The Weird Old Days: Possible Sea-Serpents, June 18, 1905
The Weird Old Days is a special series of posts in The Measured Circle which reproduces articles from public domain sources. They give us an insight into how people in earlier days saw the world, and in particular, that world on which we are not all agreed. In each case, the material may have been reformatted to be easier to read on the internet (for example, spacing between paragraphs may have been added), but every effort is made to keep the words as they originally were.
Introduction to this article
by Bufo Calvin
In the 21st Century, most people dismiss the idea that sea-serpents ever existed, and indeed, that they were taken seriously any time after Columbus’ voyage or so.
As you will see in this article from 1905, that was not the case, on into the 20th Century.
In 1892, the Encyclopaedia Britannica had included a serious article on sea-serpents, and in 1905, there was the famous sighting reported by those on board the Valhalla off Brazil. However, that sighting reportedly took place on December 7th, more than five months after this article was published.
I’m not sure what, if anything specific, prompted this article. There was a short released in 1905 called The Real Sea Serpents, but I don’t have a specific release date. I’m not aware of a particular book that might have been in the public consciousness that year.
I did find a sighting published on January 26 of 1905, but that was in a New Zealand paper (http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NZT19050126.96.36.199).
The fact that I don’t see anything obvious is testimony to how much people were thinking about sea-serpents in 1905…there may not have needed to be a particular event to justify the article.
POSSIBLE SEA-SERPENTS Prehistoric Monsters That May Not Be Extinct
By Frederic A. Lucas
Director of the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences
Evening Star, Washington, D.C., June 18, 1905
NOTHING is easier than to deny a thing. There are plenty of people who pooh-pooh the sea serpent, asserting point-blank that no such animal exists. I will not say that they are wrong; but it certainly seems to me not unlikely that they may be mistaken; for undeniably a far greater mass of sworn testimony in the creature’s behalf has been placed on record than would be necessary to prove any ordinary case in a court of law. Let us give the sea-serpent the fair chance it deserves, rendering judgment on the evidence just as if any other question was under consideration.
It is not necessary to prove that the creature is a serpent. In my opinion, if it exists, it almost certainly is not a snake, and probably not a reptile at all. Supposing that there is such an animal, it may be a gigantic fish of peculiar form, as yet unknown to science; it may be a mammal, or it may be even a mollusk. These various possibilities I presently shall have an opportunity to discuss.
Meanwhile let us consider the question whether there is any known animal that corresponds to the familiar descriptions of the sea-serpent – descriptions which, it must be admitted, agree to a surprising extent. The reply must be a negative, as far as any creature now recognized as surviving is concerned. But on the other hand, there is one animal, supposed to be extinct but possibly not so, which, if it still lives, would answer to all important specifications in the case. I refer to the zeuglodon. We have excellent reasons for believing that the zeuglodon, a mammal related to the modern tribe of seals, ceased to exist before the close of the early Tertiary, to which period it belonged; but we can not be perfectly sure.
It is hardly necessary to say that the sea-serpent, if it exists, is to be recognized not as a single individual, beheld from time to time as it travels through various seas, but as a gigantic marine species, possibly not uncommon in the depths of the ocean, though rarely seen at the surface. The creature, according to popular tradition, is seventy feet or more in length; it has an enormously long tail; its head (four or five feet long, perhaps) is small in proportion to its vast bulk, and owing to the peculiar structure of the neck is reared easily to a considerable height above the water.
This description corresponds perfectly to that of the zeuglodon, whose bones are found to-day scattered along our southern coasts, in Alabama and elsewhere. In its day it was a numerous species, inhabiting the marine shallows. Undoubtedly it was exceedingly predatory and ferocious. It possessed two powerful flippers in front, for use in swimming (many a sea-serpent is credited with such flippers, by the way), and along its neck were arranged in pairs a number of large, bony, scale like plates.
It is not necessary to go back into the geologic past, however, in order to find an animal which, making due allowance for errors of human observation, may be regarded as presenting a fair likeness to the traditional sea-serpent. Such a creature now lives – the calamary, or giant squid. It is a mollusk, related to the common cuttlefishes, and while rare and little known, is certainly one of the largest and most formidable of existing creatures. A full-grown specimen has eyes a foot in diameter – the largest eyes probably that ever belonged to an animal, unless the ichthyosaur be excepted – and in addition to eight shorter arms it possesses two mighty tentacles sixty to eighty feet in length, with which to grasp its prey. The poor fisherman of the Indian Ocean greatly dreads this monster. Such squids are comparatively plentiful in those seas, and he never knows at what moment he may see two huge greenish eyes, bigger than dinner plates, goggling greedily at him over the gunwale of his boat – a warning that presently a frightful snake like arm, provided with powerful suckers for clinging, will be thrown about him, dragging him overboard and into the depths, to be devoured at leisure.
Most appropriate it will be at this point to tell the story of the bark Pauline, returning home from the Indian seas in 1875. Her mate and crew made oath before a magistrate in a police court of Liverpool to the effect that on July 8 of that year, in latitude five degrees and thirteen minutes south and longitude thirty-five degrees west, they had observed three large sperm-whales, one of which was wrapped around the body by two turns of what appeared to be a huge serpent. The head and tail of the serpent seemed to have a length beyond the coils of about thirty feet. It whirled the whale round and round for fifteen minutes, and then suddenly dragged the unfortunate cetacean head first to the bottom.
Now, if such testimony, given by a number of individuals who signed their names to the affidavit, was offered in behalf of anything else than a sea serpent, it would be accepted pretty generally as worthy of belief. It seems altogether probable that the mariners at least thought that they were telling the truth, and it must be admitted that a sailor knows a whale when he sees one. As for the party of the other part, the description one would think could apply only to a calamary, which, if this theory be correct, must have been engaged in a fight with the cetacean. The squid must have been a huge one, but no larger necessarily than the specimen to which belonged a fragment of a tentacle picked rip on the northwest coast by Dr. Dall of the Smithsonian Institution. From the size of the cup-like suckers on the fragment, it was reckoned that the entire tentacle hardly could have been less than eighty feet in length.
Like the common squid, whose skeleton furnishes a substance for canary-birds to sharpen their bills upon, the huge calamary swims backward, dragging its tentacles behind, accomplishing locomotion by forcing water out through a sort of siphon, and sometimes erecting its tail (provided with horizontal rudder-like flanges) a considerable distance above the surface of the sea. If seen under such circumstances, the tail almost inevitably would be mistaken for a head, while the enormously long arms trailing sinuously behind would appear to represent a snaky tail. Make allowance for a little imagination on the part of the observer, and you have the sea-serpent, to all intents and purposes, complete.
Here then, we have an entirely possible sea serpent, approximately equal in size to the monster of which we have heard so much, corresponding in most important respects to the creature reported by so many fairly reliable witnesses, and which has the great advantage of being an animal actually known to exist at the present time. The mere fact that it is a mollusk instead of a reptile, and that its head may have been mistaken for its tail, does not militate against its acceptability as a realisation in fact of the quasi-fabulous haunter of the mysterious depths of the ocean. It already has been proved beyond doubt that the giant squid is the original of the fabled kraken, famed in Norwegian legends, of which more marvelous stories are told than ever were related in regard to the sea-serpent.
The most authentic evidence on record in behalf of the sea-serpent was given by the officers and crew of the British ship Daedalus, and was transmitted to the British Admiralty in the form of a report by the commanding officer, Captain McQuhae, in 1848. He stated that on August 6 of that year, in latitude twenty four degrees and forty-four minutes south, and longitude nine degrees and twenty-two minutes east, one of his midshipmen, Mr. Sartoris, saw ” something very unusual ” rapidly approaching the vessel. He “reported it to the officer of the watch. Lieutenant Drummond, with whom and Mr. William Barrett, the master, I was walking the quarter-deck. On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept constantly about four feet above the surface of the sea, while, as nearly as we could approximate, there was at least sixty feet of the animal visible beyond. It passed so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye. It held on its course at twelve to fifteen miles an hour, apparently on some determined purpose. Behind the head, which was without any doubt that of a snake, it was fifteen or sixteen inches in diameter. Never, during the twenty minutes it continued in sight of our glasses, was it once below the surface of the water. In color it was dark-brown, but yellowish-white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like the mane of a horse. The monster was seen by the quartermaster, the boatswain’s mate and the man at the wheel, in addition to myself and the officers above-mentioned.”
This, it must be admitted, is testimony which cannot be explained away or cast aside as of no importance. We cannot attribute it to illusion, to ignorance, or to wilful deception. A British naval officer does not go out of his way to invent a lying report for the entertainment of the Admiralty, and it will be noticed that Captain McQuhae took good care to back up his statement with the evidence of a number of his officers and men, who also signed the document.
Leaving aside the question as to what sort of animal this actually was, and admitting that it must have been a monster of some kind not familiar nor easily identified, the fact is worth mentioning that two months and a half later, on September 20 the officers and crew of the American brig Daphne, in latitude four degrees and eleven minutes south, and longitude ten degrees and fifteen minutes east, beheld an extraordinary creature, which seems to have resembled in all important respects the one seen by the mariners of the Daedalus. One of the deck guns was brought to bear upon it, charged with spikes, nails and whatever other pieces of iron could be got at the moment, and was fired at a distance of about forty yards. It “immediately reared its head in the air and plunged violently with its body, showing that the shot had taken effect.” The Daphne then stood toward the brute, which was “foaming and lashing the water at a fearful rate.” However, as the brig approached, it made off at a rate of fifteen or sixteen knots an hour. Its length was estimated at one hundred feet.
We have mentioned a possible mammal and a not unlikely mollusk as corresponding with reasonable accuracy to the description of the conventional sea-serpent. But may it not be a fish? Dr. Theodore Gill, one of the most famous of living naturalists, while not himself an advocate of the sea-serpent, suggests that possibly the actual original of the monster may be a “giant selachian related to the basking-shark, with an elongated snake-like or eel-like body, a dorsal fin close to the head, and a snaky tail.”
Recently some remarkable sharks of eel-like form have been discovered by science- dwellers in the depths of the sea, which for that reason have remained unknown hitherto. Such a fish, of extremely large size, swimming at the surface of the ocean, easily might be mistaken for a gigantic serpent. Some animal there must surely be that is accountable for those descriptions of the monster which, when sifted out of the mass of mariners’ yarns and newspaper fairy-tales, bear the marks of truth. Goode and Bean, in their authoritative work on marine ichthyology, say. “It cannot be doubted that somewhere in the depths of the seas are living certain animals, unknown to science and of great size, which come occasionally to the surface, and give foundation to such stories as those of the sea-serpent.”
One more anecdote I may relate, of the steamship Nestor, Captain John K. Webster, which, on September 11, 1876, was voyaging through the Malacca Straits, when her commander and the surgeon of the vessel, James Anderson, saw an object which had been pointed out by the third officer as a shoal. The weather was fine and the sea smooth. It was found, on further inspection, that the supposed shoal was in motion, keeping the same speed as the ship. It had somewhat the shape of a gigantic frog. The head, pale yellowish in color, was twenty feet long, and was directly connected, without visible neck, with the body, which was forty or fifty feet in length. Behind was discernible an immensely long tail, cylindrical in shape and slightly tapering. Apparently the creature possessed no fins or paddles. This, allowing for some exaggeration in point of size, may have been a calamary, swimming with its tail elevated above the surface of the water.
As suggested by Goode and Bean, however, in trying to identify the real sea-serpent, one is not restricted to the consideration of animals already known to exist. In the depths of the ocean, from three to six miles below the surface, in a region of perpetual cold, where the blackness of an everlasting night is illumined only by the lights of torch bearing fishes and other phosphorescent creatures, there are innumerable “monsters and chimeras dire” unknown to science. Occasionally one of them is found floating on the sea, dying or dead, and from time to time an interesting and unfamiliar specimen is captured by a trawl-net lowered into the marine abysses by a vessel sent out for purposes of zoological research and investigation.
Unfortunately, no appliance has been invented that is suitable for the capture of the larger creatures that inhabit the depths of the sea. They are too swift, too wary and too cunning to be taken by slow-moving nets, even if the latter could be made big enough to entrap them. If a balloon was to pass over New-York city with a suspended net, how many men would it catch? The situation of the dredging vessel, which floats from two to five miles above the aqueous field of exploration, is pretty much the same. Supposing that the people in the balloon were making their trip in the darkest of moonless nights, and were obliged to depend wholly upon what their nets brought up for their notion of the species of animals inhabiting the metropolis, they would be in much the same circumstances as scientists who fish for abyssmal forms.
For all that anybody can tell to the contrary, the depths of ocean at the present day may afford retreats to monsters of species supposed to be long extinct, but which still survive from remote geologic epochs. Who can say with certainty that the ferocious ichthyosaur, or that other huge fish-eating lizard, the plesiosaur, may not lurk even now in the dark unfathomed caves of the sea?
In this connection I shall tell one more story, of a British vessel, the Fly, which a few years ago chanced to be becalmed in the Gulf of California in twelve fathoms of remarkably clear water. While thus stationary, the Captain, who made formal report of the incident, saw crawling over the bottom an extraordinary lizard-like animal, about twenty-five feet in length, which appeared “like a gigantic snake threaded through the body of a tortoise.” Its neck was long and its tail rather short, and it had four paddles like the flippers of a turtle. In brief, the description answered in every detail to that of a plesiosaur. It was certainly remarkable, and inasmuch as the skipper was not likely even to have heard of such a reptile as the plesiosaur, the details given were amazingly accurate.
The plesiosaur cannot be assumed to be extinct, merely on account of its age, inasmuch as other animals dating back to an equally ancient geologic epoch, such as the sharks, still survive. On the other hand, there is no more reason for admitting the survival of this particular reptile than for granting a similar extension of life to the mosasaur and other gigantic marine lizards of the Cretaceous. The mosasaur, of which no fewer than ten species are known to have inhabited this part of the world (remains of six of the ten having been found in New-Jersey), attained a length of forty feet. It had a long tail and one pair of paddles in front; its head was flat and pointed; and its lower jaw was provided with an attachment of cartilage by which the animal was enabled to open its mouth to an enormous extent, in the same manner as a modern snake. But some of its not distant relatives, particularly the elasmosaur, were even more snake-like, and, did they still survive, might answer well to popular descriptions of the sea-serpent.
Assuming, however, as seems reason able, that the real sea-serpent, if it exists, is neither an ancient lizard nor any other creature surviving from a remote geologic epoch, we must suppose (unless we reject the monster outright, together with an immense mass of testimony in its behalf, much of which seems reliable enough) that the giant squid is the veritable original, or else that there dwells in the depths of the ocean a species of animal unknown to science, rarely seen at the surface, in size equal to or surpassing the largest whales, of an elongated and snake-like form, and corresponding in other respects, at least in a general way, to the accepted portrait of the marine mystery which holds so equivocal a status, half-way between fact and fiction.
In the tropical seas that wash the southern coasts of Asia, particularly in the neighborhood of the East Indian Archipelago, veritable sea-serpents are found in such enormous numbers that sometimes the water for miles in every direction seems to be literally alive with them. They are of several species, some of them reaching a length of eight feet, though ordinarily they do not exceed three feet, and are so extremely venomous that fishermen, who occasion ally catch them in their nets, are much afraid of them. Indeed, their venom closely resembles that of the cobra, which is the most deadly of land snakes, and appears to act in the same way, causing the death of the person bitten by suffocation. A man has been known to die in five hours from a bite by one of them.
These sea-snakes are variously marked, some of them being striped and brilliantly colored. They have flattened tails for swimming, and in calm weather spend most of their time floating on the surface. When disturbed they dive, and if caught they strike at everything in sight with the utmost ferocity, sometimes driving their fangs into their own flesh. But owing to the peculiar structure of their eyes, they do not see nearly so well out of the water as in it. They feed on fishes, which they kill with their venom, and never leave the water except to lay their eggs, fifteen to twenty-five in number, which they deposit on sandy beaches.
In conclusion, I would say that I am by no means the sea-serpent’s advocate. I do not assert that such a creature lives. All that I mean to convey by this plea in its behalf is a suggestion to the effect that the evidence for its existence, while falling far short of proof, is worthy of serious consideration. In fact, I will go so far as to admit that, in view of all the testimony adduced, I incline rather to belief than to disbelief in the monster, which, be it reptile, mammal, fish or mollusk, is undeniably the most interesting of zoological puzzles.
A note on preparing the text for this post: this article came from the U.S. Library of Congress
and is part of their Chronicling America program. They do have OTC (Optical Character Recognition) which converts the image which is originally seen into text, but there were a number of errors in that process (as is commonly the case). I made corrections by comparing the OCR text result with the original image. This takes some time, as you can imagine, and it is possible I have missed something.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.