I have to admit that cryptozoology is not my favourite aspect of Forteana. Too much of the published literature is either intrepid explorers hacking their way through jungles in search of some cryptid which they never seem to find, or just ‘interesting-if-true’ trawls through the journals of earlier travellers, or the seldom-explored reaches of newspaper files. But this book is quite different.
David Goudsward makes good use of newspaper files and a whole range of other records, and does not just present them to us as take it or leave it accounts from eyewitnesses. He digs out the stories, not just of the serpents, but of the people who reported seeing them, and most importantly the stories of the communities from which these accounts originated.
As far as is possible with the resources available to him, he aims to unravel the background to the reports. This is not just simply a case of coming up with a plausible explanation for the case, which he often does, or proclaiming the reality of the report, but looking at who made the reports, how they were reported in the local and regional media, and uncovering the background to many of the individuals involved in these cases.
Although his investigations are limited to the coast of Florida, with occasional excursions to nearby Atlantic and Caribbean islands and coast lines, they still cover a massive area. And of course in such a massive area you can never be really sure of what kind of monstrous beasts might be hidden in the depths, to break surface in some mighty struggle with another monster, or have their decaying remains washed up on a beach to the horror – or delight – of holidaymakers. And Florida being the place it is, the interests of holidaymakers play quite a large part in the way serpent sightings are reported and, In many cases, are exploited.
Reports of monsters in these waters date from the time of Columbus, and even earlier in the folklore of the indigenous peoples. There are many reports from passengers and crew of coastal shipping throughout the nineteenth century, and reports continue throughout the twentieth century and into the 2000s.
He uncovers tales of political chicanery and commercial rivalry; he discovers how the routing of a railway was changed by the appearance of a ‘monster’ that was washed up on a local beach. Many of the historical accounts reveal otherwise forgotten stories of the families and communities that settled along the State’s often inhospitable shores.
The thoroughness of the author’s research is demonstrated particularly well by the way in which he has tracked down the original accounts of nineteenth-century sightings through newspaper, ships' logs, salvage reports and maritime records. The book is a model of how to conduct historical Fortean research. He is also not afraid to point out errors and misinterpretations by earlier researchers, and is particularly critical of some of Ivan Sanderson’s judgment on certain cases. These criticisms are without any ‘debunking’ intention, and simply ensure that the records we have are as accurate as possible.
I suppose I am contractually obliged to make my own small criticism here. The book would benefit from having some illustrations and maps, although I realise there may be copyright and production issues involved; and there are rather too many small, but rather irritating typos. On the other hand there is an excellent bibliography and references, and a good index.
Although Goudsward offers plausible explanations for most of the reports, as I said, he is not a ‘debunker’. He is careful to explain how mistakes and misperceptions can make a quite mundane sighting of a fish, a crocodile or a seal appear as an unrecognisable monster. And also notes that the coasts and waterways of Florida are also home to some very un-mundane real-life inhabitants. The climate of the region seems to have made it a suitable environment for a range of introduced alien species, including escapees from local circuses and travelling shows, and domestic pets released into the wild when they became awkward.
And of course there are the hoaxes. Some done just for sheer mischief – a twelve-foot prehistoric penguin, anyone? - others to promote a local attraction, or even hoaxes to scare people away from rival locations.
The “Muck Monster” does not sound like a particularly appealing tourist attraction, but it was certainly a money-spinner for one community. Peanut Island is a small island park in the channel between Palm Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. In 2009 a pair of volunteers were removing litter and debris from the local waterways, when they saw a creature which suddenly dived under water, leaving a wake which they followed and videoed. A local TV station caught wind of this, and ran the video online. It soon got picked up regionally and nationally, and the “Mud Monster” was born – even though not even the two witness got a good view of it before it vanished into the muddy water.
The ‘Lagoon Keepers’, the voluntary group that the two witnesses worked for, saw this as all good publicity, selling ‘Muck Monster’ t-shirts, and starting a frenzy of commercial exploitation including ‘Muck Burgers’ (no comments, please!) Muck Monster martinis and Muck Monster pizzas. This all rather put out of joint the noses of a nearby community who had been trying to promote the selling points of their “Sowerwine Monster” sighted the previous year.
Palm Beach County officials soon jumped in, promoting the virtually invisible creature as an official mascot, and installing coin-operated telescopes on the waterfront for visitors wanting to catch a glimpse of the extremely elusive cryptid. A local character even attended events dressed as the monster, more as a weed-draped Creature from the Black Lagoon than the actual shadowy lump.
Although the absence of any further sighting caused the interest to die down, Goudsward notes that the Muck Monster t-shirt is still available. Unfortunately I have been unable to trace it on Amazon!
This is an important book, which puts what seems at first glance a rather specialised sub-set of cryptozoology in a wider anomalistic, human and social context. An excellent and entertaining read, and I cannot recommend it too highly – John Rimmer