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The Lake George Monster Hoax

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 14.4, December 2004

Called “one of the grandest hoaxes of all times” (Lord 1999, 187), the Lake George Monster has occasionally resurfaced (figure 1) since its debut at Hague Bay, New York, in 1904. In 2002 and 2003 I investigated the historic case and even examined what is purported to be the original fake monster.

Monster Launch

Located near the southern end of Lake Champlain, Lake George is a placid, 32-mile-long lake in western New York’s Adirondack region. There, at Hague Bay in 1904, artist Harry Watrous (1857-1940) repaid a prank that had been played on him.

Watrous, a well-known genre painter and one-time president of the National Academy of Design, had made a wager with Colonel William Mann, editor of Town Topics, a New York scandal sheet. The men competed over who could catch the largest trout, and one day Mann held up what appeared to be a thirty-to-forty-pound specimen as his boat passed Watrous’s. However, the artist later determined that the fish was a painted-wood fake, and he hit on a scheme to outtrick the trickster (Bolton n.d.; Henry n.d.).

Thirty years later Watrous (1934) recalled:

While the Colonel was in New York attending to business during the week ending June 27, 1904, I got a cedar log and fashioned one end of it into my idea of a sea monster or hippogriff. I made a big mouth, a couple of ears, like the ears of an ass, four big teeth, two in the upper and two in the lower jaw, and for eyes I inserted in the sockets of the monster two telegraph pole insulators of green glass.

I painted the head in yellow and black stripes, painted the inside of the mouth red and the teeth white, painted two red places for nostrils and painted the ears blue.

The log of which I fashioned the head was about ten feet long. To the bottom of the log I attached a light rope which I put through a pulley attached to a stone which served as an anchor. The pulley line was about 100 feet long and was manipulated from the shore.

The artist continued:

Well, I went out and anchored the hippogriff close to the path which Col. Mann’s boat would have to take from the landing to his island. I tested the monster several times, sunk it and waited for Col. Mann and his party to arrive on Saturday afternoon.

The Colonel had as his guests Mr. Davies, Mrs. Bates and several other congenial spirits. Hidden behind a clump of bushes on shore I watched as the launch approached and just as it was about ten feet away from my trap I released the monster. It came up nobly, the head shaking as if to rid itself of water, and I will say that to several people in Col. Mann’s boat it was a very menacing spectacle.

Mr. Davies, who had a rather high pitched voice, uttered a scream that must have been heard as far away as Burlington, Vt. Mrs. Bates, a very intrepid lady, of Milesian extraction, stood on a seat in the boat and beat the water with her parasol, shouting indistinguishable sentences in her native tongue. Col. Mann shouted, “Good God, what is it?” through his whiskers and kept repeating his query as long as the boat was in sight. As soon as I gave the audience a good look at the hippogriff I pulled it down to the bottom of the lake again.

Watrous concluded:

Although Col. Mann’s home was on an island, the news of the sea serpent was all along the shore of the lake that night. Taking advantage of the darkness of night, I moved the monster from place to place along the lake shore and everybody who saw my monster had a new story to tell of its awe-inspiring appearance.

Each day we provided new thrills for the populace, and that is how the rumor started that there was an honest-to-goodness sea serpent living in Lake George.

Resurfacings

News of the incident spread across the state. Among the sites where Watrous reportedly located the hippogriff on other nighttime excursions, one was near a local hotel, the Island Harbour House. According to a local tale (Henry n.d.):

A young couple honeymooning at the hotel had gone out for a moonlight canoe ride when the monster surfaced close to their canoe, causing it to capsize. The groom, unable to keep his wits about him, swam to shore, leaving his bride to fend for herself. She eventually made her way to shore, stormed into the hotel and packed her bags, announcing not only the end of the honeymoon but also for the marriage. It is reported that she was actually grateful to the serpent for showing her that the true monster was her (soon to be former) husband.

Three decades later, Watrous was asked to reenact his hoax for an Independence Day carnival. According to the Daily News, the elderly artist agreed and brought his hippogriff out of “hibernation.” Watrous set up his contraption and, during one of the celebration’s water events, spooked a boatful of onlookers. The incident was said to have been the highlight of the carnival. Watrous boasted, “I spoofed the world once with the horrendous beast; and I spoofed it again this afternoon” (Lord 1999, 189).

Benjamin Radford (Skeptical Briefs Editor) and I were able to view what is purportedly Watrous’s original hippogriff-dubbed “George"-in August 2002. We were on our way to investigate the Lake Champlain monster mystery (Nickell 2003a) when friends, researchers Robert and Paul Bartholomew, suggested we make a detour to Lake George Village to see the wooden fake, displayed at the Lake George Historical Association Museum.

Figure 2: “George” the monster poses with investigator Joe Nickell in Hague-on-Lake George, New York. (Author’s photo by Benjamin Radford)

Figure 2: “George” the monster poses with investigator Joe Nickell in Hague-on-Lake George, New York. (Author’s photo by Benjamin Radford)

Alas, that monster was a fake once removed, a copy of the alleged original. The latter was housed-at least temporarily-in a display case at the Hague Community Center, and Ben and I were graciously allowed to photograph and even measure the artifact (figure 2). The following year, after being invited to lecture at nearby Silver Bay, I paid another visit, conducted original research, and took additional photographs. I also visited the former Watrous mansion, now a bed and breakfast named Ruah. The proprietor, Peter Foster, kindly showed me the lakeside rock with embedded eyebolt to which Watrous supposedly fastened his contraption’s “pulley line” (figure 3).

Tracking the Original

Figure 3: Eyebolt embedded in rock on Harry Watrous’s old property, reportedly used to secure pulley line that operated his bogus monster. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Figure 3: Eyebolt embedded in rock on Harry Watrous’s old property, reportedly used to secure pulley line that operated his bogus monster. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

During my research I discovered some discrepancies between the supposedly original hippogriff and Watrous’s description of it. Whereas he stated that “The log of which I fashioned the head was about ten feet long” (Watrous 1934), the displayed creature is less than half that length, measuring just fifty-two inches. As further investigation revealed, however, the monster was fashioned in two sections, fitted together with “a half lap join” secured by a bolt according to Phil Kellogg (2004) who made the replica; only the front end of the figure is exhibited, not the extension piece.

Another discrepancy was that-while Watrous (1934) said he had provided his monster with “a couple of ears, like the ears of an ass,” which he painted blue-the existing creature has no ears. A slot cut in the top of the head, however, is a likely attachment site for such ears. I suspect they were fashioned out of sheet metal, like the back fin.

The bottom edge of the fin bears flanges, made by snipping the metal and bending the sections at alternating right angles, then nailing them down. Old flange imprints and nail holes in the wood show that, at some time in its history, the fin was reworked or replaced. In much the same way that art experts differentiate an original painting from a copy by evidence of alterations made during creation, changes in the fin placement suggest the artifact may be an original with a history of use and abuse. So do other details, including the missing ears, evidence of repainting, flaking paint, damage and repair-all consistent with the object’s purported age and function1 (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Detail of creature showing elements relating to authentication: customs sticker and old fin-attachment markings. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Figure 4: Detail of creature showing elements relating to authentication: customs sticker and old fin-attachment markings. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

There is one additional such detail: the presence of a U.S. customs label affixed to the monster’s underbelly. (Again see figure 4.) Therein lies a tale. Walter Grishkot (2004) told me he came across the object about 1962 in the garage of an elderly caretaker named Louis Spelman in Silver Bay. Reportedly, Spelman had himself discovered the relic decades earlier during the sale of some property in town (Henry n.d.). Grishkot borrowed the monster from Spelman and had a black-and-white photo made of it emerging from water (again see figure 1). Following some newspaper publicity, a lady in the Virgin Islands purchased the monster from Spelman for just twenty-five dollars (Bolton n.d.; It’s monstrous, 1962).

In 1966, Grishkot and his wife Joann were on a Caribbean cruise and brought back the monster. (Walt recalls that it was too long to fit in their rental car, and so he had to remove the bolt and divide the object into its two segments.) The couple had difficulty in getting the artifact through customs: the officials were puzzled as to how to estimate the duty, there being no customs category for “monster” (Grishkot 2004; Henry n.d.; Bolton n.d.).

Beyond Watrous’s Hoax

Whatever the true status of the “original” hippogriff-and I am prepared provisionally to accept it as authentic-Harry Watrous’s prank takes its place among many other fake monster hoaxes. Several date from the 1930s, including the famous 1934 photo of the Loch Ness Monster which was revealed in 1994 to have been a close-up snapshot of a small model. It was apparently taken on April 1, Britain’s “All Fool’s Day” (Nickell 1996).

Some other hoaxes-including two from the 1930s-more specifically echo the 1904 hippogriff hoax. In 1934, for example, Canadian bathers saw a monster in Lake Ontario near Kingston. They described what became known as “Kingstie” as “a strange creature with the head of a dragon and eyes of fire.” Then in 1979 three local men confessed they had been responsible for the incident. “As a prank,” reports one writer, “they had fabricated a semblance of the creature using a barrel filled with empty bottles for buoyancy and fitting it with a dragon-like head, rope and anchor to keep it in one place, and twine attached to the rope that ran underwater to the shore of Cartwright Bay to permit them to bob its barrel body and head up and down” (Colombo 1999, 117).

Still another 1930s mystery was solved with the discovery-on a beach at Ludington, Michigan-of the remains of a wooden monster thirty feet long. Reports one writer (Stonehouse 1997, 163):

Made in numerous sections and wired together, it gave the appearance of swimming when pulled through the water. It was effective enough to scare many local swimmers and spawned monster stories for years to come.

Watrous’s hoax aside, there have been-very intermittently-reports of a real monster in Lake George (Lord 1999, 188-189). However, when I stayed at Silver Bay I spent some time looking for, and inquiring about, monster sightings. They seem a thing of the past.

Mark Rutkowski, Senior Program Director of the Silver Bay Association, who had been at the site for fifteen years, told me he had no knowledge of any monster reports in the area. A maintenance man and nature center operator were likewise negative, although one staffer told me she had recently seen “either an otter or a mink” that “had been fishing"-i.e., swimming with a fish in its mouth-and others have definitely seen mink in the area (Nickell 2003b). Such animals could easily be mistaken for a lake creature under the right conditions.

It appears that the only true specimen of “George” may be one that is safely preserved behind glass-verily a creature to behold.

Acknowledgments

In addition to individuals mentioned in the text, I am also grateful to the staff of the Silver Bay Association, Silver Bay, New York, as well as Bertha Dunsmore, clerk, and Ethel Andrus, historian, Hague Community Center, Hague-on-Lake George, New York.

Note

  1. I attempted to date the glass insulators used for the monster’s eyes. I had intern Robert Lewis contact a person knowledgeable about insulators who said the pair appeared to be telephone or toll insulators of about the period in question, although he was not able to personally examine them and take definitive caliper measurements (Katonak 2004).
References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.