Winter 2023 Bulletin

From the Archives

Maggie Boyd
An etching of a widemouthed fish, teeth bared, beside a pair of birds, a shark, and some other animals. All are deceased, tied to the exposed beams of a ceiling. Fishing tools hang on the wall in the background.
Detail of frontispiece from Museum Wormianum (Amsterdam, 1655) of marine taxidermy displayed in the cabinet of curiosities of Ole Worm. Sighting of such unfamiliar creatures, alone or in schools or pods, spurred reports of sea monsters. American Academy’s Founders’ Book Collection.

By Maggie Boyd, Associate Archivist at the Academy

In the early 1800s, the Academy received reports of a sea serpent, described as 60 to 100 feet long, in what is now Maine’s Penobscot Bay. In 1810, upon hearing that the reports had been lost, minister and politician Alden Bradford, with the assistance of Lemuel Weeks, collected and presented to the Academy sworn statements of witnesses. In doing so, Bradford acknowledged, “Accounts of this sort, I am aware, should be received with caution.”1

Sightings in 1817 prompted the Academy to appoint naturalist William Dandridge Peck to investigate further. Using the documents previously sent to the Academy by Bradford and Weeks and contemporary research by a committee of the Linnaean Society of New England on which he also served, Peck produced a report, published in the Academy’s Memoirs in 1818, concluding “the existence of the animal to which [the witnesses] relate is indisputable.”2

The Academy did not pursue the matter any further. The value of this type of evidence was tested again at an Academy meeting on December 26, 1854. Inventor William F. Channing proposed that he would “report some observations on a class of phenomena, which, while they could not certainly at present be brought within the scope of exact knowledge,” he wished to present, “but had not sufficient evidence to arrive at any conclusion.” Classicist Cornelius Felton, joined by others, replied that it was “all humbug.”3


  • 1Letter from Alden Bradford to William Emerson, October 25, 1810, Wiscasset, Maine.
  • 2William Dandridge Peck, “Prof. Peck’s Observations on the Sea Serpent,” Memoirs 2 (1) (1818): 90.
  • 3American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Some Observations on a Class of Phenomena,” December 26, 1854, Minutebooks 2 (1821–1857): 474–475.