Captain Joshua Card here. Been busy lately, scraping and painting the tower and showing the summer people around my station. Been meaning to check in with you folks for a while. I thought I’d tell you about a colorful old acquaintance, a contemporary of mine from down Connecticut way.
Stratford native Theodore Judson became keeper at Stratford Point Lighthouse in 1880. “Theed” Judson remained keeper at Stratford Point for over 40 years, and the Judsons were mostly well respected. But there were the occasional odd stories from Stratford Point that earned the keeper the nickname “Crazy” Judson. It was a name not given lightly.
A headline in the Bridgeport Union in late July 1886 read, “A Big Sea Serpent.” The paper went on to report the following:
A sea serpent with pea green whiskers passed down Long Island Sound in a big hurry Wednesday morning. He was plowing through the water at a 25 knot clip when he passed the Stratford lighthouse and left a wake of foam behind him a mile in length. He was easily 200 feet in length, and his head was reared 20 feet above the brine. That afforded a good look at his whiskers, which were the rich deep green color of bog hay.
The big reptile was plainly seen from the lighthouse by Keeper Theodore Judson, his wife, his son Henry and his daughter Agnes, and by H. W. Curtis of Stratford, as well as by a number of people at Captain John Bond’s place up the river. These latter saw only the loftily reared head, which at a distance looked like the tail funnel of a sound flier. Keeper Judson seriously declared to a reporter that he could not be mistaken.
“I saw it plainly,” he said, “and so did my wife and children and Mr. Curtis. All of us are familiar with the appearance of a school of porpoises, and this sight was entirely different. . . . It could be plainly seen without a glass.”
The other witnesses all corroborate Keeper Judson’s statement, which bears the imprint of truth. Incumbency in the lighthouse service is prima facie evidence of sobriety, an element not always closely connected with stories of sea monsters.
Still the pea green whiskers are inexplicable.
There were other reported sea serpent sightings in Long Island Sound around that time, some possibly sparked by P. T. Barnum’s offer in 1873 of $50,000 to anyone who could produce a sea serpent carcass.
But it was a July 1915 interview that earned Judson the “crazy” label for eternity. Barnum had also once offered $20,000 for a captured mermaid, but that was many years earlier and doesn’t appear to have had any bearing on Judson’s next strange sighting. Here’s what Judson told a reporter in 1915:
Three days ago, I saw a shoal of mermaids off Lighthouse point. I’ve seen them again and again, but it’s only once I laid hands on one. She scratched me well, but I got her brush away from her and I’ve got it yet. It’s generally in the early morning or late afternoon that they gather around the rocks off the point. Sometimes I’ve counted as many as 12 or 15 of them, their yellow hair glistening and their scaly tails flashing. They’re a grand sight.
It was late afternoon when I happened to be out there alone. The sky was thickening for a storm and a fog was creeping up and I had just set the foghorn going. It seems to have an attraction for mermaids, just as the light has for moths. But all of a sudden I noticed this one sitting here all by herself, combing her long golden hair. I took a long look at her before I crept up to her and it’s just as well I did, else I wouldn’t be able to give you much of a description, everything happened so quick once I touched her. . . . She had lovely gazelle eyes and a fair skin. She was just like a woman to her waist and below that all silver-spangled scales. I should say her tail was about three feet long. The upper part of her body was a little smaller than the average woman. I should say she weighed, all told, about 75 pounds. . . . To tell you the truth, I was hesitating in my own mind when I went out for her whether I would keep her for myself and let the $20,000 go—she was so beautiful!
The mermaid didn’t scream or squeak but she had a tongue and beautiful white teeth. The only sound she made was a hissing noise and it matched well to her temper.
The mermaid regrettably escaped when the keeper tried to grab her. Asked if he had ever tried to lasso a mermaid, Judson answered, “Might as well try to lasso an eel.” But for anyone who was interested, the keeper was happy to produce the mermaid’s hairbrush. He explained that mermaids took brushes and combs from the staterooms of wrecked steamers, accounting for the ordinary, cheap look of the brush. The entire fishy tale was supported by his wife, Kate, and Assistant Keeper Will Petzolt.
Keeper Judson retired in 1921. At the time, he claimed that he hadn’t had a vacation in thirty-nine years. When he died at eighty-seven in 1935, the New York Times called Judson a “picturesque character” and, in an understatement, “a raconteur of salty tales.” It was said that friends never got him to retract his mermaid story.
Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, August 7, 2018.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org