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New Information Surfaces on ‘World’s Best Lake Monster Photo,’ Raising Questions

Article

Robert E. Bartholomew

Volume 37.3, May/June 2013

The famous “Mansi photo” of the Lake Champlain monster has been held up for decades as strong proof for cryptozoology—the so-called best evidence for the existence of a hidden animal. Yet, newly uncovered documents reveal troubling questions about the photo and the circumstances surrounding it.


Introduction

On Tuesday afternoon, July 5, 1977, Sandra Mansi of Bristol, Connecticut, knelt on the shores of Lake Champlain somewhere between St. Albans, Vermont, and the Canadian border, and snapped what is widely touted as the best lake monster photograph ever taken. In Lake Monster Mysteries: Exploring the World’s Most Elusive Creatures, their scholarly study of lake monster traditions, Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell observe that “the Mansi photo stands alone as the most credible and important photographic evidence of the existence of lake monsters” because its authenticity “is held in such high regard by so many writers and researchers” (Radford and Nickell 2006, 43). It has become the Holy Grail of Lake Monsterdom, and a steady stream of journalists has made the pilgrimage to Vermont to hear Sandra Mansi recount the tale of what she reported seeing that day.

Lake monster photo

Two other famous lake monster photographs that once held similar positions have not stood the test of time. On April 19, 1934, British sur­geon Robert Wilson reportedly captured an image of the Loch Ness Monster. Nicknamed “the Surgeon’s photo,” the picture fell into disrepute in 1994 when shortly before his death, Christian Spurling reportedly confessed his involvement in the hoax by fitting a toy submarine with a sea serpent’s head and neck fashioned from wood putty in an effort to fool the Daily Mail (Radford and Nickell 2006). After snapping his famous photo, Wilson himself later claimed that he did not believe in Nessie, and his youngest son openly admitted that the photo was a fraud (Binns 1984, 96–97). Ironically, prior to its exposure, several scientists had concluded that there were strong similarities between Wilson’s image and the Mansi photo, suggesting that “Champ” and “Nessie” may be similar species. Richard J. Green­­well, an optical science professor at the University of Arizona, remarked in 1981 that the ratio between the head and neck “was very much the same in both animals,” (Bartholomew 1981) and naturalist Charles Johnson concurred (Johnson 1980, 1).

During the 1970s, Eric Frank Searle snapped a series of well-publicized photos of Nessie. The pictures created a media buzz, exciting lake monster enthusiasts and connoisseurs of the un­­­­explained, and elevated the native of Middlesex, England, to celebrity status. His photos were later exposed as fakes by future BBC journalist Nicholas Witchell in his 1975 book The Loch Ness Story. Searle died in Lancashire, England, in 2005 after living the rest of his life in obscurity (Tullis 2005).

The Power of a Photo

This year will mark the thirty-second anniversary of the Mansi photo’s public release in the New York Times on June 30, 1981, which triggered a short-lived media feeding frenzy, allowing Champ to bask in the world media spotlight (Wilfred 1981). While the hoopla soon died down, the Mansi photo remains a staple of photographic evidence in numerous books on cryptozoology, a relatively new field devoted to the scientific study of “hidden animals” that was founded in 1975 by Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans.

The photo’s stature cannot be under­­estimated and was credited, in part, with helping to build the political momentum necessary for an international Champ Conference at Shelburne, Vermont, on August 29, 1981. Among the participants who were attracted to the meeting: Roy Mackal, professor of biology at the University of Chicago, and Roy Zug, a zoologist from the Smithsonian Institution. Champ’s public profile was further enhanced the next year by the passage of two bills protecting it from harm by both the New York and Vermont State legislatures. These resolutions were useless as practical documents but essentially served as free publicity. Radford and Nickell (2006, 45) attribute publicity surrounding the photo for the Champ renaissance of the early 1980s and note that when Radford visited the Champ sighting board in Port Henry, New York, in 2004, nearly half of the 132 sightings were dated 1981 or ’82. They credit the Mansi photo with singlehandedly triggering a bandwagon effect “whereby widely publicized sightings lead to other reports independent of an actual creature’s presence or absence.”

New Questions

Soon after the photo’s existence first came to light in the fall of 1979, the first red flags appeared. The original photo was sent to Philip Reines, a nautical expert at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, with the hope that he could authenticate it. Reines soon learned that the two most crucial elements in verifying the photo were missing. Sandra Mansi said that she had thrown away the negative, and that she could not locate where she snapped the photo. Images purportedly taken of monsters are notoriously blurry and vague; here was a spectacular image in full color, but without the negative or location it was impossible to determine with any degree of certainty what was in the photo. Possessing the negative would allow the image to be magnified to see greater detail, while knowing the location could reveal important clues such as the object’s size and distance, and whether the photo was even taken on Lake Champlain. When Reines could not authenticate the photo, Sandra and Anthony Mansi were soon insisting through their lawyer that the photo be returned, which he reluctantly did.

In researching my new book The Untold Story of Champ, I uncovered two important pieces of information that had previously been withheld from the public that cast doubt over the authenticity of the photo. This information was known to Joe Zarzynski when he wrote his book Champ: Beyond the Legend (1984), yet despite presenting a detailed analysis of the Mansi photo in it and affirming its likely authenticity, this information was left out.

The Missing Negative

Sandra Mansi has always maintained publicly that she threw away the negative. This would have been a very unusual practice for the period because during the era of pre-digital cameras, most people kept their negatives in case they needed duplicates or the original was destroyed. This is especially baffling given that she took a picture of what she believed to be a prehistoric creature in the lake, arguably one of the most important zoological photographs of the twentieth century. But kept hidden from the public was a letter written in August 1980 by Vermont’s official naturalist Charles Johnson who expressed concern after talking to the Mansis in person. He wrote that there “was a discrepancy over what happened to the negative: Mrs. Mansi said they threw it away, something they did with all the negatives of pictures they took; Mr. Mansi, talking to me alone, said they buried it (or burned it . . .) since their experience had been somewhat fearful” (Johnson 1980, 1).

Besides contradicting Sandra Mansi’s account, if the picture was so distressing as to necessitate burning or burying the negative, why even keep the photo pinned on a bulletin board in the kitchen, where it would likely be seen on a daily basis? In 1981, two journalists interviewed Sandra Mansi separately and were told the same story: that after the image came back from Fotomat, it was either tacked or pinned to the kitchen bulletin board (Kermani 1981; Smith 1981). That same year Sandra Mansi told journalist Jeff Wright that in the two and a half years before they showed the photo to Reines: “Our children would bring their friends in and show them” the photo (Wright 1981, 5). Yet in 1992, when interviewed by John Lenger from the Glens Falls, New York, Post-Star, Sandra Mansi said that as soon as it came back from developing, she “hid the photo in an album behind another photo. And it stayed there for years” (Lenger 1992). In 2003, she told Ben Radford a similar story: That the photo had been hidden in an album (Radford and Nickell, 2006, 45).

So, did Sandra Mansi hide the photo in an album and keep it a family secret for years, or was it tacked to the kitchen bulletin board where her kids were showing it off to their friends? The original photo looks quite different from the image that the public sees; it is sharper and has scratch marks and is yellowing around the edges. Several years ago Ben Radford flew to Westport, Connecticut, and met with Mansi’s attorney where he was allowed to closely examine the original. While Sandra Mansi’s recollection of these events may have faded or changed with time, contrary to popular belief her story is certainly not consistent over time.

The Missing Location

Joe Zarzynski, who knew the Mansis intimately, was not overly concerned—at least publicly—over their inability to find the location of their famous photo just a few years after they had taken it. He later wrote: “They were a little bit disoriented. But to their credit, things had changed. What was once a field was now condos and houses. Dirt roads had been paved . . . and there’d been a general facelift” (Citro and Christensen 1994, 108). It is a stretch of the imagination to contend that remote St. Albans, Vermont, had changed dramatically between 1977 and 1980, or that this had any bearing on the inability of the couple to locate the spot. While the lake has 587 miles of shoreline, the Mansis said they took the photo somewhere between St. Albans and the Canadian border—a length of only twenty miles. There is only so much shoreline and so many back roads in that relatively small area. Reines and Zarzynski scoured the shoreline by boat without success. It is difficult to imagine that just two and a half years later the spot could not be located, given that four people were involved. It was not as if Sandy was unfamiliar with the region, having spent part of her early life in the area; her parents lived in Brattleboro and her relatives had a camp near St. Albans. One would think that at least one of the four would be able to recall a nearby landmark—a distinct house, mountain, or sign that would allow them to narrow their search area. Her two children, Heidi-Jo and Larry, were aged eleven and twelve respectively. When they drove off, she said they got the kids something to eat. If they could recall where and how long it took to drive there, one would think they could further reduce the search area. Even with the publicity surrounding the publication of the photo in the New York Times, no one has stepped forward to say they could recognize the stretch of shoreline where the picture was supposedly snapped.

In addition to these red flags, Zar­zynski withheld another key piece of information from public scrutiny. Despite knowing the importance of finding the location as a means to verify their story, Sandra and Anthony Mansi were remarkably lax in finding it. During early July 1980, at the prompting of Zarzynski, the Mansis spent ten days vacationing in the region and were to spend part of the time trying to identify the site. It was one of the reasons for their trip. Finally, here was an opportunity to validate their photo. Then on July 17, a crestfallen Zarzynski sent Reines a remarkable letter: “For your knowledge . . . the Mansis did not look for the site. They waited until the last couple of days of their vacation to look and according to them bad weather set in. I guess they could not leave the island. . . . I think it was very poor planning on their part.” Was this really poor planning or did the Mansis know something they weren’t telling? During the final three days of their trip, local weather records reveal that the conditions were fine and zero precipitation fell.

Revisionist Cryptozoology

What should we make of these new revelations? While the photo may be genuine—that is, of some real unknown object in the lake, whether floating log, lake monster, or something else—and the Mansis truthful, if this is the “best” lake monster photo ever taken, it leaves much to be desired. As for Joe Zarzynski, he can be best described as having been blinded by his desire to believe in Champ to the point where, when he wrote his “definitive” history on the creature, Champ: Beyond the Legend (1984), he edited it to reflect what he hoped it would be rather than the reality. His actions bring to mind the adage: “Why let the facts get in the way of a good story.” In this regard he is in good company, for as one glances at an outline of the lake, its glacial symmetry is reminiscent of a Rorschach inkblot test that psychiatrists sometimes use to help their patients describe what they are thinking. As residents and tourists peer onto the vast lake, they typically see what they want to see. If, as most scientists assert, Champ is a creation of the human mind, we may do well to heed the words of Walter Lippmann: “For it is clear enough that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond” (Lippmann [1922] 2007, 19).

Postscript

In the course of composing this article, Ben Radford provided an audio interview that he and Joe Nickell conducted with Sandra Mansi in 2002. In it she appears to let slip that she knows the location of the sighting but does not want it revealed.

Ben Radford: “I know that one of the questions that always comes up [about the photo] was where exactly it was [taken], but there’s no answer. So, you’ve looked?”

Sandra Mansi (shaking her head): “I have no clue . . .”

Joe Nickell: “We know it was somewhere near—”

Sandra Mansi: “I know it’s up . . . [pause] Well, I don’t want it—I don’t want it to get out where it was . . . because of the idiots, you know? . . . I knew once it got out, once the photograph got out there. . . . I was so darn afraid that some idiot with a gun would go out there and shoot at something in the lake . . .”

For over three decades, in every published interview, Sandra Mansi has steadfastly maintained that she does not know the location—with this one exception where she appears to let her guard down. Is this yet one more example where she has changed her story? If she feared that harm may come to what she believed to be Champ, why not say so and refuse to give out the location on moral grounds, instead of engaging in an elaborate deception, knowing that researchers were spending valuable time and resources conducting searches for the spot, some of which even included the Mansis on them. If she was genuinely concerned for the welfare of Champ, why publicly release the photo in the first place—for money no less—knowing its appearance would draw attention to the lake? In 1979, she even signed a pact with a coworker to serve as a publicity agent for the photo. The man—Roy Kappeler—said that Sandra was obsessed with profiting from the photo, noting: “She would come to work and say things like, ‘Are you ready to get rich kid?’” (Koepper, 1981, 1).

Sandra Mansi could help to resolve many of the questions surrounding the photo if she were to reveal its location, which could be given discretely to a select group of researchers. According to Ben Radford, finding the exact spot where the photo was taken would still reap enormous benefits and help to remove the cloud of suspicion that hangs over the photo, including whether it was even taken on Lake Champlain. More precise data could be gained on the object’s size, distance, how far out of the water it was, and so on, and if there are sandbars nearby.The field experiments conducted by Radford and Nickell (2006) estimate that the object in the photo is some seven feet long, with the ‘neck’ roughly three feet above the waterline, making a floating log or tree stump a likely candidate. Here is an opportunity to assess these estimates.

At first glance, when one hears the story of Sandra Mansi, it appears to be a straightforward event involving a vacationer snapping a photo of something extraordinary. But like so many accounts in cryptozoology, when one delves below the surface and wades through the facts, the saga grows more convoluted with time. Even if Champ is someday proven to exist, the human saga surrounding it is likely to tell us more about us as a species than about a possible new species in the lake.


References

Bartholomew, Paul. 1981. Audio recording of a seminar presentation by Richard Greenwell at the “Does Champ Exist?” conference in Shelburne, Vermont, August 29.

Binns, Ronald. 1984. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.

Citro, Joseph A., and Bonnie Christensen. 1994. Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls & Unsolved Mysteries. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Johnson, Charles W. 1980. Letter to Joe Zarzynski dated August 22.

Kermani, Ronald. 1981. In search of Champ. Times-Union (Albany, NY), July 5, 1, A8.

Koepper, Ken. 1981. Champ: About the money and a monster. The Day (New London, Con­necticut), October 18, 1, 14.

Lenger, John. 1992. Bright lights, big mystery: TV’s ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ to retell Champ legend. The Post-Star (Glens Falls, NY), July 5, C1 and C8.

Lippmann, Walter. (1922) 2007. Public Opinion. Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian.

Radford, Benjamin, and Joe Nickell. 2006. Lake Monster Mysteries. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Smith, Hal. 1981. Myth or monster? Adirondack Life (November–December), 22–26, 44–45, 47.

Tullis, Andrew. 2005. Obituaries: Frank Searle, Loch Ness Monster hoaxer. The Independent (London), May 24.

Wilford, John Noble. 1981. Is it Lake Cham­plain’s monster? The New York Times, June 30.

Wright, Jeff. 1981. Photo of ‘creature’ means headaches for Mansi. Plattsburgh Press-Republican, September 2, p. 5.

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Robert Bartholomew teaches history at Botany Down Secondary College in Auckland, New Zealand. He is the author of The Untold History of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster (December 2012) by SUNY Press. Email: rbartholomew@yahoo.com.