A sea serpent off Cape Ann!

Published by E[dmund] J[ames] Lane and J[oseph] How, SEA SERPENT Engraved from a drawing taken from Life as appeared in GLOUCESTER HARBOUR August 23d, 1817. Boston, ca. 1817.
Engraving on wove paper, 11 3/8”h x 15 ¾”w pus title and wide margins, early wash color

A delightful and extremely rare engraving of a sea serpent sighted in 1817 off Gloucester, Massachusetts.

In August of 1817 reports began to circulate of a great serpent sighted in Gloucester Harbor and around Cape Ann. They caused a sensation, with dozens of reports appearing in the local press. The Boston Weekly Messenger for August 21 reported for example that

“He is declared by some persons… to be 60 or 70 feet in length, round, and of the diameter of a barrel. Others state his length variously, from 50 to 100 feet. His motions are serpentine, extremely varied, and exceedingly rapid…. He appears to be full of joins and resembles a string of buoys on a net rope, as set in the water to catch herring. Others describe him as like a string of water casks….. Various attempts have been made, without success, to take him. Four boats went out on Thursday, filled with adventurous sailors and experienced gunners, armed with muskets, harpoons, &c. Three muskets were discharged at him, from a distance of 30 feet, two balls were thought to strike his head, but without effect.”

The sightings inspired several engravings produced for popular consumption, including this delightful image of Gloucester Harbor as seen from the east. The serpent occupies most of the foreground, with the town visible in the far distance. The creature itself is rather more comical than fearsome, resembling a cross between a sea serpent, a bird, and a pinecone. Nonetheless rowing toward it are several boats packed with citizens armed with guns, spears, gaffs, and boat hooks. The image is extraordinarily rare, and I have been able to locate but one other impression, held by the American Antiquarian Society.

Neither the original artist nor the engraver are named, and I find no ads in the period press shedding light on their identities or offering more information on publishers Lane and How. The image is printed on wove paper watermarked “T G & Co.” This was manufactured by pioneering paper makers Thomas and Joshua Gilpin, who from 1787 to 1837 operated a mill on Brandywine Creek north of Wilmington, Delaware. (Gravell, American Watermarks, PM-82 and fig. 914)

There exist at least two other period engravings of the serpent, both very different from that offered here. The Boston Athenaeum holds “A correct view of the town and outer harbor of Gloucester and the appearance of the sea serpent,” said to be based on a sketch by one Captain John Beach, Jr. This depicts a leaner, more fearsome serpent within yards of the shoreline. I also find an engraving of the “Monstrous Sea Serpent as Seen at Cape Ann,” larger and more fearsome still, a small reproduction of which may be viewed here.

The Gloucester sea monster met with a very mixed response. On the one hand, the New England Linnaean Society in all seriousness appointed a committee to conduct an investigation. The committee solicited written testimony, took depositions, and examined reports of sightings elsewhere in the world. Above all, it examined the corpse of a strange sea animal washed up weeks later on the Gloucester shore, smaller than the purported serpent but similar in other respects. Its final report ultimately concluded that the two creatures were examples of an entirely new genus, which it denominated Scoliophis Atlanticus.  

On the other hand, the sightings, and the seriousness with which they were taken by some in the scientific community, were elsewhere met with extreme ridicule. For example, poet William Crafts of South Carolina was provoked to publish in 1819 the verse farce The Sea Serpent, or Gloucester Hoax. A Dramatic Jeu d’Esprit, in Three Acts!

OCLC 620143321, citing a lone impression at the American Antiquarian Society.


Carefully-mended tear extending 3” into printed image from lower margin. Some other minor mends at edges and scattered soiling in margins.