Revisiting the Mystery of the Great New England Sea Serpent of 1817

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Sailing into Massachusetts’s Gloucester Harbor in August 1817, the skipper of a coasting vessel looked across choppy seas and saw something mind-boggling bobbing in the water.

It was approximately 60 feet long with a body composed of humps, each the size of a keg. It was black, shiny, and leathery. It wiggled like a caterpillar. It had a giant head—a serpent's head—with a pair of dark eyes “as large as pewter plates."

The ship's captain couldn't believe his eyes. When he got into town, he spoke with the utmost seriousness as he told other sailors about what he had seen. The news was met with derision and laughter ... until others started seeing the same thing.

"His head appeared to be about the size of a crown of a hat," claimed James Mansfield, one of the men who witnessed the beast. "The shape of his head I cannot describe, and I saw no ears, horns, or other appendages."

"I should judge him between 80 and 90 feet in length," Solomon Allen III, another witness, claimed. “His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse."

Sewall Toppan, a schooner master, summarized the growing mood in Gloucester: "I have been to sea many years, and never saw any fish that had the least resemblance to this animal."

That’s what made the case so unusual, writer Ben Shattuck argued in Salon. “What made these sightings different from the long history of sea monster sightings was that they came from Gloucester fishermen—those who had inherited the oldest fishing port in America, those who knew mostly every fish species off Cape Ann and when each migrated through. More, this ‘serpent’ was in their harbor, right under their noses—something equivalent to a Sasquatch walking across the parking lot of a hunting expo."

As Shattuck explained, local newspapers gobbled up the gossip coming out of Gloucester Harbor. The Boston Weekly Messenger trumpeted the creature’s arrival with the headline “Monstrous Serpent.” The harbor's ferries soon overflowed with tourists, many of whom claimed to see the creature. David Humphreys, a former aide-de-camp for George Washington, said the serpent “was seen by 200, at one time, sporting the whole afternoon, under Wind Mill Point.” According to American Heritage, the creature was seen as far away as Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut.

Soon, a large cash reward was offered to anybody who could capture the animal. Fishermen and whalers across New England flocked to Gloucester Harbor to catch it, setting out nets and baiting shark hooks. Locals busily searched the Massachusetts seashore for giant serpent eggs. In Boston, a large shed was presumptively constructed to house the creature's carcass. The serpent, however, proved to be invincible. According to the Essex Register: "Two muskets were fired at it, and appeared to hit it on the head, but without effect. It immediately disappeared, and in a short time was seen a little below, but in the dark we lost sight of him."

The New England Linnaean Society of Boston impatiently waited for a specimen to arrive. In the meantime, they collected first-hand accounts and published a long-winded paper detailing the sightings called Report of a Committee of the Linnaean Society of New England Relative to a Large Marine Animal Supposed to be a Serpent, Seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August 1817.

Finally, one day, a pitchfork-wielding farmer in Cape Ann stabbed a 4-foot long snake he saw swimming near the shore and brought it to the Linnaean Society. The distinguished group dissected the specimen and decreed that it was the monster’s offspring. They introduced an entirely new genus, Scoliophis (meaning "humped snake" in Latin), and gave the creature a scientific name: Scoliophis atlanticus.

For biologists, it was a short-lived victory. Not long after, a French naturalist showed that the junior specimen was nothing more than a diseased black snake that was common to area. (Overall, European scientists were amused by the news coming out of America, calling the creature—with a wink and a nod—the "Great American Sea Serpent.")

That, of course, still failed to explain the sightings of a much larger creature roving Gloucester’s waters. Certainly, there was something out there—and it returned in 1818 and 1819. But, eventually, Boston's newspapers tired of writing about the strange seaside visitor. According to American Heritage, one exhausted editor told readers, “The existence of this fabulous animal is now proven beyond all chance of doubt.”

With that the story was put to bed, and the creature's identity has remained a mystery ever since.

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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