Long, Dark, and Scaly: Gloucester Sea Serpent Memorials

November 26, 2020 — The Gloucester Sea Serpent is the most documented sea serpent in cryptid lore. Even more documented than all the famous landlocked lake monsters. Way more than Nessie. Way more than Champ. Way more than Ogopogo. But sea serpents don’t get cutesy nicknames like their freshwater cousins do. But in this case, that might be because Glousty sounds awful, like one of the negative side effects of a pharmaceutical (eye mucus, heel pimples, and gloustiness may occur—See? Even in that gross list gloustiness is the worst.).

But the Gloucester Sea Serpent really tried to earn a nickname. Its appearance was no mere murky one-night-stand of a cryptid encounter. Its life story no brief splash and blurry picture. It was not, in the slightly altered words of Nick Cave, “two great big humps and then gone.” This thing hung around for two years off the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Ann, upon which Gloucester is situated, and was seen by hundreds of people.

It all started in 1817. Wait. Let’s go back a couple centuries. Because what happens with these monster legends is that if somebody doesn’t stretch them to indigenous or colonial times, they seem less valid. So the first official sighting of the Gloucester Sea Serpent was 1638, when English sojourner John Josseyln recorded that he had been told about a long serpentine creature in Cape Ann coiled “like a cable” on a rock that the Native Americans were afraid would attack them. There, now it’s an official cryptid legend.

But 1817 is when the real magic in the water happened. It was August, and a long humpy thing (not the words of Nick Cave) was found swimming around off the coast of the cape. It had a flattened, short-snouted head as big as a horse, was somewhere between 60-100 feet long, dark brown to black in color, and as thick as half a barrel. “Classic sea serpent,” is the answer to that Wheel of Fortune puzzle.

Over the course of those two years, scientists observed it, crowds watched it for hours from the shore, sailors attacked it. At one point a lumpy snake was found on land and thought to be Son of Gloucester Sea Serpent! and even got its own Latin name (Scoliophis Atlanticus), until further analysis shifted the interpretation to deformed snake. And through all of that, the Gloucester Sea Serpent kept undulating.

It really has all the markings of a TV series that doesn’t focus so much on the creature but uses it as a backdrop to some secret sins that the town is working through. Which I think is the plot of the BBC series The Loch, but I hear they don’t have enough Nessie action in it.

My own first sighting of Glousty was in 2013 at Castle Island, in Boston, 45 miles south of Cape Ann. I was researching Poe-Land, visiting Fort Independence where E.A. Poe was first stationed for his military career. I’d heard that they had engraved his face onto a plaque on a nearby playground, so I went to take a look.

The playground area was pentagonal, like the fort, and in each of the five corners was a stone hub, and on each stone hub was a pentagonal plaque, with five illustrated factoids about the fort punched into the stainless steel. One of those 25 factoids showed a cartoonish sea serpent with horns and the explanation, “In 1818, sentries reported seeing a sea serpent. There have been other unverified reports (sitings) [sic].”  

I took a photo and thought little more of it, thinking it must be the only physical testament to the creature in the region. Unless you count Wendy Ross’s Leviathan art installation, a large wire-framed sea serpent descending the stairs off Sea Port Boulevard in Boston. The piece was installed in 2006, and I’ve seen it a few times, but I’ve never seen it attached to the story of the Gloucester Sea Serpent, unfortunately. Again, the upper Massachusetts coast isn’t capitalizing on Glousty like Loch Ness or any of the other lake towns that need serpent-shaped booster shots to the local economy.

But then, earlier this year, while reading Colin Dickey’s The Unidentified, I learned about the Cressy Beach mural in Gloucester. It’s an image of a green dragon-like sea serpent, painted on a boulder on the beach. It was first painted in 1955 by Robert Stephenson, when he was nineteen years old (he died in 2015, just short of 80 years old). Over the years, it’s been touched up and repainted, completely vandalized and painted over. In fact, the creature is now rampant on a field of white, from when a past version of it was vandalized.

And I’m having the devil of a time finding anything from Stephenson’s own words directly connecting the medieval-looking creature to Glousty. In fact, most of the verbiage around the mural is vague when it comes to that. Still, once your art is out there, the audience owns it, so this is at least a Glousty mural now.

I wanted to see it immediately, but it was summer and that meant Gloucester beaches would be crowded and COVID-y. So I waited for the chill of November to scour the sand of plaque-ridden sun-worshippers and open all the parking spots.

And while the cold wasn’t too bad when we arrived, the wind tried its damnedest to rip my face skin from my skull. But the mural was a quick find. Cressy Beach is tiny, and you can see the green monster on the left if you’re facing the harbor. The outline of a skull was also painted on a nearby rock, showcasing to me the continued vulnerability of the sea serpent mural. After tide-pooling until our wind-burn was bright red, we drove a mile and a half to downtown Gloucester to see another art installation more directly inspired by the sea serpent. One I had just found out about that morning while prepping for Cressy Beach.

In 2017, on the 200th anniversary of that first 1817 sighting, the Cape Ann Museum unveiled a large bronze statue of the Gloucester Sea Serpent wrapped around a rock just outside their front door.

Created by Chris Williams, the creature is smaller than the lower end of its size estimate but makes up for the size with its unabashed monsterhood. It’s toothy mouth and soulless eyes will take you right to the bottom of the cold, dark drink.

And there you have it. The Gloucester Sea Serpent has more memorials than many humanitarians. And I’m okay with that. Wrap another one around Gloucester’s’ famous Fisherman statue, and the place’ll start approaching Loch Ness levels of local pride for Glousty (if condition persists longer than six hours, please see your doctor).