Robert E. Bartholomew. The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster. Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press, 2012.
Robert Bartholomew will be well known to long term readers of Magonia as the author and co-author of a number of books on social panics, and for making one of the most detailed psychosocial histories of strange things seen in the sky: UFOs and Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery
Here he turns his attention to lake monsters and to the most famous of the US lake monsters, that which supposedly haunts Lake Champlain on the borders of New York, Vermont and Quebec, and tracks down the history of the monster. Though often assumed to have been first described by the explorer Samuel Champlain in 1609, his ‘monster’ as reported in his log was actually a gar pike, his description of which was really very accurate for the time. The monster really first appeared in the newspapers of the nineteenth century, a time at which the Sea Serpent was at the height of its fame. He shows how these early accounts went in waves, and the descriptions of the monsters varied considerably.
The story of Champ, as it became known, showed some revival at the time of the publicity surrounding the Loch Ness Monster and continued in a low key fashion after World War II. However it was an article in Vermont Life by local historian Marjorie Porter in 1970 that finally gave Champ the major publicity boost. She changed Samuel Champlain’s gar pike accurately described as a five-foot long creature with sharp teeth and hard silver grey scales as pictured here, into a serpent like creature, twenty feet long, as thick as a barrel and with a horse’s head. This description may well have come from accounts of the Loch Ness Monster, but no-one had ever described seeing Champ with a horse’s head before; now large numbers of people did.
A huge dose of fuel on the fire came with a photograph taken by a Sandra Mansi in 1977, reported to cryptozoologists in 1979 and published the same year. This photograph, and the many problems associated with it, not least the inability of the Mansi family to relocate where it had been taken, and the rows it generated in the Lake Monster hunting community, is central to Bartholomew’s account.
The various factions, in-fighting and strange characters associated with this tale are all too familiar across the entire Fortean field. One of these characters, Dennis Hall, seemed to have the same Kim-Il-Sung complex as the later Graham Birdsall. It seems to be a strange truth the allegedly free spirited and anti-orthodox Fortean field spouts far more authoritarian would-be “supreme leaders’ than any mainstream science, though the similarities to religious or political cults and sects should be noted.
There are rather more parallels with some mainstream science in the case of vitriolic dispute between Dr Phil Reines and Joe Zarzynski over the Mansi photograph and who got the credit and headlines. One thinks of the long acrimonious dispute between Don Johanson and Richard Leaky for example. Bartholomew had originally planned to give them each their own preface to state their views, but discarded this in order to not to “compromise my objectivity”, though the cynic might suspect that the regents of The State University of New York might have thought that to give these two gentlemen free reign to express their honest opinion of the other might be in danger of leading to the attentions of the local equivalents of Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runn.
Bartholomew examines various possible suspects for the monster, and comes to moderately sceptical conclusions, if asked to wager $100 on their being an as yet unknown animal in the lake, he says he would put $10 on yes, $40 on no, and pocket the other $50 because he really doesn’t want to know the answer. Champ, he argues, is important not as a flesh and blood animal but as a symbol of the mystery and wonder of the natural world, a fragment of myth and magic in an increasingly secular world. As our editor said of UFOs more than 40 years ago, Champ is an anti-scientific symbol. – Peter Rogerson.