by Dan McDougall & Meredith Reed
Illustrations by Stephanie Hart McGrail

Each summer tourists come to Marblehead to enjoy fresh seafood, swim in the chilly Atlantic, and relax in the sun by the shore. But, in the early 1800's, some of these pleasure-seeking travelers got a little more than they bargained for.

Sea serpents have been a part of all of human history all over the known world. The Scandinavians, Asians, and even the skeptical British, well-known for their conservatism and reserve, have had reports, over and over, including eye-witness testimony, of the existence of such creatures. Sea serpents, and the myth surrounding them, have terrified and fascinated people everywhere since the beginning of time. Some historians have wondered: with all of the enchanting magnetism of these stories, told in every language, can there be, after all, any truth to them? Perhaps the sophisticated scorn for mythologies current among today's intellectuals has caused these stories to hide in the shadows of modern histories, but they are still there, just as they were in their heyday of the early 1800's.

In the age when whalers and fishermen went to sea with the same sense of adventure and of going off into the unknown as our space faring explorers do today, perhaps this stories of serpents and monsters were easier to believe. The Loch Ness Monster legend is well-known, but some of these stories are much, much closer to home than Scotland, as a few remaining Marbleheaders, still alive today, can well attest from Grandfathers' stories and memories.

It was during those early years when Captain John Peach had just passed on and "Flud" Ireson was being tarred and feathered, when the names of Marblehead's Streets were just being changed from Ye Queen' Highway to Washington Street, and from King Street to State Street, that a new resident took its place out in the harbor. Not the last, nor the first, but certainly the most famous sea serpent in our history, His Snakeship, as he was called, the great sea serpent of Marblehead spent a memorable summer here. The visibility, the fame which spread far and wide, and the persistent presence here challenged all doubters, and still does.

The first documented entry of a sea serpent in this area was made by the naturalist John Josselyn, when he reported a "huge snake" curled around the rocks of Cape Ann in 1639. For more than a century after that there were constant reports of such a creature and even when told by reputable and respected people, they were scoffed at and ignored, perhaps even as you are now doing.

In 1779, the highly-esteemed Commodore Edward Preble told of his encounter with a serpent, which he reported to be over 150 feet long and a big around as a barrel. Even Daniel Webster witnessed the appearance of a sea monster somewhere between Monomet and Plymouth. But all of this was just prologue to the summer of 1817.

Apparently the rich feeding grounds and cool water of Cape Ann and Massachusetts Bay attracted His Snakeship here for the months of the summer, and for ten more summers after that. He was seen by so many people of impeccable credibility and solid reputations that their observations cannot be rationalized away. Overactive imaginations, group hallucinations, or what was known in those days as "a touch of the grape," may explain some things, but they cannot hope to touch the legend of His Snakeship. Sightings by groups of people up to over 200, often at extremely close range have locked solidly down the fact of Marblehead's famous sea serpent. Loch Ness Monster mover over, here comes a distant cousin who was not illusive or impossible to find. This guy was impossible to miss as he romped in the harbor like a seal. There were times when no one was sure what the animal was, but everyone was sure that is was. And, in Marblehead, where everyone always questions everything as a strict matter of tradition, that is saying something.

On August 2, 1817, two women watched as a sea serpent swam casually into Cape Ann Harbor north of Gloucester roads, and nonchalantly swam back out again, out to sea. Several fisherman confirmed this report, and later in the week the creature was spotted again from the shore cavorting near Ten Pound Island. On August 12 and 13, shipmaster watched as the serpent played in the water. The written report read:

I, Solomon Allen III, of Gloucester in the county of Essex, shipmaster, depose and say: that I have seen a strange marine animal, that I believe to be a serpent, in the harbor in Gloucester. I should judge him to be between eighty and ninety feet in length and about the size of a half barrel, apparently heavy joints from his head to his tail. ...His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the skull of a horse. When he moved on the surface of the water, his motion was slow, at time playing around in circles, and sometimes moving nearly straight forward. When he disappeared, he sand apparently straight down. ...I saw him on the 12th, 13th, and 14th of August A.D. 1817.

The next day 20 or 30 people gathered to watch the playful monster.

It seemed as though the serpent had settled in for the summer season. He could be spotted each day acting the typical tourist and enjoying the sun, water and seafood. But, while he did mind his own business disturbing no one but the herring population, the brave citizens of the area reacted to this creature in an unfortunately typical fashion. A hue and cry was raised, and four boats full of armed men took after the serpent. One of the stalwarts shot the creature in the head at pointblank range. Apparently unhurt and unperturbed by this inhospitable action, the animal simply swam under their boats, surfaced some distance away, and continued to amuse himself for the next several days by investigating the shoreline.

For the next week he was seen every day, and one brave soul came within an oar's length of him. Despite being shot in the head, beaten with oars, and followed incessantly by people in boats, His Snakeship continued his leisurely vacation while the Linnean Society of New England hurriedly convened around conference tables to discuss his nature, origins and ultimate fate.

The Linnean Society, inspired by the systemic scientific methods of the Swedish botanist Linne, formed a select committee of three carefully-chosen members: a judge, a doctor, and a naturalist. The committee chose the equally reputable Honorable Lonson Nash, himself a witness to the serpent's antics, to take sworn affidavits from the other witnesses. The committee then took under consideration this lengthy and detailed testimony, comments from Nash, and previous reports concerning the serpent.

From all accounts the unwelcome visitor did indeed look like a huge snake, though his movements made it obvious that he wasn't an ordinary snake to be sure. He had smooth dark brown, blue or black skin with a whitish underside. Although there were reports of the creature being up to 125 feet long, he was generally thought to be 65 to 75 feet long. The head, held about a foot above the surface, resembled that of a snake or a turtle, was about the size of that of a horse, and there was a series of humps or bunches along his back when he surfaced. The beast could move at quite a clip, with a top speed estimated at 40 or 70 knots.

Hundreds of people saw the creature in various locations, under different conditions, but there were no great discrepancies in their descriptions of his appearance. Yet the Linnean Society, disregarding obvious physical evidence to the contrary, decreed that His Snakeship was indeed just that -- a snake, a land reptile. In the face of this invalid conclusion, the Society lost considerable credibility, and badly confused the record of the sea serpent,through their report.

Nevertheless it was impossible to ignore the creature swimming around the bay, and a reward of $5,000 for the serpent -- dead or alive -- was posted. Whalers, sailors, and adventurers set out in hot and noisy pursuit. At this point, either annoyed or bored by the uproar, the monster moved to more quiet waters. One day he was seen asleep on the surface out to sea, and for the next several days fishermen encountered him miles out. By the first week of October, he'd wandered as far as Long Island Sound.

Scientific interest in the creature continued. Of all the international sightings of marine animals, the Massachusetts Snake was widely accepted as the only true sea serpent. He was given the generic name of Megophia monstrous, or big snake.

In the summer of 1818, the serpent reappeared to up summer residence once again. He was again seen by large groups of people, and several times, whalers came within a few yards of him to heave harpoons. Still, the creature kept his amiable disposition, though he did become a bit more wary.

Captain Richard Rich, a whaler, had managed to harpoon the creature once, but the serpent shook off the weapon and escaped. Determined to capture the animal, Captain Rich and his crew spent days hunting for the serpent . Within a week, The Boston Advertiser proclaimed the success of the expedition; Rich had captured the sea-serpent! But instead of the 100-foot monster which they had expected to find at Boston Wharf, they found a rather average-sized tunny. Rather than admit their failure to capture the beast, Rich and his crew had apparently played a practical joke on the journalists.

Skeptics now felt vindicated in their opinions that there was no such thing as a sea serpent. This slapstick conclusion to the episode, added to the confused verdict of the Linnean Society, seemed to discredit His Snakeship further.

However, one tuna fish wasn't about to make two summers of sightings just disappear. The Boston Weekly Messenger noted about the Rich case:

The fish taken by Captain Rich ... is the Tunny, or Horse Mackerel. ... 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 number 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 ought to lead us to suspect all former testimony.

Another editorial gave Rich credit for good intentions and added:

But while due attention is paid to his statement, the mass of evidence presented 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... Gentlemen... who had the best opportunities of observing in the summer of 1817 and several of those whose statements were published by the Linnean Society are still confident that they could not have been mistaken.

Repeating quotes from reputable witnesses, the editors added, "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."

Meanwhile, back in the waters of Marblehead, the sea serpent continued to spend his summers in the area. By now he was a familiar sight and a common occurrence, even though he kept startling people in their boats and on their moorings. In August, 1819, the serpent was sighted off the Nahant coast, and Gershom Bradford, A noted maritime historian and sailor reported that:

Hundreds of people congregated on the beach for a look at a strange monster. It deserves particular attention for it was brought under the scrutiny of Samuel Cabot, James Prince, and James Magee, names that carried power and confidence in Boston at that period. Their descriptions are of an animal little different from that of the Gloucester visitor.

Nahant now evidenced some special attraction for His Snakeship, since he appeared there every day in the summer of 1822. He wasn't spotted around Massachusetts Bay in the summer of 1825, but he did return in 1826.

By this time the reports of the creature were so frequent and so uniform as to be almost monotonous.

The eminent Professor Benjamin Silliman wrote: "To us it seems a matter of surprise that any person who has examined the testimony can doubt the evidence of the sea serpent." Some of the stories were undoubtedly embroidered or overblown, but there was little doubt that some sort of creature existed. One skeptical poet wrote:

But, go not to Nahant lest men should swear
You are a great deal bigger than you are.

In the next years, the serpent kept a low profile and wasn't seen in the area between 1827 and 1832. But in 1833, 1834, and 1835 he was back in his old haunts, traveling as for north as Maine and Canada. Reports now mentioned a mane, more noticeable eyes, and, in several cases, rings near the neck.

Perhaps the area had lost its charm for the creature, as his visits became more infrequent. He was seen in 1848, 1875, 1877 and 1879, but they were for the most part individual sightings, and he no longer spent the entire summer lolling in the area.

Sea serpents now seem to have joined the mythical pantheon of maritime lore. But just because he is no longer sighted, His Snakeship may still be out there and may well appear again, just when we least expect it. As the editor of a Boston newspaper described the opinion of the editor of the New York Gazette: "He gravely affects to doubt the existence of the sea monster off our coast. Perhaps he has yet to learn that it is as much the part of folly to doubt in the face of abundant and unquestionable evidence as it is to listen with credulity to vague and improbable rumors."

He is that curling serpent
That in ocean is
Sea fright he is,
And shadow under the earth.
It is never there
And already vanishing.
-- William Stanley Merwin
"Before That" (1963)

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Dan McDougall, for many years, led, with his brother, Mike, one of the most successful advertising agencies North Of Boston. He is a Salem native who has always loved the sea, sailing, and maritime legends.

Meredith Reed, assisted in the writing and editing of the original version of this story which appeared in Marblehead Magazine in the Summer of 1981 (Volume II, Number 2).

Click for a full-sized version of Stephanie Hart McGrail's Illustration, drawn exclusively for this article.