Earlier this year I read a story on the paranormal website Mysterious Universe about an alleged sea monster attack on a WWI sub. I tracked the story, about the UB-85, back to an earlier version of the American Monsters website, and from there a book for children with the title of Sea Monsters: A Collection of Eyewitness Accounts (1977). Once I got a copy of the book I realized two things. First, I’d read this book when I was very little. I remember all the pictures. Second, author James B. Sweeney freely mixed real sea serpent reports with far less credible stories that I think he made up from whole cloth.
I thought it would be fun to go through Sea Monsters and see how many of the stories presented within are real stories, which are fake, and which, like the UB-85 one, have taken on a new life in the paranormal fringe of websites.
We start on Page 42. (Yes, the book takes a while to get to anything directly monster related. And the whole book is only 88 pages.) Sweeney cites the Iliad, the part of Book XIII about Poseidon getting in his chariot and the sea monsters playing around in his wake. Sweeney certainly didn’t make this up, but a passing reference in poem from 850 BCE doesn’t tell us much about the reality of unknown sea creatures.
Pages 42-44 include a discussion of the word “kraken” and associated monsters. We’re told that a Swedish Captain Axel Carlekrantz of the Society for Preservation of Old Ships has a document found aboard an “ancient vessel” that tells a story about fishermen fleeing an area because a kraken was present. Moreover, the same document claims that Sture Dohnhammer and his helper Holger were found dead two days later, their boat smashed. I can find no evidence that Carlekrantz or the Society really existed, nor does it seem likely any document would be found on a boat that could be called “ancient” by any reasonable definition. This section features a hallmark of Sweeney’s fictional creations, a nonsensical mix of extreme vagueness with meaninglessly specific details. So we aren’t told what kind of document was found on the ship or when it dates from, but we are told that Carlekrantz lives on the north bank of the Ljusnan River in Söderhamn!
Page 44. Another report is cited that backs up the story of Dohnammer’s death. A man named Van Vlissingen allegedly swore on the Pope and “the beard of good Saint Alban” that he saw Dohnhammer’s ship destroyed and the crew eaten by a two-horned kraken. He was “proclaimed a falsifyer,” though we aren’t told by who or how this story could have reached Sweeney. Another fiction.
Page 45. After a discussion of how ships got bigger by the Renaissance, Sweeney mentions the whale story from The Voyage of Saint Brendan. This is a real 10th century book, and I guess Sweeney missed the earlier chapter that actually features sea monsters.
Page 45. An officer aboard one of Vasco da Gama’s ships named Manoul de Sousa Barbara wrote in his diary that a sea monster snatched a man from the deck of his ship, leaving only blood behind. Additionally, a monster with long hair was spotted in the ship’s wake. I can find no evidence the diary is anything but a fiction. I suspect Sweeney got the name “Manoul de Sousa” from the captain of the real life wreck of the São João in 1552.
Pages 46-47 reference monster stories from Olaus Magnus, his maps and his 1555 book History of the Northern Peoples. I’m not going to learn Latin to figure out if Sweeney’s quotes are correct, but Magnus certainly included sea monsters on his maps.
Pages 47-48. A discussion of Carolus Linnaeus and his interest in sea monsters. Sweeney includes a couple of long quotes allegedly from Linnaeus that I can’t verify. One sounds suspiciously like Erik Pontoppidan’s description of a kraken from The Natural History of Norway.
That’s it for this installment. The next one is coming in a couple of days.