When he recalled his early years in San Diego, Herbert Hensley loved to tell about the time Jimmie Dillar saw the devil. In June 1890, as he explored the treeless mesa where Balboa Park stands today, Jimmie saw a “monstrous half-bird, half-beast, with bat-like wings and a long snout.” Jimmie ducked down as the giant flapped overhead, “happily missing” him. The thing disappeared to the east “at great speed.”
Jimmie ran home. His father, Judge J.A. Dillar, was in his study. Jimmie was so excited he broke the family rule: never interrupt the judge at work. He burst in, shouting, “I’ve just seen Satan!”
No, said the judge. You just fell asleep and dreamed it.
That same day, a Mr. Marvin saw a similar creature swooping over Switzer Canyon (around 28th Street). Like Jimmie, Marvin would attest to his sighting on a stack of Bibles.
Three years later, Samuel Richardson, of Santa Ana, watched a black mass “big as a house and ugly as hell” flying low overhead. He shot and killed a rare species of California condor with a 12-foot wingspan, and, wrote Hensley, “the only one seen [in Southern California] for a long time.”
Other sightings in San Diego have proved less easy to identify.
Thirty Feet of Serpent Fish
When James Ohio Pattie came to San Diego in 1828, he sat on the “high pinnacles” of Point Loma and watched the “strange sea monsters” below: “seals, sea otters, sea elephants, whales, sharks, swordfish and various other unshapely sea dwellers…all new and strange to us.” Pattie was from Kentucky, so anything that broke the surface looked foreign.
The first recorded glimpse of something locals found strange came on October 21, 1873. Captain George Charlesworth took four friends on his yacht, Cygnet. They sailed to the tip of Point Loma, caught some good-sized fish, then swung southeast around the “Peninsula” (Coronado Island). They anchored at Spanish Bight, the cove that separated Coronado’s two islands. Charlesworth, Dr. Ipacek Squills (called “venerable” by the San Diego Union), J. Spencer, and E. Veazie (president of the City Board of Trustees) rowed ashore in a skiff. They went to hunt curlew, a delicacy in those days, on North Island. Spencer and Veazie hid themselves behind bushes on the southern shore. Squills concealed himself at the apex of the cove, and Charlesworth crawled through cacti and Spanish bayonet to the far side, hoping to flush out the wading birds with downcurved bills.
Suddenly, Squills heard shouting. He ran toward the captain.
“I just saw a frightful monster,” said Charlesworth, “fully thirty feet in length, shaped like a snake, with three sets of fins, a tail like an eel’s.” He paused to catch his breath. “The head, like an alligator’s, was a bit wider than the neck” but “very thick at the base.” A film covered the small eyes. The dark body had “mottled skin spotted something like a trout,” the belly a “yellowish cast.”
The fins looked like a sea lion’s, between 3 and 4 feet in length, the forward pair heaviest and situated about 2 feet back of the neck. The first 12 feet were “at least 2 feet thick.” Then it tapered toward the tail.
The monster lay on wet sand. When he first saw the long brown sprawl, Charlesworth couldn’t believe his eyes. “At the captain’s approach,” writes the Union, “the serpent-fish raised its head” and arched it toward the intruder. Since Charlesworth wasn’t far away, “His only thought was to increase that distance.”
He and Squills crept back to the site, their double-barreled rifles in readiness. When they reached the bank, they watched the creature “swimming into deep water with still a portion of his body in view.” They fired four rounds of #8 bird shot.
Hearing the ruckus, Veazie and Spencer came running up. Charlesworth showed them giant, snakelike swirls in the sand. They waited an hour for the creature to return. It never did.
The next morning, according to the Union, every boat in San Diego fanned across the entrance to the cove. Only young Charles Kaufman and Peter Thompson ventured nearer, in a small rowboat. They saw, they said, a “terrible commotion” in the water. Then, maybe 100 yards away, a “large, brownish mass” broke the surface several times, prompting the boys to skedaddle.
The local Academy of Sciences found no classification for Charlesworth’s description (an oarfish, the popular candidate, doesn’t have fins three feet long). In time, debunkers questioned Charlesworth’s eyesight and sobriety. They assumed that he and Kaufman came upon one of the many whales frequenting the bay in 1870s San Diego. Orcas particularly enjoyed the calm, sheltered waters of Spanish Bight.
Kaufman, a butcher who became bodyguard of Charles Hardy, the Republican boss of San Diego, swore he saw what he saw. And if you disbelieved, he’d realign your nose.
The sighting made international headlines, including the London Times. “It was a saurian,” the story quoted Charlesworth, “allied to the plesiosaurus,” with the “ears of a horse.” The New York Times, December 1873, linked the captain’s sighting with a 100-foot-long creature spotted in Belhaven Bay, near Dunbar, Scotland.
Just What Was That Enormous Squiggle?
“Sea serpents have been used to promote our city,” writes historian Michael Buxton, “provide entertainment, and sell newspapers.” From the first, it’s clear that vigorous debunkings may sell just as many.
On January 30, 1882, two duck hunters at Spanish Bight saw “an enormous snake rise out of the water within a few yards of the shore.” Brownish in color, 3 feet in circumference, the head was “as large as a nail keg,” and at least 5 feet above the surface. The hunters swore they saw 20 feet of the creature. They also swore they weren’t telling just another “snake story,” which had become so popular of late.
On February 3, the Union reported that, when he heard of the sighting, a Captain Taylor recalled a similar one 15 years before, at Table Bay, near the harbor at Cape Town. “It was more than one hundred feet in length, and moved with an undulating, snake-like motion.” Someone called out the military. Five hundred yards away, Marines opened fire. The creature didn’t react at all. When they surrounded the beast, “it was discovered to be seaweed.”