In 1845, for a meagre 25 cents, New Yorkers gaped in open mouthed wonder at the 120 foot long skeleton of a sea serpent. Scientifically named Hydrarchos Sillimanii (until the famous Yale Professor Benjamin Silliman objected), it was exhibited in the Apollo Saloon on Broadway. Apparently the creature’s huge bones were so common in the Southern States of America they were used as furniture.
It surprised no one there were sea serpents. Sea serpent sightings had been common for hundreds of years. Even the odd corpse had turned up after a storm.
In 1780 the ship ‘General Coole’ recorded seeing a very large serpent 3 or 4 feet in circumference with a light coloured back and yellow belly. In the same year, a 45 feet long sea serpent, swimming on the surface, was reported off the coast of Maine by the captain of an armed naval ship. The ship gave chase intending to fire, but the creature dived.
In 1808 a sea monster attacked an Australian ship, launching itself across the bow it savaged one of the crew. Showing great presence of mind the captain shot it in the eye with his gun and it slid back into the ocean.
In the same year a 55 foot long decomposing sea serpent was found on Stronsay in the Orkneys. It was 3 foot across with the head of a seal, two filament-like manes running down its back and 3 pairs of large fin-like paws. Its remains were sent to Edinburgh University, where it was named Halsydrus Pontoppidani*
On 6 August 1848, according to the official admiralty report, the Royal Navy ship HMS Daedalus spotted an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet above the surface of the sea and at least sixty feet long.
On 1905 the oceanographic research vessel ‘Valhalla’ saw a large fin or frill six feet in length and sticking two feet out of the water off the coast of Florida. In the official report a scientist stated ‘a great neck, about the thickness of a man’s body, rose out of the water in front of the frill and moved from side to side in a peculiar manner. Three days later a sailing ship, reported a sea snake ‘several times longer than the ship’ swimming off its port bow.
In 1915 a German U-boat torpedoed a British ship off the coast of Ireland. As the explosion threw water and wreckage a hundred feet into the air, a gigantic sea animal shaped like a sixty foot crocodile surfaced, remaining visible for half a minute before sinking.
In the 1830s, when mudslides exposed a multitude of huge serpent bones, officials from Alabama and Arkansas sent vertebrae, jawbone and teeth to the American Philosophical Society. Comparing them to the newly discovered dinosaurs an anatomist declared they belonged to a 100-foot long marine reptile. He named it Basilosaurus (Lizard King).
From bones of different specimens found in Missouri, a St Louis museum owner Albert Koch pieced together the wondrous 120 foot long sea serpent that toured Europe and the United States.
Koch had a chequered past. He was already exposed as a fraud over an animal he called the Missourium. It was the skeleton of a mastodon, an extinct American elephant. Koch added extra vertebrae to double its length from 16 to 32 feet. He sold the skeleton to the Natural History Museum in London who mounted it correctly.
Giving his sea serpent credence by claiming it was a Basilosaurus, Koch eventually sold it to the King of Prussia; though by this time Sir Richard Owen, the famed palaeontologist who coined the word Dinosaur (Terrible Lizard), said the creature was not a sea serpent but an early whale.
So if the Basilosaurus was a whale, why do its remains turn up in the Southern United States of Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri and also in the Sahara Desert?
When Basilosaurus lived, some 34 million years ago, the world looked very different. With no ice caps, sea levels were higher, meaning parts of the United States were flooded. North America and South America were separate. Africa and India were islands floating toward Europe and Asia, where they would eventually create the Himalayas, Alps and the Mediterranean.
* the sea serpent Halsydrus Pontoppidani was debated over for 50 years in Edinburgh University, until it was confirmed to be the decomposed remains of a large basking shark.