I have been an avid fan of The Wide World ever since I was introduced to it as a boy, and have collected every edition I could lay my hands on. Regrettably, this includes only a couple before World War II. Then, a couple of months ago, a light bulb went off in my head. The Internet Archive contains a number of the early bound editions, including volume 12, where the relevant article appears on pages 147-155. I would really like to introduce you to this wonderful magazine, and I would seriously suggest that you read it. But for those who lack either the time or the inclination, I shall publish the article here.
Will the problem of the " sea-serpent " ever be satisfactorily solved? Scientists and others scoff at the idea of its existence, and cast ridicule upon those who claim to have seen it ; nevertheless, hardly a year passes without a seemingly well authenticated account of its appearance being added to the cases on record. We publish herewith the story of Mr. J. O. Grey, second officer of the SS "Tresco," of the well- known Earn Line, whose statements are corroborated by the captain of the vessel and other eye-witnesses.Seafaring men expect storms and sometimes wrecks, but for most men of the merchant marine in times of peace there is much monotony in their voyages to and from the various ports they seek during their years at sea. On an ordinary voyage, such as I have taken, year in and year out, for sixteen years, a remarkable experience befell me recently.
I know that the very word "sea-serpent " is the signal for joking, ridicule, and utter incredulity. While many reports have been brought to land, no sea-serpent, small or large, and no fragment of head or fin have ever been subjected to study by any recognised scientist; and yet such a creature confronted the steamship Tresco when on her last outward voyage from the United States.
We left the port of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, on May 28th, 1903, for Santiago de Cuba, which we reached on June 5th, and we arrived back in Philadelphia on June 14th. The Tresco belongs to Mr. E. C. Thin, a shipowner whose office is at 27, Chapel Street, Liverpool ; she is under a two years' charter to the Earn Line, of Philadelphia. The Tresco is a large cargo-steamer engaged in the West India trade. She plies from one port to another, usually laden with sugar, but sometimes with iron. Her length is three hundred and eight feet, her registered tonnage one thousand eight hundred and sixty tons, and her gross tonnage three thousand seven hundred and fifty tons.
On this trip it so happened that, instead of the Tresco being heavily laden with a return cargo, she was going out in water ballast ; the ship was therefore very light. She rose well out of the water, her rail some twenty feet above it. Her draught was no more than twelve feet and she was extremely "tender." Twenty tons of coal deposited on either side of the main deck would have given her a dangerous list to port or starboard, as the case might be. We encountered no heavy weather and all went well on board; it was the true monotony of the merchant marine.
Our crew, of course, changes from trip to trip, but our officers have been a long time with the company, all of whose ships have somewhat similar names, beginning with Tr, like Tripoli and Tronto. Our skipper is Captain W. H. Bartlett, whose home address is James Villa, Looe, Cornwall ; our first officer is Mr. Elias Griffiths, who lives near High Park Street, Liverpool. I am the second officer - Joseph O. Grey. We had twenty men on board [indecipherable].
The next couple of paragraphs are impossible to read due to the text not copying well. However, he does state that, two days out, they were on an oily sea about ninety miles from Cape Hatteras.
About ten o'clock I saw, on our port bow, something creating a vast amount of disturbance in the water. The commotion was so great that I judged it to be a school of porpoises, which herd together and play, jumping above the water like great Newfoundland dogs. It is not at all uncommon to see a school of them in those waters ; but, somehow, the approaching school seemed different. I watched them closely as they neared the vessel from the south-east.
Whatever was approaching the vessel, the water was surging about some large fish which presently I discovered were not porpoises, but sharks. Now sharks are common enough, but not in solid masses as was the school I now beheld travelling at such great speed. It seemed to me a phenomenal departure from anything I had heretofore observed in regard to these voracious and savage creatures. They were not attracted to the vessel by anything thrown overboard, but held steadily on their way.
They seemed to be some maritime express, bound for Cape Hatteras; for, from the time we sighted them until they disappeared, they kept to their course, as if making all speed. What impelled them to travel at such a rate I could not imagine ; nor could I offer any explanation for their assembly in such a solid mass.
Sharks differ in size and there are several varieties. So far as I could tell these were the usual bottle-nosed shark. They were swimming shoulder to shoulder, closely packed together, their dorsal fins cutting the water steadily. Occasionally their snouts appeared. It was a curious spectacle, and, while in no way alarmed, I watched them until they were out of sight. In all, as nearly as I could count them as they passed, their number was about forty.
I saw no more sharks. The time went by uneventfully. My mind reverted several times to that rushing herd of sea-tigers, and no reason for such swift, steady pursuit of an unchanging course occurred to me. My wonder rather increased than diminished.
The passing of the sharks had made me unusually on the alert. About an hour later I espied a fresh object in the water on our port bow. It was some distance away, due south-east — exactly the direction from which the sharks had appeared. It was floating low, and it looked black. I thought it must be a derelict — one of those wandering, drifting hulks, so desolate to see, so dangerous to encounter.
I instantly gave orders to the man at the wheel to steer for the derelict. The Tresco was steaming along due south; but now she swung gradually about until she was going exactly south-east. The sea was still calm and smooth. We sped easily on our way, with little said except, " It is a derelict; steer for her."
The man at the wheel beside me on the bridge thought so too as we headed for it, wondering how much of a hulk it would prove to be, or what we should ascertain of its history. We always steer for derelicts in the hope of possibly rescuing survivors; or some poor bodies may remain that need decent Christian consignment to the sea. It is, besides, an important duty resting upon the masters of all vessels to report to the Hydrographic Office the name of every derelict met with.
During the twenty minutes we were steering toward it I was decidedly puzzled. It seemed to me that this low-lying, dark object was moving toward us, as well as we toward it. It did not look like the hull of a vessel; nor could it be a raft. Neither would move so swiftly toward us. What could it be? The puzzle grew stranger. I stared intently, as every moment brought us nearer. We would soon know, at all events. The powerful engines were driving us onward so rapidly that the solution would be now a matter of but a few minutes. And yet the time seemed long. Nearer and nearer we drew and at last we were but two ships' lengths away. With a conviction that grew ever deeper, and ever more disquieting, we came to know that this thing could be no derelict, no object the hand of man had fashioned, no object, probably, the eyes of man had ever seen.
|Magazine illustration of the monster|
The next couple of paragraphs are also next to impossible to read, but they appear to relate to the absolute panic of the crew in the presence of "the dragon-like head and ... the long, powerful neck."
I felt that I must run somewhere, anywhere, to get away; and yet the weird and awful thing, there before us, held my gaze in the one direction.
At length I recovered some measure of my self-possession.
"Jump, Leon; jump down into the wheel-house!" I shouted. "Steer down there. Let's get out of this fellow's road!"
The man obeyed with alacrity; and I, only too gladly, followed him. There were seven steps to be descended; and I felt like a child afraid of the dark does when it runs upstairs to bed, thinking a bogey is after it in the hallways. I was frightened; there is no use to deny the fact.
Once inside the wheel-house, I flung the door to and locked it, thankful for even this frail barrier— thankful for the slight protection of the wheel house, a mere nothing to such an adversary. There we were, silent both of us. Leon took his place at the wheel. We waited for what was to come next, still with the same sense of awe and huge, overwhelming dread upon us.
The wheel-house and chart-room adjoin, being one compartment with a partition. In front there are four windows, commanding a wide range ; but, unluckily, from his position at the wheel Leon could no longer see the object. It was too near. He stayed at his post, needing no orders. I stepped into the chart-room to his left, where I could obtain a full view of the serpent as it faced us.
I could see it steadily and well from the chart-room port-hole. I looked and tried to notice every possible thing about it, yet wondering anxiously all the while how we should escape. The man at the wheel, and I with my face close to the port-hole, were stricken too dumb with astonishment and fear combined to say a word to each other. We did not say, "What is it? What shall we do if it comes nearer?" Nor did we discuss its appearance and actions. To me it was sickening and horrifying, and Leon had seen quite enough before he fled from the bridge.
Out of the formless horror within me a dread arose which shaped itself into a distinct, dismaying apprehension. What if the thing should attack the steamer ? The consequences loomed up, fearfully appalling, to my swiftly realizing imagination. The creature, assuredly, was enraged. So enormous was its size, so vast its strength, that even a steamer like the Tresco would be in danger of some kind — perhaps of many kinds. The rail of the ship, it was true, was twenty feet above the water ; but the head and neck of the serpent were already elevated to a height of fifteen feet. It could easily come aboard. The whole deck, all the upper works, in fact, would be at the mercy of its rage !
But far more serious to contemplate was the problem of its mere weight. That alone was a menace to the ship's safety. As I have said, we were going out in ballast, very light. Such a weight on one side would inevitably list the vessel, for the centre of gravity was so high that any heavy, ill-placed burden meant the gravest danger.
There that evil thing remained, the body motionless, the tail undulating vertically. As it lashed the water with the long, snake-like tail the head all the time was reared high, regarding the Tresco as if waiting to see what such a thing as a ship might be and, until it should decide, determined to maintain its watchful position. It looked for all the world like some fantastic Chinese dragon become a living reality; or a page from a scientific work picturing some ancient saurian monster, neither reptile nor beast wholly, but both in part.
When I first saw it, lying so low as to appear like a derelict, I must have seen only the back and body. The head was probably resting on the shoulders, as a swan sometimes rests, until, coming within two ships' lengths, we alarmed it by our unfaltering approach to the position of defensive attention.
We needed no binoculars. A sailor sees as no landsman sees; his eyes are trained to watch sky and sea and every object which may affect the welfare of the ship. And, indeed, the serpent was so near that even untrained eyes could have distinguished the most minute details of its appearance.
I estimated the length of the creature at about one-third that of the Tresco, or one hundred feet. We saw it only in perspective up to this time, for it remained facing us, neither wheeling nor changing position.
I judged it to be about eight feet in diameter in the widest part of its body, and so about twenty feet in circumference. The body was not cylindrical at all. It had a noticeable arch toward the top, and the hump of the back sloped downwards to the neck as well as toward the tail. It was widest at the forward end, rapidly tapering backward from the hump above the shoulders.
There was something unspeakably loathsome about the head, which was five feet long from nose to upper extremity. Such a head I never saw on any denizen of the sea. The neck, eighteen inches in diameter, was slender by comparison. Underneath the jaw there seemed to be a sort of pouch, or drooping skin; there may have been a slight bulge there. The neck was smallest half-way between the head and where it joined the body.
The nose, like a snout upturned, was somewhat recurved. It was rather pointed in its general formation, but blunt at the end. I can remember no nostrils or blow-holes. The lower jaw was prognathous, and the lower lip was half projecting, half pendulous. Presently I noticed something dripping from the ugly lower jaw. Watching, I saw that it was saliva, of a dirty drab colour, which dropped from the corners of the mouth.
While it displayed no teeth, it did possess very long and formidable molars. There were two and they curved backward like walrus' tusks [indecipherable] inches in length, at the [indecipherable] of the mouth. They were of a dirty [indecipherable] colour. If it had teeth or tongue it did not [indecipherable] mouth was red.
Its eyes were of a decided reddish colour. They were set high in the head, like [indecipherable] water-fowl. [indecipherable] They were elongated vertically. [indecipherable] They carried in their dull depths a sombre, baleful glow, as if within them was concentrated all the fierce menacing spirit that raged in the huge bulk behind.
Below the eyes some scales appeared, which dragged backward, becoming larger and larger until, on the body, they were great plates, or protuberances like the denticulated ridges of an alligator's hide. They did not glisten like the scales of a fish. The smallest of the scales, near the eyes, measured about three inches in diameter, and were so little oval as to appear completely round. The largest of the scales, or indurations, located upon the shoulders, presented a form more pronouncedly oval, and these were some eight inches long, five inches wide, and four inches high, their apex being a distinct ridge.
The hide, in the general tone of its colour, could be compared to nothing but antique bronze, showing the distinct light green hue of the oxidized metal. The tone of the colour was lightest upon the back and sides. As it shaded toward the almost wholly submerged belly it became a dull, dark green, deepening its hue with the decrease in the size of the plates or indurations constituting the creature's defensive armour.
It held itself in the same relative position to the ship during all the time the impressions I have enumerated were photographed indelibly on my brain. Its side fins, extending one-third of the way from the shoulder to the beginning of the tail, and broadest — about a foot — near the shoulder, worked like fans in swift agitation of the water.
As I gazed, fascinated with the horror of the thing, it raised its dorsal fin, obviously in wrath. And then a thing happened which, strange as it may appear after the recounting of the fearsomeness of the serpent's dreadful front, was more appalling, more sickeningly terrifying, than anything I had yet beheld. Suddenly, at the back of the head, a great webbed crest uprose, and from the eyes, hitherto so dull save for the glow smouldering in their depths, a scintillating glare appeared, as if the creature felt the moment had come for attack. The crest was a foot in height at its forward extremity, where it was supported by a sharp-pointed spine.
The undulations of its tail increased in violence. It lashed the water in fury. Its reddish eyes were fixed upon us; but, threatening as it appeared, it came no nearer. The novelty of our appearance, and our size, seemed to make it hesitate. In what way it would have attacked us I can only imagine.
This hesitation and anger, combined, kept it at a standstill, and our fear and helplessness for resistance kept us quiet. The creature remained in this fashion, glaring at us, for a few moments more. Then I saw it was about to act.
It was going to turn away from us. I could scarcely credit my senses. I watched its new tactics carefully. Yes, it was moving and turning; it was about to go from us. I felt an infinite, deep-breathed sense of relief.
Its great body turned, as if on a pivot, inward in a circle, followed by its long tail. With astonishing ease for so huge a bulk it made the sweeping evolution. And only then did it lower its ugly head, that had so long confronted us in open antagonism. I began to breathe more steadily. I was certain now. It was afraid, and would go peaceably.
Only at that last moment did I think of Captain Bartlett. I must call him, now that I dared to venture out. I wanted him to see the monster. I unlocked the door and flung it wide, and ran aft along the starboard side as fast as I could. I burst in upon the captain in his state-room. He was lying down, but was fully dressed. The noise of my entrance startled him.
"Come on, captain, quick!" I exclaimed. "Come up and see this animal!"
Springing up instantly he was ready to follow. He comprehended that something unusual was near, yet he was astonished at such a report from an excited mate, five seconds more and we two stood together on the poop, where we could have a clear view and, as I knew now, a safe place from which to gaze upon our gruesome visitant. I was half glad, half worried to find it was still in sight. The captain would not think me demented.
Captain Bartlett stood transfixed. A moment and he found his voice : —
"Good heavens ! What's that?"
"I take it, sir," I replied, "to be a sea- serpent."
"I believe you're right," he rejoined. We stood there waiting to see whether it would go or return.
The serpent, or whatever else it may have been, was on our port quarter, for the engines had been driving us steadily ahead. The distance at which it was then removed was about a quarter of a mile. Its tail was now toward us. The back of its head, sunk upon the shoulders, was visible, together with the twenty- five feet of the body which I have hitherto characterized as the hump of the back. As we [more indecipherable paragraphs. However, he appeared to liken the monster's submergence to the sinking of a water-logged wreck bow first.]
the terrifying thing was gone we could talk and compare our observations and ideas concerning it. As I have said, I did not notice any nostrils; but I believe it was a breathing animal, endowed with lungs. While no sound reached my ears as we approached it, and while Leon and I were hidden in the chart-room, Captain Bartlett thought he heard distinctly, as we stood side by side on the poop, a noise which came from the creature that was in the nature of a snort or, to be exactly correct, a hoot. The sound, according to the recollection of Captain Bartlett, might be compared to the noise of a shrill tug-boat whistle. For myself, I must frankly say I can recall absolutely no sound. The coincidence of the appearance of the sharks and of the great lizard during the same hour is something I can affirm but cannot attempt to explain. An inference that would seem obvious is that the sharks were fleeing from the monster. But, in the absence of definite knowledge, it must remain coincidence, and nothing more.
After the exchange of these few observations Captain Bartlett turned to me and said : —
"I have had many strange experiences, as you know; and I have seen many strange sights. But I confess this thing is, without doubt, the most horrible and blood-curdling that I have ever looked on. Grey," he continued, "words cannot describe its loathsomeness, or the horror and terror with which I gazed upon it."
All this time none of the crew had dared come on deck. Our chief officer, Mr. Griffiths, was asleep in his cabin. The men who had fled so hastily, and the others who came at their call, looked out fearfully at the serpent from the forecastle ports. The steward, John Jackson, a coloured man from Baltimore, who saw it, was greatly terrified. He has since left the Tresco, having been engaged only for the voyage. Those who did not see it, like Chief-officer Griffiths, can testify to the general excitement and the facts elicited by the subsequent discussion among the men who did.
When the danger was over the men cautiously returned to the deck. Faces appeared at the hatches, and, after a little reconnoitring, up the companion-way they came, looking carefully astern, to assure themselves that the monster was really gone. Gradually, as they regained courage, they resumed their work, although they were careful to remain in groups, still talking over the astonishing event. After a long time had elapsed they were hardy enough to joke about it, although they had been so scared; and they repeated the story to the men in the engine-room, who had, of course, not even caught a glimpse of the stranger.
All this time the sea had remained quiet and the weather the same, so the conditions throughout were most favourable for viewing the monster.
I now ordered the vessel to be put on her course again — due south. The incident was over; our work was before us. Whatever danger had existed was passed. Santiago was to be reached, and we made that port on the fifth day afterward. As I watched through the port and, later, on the bridge, when, my fear abating, I could collect my thoughts better, I wished we possessed powerful guns which could tear a hole in that appalling head or through the armoured body, so that we could secure the carcass as a trophy and settle once for all the controversy concerning the sea-serpent. And I clenched my hands with annoyance, as I have clenched them many times since, when I thought of that camera of mine, ashore and useless, awaiting my next trip to St. Thomas. Why had I left it there, when now, for the first time in my life, I really needed it ?
During the five days that were required for the remainder of the voyage our conversation naturally reverted to the exciting morning and to the experience we never expect will be ours again. I, for one, sincerely hope it will not be repeated, unless for the corroboration of this statement and to assist science by delivering to some learned body the carcass of another such monster.
We have carefully collated all the facts. Our conclusion is that the creature was, without doubt, a mammal, like porpoises and whales, although more like a reptile in appearance.
At Santiago I prepared a report for the Press of Philadelphia, to be presented on my return. Although I made it out carefully, it drew forth the usual jests in several quarters, but it was credited in others. How bitterly I have regretted that I had no photographs to settle the doubts of those who questioned the accuracy of the drawings I have since made from memory ! I have but to shut my eves, and that ineffaceable picture rises before my mind in all its horrible detail.
So, What's Wrong With This Story?
Another thing to understand is the artwork. Whether it involves sea serpents, UFOs, or any other anomaly, typically the artwork takes on a life of its own, and is presented much more frequently than the text. It is also important, therefore, to ask yourself whether it was produced by:
- the witness, who may or may not have any artistic skill;
- a trained artist under instruction from the witness (probably better); or
- a trained artist illustrating the witness' account. This can be misleading. I myself once noted that the drawing of the Umfuli sea serpent failed to match the text. R.T. Gould pointed out that the drawing of the famous Daedalus sea serpent was foreshortened to fit the pages of the Illustrated London News. Darren Naish has suggested that the illustration of the questionable U 28 monster was probably done by somebody looking at a baby crocodile preserved in alcohol. As for the oft-reproduced sketch of the monster seen by Hans Egede in 1734, this was was produced many, many years after the event.
Heuvelmans also questioned the extreme precision in the perceived dimensions of the scales: "some eight inches long, five inches wide, and four inches high" - and rightly so.
Problems abound in the described anatomy of the monster. For a start, it was, to put it bluntly, a tad on the large size. Just the same, Heuvelmans recorded many sea serpents as large as the biggest whales, and fear can make one overestimate size, so perhaps we can leave it as that.
Despite the author's assumptions, it must have been a reptile rather than a mammal; mammals are not covered with scales, nor do the possess dorsal fins or crests on the head. However, they do move with vertical undulations. A reptile would lash its tail horizontally, rather than vertically. (In practically every other sea serpent sighting, the tail has not been visible.) But what can be made of the fins - a foot wide, extending along the side of the body, and beating like fans? A reptile or mammal would have paddles, not fins. There is something fishy there. Even so, they sound too narrow to manoeuvre an animal of that size. Also, I wonder why on earth its colours would be darker on the belly than the back, exactly the reverse of nearly every other swimmer. It would make it stand out very clearly when viewed from below. And let's not forget that every huge monster was once a little monster, vulnerable to predators.
Finally, there have been several hundred sea serpents recorded over the years. Some of them possessed what might be considered scales. But a head with a pouch, two walrus-like fangs, and a crest, not mention "baleful" red eyes, is unique. When an alleged sighting is of something biologically unlikely, and is never confirmed by a second report, the assumption must remain that it is untrue.
Most important of all was a fascimile of the ship's log for the date in question. As you can see, it was signed by Chief Officer Griffiths, and contained the citation:
10 am passed school of sharks followed by a huge sea monster.
Now, falsifying a log is a pretty serious offence, not something one would rush into just to satisfy what was basically a lark by the Captain and Second Officer - especially since it was not exactly essential for the hoax. You will note, too, that the home addresses of the Captain, Chief Officer, and owner were all provided, possibly under the assumption that someone might want to check up on it. There was also a small titbit which a hoaxer would be unlikely to add: that the Captain heard a "snort", which the writer didn't.
In addition, there was the last paragraph, about preparing a report for the Philadelphia press. I don't know how the Philadelphia press took it (perhaps one of my American readers could look it up), but The Chicago Daily Tribune was more obliging, publishing this paragraph on page 12 of its edition of 17 June.
You will note that here the Captain becomes the chief protagonist, rather than Joseph Grey. Perhaps he did that on purpose, or perhaps there was some confusion. (I have enough experience of the press to know that they usually get some detail wrong.) Perhaps he said "we", and the journalist assumed it meant "I". Perhaps he simply handed over Grey's report, because the newspaper appears to quote directly from it. (And note the "purple prose".) It is always possible that The Chicago Tribune simply picked up the story from a correspondent in Philadelphia. In any case, it appears that the Captain went out of his way to present the story upon landing.THE SEA SERPENT OF 1903.The sea serpent of 1903 at last has put in its appearance. It was observed by truthful Capt. Bartlett of the good steamer Tresco. When ninety miles south of Cape Hatteras the captain noticed a peculiar disturbance in the distance and that the disturbance was headed his way. In a short time it arrived and turned out to be a great number of sharks tearing through the water "like all possessed " on their way towards shore. An hour afterwards Capt. Bartlett noticed a dark object in the distance, and, thinking it a derelict, steered for it. When a short distance from it the "derelict" slowly lifted itself above the water. Instantly the crew went below and barricaded the doors, and through the port- hole in the wheelhouse the captain saw the sea serpent. "Half dragon and half serpent, it was the most hideous and loath some reptile, with its gaping jaws and bloodshot eyes. From each side of its horrible mouth two large tusks protruded, similar to those of a walrus, and its lips were dripping with a discolored saliva which emitted a most offensive smell." The captain was not in a condition of mind to make accurate estimates of measurement, but he thinks the serpent was about 100 feet long. Fortunately, instead of making an attack "it turned tail, and, with a swish and a swirl of the water, sank in the depths," probably much to the relief of Capt. Bartlett and his crew, not to mention the panic stricken bunch of sharks. Now, this is a sea serpent worth having. The veracious captain's statement shows it has not suffered "a sea change into something rich and strange," but retains all its old horrible and terrifying aspects. It is no ordinary cephalopod but a worthy descendent of the serpent which Regulus and his army made war on with catapults, and of the monster Olaus Magnus saw, which not only ate calves, sheep, and swine but also "disturbs ships, rising up like a mast and sometimes snaps men from the deck," or even of Fafnir, spurting and smoke from his cavern. The sea serpent has been an unconscionable time putting in an appearance, but better late than never. For what should we do in these days of strikes, and floods, and cyclones, and cloudburst, and droughts, and fires, and barbaric regicides had we not our old friend the sea serpent for pleasurable entertainment ?
If this was a hoax, it was a pretty elaborate one, involving several people.
I am reluctantly driven to the contradictory conclusions that it was no hoax, but that the animal reported could not have existed. Don't you just hate it when that sort of thing happens?