Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (May 2007, No. 11)

Did a Sea Serpent Kill a Man?

Craig Heinselman

“I never saw a set of people so prone to sea serpent yarns as the New England coast fishermen and sailors. Those chaps have a sea serpent tale to spring with the advent of each season, and there are generally two or three of them who agree on the one story, which arrangement sort of gives the tale standing before the public. Now, if all these sea serpents, real or imaginary, that have appeared from time to time along the New England coast were corralled and placed out there in this fine river of yours there wouldn’t be room for the shipping to get to the docks. But I’m not throwing stones at the New England sailors or attempting to cast reflection upon their veracity, for I have a sea serpent story myself to hand out, and if you care for the narrative I’ll let you have it.”

So begins the story of one G.H. Hight, a “promoter, mining engineer, prospector, and globe trotter…” one night in late February of 1909 in the lobby of the New Denechaud Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In the fall of 1889, Hight was in Madagascar looking over some plantation property. During his stay he traveled the area, and for several weeks stayed in a town called Majanga (Mahajanga) located at the northern end of the Bambataska Bay (Bombetoka Bay). It was in that location that Hight and two companions, an Englishman, Cane, and a Frenchman, Laselle, encountered a serpentine creature in the bay. Their story, as relayed by G.H. Hight is as follows.

“… One morning the village was thrown into a state of great excitement. Several natives came to the government house, where Cane and I sat on the broad gallery with Laselle, and began to jabber away at a terrible rate in their queer lingo. Laselle understood the language as well as he did his native tongue or English, and we saw at once that he was very much interested.

"The native who acted as spokesman had a fund of very eloquent and expressive gestures. He repeatedly motioned toward the sea, and , with his arms extended, worked his hands up and down, and curved and twisted his body with the skill and ease of a contortionist. The whole village gathered around to hear the statement, whatever it was, that was being made, and as the spokesman crossed his arms, making a hideous face at the same time and emitting from between his clenched teeth a sort of bellow, several women in the front row of the crowd howled dismally, fell to the ground, rolled over and over, beat their breasts, and tore out their hair.

"With an imperious sweep of his hand and a few guttural words, Laselle dismissed the villagers and then, turning to us, said in French, “Serpent de mer!” He saw that we were still in the dark, having small knowledge of the Johnny Crapaud talk, and resorting to his excellent command of English, gave us an astonishing bit of information.

"The natives have seen a great serpent down in the bay, he said, and the monster overturned a boat and gobbled up one of the fishermen. From the statement made by the villagers it seems that four of them were out in the bay fishing in one of their long bark canoes. They were a quarter of a mile or so from shore, and were just about to head in toward the beach when the water at the stern was violently agitated, and above the surface was thrust an awful serpentine head about the size of a hogshead.

"The head had rounded sides, but was inclined to flatness at the top, and there was a bony ridge, like a crest, extending from the point between the eyes to the neck. About five feet of the neck and body of the serpent protruded from the water, and the horrible-stricken natives were close enough to see that the monster was a dark greenish shade and was covered with scales with size of a silver dollar. The eyes of the snake were set far apart and were glazed over like the eyes of a fish, and on the whole he was a most fearsome sight.

"The fishermen with one accord plunged their paddles into the water and sped their light craft toward the shore, but as they did so the serpent lowered its head, plunged beneath the sea and came up in an instant in hot pursuit of the boat. The waters of the bay were violently agitated as the huge coils of an undulating movement appeared and disappeared above the surface, and to the frightened eyes of the natives the snake looked to be a hundred feet in length and thicker than a large barrel.

"When the boat was still some distance from the sloping beach the serpent overtook it, and, seizing its frail stern in its foam dripping jaws, raised it clear of the water and sent its four screaming occupants floundering in the bay. The natives as they struck the water heard the cracking of the bark as the sides of their canoes were ground to pieces in those terrible jaws.

"The men were all good swimmers and raced through the bay as thought water was their natural element, but, the awful presence behind them steadily lessened the slight lead the fugitives had, and in a moment  a scream of agony was heard as the serpent claimed a victim. The native who had told the story to our party was in the lead at the time, and his feet were just beginning to touch the sloping sandy shelf. He instinctively turned and saw a sight that he will never forget. The serpent’s head reached eight or ten feet above the water on an arching neck, and struggling in his jaws was one of the unfortunate boatmen. The cruel teeth had fastened in his flesh and blood in solid streams dripped from the snake’s jaws. Even as the first native looked the victim seemed to double up, his head met his feet and his whole body disappeared in the cavernous mouth of the monster, drawn inward by some powerful suction in the serpent’s mouth.

"The monster, after its disgusting meal, shook itself violently, remained motionless for a moment, as though its appetite was satisfied, and then darted in after another victim. But the brief pause the monster made had given the three survivors the bare time to gain the shallows and run up the beach. The snake paused when it encountered the bottom, emitted a bull-like bellow from its blood-dripping jaws, turned in a sweeping circle and sped out to sea. That was the substance of the story the native told, and the motions he went through were descriptive of the movement of the serpent and the struggles of the victims. The women who had made the display of grief were the wife, mother, and sister of the dead man.

"Well, the whole village went down to the beach and followed the sandy stretch for a mile or more in the direction of the channel, vainly scanning the waters for a glimpse of the serpent. We three white men, each with an improved elephant bore rifle in the bellow of his arm, led the procession, and for a time we were greatly disappointed at not getting a glimpse of the serpent.

"Finally one of the natives called out attention to the commotion in the water about a third of a mile from shore, and snatching Laselle’s strong glasses from his hand, I trained them on the spot. The bay was very calm, but at the spot where my gaze rested the waters were tossing and tumbling about as though over a volcano. ‘There’s something there!’ I cried; and hardly had the words left my mouth when something rose above the surface and the water eddied and boiled like a maelstrom. The something was the head of an enormous serpent and as I passed the glasses back to Laselle and raised my gun I said, with a catch in my breath, ‘The nigger didn’t exaggerate’. The serpent was very plain, even to the naked eye, and all the natives set up weird cried, and, running back and forth on the beach waved their fists at the monster, cursing it in their strange jargon and some few even hurled javelins at it in their impotent fury.

"The snake must have heard the noise, for it started in our direction, and then, to our unspeakable surprise, lowered its head and swam closer to shore, evidently intending to attack us. It came to within several hundred yards of where we stood, coil after coil of its great length rising and falling on the water, looking for all the world like some fabled dragon of antiquity. Its course was stopped, however, at the shallows, and it contented itself with lashing about in the water and bellowing furiously like a great bull.

"Gentlemen, I am not drawing on my imagination one iota when I tell you that the head of that animal, fish, or reptile, call it what you will, was as big as a hogshead, just as the natives had described the thing to us. Once or twice it opened its mouth and we saw four great pronglike teeth, and a smaller row of grinders, which convinced us that the thing was large enough to swallow a man easily. I noticed one thing that the native, in his fright, had overlooked. Attached to the monster, several feet from its head, were thick bristles in two rows that might have served for fins.

"We were able to get a good idea of the serpent’s size as it tried to navigate in the shallows, and it tried to navigate in the shallows, and it could not have been less than 100 feet in length. I was about to fire at the thing, but seeing it coming in toward shore waited for a closer range. The natives for the best part fled like sheep before a leopard upon the snake’s approach, and only Laselle, Cane and myself were close to the water’s edge.

"We could see that the serpent was endeavoring to feel its way up the incline beneath the water, and as it curved and splashed about churned the bay into foam. It was then our time, and raising our rifles simultaneously we fired. The huge bulk made a splendid target for our guns and our shots must have connected. But to our astonishment the serpent only splashed and struggled more to get through the water to us, and it seemed altogether unhurt. Had we been aiming at a rhinoceros the beg beast would have certainly toppled over, but the sea snake had a shot proof hide, and nothing short of an eight-pound shell would have fixed its clock.

"We stood there for an hour or more watching the serpent and wasting shot on it, and finally the monster, as though despairing of ever reaching is, turned about and raced madly out to sea. We could see it diving and circling as it went, and we watched it until it was only a speck on the distant horizon.

"I left Majanga a few days later, and the next year I received a long letter from my friend Laselle. The serpent, he wrote, had been seen in the bay twice after my departure, and a week or so later it made its appearance at the southern end of the Mozambique Channel. Whether it ever was seen again I cannot say. Yes, gentlemen, I am one of the few men who have used a sea serpent for a target, and if you doubt my word just pen a line to Laselle in far off Majanga; he will corroborate every word I have said.

"Why should we doubt sea serpents, I’d like to know? The seas cover two-thirds of the earth, and they are big enough and deep enough to hide any number of mysteries."

A fanciful tale of newspaper fiction aimed at drawing it the readers during popularized times of the sea serpent? Or perhaps a real life encounter embellished for flavor? That is the question one must ask after reading such a story which includes elements of travelers tales, pulp adventure and specific anatomic details.

Pulp adventures, so named based on the inexpensive paper they were printed on, started in the late 1800’s, and ran strong for over 50 years. Authors as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Robert W. Chambers flourished in this new medium of creativity, each in turn creating new realms and lands. The stories from this period in literary history were a mix of love, war, western, mystery, horror and science-fiction; they touched on the changing world and the culture it was breathing life into. Explorers searched the globe for new wonders, and tantalizing mysteries from the far corners of the globe beckoned the romantic zoologist or explorer. Pulp fostered stories of exploration, mystery and the unknown lands and animals present.

Such a story as detailed by G.H. Hight fits within the definition of a pulp story. We have the exotic land and locales, the intrepid explorer and hunter who has traveled the world, and the solid and steady calm of a military man. Mix in a comrade and others like himself, and an extraordinary event, and the story reads like a first-person narrative written by any number of classic pulp authors. The reader is propelled, and feels as if they are there in the hotel in New Orleans hearing it first hand, the sections transfer smoothly and the end result is a captivating tale of wonder.

But, is this a short coming to exclude the tale from the annals of sea-serpent evaluations? After all, any number of stories and tales can be read in such a manner: compelling and narrative in form. The entry in The Washington Herald for Sunday, March 7, 1909, is not attributed to G.H. Hight, rather an unnamed correspondent out of New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 6, 1909. Is it therefore a mix of reality and fallacy?

In order to view the story's potential reality, a characteristic review omitting the romanticism must be done. Then, a comparison to other reports or historical anecdotes can be further reviewed. Therefore, as extracted from this 1909 newspaper account:

  • Length of approximately 100 feet
  • Rounded sides to the head with flatness at the top
  • Bony ridge, like a crest, extending from between the eyes to the neck
  • Dark greenish color
  • Scales the size of silver dollars
  • Far set eyes
  • Glazed over eyes, like a fish
  • Undulating motion
  • Coils
  • Thicker than a large barrel
  • Arching neck above the water (reaching eight to ten feet)
  • Pronglike teeth with smaller grinding teeth also present
  • Thick bristles in two rows several feet from its head
  • Bullet-proof hide
  • Consumed meal whole (human)
  • Bellowing like a bull

Those descriptions when reviewed alone offer some tantalizing behavioral and anatomic appearances, matching nothing known in nature. They present a chimera appearance, a mixture of characteristics from different animal groups, yet aspects are similar in description to other serpentine reports throughout the years: a long thick body undulating through the water with visible coils, potential fin-like appendages at the front, arching neck with the ability to be held above the water’s surface.

The other portion of the cursory review is a connection to other accounts or anecdotes from the region or elsewhere. There is in fact a tale from Madagascar of a creature called the Tompondrano. Now the Tompondrano is a folkloric creature, and is the final step in the transformation of a worm according to the stories. Bernard Heuvelmans broke this down in his In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents as follows:

“The family tree of the tompondrano (or Lord-of-the-Sea) is more complicated. The worms that eat the entrails of a man of high caste turn into a special kind of snake, fananina. These grow to a prodigious size, and when they are too big to move on land, they dive in the sea where they become tompondrano.

Dr. Georges Petit in his L’Industrie des Peches a Madagascar outlines the Tompondrano further and postulates a connection, perhaps, to an unknown sea-animal in the area. The description provided to Dr. Petit is as follows, again taken from Heuvelmans’ In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents.

The Lord-of-the-Sea appears rarely. But he shows himself, whenever the time may be, by always moving against the wind. He is 70 to 80 feet long, and his wide flat body is covered with hard plates, rather like the bony armour on the back of a crocodile, but bigger. The tail is like a shrimp’s tail with its terminal flap. The mouth is ventral, the animal must turn on its back to attack. A sort of hood which the animal may raise and lower at will protects its eyes which look forwards but are placed well to the side. The head is luminous and shines light as it comes to the surface. It moves in vertical undulations.

Some Malagasies say the animal has no legs. Others say it has front flippers like a whale’s. Finally the body is striped in a longitudinal direction, with stripes of different colours, white, red, green or darker. It has no smell….

While the accounts may not correspond completely between Dr. Petit’s Tompondrano description and GH Hight’s, they do have some intriguing similarities.  Both describe a long, wide animal that moves with undulations. The Tompondrano is described as having an armor like that of a crocodile, while GH Hight notes that his bullets did not penetrate his serpents tough hide. Both have a description of off-set eyes, and a hood or crest in the area of the eyes. GH Hight describes potential fin-like appendages, while the Tompondrano is sometimes noted as having fins like a whale.

Circumstantial, granted, yet it does spark the idea that what GH Hight reported was the locally-named creature, Tompondrano. Some aspects can be fleshed further and supposition allowed to run a bit off its leash, yet without more data this becomes purely speculative.

The final piece of the puzzle falls in the realm of prey. GH Hight’s serpent consumed at least one man and appeared to be intent on consuming more men during the event in question. A severe sign of aggression, which is rare if unheard of in the realm of “sea-serpent” reports, yet not isolated completely. Edwin McCleary reported in an article within the May 1965 issue of Fate Magazine a first-hand account of a sea-serpent attack.

According to McCleary, his encounter, and nightmare, took place on March 24, 1962, off Pensacola, Florida. There McCleary and four friends were diving from a raft when a storm arose keeping them from land. From the fog a creature emerged, a classical style plesiosaur creature with a long neck, that was described as follows:

“The neck was about 12 feet long, brownish-green and smooth looking. The head was like that of a sea-turtle, except more elongated with teeth. There appeared to be what looked like a dorsal fin when it dove under for the last time. Also, as best I am able to recall, the eyes were green with oval pupils.”

One by one this creature of the fog attacked and killed the men. Only McCleary survived. Evidentiary basis is slim, and this case too has the ear-marks of the classic pulp story. Yet, could it be true? Matt Bille makes a valid point in regards to this case on a February 3, 2007 Internet Blog at Cryptomundo.

“As so often happens in cryptozoology, we are left with a story with no corroborating evidence. That story, as unbelievable as it sounds, still could be true. But we don’t know. Until and unless we get a specimen of a creature that matches McCleary’s beast, the death of four young men will remain a mystery of the sea.”

We are left then in the same quandary as to acceptance or rejection of GH Hight’s account of a sea serpent from Madagascar decades predating McCleary’s account. An event that both reads of amazing truth and as well rounded popular fiction, yet has earmarks of both situations.

Hight’s creature corresponds in a general sense to the Tompondrano from Madagascar, which in turn can be grouped into debatable categories as Bernard Heuvelmans, Gary Mangiacopra, Bruce Champagne, Loren Coleman, Patrick Huyghe and others have. Would it be a multi-finned, multi-humped, or a great sea centipede, or something else entirely. Unfortunately, as Matt Bille pointed out in the McCleary case, we are left with the unknown and until such a time as more data or objective information is provided or found, there is only supposition.

G.H. Hight relayed an entertaining tale, and the author of the newspaper account should be congratulated for writing it up in such an eloquent manner. Was G.H. Hight real, and did the event occur, for now that must be set aside and we must simply remember the closing passage of that very same newspaper account:

"The seas cover two-thirds of the earth, and they are big enough and deep enough to hide any number of mysteries."

 

Sources:

  • Bille, Matt, Death by Sea Serpent?, Cryptomundo Blog, February 3, 2007
  • Champagne, Bruce, A Classification System for Large, Unidentified Marine Animals Based on the Examination of Reported Observations, in Elementum Bestia, Crypto, Peterborough, New Hampshire 2007
  • Champagne, Bruce, A Preliminary Evaluation of a Study of the Morphology, Behavior, Autoecology, and Habitat of Large, Unidentified Marine Animals, Based on Recorded Field Observations, in Dracontology Special Number I, Crypto, Francestown, New Hampshire, 2001
  • Coleman, Loren and Hughe, Patrick, The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep,Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, New York, New York, 2003
  • Eberhart, George M., Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California, 2002
  • Heuvelmans, Bernard, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Hill and Wang, New York, New York 1969
  • Mangiacopra, Gary, The Great Unknowns of the 19th Century, Of Sea and Shore, 1975-1981
  • McCleary, Edward Brian, My Escape from a Sea Monster, Fate Magazine, May 1965
  • Sea Serpent Eats Man, The Washington Herald, March 7, 1909
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