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.”
The World’s Fastest Piling
On September 24, 1886, Mrs. Edward Chambers went to the 22nd Street depot, where her husband was station agent for the California Southern railroad. The depot abutted the bay, and they always enjoyed a walk home together at day’s end. As she stood in the doorway, Mrs. Chambers saw something “burrowing” south through the water. She shouted to her husband.
He ran up, along with four other clerks. “For several minutes,” writes the Union, the group watched a being “fifty feet in length, with a head three or four feet long, much the shape of a mammoth bull-head.” The slashing, fishlike tail “left the water in a state of foaming trouble.”
What struck the group most was the creature’s speed. With its head a good three feet above the surface, it “moved at a rate of at least fifty miles an hour.”
The Chambers sighting resembled one several young men had made a couple of weeks earlier between the depot and National City. While boat-riding one night, they heard a “loud snout” and, as they hastened to shore, saw something they were afraid to describe.
In an editorial, September 30, the Union explained Chambers’s “sea serpent.” The 60-foot-long monster “is now securely chained” to the National City railroad wharf. “Scientists,” the story says with tongue in cheek, determined that the dark-colored object is a “creosoted pile, belonging to the Peninsula Company.”
Neither the “scientists” nor the Union could explain how a piling could move faster than most ships.
Oh, That Old Fifty-Foot Hogwash Again?
By the 1890s, since even “reliable and responsible newspapermen” were “in the business of faking stories” (Hensley), the debunkers ruled. Anyone claiming to have seen something on sea or land — including the enormous crystal cave that reporter Charles Degelman swore was inside a Point Loma cliff — became suspect. Observers had two choices: tell the truth as they saw it or don’t report that hairy, smelly, grunting Goliath spooking their cattle at night.
J.L. Paulsen, “a mariner who has sailed around the world more times than he has fingers and toes” (Union), owned the boathouse at the foot of Market Street. Since he captained fishing parties for a living, he knew better than to tell tall tales. But he risked his sizeable reputation to report that on August 7, 1896, west of the huge kelp beds off Point Loma, a “pair of large and black eyes” stared at him from the water. Then the ten-foot-long creature, which “resembled a large eel,” surfaced near the captain’s launch, Urania. The round head, “almost as large as a baby,” had “stubby ears,” and the mouth “projected out, like a snake’s.” As he shouted for others to come see it, the creature swam off. If he had a boat hook, Paulsen assured reporters, he would have captured the “fat and sluggish” serpent, which was “the queerest thing I have ever seen in any sea.”
In July 2000, teenage boys found the skeletons of two plesiosaurs — the most popular candidate for the Loch Ness Monster — near Lake Powell in northern Arizona. The discovery, authenticated by paleontologists, gave new hope to fans of Hodgee, the alleged monster of Lake Hodges.
The 1234-acre lake, made a dam by Colonel Ed Fletcher in 1918, has produced large bass and giant catfish. Some say a Nessie-like plesiosaur lurks at the bottom.
Vague reports tell of strange ripples and foamy wakes trailing behind a brown lump on the surface. A 1930 observer saw a “lizard-like head.” For ocular proof, many cite damage to property: a smashed boat, missing bales of hay and cattle.
Interest in Hodgee peaked in the mid-1980s. Matt Tidwell, reservoir keeper for 12 years, told the North County Times:
“A reporter from Channel 8 News came to the top of the dam. We had a diesel engine pumping air into the lake. These bubbles were coming up.” Tidwell told the reporter, “This is where Hodgee the monster sleeps.”
“It was just a bunch of spoof,” Tidwell recalled the incident to North County Panorama in 1985. “I don’t know why anybody would believe something like that, but it’s a good story.”
The San Clemente Monster
“All of a sudden I saw something dark and big heave up,” writes big-game fisherman Ralph Bandini in Tight Lines, “a great columnar neck and head…lifting a good ten feet. It must have been five or six feet thick…But the eyes — those were what held me! — at least a foot in diameter, and dull and indifferent as those of a dying man.”
Bandini twice spotted the creature off San Clemente Island in the 1920s. When a swell came through, it was so large it didn’t rise or fall. Bandini couldn’t see its body but felt that it was “greater than the biggest whale” and wasn’t serpentine. “If it was, then we had better revise our views on serpents.”
“Some of my intimate friends have seen it,” Bandini wrote in 1934. “They know that I have seen it. Yet, despite friendship, despite this mutual knowledge of one another’s experience, I find most of them reluctant to talk, even to me.” Whenever he could persuade people to sketch what they had seen, the “drawings show one and the same thing!”
George Farnsworth, president of the prestigious Avalon Tuna Club: “Its eyes were 12 inches in diameter, not set on the side like an ordinary fish, but more central. It had a big mane of hair about two feet long.” As Farnsworth approached, it slipped underwater without leaving a swirl. “This was no sea elephant. It was some kind of mammal, for it could not have been standing so long unless it was.”
The first reported sighting of what came to be known as the San Clemente Monster occurred in 1914, but earlier accounts may describe the same creature. In 1891, residents near today’s Oceanside repeatedly observed a “sea serpent” over 100 feet long swimming in the kelp beds. In March of that year, just off the Coronado Islands, boatmen saw something 150 feet long that must have weighed two tons.
In 1877, also near the Coronados, Chinese fishermen watched a 100-foot creature with a long neck bobbing its reptilelike head up and down in the water, as if feeding.
In 1889, John Bailhache saw a “round and snaky” 100-foot monster near Cedros Island off Baja. The creature was taking large bites from a dead 30-foot whale. The head was “like a turtle,” only much larger, and the body had five or six legs, “each webbed and horned like the wings of a dragon.” When it ate, the beast made a “horrible wheezing or hissing sound.”
Bailhache and his crew were relieved when the “thing” arched away from the carcass and headed out to sea, “for if inclined, it could have taken our little schooner at a mouthful.”
Bernard Heuvelmans, who has made the most thorough study of sea serpents (and who believes there could be as many as nine different kinds throughout the world), cites several eyewitness accounts of the San Clemente Monster in the 1950s, including one a mile off La Jolla in 1954. For 25 minutes Phil Parker and Grant King watched a creature with a head and shoulders like a “bull gorilla” but no face. “It wasn’t a whale, and it wasn’t a sea lion,” said Parker. “And it sure didn’t look like a snake.”
By the early ’60s, when the Navy used the island to test torpedoes, depth charges, and eventually the “variable depth launch” Polaris missile, sightings of the San Clemente Monster ceased. Something akin to the creature has been occasionally seen since — usually far from shipping lanes — off the southeast coast of Alaska and the Gulf of California. ■
Next time: Earthbound anomalies.
- Bernard Heuvelmans: “De omni re scibili” (all things that can be known) was Pico della Mirandola’s way of describing his interests — to which Voltaire added “et quibusdam aliis” (and some others).
- Herbert Hensley: “Regardless of delusions founded upon floating kelp and, perhaps, the heads of big sea elephants — or plain hoaxing — there is a mass of startlingly convincing evidence for occasional and brief appearances of these monsters.”
- Rudyard Kipling: “For truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behooves a gentleman either to give her a pink petticoat, or to turn his face to a wall and vow that he did not see.”
Bandini, Ralph, “I Saw a Sea Monster,” Esquire Magazine for Men, June 1934; Tight Lines, Los Angeles, 1932; Men, Fish, and Tackle: The Story of J.A. Coxe, Los Angeles, 2006.
Buxton, Michael, “Sea Serpents of San Diego,” San Diego Historical Society ms.
Hensley, Herbert, Early San Diego: Reminiscences of Early Days and People, San Diego Historical Society ms.
Heuvelmans, Bernard, In the Wake of Sea Serpents, New York, 1968.
Kipling, Rudyard, “A Matter of Fact,” The Science Fiction Stories of Rudyard Kipling, ed. John Brunner, New Jersey, 1994.
Oudemans, Antoon Cornelis, The Great Sea Serpent, Leiden, 1892.
Weisman, Dan, “Hodgee, the Friendly Lake Hodges Monster: Fact or Fiction?” North County Times, November 24, 2001.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, the New York Times, and the London Times.