June 04, 2017

The Nantucket Merman

I've always liked monsters. Well, at least I like reading about them. I've never met one face-to-face but plenty of New Englanders have. People see all sorts of things around here: Bigfoot, extraterrestrial creatures, pukwudgies, and even the occasional lake monster.

What people don't see much of these days is mer-people. Mermaids and mermen don't seem to be very common around here now, but in the past they were apparently more plentiful. For example, an aggressive triton was seen off the coast of Maine in the early 1600s, while a sailor named Captain Dodge exhibited a mermaid's corpse in a Boston museum in the 1820s.

A merman was even seen off the coast of Nantucket. The year was 1714, and a minister named Valentyn was sailing past Nantucket's Great Point when it happened. Here is a quote from the good reverend's journal:

“It appeared like a sailor, or a man sitting on something; and more like a sailor, as on its head there appeared to be something like an English cap of the same color.

We all agreed he must be some shipwrecked person. After some time I begged the captain to steer the ship more directly toward it. … We had got within a ship’s length of him, when the people on the forecastle mad such a noise that he plunged down, head foremost, and got presently out of sight.

The man who was on watch at the masthead delared that he had… a monstrous long tail.” 

There's something a little creepy about that account. I can imagine the ship's crew going from "Oh, look there's a sailor in the water" to "Oh crap, that guy's got a giant fish tail!" in just a few panicky moments. I know I would.

That may not have been the only sighting of a mer-person near Nantucket. According to folklorist Edward Rowe Snow, the keeper of Great Point's lighthouse claimed to have seen something humanoid crawl out of the ocean and head into nearby Coskata Woods in the early 1900s. Some other locals claimed to have seen signs of something living in the same forest.

Great Point Light from Wikipedia.
The Coskata Woods are very old and have not been logged since 1711. It makes sense that an ancient primal sea being would want to visit an ancient forest.

Perhaps memaids and mermen are still swimming in the waters off our coast. I hope so, because I do like monsters. And make no mistake, mer-people do have a monstrous side. Folklore tells of mermaids who sink ships by raising storms or abduct handsome sailors to be their lovers, while mermen and tritons sometimes attack young women walking alone on the beach. So though I hope there are still some mer-people out there, I don't want to meet one face-to-face, and hope you don't meet one either.

Most of the information about the Natucket merman can be found in Edward Rowe Snow's book Legends of the New England Coast


Julia Ergane said...

The sighting of the being going into the wood could be a selkie. They can take off their seal skins and appear as humans. Anyway, who knew that our waters would be a hub for Tritons, Nereids, and Sirens.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment, Julia. There are definitely seals on Cape Cod, so a selkie makes sense! There is always something lurking under the waves apparently.