J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ebenezer Fox on the Sea Serpent?

We have one more detailed memoir of life aboard the Protector, the Massachusetts navy vessel that, three of its officers later reported, encountered a sea serpent in May 1780. That memoir was written by Ebenezer Fox of Roxbury, shown here.

Fox recalled the ship’s first lieutenant, George Little. He said Lt. Little had “a powerful speaking voice,” and described him several times using a spyglass to peer at potential enemy ships.

Fox also recalled the ship’s third lieutenant, Luther Little. He described how this Lt. Little was wounded by “a charge of grapeshot [that] came in at one of our port-holes” during the ship’s fatal fight with the Admiral Duff. In an appendix he described visiting Luther Little again in Marshfield in August 1838.

Fox did not, however, mention Midn. Edward Preble, despite his later fame. It’s possible Preble just didn’t stand out. However, later biographers agree that he had a bad temper all his life. (“With advancing years, Edward Preble’s childhood temper tantrums matured into fits of uncontrolled rage…” —Christopher McKee, Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761-1807.) I therefore suspect the young midshipman was simply unpopular.

In his memoir Fox clearly described how the Protector went into the harbor at Broad Bay, Maine, to leave some sick men in the care of a farmer there, just as in Luther Little’s recollections. Both the younger Little and Fox told the same anecdote about a certain sailor trying to steal a calf from that farmer, getting caught by the first lieutenant, and being severely punished.

Yet Fox’s memoir says nothing about a sea serpent. He described encountering a giant snake later on the island of Jamaica. But he didn’t discuss the giant snake that dozens of the Protector’s men saw in the water off Maine, even though it must have been the talk of the ship for days.

Why? I think two factors played into Fox’s decision. First, he shaped his manuscript for publication. In contrast, George Little put his account of the sea serpent into a private letter to a scholar. Luther Little left his story with a relative. Edward Preble told the tale to friends, apparently with care; James Fenimore Cooper wrote that he “probably saw that he was relating a fact that most persons would be disposed to doubt, and self-respect prevented his making frequent allusions to it.” None of those stories were put into print until after the men telling them had died.

Second, unlike those other three men, Fox hadn’t been an officer on the Protector; he was an ordinary seaman. The Littles and Preble all became naval captains, two of them celebrated. Fox became a grocer and town postmaster. As respectable as he was, Fox was never as solid a gentleman as the others. If the three captains were wary of writing publicly about a sea serpent, Fox probably felt even less secure and more vulnerable to ridicule. So he didn’t leave us one word about that creature in the water.


Chaucerian said...

Two biological questions:
Is there any indication that Lt. Preble had some sort of organic brain difficulty -- injury, birth trauma, epilepsy -- as opposed to being rageful and dislikeable?
Is there such a thing in fact as a huge, stout sea serpent?

J. L. Bell said...

Preble's temper was a lifelong trait, but I don't know if any author has pinpointed a possible cause. Preble does seem to have lucked out in finding a field (the U.S. Navy) and a crisis (the Tripolitan wars) where his temper was an asset.

As for the sea serpent, we just reports.