Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Two of the Earliest Yet-Known Sightings of The Sea Serpent of the Sound that Plied Waters Off the Shores of Pelham

As I have noted before, Loch Ness, Scotland has nothing on the little Town of Pelham, New York.  A sea serpent known variously as The Sea Serpent of the Sound, The City Island Sea Serpent, and other appellations has been sighted off Pelham shores on many more occasions than Nessie has been spotted.  Moreover, Pelham's own sea serpent clearly is a much fiercer beast that has tossed ships out of the water, grabbed and crushed porpoises throwing their bodies high into the air, and has even taken on steamboats in the waters of the Sound.  The gentle ambling Nessie of Loch Ness must be a doting, slow, and gentle distant relative of the fierce City Island Sea Serpent.

I have written of the Sea Serpent of the Sound on numerous occasions and even have an extensive article on the fearsome beast coming out in an upcoming issue of the magazine Westchester Historian, an amazing journal that has been published continuously since 1925.  For examples of my prior articles on the Sea Serpent of the Sound, see:

Bell, Blake A., The Sea Serpent of the Sound:  Spotted in Pelham Waters in 1877, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIV, Issue 29, July 29, 2005, p. 9, col. 1. 

Wed., Jun. 29, 2005:  The Sea Serpent of the Sound: Spotted in Pelham Waters in 1877 (Part I)

Thu., Jun. 30, 2005:  The Sea Serpent of the Sound: Spotted in Pelham Waters in 1877 (Part II)

Fri., Jul. 01, 2005:  The Sea Serpent of the Sound: Spotted in Pelham Waters in 1877 (Part III).

Wed., Oct. 29, 2014:  Sea Serpent of City Island: Sea Serpent Sighted in 1877 Returned on Many Occasions.

Mon., Aug. 03, 2015:  More on the City Island Sea Serpent, Pelham's Monster of the Deep.

Detail from 19th Century "Bird's Eye View" Map of
Manhattan Entitled "NEW YORK" Published by Rogers,
Peet & Co. With Reports of Sightings of the Sea Serpent of
the Sound Arising on Nearly an Annual Basis Late in the
Nineteenth Century, the Mapmaker, Tongue-in-Cheek, Included
this Serpent Cavorting in the Waters of the East River.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Mariners and coastal dwellers seem to have sighted supposed sea serpents as long as there have been mariners and coastal dwellers.  Such beasts, however, reportedly have been sighted in waters along the nation’s northeastern shores since at least the late 1630s.

A truly sensational “sighting” of a sea serpent off American shores occurred in August 1817. Dozens of respectable citizens reported seeing a giant, snakelike creature in Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts.  The creature reportedly visited the harbor almost every day for a month. Many notable citizens observed it and many people traveled to Gloucester to see the curiosity.  See O’Neill, J.P., THE GREAT NEW ENGLAND SEA SERPENT: AN ACCOUNT OF UNKNOWN CREATURES SIGHTED BY MANY RESPECTABLE PERSONS BETWEEN 1638 AND THE PRESENT DAY, pp. 25-66 (Camden, ME: Down East Books 1999) (reprinted by Lightning Source Inc. 2003).

Following the Gloucester Harbor sea serpent sightings in 1817, sea serpent hysteria washed over the nation.  The New York and Pelham regions were not immune.  Indeed, only weeks after the Glouster Harbor sea serpent sightings, the Sea Serpent of the Sound was sighted on several occasions.  

On Friday, October 3, 1817, Westchester resident James Guion was on a point of land on the east side of the mouth of Mamaroneck Harbor.  As he looked toward the Scotch Caps, rocks that lay off Rye Point, he saw “a large marine animal, going with great rapidity up sound.”  Guion “judged his speed to be little or no less than a mile in a minute” and described the “irregularity and unevenness of his back, about fifty feet of which appeared above the surface of the water.”  See Oudemans, A.C., THE GREAT SEA-SERPENT. AN HISTORICAL AND CRITICAL TREATISE. WITH THE REPORTS OF 187 APPEARANCES (INCLUDING THOSE OF THE APPENDIX), THE SUPPOSITIONS AND SUGGESTIONS OF SCIENTIFIC AND NON-SCIENTIFIC PERSONS, AND THE AUTHOR’S CONCLUSIONS, p. 151 (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill & London, Luzac & Co., 1892; reprint by Coachwhip Publications: Landsville, PA, 2007).  

An extensive account dated only two days later by a Westchester resident who ran along the shore trying to keep up with the beast he saw in the waters of the Sound, said:

"On Sunday, the 5th. Inst. at 10 o’clock A.M. while standing a few rods from my house on Rye-Neck, I observed at a small distance to the southward and eastward of Mr. Ezekiel Halsted’s dwelling on Rye Point, and perhaps not more than a half mile from the shore, a long, rough, dark looking body, progressing rapidly up sound [i.e., toward New York City] against a brisk breeze, and a strong ebb tide.  Viewing it with my glass convinced me it was a large living animal.  –  His back, forty to fifty feet of which was seen above the surface of the water, appeared to be irregular, uneven, and deeply indented.  I did not at this time remark that his head was more elevated above the water than the ridges or humps on his back.  Some trees standing near the water, Rye Point soon intercepting my view of him, I hastened to a situation from which I obtained another sight of him as he passed that part of the sound opposite Hempstead bay.  At this time he appeared to be nearly in the middle of the sound – his body more depressed below and his head more elevated above the water, going with increased velocity in the direction of Sand’s point, creating a swell before him not unlike that made by a boat towed rapidly at the stern of the vessel.  From the time I first saw him till I lost sight of him perhaps could not have exceeded ten minutes, in which short time he had gone probably not less than six or seven miles. 

I was yesterday informed on creditable authority, that on the day on which I saw the above mentioned animal, he was seen by some persons at or in the vicinity of the light house on Sand’s Point. 

That it was a sea animal of great bulk to me is certain. – that it is what is usually called a Sea-Serpent, and the same which appeared in Gloucester harbor, is only probable. 

With much respect, Sir, yours, &c. 

Thos. Herttell.”


These two supposed sightings of the Sea Serpent of the Sound that spent (or whose progeny spent) so much time in Pelham waters near City Island during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s appear to be the earliest reported sightings of the beast in our region.  

Reports of the Gloucester Bay Sea Serpent and the Sea Serpent of the Sound in 1817 stirred up such excitement and hysteria that an entrepreneurial gentleman who claimed to have seen and studied the monster hired an “artist of the first talents” who painted a massive 35-feet by 10-feet oil on canvas painting of the creature.  The monumental painting was hung in Washington Hall on Broadway in New York City where visitors were charged a mere 25 cents to view the depiction of the sea serpent.  Many advertisements soliciting visitors for the exhibit appeared in local newspapers at the time.  The text of one such advertisement, with a citation and link to its source, appear immediately below.


has paid a long visit to our eastern coast, and excited the admiration of scientific men, and the western world in general, has been accurately painted by an artist of the first talents, under the direction of a gentleman, whose genius and minute observation of the monster entitle him to the confidence of the public and is now ready for exhibition at


On upwards of three hundred square feet of canvass.


The Painting of this wonderful animal, which is now exhibited at Washington-Hall, is, in many respects, one of the most interesting displays ever presented to the public.  It covers a canvass about 35 feet by 10, representing a beautiful view of a bay opening to the ocean, with boats, vessels, and hills, in the distance, and the Serpent stretching his enormous and formidable length across the front.  The painting is well executed, and every object in it -- and the land, waves, vessels, clouds, sky, light and shade, so justly arranged, as to please the taste of general beholders.  When we consider that the principal design is to give the public a correct idea of a terrible animal which is now known to exist, as it were, in the neighborhood of our city, which appals [sic] the courage and baffles the skill of ever one attempting its approach, we feel fully warranted in asserting, that it is a spectacle so magnificent, so sublime, as to be surpassed only by the awful monster which it represents.  The interest of the spectator is increased by the consideration that there is no fancy, no fiction, and no poetry in the view -- but that it is only a PENCIL DISPLAY of a monster whose force is irresistible, whose movement is swift as the wind, and the terror of whose eye can no more be painted than the strength, the swiftness, or the noise of his movement over the ocean waves.

The views are taken from the representations of a celebrated naturalist whose enterprising vigilance has given him an opportunity, six different times, to approach so near the animal as to see his eyes, teeth, tongue, and the color of his head and neck distinctly.  We may therefore look on the painting as a fact, and contemplate the animal, with his lofty head erect in the air and his long and spiral volumes dashing over the waves as a moving miracle, bearing down stubborn incredulity and oppressing the beholder with the wight of the most 'TERRIBLE' and the most 'SUBLIME.'  In all the arts there is nothing like the painting -- for the academicians never before knew of any thing in nature like the SEA-SERPENT; and every AMERICAN should be proud that we are the first to give this interesting subject of the pencil a SHAPE AND FORM.

sc 29 1 w"

Source:  THE SEA SERPENT, A MONSTER OF UNCOMMON SIZE, The Evening Post [NY, NY], Oct. 2, 1817, p. 4, col. 1 (Note:  Paid subscription required to access via this link).

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