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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Sept/october 2019 > Gloucester Sea-Serpent Mystery: Solved after Two Centuries

Gloucester Sea-Serpent Mystery: Solved after Two Centuries

Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow. A former magician and detective, he is author or editor of some forty books.

A“wonderful sea-snake” was repeatedly seen in the area of Gloucester Bay and Nahant Massachusetts, in August 1817 again in 1819. Although attracting “hundreds of curious spectators,” plus a large reward for “his snakeship” alive or dead, the great creature escaped any such fate (Drake 1883, 156–159). The visitations have been reported in many respectable publications— including Richard Ellis’s Monsters of the Sea (1994, 48–55, 362)—and have prompted this assessment: “Whatever this animal may or may not have been, the fact remains that it is one of the most scientifically respected encounters in the annals of cryptozoology, and remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the sea” (Morphy 2010).

Is it possible now, after two centuries, that we might actually solve the enigma? What might such a solution look like— as it begins to come dimly into view? Will it disappoint or fascinate? Or will it simply represent legend, superstition, and eyewitness error, corrected by a detective approach and access to modern research methods?

That the sea-serpent went unidentified was not for lack of effort.

Sea-Serpent!

The late, great cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans (1968, 149) captures something of the developing excitement over the Gloucester monster’s sudden appearance:

On 6 August 1817 two women saw a sea-monster like a huge serpent come into the harbor of Cape Ann which lies north of Gloucester roads. Little attention was paid to their story, although it was confirmed by several fishermen, but a week later so many people known to be trustworthy claimed to have seen the animal nearby, that the whole country round was much excited. On 10 August a seaman called Amos Story saw it from the shore. It was near Ten Pound Island in the shelter of Gloucester roads. On 12 August, Solomon Allen 3rd, a shipmaster, saw it from a boat, and again during most of the following day, and for a short time on the fourteenth, when it was watched by twenty or thirty people, including the Justice of Peace of Gloucester, the Hon. Lonson Nash. On that day four armed boats were sent in pursuit of the monster, and Matthew Gaffney, a ship’s carpenter, fired at it at almost point-blank range, apparently hitting it with a musket ball in the head, but doing it no harm

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