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1852, March: Captain Seabury’s Serpent

In March, 1852, a letter stated to be from Captain Jason Seabury1 of the ship Monongahela (hailing from New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the United States) was printed in full in many newspapers, and became one of the hot topics of the day2... for Seabury stated that his ship had encountered and killed a genuine sea serpent!

        In the letter Captain Seabury stated that on the morning of January 13, 1852, the man on look out reported 'white water', a sign of sealife activity. Seabury was hopeful they had run across a sperm whale, their intended prey for the trip, and ordered the Monongahela to stay a good distance from the location indicated to prevent an animal from being scared away. In looking at the 'white water', it seemed to Seabury it was most likely a school of porpoises; but he ordered the long boats to be prepared, just in case, and told the look out to keep watching. Juat a few moments later, around 7am, the look out was pointing and shouting again; and Captain Seabury looked just in time to see a patch of 'black skin' before it disappeared under the water.

        The look out stated that, whatever the creature was, it was not a whale... it was too big; too long. Seabury ordered his men to be prepared to launch, then waited to see if the creature would surface again. Seabury and his men had to wait almost an hour before the next sighting was made. About on mile off the side of the vessal the Captain could see a body that moved slowly with a motion 'like the waving of a rope when shaken and held in the hand.' The creature's head was not visible. Silently the crew watched as more of the body surfaced, exposing its great length. Then the tail began to vibrate, agitating the water, and the head of the strange beast rose and lifted above the surface; the creature appeared to be in agony. 

        Captain Seabury, realizing they were in fact looking at a legendary sea-serpent, ordered his men to the boats... but they hesitated, questioning the value of pursuing the formidible beast. Seabury claims to have given a stirring speech to all his men, which came down to the point that they could tell no one of the sighting without being asked if they had tried to take the serpent; that they could be cowards, and therefore tell no one of the sighting, or be brave and risk all so as no one could ever question their courage. Calling for volunteers, all of the Americans stepped forward, 'followed by all but one native and two Englishmen.'

        As the long boats were being checked, the Monongahela came around and proceeded to chase 'his snakeship.' At one point the strong wind broke part of the ship's mast, and they lost sight of the serpent. Repairs were quickly made, and they continued in the direction they had been traveling hoping to see the beast again; an hour later they did. Now the chase continued for some time until the sepent slowed to a stop, and the Monongahela was able to drop the longboats within a half-mile of the creature. Seabury took the lead boat, and had his harpooner -- a James Whittemore, of Vermont, we're told -- sink two harpoons deep into the side of the serpent. They began to pull away, but there was no perceptible movement of the creature. Seabury shifted ends of the boat with the steerer and pulled out a lance with the intent of testing the serpent... and this is when the tail and the head of the serpent shot out of the water towards the wounded area.

        The fast approaching head of the beast frightened the crew, and three jumped overboard. Seabury instinctively held the lance up to protect himself, unintentionally spearing the beast straight through the eye. Knocked off the boat, the captain struggled to surface twice... when he made it, surrounded by bloody foam, the serpent had disappeared from the surface. Seabury yelled for the line to be taken up, and a second rope was attached just before the full length of the first vanished over the side of the longboat. All the men were rescued, with no fatalities or severe wounds.

        A third line had been attached to the quickly unfurling rope when the rope was transfer to the Monongahela. By the time a forth line was attached, it seemed the serpent had stopped descending; but Seabury worried that pulling on the ropes might bring the harpoons free and lose the beast forever. It was estimated to be 1,000 fathoms down -- around 6,000 feet below the surface. To make matters worse, the wind was now blowing furiously and it was a labor to keep the ship steady while watching the line.

The Beast Itself

At 4:00AM on January 14th, 16 hours after the serpent went down, the line went slack. About two of the lines were drawn in before it was taut again. The captain had everyone take a break for breakfast, as there was nothing more to do immediately... and as they were finishing their meal, the cook alerted them that the creature had surfaced. All that was visible above the surface was the bit of the serpent they had harpooned; Seabury lowered three longboats, and they lanced the body repeatedly with no signs of life appearing. As they were doing this, more and more of the body came to the surface. They continued to lance... and suddenly, the beast drew himself up, and the longboats pulled away as fast as they could. The final death throes of the sea serpent lasted about fifteen minutes, and then it lay still.

        As the serpent's body was floating, it was relatively easy to pull it alongside the ship. It was decided to save his head, skin, and bones, as it was very unlikely they could move the whole body to a port. A crewman who could draw reasonably well was asked to sketch the creature as it now lay, and another was set to measure the beast before they attempted to render the body down. Seabury promised in his letter to provide a fuller detailed description of the beast at a later time, then gave these brief highlights: the serpent was a male, length 103 feet 7 inches, 19 feet 1 inch around the neck, 24 feet 6 inches around the 'shoulders', and 49 feet and 4 inches around at the fullest part of the body, a section that looked distended. The head was long and flat with ridges, the bones of the lower jaw "separate" (so perhaps like a snake's and able to open very wide), and the tongue "had its end like the head of a heart" (which I don't understand, frankly). The tail ran almost down to a point, terminating instead in a flat, firm cartilage. The serpent's back was black, fading to brown on the sides, then yellow; along two-thirds of its belly was a white streak. In addition, there were random dark spots scattered all across its skin.

        It was discovered that the serpent had a sub-dermal layer of blubber like a whale's all across its body, but this layer was only about four inches thick; it rendered a clear oil that burnt nearly as fast as turpentine. Which great effort, the body was broken down. The head was brought aboard, and salt was used to prepare it for preservation. It took nearly three days to remove all of the bones, and these were still being cleaned when Seabury prepared his letter. They were described as 'porous and dark couloured.' The heart and one eye of the serpent were preserved in large jars of liquor. The serpent's stomach contained chucks of squid and a large black fish.

        Upon examing the head closer it was found the jaws contained 94 teeth, very sharp and with an exposed section as large as a man's thumb above the gumline. The teeth pointed backward into the mouth. In addition, the serpent had two spiracles -- breathing holes on top of its head much as whales' possess -- so the beast had to surface to breath. The serpent also had four 'swimming paws' which were like lumps of hard loose flesh. The joints in the serpent's back were very loose, and it seemed as if it could move each vertebrae separately from the others, allowing for smooth motion when it swam.

        On February 6, according to Seabury's letter, the brig Gypsy, captained by a man called Sturges, was sighted and signaled. It was Captain Sturges whom Seabury entrusted his letter to, to make sure news of the capture reached port before the Monongahela would. At the time the letter was handed over, Seabury and his men were worried the head wouldn't make it to port, as it was now emitting an offensive odor, a strong indication of rot. The Gypsy was bound for the port at Bridgeport, where Sturges promised to take Seabury's letter to the post-office and have it sent to New Bedford, where the first newspaper reports of the story were later published.

But... Did It Happen?

Right from the start many questioned the truth of the letter.

        The Monongahela had left port at New Bedford in October, 1850, to hunt whales; and since these tours took years, no one had seen or heard from Captain Seabury or the ship until the letter arrived. Since there was no means by which to contact the captain, no further answers would be had until they returned to port... but that never happened.

        By 1853, it was suspected that the Monongahela had been lost in the Arctic Circle; and in 1855 wreckage from the ship was found by a number of other whalers. Because whales were becoming harder to locate, ships had been traveling further and further into the arctic regions in their hunts, and it seems likely the Monongahela was trapped by ice during such an excursion. Shipping records now list the Monongahela as lost with all hands sometime in 1853, near the Aleutian Islands; specifically, the Fox Islands to the East of the chain.

        With no way to confirm the content of the letter, either against the man who supposedly wrote it or the evidence he supposedly carried on the now missing ship, a very real possibility of hoax now reared it's ugly head. The topic of sea-serpents was a common point of discussion in the late 1800's; the timing of the letter was therefore well timed to get attention... possibly too well timed.

        Since the ship had been out of port for two years and wasn't expected back for at least another, it would be a good choice to attribute the story to if an outside hoaxer wanted to fake the incident for a laugh. Jokes such as this were by no means uncommon during the victorian era; newspapers loved these fakes because they sold papers, so such tales often got very good coverage indeed.

        A further indicator that the story was likely false was in the delivery of the letter. While a ship named the Gypsy did in fact exist, it was not captained by a man named Sturges; it was captained by Thomas Mickell, Jr. The Gypsy had left port in New Bedford in 1851, and didn't return back until 1855, making it a good choice as a second ship to involve in the story... but for some reason, whoever wrote the letter got the captain's name wrong. But no major public declaration of these problems was made and so, for the public at large, the story was considered a curious but now unconfirmably legend.

Two Can Play?

The next development in the story came in 1867, fifteen years after the original letter, when the book Three Times Around the World, by Alonzo D. Sampson was published. The book was an autobiography of Sampson's days as a sailor and, among other things, Sampson made the odd claim to have been the boatsteerer upon a second vessal that was present when the Monongahela caught the sea-serpent.

        As Sampson tells his story, he had been a boatsteerer aboard a ship called the Rebecca Sims, hailing from Philadelphia and captained by Samuel B. Gavitt in 1852. They had been sailing along with the Monongahela when the white water was spotted, and also sent out long boats to investigate; and both groups attacked the beast at the same time from opposite sides. Sampson, without giving a reason, states that Captain Seabury and the Monongahela then got the beast and the glory. Sampson went on to describe the serpent's head as "like an alligator's, and about 10 feet long."

        Unfortunately for Sampson's claims, however, there were two problems. First, there was no reason Captain Seabury would not have mentioned the presence of a second ship at the capture. With the physical evidence safely aboard the Monongahela, he could hardly have been worried about Gavitt laying claim to the kill; and a second set of witnesses would only support Seabury's letter further.

        Secondly, and more damning a problem, the Rebecca Sims was not captained by Samuel Gavitt until 1853, the year the Monongahela went missing. So Sampson's story was purely an attempt to use a going fish story to sell his book. At the time, though, Sampson's attempt to spice up his book made no major impact.

        The major impact came in 1954, instead.

Stranger Still...

A little over a hundred years after Seabury's letter was printed in newspapers worldwide, the near forgotten tale was revived by Frank Edwards, an extremely popular writer on topics of a strange nature. However, in his 1959 book Stranger Than Science which retold the account of Seabury's serpent, Edwards printed a very different version of the legend than the original letter did. This is because Edwards' got the story from a bad source: in 1954, Seabury's letter and Sampson's claims had both been presented again in an article in the maritime magazine Ships and the Sea, and it is undoubtable that Frank Edwards version of the legend originally came from here. The author of the article, Everett D. Allen, presented a dramatic retelling of almost all of the events recounted in Captain Seabury's letter; this was then followed by a brief discussion of the claims made by Sampson in his book regarding the presence of the Rebecca Sims at the capture of the serpent. And by some simple, yet very questionable, exclusion of information Allen rewrote an important part of the legend.

        This is because the one part of Seabury's letter that Allen didn't mention in his article was the part where the letter was sent back to port with the Gypsy; in fact, Allen's article doesn't mention the Gypsy at all. Instead, Allen stated that the ship most likely to have brought Seabury's letter to shore was the Rebecca Sims, "even though there exists some confusion of dates in the records"... which basically meant 'the records show the Rebecca Sims wasn't there, but we're ignoring that.' By the time a copy of Allen's version of the legend reached Frank Edwards, it had been simplified and changed further: but Edwards knew a good story when he heard one. So Edwards added Allen's version of the legend to his 1959 book, and because Stranger Than Science was extremely popular -- it went through multiple printings and was published worldwide in many different languages for decades -- many writers since 1959 have repeated Edwards new version of the story as if it were the correct one.

        As Edwards tells Seabury's tale: on the morning of January 13, 1852, Captain Seabury was alerted by the lookout of his sailing vessal that there was something odd in the waters about a half mile off the port bow. All Seabury could determine through his telescope was that it was some sort of large animal, writhing as if in pain... so likely a whale, and an injured or sick one at that, possibly harpooned by a different vessal. The Captain had three longboats launched to go after the beast, for the ship itself couldn't catch enough wind to manage better than a crawl. Seabury himself was in the first longboat, standing on the bow as it and the others pulled alongside the animal, and Seabury sunk his harpoon into it. All the sailors immediately rowed as hard as they could to get distance between themselves and the newly injured beast.

        A great head, ten feet in length and clearly not that of a whale, raised out of the water and attacked; two boats were capsized almost instantly, and the third, with Captain Seabury, scrambled to rescue men from the water as the beast dove, dragging the heavy harpoon line from the longboat behind it. The line shot down so steady and fast that Seabury was forced to quickly attach his spare line to increase the remaining length. Still the line dropped, until the beast reached an estimated depth of one-thousand feet and stopped. By this time the Monongahela had reached the site of the struggle followed by another ship, the Rebecca Sims, and Seabury's vessal picked up both the crewmen and the line. Seabury ordered the line made fast, and then rowed to the Rebecca Sims to talk to her captain, Samuel Gavitt.

        On the following morning, the Monongahela began to pull in the line; when about half the line was in, the carcass of the creature floated to the surface. In all, the beast was well over the length of the Monongahela itself, which was more than 100 feet stem to stern, and had a head like a gigantic alligator with 94 teeth that were about three inches long each, and curved backwards like a snake's. It's neck was about ten feet in diameter, its body about fifty feet in diameter, and it had no fins or legs. Its skin was a brownish gray, with a three foot wide light stripe running down the back of the body. The tail end was fifteen feet of a knobby, sturgeon like skin.

        Amazing though the catch was, Seabury had to be practical; it would be impossible to transport the body intact, so he decided to render it as they would a whale. Accordingly, the body was brought to the side of the ship and the attempt at flensing began... but it soon became obvious that the odd animal was tough skinned, and had no blubber that could be taken. Instead, the head was hacked off, and the body set adrift after one sailor made a drawing of the beast which all aboard signed. The head was put into a huge pickling vat to preserve it, and Seabury made a full written report of the incident and gave it to Captain Gavitt to deliver to New Bedford, as the Rebecca Sims was headed home and the Monongahela was just starting their trip. Unfortunately, this report is all that now exists of the story, as the Monongahela was never seen again. Years after the occurrence, the Monongahela's nameboard washed up on the shore of Umnak Island, in the Aleutians... and nothing more has been found since.

        And thus ends the Edwards' version of Seabury's serpent.

End of the Story?

While everything added after the Seabury letter in 1852 is definitely false, there still remains a question mark over the original letter... the only thing that indicates it's possible falsehood is the naming of Sturges as captain of the Gypsy, and the question of whether the Gypsy had stopped at a port to mail the letter. Perhaps Sturges was the name of a crewman on the ship that Seabury mistakenly referred to as captain; perhaps the log of the Gypsy can be found and will show if they really did encounter the Monongahela... but unless new evidence like this arises, then the question mark over the incident of the Seabury serpent will never be dispelled.