|Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History|
BioFortean Review, (December 2006)
Historical Note: Sir Charles Lyell on Sea Serpents
From Chapter VIII, A Second Visit to the United States of North America, Vol. I
During the first part of my stay in Boston, October, 1845, we one day saw the walls in the principal streets covered with placards, in which the words SEA SERPENT ALIVE figured conspicuously. On approaching near enough to read the smaller type of this advertisement, I found that Mr. Koch was about to exhibit to the Bostonians the fossil skeleton of "that colossal and terrible reptile the sea serpent, which, when alive, measured thirty feet in circumference." The public were also informed that this hydrarchos, or water king, was the leviathan of the Book of Job, chapter xli. I shall have occasion in the sequel, when describing my expedition in Alabama to the exact site front whence those fossil remains were disinterred by Mr. Koch, of showing that they belong to the zeuglodon, first made out by Mr. Owen to be an extinct cetacean of truly vast dimensions, and which I ascertained to be referable geologically to the Eocene period.
In the opinion of the best comparative anatomists, there is no reason to believe that this fossil whale bore any resemblance in form, when alive, to a snake, although the bones of the vertebral column, having been made to form a continuous series, more than 100 feet in length, by the union of vertebræ derived from more than one individual, were ingeniously arranged by Mr. Koch in a serpentine form, so as to convey the impression that motion was produced by vertical flexures of the body.
At the very time when I had every day to give an answer to the question whether I really believed the great fossil skeleton from Alabama to be that of the sea serpent formerly seen on the coast near Boston, I received news of the reappearance of the same serpent, in a letter from my friend Mr. J. W. Dawson, of Pictou, in Nova Scotia. This geologist, with whom I explored Nova Scotia in 1842, said he was collecting evidence for me of the appearance, in the month of August, 1845, at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a marine monster, about 100 feet long, seen by two intelligent observers, nearly aground in calm water, within 200 feet of the beach, where it remained in sight about half an hour, and then got off with difficulty. One of the witnesses went up a bank in order to look down upon it. They said it sometimes raised its head (which resembled that of a seal) partially out of the water. Along its back were a number of humps or protuberances, which, in the opinion of the observer on the beach, were true humps, while the other thought they were produced by vertical flexures of the body. Between the head and the first protuberance there was a straight part of the back of considerable length, and this part was generally above water. The color appeared black, and the skin had a rough appearance. The animal was seen to bend its body almost into a circle, and again to unbend it with rapidity. It was slender in proportion to its length. After it had disappeared in deep water, its wake was visible for some time. There were no indications of paddles seen. Some other persons who saw it compared the creature to a long string of fishing-net buoys moving rapidly about. In the course of the summer, the fishermen on the eastern shore of Prince Edward's Island, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, had been terrified by this sea monster, and the year before, October, 1844, a similar creature swam slowly past the pier at Arisaig, near the east end of Nova Scotia, and, there being only a slight breeze at the time, was attentively observed by Mr. Barry, a millwright of Pictou, who told Mr. Dawson be was within 120 feet of it, and estimated its length at sixty feet, and the thickness of its body at three feet. It had humps on the back, which seemed too small and close together to be bends of the body.
The body appeared also to move in long undulations, including many of the smaller humps. In consequence of this motion the head and tail were sometimes both out of sight and sometimes both above water, as represented in the annexed outline, given from memory.
The head, a, was rounded and obtuse in front, and was never elevated more than a foot above the surface. The tail was pointed, appearing like half of a mackerel's tail. The color of the part seen was black.
it was suggested by Mr. Dawson that a swell in the sea might give the deceptive appearance of an undulating movement, as it is well known "that a stick held horizontally at the surface of water when there is a ripple seems to have an uneven outline." But Mr. Barry replied that he observed the animal very attentively, having read accounts of the sea serpent, and feels confident that the undulations were not those of the water.
This reappearance of the monster, commonly called the sea serpent, was not confined to the Gulf of St. Lawrence; for, two months after I left Boston, a letter from one Captain Lawson went the round of the American papers, dated February, 1846, giving a description of a marine creature seen by him from his schooner, when off the coast of Virginia, between Capes Henry and Charlesbody about 100 feet long, with pointed projections (query, dorsal fins?) on the back; head small in proportion to its length.
Precisely in the same years, in July, 1845, and August, 1846, contemporaneous, and evidently independent accounts were collected in Norway, and published in their papers; of a marine animal, of "a rare and singular kind," seen by fishermen and others, the evidence being taken down by clergymen, surgeons, and lawyers, whose names are given, and some of whom declared that they can now no longer doubt that there lives in their seas some monster, which has given rise to the tales published by Pontopiddan, Bishop of Bergen, in his Natural History of Norway (1752), who gave an engraving, which the living witnesses declare to be very like what they saw.
These appearances were witnessed in 1845, near Christiansand, and at Molde, and in the parish of Sund, the animal entering fiords in hot weather, when the sea was calm. The length of the creature was from sixty to one hundred feet; color dark, body smooth, and in thickness, like that of a stout man; swimming swiftly with serpentine movement, both horizontally and up and down, raising its blunted head occasionally above the water; its eyes bright, but these not perceived by some witnesses; its undulating course like that of an eel; its body lay on the sea like a number of "large kegs," the water much agitated by its rapid movements, and the waves broke on the shore as when a steamboat is passing. From the back of the head a mane like that of a horse commenced, which waved backward and forward in the water. Archdeacon Deinboll says, that "the eye-witnesses, whose testimony he collected, were not so seized with fear as to impair their powers of observation; and one of them, when within musket shot, had fired at the monster, and is certain the shots hit him in the head, after which he dived, but came up again immediately."
In reading over these recent statements, drawn up by observers on both sides of the Atlantic, it is impossible not to be struck with their numerous points of agreement, both with each other and with those recorded by the New Englanders between the years 1815 and 1825, when the sea serpent repeatedly visited the coast of North America. There is even a coincidence in most of the contradictions of those who have attempted to describe what they saw of the color, form, and motion of the animal. At each of these periods the creature was seen by some persons who were on the shore, and who could take a leisurely survey of it, without their imaginations being disturbed by apprehensions of personal danger. On the other hand, the consternation of the fishermen in Norway, the Hebrides, and America, who have encountered this monster, is such, that we are entitled to ask the questionIs it possible they can have seen nothing more than an ordinary whale or shark, or a shoal of porpoises, or some other known cetacean or fish?
So great a sensation was created by the appearance of a huge animal, in August, 1817, and for several successive years in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, near Cape Ann, that the Linnaean Society of Boston appointed a committee to collect evidence on the subject. I am well acquainted with two of the three gentlemen, Dr. Bigelow and Mr. F. C. Gray, who drew up the report, which gives in detail the depositions of numerous witnesses who saw the creature on shore or at sea, some of them from a distance of only ten yards. "The monster," they say, "was from eighty to ninety feet long, his head usually carried about two feet above water; of a dark brown color; the body with thirty or more protuberances, compared by some to four-gallon kegs, by others to a string of buoys, and called by several persons bunches on the back; motion very rapid, faster than those of a whale, swimming a mile in three minutes, and sometimes more, leaving a wake behind him; chasing mackerel, herrings, and other fish, which were seen jumping out of the water, fifty at a time, as he approached. He only came to the surface of the sea in calm and bright weather. A skillful gunner fired at him from a boat, and, having taken good aim, felt sure he must have hit him on the head; the creature turned toward him, then dived under the boat, and reappeared a hundred yards on the other side."
Just as they were concluding their report, an unlucky accident raised a laugh at the expense of the Linnaean Committee, and enabled the incredulous to turn the whole matter into ridicule.
It happened that a common New England species of land snake (Coluber constrictor), full grown, and about three feet long, which must have been swept out to sea, was cast ashore, and brought to the committee. It had a series of humps on its back, caused by the individual happening to have a diseased spinea fact which can no longer be disputed, for I have seen the identical specimen, which is still preserved in spirits in the Museum of New Haven. As many of the deponents declared this snake to be an exact miniature of the great monster, the Committee concluded that it might be its young, and, giving a figure of it, conferred upon it the high-sounding appellation of Scoliophys Atlanticus, the generic name being derived from the Greek σκολιος, scolios, flexible, and όφις, ophis, snake.
In addition to these published statements, Colonel Perkins, of Boston, had the kindness to lay before me his notes, made in July, 1817, when he saw the animal. He counted fourteen projections, six feet apart, on the back, which he imagined to be vertical flexures of the body when in motion; but he also saw the body bent horizontally into the figure of the letter S. It was of a chocolate brown color, the head flat, and about a foot across. A friend of his took a pencil sketch of it, which was found to resemble Pontoppidan's figure.* Respecting the length, Mr. Mansfield, a friend of the Colonel, was driving a one-horse vehicle on a road skirting Gloucester Bay, along the edge of a cliff, fifty or sixty feet in perpendicular height, when he saw the sea-serpent at the base of the cliff on the white beach, where there was not more than six or seven feet water, and, giving the reins to his wife, looked down upon the creature, and made up his mind that it was ninety feet long. He then took his wife to the spot, and asked her to guess its length, and she said it was as long as the wharf behind their house, and this measured about 100 feet. While they were looking down on it, the creature appeared to be alarmed, and started off. I asked another Bostonian, Mr. Cabot, who saw the monster in 1818, whether it might not have been a shoal of porpoises following each other in a line, at the distance of one or two yards, and tumbling over so as to resemble a string of floating barrels in motion. He said that after this explanation had been suggested to him, he was one of thirty persons who ran along the beach at Nahant, near Boston, when the sea serpent was swimming very near the shore. They were all convinced that it was one animal, and they saw it raise its head out of the water. He added that there were at that time two sea serpents fishing in the Bay at once.
* See "Silliman's Journal," vol. ii. p. 156.
Among many American narratives of this phenomenon which have been communicated to me, I shall select one given me by my friend Mr. William M'Ilvaine of Philadelphia, because it seems to attest the fact of the creature having wandered as far south as Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, lat. 35°. "Captain Johnson, of New Jersey, was sailing, in the year 1806, from the West Indies, on the inner edge of the gulf stream, in a deeply laden brig, when they were becalmed, and the crew and passengers awe-struck by the sudden apparition of a creature having a cylindrical body of great length, and which lifted up its head eight feet above the water. After gazing at them for several minutes it retreated, making large undulations like a snake." The story had been so much discredited that the captain would only relate it to intimate friends.
After the year 1817, every marvelous tale was called in the United States a snake story; and when Colonel Perkins went to Washington twenty years ago, and was asked if he had ever known a person who had seen the sea serpent, he answered that he was one of the unfortunate individuals who saw it himself. I confess that when I left America in 1846, I was in a still more unfortunate predicament, for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it. Not that I ever imagined the northern seas to be now inhabited by a gigantic ophidian, for this hypothesis has always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable, seeing that, in the present state of the globe, there is no great development of reptile life in temperate or polar regions, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere. When we enter high latitudes, such as those in which the creature called a sea serpent most frequently occurs, we find even the smaller reptilians, such as frogs and newts, to grow rare or disappear; and there are no representatives of the hydrophis or true water-snake, nor of tortoises, nor of the batrachian or lizard tribes.
In like manner, in the geological periods, immediately antecedent to that when the present molluscous fauna came into existence, there was a similar absence of large reptiles, although there were then, as now, in colder latitudes, many huge sharks, seals, narwals, and whales. If, however, the creature observed in North America and Norway, should really prove to be some unknown species of any one of these last-mentioned families of vertebrata, I see no impropriety in its retaining the English name of sea serpent, just as one of the seals is now called a sea elephant, and a small fish of the Mediterranean, a sea horse; while other marine animals are named sea mice and urchins, although they have only a fanciful resemblance to hedgehogs or mice.
Some naturalists have argued that, if it were an undescribed species, some of its bones must, ere this, have been washed ashore; but I question whether we are as yet so well acquainted with all the tenants of the great deep as to entitle us to attach much weight to this argument from negative evidence; and I learn from good zoologists that there are whales so rare as never to have been seen since Sibbald described them in the middle of the seventeenth century. There is also a great cetacean, about thirty feet long, called Delphinorhyncus micropterus, of which only three specimens have ever been met with. One of these was thrown ashore forty years ago on the coast of Scotland, and the other two stranded on the shores of Belgium and France, and identified with the British species by Dr. Melville.
The doubts, however, which since my return from the United States, I have been led to entertain respecting the distinct and independent existence of the sea serpent, arise from a strong suspicion that it is a known species of sea animal which has actually been cast ashore in the Orkneys, and that some of its bones are now preserved in our museums, showing it to be of the squaline family, and no stranger to some of the zoologists whom it has perplexed, nor to many of the seafaring people whom it has frightened. In the summer of the year 1808, the fishermen of the Hebrides were terrified by a monster of huge size and unusual appearance, which created a great sensation in Scotland. Three or four months after this apparition, the body of an enormous sea monster was washed ashore (Sept. 1808) on the outer reefs at Rothesholm Head in Stronsa, one of the Orkneys, where it was first observed while still entire, and its length measured by two persons; after which, when somewhat decayed, it was swept in by another storm, and stranded on the beach, and there examined by others. Mr. Neill, well known as a naturalist, who had been on a visit to Stronsa the same year, but had left before this occurrence, immediately corresponded with friends on the spot, among others with Mr. Laing, the historian, and with a lawyer and physician, who collected evidence for him. Their affidavits, taken in 1808, respecting the monster, were published in the Transactions of the Wernerian Society, of which Mr. Neill was secretary, and were accompanied by a drawing of the skeleton, obviously ideal and very incorrect, with six legs and a long tail curving several times vertically. The man who sketched it reached the spot too late, and when scarcely any part of the animal remained entire, and the outline is admitted to have been taken by him and altered from a figure chalked out upon a table by another man who had seen it, while one witness denied its resemblance to what he had seen. But a carpenter, whose veracity, I am informed by Mr. Neill (in a letter dated 1848), may be trusted, had measured the carcass, when still whole, with his foot-rule, and found it to be fifty-five long, while a person who also measured it when entire, said it was nine fathoms long. The bristles of the mane, each fourteen inches in length, and described as having been luminous in the dark, were no doubt portions of a dorsal fin in a state of decomposition. One said that this mane extended from the shoulders to within two feet and a half of the tail, another that it reached to the tail: a variance which may entitle us to call in question the alleged continuity of the mane down the whole back. So strong was the propensity in Scotland to believe that the Stronsa animal was the sea serpent of the Norwegians, that Mr. Neill himself, after drawing up for the Wernerian Society his description of it from the different accounts communicated to him, called it Halsydrus Pontoppidani.
Parts of the cranium, scapular arch, fin, and vertebral column were sent to Dr. Barclay of Edinburgh, who had at that time the finest museum of comparative anatomy north of the Tweed, and he conceived them to belong to a new and entirely unknown monster.
If the imagination of good zoologists could be so preoccupied as to cause them at once to jump to the conclusion that the Stronsa animal and the Norwegian sea serpent were one and the same, we can not be surprised that the public in general placed the most implicit faith in that idea. That they did so, is proved by a passage recently published in Beattie's Life of Campbell, where the poet writes thus, in a letter dated February 13th, 1809:
"Of real life let me see what I have heard for the last fortnight: first, a snakemy friend Telford received a drawing of ithas been found thrown on the Orkney Isles; a sea snake with a mane like a horse, four feet thick, and fifty-five feet long. This is seriously true. Malcolm Laing, the historian, saw it, and sent a drawing of it to my friend."*
Now here we see the great inaccuracy of what may be styled contemporaneous testimony of a highly educated man, who had no motive or disposition to misrepresent facts. From the Wernerian Transactions and Mr. Neill's letter, I learn distinctly that Malcolm Laing never went to the shore of Stronsa to see the monster.
Fortunately, several of the vertebræ were forwarded, in 1809, to Sir Everard Home, in London, who at once pronounced them to belong to the Squalus maximus, or common basking shark. Figures of other portions sent to Edinburgh to Dr. Barclay, were also published by him in the Wernerian Transactions, and agree very well with Home's decision, although it is clear, from Barclay's Memoir, that he was very angry with the English anatomist for setting him right, and declaring it to be a shark. It was indeed very difficult to believe on any but the most convincing evidence that a carcass which was fifty-five feet long could be referable to a species, the largest known individual of which has never exceeded thirty-five or forty feet. But there seems no escape from Home's verdict; for the vertebræ are still in the College of Surgeons, where I have seen them, quite entire, and so identical with those of the Squalus maximus, that Mr. Owen is unwilling to imagine they can belong to any other species of the same genus.
* Campbell's Life, vol. ii. p. 169, 170.
Mr. Neill tells me, in his letter, that the basking shark is by no means uncommon in the Orkneys, where it is called the hockmar, and a large one was killed in Stromness Harbor in 1804, when he was there; yet it was agreed by all with whom he spoke in 1808, that the Stronsa animal was double the length of the largest hockmar ever stranded in their times in Orkney.
Unfortunately, no one observed the habits and motions of the monster before it was cast ashore; but the Rev. Donald Maclean, of Small Isles in the Hebrides, was requested to draw up a statement of what he recollected of the creature which had so much alarmed the fishermen in the summer of the same year. Before he penned his letter, which was printed as an appendix to Barclay's Memoir in 1809,* he had clearly been questioned by persons who were under the full persuasion that what he had seen, and the Stronsa animal, were identical with Pontoppidan's sea serpent. Maclean informs us, that it was about the month of June, 1808, when the huge creature in question, which looked at a distance like a small rock in the sea, gave chase to his boat, and he saw it first from the boat, and afterward from the land.
* Wern. Trans. vol. i. p. 444.
Its head was broad, of a form somewhat oval; its neck rather smaller. It moved by undulations up and down. When the head was above water, its motion was not so quick; when most elevated, it appeared to take a view of distant objects. It directed its "monstrous head," which still continued above water, toward the boat, and then plunged violently under water in pursuit of them. Afterward, when he saw it from the shore, "it moved off with its head above water for about half a mile before he lost sight of it. Its length he believed to be from seventy to eighty feet." "About the same time the crews of thirteen fishing boats, off the island of Canna, were terrified by this monster; and the crew of one boat saw it coming toward them, between Rum and Canna, with its head high above water."*
* Wern. Trans. Edinburgh, vol. i. p. 444.
Mr. Maclean adds, evidently in answer to a question put by his correspondent, that he saw nothing of the mane; and adds, "when nearest to me it did not raise its head wholly above water, so that the neck being under water, I could perceive no shining filaments thereon, if it had any." And he also observes: "It had no fin that I could perceive, and seemed to me to move progressively by undulations up and down." Most of my readers are probably satisfied by this time, that if nothing had come down to us but oral testimony, or even published accounts without figures respecting the creature seen in the Hebrides in 1808, as well as that afterward stranded in Orkney, we should all of us have felt sure that both of them were one and the same monster, and no other than the sea snake of Pontoppidan, or that so often seen on the eastern coast of North America. How much delusion in this case has been dispelled by the preservation of a few bones! May we not then presume that other sea serpents were also sharks? If so, how are we to reconcile recorded appearances with this hypothesis? It was justly remarked by Dr. Fleming, in his British Animals, 1828 (p. 174), that Maclean's account of a creature, which raised its head above the water and viewed distant objects, was opposed to the idea of its being referable to the class of cartilaginous fishes, for no shark lifts its head out of the sea as it swims. I may also remark, that the descriptions commonly given, both by the Norwegians and North Americans, would agree better with the appearance of a large seal with a mane, chased by a shoat of porpoises, than with a shark.
But when we question the evidence more closely, we must make great allowance for the incompetence of observers wholly ignorant of zoology. In the first place, we must dismiss from our minds the image of a shark as it appears when out of the water, or as stuffed in a museum. The annexed figure represents the outline of the Squalus maximus, of which when immersed, but swimming near the surface, three points only could be seen above water at the same time, namely, the prominence of the back, with the first dorsal fin, a; secondly, the second dorsal fin, b; and thirdly, the upper lobe of the tail, c.
Dr. Melville informed me that he once saw a large species of shark, swimming at the rate of ten miles an hour, in Torres Strait, off Australia; and, besides the lateral flexures of the tail, which are the principal propelling power, the creature described as it advanced a series of vertical undulations, not by the actual bending of the body itself, but by the whole animal first rising near to the surface and then dipping down again, so that the dorsal fin and part of the back were occasionally lifted up to a considerable height. Now it strikes me, that if a very huge shark was going at the rate of twenty miles an hour, as stated by some of the observers, that portion of the back which emerged in front might easily be taken for the head, and the dorsal fin behind it for the mane; and in this manner we may explain the three projecting points, a, b, c, fig. 1, p. 109, given in the drawing, sketched from memory, by Mr. Barry of Nova Scotia. The smaller undulations seen by the same person, intervening between the three larger, may very well be referred to a series of waves raised in the water by a rapid passage through it of so bulky a body. Indeed, some of the drawings which I have seen of the northern sea snake, agree perfectly with the idea of the projecting back of a shark followed by a succession of waves, diminishing in size as they recede from the dorsal prominence.
The parts before mentioned as alone visible above water would form so small a portion of the whole body, that they might easily convey the notion of narrowness as compared to great length and the assertion of a few witnesses that the dorsal projections were pointed, may have arisen from their having taken a more accurate look at the shape of the fins, and distinguished them better from the intervening waves of the sea. But according to this view, the large eyes seen in the "blunt head" by several observers, must have been imaginary, unless in cases where they may have really been looking at a seal. It can hardly be doubted that some good marksmen, both in Norway and New England, who fired at the animal, sent bullets into what they took to be the head, and the fact that the wound seems never to have produced serious injury, although in one case blood flowed freely, accords perfectly with the hypothesis that they were firing at the dorsal prominence, and not at the head of a shark. The opinion of most of the observers that the undulations were coincident with the rapid movements of the creature, agrees well with our theory, which refers the greater number of the projections to waves of the sea. On the other hand, as several of the protuberances are real, consisting of three fins and a part of the back, the emergence of these parts may explain what other witnesses beheld. Dr. Melville has suggested to me, that if the speed were as great as stated, and the progressive movement such as he has described,* the three fins would be first submerged, and then reemerge in such rapid succession, that the image of one set would be retained on the retina of the eye after another set had become visible, and they might be counted over and over again, and multiplied indefinitely. Although I think this explanation unnecessary in most cases, such a confusion of the images seems very possible, when we recollect that the fins would be always mingled with waves of the sea, which are said, in the Norwegian accounts of 1845, to have been so great, that they broke on the coast in calm weather, when the serpent swam by, as if a steamer at full speed was passing near the shore.
* Ante, p. 119.
I conclude, therefore, that the sea serpent of North America and the German Ocean is a shark, probably the Squalus maximus, a species which seems, from the measurements taken in Orkney in 1808, to attain sometimes, when old, a much larger size than had ever been previously imagined. It may be objected that this opinion is directly opposed to a great body of evidence which has been accumulating for nearly a century, derived partly from experienced sea-faring men, and partly from observers on the land, some of whom were of the educated class. I answer that most of them caught glimpses only of the creature when in rapid motion and in its own element, four-fifths or more of the body being submerged; and when, at length, the whole carcass of a monster mistaken for a sea snake was stranded, touched, and measured, and parts of it sent to the ablest anatomists and zoologists in Scotland, we narrowly escaped having transmitted to us, without power of refutation, a tale as marvelous and fabulous concerning its form and nature, as was ever charged against Pontoppidan by the most skeptical of his critics.*
* After the above was written, a letter appeared in the English newspapers, by Captain M'Quhae, R.N., of the Dædalus frigate, dated Oct. 7, 1848, giving an account of "the sea serpent" seen by him, Aug. 6, 1848, lat. 24° 44' S. between the Cape and St. Helena, about 300 miles distant from the western coast of Africa; the length estimated at sixty feet, head held four feet above water, with something like the mane of a horse on its back which was straight and inflexible. Professor Owen has declared his opinion, after seeing the drawing of the animal, sent to the Admiralty by Captain M'Quhae, "that it may have been the largest of the seal tribe, the sea-elephant of the southern whalers, Phoca proboscidea, which sometimes attains a length of thirty feet, and individuals of which have been known to have been floated by icebergs toward the Cape. This species has coarse hair on the upper part of its inflexible trunk which might appear like a mane. The chief impelling force would be the deeply immersed terminal fins and tail, which would create a long eddy, readily mistakable for an indefinite prolongation of the body."
Mr. Owen's conjecture appears to me very probable; but, before I heard it, I had made up my mind that the creature seen by Captain M'Quhae differed front the sea serpent of the Norwegians and New Englanders, from whose description it varies materially, especially in the absence, when at full speed, of apparent undulations, or dorsal prominences.