Saturday, June 16, 2012

Public Art Meets PTown Legend

This past week, on my day off, I visited Mojo's for their guacamole taco (vegetarian, about 3 bucks and delish!) and spent a few reverent moments celebrating the 193rd anniversary of the sighting of the sea serpent by Captain Hawkins Wheeler, in local waters, on June 6th, 1819.
I ate my lunch sitting at one of the picnic tables on the covered patio behind Mojo's, quietly contemplating the seventeen-foot mural that wraps around the corner of this venerable institution which has been serving up tasty, inexpensive eats to Townies and tourists alike for forty years. In 1978, famed local artist Bill Evaul painted Mojo's exterior wall with his impression of the serpent described by the old sea captain in this epic P'Town legend.
Captain Wheeler and his crew were aboard the sloop Concord, out of Fairfield, Connecticut, sailing off the western shore of Provincetown near Race Point, when they saw the horse-shaped head of a serpent rise about eight feet out of the water. It was a calm day, and fine weather, so they had a good view of the creature, which they saw only fourteen rods (about 230 feet) from the vessel. This sea serpent turns out to have been spotted by many sailors over a number of years, according to The Atlantic Monthly. An article written by J. G. Wood in June of 1884 chronicles sightings over many years of what seems to have been the very same creature, with accounts reported and sworn to by legions of reliable and sober citizens over a stretch of a number of years.
A similar sighting had occurred near Gloucester on June 20th, 1815, about a quarter of a mile out into the harbor, and the Gloucester Telegraph reported a sighting that had occurred on August 18th, 1817, from a distance of only thirty feet. A year later, in August of 1818, the creature was near the shore for a period of a couple of weeks, and "multitudes of spectators" gathered to watch it. Unbeknownst to Captain Wheeler, when he saw the serpent, it, or a close relative, had been seen by hundreds of people including ministers and marshals as well as a good many seafaring men. All had given a similar description, including the head shaped like that of a horse.
Descriptions over the years also mentioned dark eyes the size of dinner plates, and something resembling a horse's mane on the head. In 1833 to 1835, articles about several sightings appeared in the Boston papers and the New York Times. When I googled "Race Point sea serpent" I found several links. If you find these stories intriguing, you may want to get a copy of The Great Sea Serpent, available as an e-book, and chock full of sea monsters, like the one mentioned on page 195, spotted about nine miles offshore from the Race Point lighthouse in April of 1835.
Read a couple of paragraphs about another local serpent of a slightly different description spotted off the shores of Provincetown in 1875 at this link to a book called The Great New England Sea Serpent. It's great to be able to go to sites like google and read a bit of the book to decide whether to buy it. I almost always buy any book I can find about PTown lore and the endless array of "characters" that have shaped its colorful history.
I also found a Cape Cod history and genealogy site that led me to a report by Capt. Robert Platt, U. S. coast and geodetic survey which even includes a drawing of what he and his crew saw that day in 1878. And I found a YouTube video called The Great Provincetown Sea Serpent Story! featuring some local folks who mention a serpent spotted in Provincetown Harbor by a relative of Ben Franklin in the early seventeen hundreds. They also stage a tongue-in-cheek re-enactment of the 1886 sighting of a much larger monster seen by the Town Crier of that day, one George Washington Ready, who swore that he was "not unduly excited by liquor or otherwise" at the time of the sighting. To read more about Ready's serpent, and many other Provincetown stories and legends, look for a book in the Provincetown Public Library, written by Herman Jennings and published in 1890, called Provincetown, or, Odds and Ends from the Tip End. Click this link to go to an listing for used copies of the paperback version of this book published in 1975. There you can read several pages from the book. I just ordered a copy myself a few minutes ago.
So, you see, there have been many sightings of serpents off the shores of Provincetown over the years. Next time you're hungry, stop by Mojo's at 5 Ryder Street Extension, near the bus plaza. Order something tasty and take it around back to the patio, where you'll find this mural of a Provincetown legend. It was painted more than thirty years ago, on a cinder block wall, so it could use a little touch-up, but it's definitely worth a look. Spend a few minutes enjoying Provincetown's wonderful tradition of supporting public art, like Bill Evaul's whimsical depiction of the Race Point Sea Serpent of 1819.

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