Did Jason Seabury capture the sea serpent in 1852 as always stated?
1852? Or 1851?
Every accounting of the Monongahela sea serpent report states that it was captured on January 13, 1852. Of course the New-York Daily Tribune had to receive the letter prior to printing on February 24, 1852. It was then printed in the London Illustrated Times on March 13, 1852, seventeen days later. A packet ship sailing on February 24, 1852, after publication in the Tribune, could not deliver the story to the London papers in seventeen days, even less when considering time for setting type and printing. Telegraph was not yet functional across the Atlantic. The Atlantic Telegraph Company was not formed until December 1856, and would not be functional for years after that. Therefore, the story must have been sent by packet thirty-seven days, or at the least twenty-two days which was the fastest passage by packet ship Sir Robert Peel, plus one week for setting type, in order for the story to be published in London on March 13, 1852. The packet would have to sail from New York forty-two days earlier, or on January 30, 1852. That is reasonable; the date the New-York Daily Tribune received the story was therefore more likely mid-January.
The first newspaper to print the account was the New-York Daily Tribune. The story included a line at the top, “At Sea – Feb. 6, 1852.” Why the Tribune stated “Feb. 6, 1852” is a mystery; probably a simple error in reporting the year. The New-York Daily Tribune may have added the date without reasoning a ship’s speed, assuming in haste that it was the same year they received the report. To meet all printing dates, as discussed above, the Tribune had to receive the manuscript about January 30, 1852, which is before the date given. A. C. Oudemans included the account with complete text in his book, The Great Sea-Serpent, (1892), but does not include the date. Perhaps it was never in the letter. The date would have to be in 1851. The story was published in February 1852, but it would be impossible to sail from mid-Pacific on January 17, 1852 (four days after the capture as reported) and meet a vessel eight days north of Puerto Rico, as stated in Seabury’s account, on February 6, 1852. That would require a whaleship to sail at twenty-one knots constantly day and night for twenty days. The fastest clipper ship was the 2,305-ton Red Jacket. She sailed from New York on January 11, 1854 to Liverpool, arriving January 23, 1854. She made the 3,000 nautical-mile trip in thirteen days, one hour and twenty-five minutes, giving her an average speed of nine and one-half knots. Her record for that particular sailing voyage still stands today. Her fastest speed was over seventeen knots and the poorest speed of the trip was only four and one-half knots. In 1849, the great clipper Sea Witch, commanded by Captain Robert “Bully” Waterman, sailed from Hong Kong to New York in the incredible time of seventy-four days and fourteen hours; an average speed of 9-1/2 knots.
Records show Rebecca Sims to sail at an average speed of about six knots, as was typical of a packet at that time. After she was refitted during the winter of 1806-1807, Rebecca Sims set a record of fourteen days on an eastbound run from Cape Henlopen, Delaware (leaving the port of Philadelphia) to the mouth of the Mersey (Liverpool, England) in May 1807. That run is a distance of 2,950 nautical miles, which means her average speed over a full fourteen days was just fewer than nine knots. Monongahela was also built as a packet, and her top speed could not be expected to be significantly greater than Rebecca Sims.
To make any sense, the year of the sea serpent capture would have to be in 1851 if the newspapers printed the account in February 1852. A homeward bound whaleship, such as Rebecca Sims, would probably cruise the Offshore Grounds until the end of October, then head for Cape Horn. That would give her three months to deliver the manuscript. Over a distance of approximately 10,600 nautical miles from the eastern end of the Grounds to Massachusetts, her sailing speed would have to be five knots, which exactly matches the speed that could be expected if Rebecca Sims brought Seabury’s report home, and delivered it in time for the New-York Daily Tribune to print it on February 24, 1852.
Jason Seabury captured the sea serpent on January 13, 1851.
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Thomas Lytle. All rights reserved.
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