Fresh look at vintage mystery

A late-blooming historian revisits the sea serpent that roiled Gloucester in 1817

Wayne Soini revisits Stacy Boulevard in his old hometown, the setting for his first book; he will be at the Cape Ann Museum on Saturday to discuss “Gloucester’s Sea Serpent,’’ his examination of the historical record, including a map and drawing (detail below), from a series of sightings in 1817. Wayne Soini revisits Stacy Boulevard in his old hometown, the setting for his first book; he will be at the Cape Ann Museum on Saturday to discuss “Gloucester’s Sea Serpent,’’ his examination of the historical record, including a map and drawing (detail below), from a series of sightings in 1817. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2010

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GLOUCESTER — As often happens with such stories, the identities of the first witnesses to the sea serpent’s appearance are shrouded in mystery.

Two woman reported seeing a “sea monster’’ enter Gloucester Harbor on Aug. 6, 1817, but perhaps because they were women, or because their tale seemed so fantastic, their names were not recorded.

Over the next couple of weeks, dozens of people reported seeing a swimming creature they variously described as 40 or 70 or 100 feet long, with humps or undulations breaking the surface at regular intervals, and a head like a snake or a horse or a dog. Hundreds more saw it but were never asked for details. One young man got close enough to take a shot at it from a boat. An amateur scientific society in Boston even commissioned a local justice of the peace with the Western-hero name of Lonson Nash to depose the witnesses and file a report.

Eventually the serpent stopped surfacing, and the story sank out of sight.

Some 140 years later, a fanciful vintage drawing of the creature caught a local fifth-grader’s imagination during a school trip to the Cape Ann Museum. Now that boy is close to retirement, and has penned a book about the sea serpent, the excitement that it brought to the city, and the men whose lives it intersected.

Wayne Soini will be discussing his book, “Gloucester’s Sea Serpent’’ (History Press, 2010), in a free program 3 p.m. Saturday at the museum, 27 Pleasant St. The 62-year-old Gloucester native lives in Brookline now, but he lights up when he talks about the trip to the museum back around 1958, and the volunteer docent who told Beeman Memorial School teacher Paul Harley’s class about the sea serpent that had visited their town.

“She was captivating . . . and just grabbed the attention of a fifth-grader enormously,’’ Soini said. “We were thinking it happened yesterday or last week. It really was quite a story to go through. We’re all believing it — until she points out this illustration, framed behind glass, of this dragon, this golden-scaled dragon. And then she asks us how many of us believe a sea serpent came to Gloucester Harbor — nobody, me included. Once you see this illustration, no. We didn’t believe it.’’

That has changed. “I had to grow up and go to law school and become a local historian,’’ Soini said, before he could “find all these materials make sense to me, that there was actually a sea serpent, an enormous animal probably related to the whale, two to four tons, 50 to 100 feet long, that visited Gloucester and scared the hell out of people.’’

Soini earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts Boston last year, and heading toward retirement from his job as a lawyer with the Middlesex County sheriff’s office, he decided to dig into the old story.

He discovered that when word spread of the sea serpent in 1817, Judge John Davis was chairman of the Boston chapter of the Linnaean Society, dedicated to the scientific cataloging of all life on earth. Davis also belonged to the Federalist Party, and he asked Nash, a fellow party member from Gloucester, to conduct the interviews here.

In order to maintain scientific standards, Davis provided 25 specific questions that Nash should ask the witnesses. They’re included as part of the report Davis eventually produced, a falling-apart copy of which is kept in a plastic envelope in the Cape Ann Museum’s library.

The list includes:

“1. When did you first see this animal?’’

“2. How often and how long at a time?’’

“17. Had it gills or breathing holes and where?’’

“19. Had it a mane or hairs and where?’’

“22. Did it appear to pursue, avoid or notice any thing?’’

In Boston, Davis interviewed several men from Newburyport who had seen the creature from a passing ship, then began writing his report. Alas, there was a snake in the grass — literally.

A man in a hayfield near Loblolly Cove in what’s now Rockport killed a large, deformed snake, which made news and eventually attracted the attention of Nash and the Linnaean Society committee.

By the time the report on the Gloucester sightings was published, they’d become convinced that the snake was an offspring of the sea monster, thus dooming their scientific credibility ever after.

Soini’s book also draws from the notes of C.L. Sargent, who conducted his own investigation but died before completing it. Nash’s witnesses were all men of a certain standing in society, while Sargent talked to others, including women. Soini thinks the two women credited with the first sighting may be among those who spoke to Sargent, but it’s one of many questions that will likely never be answered, he said.

Among those helping Soini were two of his classmates from Gloucester High School’s class of 1966. Manuel Simoes provided present-day photos from around the harbor, and Roseanne Cody provided some historical postcard images. Proceeds from the book will benefit the museum and a Gloucester High scholarship fund.

Soini is also in touch with someone who was with him on that Beeman School class trip: Cape Ann Museum board president John Cunningham, a Gloucester lawyer. Cunningham doesn’t remember the fateful outing, but he says with a chuckle, “I trust Wayne’s recollection.’’

The ties they all have are “a nice Cape Ann story,’’ Cunningham said. “It tells you a lot about the community, about the people, that they keep their love of Cape Ann and maintain their connections.’’

Soini has done a great job providing historical, cultural and political context to what is ultimately an enigma, Cunningham said. He said he hopes the people of 1817 really did see a sea monster.

“It’s a great tale,’’ he said. “I’m going to keep my eyes open.’’

Quoted in "Gloucester's Sea Serpent,'' by Wayne Soini:

“I saw a strange marine animal, that I believe to be a serpent.’’ — CAPTAIN SOLOMON ALLEN III

“His head appeared shaped much like the head of the sea turtle, and he carried his head from ten to twelve inches above the surface of the water.’’ — AMOS STORY

“When immersed in the water, his speed was greater, moving, I should say, at the rate of a mile in two or at most three minutes.’’ — LONSON NASH

“If he should be taken, I have no doubt that his length will be found seventy feet at least. I should not be surprised if he should be found one hundred feet long.’’ — LONSON NASH

“I had a good gun, and took good aim. I aimed at his head, and think I must have hit him.’’ — MATTHEW GAFFNEY