Revisiting the Mystery of the Great New England Sea Serpent of 1817

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Sailing into Massachusetts’s Gloucester Harbor in August 1817, the skipper of a coasting vessel looked across choppy seas and saw something mind-boggling bobbing in the water.

It was approximately 60 feet long with a body composed of humps, each the size of a keg. It was black, shiny, and leathery. It wiggled like a caterpillar. It had a giant head—a serpent's head—with a pair of dark eyes “as large as pewter plates."

The ship's captain couldn't believe his eyes. When he got into town, he spoke with the utmost seriousness as he told other sailors about what he had seen. The news was met with derision and laughter ... until others started seeing the same thing.

"His head appeared to be about the size of a crown of a hat," claimed James Mansfield, one of the men who witnessed the beast. "The shape of his head I cannot describe, and I saw no ears, horns, or other appendages."

"I should judge him between 80 and 90 feet in length," Solomon Allen III, another witness, claimed. “His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse."

Sewall Toppan, a schooner master, summarized the growing mood in Gloucester: "I have been to sea many years, and never saw any fish that had the least resemblance to this animal."

That’s what made the case so unusual, writer Ben Shattuck argued in Salon. “What made these sightings different from the long history of sea monster sightings was that they came from Gloucester fishermen—those who had inherited the oldest fishing port in America, those who knew mostly every fish species off Cape Ann and when each migrated through. More, this ‘serpent’ was in their harbor, right under their noses—something equivalent to a Sasquatch walking across the parking lot of a hunting expo."

As Shattuck explained, local newspapers gobbled up the gossip coming out of Gloucester Harbor. The Boston Weekly Messenger trumpeted the creature’s arrival with the headline “Monstrous Serpent.” The harbor's ferries soon overflowed with tourists, many of whom claimed to see the creature. David Humphreys, a former aide-de-camp for George Washington, said the serpent “was seen by 200, at one time, sporting the whole afternoon, under Wind Mill Point.” According to American Heritage, the creature was seen as far away as Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut.

Soon, a large cash reward was offered to anybody who could capture the animal. Fishermen and whalers across New England flocked to Gloucester Harbor to catch it, setting out nets and baiting shark hooks. Locals busily searched the Massachusetts seashore for giant serpent eggs. In Boston, a large shed was presumptively constructed to house the creature's carcass. The serpent, however, proved to be invincible. According to the Essex Register: "Two muskets were fired at it, and appeared to hit it on the head, but without effect. It immediately disappeared, and in a short time was seen a little below, but in the dark we lost sight of him."

The New England Linnaean Society of Boston impatiently waited for a specimen to arrive. In the meantime, they collected first-hand accounts and published a long-winded paper detailing the sightings called Report of a Committee of the Linnaean Society of New England Relative to a Large Marine Animal Supposed to be a Serpent, Seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August 1817.

Finally, one day, a pitchfork-wielding farmer in Cape Ann stabbed a 4-foot long snake he saw swimming near the shore and brought it to the Linnaean Society. The distinguished group dissected the specimen and decreed that it was the monster’s offspring. They introduced an entirely new genus, Scoliophis (meaning "humped snake" in Latin), and gave the creature a scientific name: Scoliophis atlanticus.

For biologists, it was a short-lived victory. Not long after, a French naturalist showed that the junior specimen was nothing more than a diseased black snake that was common to area. (Overall, European scientists were amused by the news coming out of America, calling the creature—with a wink and a nod—the "Great American Sea Serpent.")

That, of course, still failed to explain the sightings of a much larger creature roving Gloucester’s waters. Certainly, there was something out there—and it returned in 1818 and 1819. But, eventually, Boston's newspapers tired of writing about the strange seaside visitor. According to American Heritage, one exhausted editor told readers, “The existence of this fabulous animal is now proven beyond all chance of doubt.”

With that the story was put to bed, and the creature's identity has remained a mystery ever since.

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born on this day in 1564.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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