More Options

Monster Catfish: Investigating a Whopper

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 39.1, January/February 2015

For its fourth season, the popular television show Monster Fish, on the cable channel National Geographic Wild, asked for my opinion of an old photograph depicting a humongous catfish—one estimated to weigh between 500 and 800 pounds. Was the photo authentic? I flew to Chattanooga to give my opinion for a segment of the episode “Giant Catfish” that aired July 5, 2013. Here is a more detailed presentation.

A Fish Tale

There are different versions—folklore at work—regarding the origins of both the giant fish and the old photo. Some say the picture is genuine, while others insist that it is not.

For example, some accounts hold that the fish was caught in the Tennessee River at the Cerro Gordo community in Hardin County, Tennessee, in 1914. Some say it was landed by the late Joe B. Pitts, the proprietor of Harbour-Pitts Company’s general store, while others insist it was actually taken by Green Bailey, a local fisherman who caught it on a trotline. Another story holds that the giant fish was captured after it was trapped in shallow water during a dry spell; one local historian thinks the picture may date from the 1940s; and so on (Wilson 2003; Cagle 2010).

Photo Analysis

Questioned photographFigure 1. Questioned photograph: real or fake?

A copy of the original photograph (Figure 1) bears (in the upper right corner) a handwritten notation, “Cerro Gordo, Ta[ken?] by Green Bailey / Apr 6th / 1914” and (in the lower left) the initials “E. F. P.,” presumably those of the photographer. That the script is white is consistent with its having been directly penned, probably with india ink, on the photographic negative, a common practice. (See examples in Nickell 2005, 64, 125.)

Immediately one notices that the photo’s ratio of width to height is like that of a picture postcard rather than a standard photograph. Common in the period indicated were what are known to deltiologists (postcard collectors) as “real photo” postcards: black-and-white photos that were not printed on a press but were actually developed onto photographic cardstock having a preprinted postcard back.1 By 1902, Kodak was selling such prepared cards (Nicholson 1994, 178). Real photos were often made by local or itinerant photographers and so were typically one-of-a-kind or limited-edition prints (although some were commercially made and tended to have typeface captions rather than handwritten ones). Real photos were especially common during the “golden age” of picture postcards, 1898–1918 (Nickell 2003, 105–107; Nickell 2005, 41–43, 56; Willoughby 1992, 68–77; Nicholson 1994, 3, 13, 178).

Looking at the photo image itself, it is quite typical of the postcard genre known as “exaggerations” (Range 1980, 62–63)—a genre now recognized in folklore scholarship as a form of American folk expression representing a “visual twist on the tall tale” (Axelrod and Oster 2000, 184–185). I have a collection of these: examples include a man being attacked by a monster jackrabbit, a workman hauling a single huge bunch of grapes in a wheelbarrow, two great cabbages (or again two titanic oranges) filling a train’s flatcar, a tractor pulling one gargantuan potato, and so on and on. (See Figures 2 and 3.)

“Real photo” postcard of “exaggeration” genreFigure 2. “Real photo” postcard of “exaggeration” genre (made by photo montage technique), 1908. (Author’s collection)
Another “real photo” cardFigure 3. Another “real photo” card shows one that did not get away, 1910. (Author’s collection)

But fish are perhaps the most common, no doubt because, as one folklorist observes, “Verbal lore concerning fabulous catches represents a whole category of exaggerated narrative, highly formulaic and entertaining in content, with skeptical reaction from the audience an expected part of the performance” (Brady 1996). To this verbal lore is added the pictorial variety: photos or artworks that often turn into jokelore—funny instances of the one that didn’t get away.

Now, such photographs are typically made by photomontage techniques. The term montage (French for “mounting”) loosely describes any means of making one picture from two or more—as by background projection, collage or “cut montage,” sandwiching (of negatives), and other techniques (Nickell 2005, 120–127). The figure of the man standing atop the wagon and staring at the giant catfish does have a “different” look than other elements in the photo—it is a bit out of focus, for example—and could seem to indicate photomontaging. It could, that is, if there were not additional evidence pointing to authenticity.

Genuine Photo…

As I told the star of Monster Fish, fish biologist Zeb Hogan, the photograph is actually genuine and unretouched. But that doesn’t mean the giant catfish is the real McCoy: the scene the genuine photo depicts has been faked!

Joe Brownlow Pitts of Savannah, Tennessee, speaks with authority: “My daddy had a little wagon that looked like a log wagon. He put the fish—which weighed, I recall, about 85 lbs.—on it. Then my Uncle Frank [Elisha Franklin Pitts (1890–1953)], who was good at photography, cut out a cardboard man that was being used in a clothing advertisement and stuck it on the wagon, along with the fish. He took the picture” (qtd. in “Giant Catfish” 2007). Another source (Cagle 2010) explains that “the wagon, perhaps a quarter or less than the size of a standard wagon, was a freight wagon used to move goods in tight quarters, such as the basement of the Harbour-Pitts Company Store and was pulled by workers, not horses.”

The cutout figure—known to cameramen of the period as a “photographic statuette” (a photo mounted on a rigid base, such as cardboard or plywood, and cut with an appropriate tool such as a mat knife or jigsaw [Fraprie and Woodbury 1896, 90–96])—was, as mentioned, reportedly made from an advertisement. However, another source (Wilson 2003) cites hearsay evidence that the man in the picture was one Warren McConnell. It is possible that photographer Frank Pitts posed him and took his photograph rather than using an advertising figure.2 But what is important is that Jay Barker, president of Tennessee’s National Catfish Derby, reportedly had “a copy of another photo of the same man and fish taken from a different angle”—in which “the man is posed exactly the same as he is in the other photo” (Wilson 2003). This would appear to corroborate the use of a “photographic statuette” in staging the scene.

As to the catfish itself, it may well have been caught by Green Bailey “who worked as a gin-man [cotton-gin operator] for Habour-Pitts Company.” He reportedly caught it on a trotline (which would not have been strong enough to hold a 500–800 pound fish!3). Then he “took his catch to the gin where it could be weighed on a cotton scale” (Cagle 2010). Sources say a former bookkeeper for the Pitts store, Rilla Callens, who actually had passed the photo down to her son, agreed Bailey had caught the fish; so did Green Bailey’s sister (Wilson 2003).

Re-Creation

The evidence fully explains the picture as I conclude, and so does photo expert Tom Flynn, a CFI photographer and videographer I consulted, who has expertise in special effects. Tom suggests the staged scene was photographed with a view camera, using a wide aperture and slow-speed film. That the background, especially, is out of focus is consistent with a small object being photographed close up. This effect is often seen when miniature objects are photographed with the intention of making them look larger.

It remained to do a recreation, and for that I flew to Chattanooga. A small wagon was found (on eBay, as I recall), Zeb brought a sizeable catfish in a cooler, and the National Geographic Museum shop provided the excellent cutout picture of Zeb, much smaller than life size. As with the original Frank Pitts photo, the fact that one assumes the wagon and figure are of usual size creates an illusion in which the catfish appears to be huge indeed (Figure 4): larger than life—in fact much, much larger.

Person standing over very large fishFigure 4. Re-creation of the process used for the photo in Figure 1. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Acknowledgments

In addition to individuals cited in the text, I am grateful to National Geographic’s Drew Pulley and Bailey Frankel, and to CFI’s Libraries Director Tim Binga and librarian Lisa Nolan, as well as to Tom Flynn, and to Ed Beck, my assistant at the time of this investigation.

Notes

1. Although the image in Figure 1 is halftone-screened, the half-toning extends even over damaged areas, showing that it results from copying at some later time (either by a photocopier that screens or from a printed reproduction of the card).

2. Frank Pitts may not have had the capability of making such a big enlargement.

3. I have some experience with trotlines, having often accompanied my late grandfather, Charlie Turner, as he removed catfish from his.

References

Axelrod, Alan, and Harry Oster. 2000. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. New York: Penguin Reference.

Brady, Erika. 1996. Fishing (sport), in Brunvand 1996, 274–275.

Brunvand, Jan Harold, ed. 1996. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.

Cagle, David. 2010. Statement and copy of original photo from Hardin County, Tennessee, Historical Society, August; provided by National Geographic Television.

Fraprie, Frank R., and Walter E. Woodbury. 1896. Photographic Amusements, 10th ed. Boston: American Photographic Publishing Co., 1931.

Giant Catfish—Some of the World’s Biggest Catfish. 2007. Online at http://www.oodora.com/life-stories/funny-finds/giant-catfish.html; accessed August 30, 2013.

Nicholson, Susan Brown. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead.

Nickell, Joe. 2003. Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press.

———. 2005. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Range, Thomas E. 1980. The Book of Postcard Collecting. New York: Dutton.

Willoughby, Martin. 1992. A History of Postcards. Secaucus, N.J.: The Wellfleet Press.

Wilson, Taylor. 2003. Something’s fishy in Hardin County. ESPNOutdoors.com (November 11); accessed July 6, 2012.

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.