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The Lake Monster That Predates Nessie

Book Review

Terence Hines

Skeptical Briefs Volume 24.1, Spring 2014

The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster. Robert E. Bartholomew. Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4384-4484-0. XIV + 253 pp. Softcover, $24.95.

Untold Story of Champ book cover

When I was a boy growing up in northern New Hampshire in the 1950s, everyone knew about the Loch Ness monster. But Champ, the monster in Lake Champlain, was only vaguely on the radar. Over the years I’ve heard and read bits and pieces about Champ but until this excellent book the whole story of this intriguing lake monster hasn’t been brought together in one place. The history of Champ, to my considerable surprise, predates that of Nessie by about sixty years. As Loxton and Prothero (Abominable Science, Columbia University Press, 2013) have pointed out, the first real Nessie reports date only from 1933. Champ, on the other hand, puts in its first appearance in the early 1870s. But it was overshadowed by Nessie later in the twentieth century.

The first three chapters of this six-chapter book recount the history of Champ sightings up and down Lake Champlain and even a few in neighboring lakes in the area. There have been hundreds of sightings over the years. One might think that three chapters of, “On such and such a day at such and such a place so and so said he saw a strange object that looked like a snake” would be boring. But Bartholomew tells the history with wit, insight, and an eye to local color that makes these chapters both informative and a pleasure to read.

One event in the chronology of Champ eyewitness reports beautifully shows the influence of expectations on perceptions. In the summer of 1970, an eyewitness reported seeing a monster whose head looked very much like a horse’s head. Bartholomew notes that previous to the horse head report, “not one reported Champ sighting de­scribed the creature’s head as horse-shaped” (82). But after that report was widely publicized, “suddenly, it seemed as though everyone was seeing a horse-shaped head on the creature” (83).

The next two chapters cover some of the major personalities and controversies in modern “Champology.” Bartholomew discusses the activities and disputes of several major Champ proponents. Philip Reines is a media professor at a college near the south end of the Lake. Joseph Zarzynski is a local Champ “expert.” Dennis Jay Hall, an eccentric investigator who claimed to have had multiple close encounters with the monster, simply vanished for several years. Finally, Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, a “scientist” with only an undergraduate degree in psychology, has claimed to find evidence of the use of echolocation by unknown animals in the lake. The activities of these four make for interesting reading. I could have done with less detail on the dispute between Reines and Zarzynski, although I realize that it’s important to have these details on the record.

These chapters also discuss in detail the best known photo of Champ, taken by Sandra Mansi in the summer of 1977, allegedly on the Vermont shore of the lake somewhere north of St. Albans. It shows a vaguely serpent-like object in the water between some vegetation in the foreground and a far bank in the background. In the absence (as is typical with cryptozoological entities) of any physical evidence like bodies or body parts, this photograph is seen as the best evidence for the reality of Champ. Every­thing about the picture is, well, fishy. Mansi reported that the object shown was visible for several minutes, but she took only one shot. She threw away the negative after taking the picture. She did not reveal its existence until 1981. Worse, Mansi has been unable (or unwilling) to say exactly where the photo was taken and, in spite of several visits to the area, showed little interest in searching for it. Other searches have failed to find any place on that part of the lake that corresponds to what is shown in the photograph. Bartholo­mew outlines the many other problems with the photo as evidence. Suffice it to say that the photo can’t be seriously taken as evidence of anything. (For an in-depth analysis of the Mansi photo, see “The Measure of a Monster: Investi­gating the Champ Photo” in the July/August 2003 Skep­tical Inquirer).

So, without photographic or anatomical evidence, one is left with the eyewitness ac­counts. What is to be made of these? Bartholo­mew points out what should be well known to skeptics and psychologists: that human perception is extremely unreliable, especially when the object of one’s interest is far away or viewing conditions are poor. However, Champ is especially interesting because of the number of things in the lake that could easily be mistaken for some sort of lake monster. Even local residents might not be familiar with several of these.

It is widely believed that the first monster report was by Samuel de Champlain, the discoverer of the lake, in 1609. This claim was widely publicized by an article in the popular local magazine Vermont Life in 1970. In fact, Champlain reported seeing something that was the size of his thigh and had a head the size of two fists. But his report wasn’t even from Lake Champlain but from a river that flows into the St. Lawrence. Champlain obviously saw something—what was it? Many believe that Champ is some sort of prehistoric dinosaur that survived in the lake. But this is impossible because the lake is not prehistoric; it’s only about 12,000 years old. But Champlain’s detailed description is fully consistent with a fish called a gar or gap pike. These can get quite large—the record catch in Vermont is eighteen pounds.

The region of northwest Vermont and northeast New York does not lack for other large freshwater fish. Bartholomew points to the sturgeon as a very likely source of many Champ reports. The freshwater variety reaches a length of six feet and a weight of 200 pounds. They were once fairly common but are now threatened and rare. The Atlantic Sturgeon, which can make its way into Lake Champlain, can be much larger—fifteen feet and 800 pounds. Seeing one of these rare giants could easily scare the hell out of a witness and result in a monster report.

While Bartholomew does not mention the carp as a source of Champ reports, it seems to me a good candidate. Originally from Europe, the carp was introduced into New York in 1831 according to the New York State Department of Conservation. The largest carp taken in Vermont was forty-two pounds, in New York forty-eight pounds. Several Champ sightings include reports of thrashing tails and roiling water. I don’t think it is a coincidence that when they spawn carp congregate in shallow waters and thrash about to distribute their eggs. I’ve seen just this sort of behavior in a swamp in Michigan. It was extremely impressive, and if I hadn’t known what was happening and had seen it from a different angle it would have been easy to mistake the activity for something caused by one huge “monster.” Especially if I believed such a monster was known in the area.

Other large fish in the lake include the northern pike (thirty pounds), channel catfish (thirty-five pounds) and the eel (six pounds). Seals have also been known to find their way into the lake. There are also otters, beavers, and deer swimming in the lake. And, of course, there is human activity. Bartholomew records several instances where human activity has led to monster reports.

In the final chapter the author discusses issues of misperception and the role Champ plays in the local economy and folklore. It is a nice summing up.

As good as the book is, it is not without some flaws that could have been easily corrected. Most obvious is the lack of any maps of Lake Champlain and the surrounding area. In a book that includes so much discussion of specific towns’ geographical areas this is inexcusable. Nor are there pictures of the most likely and impressive prime suspects, the gap pike and the sturgeon. I simply can’t understand how one could omit pictures of these fish that are obviously so important to the story.

Other problems are due to sloppy editing. The chapters have names but no numbers in the table of contents and the text. But in the notes, which are extensive and very valuable, the chapters are denoted only by number! In several places “stationery” is spelled with an “a.” On page 175, Vermont and New York have switched places, with New York being on the east side of Lake Champlain.

Next to Loxton and Prothero’s (2013) Abominable Science, this is the best book on a cryptozoological topic I have read.

Terence Hines

Terence Hines is professor of psychology at Pace University and author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. He is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow.