Stupid Question ™
Nov. 22, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the legend of the Lake Erie monster?
A: A creature of fantasy and publicity if not of flesh, the Lake Erie monster is typically described as being a snake-like beast 20 to 50 feet long, 12 to 18 inches in diameter, with dark skin, red eyes and humps that stick out of the water as it swims.
It’s mostly an Ohio monster, reported from the shore waters of the Sandusky area, roughly between Lorain and Port Clinton. There have been isolated “sightings” from Toledo and Windsor, Canada. Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York have managed to completely overlook the monster.
The first sighting was supposedly in 1817, but the earliest I could find was from July 1898, when the Sandusky Daily Register described the appearance of a 25- to 30-foot amphibious snake. It noted that “vague stories” of a sea serpent had existed on the Canada side for “a number of years.” In 1912, there was still enough local folklore for the paper to run an April Fools story about it.
On July 21, 1931, two Cincinnati men claimed to have captured the monster in Sandusky Bay by beating it senseless with an oar. They gave a cop and local journalists a quick glimpse of the 20-foot-long “monster” before nailing it into a box. The New York Times said that the “catch” came after a spate of supposed monster sightings, but that there were plenty of scoffers in the crowd demanding a peek.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History finally had a look and declared the men had “caught” an Indian python. The hoax blown, they left town.
Between then and the early 1980s I could find only two reported sightings. Then came a decade-long rash of reports, from about 1981 to 1991. Not surprisingly, these coincided exactly with attempts to turn the monster into a tourist attraction, including a naming contest that dubbed it South Bay Bessie.
The town of Huron put a 35-foot fake monster into the Huron River, styled itself the “National Live Capture and Control Center” for the monster, and got local businesses to pledge $100,000 in cash and prizes for the monster’s capture.
The state refused to issue “monster-hunting permits” to Huron, and Inverness, Scotland (home of Loch Ness) declined to become its sister city. But the publicity did result in a dozen “sightings” and helps ensure that anything floating in Lake Erie will be called a humped sea monster.
Reports are typically uninteresting and vague, some coming years after the alleged sightings. Supposed camcorder footage of the beast from 1991 shows nothing much. There have been few reports since 1993, when Bessie made the cover of the Weekly World News (though some fans still circulate the ridiculous story—which included the monster killing three people—as fact).
But despite the lameness, the monster refuses to die. In August, three Ontario swimmers were bitten in the lake by a mystery fish. The joke went around that it was the Lake Erie monster.