It started in 1641, when credulous English traveler John Josselyn wrote An Account of Two Voyages to New England, which described a sea serpent seen three years earlier by passersby off the coast of Gloucester, Mass.:
They told me of a sea serpent or snake, that lay coiled up like a cable upon a rock at Cape Ann; a boat passing by with two English on board, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying that if he were not killed outright, they would be in danger of their lives.
Sea serpents would be spotted off the coast of Maine and Massachusetts for the next three centuries. Some were hoaxes, some may have been giant anacondas and some may have been the product of an overwrought Puritan imagination. The Puritan culture of condemnation inspired nightmarish visions, validated by tales of strange creatures and unearthly phenomena – especially on the frontier, where mechanisms of social control could not reach.
Just a few years after Josselyn recorded the sea monster sighting in Gloucester, another creature was spotted off the coast of Lynn, Mass. The sightings would continue for decades.
Snake With Tumors
It wasn’t until the 19th century that sea monster sightings became a seasonal event. Throughout the summer of 1817, a sea serpent was sighted in Gloucester Harbor by hundreds of people, including the crews of four whaling boats. The Linnaean Society of New England traveled to Gloucester to collect evidence, distributing questionnaires to witnesses. They found a small serpent with bumpy skin, which they concluded was one of the sea serpent's baby. After dissecting the serpent, the Linnaeans published a pamphlet announcing the discovery of an entirely new genus, the Scoliophis Atlanticus. It turned out to be a ‘ Colubar constrictor with tumors -- a cancerous black snake.
Two years later, there were mass sightings of a serpent off the coast of Nahant, Mass..
On Aug. 2, 1868, a sea monster was seen floundering in a salt marsh on the west side of Eastport, Maine. It looked like a shark, but it seemed to be part beast and part fish. Spectators rushed to the edge of the marsh to stare at the creature, then shoot at it. It received 70 musket balls, but didn't die until the next day. The creature was then taken to Bangor, Maine, and put on display, according to the Bangor Daily News. It was over 30 feet long and weighed 11 tons with one enormous dorsal fin, two side belly fins, a sharklike tail and two huge legs ending in web feet. Its teeth resembled 'sharp-pointed popcorn.' After a while the carcass began to stink, and it was hauled away before anyone could figure out what it was.
This hoax photograph of an Ipswich sea serpent was created by Ipswich photographer George Dexter in 1910. The caption reads “Only photo of the Sea Serpent posed expressly for Residents at Little Neck Ipswich Mass." A small child is in the creature’s mouth. Dexter was known for his hoax photos, which included a child sitting in a tree with a wise old owl, and a clam shell as large as the cart that is carrying it.
In November 1970, word went round that a sea monster had washed up on Mannhill Beach in Scituate, Mass. Thousands came to the shore to see the carcass of the 30-foot, four-ton sea monster.
The Harvard Crimson put to rest the belief that ‘Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent’ was an unknown genus. The newspaper reported Harvard’s assistant curator of Fishes took a long hard look at the ‘monster.’
They have definitely determined that the carcass is that of a mangled basking shark, which may have died at sea and was partially eaten by other sea life as it drifted ashore.
And then came Jaws.