back resemble the drawing and engraving of Capt. Beach. Capt. B. Webber, who saw the large Serpent, and the three smaller ones, yesterday, from the shore, judged the large one to be 100 feet in length, and the smaller ones to be about fifty feet.”

The Columbia Centinel seemed just fascinated by all things sea serpent. When the Great Serpent feasting on fish off the coast of Massachusetts failed to deliver inches of print, the Centinel found a sighting off a different shore:

“Another Sea Serpent” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 12 August 1818; p. 1)

Capt. Arnold, of British brig Cora, arrived at Norfolk from Jamaica, states, that on the 31st of July, off the Capes of Virginia, and five miles to the southward of the False Cape, Capt. A. being below shaving himself, the mate called out to him from aloft, saying there was a rock ahead. Capt. A. answered that it was impossible; he however went on deck and saw about half a mile a head [sic] an object having very much the appearance of a point of rock projecting about four feet beyond the surface of the water, being of a dark brown color. Capt. A. was entirely at a loss to account for this strange apparition, not having the most distant idea of a Sea Serpent at the time, and being ignorant of the appearance of those monsters on our coast. It remained perfectly still for about five minutes, and then moved with great rapidity towards the shore, to the great astonishment of those who saw it.—‘I think,” said Captain A. to his mate, “your rock must have a steam engine in it; see how swiftly it moves!” In a few minutes after it darted under the water, and they saw no more of it. Capt. A. judges its length, for he had a view of the whole of it while the creature was moving on the surface of the water, to be equal to that of his vessel, say about 100 feet. On mentioning the occurrence to the pilot who came on board soon after, he observed that it was no doubt a Sea Serpent, as one was reported to have been seen not long since near the same place by a Northern sloop.

Timothy Hodgkins described a closer encounter, with the critter then basking off the coast of Massachusetts; his vivid description (glossy! head like a seal!) includes the sounds of the swimming serpent as it passed his small fishing boat:

“A New Interview with the Sea Serpent; A Very Particular and Interesting Account” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 19 August 1818; p. 2)

Gloucester, Aug. 15.

Mr. Cushing—Having been an unbeliever of the existence of a Sea Serpent, on our coast, from the time that he was first noticed to the present week, my doubts have been compelled to yield to stubborn facts of which I was an eye witness. Returning from Newburyport into Squam Harbour, on Wednesday last, in a Chebacco boat where we had been for the purpose of obtaining fishing bait, and having fail[e]d of getting a supply, we were in hopes of taking some on our passage; and when off Chebacco bar, it being perfectly calm, we discovered somewhat at the distance of a mile or more, which we were in hopes was a shoal of bait making a great agitation on the smooth surface of the water; it seemed to approach us rapidly; but as it came nearer we were convinced we had been in an error, and that, what we took for a shoal of black fish was nothing less than the bunches on the back of the celebrated SEA SERPENT. He made directly for the boat until he came within fifty yeards; he then sunk under water and we were much alarmed lest he should rise under us, as we had no power of getting from him, we lying becalmed; when he came up he was thirty feet from us; we had then a perfect and distinct view of this Monster of the deep; his head was elevated from three to five feet; the distance was about six feet from his neck to the first bunch; we counted twenty bunches, and we supposed them on an average about five feet apart and his whole length could not be less than 120 feet. When we first saw him there appeared a rippling in the water which made a noise not unlike water running rapidly over loose pebbles; on his nearer approach, when we knew it to be the Serpent, we imagined it to proceed from his mouth, and it appeared as though he was hissing; but on his nearing still more we found it proceeded from the ripple made by the bunches on his back; it was twelve o’clock, noon, when we saw him; the weather was clear and the sea smooth, and no deception could have been made; his head was of a dark brown colour, formed like a seal’s, and shined with a glossy appearance; he seemed to be indifferent as to us, and went a steady course for Rye Beach, about N. by W. and we lost sight of him at about four miles distance. Mr. Joseph Chase, of Brunswick, N. H. and two lads, were with me in the boat, and saw him as distinctly as myself; his body was of the size of a 60 or 80 gallon cask, his head as large as a barrel, for we could see it when he was about four miles from us. I believe he is perfectly harmless, and might easily be caught; nearly all the time that he was in sight, his head was above water.—There was nothing that appeared like fins or gills; we did not discern his tail; there was a quick vibration of the parts we saw, which probably was his mode of swimming.

TIMOTHY HODGKINS.

Mr. Timothy Hodgkins, who relates the above is about 50 years of age, has for the most part of his life followed the sea, and is entitled to credit. Yours,

W. S.

Aug. 16. The Serpent has been seen for several hours this morning near Squam lighthouse, by a great many persons, some of whom were within 20 feet of him, and agree in the above description, excepting that his head nearly resembled that of a land serpent’s, and when he was at rest no bunches appeared.

One thing on which observers of the sea serpent frolicking off the coast of Massachusetts in 1817 agreed was that it was—as one journalist put it later—a “famed enemy of small fish.” Another enemy appears to have been the hump-back whale, according to observers on the Delia, who witnessed a dramatic battle between the enormous serpent and a hapless whale in 1818.

It’s a stunning scene: the gigantic sea serpent walloping a whale, apparently to drive it out of the serpent’s fishing grounds. And a sturdy serpent it was, able to keep 40 to 50 feet of its body high out of the water for long periods of time. And it is—like most observations published in 1818—described in an affidavit signed before a justice of the peace.

This sighting was attested to by more than one witness. The first published was from Shubael West, captain of the Delia; the second came from a passenger. (Charmingly, the Delia appears to have been named for West’s daughter; see the announcement of the marriage of Delia West to Ariel Mann. [American Advocate [Hallowell, Maine] 13 August 1814; p. 3]) Eugene Batchelder lampooned the sighting in A Romance of the Sea-Serpent; or, The Ichthyosaurus, published in 1849 and available at the Internet Archive.

“The Sea Serpent Again!” (from the American Advocate and Kennebec Advertiser [Hallowell, Maine] 27 June 1818; p. 3)

The following account of the Sea Serpent, while it fully confirms former statements as to his enormous size, gives a more just idea of his monstrous powers than any which has preceded it. How vast must be the body of a serpent that when lying in the water could easily, and for a length of time, support near fifty feet of its length in an erect position above the surface! and how wonderful his strength who could attack and beat the whale in mere sport! Is not this the Leviathan indeed? Captain West is a man well known to us—and the correctness and veracity of his statement will not be doubted by any one who knows him.

I, Shubael West, of Hallowell, in the County of Kennebec, Master of the Packet Delia, plying between Kennebec River and Boston, testify and say, that I left Boston on the morning of Sunday the 21st instant, and at about 6 o’clock, P. M. Cape Ann bearing W. S. W. about 2 leagues, steering a course N. N. E. saw directly ahead, distant three fifths of a mile, an object which I have no doubt was the SEA SERPENT so often mentioned by others, engaged with a Whale that was endeavoring to elude the attack. The Serpent threw up his tail from 25 to 30 feet in a perpendicular direction, striking the Whale with tremendous blows rapidly repeated, which were distinctly heard & very loud, for two or three minutes. They then both disappeared for several minutes moving in a W. S. W. direction, when they reappeared, in shore of us, and about under the sun, the reflection of which was so strong as to prevent our seeing so distinctly as before—when the tremendous blows were repeated and as clearly heard as before.—They again went down for a short time and again came up to the surface under our larboard quarter, the Whale appearing first and the Serpent in pursuit. Here our view was very fair. The Serpent shot up his tail thro’ the water to the height before mentioned, which he held out of water some time, waving it in the air, and at the same time, while his tail remained in this position raised his head rather leisurly [sic] 15 or 20 feet, as if taking a view of the surface of the sea. After remaining in this situation a short time, he again sunk into the water, disappeared, and was not seen after by any on board.

The Serpents [sic] body was larger, in my opinion, than the mast of any ship I ever saw; his tail appeared very ragged and rough, and was shaped something like an eels; [sic] and his head like that of the land Serpent. Being well acquainted with whaling, I think the Whale was endeavoring to escape, as he spouted but once at a time on coming to the surface. The Whale’s back was distinctly seen, as well as his spouting, and the last time he appear[e]d he went down before the Serpent came up. The above was seen by all on board, amounting to 15 or 18 persons, as well as myself, with the exception of one woman.

During our view, the combatants had passed a mile or more. The Whale was a hump-back, and a pretty large one.

SHUBAEL WEST.

Kennebec, ss.

Hallowell, June, [sic] 27, 1818.

Then the above named Shubael West personally appeared before me the subscriber, one of the Justices of the Peace within and for the County of Kennebec, and made solemn oath that the above statement of facts by him subscribed is just and true.

A. MANN.


An affidavit from a passenger on the Delia was published later. Samuel Schmid’s description is vivid and detailed, and his honesty was attested to by Thomas Cooper, then professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania. When published in the Columbian Centinel, Schmid’s account was accompanied by an academic discussion of the evidence, which included proportions recorded from a smaller critter captured in September 1817.

“More of the Sea Serpent” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 18 July 1818; p. 1)

[The following affidavit of Mr. Schmid, a gentleman of talents, experience, and veracity, has been published in the Hallowell Gazette. It fully confirms the certificate of Capt. West, published some time since:—]

AFFIDAVIT.

I, Samuel Schmid, of Philadelphia, testify and say, as follows:

On Sunday, the 21st instant, between the hours of 5 and 6 P. M. about 2 or 3 leagues to the E. N. E. of Cape Ann, being on board the Delia, Capt. Shubael West, on my passage from Boston to Hallowell, in Maine; I saw, ahead of the vessel, a tall white object, standing upright out of the water; which I thought might be a pillar set up for some particular purpose. I viewed it alone therefore for 7 or 8 minutes, till finally I saw its upper end waving about for a short time; when, after giving a hard stroke to the water, it disappeared.—In about 3 or 4 minutes, this object rose again; when I called upon various persons below in the vessel, to come up and view it; which they did immediately. At this time a whale appeared spouting near it; and the object which stood up, was after a time recognized as being the tail of some animal, and at length was concluded to be that of the noted Sea Serpent. The tail was now seen to strike the water again several times. Both these great objects then went below the surface of the sea.—In a few minutes, both shewed themselves again, abreast of us; but the sun lying behind both, and there being no glass at hand, our view of them grew imperfect. But soon afterwards, we perceived a form, like that of a head, rising up; the parts below which, seemed connected with the tail which I had originally seen; though the intermediate body was to us invisible. The neck was curved below the head. The head was at first held horizontally; but afterwards assumed an oblique position, as if looking down into the water below. Some additional strokes were now made with the tail. The whale on its side now was in motion again, a[n]d immediately dived below; as did the Serpent.—Some considerable time afterwards both animals appeared again; but at too great a distance for a perfect view of them to be had; but the Serpent made several fresh strokes, and the disturbance given to the water by strokes from the tail continued some time afterwards; though the water was not smooth.

The motions of these animals were rapid; and those of the Serpent vigorous, the noise and the agitation of the water from his stokes being great. His tail, which I have said seemed white, appeared to be flattened cross-wise; its edges also had an indented appearance; while its end was blunt. The head and neck appeared of a dark color; and the body below the neck seemed rapidly to enlarge. I had an opportunity soon after to observe the mast of a vessel, which appeared abundantly smaller. The length of tail exhibited, I thought, was about twenty-five or thirty feet, and the head stood about half this height above the water. The separation between the two seemed so considerable, that it was thought that our vessel might have sailed between them across the body. As the serpent was never nearer than half a mile, we could only judge of this intermediate mass by conjecture; but it must have been very great, since the end of the tail and the head each moved without agitating the parts below them, or each other. Supposing the body to have been long like that of a snake, the total length of the animal may perhaps be estimated at one hundred feet.

Having lived in parts of the United States where the former accounts given of this Serpent have received little credit, I was not at first prepared to expect what I afterwards had the good fortune to see. I state these facts, that those who know me may be assured of them; and also that naturalists may, from the statement given, begin to have some notion of the habits of this animal.

The whale was said to be of the hump-back kind; and an unusual number of whales has of late been said to have been seen in Boston Bay.

The persons on board who became companions with me in this sight, were two sea-captains, besides Capt. West; with various passengers, and the crew of the vessel. Capt. West has separately made oath to a part of the above particulars.

(Signed)

SAMUEL SCHMID.

[Sworn to before John Merrick, Justice of the Peace.]

The above affidavit is accompanied by the following remarks from one of the most intelligent and di[s]criminating pens in the District of Maine.

The proportional heights to which the head and the tail of this Sea Serpent are here thought to have been raised, agree nearly with the heights to which the same parts might have been raised by the little serpent; (according to the proportions in the measures given for the latter in the printed Report of the Committee of the New-England Linnaean Society)—Mr. Schmid says, that the head was raised about half the height of the tail; the neck being somewhat curved, and the head kept either level or looking down. But the Report says (p. 39) that the length of tail in the little Serpent was 7 4-10 inches; of which the half is 3 7-10; and (p. 38) it says, that the distance between the back of the head and the first protuberance on the body was 3 6-10 inches; to which adding 5-10 of a[n] inch for the thickness of the head (as answering to the diameter given for the smallest part of the neck,) we have 4 1-10 inches for the total height which this end of the animal might have possessed. But deducting 5-10 of an inch for a curve in the neck, we have 3 6-10 for the elevation of the crown of the head of the Little Serpent, when assuming the same posture with the Serpent seen by Mr. Schmid; and this is about half the length of its tail. Making due allowance for mistaken guesses, in Mr. Schmid, (though he is in some degree confirmed by Capt. S. West,) this brings the parralled [sic] between the two animals as near as could be expected.

Again; the total length of the Little Serpent was 3 feet, less half an inch; the tail forming about one fifth of its length. If we take 25 feet for the tail of the Great Serpent, its total length would have been, according to this proportion, 125 feet. If we put the tail at 20 feet, it would give 100 for the total length. It will be remembered, however, that distant observers can better estimate proportional than absolute measures. Besides; on the supposition of an identity of race between the two animals, the tail may vary in its proportions between two individuals of the race, or it may vary at two ages of the same animal.

We may make two general observations here. First a horizontal body and elevated tail seem to form the war-attitude of the animal, when in the neighborhood of large animals, with which it expects to have to contend; the tail being thus out of reach of mischief to itself and ready to deal mischief to others.

Secondly; the abundance of whales said to be seen of late in Boston Harbor, if true, very well agrees with the report of the removal of great barriers of ice in the northern seas. Both whales and serpents at certain seasons of the year, seem to belong to these icy seas, not only in the northern parts of our hemisphere; but according to a late account, to the icy seas of the Southern Hemisphere. Sea animals in short, may change their station for food and other causes; being often as migratory in their movements, as birds which annually change their residence.

It is to be hoped, that future observers of the Sea Serpent will state in their accounts, (as Mr. Schmid has done,) whether the sea at the time of observation was calm or not. It is believed, that generally speaking, the Sea Serpent does not steadily shew the protuberances in his body or trunk, when in quick motion in a rough sea; though it may do this in slow motions in a sea that is calm.

In addition to the above, Mr. Cooper, one of the most able Professors in the University in Pennsylvania, speaking of Mr. Schmid, whose affidavit is given above, says,

“I have for many years known, and highly respected Mr. Schmid, whose character for probity and veracity I consider as unimpeachable. Nor is it easy to find a man of more attentive and accurate observation, or more knowledge of the practical application of Scince to the Arts. It is to this gentleman, the public are indebted for the discovery of the real method of making and giving flavor to the Schap-zeigar Cheese; (or Sapsago as it is vulgarly called.) About eight years ago he sent at my instance to Switzerland, for some seeds of the Melilotus ceruleus, a Trefoil with a blue flower, whose seeds ground very fine and sifted, are employed in Switzerland in the manufacture of the Cheese in question. Lately, he furnished Mr. J. Vaughan, with a fresh supply of the seeds of this plant; and they have now been so distributed as to ensure their propogation in various parts of this State.

“An account of a scene, of which he was eye witness, given by a gentleman of this description, seems to me entitled to more than the usual credit given to strange occurrences, related by persons whose characters are little known. Conceiving it of some consequence in natural history, that the reports presented to us of the Sea Serpent seen on the coast of the Eastern States, should be verefied [sic] or reported on competent authority, I am induced to write you this letter in support of Mr. Schmid’s authority, as the narrator of the interesting scene. I am yours, &c.

“THOMAS COOPER.”


A lot of math, a lot of early spelling (“shew” for “show,” for example), a lot of verbiage—and it’s still not clear exactly what everybody was looking at.

In the early 1800s, as now, people craved images of whatever strange event took place. The sighting of a sea serpent off the coast of Massachusetts was no different. In 1817, a huge painted panorama of Gloucester Harbor plus sea serpent made the rounds of some of the large cities on the east coast. In 1818, a wood engraving appeared in the Columbian Centinel, with a certified affidavit from the artist—affidavits being a feature of the sightings in 1818.

The Centinel primed readers a few days before the engraving appeared:

“Sea Monsters” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 24 June 1818; p. 2)

We have received from Capt. Haggens, [sic] at Lubec, his certificate of his having seen three Sea Snakes or Sea Monsters, off Monhegan, as mentioned a few days since, with a drawing he made of one of them. We shall have the drawing engraved, and present both in the next Centinel.

In the next notice on the page, the Centinel also informed readers that new attempts would be made to catch the critter:

We have been informed by a gentleman from Barnstable, C. C. that two vessels have been fitted at that place, and cleared at the Custom-house, to sail immediately in pursuit of the Sea Serpent, with the intention of capturing, if possible, this famed enemy of small fish.

The engraving of the Great Sea Serpent appeared three days later, with some editorial complaints and an affidavit. Unusually, it appeared on the first page of the issue, which usually was reserved for advertisements. Our image is from digitized microfilm, and thus is a little difficult to discern, but—the editor assured readers—it wasn’t that accurate, anyway:

“Great Sea Serpent” (from the Columbian Centinel [Boston, Massachusetts] 27 June 1818; p. 1)

Lubec, June 17, 1818.

“Dear Sir—I enclose you the certificate of Capt. Higgins, in his own words, together with a sketch he made of the appearance of one of the Sea Monsters seen by him. Capt. Higgins is known here, and his veracity is questioned by no one. The crew all agree with him in the facts related. There are some heretics here respecting belief in the existence of the Sea Serpent in these seas; but have no doubt of the existence of a species of the whale tribe, who form a connecting link between the whale and the snake fish. The description you will find differs in some points from the Cape-Ann family.

Yours, respectfully,
C.”

NOTES ATTACHED TO CAPT. H’S DRAWING.

A Sea Serpent, 70 feet in length. Carried his head six feet above the water, and had the appearance of turtle shell—The back was black. He spouted about once in ten minutes from his gills, on each side, low in the water. His tail laid flat on the water; and the motion of the back was up and down.

Comparing the engraving with the drawing, we wish our engraver had been more successful. The Head of the animal in the drawing is not so erect, nor are the features, &c. so much defined as in the plate.—The tail too in the draft appears much wider in proportion than the plate; and in the draft there ar six black protuberances, diminishing in size from the head to the tail.


CERTIFICATE.

This may certify, that on the 27th day of May, 1818, bound from N. York for Frenchman’s bay, in the sch. Bellona, Monhegan bearing N. by E. twelve miles distant, I fell in with three Sea Monsters. The first one I saw when within three quarters of a mile from me, he was discovered going across our bow, but on discovering the schooner he directed his course for the vessel, and came 6 or 7 knots till he came up against the vessel—the vessel going 6 or 7 knots direct for him;—as he came to the bow of the vessel, he sheared on the larboard bow, and settled two or three feet under water. I ran to the side of the vessel to shoot him, but the man being in haste in loading the gun, did not wad the ball, and it rolled out of the gun. He came up astern immediately, and sheared round after us; then altered his course, and ran about S. E. Before he had got one fourth of a mile from us, I saw another bearing S. W. coming for us with great speed; the wind blowing fresh, we let our top-gallant sail and flying-jib, and hove too. [sic] He came within thirty yards of us and stretched up his head apparently to look at us. I whistled to him; he appeared to stretch up and look at me very earnest. As he did not incline to come any nearer to us, I bore away, and he followed us for a mile. Mean time we discovered another bearing N. one mile distant; on his discovering the vessel, he came direct for us, 6 or 7 knots, till within fifty or sixty yards, then layed across our bow, and we came up within ten yards of him. I discharged a musket loaded with a ball at his head; he went under water, and made the water fly with his tail against the bow of the vessel;—the vessel ran over him; he came up immediately astern, and chased us a little way. The wind blowing quick, and not keeping up with us, he altered his course to the S. E. and left us. I saw three all at aonce. He came along side of the vessel, and I judged he was eighty feet long. His head was twelve, and his tail it was from twenty to twenty-five feet across the end of it.

June 1818.

RICHARD HIGGINS, Master of sch. Bellona, of Eden.

Ah, spring! when a sea serpent’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of scaring the darnation out of Massachusetts fisherfolk.

After an active late summer and early autumn in 1817, there seems to have been a lull in sea serpent sightings during the winter. Now it was May and, apparently, sea serpent season in New England.

The first report compared the creature to a barrel and mentioned “protuberances,” but hedged its bets on whether the same animal had appeared:

“The Sea-Serpent again, or another” New-England Palladium [Boston, Massachusetts] 12 May 1818; p. 2)

Capt. Woodward, and the mate and seamen of the sch. Adamant, which arrived at Hingham on Sunday last, from Penobscot, saw, in the afternoon of the day previous, about 12 leagues E. of Cape Ann, a SEA SERPENT, apparently upwards of 100 feet long, which frequently raised its head a considerable height from the water. It was very near the vessel for about five hours; a full view was had of it, and it appeared to be about as large round as a barrel, but no protuberances were noticed. It was once fired at, and appeared irritated by the explosion. Depositions were preparing at Hingham, to be sent to Boston for publication.

Depositions certainly were prepared, and, like the announcement that the sea serpent had been sighted, the affidavits were immediately reprinted all over New England:

“A Great Sea Serpent!” (from the Boston Commercial Gazette [Boston, Massachusetts] 14 May 1818; p. 2)

[The following is a very interesting account of the Sea Serpent, seen on Saturday last. The respectability of the source of the annexed Certificates, places the matter beyond a doubt,—and we think Capt. Woodward has had a more minute view of this Serpent, than it was possible for any one to have had of the one seen last Summer off Cape Ann.]


AFFIDAVIT.

I, Joseph Woodward, master of the Sch. Adamant, of Hingham, on my passage from Penobscot to Hingham, on Saturday last, at 2 o’clock, P. M. Agementicus [sic] bearing W. N. W. ten leagues distance, discovered something on the surface of the water, apparently about the size of a ship’s long boat. Supposing it to be the wreck of some vessel, I made towards it; and on approaching it, to my surprise and that of my crew, discovered it to be a monstrous Sea Serpent—as we approached him, he threw himself into a coil* and darted himself forward with ama[z]ing velocity—the wind being ahead, it became necessary to stand on the other tack, and as we approached him again, he threw himself into a coil as before, and came across our bows at not more than sixty feet distance.

Having a gun charged with a ball and shot, I discharged the contents of it at his head. The ball and shot were distinctly heard to strike him and rebound as though fired against a rock—he, however, shook his head and tail most terribly—he again threw himself into a coil and came towards us with his mouth wide open. In the mean time, I had charged my gun again and intended to have discharged the contents of it into his mouth; but he came so near us, I was fearful of the consequences, and withheld it—he came close under the bows of the Sch. and, had she not been kept away, must have come on board of us—he sunk down under the vessel, his head a considerable distance on one side the vessel and his tail the other—he played around us about five hours—I and my crew had probably the best opportunity of seeing him that has occurred—I judge him to be, at the least, twice the length of my Sch. say one hundred and thirty feet—his head was about the size of a ship’s long boat, say fourteen feet—his body, below the neck, at least, six feet diameter—his head was large in proportion to his body—his tail was formed like a squid’s—his body was of a dark color and resembled the joints of a shark’s back bone—his gills were about twelve feet from the end of his head, and his whole appearance was most terrific.

His manner of throwing himself into a coil appeared to be done by contracting his body in a number of places in perpendicular directions, and placing his tail so as to throw himself forward with great force—he could contract and throw himself in any direction with apparently the greatest ease and most astonishing celerity.

JOSEPH WOODWARD.

Hingham, May 12, 1818.

Having read the above statement of Capt. Woodward, we certify to the correctness of it.

PETER HOLMES,
JOHN MAYO.

May 12, 1818.

Plymouth, ss.

Personally appeared, Joseph Woodward, Peter Holmes and John Mayo and made oath, that the above statement by them subscribed is just and true—before me,

JOTHAM LINCOLN, Jr. Just. Peace.

*The word “coil” does not exactly represent the idea of the Serpent’s appearance; but from a more particular description given by Capt. Woodward, it was of an undulatory appearance.

What a thorough description! And so much in the way of legal declarations! (Sworn affidavits would be a feature of this chapter of the sea serpent’s biography.) Our critter has grown to 130 feet and gets compared to a wide variety of marine creatures; but humans haven’t changed: they still go after it with guns. “Agementicus” either is a misprint or an early spelling of Mount Agamenticus, a small mountain in Maine visible from the ocean.

Subsequent reprintings of Captain Woodward’s description added to the introduction. With its exclamation point, the Essex Register seems almost giddy, headlining it “The Sea Serpent!”: “It appears from the following very circumstantial and interesting account, that with the return of the season the Great Sea Serpent is revisiting our shores. This wonderful animal, it will be seen, was in a situation to command the attention of Captain Woodward, who has made his statement from a very perfect view of him, which we think must be more satisfactory to the naturalist and the inquiring public, than any that has yet been afforded.” [Salem, Massachusetts; 16 May 1818; p. 3]

The Columbian Centinel seems ready to add the creature to books on natural history: “The following are the Affadavits [sic] of the reappearance of the Sea Serpent on our coast, to which we alluded on Wednesday. They are explicit, and must be satisfactory. Capt. Woodward is well known as a man of judgment, experience in navigation, and strict veracity. We are confident there are gentlemen who are ready to pay 5000 dollars to any who shall take and secure on shore, this Sea Monster—of whose existence in the ocean, we have no more doubt than we have that the Mammoth was once an inhabitant of the western world, or that the Condor now sports in the sylvan shades of South America.” [“Sea Serpent” (Boston, Massachusetts) 16 May 1818; p. 1]

More was to come: more affidavits, more barrels, more protuberances, and multiple creatures. And a picture!