“I prefer the monsters of my fancy to what is positively trivial”*…
In the summer of 1937, stories started appearing in the local papers on and around Nantucket illustrated by photographs of giant footprints found on a local beach. Given the region’s long history of sea-serpent sightings, rumors quickly spread suggesting that, at last, one of the elusive creatures had come ashore.
Soon, indeed, a gigantic creature was spotted on Nantucket’s South Beach. People came flocking to investigate; but instead of the long awaited New England Sea Serpent, they found something quite different – a serpent of the inflatable balloon variety.
The whole thing had been an elaborate publicity stunt staged by the puppeteer Tony Sarg (pictured, smiling, in the center of the picture below). Over the preceding decade, Sarg (working with his protege Bil Baird) had pioneered inflatable puppets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair– as a result of which he was widely known as “the father of modern puppetry” and as “America’s Puppet Master.” His sea-serpent was an attempt to get Nantucket in the news (and, no doubt, drum up a bit of business for Tony Sarg’s Curiosity Shop). In the event, it worked. After several weeks drawing crowds to Nantucket’s beaches, the installation made its way to New York City, where it starred in that year’s Macy’s Parade.
More at “The Nantucket Sea-Serpent Hoax.”
* Charles Baudelaire
As we decide that it’s finally safe to go back into the water, we might recall that this date is Saint Vitus’ Day. Vitus was a martyr in the very early 4th century, who became the patron saint of actors, comedians, dancers, and epileptics, and is said to protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks, and oversleeping.
Given his attachment to both terpsichore and tremors, it’s no surprise that he’s the namesake of a phenomenon– St. Vitus’ Dance (AKA Dancing Mania)– that affected thousands in Europe for centuries. The condition involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time– a mania that affected men, women, and children, who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. While the first recorded outbreak was in the 7th century, the first major event was in 1374, in Aachen, Germany, from which it quickly spread throughout Europe; and perhaps the most notable outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518. St Vitus’ Dance appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th century.