Sightings of so-called Sea Serpents abound within the domain of monster-hunting. More often than not, they are encounters of a fleeting, one-time nature. But not always. One of the most enduring of all such leviathans of the deep is that which haunts the port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and which is situated just north of the city of Boston. So far as can be determined, the earliest report dates from 1638. The witness was a man named John Josselyn, who said: “They told me of a sea serpent, or snake, that lay quoiled [sic] up like a cable upon the rock at Cape Ann; a boat passing by with English on board, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying that if he were not killed outright, they would all be in danger of their lives.”
One year later, Obadiah Turner wrote of the mighty beast, in old-time style and spelling: “Some being on ye great beache gathering of calms and seaweed wch had been cast thereon by ye mightie storm did spy a most wonderful serpent a shorte way off from ye shore. He was big round in ye thickest part as a wine pipe; and they do affirm that he was fifteen fathoms more in length. A most wonderful tale. But ye witnesses be credible, and it would be of no account to them to tell an untrue tale. Wee have likewise heard yt Cape Ann ye people have seene a monster like unto this, whch did there come out of ye land mch to ye terror of them yt did see him.”
Moving on to 1817, we have the following, notable report from Amos Story: “It was between the hours of twelve and one o’clock when I first saw him, and he continued in sight for an hour and a half. I was setting on the shore, and was about twenty rods from him when he was the nearest to me. His head appeared shaped much like that of the 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. From the back of his head to the next part of him that was visible, I should judge to be three or four feet. He moved very rapidly through the water, I should say a mile or two or, at most, in three minutes. I saw no bunches on his back. On this day, I did not see more than ten or twelve feet of his body.”
Story’s account was swiftly followed by that of Solomon Allen III, a shipmaster. He said of the incredible beast he spied: “His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of horse. When he moved on the surface of the water his motion was slow, at times playing in circles, and sometimes moving straight forward.”
A particularly detailed account came days later from one Cheever Felch, whose sighting of the Gloucester Sea Serpent was made when he, Felch, was aboard a U.S. schooner, the Science. He said of the monstrous thing: “His color is dark brown with white under his throat. His size we could not accurately ascertain, but his head is about three feet in circumference, flat and much smaller than his body. We did not see his tail; but from the end of the head to the farthest protuberance was not far from one hundred feet. I speak with a degree of certainty, behind much accustomed to measure and estimate distances and length. I counted fourteen bunches on his back, the first one say ten or twelve feet from this head, and the others about seven feet apart. They decreased in size towards the tail. These bunches were sometimes counted with and sometimes without a glass. Mr. Malborne counted thirteen, Mr. Blake thirteen and fourteen, and the boatman the same number...His motion was partly vertical and partly horizontal, like that of fresh water snakes. I have been much acquainted with snakes in our interior waters. His motion was the same.”
And still the reports kept on coming, as seafarer John Brown noted: “I discovered something about three or four miles distant, about two points on the weather bow, which appeared as a mast, as it rose and sunk in a perpendicular manner, once in about eight or ten minutes. I kept the vessel directly for it, and after look at it with my glass, I observed to my mate that it was a wreck, as I could see timbers sticking up, but as we approached nearer, I found what appeared like timbers to be a number of porpoises and black fish playing and jumping around a large Sea-Serpent, which we had supposed to be the mast.”
While there have been sporadic sightings of sea serpents in the waters of Gloucester since 1817, none of them – in terms of their frequency, number of witnesses, and credibility – has ever come close to matching those tumultuous, early 19th century days when the people of Gloucester were plagued by a monster.