In the summer of 1817, residents of the coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts suddenly began seeing a mysterious creature swimming around in their harbor. Though reports differed as to exactly what the monster looked like, how long it was and how fast it could move, the similarities between the reports and the trustworthiness of the witnesses seemed too substantial to ignore. A scientific association quickly convened a committee to investigate the creature. But the Gloucester sea monster was much more than just a strange anomaly that wagged tongues and sold newspapers: it was part and parcel of a much larger and more serious debate about the relative merits of the New World versus the Old, a debate in which prominent Americans like Thomas Jefferson had a significant political stake.
In this quirky and unusual episode of Second Decade, historian Sean Munger not only presents contemporary accounts of the Gloucester monster—compiled in a nifty pamphlet rushed into print in Boston before the news cycle moved on—but also delves into the cultural and literary tradition of sea serpents in the early modern world, and why questions about big, strange animals mattered to the identity of the new United States. In this episode you’ll meet a French noble who was outsmarted by a moose skeleton, a local justice of the peace who treated sea monster stories like a high-stakes legal case, a society of amateur scientists who were a little overeager to prove the existence of the creature, and a sea captain who went out do battle with the monster itself. Was there really a beastie out there, or was this just a fish story? You decide!
Additional Materials About This Episode
You can read, in its entirety, the October 1817 report of the Linnaean Society on the Gloucester sea serpent here. This pamphlet was a major source for this episode.
[Above] A real-life sea monster? This is the 23-foot oarfish found on the beach near San Diego by a crew of Navy SEAL cadets out on their morning run. Oarfish sightings are quite rare, but verified; the species was first identified in 1772.
[Above] The “St. Augustine Monster,” one of the most famous globsters to wash up on American shores, made its first appearance in November 1896 on a Florida beach. While globsters appear to be quite mysterious—strange boneless, headless creatures with odd flippers or stumps—they usually turn out to be decaying carcasses of whales who have been dead a long time and partially chewed up by marine predators. They also smell terrible.
[Above] The Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) was one of the most influential scientific thinkers of the 18th century, and his views on the natural world and the development of species were the gold standard in the scientific community at the time. He was rather incensed that an American upstart like Thomas Jefferson would challenge his orthodoxy. Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia in part to refute Buffon’s theories. Jefferson also encouraged his friend, future President James Madison, to take systematic weather readings at his Virginia plantation, Montpelier. These readings today provide important insights into the phenomena of historical and modern climate change.
[Above] Erik Pontoppidian (1698-1764), the Danish-Norwegian bishop and author who basically founded the modern pseudoscience of cryptozoology with his 1752 treatise Natural History of Norway. Pontoppidian introduced the world to the “Norway kraken,” a so-called sea monster that was possibly the same kind of giant squid that was not observed alive in its natural habitat until this (21st) century.
[Above] Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) was one of Boston’s leading citizens, having gotten extremely rich in the China trade of the 1780s-1790s (which was briefly mentioned in Episode 4). He went to Gloucester in the summer of 1817 and was an eyewitness to an encounter with the monster, but, fearing for his reputation, he did not tell his story publicly until 1848. He did tell it in private, most notably to Charles Lyell, a contemporary and close friend of Charles Darwin.
[Above] A diagram of “the progeny of the great serpent,” as published by the Linnaean Society. The smaller creature was only about 3 feet long and almost certainly a kind of sea snake now well known to marine science.