"South Bay Bessie" is the most "official" of various terms referring to what is perhaps the most famous of Great Lakes monsters — of which many have been reported over the decades.
Cryptozoologists have remarked on a "monster belt" or "monster latitudes," corresponding to roughly between 45 degrees and 60 degrees north latitude, where such phenomena seems most well-documented. Most of the Great Lakes fall within these "monster latitudes," and parts of them have developed monster traditions. Any crypto-fishing expedition along the Great Lakes waterways (especially online) will quickly disclose stories of such hometown monsters as "Champ" (Lake Champlain), "Pressie" (Presque Isle), "Kingstie" (Kingston, Ontario), "Benzo" (Lake Mendota, Wisconsin), or any number of one-off reports of serpentine — or, on rarer occasions, squid-like — monstrosities in our lakes.
Certainly many of these derived from bastardized Indian legends, not to mention vintage newspaper hoaxes, a fond pastime of the frontier press when there was a shortage of worthwhile news to print. Still, many believers cleave to the rather romantic notion that a surviving species of sea dinosaur, or a reptile-like early whale from the Eocene, still gallivants around the Lake Erie Islands and Toledo clear out to the Pennsylvania shoreline.
Also known as "Lem" or "Lemmy" — acronymically derived from Lake Erie Monster — and, in some archaic references, called the Great Snake of Lake Erie, the creature was recorded as being seen as early as 1793, by the sloop Felicity; her captain chanced to startle a giant serpent in the shallows of the Lake Erie Islands.
An article by 19th-century science writer Constantine Samuel Rafinesque described a sighting (from two years earlier, July 3, 1817) of a freshwater "huge serpent." Rafinesque equated the lake denizen matter-of-factly with the alleged sea serpents cruising the world's oceans. Erie's serpent, witnessed by a schooner three miles from shore, was between 35 and 40 feet long, a foot in diameter, and dark brown or black. Rafinesque lamented that the report did not specify smooth skin or scales, surmised the animal a hitherto-undiscovered giant eel, and (as was a habit of his) suggested possible Latin scientific names.
His classification was a bit presumptuous, as the "species" has gone through long periods of absence from the sight of man, punctuated by some fairly spectacular returns and shameless publicity stunts and newspaper hoaxes.
In 1887, two brothers named Dusseu reported "a fish with arms" about 20 to 30 feet long, writhing on a beach west of Port Clinton, apparently in pain. An 1889 newspaper from Sandusky quoted a fisherman as having seen the water monster at Kelleys Island. An 1892 report from Toledo claimed the captain and crew of the schooner Madaline, inbound from Buffalo, were amazed at a 50-foot serpentine creature with fins, about four feet in circumference, violently churning the water before coming to rest and allowing the mariners a good look at it. "It was a terrible looking object. It had vicious, sparkling eyes and a large head."
A Canadian report from 1896 describes a 35-foot-long serpent with eyes the size of silver dollars basking near shore, observed by four witnesses for all of 45 minutes on a peaceful May dusk. One of the onlookers, a captain, threw rocks at the monster, which would lunge at the projectiles as if they were prey, exhibiting a doglike profile to its head. A Sandusky newspaper report from 1912 that a sea monster had burst up through the spring ice and made for shore at least had the chivalry to announce itself in the end as an April Fool's joke.
In 1931 there came an Associated Press bulletin from Sandusky that suggested Rafinesque's Latin classifications might at last be applied; fisherman had stunned and hauled ashore a 20-foot long serpent with dark, alligator-like hide. Many fringe-science books and websites still refer to this remarkable specimen — generally ignoring that the men turned out to be hucksters, connected with the carnival trade, who were trying to pass off a python snake as the "monster."
The community newspaper Ottawa County Beacon tallied "modern" sightings of the Great Snake, beginning with reports from 1960 and 1969. The latter witness, at South Bass Island, said an underwater snake of indeterminate length and two feet in width, nosed up to within six feet of him. The Great Snake re-emerged with spates of widely publicized sightings in the 1980s and '90s.
A frightened boater in 1985 called the Coast Guard to report the monster churning the water aft of him. A woman witness had a similar feeling of terror when what she thought was an upturned boat off Rye Beach in Huron resolved itself to be a large animal with a prominent grin on its face. Also in 1985, two Cleveland Coast Guardsman alleged a snakelike monster off a municipal beach. In 1990, two Huron firefighters — one a retired Coast Guardsman — spied the monster as a humped, 35-foot-long shape, which they said was definitely not a log or a sea wall. A couple running a charter-boat business saw something very similar at Kelleys Island. A few years later at Huntington Beach in Bay Village, a beachful of witnesses on a July evening saw a ridged back, estimated between 25 and 50 feet long, rise out of the water.
Among the onlookers at Huntington was 11-year-old Victor Rasgaitis and his family. Rasgaitis, later a folk-rock musician and finalist in the High-School Rock-Offs, said, "My cousins were in from South Carolina — they wanted to see Lake Erie. And they were standing there on the walking path ... and we saw these bubbles, like something rising, not even past the jetty.
"It came up a foot out of the water, just this crest. It looked like water — but sort of solid." After what seemed like a full minute or two, it submerged and was gone. Victor said that no boats were nearby that might have caused a freak wake, and in any case, a wake doesn't last that long.
"I was a little afraid to go in the water after that."
Rasgaitis later paged through volumes of animal life and decided it most resembled a gigantic sturgeon, a bony fish once highly plentiful on the lakes but latterly fished to near-extinction. European and Russian sturgeon, a source of the caviar trade, can indeed reach several yards in length; such dimensions for an American species would be remarkable in itself.
Most South Bay Bessie reports focus on the southwestern part of Lake Erie, along the Ohio coast of the Lake Erie Islands — admittedly, popular resort areas for pleasure boats, decadent parties and tourists, where drinking and carousing synergize nicely with a fun and exploitable monster legend. Even The Wall Street Journal reported on the community's zeal in capitalizing on the monster tradition. The name "South Bay Bessie," in fact, was selected in 1989 from among 115 entries submitted in a contest held by the Ottawa County Beacon. In November 1990, the Huron town council, with an eye to the publicity, passed a resolution designating themselves an official monster capture and control center. The Huron Lagoons marina owner garnered international publicity by having Lloyds of London underwrite a $102,700 reward for anyone able to catch South Bay Bessie (or any unknown aquatic animal at least 1,000 lbs. and 30 feet long) alive and well. The reward went safely unclaimed, though a "holding pen" was prepared (actually just a foot-deep pool to hold dredgings from a local marina).
Ohio State University oceanographer and zoologist Charles Herdendorf was duly consulted on possible feeding habits of a lake monster. Herdendorf was game enough to suggest his own Latin name for the beast, Obscura eriensis huronii, or "rarely seen, indigenous to waters of Huron." He indulged in a mental exercise that biologists and limnologists have played for time to time, calculating just how many theoretical, carnivorous "monsters" a lake could hold given size, water volume, quantity of fish to feed upon, etc. He concluded Lake Erie had the capacity to support 175 creatures of 35 feet or so and 2,000 kg. in weight.
Herdendorf's personal opinion was that South Bay Bessie was actually an illusion created by schools of the lake's plentiful carp, herded into serpentine strings by sandbars and shallows.
Other possible suspects for the monster's identity include the sturgeon (though one witness to a multi-humped apparition denied this vehemently), once so plentiful in the area that 1880s Sandusky earned the title of caviar capital of the USA; and wild exaggerations of the common black water snake, which nest, breed and sun in massive quantities around the Lake Erie Islands, to the chagrin of phobics. A Jet-Ski rider who claimed to have sighted a long, gray creature called it a "porpoise." Automatic cameras took positions at parts of Lake Erie, and monster-sized forms were allegedly recorded on fish-finder sonar and even by satellite photos (though the latter may well have been mud or marl traces left by boats in shallows).
In 1994, a Huron man erected a fanciful sculpture of South Bay Bessie on the Huron River, loops of snakelike dragon visible to drivers passing by on an interstate highway bridge (he subsequently added a baby South Bay Bessie trailing the "parent," but this was stolen). By the 21st century, the Lake Erie Monster was quite famous indeed, even if the actual sightings had trailed off — for the time being.
A popular area restaurant is named after Lemmy, there are monster souvenirs, and a Cleveland professional hockey team has, of course, been christened the Lake Erie Monsters, with all the attendant exploitation of the image of a reptilian cranium protruding from the surface of the world's 12th biggest freshwater lake.
"Erie Baby, I Love Your Ways"
The curious saga of the "Erie Baby" is a footnote in the lore of South Bay Bessie in the 1990s. Also known as "Baby Erie," this creature was initially displayed as a three-foot-long, dragon-like creature, stuffed and mounted by Larry Peterson, a taxidermist and bait-shop proprietor in Lakewood, who had found the decayed, unfamiliar-looking fish with a hook through its mouth on the Erie shoreline
Wanting to make an impression at an upcoming trade show, Peterson followed a time-honored tradition of taxidermists who manipulate animal parts into strange and whimsical shapes. In the carnival freak-show trade, such creations are called "gaffs." A memorable episode of The X Files popularized the name "Fiji Mermaid." In nautical jargon, doctored fish (especially skates or rays sliced and posed to present a quasi-humanoid physiognomy) are called "Jenny Hanivers."
Peterson twisted the deceased fish into a dinosaur-like pose, suggesting a long neck, trimmed the dorsal fin into a series of serrations and added pieces of skin to suggest little anterior and posterior flippers. Word of the curiosity reached the proponents of "Creationism," who in the 1980s and 1990s were turning to lake monster and sea-serpent accounts to bolster their religious claims that the Book of Genesis was literal and that Darwin's theory of evolution WAS false, via a Scripture-friendly timeline that nails down the co-existence of man and dinosaur. Carl Baugh, of the Texas-based Creation Evidence Museum, journeyed to Lakewood by the end of the decade and actually purchased "Erie Baby" to display.
The specimen was posted on Creationist websites as a possible juvenile dinosaur, potentially of the plesiosaur family — inferring the infant stage of the creature that would ultimately grow into the legendary Lake Erie Monster.
But any remotely scientific scrutiny would reveal that this is a composite chimera, not credible as an unknown animal. Glen J. Kuban, a Great Lakes angler and blogger with an interest in such curious matters, published an opinion that Erie Baby most closely resembled a manipulated burbot, or ling-cod (species Lota lota), an elongated, almost eel-like Great Lakes fish, capable of reaching a yard in length, unfamiliar even to seasoned anglers due to its preference for deep waters. This bottom-dweller is also known colloquially as the "lawyerfish.
Reprinted with permission from Paranormal Great Lakes: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Charles Cassady Jr., Schiffer Books (schifferbooks.com)