This Was Then: Monsters

When wild apes, alligators, and sea serpents roamed.

What lurks in the statue’s fountain? Courtesy Chris Baer.

What foul creature peers up from the depths of the basin of our beloved Civil War statue in Oak Bluffs in this late 19th-century photo? Is it a skate? A bull terrier? The back end of a bird? A puppet? A practical joke in the darkroom? Or something more sinister?

Monsters have been sighted on and around our Island for centuries. On New Year’s Eve, 1914, the Boston Globe reported that a ghost had been spotted near the burying ground in North Tisbury. “An oval light hung just above the ground among the gravestones,” reported Mrs. Rebecca Wagner to the paper. “It was very white and bright.” Her neighbor saw it also. “The light rose and tumbled over, like a flame, or a miniature geyser of fireworks. The light was so bright that the two women could see the letters of the tombstone.” They watched for half an hour before it faded. Lillian Adams, postmistress of West Tisbury, offered a scientific explanation: “One of the more recent graves had caved in. I have very often read of apparitions caused by the phosphorescence of decaying matter,” she said. Others weren’t so sure.

Joseph Allen recalled in his book, “The Wheelhouse Loafer,” “It was one of the Norton family who once told us about the sea-lizard with six sets of legs, that landed at Pocha and walked clean across Chappaquiddick, killing and swallowing a calf on the way!”

Wild apes were seen roaming the Island in the summer of 1915, and alligators in 1927. And of course, sea monster tales are abundant. In July 1827, Captain Coleman and his passengers on the sloop Levant, travelling from Nantucket to Hartford, reported a “a singular animal in the sea, which he judged to be the great contemporaneous Sea-Serpent” off Gay Head. They insisted they had “a very neat and distinct view of the monster, and could not have mistaken it for any known species of fish.” In 1897, officers and passengers of the steamer Gloucester reported a white sea serpent between Gay Head and Winter Quarter Lightship, on their way from Boston to Baltimore. It was at least 40 feet long, they said, and resembled a gigantic eel. Chief Officer Walter Eldridge told the Baltimore American newspaper, “He never saw a sea serpent, nor did he believe such stories, until the experience of this last voyage.” He went on to describe it as six inches in diameter, with a tapered head and tail.

In 1930, Captain Colwell and his mate reported seeing a bright yellow serpent “thrashing about” off Gay Head, which was longer than their 52-foot trawler, and described it as having four frog-like legs, a ridged tail, and a head like a long-eared cow. “As the boat shot abreast the thing reached out with one hind foot,” they told The Atlantic Fisherman magazine, and, placing it against the bow, fended off, at the same time rolling up on its side and giving the men a dirty look from “eight-inch eyes that showed a lot of white.”

There was at least one Vineyard victim to very real monstrous jaws. In 1802, news reached Edgartown that 30-year-old native son Tristram Cleveland “fell overboard and was eaten by an Alligator in the Harbour of Batavia” leaving his wife and a 4-year-old daughter to mourn his loss. (Probably a crocodile rather than an alligator, Batavia was located in Java, East India —  today known as Jakarta, Indonesia.) Cleveland’s widow died in Edgartown 18 years later at the age of 52. “She had passed thro a Sea of Trouble,” recorded Rev. Joseph Thaxter in her burial record.

So what’s in the tub? This photo, with Circuit Avenue Extension in the background, was taken when the monument stood at its original location near the bottom of Circuit Avenue. My best, boring guess: It was not a monster but a makeshift water spout, long-since removed, attached to the bottom of the plaque with two beady-eyed bolts. An ornamental lion — believed to be in the original design — delivers water in its place today.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released last summer.