Why you should care
Because you’re never too old to believe in monsters.
On a warm September day, Harold Bricker, his wife, Cora, and their son, Robert, set out from Ohio’s Sandusky Bay to go fishing on Lake Erie. While Bricker was baiting his hook, he noticed something moving in the water about 1,000 feet from their boat. Peering in that direction, he saw what looked like a long, sleek sea serpent swimming through the choppy waves.
The creature was “black and about 35 feet long with a snakelike head,” Bricker told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. He wanted to investigate, but his son was too nervous to get closer, astutely pointing out that whatever the thing was, it was certainly bigger than any of them. The Brickers weren’t sure what they saw that day, but their story was corroborated by at least five other witnesses.
They were serious as a heart attack.
John Schaffner, newspaper editor, on people calling his lake monster hotline
For many Ohio residents, it was just the most recent sighting of the Lake Erie monster, or Bessie, the American cousin of Scotland’s famed Nessie of Loch Ness. (Last year was big for Nessie, according to the BBC — eight sightings, more than in any other year in this century.) Bessie has never been in the international spotlight, but since the late 18th century, Ohioans have insisted that a huge, snakelike creature lives in the depths of Lake Erie.
In July 1931, two Lake Erie fishermen, Clifford Wilson and Francis Cogenstose, claimed that a sea serpent was plunging through the waves near their boat in Sandusky Bay. Despite their fear, the two men managed to club the beast, bring it to shore and wrestle its limp body into a shipping crate.
At least that’s the story they told a New York Times reporter who happened to be visiting Sandusky that day. When the curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History swung by to investigate, he determined that the clubbed and crated beast was actually an Indian python, according to Cryptozoology A to Z, by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark. Despite that hoax and likely others, Lake Erie locals continue to claim sightings of Bessie’s long, scaly body plunging in and out of the water.
After the Brickers’ encounter in 1990, John Schaffner, editor of The Beacon, a newspaper in Port Clinton, Ohio, set up an 800-number for sightings. Schaffner admits that one of his friends knowingly published an account of a fake serpent sighting in another local paper, spurring a flurry of copycat reports. But the people calling Schaffner’s lake monster hotline weren’t trying to put one over on him. “They were serious as a heart attack,” Schaffner says. “They were absolutely convinced they were seeing something in the water.”
He remembers one woman in particular who was having coffee on her lakefront porch one summer morning, when she was overcome by a powerful stench. “She swears she saw a slinky sea monster with two humps in the water,” Schaffner says.
Investigative journalist and avid Lake Erie boater Steve Kovacs thinks he may have cracked the case. In 2012, Kovacs published The Solved Case of the Real Lake Erie Monster, in which he details sightings over the years and uses his reporting skills to identify the creature. His hard-hitting theory? When people see the Lake Erie monster, they are actually encountering larger-than-average lake sturgeon. It might not be the most thrilling revelation, but Kovacs claims it’s easy to see why folks mistake the giant fish for a monster. “They do look quite prehistoric,” he says. “If you see a sturgeon at the right angle, you probably would look at it and go ‘What the heck is that?’”
Adding to its sinister appearance, lake sturgeon can grow to enormous proportions. The largest specimen ever caught in Wisconsin was 84.2 inches long (7 feet) and weighed 212 pounds. In Minnesota, those record stats are 70 inches and 94.4 pounds.
Of course, it’s not just Bessie and Nessie that spark the imagination of lakegoers. An aquatic monster was spotted in Alaska’s Lake Iliamna in the 1960s, in the ’90s and again last year, according to the Anchorage Daily News. Lake Champlain, shared by New York state, Vermont and Quebec, has its own monster, known as Champ or Champy.
Like ghosts, yetis and Bigfoot, sightings of these bizarre beasts raise questions about the human psyche. Why do some people believe in creatures that have no proven existence? Donald R. Prothero, co-author of Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and Other Famous Cryptids, blames it on our willingness to believe what we see. “People are fooled by their senses, especially sight, because we are notoriously bad witnesses,” Prothero told National Geographic in 2013. Kovacs thinks monster sightings serve a different purpose. “It diverts people from their problems in life, their anxieties, depression, bad times,” he says. “It gives [them] a sense of adventure and purpose.”
Over the years, scientists and marine experts have offered theories on Bessie. After the 1990 sighting, Fred Snyder, a researcher with the Ohio Sea Grant, told the Los Angeles Times that he, like Kovacs, believes it’s just a supersize sturgeon. But many locals would rather keep the monster story alive. The menus at LEMmy’s (Lake Erie Monster) Restaurant in Huron tell the tale of the 1931 sighting, but with an alternative ending: The monster now lives in the diner’s basement. If you listen closely, you can hear her thrashing around belowdecks. Or so the menu says.