A Brief History of Cape Ann’s Sea Serpent
As a Rockport native currently living in California, I identify where I come from to strangers using short, questioning phrases: “Rockport? Gloucester? Perfect Storm?” That last one usually does the trick if the first two don’t.
For its relatively small size, Cape Ann has historically been disproportionately well-known. This was especially true in the early 1800s, when the name “Gloucester” spread throughout theaters across the United States, specifically in the form of a play entitled The Sea Serpent; or, Gloucester Hoax: a Dramatic jeu d’esprit in Three Acts.
Written by William Crafts, a playwright from Charleston, South Carolina, the drama tells the story of what purported to be a real-life sighting of a sea serpent in Gloucester Harbor, entirely in rhyming iambic pentameter. Other than answering the question of what you can possibly come up with to rhyme with “affidavit,” the play tells the story of the excitement stoked by the sighting, the scientific and monetary hopes piled on the creature, and the subsequent anti-climax when the serpent is revealed to be nothing but a “horse-mackerel.” (By the way, the answer is “knave it”).
The play is … not great. But it remains an important piece of cultural history for the other Cape, because in the summers of 1816–1818, many locals and tourists to the area did believe that they had seen a serpent off the shores of Gloucester and Rockport. As Captain Solomon Allen III attested, “I saw a strange marine animal, that I believe to be a serpent.”
Fishermen observed something unusual while out in their boats and others saw a large, unknown creature as they stood in small crowds on the beach. They described a long form, cutting its way through the waters off shore, with a head like that of a dog or a horse.
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As tales of sightings came pouring in, news of the serpent finally reached The Linnean Society of New England, and they commissioned a report on the creature.
At the time, America had gained its political independence from England, but was still struggling to assert itself as a reputable scientific community. It was also trying to remind the world that America was home to just as much biological diversity as the rest of the world. To be able to announce the discovery of a new species — and not just that, but a cool one! A new species that might solve the age-old question of sea serpent sightings across the globe would give the United States some much needed clout.
Judge John Davis, the head of The Linnean Society, commissioned Gloucester’s justice of the peace, Lonson Nash, to question some of the eyewitnesses, taking their sworn statements as evidence that would then get compiled in the report. Nash carefully recorded their testimony and then submitted his report to organization.
And this story of the Gloucester sea serpent might be remembered by history differently, had the residents of Gloucester been a little less eager to help. One day, in the middle of sea serpent mania, a group of Gloucester residents walking in Loblolly Cove discovered a small black snake on the beach. It’s back was lined with tiny humps, and some of the locals excitedly proclaimed that they had found one of the sea serpent’s offspring. They packaged up the deceased snake and sent it to The Linnaean Society to provide them with the physical specimen they desired.
The Society was ecstatic and promptly named their new species Scoliophis atlanticus — until the “baby serpent” was dissected and was discovered to be nothing more than a juvenile of the black racer species with tumors on its spine. One deformed baby snake was enough to deflate the whole theory — with the baby’s identity confirmed, the public quickly lost faith in the idea of the sea serpent in general.
For sea serpent believers, the tales of the “New England Sea Serpent” remain a staple for the field’s history — never before had so many eyewitnesses testified to seeing a creature like this on the same day, in the same place. For residents of and visitors to Gloucester and Rockport, this story should be a reminder of Cape Ann’s wild side.
When downtown Gloucester and Bearskin Neck are packed to the gills with tourists, it can be easy to forget. But for those who have spent enough time there — especially time when the tourists have gone home and the winter waves threaten to swallow Beach Street whole — there is wildness and mystery to Cape Ann.
Katja Jylkka and her cold New England heart are currently living in California. She is a PhD student who writes about food, animals, and trolls, much to the dismay of her professors. You can read more of her writing at The Toast.