Saturday, 2 February 2019

Forgotten Sea Serpents of 1888 - 1889

     Another month, so let's continue with the task of documenting nineteenth century sea serpent sightings which managed to avoid the gaze of all major researchers, such as Oudemans, Gould, and Heuvelmans, but which serendipitously turned up in obscure Australian newspapers, frequently long after the event. In this post we shall concentrate on the years 1888 and 1889.

Connecticut, March 1888
     The nineteenth century saw a lot of sea serpent activity around New England. In this case, it was close to the Cornfield Point Lightship, which was positioned at the mouth of the Connecticut River from 1856 to 1957. The earliest account I discovered was in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW) of Thurs 7 June 1888, and it cited an undated edition of the N. Y. Herald. However, I have decided to take a later version which is almost identical, except that it provides the date. It is the Victorian Express (Geraldton,W.A.) of Saturday 16 June 1888, on page 3.
    Stonington, Con., March 29. - The schooner Coral, Captain Sherman, is now at this port awaiting favorable weather to proceed to Greenport. To your correspondent Captain Sherman reported that on Friday last [23 March], when his vessel was in the vicinity of Cornfield Lightship, there suddenly appeared astern and not two hundred feet [60 m] away an immense sea monster that fully answered the description previously given of sea serpents. Captain Sherman say he had a perfect view of the monster. He described it as being over one hundred feet [30 m] in length, and in some portions its body was as large round as a flour barrel. The head of the serpent resembled that of an alligator. The captain called his mate, and they both watched the animal until it passed out of sight in the direction of the mouth of the Connecticut River. It passed over the water at quite a rapid gait, and as almost the entire body was on the surface of the water the men had a good view of the creature, and both feel confident that they saw a veritable sea serpent. Captain Sherman appears to be a thoroughly reliable man, and has been master of a vessel for thirteen years, during which time he has made several voyages to the Grand Banks, where almost all species of animals that inhabit the sea are to be found, but never before has he seen anything like the monster above referred to.
Rhode Island, 1888
     This event took place near Point Judith, which is roughly halfway along the coast of Rhode Island, at 41° 36' N, 71° 48' W. There is a reference to an earlier one at Watch Hill, which is at the westernmost point of Rhode Island. Presumably this was described in some earlier American newspaper. The following story is taken from page 5 of the Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic) of Saturday 10 November 1888.
The Sea Serpent
     The sea serpent (says the New York Sun) has again been sighted, and the newspaper wits will revive the old, old jests at its expense. After having been discovered off Watch Hill a few days before, the mysterious monster was encountered recently to the south-east of Point Judith by Captain Delory, of the sloop Mary Lane.
     But we can tell these sharp young men of the newspapers that existence of the sea serpent is no jesting matter. It has been the subject of serious scientific discussion for many years past, and zoologists are now by no means disposed to scoff at the possibility that there is in the sea a creature such as Captain Delory reports having seen, and which may be a modified type of monsters of past geological periods of which we have the fossil remains.
     Captain Delory describes the Point Judith sea serpent as having a head like an alligator's, with jaws that 'looked to be at least five feet [150 cm] in length, and were studded with teeth six inches [15 cm] long, while the eyes were as large as the crown of a hat. Back from the head ran a huge fin, which was kept straight.' The entire length he estimates as about seventy feet [21 m]. This recalls the graphic description of the fossil ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus in Hawkin's 'Extinct Monsters of the Ancient Earth.'
     The rest of the article continues with a discussion of said ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. The journalist would have been better off taking his tongue out of his cheek and asking a few questions on such details as distance, time, colour, width, movement, and so forth.

South Atlantic, August 1888
     This account comes from the Age (Melbourne), Saturday 15 December 1888, page 11.
The sea serpent is completely thrown into the shade by a creature which has been seen in latitude 39.50 south and longitude 00.13 west. Mr. Webster, chief officer of the ship Bienvenu, has written to the Calcutta papers saying that on August 4, when the ship was hove-to in a strong gale, the second officer, Mr. Parsons, who was on watch, reported that between 4 and 5 in the morning a tremendous living monster passed the port side of the vessel measuring nearly as long as the ship itself. It had large wings or ears, two immense humps on its back 14 or 15 feet [4½ m] high, and a tail like a whale. The monster had two eyes the size of teacups, while its back was covered with shells or scales resembling barnacles as large as cocoanuts. It remained near the ship for 20 minutes, its movements being very slow. It is to be hoped that a party of scientific men will, without loss of time, charter a ship and proceed in pursuit of the monster. It differs so entirely from all other described creatures that its capture will create a prodigious sensation, for even the extinct prediluvian monsters were shapely and agreeable to look upon in comparison with this uncouth beast, with large wings or ears, and two immense humps. The public will be glad to learn how many of the Bienvenu also saw this creature, and whether their impressions correspond with those of the second officer. In matters of natural history the minutest accuracy is important. - Standard
     I am sure we can all agree on the last sentence. It is not clear whether anybody but Mr. Parsons saw the monster but, considering it was in view for 20 minutes, it is likely there were others. Nevertheless, the wee small hours of the morning is not a good time for visibility, and the strong gale would imply a choppy sea. I suspect this is an exaggerated description of a humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae. I've noticed the same mistake in Australian waters. The "large wings or ears" were the very long pectoral fins which give the whale its scientific name. (Megaptera means "big fin".) Its body also possesses large numbers of pale rugosities, "as large as cocoanuts", which serve as anchorages for barnacles. And, of course, it does have a tail like a whale. The incongruities are its being almost as long as the ship, and the two very tall humps. However, if the tail was seen, we must assume it was swimming, albeit slowly, by flexing its body, and who knows how that would appear under the lighting conditions?

Pacific Coast off Oregon, ? January 1889 or late 1888
     This stretch of coast has long been notorious for sightings of an elongated, vertically flexing creature whimsically labelled "Cadborosaurus", and the next report is a perfect early example. It comes from the Brisbane Courier (Brisbane), Friday 18 January 1889, page 6, MAIL NEWS.
     The regular annual sea serpent has made his appearance again. He is a little out of his latitude this time, having been seen in a place where heretofore he has never been known to roam. There is no doubt as to the identity of the creature, as it is vouched for by several parties who are known as strictly temperate men, whose eyes have not been accustomed to seeing every variety of snakes floating in the air and in every conceivable position. Captain Edgar Avery, of the barque Estrella, while coming from Tacoma to this city [San Francisco] with coal, descried the monster when the barque was passing the Umpqua River. The serpent, for such the captain solemnly declares it to be, was swimming on the surface of the water in a southerly direction. The barque at the time was headed south-south-east, and when the captain first noticed the reptile it was about 200 yards off, and was apparently not the least disconcerted by the proximity of the vessel. As it was 10 o'clock in the morning, and the sun was shining brightly, the startled captain had a good view of the serpent. When he was satisfied that he beheld a real live serpent, and not a creation of his imagination, the captain sprang below and got his rifle, calling to his wife and crew to come on deck and view the wonder. The lady and several of the crew came on deck and plainly saw the monster swimming by. He appeared to be about 80ft. [24 m] long, and as big round as a barrel. He rode over the waves with is head and about 10ft. [3 m] of his body elevated above water, every now and then dipping his immense head into the water, the body making gigantic convolutions while gliding caterpillar-like over the waves. The head was flat, or "dished," as the captain described it, and the body appeared to be covered with scales. About 10ft. of what might properly be called the neck was covered with coarse hair, resembling a mane. After viewing the monster for a time, the captain raised his rifle and fired several shots at it, but the bullets fell short. The sea serpent seemingly paid no attention to the shooting, but kept on his way. The excited spectators kept it in view for fully a half-hour, when, without any apparent flurry, it sank out of sight in the sea, and was not seen after. - San Francisco Alla
Galápagos Islands, 1889
      This is a short paragraph from the Evening News (Sydney), Saturday 21 September 1889, page 5.
Here He is Again!
    A dispatch from Panama to the San Francisco CHRONICLE, dated August 1, says: Captain William F. Smith, of the bark Nautilus, reports that when off Cape Berkeley, Galapagos Islands, a sea serpent was seen about thirty yards from the vessel. Captain Smith estimated the serpent's length at 80ft [24 m], and he was about as large round as a barrel in the thickest part.
    The head was shaped like a snake's, only on the extreme end of the upper jaw there was a ridge or bunch. The head was about 3ft [90 cm] in length, and about 2ft [60 cm] back of the head was a mane of hair. No fins were seen. The tail was long and tapering, and shaped like that of an eel. The captain and mate loaded two bomb-guns, and banged away at him, and for about fifteen minutes there was quite a circus, the serpent lashing the water with his tail, and running his head out 4ft or 5ft [1.2 - 1.5 m]. At last he ran out his head, whisked around, and sank, dead.
     Did it really happen? In this series I have deliberately omitted outrageous stories which are clearly hoaxes, including tales about the sea serpent being killed and the body brought back for scientific investigation - stories whose expected follow-ups never occur. I suspect this belongs in that category. The reason, however, I am not prepared to completely rule it out is that there exists a much better documented case of H.M.S. Hilary using a sea serpent for target practice in 1917. I shall spare you my opinion of this sort of behaviour.

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.