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Saturday, March 19, 2011

MICHAEL NEWTON: Cape May’s Globster Reconsidered

In his classic treatise on sea-serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans recorded the stranding of an unidentified carcass on southern New Jersey’s Cape May Peninsula, in 1887. He recorded its discovery in an appendix to his epic work, but made no mention of it in the text. A list of sources for strandings omitted from further discussion cited a November 1887 issue of the long-defunct Boston Courier, otherwise undated. Ben Roesch, reviewing the Father of Cryptozoology’s work in 1998, could not locate the article in question. “Until I am able to do so,” he wrote, “this carcass remains a literal unknown".

But no longer.

Fanciful depiction of a stranded basking shark from Harper’s Magazine, 1868.

I recently obtained a copy of the long-missing report, with generous assistance from Henry Scannell, curator of Reference and Information Services at the Boston Public Library. The story, headlined “The Stranded Sea Serpent,” appeared on page one of the Boston Courier, on 6 November 1887. It reads:

A basking shark at sea. Cape May’s big-mouthed globster?
"The sea serpent business is practically ruined. A genuine specimen of the tribe has been washed ashore at Cape May, and the mystery is forever dispelled. Who will be greatly excited by a glimpse of a creature which will now be set down in the tables of the naturalists, and ticked with a long and learned name? When there were grave doubts whether the sea serpent really existed, then indeed there was a certain amount of pleasure and excitement in running across a monster declared by half the world to be fabulous; but now the whole business is reduced to the level of the commonplaces.

A megamouth shark, unknown until 1976.

Now that the serpent is in the hands of scientists, moreover, they have measured him, and it is painful to see how far short he falls of his supposed length. What are a paltry dozen feet beside the forty or fifty with which tradition had endowed him? Who can ever again really respect a beast that has fallen so absurdly short of its reputation? Even its big mouth and thick hair can do very little toward making up for this fatal deficiency of extent, and unless a bigger specimen can be forwarded from beneath the seawater immediately the fame of the race is irretrievably injured. Proprietors of seaside resorts which depend for success upon the reported presence of the sea serpent off their shores should send a communication at once to the king of the clan to lay the case before him, and to see if a bigger specimen cannot be induced to sacrifice himself for the good of his kind by coming to be measured. With a little diplomacy much may yet be done to save the fading fame of the sea serpent, but it must be done quickly, before the specimen ashore at Cape May shall have been generally received as typical. "

No “long and learned name” was forthcoming, but the facetious article provides certain basic information about the Cape May globster—specifically, its twelve-foot length, plus an allusion to its “big mouth and thick hair.” It is somewhat surprising that Dr. Heuvelmans, with said article in hand, did not suggest a possible identify for the stranded creature. He made do with less in other cases, including five between 1808 and 1896 wherein he proposed the existence of large unknown sharks.

The Cape May specimen’s “big mouth” instantly suggests that common globster candidate, the basking shark, well known to ichthyologists since 1765. A possible alternate suspect might be the megamouth shark, unrecognized by science until 1976. Both exceed the relatively modest twelve-foot length of Cape May’s “serpent,” with record lengths of forty feet and eighteen feet, respectively.

But what of the monster’s “thick hair”? Fish have none, but as a shark’s skin decomposes, the underlying muscle fibers may protrude, resembling hair that varies in color from white to red. Such was the case, we’re told, with Scotland’s fifty-five-foot Stronsa beast of 1808, which Heuvelmans confidently labeled a “giant basking shark or unknown shark.” Again, his hesitation in identifying Cape May’s specimen may be the greatest mystery involved in the affair.

And yet ....

Who were the unnamed scientists described as measuring the carcass and removing it for further study? Where did they take the carcass? Did they ever reach a final verdict on the stranded beast’s identity? If so, that finding never rated mention in the Boston Courier or any other East Coast newspaper so far discovered, much less in the august New York Times. Perhaps, therefore, some vestige of the mystery endures.

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