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The St. Augustine Monster
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PostPosted: Sun Oct 15, 2006 8:30 pm    Post subject: The St. Augustine Monster Reply with quote

The St. Augustine Monster is the name given to a large unidentified carcass, originally postulated to be the remains of a gigantic octopus, that washed ashore on the United States coast near St. Augustine, Florida, in 1896. It is sometimes referred to as the Florida Monster or St. Augustine Giant Octopus, and is one of the earliest recorded examples of a globster. The species that the carcass supposedly represented has been assigned the binomial names "Octopus giganteus" (Latin: giant octopus)and "Otoctopus giganteus" (Greek prefix: oton = ear; giant eared octopus),although these are not valid under the rules of the ICZN. Recent analysis suggests that it was a large mass of adipose tissue from a whale, likely a sperm whale.

Location of the carcass at different times between 1896 and 1897 according to G. S. Mangiacopra.
Dr. DeWitt Webb
The earliest surviving photograph of the St. Augustine carcass, taken on December 7, 1896. For a long time considered lost, it was obtained by Gary Mangiacopra in 1994.
Drawing based on the above photograph that appeared in the Hartford Daily Running on February 18, 1897.
Drawing made by A. E. Verrill based on the same image.
Drawing by A. E. Verrill, based on a photograph, showing the apparent arm stumps.
A fanciful depiction of the Florida "sea monster" published in the Pennsylvania Grit.
Crowd gathered to see the carcass, photographed by Van Lockwood.
The "Florida Monster" being examined by Webb and his colleagues.
Dr. DeWitt Webb beside the remains.
This cropped version of the above image has been much reproduced.
Photograph found in 1993, showing what appears to be an arm on the right.
Men digging up the carcass.
Photograph showing what appear to be arms.
Lateral view of the carcass.
The carcass in the process of being hauled further inland.
"The Facts About Florida" - the newspaper clipping found by F. G. Wood.
Comparison of the connective tissues of a squid, an octopus, and the St. Augustine carcass, as viewed under polarised light (Gennaro, 1971).
Transmission electron micrographs of sections of the Bermuda Blob and St. Augustine carcass (Pierce et al., 1995).

Initial stranding
The carcass was first spotted on the evening of November 30, 1896 by two young boys, Herbert Coles and Dunham Coretter, while bicycling along Anastasia Island. The enormous mass was half buried in the sand, having sunk under its immense weight. The two boys thought the carcass was the remains of a beached whale, as a similar stranding had occured two years earlier near the mouth of the Matanzas River, located several miles to the south of St. Augustine.

The two boys returned to St. Augustine the same day and reported their discovery to a local physician, Dr. DeWitt Webb. Webb, who was the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, came to the beach the following day, December 1, to examine the remains. He would be the only person of an academic background to see the specimen in situ.

His first impression was that it was the remains of an animal, very mutilated, and in an advanced state of decomposition. The carcass was very pale pink, almost white, in colour, with a silver reflection in the sunlight. It was composed of a rubbery substance of a very hard consistency, such that it could only be cut with great difficulty. The part of the carcass that was visible measured 18 feet in length and 7 feet in width. Webb estimated its weight at nearly 5 tons, if not more. He believed it was the remains of a giant octopus, as it appeared to have the stumps of four arms, with another arm buried nearby.

A few days later, on December 7, Webb engaged two hobbyists, Edgar Van Horn and Ernest Howatt, to photograph the carcass for posterity. At least two photographs were taken, one of the lateral view and one of the anterior view, showing the apparent arm stumps. The latter also included a man, likely DeWitt Webb himself, for scale. As the images were over-exposed, they were never published. These photographs were for a long time considered lost, and only drawings based on them, made by Alpheus Hyatt Verrill and published in the American Naturalist of April 1897, were known. However, one of the original images, showing the lateral view, was obtained by Gary Mangiacopra in 1994. It is clear that one of Verrill's drawings was based on this photograph. A simplified drawing of this image also appeared in the Hartford Daily Running of February 18, 1897.

Around the same time, a certain Mr. Wilson wrote a memorandum to Webb, communicating the results of his observations made after having dug around the corpse. It read:

One arm lying west of the body, 23 feet long; one stump of arm about 4 feet long; three arms lying south of body and from appearance attached to same (although I did not dig quite to body, as it laid well down in the sand and I was very tired), longest one measured over 23 feet, the other arms were three to five feet shorter.

In the first days of December 1896, Dr. George Grant, owner of a hotel at South Beach on Anastasia Island, wrote a short article describing the carcass, which was published in the Pennsylvania Grit of Williamsport on December 13. The article was accompanied by a picture of the "sea monster" depicting a tentacled creature with a tail. This was drawn by the draughtsman of the newspaper based on Grant's description, and not an eyewitness. Grant's description was as follows:

The head is as large as an ordinary flour barrel, and has the shape of a sea lion head. The neck, if the creature may be said to have a neck, is of the same diameter as the body. The mouth is on the under side of the head and is protected by two tentacle tubes about eight inches in diameter and about 30 feet long. These tubes resemble an elephant's trunk and obviously were used to clutch in a sucker like fashion any object within their reach.

Another tube or tentacle of the same dimensions stands out on the top of the head. Two others, one on each side, protrude from beyond the monster's neck, and extend fully 15 feet along the body and beyond the tail. The tail, which is separated and jagged with cutting points for several feet, is flanked with two more tentacles of the same dimensions as the others and 30 feet long. The eyes are under the back of the mouth instead of over it.

This specimen is so badly cut up by sharks and sawfish that only the stumps of the tentacles remain, but pieces of them were found strewn for some distance on the beach, showing that the animal had a fierce battle with its foes before it was disabled and beached by the surf.

Grant describes the animal as having seven "tentacles" and a "tail". If the "tail" is interpreted as another tentacle, giving a total of eight, this would suggest an octopus as opposed to a decapod such as the squid or cuttlefish. Furthermore, nothing in the description indicates the presence of the long feeding tentacles found in squid, as the "tentacles" are said to be of the same dimensions.

Second stranding
Between January 9 and January 15, a storm tide dragged the carcass out to sea, but it washed ashore again on the next tide, on Crescent Beach, two miles to the south of its original location. Webb sent photographs of the mass, along with a description, to Joel Asaph Allen of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Allen apparently did not respond, but Webb's letter came to the attention of Prof. Addison Emery Verrill of Yale, at that time the foremost authority on cephalopods in the country. At first, Verrill suggested the carcass might represent the remains of a giant squid. In the January 1897 issue of the American Journal of Science he wrote:

The proportions indicate that this might have been a squid-like form, and not an Octopus. The "breadth" is evidently that of the softened and collapsed body, and would represent an actual maximum diameter in life of at least 7 feet and a probable weight of 4 or 5 tons for the body and head. These dimensions are decidedly larger than those of any of the well-authenticated Newfoundland specimens. It is perhaps a species of Architeuthis.

Verrill soon changed his mind about the identity of the creature. In the January 3 issue of the New York Herald, he wrote that the carcass was indeed that of a giant octopus. However, the paper did not state that Verrill was the author of the article. The article read:

Its head was nearly destroyed, and only the stumps of two arms were visible . . . The body, as it lies somewhat imbedded in the sand, is 18 feet long and about 7 feet wide, while is rises 3½ feet above the sand . . . The weight of the body and head would have been at least four or five tons. If the eight arms held the proportions usually seen in smaller species of the octopus, they would have been at least 75 to 100 feet in length and about 18 inches in diameter at the base.

On January 16, the Tatler, a local news sheet that reported on the visitors to St. Augustine hotels, ran a story about the stranded creature. It restated Verrill's original identification of the carcass as a giant squid. It read:

The wide-spread interest in the very remarkable specimen of the giant squid, now lying on the beach a few miles below the city, is mainly due to its enormous size. It is believed to be the largest specimen ever found. Its great size and immense weight have thus far prevented its being moved for a more careful examination. A dozen men with blocks and tackle not being able even to turn it over. Another effort will be made with more extensive apparatus by which it is hoped to drag it from the pit in which it now lies and placing it higher up on the beach so that a careful and thorough examination in the interest of science can be made and the exact species determined. Professor Verrill of Yale and Profs. True and Dale [Dall] of the Smithsonian are in constant correspondence with Dr. DeWitt Webb, President of the St. Augustine Scientific, Literary and Historical Society, in regard to it. Several photographs have been taken of it, but owing to its position, these have not been satisfactory. Mrs. John L. Wilson believes it to belong to an extinct species. Its hide is three and a half inches thick and its head is covered by a hood that prevents examination. Apparently it is a mass of cartilage and may have been dead in the water many days before it washed ashore on Anastasia Island.

In the February issue of the American Journal of Science, Verrill even gave the animal a scientific name, Octopus giganteus (Verrill, 1897). He also added:

It is possible that it may be related to Cirroteuthis, and in that case the two posterior stumps, looking like arms, may be the remains of the lateral fins, for they seem too far back for the arms, unless pulled out of position. On the other hand, they seem to be too far forward for fins. So that they are probably arms twisted out of their true position.

However, having examined samples of the mass sent to him by Webb, Verrill concluded that "the creature cannot be an Octopus, but is of cetacean nature." He suggested that "the whole mass represents the upper part of the head of [a sperm whale], detached from the skull and jaw."

Webb decided the carcass should be moved further inland so that it would not be lost to the sea forever. With the help of "six horses and strong tackle" it was moved several miles nearer to St. Augustine, "to the terminus of a railroad," where it was protected from the tide and drifting sand. Its final resting place was South Beach, Anastasia Island, near to the hotel of Dr. George Grant. The St. Augustine carcass became somewhat of a tourist attraction and was visited by large numbers of people. It is unknown what happened to the carcass afterwards.

Photographs of the St. Augustine carcass were for a long time thought to be lost and drawings remained the only pictorial evidence of the event. They were finally rediscovered in 1993 by Marjorie Blakoner of California, who recognised them in an old album. Van Lockwood, one of the original photographers of the St. Augustine carcass, kept an album of photos he had taken between 1885 to 1899. Upon his death, this was bequeathed to the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, and later fell into the possession of Marjorie Blakoner.
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