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The Monster of Massachusetts

Jon Nicholls
15 August 2014
Directors' Correspondence digitiser, Jon Nicholls, finds out about Francis Boott's encounter with the sea serpent of New England.

The Directors' Correspondence is an extensive resource full of social, historical and scientific interest. Every so often we come across weird and wonderful stories, stories such as this, about the sea serpent of New England.

Francis Boott

I came across this fascinating tale while digitising a letter written by Francis Boott, an American physician and botanist and a fellow of the Linnaean Society. The letter was addressed to William Jackson Hooker, professor of Botany at Glasgow University, in 1826.  Hooker was later to become Sir William and the Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In his letter Boott describes his own investigation into the legend of the sea serpent of New England. The myth started in 1638 when the earliest sighting of the creature was documented just off the coast of New England. Further sightings were reported over the years; the most frequent being in the harbour of Gloucester, Massachusetts between 1817 and 1819. The creature was described as being a long, scaly beast between 80 and 100 feet long and with the head of a horse.

All the evidence Boott could collect on the mysterious creature he sent to Sir Joseph Banks, a prominent figure in natural science and botany. The letter describes Boott’s anxiety in trying to convince Banks of the discovery of a new mysterious animal.  

…I was anxious as to convince Sir Joseph Banks of the probability of the discovery of a new remarkable animal.

 

Photo of an extract from a letter from Francis Boott to Sir Joseph Banks
Extract from letter (Archive ref: DC 44 f. 44)

Eye-witness accounts

It was during his last visit to Boston, gathering eye witness accounts, when news came from Nahant, Massachusetts that the creature had emerged in the harbour. Crowds of people hurried to see it, including Boott's brother James. James reported seeing a large serpent about a mile from the shore.

My Brother reports that he distinctly saw a large serpent about a mile from the shore - & that thousands were watching its motion on the Beach & rocks. The first idea that occurred to my Brother was that it was a horse swimming in the sea, the head of the animal at that distance resembling a horse's head. He afterwards saw the undulating line of its back...

 

Photo of an extract from a letter from Francis Boott to Sir Joseph Banks
Extract from letter (Archive ref: DC 44 f. 44)

Other witnesses included Captain Henry Holdredge of the ship 'Silas Richards'. The creature was also observed by passengers on board. American Navy officer William Warburton made a sketch of the creature which was published in the Colombian Centinel, a Boston newspaper, and later published in The Edinburgh Journal of Science.

Photo of William Warburton's sketch of a sea serpent 1817
Warburton's sketch of the sea serpent 1817 (Illustration courtesy of The Great Sea Serpent by Antoon Cornelis Oudemans via Google eBook)

The Linnaean Society of New England

The Linnaean Society of New England was established by this time. One of its purposes was to promote Natural History. The society appointed a special committee to conduct the first scientific investigation into the marine creature. It was published in a pamphlet which named the new find Scoliophis atlanticus. What was thought to be a young example of the species was examined by the committee but was later found to be a deformed land snake. After the Linnaean Society's misidentification, sceptics frequently cited the case as evidence that the creature did not exist at all.

 

Photo of a sketch of 'Scoliophis atlanticus'
Sketch of Scoliophis atlanticus (Illustration courtesy of Illustrated London News, October 28, 1848)

Unsolved mystery

This case remains one of the most scientifically respected encounters of a sea serpent and perhaps the best documented account in the world. The last sighting of the ‘serpent’ in Massachusetts was off the coast in Marshfield in 1962. Popular belief is that the sightings of serpents can be explained away by ordinary marine animals such as the oarfish which, going by the description from James Boott and sketch by William Warburton, seems most likely.

Photo of an oarfish that washed up on a beach in California in 2013
Photo of an oarfish that washed up on a beach in California in 2013 (courtesy of Catalina Island Marine Institute via National Geographic)

The Directors' Correspondence Collection is not just an archive of botanical information, it also contains scientific intrigue, social history and is awash with strange and fascinating stories.

- Jon -

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