The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Saint Augustine Monster
What was the Saint Augustine Monster? According to Wikipedia, it was a globster—“an unidentified organic mass that washes up on the shoreline of an ocean or other body of water.” This great-grandaddy of globsters kept cryptozoologists speculating and scientists testing for a century—and a piece of it lives at the Smithsonian.
The St. Augustine monster was discovered by two young boys on Anastasia Island, Florida in November, 1896. They assumed it was a whale, and reported their find to Dr. De Witt Webb, the founder of the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science.
Dr. Webb noted that the enormous carcass appeared to have stumps of several arms or tentacles. He concluded that it was the remains of a gigantic octopus, and contacted Yale’s Professor Addison E. Verrill, who went to press in 1897 declaring the discovery of what he named Octopus giganteus verrill.
Webb also sent photos and a specimen to the Smithsonian in 1897. National Museum Curator William Healey Dall accepted the material as Accession 31678: “Sections of the muscle envelop of the body of Octopus giganteus verill”.
Later, Professor Verrill had an opportunity to examine a sample of the carcass and—oops! —determined that the St. Augustine monster was actually the upper part of a sperm whale’s head. Unfortunately, his new conclusion didn’t receive the popular press attention of his previous announcement. Webb’s original photographs were mislaid, the newspaper articles faded, and other globsters, such as the Dunk Island Carcass (1948) and the Tasmanian Blob (1960), took their brief moments in the limelight.
During the 1970s and 80s, in the wake of the popularity of the book Chariots of the Gods (1968) and TV programs such as the BBC’s series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, monster once again captured the public imagination. As if a gigantic octopus wasn’t enough, one author even speculated that it was the remains of a giant space alien.
Enough interest was generated that the Smithsonian began receiving requests for samples of the monster. In 1971, comparative tests to other marine animals suggested that it was octopus tissue. 1986 tests for amino acids appeared to support the gigantic octopus theory. However, in 1995, electron microscope and biochemical analysis indicated that the material was collagen from a warm-blooded mammal. In 2004 DNA tests applied to the St. Augustine sample along with other monster remnants from around the world identified all as the collagen matrix that holds together . . . whale blubber.
In slightly more than a century, science had confirmed what the two St. Augustine boys originally reported in 1896—that remains of a whale had washed up on Anastasia Island!
Richard Ellis, author of the 1994 book, Monsters of the Sea, was quoted in the New York Times, “I’m crushed. It’s a blow for people who continue to want there to be great and scary monsters out there . . . it may be the requiem for blobdom.”
Dr. Webb’s own words about his discovery are at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the Correspondence and Memoranda of the Assistant Secretary of the US National Museum, Record Unit 189.