Visions of strange entities in the sky are a pervasive Fortean phenomenon. Just look in my “Sky Mysteries” category for a variety of phantasms from Grover Cleverland to the Virgin Mary. No doubt we can debunk these satisfactorily with our own personal experiences of pareidolia, i.e. kitties in the clouds. Yet there is a minor background detail that I’ve noted in more than one of these sky visions: we find the witness(es) afloat, either on an ocean-going vessel, a riverboat, or a rowboat. You’ll find examples here, here, and here. Now perhaps I’m just somehow drawn to stories of sea-going spectres and it would be easy to dismiss them as a mirage, like Norse mermen, arising from atmospheric refraction. That explanation becomes slightly more problematic when there are two independent witnesses.
A SERPENT IN THE SKY
Strange Phenomenon Seen by Captain Thompson of the Trinacria, and by a Pilot—Earthquake at Sea
One of the strangest phenomena ever witnessed at sea was described yesterday by Captain Thomson, of the Anchor liner Trinacria, which arrived from Mediterranean ports, and also by Pilot Sullivan of the David Carli No. 10, who brought the steamship into New York. It was in brief an earthquake shock at sea on July 23, followed by the appearance in the sky of a huge fiery serpent, which stretched from the zenith to the horizon.
Pilot Sullivan was on board the David Caril at the time, as the Trinacria had not then been sighted. The boat was in latitude 41 deg. 28 min., longitude 65 degrees, or in the vicinity of George’s Shoals, south of Cape Sable. An earthquake shock from the northwest was felt at seven o’clock in the evening. It lasted about six seconds, as nearly as the pilot could judge. The vibration caused the pilot boat to tremble, but the sea remained calm. The shock was unmistakably that of an earthquake, the pilot said.
Hardly had the shock subsided when a streak of light was seen extending from the zenith to the northwest horizon in the form of a huge serpent. The reptile gradually tapered from the head, which appeared to be reared high in the air, to the tail near the horizon. It lasted for more than three quarters of an hour and then gradually disappeared.
Captain Thomson, of the Trinacria, says he saw the fiery serpent also at the same hour, seven P.M. of July 25. His vessel was then in latitude 40 deg. 47 min., longitude 65 deg. 9 min., or about sixty miles distant from the pilot boat’s position. Captain Thomson says he saw what appeared to be a fiery cloud in the northwest. It resembled at first a forked streak of lightning. Gradually it assumed the form of an immense serpent, and, as if to further carry out the illusion, the serpent began to coil itself like an enormous spring. Then the head reared itself as if his snakeship had suddenly been disturbed and was about to strike his fiery fangs into his opponent.
There were 297 passengers on board, including thirty bowing dervishes, who will illustrated the faith of Mohammed at the World’s Fair. The passengers all crowded to the rail to witness the strange sight, and the dervishes, taking it for a manifestation of Allah, began to pray with their faces toward the north.
The vessel’s barometer had sunk from 29.39 to 29.29 and heavy “tide rips,” or short, choppy waves, slapped the vessel, though there was almost no wind. The shock was felt very slightly on board the Trinacria.
The serpentine form in the sky lasted about an hour and then gradually faded. Captain Thomson said he had never seen anything like it before.
New York Herald 30 July 1892: p. 8
Another case of northern lights, perhaps? In July? As for the earthquake, there was a small earthquake in Mexico on 23 July and Mounts Etna and Vesuvius were reported as erupting on and around 26 July. There had also been a violent eruption at Sangir, in the Malay Archipelago in early July. In short, I have no idea about the source of what was identified as an earthquake tremor.
Now, for a bit of a name game. The ship was named for the Greek island of Thrinakia, home to Helios’s cattle. Odysseus reached the island and stopped there, despite warnings to avoid it. Unfavorable winds kept him trapped for a month. After his men broke their oath not to touch the cattle, Zeus sent a thunderbolt to strike the ship, killing all aboard except Odysseus. Not, perhaps, the most auspicious name for an ocean-going vessel.
At 6 am 8 February 1893, in a heavy fog off Cape Villano, Galicia, the Trinacria was carried shoreward by a strong current. She ran directly onto the Bermellas Rocks. On board were 32 crew members and four female passengers: three women and a girl. The chief engineer and six sailors were the only survivors. By a weird coincidence the Trinacria wrecked at the identical spot where a British cruiser was lost on 10 November 1890, leaving only three survivors out of 276 passengers and crew. The name of the cruiser? H.M.S Serpent.
Any theories as to what could have formed the giant serpent in the sky? Here’s a NASA photo of what looks like a sky snake, but it is not fiery. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.