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Bessie, Lake Erie’s Monster

For years now people have been reporting an unknown creature, nicknamed South Bay Bessie or just plain Bessie, in Lake Erie. It is described as gray, snakelike, and 30 to 40 feet long.

Though sightings have been logged in recent years, the monster is known mostly from historical accounts. "For a number of years, vague stories about huge serpents have come with each recurring season from Dominion [Canadian] shores, and now, at last, the existence of these fierce monsters is verified and the fact so well established that it can no longer be questioned," wrote a reporter in the July 8, 1898, edition of the Daily Register of Sandusky, Ohio. The monster reported was able to live both on land and in water. It was a "fierce, ugly, coiling thing, call it a snake or what you will." It was said to be 25 to 30 feet long and a foot in diameter.

By 1912 the monster had become the butt of local practical jokes.  A Daily Register article published in the spring of that year recounts an encounter between Kelleys Island residents and a large sea monster, which broke through a sheet of lake ice and headed for shore. Witnesses described a black object with a huge head, gaping mouth, and a row of teeth. The story's last line read "April first," its date of publication and the reason for the tale.

Other times the newspaper was at a hoax's receiving end. The July 22, 1931, edition of the Register stated: "Sandusky was all agog Tuesday night because it was reported that the sea serpent, supposed to be in the waters of Sandusky Bay, had been captured."

A New York Times reporter who happened to be visiting the town that day picked up the story. As the story had it, two vacationing men from Cincinnati saw the sea serpent while on a boat on Lake Erie. The two frightened men clubbed the animal into submission, brought it aboard, and placed it in a crate.

Harold Madison, curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, journeyed to Sandusky and pronounced the "sea serpent" an Indian python. The two men quickly left town. Further investigation revealed that the men, one of who had family ties in Sandusky, worked for a touring carnival.

Still, stories of the monster persisted, either in spite or because of the hoaxes perpetrated in its name. Sightings were reported in 1960, 1969, 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1989. A flurry of reports occurred in 1990, including a sighting by two Huron firefighters.

By 1993 monster mania was in full swing. National media grabbed hold of the story. The Wall Street Journal took a cynical approach to the sightings. It ran an article, published on July 29, characterizing the excitement as a clever marketing ploy to draw tourists into the small town of Huron as they sped toward Cedar Point.

Huron did take a particular interest in the beast, and the city soon produced a crop of pseudo-cryptozoologists and declared itself the National Live Capture and Control Center for the Lake Erie Monster. Tom Solberg of the Huron Lagoons Marina offered a $100,000 reward for the safe and unharmed capture of the beast. The reward has never been claimed.

David Davies, a fisheries biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, spends much of his time on the lake. "It's probably something closely related to a dinosaur. It looks like a brontosaurus, don't you think?" he joked when a reporter asked him what the Lake Erie Monster could be. In his serious moments he thinks the animal is a large specimen of the lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon can grow to be 150 years old, exceed seven feet in length, and weigh more than 300 pounds.

Caviar comes from the eggs of sturgeon. The Sandusky lakeshore was home to so many lake sturgeons in the 1800s that it was known as the caviar capital of North America. The sturgeon was fished nearly out of existence on Erie, but it is now making a comeback. In the summer of 1998, a fisherman off New York's Lake Erie coast caught a seven-foot, four-inch, 250-pound sturgeon.

"They do look prehistoric," Davies said. "In fact, they very much resemble their prehistoric ancestors." Where other fish have scales, the lake sturgeon has bony plates. The plates give the fish a reptilian, leathery look. The sturgeon is a bottom feeder, though it rises occasionally to the surface of the water. Its tail could conceivably be interpreted as the neck of a great sea monster when it rises over the water's surface. Its fins could be imagined as its undulating body, if you happen to have an extremely overactive imagination.

The lake sturgeon is considered endangered in Ohio. The wildlife division has implemented a program to tag and record sturgeon remaining in the lake. There are presently no plans for tagging Bessie in the works.

Face to Face with South Bay Bessie

Dear Weird Ohio:

I have a boat on Lake Erie, and I often fish near Vermilion, and I can tell you that there is a monster in that lake and near that shore. Many people have seen it over the years, and I am one of those people.

The first thing I will say is that I know the town of Huron has tried to make money off of this monster. They call it Bessie and try to get tourists to come look for it. I think this is very irresponsible and downright dangerous. The thing I saw was vicious and dangerous. Giving it a cute name and trying to get people, let alone kids, to come and search for it is only going to lead to a tragedy.

I am a fishing fanatic. I’ve got a 18-foot Boston Whaler that some friends and I use constantly in the summers. Pretty much every weekend or free day I’m not working, I’m out on Lake Erie. Two summers ago I was out on the lake more than usual. I had just gone through a pretty messy divorce, lost custody of my kid, and was in danger of losing my job. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping, and found myself spending most of those sleepless nights alone on my boat, either fishing or just cruising the lake, thinking about how rotten my life was.

In early July, I was having one of those nights where I was just cruising the lake. I anchored the boat a few hundred yards off shore and was just lying on my back drinking a few cans of beer. As sad as it is in hindsight, I found that the combination of the rocking of the boat and a few beers was one of the only surefire methods of overcoming my insomnia. I don’t know how many mornings that summer I woke up fully clothed on the deck of my boat with cans scattered about. It wasn’t happiest period of my life.

This particular night, I was awakened from my slumber by something rubbing against the bottom of the boat. The noise and the impact woke me and I immediately heard a noise that I find hard to describe. It was the rushing of water followed by the slap of something against the surface of the lake. I sprang up and grabbed the lantern which I always left burning in the bow of the boat so that no other vessels would plow into me at night. Then I lunged to the gunwale and held the light over the water to have a look. What I saw I will never forget.

Before I go any further, let me say that I was not drunk when I saw what I saw. I had been sleeping for at least three hours, and I had only had four beers. I am sure what I am about to describe is in no way the product of any alcohol induced hallucination.

There was a long, thick creature a few feet beneath the keel of my boat. All exaggeration aside, this thing was at LEAST twenty feet long. It darted with incredible speed away from my skiff as I struggled to make out its form beneath the inky black surface of the water. When it was about 30 feet away from my vessel, the beast reared its body up out of the lake. Although it was still dark out, it was a clear night with a full moon shinning down on the still surface of the lake. Because of this fact I was able to clearly make out the long serpentine body of the animal and its large, round head. That was all I saw before it submerged again and disappeared forever.

There is no doubt in my mind that that thing intentionally slammed into my boat. The first instinct I had when I saw it was that I had invaded its territory and it was letting me know. Perhaps like a common eel it had been attracted to the glow of my lantern. I cannot say for sure, but that was the last night I ever spent alone on Lake Erie. I’ve only gone fishing at night a few times in the past two years, and never by myself.

Needless to say, the sleeplessness of that summer only got worse after I looked that monster in the eye. Thankfully since then, my life has returned, more or less, to normal. I’ve remarried, see my kid often, and have a new job much better than the one I was so worried about back then. When I think back to that summer, the only really terrifying aspect of it I haven’t managed to reckon with is the mystery of what I saw that night.  –Franklin P. Wainwright

Weird Ohio

 

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