Regional Sea Stories - Close Encounter With a Creature "of the Finny Tribe": Louisiana's Sea Monster Sighting of 1856

A Story of Gulf Coast Maritime History

The following article appeared in the Gulf Coast Historical Review which is published biannually in the Fall and Spring by the History Department of the University of South Alabama, Humanities 334, Mobile AL. 36688. Subscription inquries should be sent to the "Managing Editor", GCHR at the address above. The article that follows was copied from Vol.7, No.1 with their permission. (It's a great little magazine!)

Close Encounter With a Creature "of the Finny Tribe": Louisiana's Sea Monster Sighting of 1856

Carl A. Brasseaux and H. Dickson Hoese

(Click on each illustration for a larger image)

America's fascination with tales of the bizarre and the unknown is by no means a new phenomenon. Tbroughout the antebellum period, sea serpent tales generated the same degree of interest in American newspaper readers that UFO, Sasquatch, and Yeti stories presently command. And popular interest in sea serpents has endured, largely because of periodic sightings and international fascination with the search for the Loch Ness monster. In recent years, several documentaries, books, and popular articles have chronicled the search for "Nessie' and other less newsworthy, but equally mysterious, sea creatures reported throughout the world. The June 1991 issue of the National Fisherman, for example, features one such article on late twentieth century American sea-monster sightings. (1)

Widespread American interest in sea serpent sightings is generally believed to have begun in August 1817, when approximately three hundred reputable residents of coastal Massachusetts villages claimed to have seen a dark brown, smooth-skinned creature which moved by means of vertical undulations of its sixty foot long, serpentine body. (2) Many additional sightings of the "Gloucester Sea Serpent," as it quickly came to be known, were made near Gloucester during the next two years, and additional reports were made in New England and in Maritime Canada as late as 1840. (3)

While the Gloucester sea serpent became a virtual cause calibre of American science and provided material for transatlantic debate, reports of strange sea creatures began to surface in other maritime regions. The first were in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea and later in the South Atlantic from the early 1830s ftough the 1850's. (4)

A remarkable variety of animals were described in antebellum sea serpent tales. Most of these creatures are readily identifiable as giant squid, basking sharks, oarfish, manatees, manta rays, mobulas, whale sharks, and other wen-known marine fauna, but, as with contemporary UFO stories, a sufficient number of unexplainable reports surfaced to keep alive popular interest in, and popular controversy over, sea serpent stories. (5)

Popular skepticism was initially aroused by the first major American inquiry into sightings of the mysterious sea creatures. Ignoring all but one of the numerous eyewitness accounts of the 1817 Massachusetts sea serpent sightings, collected by its hand-picked representatives, the Linnean Society of New England identified the creature as an enormous black snake, basing its conclusions on a tall tale spun by person known to be of dubious reliability. (6) Not surprisingly, the Linnean Society's findings were soon dismissed as completely unfounded by leading European zoologists. Therefore the society, and its attempt to identify the creature in quixotical fashion, became the subject of ridicule on both sides of the Atlantic.

The gullibility of the Linnean Society, the inability of curiosity seekers to capture or kill a young specinen of the sea serpent, the monster's reputed ability to repel buuets, and the almost incessant public feuding of naturalists and ichthyologists over the probable identity of the frequently sighted beast quickly disillusioned the man on the street. According to one scholar the public 'preferred to disbelieve the whole thing." (7) Popular apathy, however, in no way impeded either the ongoing scientific debate over the possible existence and identity of the sea serpent or the journalistic coverage of the debate and the recurring sightings. All continued unabated.

Intensifying the smoldering controversy surrounding the sea monster sightings were numerous hoaxes perpetrated by individuals inside and outside the American scientific community. In New York in 1845, Dr. Albert Carl Koch displayed for public viewing what he claimed to be a carefully reconstructed, fully intact skeleton of a sea serpent. The 114 foot long, serpentine skeleton possessed front flippers, a long erect neck, a large head with long jaws and fierce-looking teeth, and the characteristic vertical undulations of the spine. The skeleton, shown to thousands of New York and London curiosity seekers at a cost of twenty-five cents per head, was demonstrated, upon examination by reputable zoologists, to be a cunning hoax. It consisted of bones from various species, including the fossilized remains of a prehistoric whale. (8)

The hoax elicited a storm of criticism from the scientific community and the sea serpent phenomenon consequently fell into a state of scholarly and popular disrepute. Then in 1848, several officers and sailors aboard the HMS Daedalus reported - to the detriment of their military careers - a sea serpent sighting in the south Atlantic. (9) The report of the Daedalus officers temporarily stemmed the rising tide of scholarly and popular skepticism and reignited the long-standing controversy. Concomitantly, public interest, fueled by the controversy and uninterrupted sightings, rose over the course of the following decade. (10)

It was at this juncture that Louisiana experienced its first recorded sea monster sighting, reported in the news article set out below:

A HUGE FISH. Mr. Martial Ogeron gives us the following description of a monster of the finny tribe lately killed by him off the mouth of the Lafourche in the breakers: Length of the body frm point of nose to the tail, 14 ft; length of tail, 6 ft; extreme width on the back, 20 ft; thickness from top of back to bottom of belly, 7 feet; width of mouth 3 feet 6 inches, with horns on either side, 3 feet long; cavity of brain, 9 by 16 inches.

This huge monster, when killed, was lying with his month open catching small fish, on which it is supposed to subsist. It was shot through the head at the distance of about five paces, and immediately sunk to the bottom. It was then fastened to, and towed in to shore, where it was dissected for the purpose of being converted to oil; but a storm arising, the captor waw forced to abandon the project and fly for safety. Its liver, was the size of a rice cask. The exterior of this fish was covered with a skin resembling more that of an elephant than anything else to which we can compare it.

Mr. Ogeron is a seafaring man, and says he has never before seen a fish of this discription in our waters. What kind of a fish is it, and where did it come from? Let us hear fom you, naturalists! [From the Thibodaux Minerva]

We have not a doubt but this is the veritable devil fish, so common on the shores of our southern Atlantic States, and noted for his devlish [sic] pranks with boats' anchors, etc. There is a book somewhee entitled, we believe, "Devil Fishing on the Coast of the Carolinas." If you can find it, Miss Minerva, you may be, thoroughly enlightened. [Ed. Ceres] (11)

There is circumstantial evidence that the sighting described above resulted, at least in part, from two major hurricanes in eastern Gulf of Mexico during the late summer and fall of 1856. The first and most famous of these storms was the so-called Last Island storm of August 9-10, 1856. (12) It apparently formed in the extreme southeastern Gulf of Mexico sometime between July 31 and August 8 and subsequently moved steadily toward the northwest. (13) The storm veered due west and gained speed as it approached the Alabama coastline on Saturday, August 9. Striking a glancing blow at Mobile, the hurricane moved directly toward the mouth of the Mississippi River, then turned westward, following the Louisiana coastline as far as Franklin, before turning north toward Vermilionville. (14) After ravaging south-central Louisiana, it turned to the northeast causing considerable damage at Bayou Sara, then veered northward and struck Natchez, Mississippi, and New Carthage, Louisiana. (15)

The storm, characterized by eyewitnesses along the Louisiana coast as the most powerful hurricane in living memory, caused extensive property damage throughout the lower Mississippi Valley. (16) Nowhere was the storm's fury felt more forcefully than at the Last Island resort off the coast of Terrebonne Parish. There during the afternoon of August 9, northerly gales inundated the resort with water from Lake Pelto, a coastal estuary north of the barrier island. (17) Then, following a reversal of wind direction marking the storm's westerly passage, the island was submerged beneath a massive tidal surge. That surge carried many of the approximately 140 human victims at least six miles inland. (18) The Storm'S wind and waves continued to pound the island well into the following day.

The destructive effects of wind and surf were not confined to the Last Island area. Indeed the storm's fury was felt no less intensely at the nearby mouth of Bayou Lafourche, where Martial Ogeron's mysterious sea creature would later be found. (19)

Coastal Louisiana had hardly begun to recover from the Last Island storm when a second major hurricane of nearly equal destructive power approached the Gulf Coast. This storm, known as the "Southeastern States Hurricane of 1856," formed east of Cuba sometime before August 27. The storm entered the Gulf of Mexico via the Florida Straits on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth, inflicting considerable wind damage on Key West and southeastern Cuba. It appears to have meandered throughout the eastern Gulf on the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth before making landfall at Panama City, Florida on the thirtieth. On the twenty-ninth, the storm was sufficiently close to the Pelican State to damage numerous sea-going vessels along the southeastern Louisiana coast. The heavy seas it generated, like the tidal action sustained by its more famous predecessor, inevitably had an impact upon the Louisiana coastline. (20)

Hurricanes such as the powerful 1856 storms have a marked effect on the waters lying in their course. While there is no proof that the animal was hurricane transported, the fact that local fishermen were unfamiliar with it suggests that it was. Though normally occurring in offshore waters, Manta rays have been reported near the mouth of the Mississippi River. (21) They are more often seen close to shore in southern Texas and Florida where clear, warm oceanic-type waters sometimes are present near the coastline. Though few accounts exist demonstrating such phenomena in Louisiana, horizontal advective movements are a common feature of hurricanes. (22) A group of rare clymene porpoises, normally inhabiting oceanic waters, were stranded near Point au Fer after Hurricane Juan in 1985. (21) Considerable movement of fishes, including introduction of unusual varieties, were noted after storms in Florida and Texas. (24) The storm's track to the south and west of the delta would have put that area in its northeast quadrant where winds would have been easterly, easily explaining movements from off the river to Lafourche, a distance of about forty miles. While water temperatures of the area would be depressed, they would still be around seventy degrees. (25) There was undoubtedly a similar movement of water and fauna during the Last Island Hurricane. Any of these storm-induced changes could have contributed directly to the presence of the sea creature identified in the Minerva article.

It is hardly surprising that the encounter with a sea monster was reported by both the Thibodaux Minerva and the Houma Ceres, newspapers that had traditionally exhibited the most interest in maritime affairs among Louisiana's rural antebellum weeklies. Though the editors, bitter political and economic rivals competing for the region's tiny potential readership, differed personally in many respects, they shared a common interest in natural history and natural science, as is seen perhaps most clearly in the caustic postscript added by the Ceres's editor. (26)

The Ceres's editor's powers of deduction were indeed formidable, for only two creatures in the animal kingdom could conceivably fit the detailed description furnished by the Thibodaux Minerva, one of them being the "devil fish," or giant devil ray (Manta birostris) as it is more correctly known. While sharing the distinctive deltoid shape and tail of all other Atlantic rays, the giant devil ray, which attains a maximum breadth of over twenty-one feet between pectoral fin (i.e., wing) tips, has one distinctive feature-twin cephalic fins resembling "horns." (27) Located on opposite ends of the creature's mouth, directly in front of the ray's side-mounted eyes, the small cephalic fins aid the fish in steering and also push food into the ray's mouth, automatically retracting toward that orifice whenever coming into contact with any object. Once retracted, the fin remains taut until the object is consumed. It is in this manner, as suggested by the editor of the Ceres, that giant devil rays occasionally become entangled in anchor chains.

Giant devil rays may inhabit shoal waters within a few miles of the mainland, but in the northern Gulf of Mexico, they generally occur offshore in clear, more tropical waters away from the muddy discharge of the Mississippi River. While these creatures may be found at various depths, they frequently surface to bask and to feed, "by swmunmg open-mouthed through whatever schools of small fishes or planktonic crustacea they may meet." While visible along the surface, these rays are usually unaggressive toward humans and have reportedly been so "unwary that it is easy to approach one closely in a small boat."(28) They are sometimes hunted in tropical regions for their livers, which, as in the case of the creature in the Minerva article, are boiled into oil, and their skin, which is used as a primitive abrasive.

While many of the giant devil ray's features resemble those of the creature killed by Martial Ogeron, some important characteristics, such as the elephantine skin, do not. The skin of a giant devil ray is covered with small tubercles and has a texture more reminiscent of sandpaper than of elephant skin. However, it is unlikely that anyone who saw the sea creature had ever seen an elephant and thus would hardly have known what an elephant's hide was like. Also, while it is possible that the 1856 storm caused a temporary incursion of so-called "blue [clear] water" from the deep regions of the Gulf large rays were rarely seen so close to the coast. By November the 1856 storm surge had long since passed and other lingering effects of the August storm had drastically abated. It is thus by no means certain that the necessary "blue water" conditions existed near the mouth of Bayou Lafourche three months later. (29)

The identity of the creature killed by Ogeron consequently remains uncertain. It probably was a giant devil ray, but the elephant skin and thick body suggests the possibility of a West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), more commonly known as the sea cow. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, individual manatees have migrated periodically from their natural habitat in South Florida to coastal Louisiana. (30) Like the beast killed in the breakers near the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, they are covered with a thick, wrinkled skm resembling that of elephants. Table I shows the quantitative features mentioned in the article compared to that of study specimens of manta rays and manatees. (31)

                        Table I
                   Comparison of Stated Measurements
              of Lafourche Sea Monster and Study Specimens
             (Numbers are in percentage of maximum breadth)

                     Sea Monster   Manta Rays  Manatees
    Length               70           45         390 (A) Mouth
    Breadth              18           15          50 (B)
    Tail length          30           38          99
    Thickness            35           15-27       --
    Cephalic fins (horns)15           15          100 (B)

    (A) This would be approximately cut in half if the width 
        included the appendages.
    (B) Estimates based on drawings.

While the body of the Lafourche monster is too long for its breadth and too thick in comparison with a manta ray, the other measurements are consistent for known lengths. Since a storm intruded preventing retrieval of the specimen, the measurements would have been estimates made during trying conditions. Thickness, often variable, might have been the most difficult parameter to determine. The length appears half again too long for a ray but would be even more extreme for a manatee. The elephant skin, a better description for a manatee, while a poor choice, still might describe the manta. Manta do feed on fishes as noted for the monster, while manatees are well established vegetarians.

In the unlikely event that the animal killed by Martial Ogeron was indeed a manatee, then this would constitute the first documented sighting of a sea cow in Louisiana. G. H. Lowery, Jr., author of the most comprehensive listing of Louisiana manatee sightings presently available indicates that the first known encounter occurred in January 1929, when a sea cow was captured in Calcasieu Lake. Another manatee was spotted in Sabine Lake in 1941. Several other manatees were sighted in southern Louisiana during the 1970s; in the Mississippi River at Norco, April 8, 1975; in the swamps near Morgan City, July 10, 1976; and in the Gulf of Mexico, 12 miles west of Breton Island, July 4, 1979. (32)

Most, if not all, of these migrating herbivores died in Louisiana's coastal waters, victims of the Pelican State's winters which are sufficiently cold to kill the aquatic flora that sustain them. Too weak to return to Florida, these gentle creatures slowly die of "anorexia and probable cold stress." (33) Such seems to have been the fate of the 1856 sea monster. The dying creature could also have been injured by the 1856 hurricane's massive tidal surge, and festering wounds exposing the portions of the skull could possibly account for the "horns" mentioned in Ogeron's description of the animal. Such an injury could conceivably have prevented a manatee from returning to the protected waters of the bayou.

Such physical aberrations as "horns," however, are more characteristic of the features of the devil, or giant ray, as are the dimensions of the back and spine. But not all of the giant ray's physical features match those provided in Ogeron's account; some characteristics, such as the depth and skin texture of the creature more closely match those of the manatee. Positive identification of the creature is therefore impossible. Unfortunately for historians and naturalists, the true identity of Louisiana's first sea monster may never be known.


(1) See Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, trans. Rupert Hart- Davis (New York, 1968); John Grissim, "There's Something Out There!" National Fisherman, (June 1991): 81-84.

(2) Ibid., 146-55.

(3) Ibid., 170-73, 176-78; New Orleans Louisiana Gazette, August 23, September 1, 1823. For a recent acount of the controversy over the Gloucester Sea Serpent and its general acceptance by the American scientific comunity, see Clendon Michael Brown, "A Natural History of the Gloucester Sea Serpent: Knowledge, Power, and the Culture of Science in Antebellum America" American Quarterly 42 (September 1990): 402-36.

(4) Heuvelmans, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, 178-79.

(5) Ibid., 176-79, 180,81.

(6) Ibid., 149-54.

(7) Ibid., 172-74.

(8) Ibid., 184.

(9) R. T. Gould, The The Case for the Sea-Serpent (London, 1930),94-128.

(10) Ibid., 133-40; Tim Dinsdale, The Leviathans (London, 1966), 68-71.

(11) The editor was apparently referring to Elliott's widely cited Carolina Sports, published in 1846, which deals extensively with rays in the Carolinas. Unfortunately, the issue of the Thibodaux Minerva containing the original version of this article is no longer extant. The version cited here was reprinted form the Minerva by the Houma Ceres on November 22, 1856.

(12)For the best accounts fo the Last Island storm, see David M. Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870 (Boston, 1963),165-71; Walter Prichard, ed., "The Last Island Disaster of August 10, 1856; Personal Narrative of His Experiences by One of the Survivors," Louisiana Historical Quarterly 20 (1937): 690-737; Harper's New Montly Magazine 76 (April 1888): 733-67; James M. Sothern, Last Island(Houma, LA, 1980); Edward Rowe Snow, Great Gales and Dire Disasters (New York, 1952), 221-29; Lafcadio Hearn, Chita: A Memory of Last IslandNew York, 1889)

(13) This assertion is based on weather reports made, by captins arriving at New Orleans in August 1856. New OrIeans Daily Picayune August 8-12, 1856. See particularly the reports regarding Captain Sigsbee of the Brilliant and the tardiness of mail packets from Philadelphia in ibid., August 10-12, 1856.

(14) Daily Picayune August 17,1856.

(15) Ibid., August 14, 1856.

(16) The storm destroyed the 1856 sugar crop in south Louisiana. Ibid., August 14, 17, 1856.

(17) For an historical account of the development of the Last Island resort, see Sothern Last Island 12-33, 38.

(18) The body count varied trememdously in contrmporary accounts. After assessing the primany source accounts, historian Daid Ludlum determined that the 1856 storm claimed 140 victims at Last Island, Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 169, Sothern, on the other hand, speculated that speculates that 200 to 300 persons perished in the storm. Sothern, Last Island, 50.

(19) See, for example, an account fo the destruction at nearby Grand Terre Island in the Daily Picayune, August 19, 1856.

(20) Ludlum, Early American Hurricane, 171-73; Daily Picayune, September 3-10,1856.

(21) Bigelow and Schroeder, Sawfishes, Guitarfishes, Skates, and Rays, 509.

(22) T. Ichiye, "Circulation Changes Caused by Hurricanes," in Contributions on the Physical Oceanography of the Gulf of Mexico, ed. L. R. A. Capurro, Texas A & M Oceanographic Studies Series, no. 2 (College Station, TX, 1972).

(23) H. D. Hoese, et al., "An Exceptionally Large Porpoise Stranding from Hurrican Juan on the Central Louisiana Coast," Proceedings of the Louisiana Academy of Sciences 49 (1986): 60; S. A. Harris, "Beached, " Louisiana Conservationist 38 (March/April 1986: 18-27.

(24) C. M. Breder, "Effects, of a Hurricane on the Small Fishes of a Shallow Bay," Copeia (1962): 459-62; C. Hubbs, "Effects of a Hurricane on the Fish Fauna of a Coastal Pool and Drainage Ditch," Texas Journal of Science 14 (1962): 289-96.

(25) P. C. Etter and J. D. Cochrane, "Water Temperature on the Texas-Louisiana Shelf," Marine Advisory Bulletin, (Commerce, TX, 1975).

(26) For example, of the shared interest, see Thibodaux Minerva, September 9, 1854; May 3, 1856.

(27) Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder, Memoir [of the] Sears Foundation for Marine Research, no. 1, Fishes of the Western North Atlantic,pt.2, Sawfishes, Guitarfishes, Skates, and Rays (New Haven, 1953),509.

(28) Small mullets are known to be part of the giant devil ray's diet, Ibid., 509.

(29) F. True, "The Sirenians or Sea Cows," in The Fishery Industry of the U. S. , sec. 1, Natural History of Useful Aquatic Animals (s.l., n.d.), pt. 1, 114-35; James A. Powell and Galen B. Rathbun, "Distribution and Abundance of Manatees Along the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico," Northeast Gulf Science 7 (1984): 1-28.

(30) Bigelow and Schroeder, Sawfishes, Guitarfishes, Skates, and Rays, 509.

(31) Ibid., D. P. Quiring and C. F. Harlan, "On the Anatomy of the Manatee," The Manatee Journal of Mannalogy 34 (1953): 192-203.

(32) Powell and Rathbun, "Distribution and Abundance of Manatees," 6, 7.

(33) Ibid.

Carl A. Brasseaux is Assistant Director of the Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana. H. Dickson Hoese is Professor of Biology at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

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