St. Augustine Monster: Monsterpedia

THE DISCOVERY

While riding their bikes along the coast of Anastasia Island, Florida, two young boys stumbled upon something that was very large, very confusing, and very dead. The boys were Dunham Coretter and Herbert Coles; the year was 1896. They initially thought they’d found the carcass of a dead whale. What they had actually found, however, was a globster.

dewitt-webb

Globster is not to be found in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, being a technical term used by cryptozoologists in referring to mysterious carcasses originating from a watery environment—key word: mysterious. The term was coined by Ivan T. Sanderson in 1962 (Newton, 2009), to describe a puzzling carcass found on the beaches of the Tasmanian coast. Like what was found partially buried in the sand in Florida, the only certainty was that it was very large, very confusing, and very dead. While most globsters are—technically speaking—just a big ol’ mess, what the Florida boys found wasn’t entirely without form. Specifically, it had what appeared to be the numerous stumps of arms—or tentacles. What they found would soon come to be known as the St. Augustine Monster, and it would rock the world. Ultimately, however, the story of the St. Augustine Monster is not about sea monsters or scientific discovery, but something darker.

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THE POSSIBILITY

Of the giant squid we now know—both giant and colossal, in fact—but the colossal octopus has yet to be confirmed. Or does it? The world’s greatest undersea explorer and inventor of the aqualung, Jacque-Yves Cousteau, wrote otherwise:

“In at least one case, the existence of a giant octopod has been recognized by scientists. The account given by F.G. Wood, in the prestigious Natural History magazine, deserves to be repeated here [and, subsequently, here]. In researching the archives of the Laboratory of Marine Research in Florida, Wood discovered that, in 1897 [sic], the remains of an apparently enormous cephalopod had been found on a beach at St. Augustine. These remains indicated that the cephalopod was larger than any specimen ever observed. The cadaver, which weighed six tons, was examined by an expert, Professor Verrill of Yale University, who was the discoverer of much of what is presently known about cephalopods. Professor Verrill estimated that the specimen, when alive, had had a stretch of approximately 25 feet, and that its arms had been about 75 feet long. Wood even found in the archives a photograph of the cadaver.

“The same author learned that there was, in the Smithsonian Institute, a large barrel containing animal tissue, preserved in formaldehyde, which bore the label, Octopus giganteus verrill. This tissue, beyond a doubt, constituted the fragment of the ‘monster’ found at St. Augustine.” (Cousteau, 1973).

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THE AUTHORITIES MOVE IN

Though the boys assumed what they’d found was a whale, they nonetheless dutifully reported their find to the Institute of Science. It was received by Dr. De Witt Webb, the founder of the Institute. He was the only member of academia to examine the find in situ. It was he who observed that the carcass appeared to have the stumps of several arms or tentacles. Dr. Webb began correspondence with several prominent scientists of the day. One such letter is reproduced in the January issue of The American Journal of Science (AJS: 1897, Section III, 8):

“Mr. R. P. Whitfield has forwarded to the writer the following letter from Dr. Webb to Mr. J. A. Allen, dated St. Augustine, Fla., Dec. 8th, 1896: “You may be interested to know of the body of an immense Octopus thrown ashore some miles south of this city. Nothing but the stump of the tentacles remain, as it had evidently been dead for some time before being washed ashore. As it is, however, the body measures 18 feet in length by 10 feet in breadth. Its immense size and condition will prevent all attempts at preservation. I thought its size might interest you, as I do not know of the record of one so large…

“It is perhaps a species of Architeuthis. Professor Steenstrup recorded many years ago a species of this genus (A. dux) taken in 1855 in the West Indian seas, but his example was much smaller than the one here recorded.”

56b

This was no dry scientific correspondence; the implications were staggering. Architeuthis was none other than the fabled kraken itself: the giant squid. Its existence had destroyed scientific reputations for centuries even as it fired public imagination for millennia. Undeterred by history, Dr. Webb confidently pushed his theory. To Yale’s Professor A.E. Verrill, the preeminent expert on cephalopods, he sent photographs of the carcass, and included additional finds that seemed to corroborate his theory. In the next issue of The American Journal of Science, Professor Verrill published his take (AJS: 1897, Section II, 17):

“After the publication of the notice in the January number of this Journal, I received additional facts concerning this huge creature from Dr. Webb.” Specifically, the professor received a memorandum by a Mr. Wilson of the discovery of additional carcass material buried in the sand. He uncovered four arms, averaging three to five feet in length; a four-foot arm stump, and finally an arm a full twenty-three feet long. From Dr. Webb he also received four photographs taken by local photography enthusiasts Edgar Van Horn and Ernest Howatt. Unfortunately their images were over-exposed and unsuited for publication.

“These photographs show that it is an eight-armed cephalopod, and probably a true Octopus, of colossal size. Its body is pear-shaped, largest near the broadly rounded posterior end. The head is scarcely recognizable, owing to mutilation and decay. Dr. Webb writes that a few days after the photographs were taken (Dec 7th), excavations were made in the sand and the stump of an arm was found, still attached, 36 feet long and 10 inches in diameter where it was broken off distally. This probably represents less than half of their original length, as the arms of Octopus generally taper very gradually and are often five or six times longer than the body… this species is evidently distinct from all known forms, and I therefore propose to name it Octopus giganteus.”

Dr. Webb sent photographs and a specimen to the Smithsonian. National Museum Curator William Healey Dall accepted the material as Accession 31678: “Sections of the muscle envelop of the body of Octopus giganteus verrill”. And so science accepted the colossal octopus as a reality. Or did it? The final analysis of this strange event would not be complete until over a century later.

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THE PUBLIC WEIGHS IN

Up to the date in question, everything the public knew about giant cephalopods came from sensational fiction. Two works in particular, both from giants of literature, directly shaped the public’s thinking about the devil-fish (cephalopods):

“To believe in the existence of the pieuvre one must have seen it. Compared to it the ancient hydras were insignificant. Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod imagined only the chimaera—Providence created the devil-fish. If terror was the object of its creation, it is perfection.”

— Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Sea, 1866

“It was a squid of colossal dimensions, fully eight meters long. Its eight arms… stretched a distance twice the length of its body and were writhing like the serpentine hair of the Furies. You could plainly see its 250 suckers, arranged over the inner sides of its tentacles and shaped like semispheric capsules. Sometimes these suckers fastened onto the lounge window by creating vacuums against it. What a freak of nature!

— Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1870

Victor Hugo’s monster was described clearly as a giant octopus and Jules Verne’s beast was labeled clearly as a giant squid. Alas, both authors were quite wrong. An octopus’s tentacles would not be even remotely sufficient to squeeze a man to death. An octopus’s tentacles, while admittedly foreign and perhaps unnerving, are designed for exploring more than attacking. Octopus tentacles are graced with gentle—though powerful—suction cups. A squid, on the other hand, is a beast designed to hunt and kill: its tentacles are loaded with suction cups outlined by serrated blades identical to a circular saw. Further, the colossal squid’s arms end in clubs packed with swiveling, razor-sharp hooks (O’shea, Bolstad, 2008). Octopuses are cute, curious and friendly, whereas the Cenobites from Hellraiser ain’t got nuthin’ on squids.

ceph-suckers

According to Victor Hugo:

  • Octopuses can encircle a man’s body, “cutting into his ribs like cord” and asphyxiate him: False.
  • Octopuses have no blood whatsoever: False (he is actually describing a starfish).
  • Octopus suckers are “like so many lips trying to drink your blood”: False (but most evocative).
  • Octopus suckers “bury themselves to the depth of an inch in the flesh of their prisoner”: False (thankfully).
  • An octopus’s suckers number “fifty on each arm, 400 in all”: False (they average 1,920 in all).

According to Jules Verne:

  • Squid travel “backward with tremendous speed”: True.
  • Squid arms stretch “a distance twice the length of its body”: False (in giant squid its up to six times).
  • Squid mouths have “a beak made of horn and shaped like that of a parrot”: True (though not composed of horn).
  • A squid can weigh “20,000 to 25,000 kilograms”: False (a giant squid peaks at 900kg, or 2,000 pounds).

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KNOW YOUR CEPHALOPODS

Throughout history different cephalopods were used interchangeably, from as far back as Pliny the Elder and Aristotle to modern times. Such mistakes and their aftermath are discussed in detail in Krakens: Monsterpedia.

Even Jacque-Ives Cousteau, the greatest underwater explorer in world history, admitted, “It may be difficult, especially in open water, to tell the difference between an octopus and a squid. The anatomical differences between the two, which are readily discernible on dry land or in an aquarium, are not obvious to the untrained eye, especially when the animal is only glimpsed in the sea. These differences reflect very different ways of life. Octopuses, with few exceptions, live on the bottom and feed on crustaceans and bivalves. The squid, on the other hand, is an active swimmer and pursues fish, which it captures by means of its two tentacles armed with sucker disks.” (Cousteau, 1973).

cephalopod-differences

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KNOW YOUR SIZES

We’ve all heard the saying: There’s plenty of cephalopods in the sea. Likewise, there’s plenty of adjectives in the dictionary. Though the public may use them interchangeably, to scientists there is a difference between colossal, giant, and jumbo. The famous kraken is a giant squid—being exceptionally long and narrow—whereas the colossal squid isn’t as long but is particularly wide. Fret not, gentle reader, there will not be a test. Below are a few notable sizes and who belongs within:

ceph-cute

  • Colossal Octopus: TBD
  • Giant Octopus: Fact (Genus Enteroctopus, with four known species)
  • Jumbo Octopus: Myth
  • Dumbo Octopus: Fact (Grimpoteuthis, and adorable)
  • Colossal Squid: Fact (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)
  • Giant Squid: Fact (Architeuthis, or the kraken of myth)
  • Jumbo Squid: Fact (Dosidicus gigas, or Humboldt squid)
  • Stubby Squid: Fact (Rossia pacifica, and simply the cutest thing under the sea)

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SCIENTIFIC ANALYSES

Decades after being found, tagged, and forgotten, the St. Augustine Monster experienced a renewed surge of interest. A founding member of the International Society of Cryptozoology, Dr. Forrest Glenn Wood, stumbled upon a yellowed newspaper clipping featuring “The Facts About Florida”—featuring a giant octopus. As a curator at Marineland of Florida, he was well aware that the giant octopus depicted was not a fact at all, and began investigating. He soon discovered that tissue samples of the beast in question yet remained in the Smithsonian’s archives.

newspaperclipping

“Wood asked a friend of his, Joseph [Dr. Joseph F. Gennaro, Jr.— a cell biologist at the University of Florida] to analyze this tissue. Obviously, this was rather difficult to do. After sixty years… and its long bath in formaldehyde and alcohol, after a period on the Florida beach, made a cellular examination precarious. Nonetheless… Gennaro was able to establish that the monster of St. Augustine was, in fact, an octopus; and a giant octopus, with arms from 75 to 90 feet long, which measured, at the base, eighteen inches in diameter.” (Cousteau, 1973). The entirety of Dr. Gennaro’s study, in all its dry but scientifically-necessary details, was published in a trilogy of articles by Natural History magazine in March, 1971.

But all were not satisfied, including bio-chemist Roy Mackal, Dr. Wood’s co-founder of the International Society of Cryptozoology. In an 1986 issue of Cryptozoology* magazine he wrote: “Gennaro carried out comparative histological examination of the tissue, and concluded that it most resembled contemporary octopus tissue. While these results were highly suggestive, further biochemical work was required for an unambiguous identification of the tissue.” And so, ninety years after discovery, the remains were tested once again. The results utilized the most modern methods of analyzing amino acids and also appeared to support the gigantic octopus theory (Markey, 2010).

Why, then, after satisfying numerous scientific examinations, did doubt remain? It has to do with a bizarre newspaper article, which leads us to the real monster in this story…

*I make a point of citing only sources I have personally verified. Unfortunately I was unable to find any copies of Dr. Mackal’s article. The data within has proliferated on the internet from numerous secondary sources, however, and has reluctantly been included.

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WHAT LURKED BENEATH

Confusion surrounded the St. Augustine Monster from the beginning, in large part due to to Dr. Dewitt Webb’s errors and Prof. Verrill’s blind acceptance of them. But it was not honest error that led to a century of mistakes. What follows is a breakdown of what was really going on:

1: Verrill first writes about the correspondence from Dr. Webb—not the carcass itself. Verrill immediately dismissed Webb’s theory of the carcass as being that of an octopus. He supposed instead it could possibly be a species of squid, based entirely upon Dr. Webb’s claim of arm stumps and recorded dimensions.

2: Verrill then received photographs that convinced him the carcass was indeed a cephalopod, based largely upon what appeared to be the stumps of arms but also the new report of separated arms found nearby.* Prof. Verrill’s reasoning behind calling this carcass a giant octopus and not a giant squid was never explained and is most perplexing. Indeed, he even goes on to mention that numerous whalers have reported sperm whales having disgorged similarly-sized remains of giant squids—not octopuses. But having made up his mind that it was an octopus, he proceeded to calculate its likely size based upon measurements provided by Dr. Webb using the usual proportions of an octopus. He named it Octopus giganteus—surely knowing that posterity would refer to it as Octopus giganteus verrill. This, despite in the very next sentence repeating that it could just as easily be a squid.

3: Further correspondence reveals that what Webb had thought to have been the stumps of arms were, in fact, nowhere to be found. Additionally, actual tissue samples were received and revealed unequivocally that the carcass was not a cephalopod of any kind, but in fact a sperm whale. The scientific debate was settled firmly by Prof. Verrill’s publication in a February, 1897 issue of American Journal of Science. The title of the article left no doubt whatsoever: The supposed Great Octopus of Florida; certainly not a cephalopod.

4: Though settled in February to the satisfaction of science, the public debate was still very much alive. This was due in large part to a sensational article written in the New York Herald, January 3, 1897. The article was uncredited and included a fantastic illustration clearly outside the bounds of reality. It appears Prof. Verrill wrote the article in the desire to cement the discovery as his own in as many venues as possible. He was not at all satisfied with the publication, however, complaining in a footnote of the February issue of American Journal of Science:

“A notice of this Octopus, written by me, was published in the New York Herald, Jan. 3rd, but my signature was omitted without my consent. A figure, furnished and described by me as a restoration, was inserted without any explanation: it is needless to say that it does not closely resemble the mutilated remains.”

5. While the national public’s imagination had been stoked by Prof. Verrill’s eagerness, it had already been set ablaze throughout Florida by one Dr. George Grant. As early as December 13, 1896, he wrote an article about “the sea monster”, including an outrageous illustration depicting a tentacled creature with a tail. This was drawn by a draughtsman of the newspaper based solely upon Grant’s own descriptions.

Dr. Grant was the owner of a hotel on Anastasia Island. It was unlikely a coincidence that on January 16, 1897, a local news sheet covering St. Augustine hotels ran a story about the stranded beast. True, the article clearly restated Prof. Verrill’s original identification as that of a giant squid, but the article was clearly designed to entice visitors to see the creature for themselves. And where was the creature at that time? Why, in front of Dr. Grant’s hotel, of course. After the carcass had been reclaimed by the tide and subsequently washed up again, Dr. Grant expressed fear that the carcass could be lost to the sea forever. Perhaps it should be hauled somewhere more… stable? Dr. Webb concurred and, utilizing no less than six horses and strong tackle, the famed carcass was placed securely in front of Dr. Grant’s hotel as a tourist attraction.

crowds

*What these arms turned out to be was not published.

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THE FINAL VERDICT

While the root of the St. Augustine Monster ultimately appears to be that of ego and greed, the sensationalism stoked for those purposes was very much real. Prof. Verrill’s scientific designation of the beast yet remained on the books. By the 1980s cryptozoology had taken hold of not only the public, but of the scientific community as well.

Established facts that had stood for 90 years were given the first shake-up in 1995, when the Smithsonian samples were tested yet again, this time with electron microscope and biochemical analysis, the results published in The Biological Bulletin. The samples were clearly identified as being from a warm-blooded mammal. All lingering doubts were put to rest in 2004—also published in The Biological Bulletin—when a DNA test confirmed that all the drama had been over the remains of a sperm whale. Specifically, the samples were the collagen matrix that held together blubber.

Thus the carcass that washed up on the beach of St. Augustine and identified by two local boys as a dead whale was, in fact, a dead whale. We can put to rest any hopes for a colossal octopus—that is, until the next one is spotted.


FUN BITS

  • The giant squid’s eye is the largest on earth.
  • Octopuses have detachable penises. Luckily, they regenerate.
  • Giant squid penises are about a yard long.
  • Squids and octopuses both have three hearts.

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CITATIONS AND SOURCES

Cousteau, Jaques-Ives; Diole, Philippe, Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence, Doubleday (1973) p.217
Gennaro, J.F. Jr. The Creature Revealed. Natural History, March 1971.
Lee, Henry, The Octopus; Or, The Devil-Fish of Fiction and of Fact (1875) pp.99-100
Mackal, R.P. Biochemical Analyses of Preserved Octopus giganteus Tissue. Cryptozoology (1986).
Markey, Mary, The Saint Augustine Monster, Smithsonian Institution Archives (2010)
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, The Colossal Squid Exhibition (Ongoing)
Newton, Michael, Hidden Animals: A Field Guide to Batsquatch, Chupacabra, and Other Elusive Creatures. ABC-CLIO (2009) pp. 79–81
O’Shea, Steve; Bolstad, Kat, Giant Squid and Colossal Squid Fact Sheet, TONMO (2008)
Pierce, S.; G. Smith; T. Maugel; E. Clark, On the Giant Octopus (Octopus giganteus) and the Bermuda Blob: Homage to A. E. Verrill. Biological Bulletin (1995).
Pierce, S.; Massey, S; Curtis, N; Smith, G; Olavarría, C; Maugel, T: Microscopic, Biochemical, and Molecular Characteristics of the Chilean Blob and a Comparison With the Remains of Other Sea Monsters: Nothing but Whales. Biological Bulletin (2004).
Verrill, A.E., American Journal of Science: 1897, Jan. Miscellaneous Intelligence, Section III, Botany and Zoology: 8. A gigantic Cephalopod on the Florida coast.
Verrill, A.E., American Journal of Science: 1897, Feb. Miscellaneous Intelligence, Section II, Geology and Natural History: 17. Additional information concerning the giant Cephalopod of Florida. 
Verrill, A.E., American Journal of Science: 1897 Miscellaneous Intelligence, Section II, Botany and Zoology: 17. The supposed Great Octopus of Florida; certainly not a cephalopod.
Yong, Ed, A Squid’s Beak is a Marvel of Biological Engineering, Discover Magazine (2008).
Fun bits sources: (Anitei, Stefan, 14 Things You Did Not Know About Octopuses, 2007) (Mancini, Mark, 20 Freaky Facts About Giant Squid, 2015)

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