The St. Augustine Monster
Aside from Margaritas, girls in bikinis, and a bizarre electoral system, and, of course, Disney, there’s something else the Sunshine State is known for, The Florida Monster… and I’m not talking about Gators, or the couple of times Joe Exotic came to visit. The Florida Monster or, more to the point, The St. Augustine Monster. The fable, a key component of the regional lore and one that every true Floridian is well-versed on.
In a nutshell, in case you want to skip most of the article and simply get a quick retelling of the whole episode, the St. Augustine Monster is the portmanteau given to a large carcass, originally thought to be the remains of a gigantic octopus, or a Lusca, that washed ashore on the United States coast near St. Augustine, Florida in 1896. It is one of the earliest recorded examples of the Globster phenomenon and although scientists – those periodical table thumpers who rob life of its magic – have claimed to have identified the beast, “it ain’t a monster, don’t you know,” those savvy few of the cryptic community with hope in their hearts are certain of the corpse’s Kraken like quality.
The species that was supposed have sprung forth the St. Augustine Monster has been assigned the binominal names Octopus giganteus (Latin for “giant octopus”)and Octopus giganteus (Greek prefix: oton = “ear”; “giant-eared octopus”)… mind you, not by learned academics but by the plucky aluminum wearing foot soldiers of the outlandish. BUT, before all of that, before everyone started disagreeing on what the heck that large ball of mass was, before fisticuffs ensued between fringe groups, before bigfoot lovers went medieval on the taxonomy “fun sacks”, before all that ball and yarn, two young boys were kicking the proverbial can on the shores of a Floridian Institution.
On the evening of November 30, 1896, Herbert Coles and Dunham Coretter, went out bicycling along Anastasia Island. Their plan? Dish on their latest crush, sneak in a smoke, poke something with a stick. Fate, it seemed, had the boys back; that fickle dame smiled and gave the tikes something truly magnificent to poke with their stick.
The boys practically choked on their cancer sticks when they stumbled on a half-buried enormous mass of something. Something so immense in weight that it sunk beneath the sand of its own accord.
“It’s a beached whale,” one of them went. Two years ago the town had gotten behind a collective poking stick when a whale got stranded near the mouth of the Matanza River.
The boys went back to St. Augustine and told the local physician, Dr. DeWitt Webb about their discovery. The man, the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science, came to the beach the next day, December 1, to examine the remains. Later, it turned out he would be the only person of an academic background to see the specimen in situ.
His impressions? Not a whale. Yes, it was an animal, something in an advanced state of decomposition but not a whale. The mass was pale pink, with stumps, huge, and rubbery. When the sun hit it, it reflected a silver shine. The Doc scratched his head and labeled the thing a giant dead octopus.
A few days later, on December 7, Webb contracted two hobbyists, Edgar Van Horn and Ernest Howatt, to photograph the mass. Folks around town and in neighboring hamlets caught wind of the discovery. Netflix wasn’t a thing and you needed something to entertain yourself with, so off to St. Augustine the curious went. A mass pilgrimage to the site started to knee its way down the coast. Nationwide, newspapers began printing drawings, sketches, and overinflated written accounts of the beats.
Around the same time, a certain Mr. Wilson wrote a letter to Webb, telling him of the results of his observations. Wildon had dug out part of the corpse.
“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.”
By now, thanks to a short article published in the Pennsylvania Grit of Williamsport on December 13, the word “sea monster” was starting to make the grounds. Folks who had never seen the mass were giving preposterous accounts of the creature. A thing with claws, jaws, a tail, and dozens of tentacles… and the yellow rags were running with all the false claims.
“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 underside 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 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.”
While all of this was going on, no one had secured the specimen. Between January 9 and January 15, a massive winter storm hit St. Augustine and dragged the carcass out to sea.
Dismay and desolation, the tourist hook had been hooked back to Neptune’s boudoir.
Then, a week later, a similar mass washed ashore on Crescent Beach. The first impressions were that the surf was full of sea monsters and there was an epic undersea battle taking shape just below the surface of the Atlantic.
“It’s another one!!! How many are there?”
Then, taking a page from the movie Twister – “it’s the same cow” – someone smacked the populace into reason. It was the same mass, a little worse for wear, but the same one.
The body was just a smidgen of its original form. Now it was in tatters and completely destroyed.
On Crescent Beach is where scientists and academics started to get in on the action. Up until now, in our tale, besides Webb, everyone how had seen or examined the carcass had limited their scientific inquiries to poking the thing and trying to see a pattern in its shape.
Webb once more took photographs – the famous ones posted all over the web. He sent them out to different authorities on the subject, among them Joel Asaph Allen if the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He also contacted Prof. Addison Emery Verrill of Yale, at that time the foremost authority on cephalopods in the country.
“The proportions [given by Webb] 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.”
For years there were debates on what the creature was. A whale taken apart and partly eaten by sharks? A Luska? A giant Octopus? A Kraken? A massive squid?
“the creature cannot be an Octopus, but is of cetacean nature,” Verrill going back on his initial estimation. “The whole mass represents the upper part of the head of a sperm whale, detached from the skull and jaw.”
The Tourist Attraction.
By the summer, Webb decided the body should be moved inland. With the help of six-horse, he dragged the beast to the railroad terminal. It’s final resting spot, as a tourist attraction, was near the hotel of Dr. George Grant.
It is unknown what happened to the carcass afterward.