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.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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