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This thesis explores images of sea serpents in nineteenth-century print culture that reflect an ongoing effort throughout the century to locate, capture, catalogue, and eventually poeticize the sea serpent. My research centers primarily on the sea serpent craze that occurred within the New England and Mid-Atlantic states between 1845 and 1880 and examines the following three prints: Albert Koch’s Hydrarchos, a fossil skeleton hoax, printed in an 1845 advertisement by Benjamin Owen, a book and job printer; an 1868 Harper’s Weekly illustration titled The Wonderful Fish; and Stephen Alonzo Schoff’s etching, The Sea Serpent from 1880, based on an 1864 painting by Elihu Vedder. By examining the illustrations and eyewitness accounts of sea serpent sightings, it is possible to show how art infused historically specific meaning into the schematized and persistent form of the sea serpent. It is not only that people saw serpents that looked like the ones they had seen in pictures, but that the pictures offered a kind of template on which viewers could inscribe particular historical fears.
I catalogue the evolution of serpent imagery during a time of political upheaval, including serious threats to national unity as well as threats to the racial, gender, and social hierarchy that had underpinned the republic’s early order. The sea serpent motif could be adapted to different threats to social stability. I argue that the search to locate a physical or “actual” sea serpent body, founded in such anxieties, shaped the design and meaning of serpent images, all the more so because artists and viewers began with certain schemas, which are reflected in the illustrations that often accompanied sea serpent sightings. Taking into account the booming mass media of the era, changing practices in natural history and science, a burgeoning culture of hoax and publicity stunts, attitudes about war and violence, and concepts of human beauty and sexuality, this thesis explores how the monstrous body of the sea serpent thrived in the nineteenth-century United States.
Adviser: Wendy Katz