For some time people have been reporting an unknown creature-later nicknamed South Bay Bessie or just plain Bessie-in Lake Erie. It is described as gray, snakelike, and thirty to forty feet long. Though sightings have been logged in recent years, the monster is known mostly from historical accounts.
“For a number of years, vague stories about huge serpents have come with each recurring season from Dominion [Canadian] shores, and now, at last, the existence of these fierce monsters is verified and the fact so well established that it can no longer be questioned,” wrote a reporter in the July 8, 1898, edition of the Daily Register of Sandusky, Ohio.
The Lake Monster reported that year was able to live both on land and in water. It was a “fierce, ugly, coiling thing, call it a snake or what you will .” It was said to be twenty-five to thirty feet long and at least a foot in diameter.
By 1912 the monster had become the source of local practical jokes. A Daily Register article published in the spring of that year recounts an encounter between Kelleys Island residents and a large “sea” monster that broke through a sheet of lake ice and headed for shore. Witnesses described a black object with a huge head, gaping mouth, and a row of teeth. The story’s last line read” April first,” its date of publication and the reason for the tale.
At other times the newspaper was at the receiving end of a hoax. The July 22, 19.31, edition of the Register stated: “Sandusky was all agog Tuesday night because it was reported that the sea serpent, supposed to be in the waters of Sandusky Bay, had been captured.” A New York Times reporter who happened to be visiting the town that day picked up the story. As the story portrayed it, two vacationing men from Cincinnati saw the Sea Serpent while on a boat on Lake Erie. The two frightened men clubbed the animal into submission, brought it aboard, and placed it in a crate.
Harold Madison, curator of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, journeyed to Sandusky and pronounced the “sea serpent” an Indian python. The two men quickly left town. Further investigation revealed that the men, one of whom had family ties in Sandusky, worked for a touring carnival.
Still, stories of the monster persisted, either in spite or because of the hoaxes perpetrated in its name. Sightings were reported in 1960, 1969, 1981, 198.3 , 1985, and 1989. A flurry of response occurred in 1990, including a sighting by two Huron firefighters.
By 1993 monster mania was in full swing. National media grabbed hold of the story. The Wall Street Journal took a cynical approach to the sightings. It ran an article, published on July 29, characterizing the excitement as a clever marketing ploy to draw tourists into the small town of Huron as they sped toward Cedar Point.
Huron did take a particular interest in the beast, and the city soon produced a crop of pseudocryptozoologists and declared itself the National Live Capture and Control Center for the Lake Erie Monster. Tom Solberg of the Huron Lagoons Marina offered a $100,000 reward for the safe and unharmed capture of the beast. The reward has never been claimed.
David Davies, a fisheries biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, spends much of his time on the lake. “It’s probably something closely related to a dinosaur. It looks like a brontosaurus, don’t you think?” he joked when a reporter asked him what the Lake Erie Monster could be.
More seriously, Davies thinks the animal is a large specimen of the lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon can grow to be 150 years old, exceed seven feet in length, and weigh more than three hundred pounds.
Caviar comes from the eggs of sturgeon. The Sandusky lakeshore was home to so many lake sturgeon In the 1800s that it was known as the caviar capital of North America. The sturgeon was fished nearly out of existence on Erie, but it is now making a comeback. In the summer of 1998, a fisherman off New York’s Lake Erie coast caught a seven-foot, four-inch, 250-pound sturgeon.
“They do look prehistoric,” Davies said. “In fact, they very much resemble their prehistoric ancestors.” Where other fish have scales, the lake sturgeon has boney plates. The plates give the fish a reptilian, leathery look. The sturgeon is a bottom feeder, though it rises occasionally to the surface of the water. Its tail could conceivably be interpreted as the neck of a great sea monster when it rises over the water’s surface. Its fins could be imagined as its undulating body.
Few reports of Bessie have been made since 1993.
The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark
South Bay Bessie : Freshwater Monster of Ohio.
Named in the 1980s after the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station near Oak Harbor, Ohio.
Bessie, Lake Erie Larry, Lemmie.
Serpentine. Length, 30–50 feet. Width, 2 feet. Gray, dark-greenish-brown, or black. Long neck. Three to five humps sometimes reported. Flat tail.
Seen in calm waters. Swift swimmer. Moves by vertical undulations.
Lake Erie, from Toledo and Sandusky Bay east to Bay Village, Ohio.
Capt. Shubael West and the crew of the packet boat Delia observed a 35–40-foot serpent in 1817.
On July 21, 1931, Clifford Wilson and Francis Cogenstose were fishing off Sandusky when a 20-foot serpent surfaced near their boat. After jabbing it with an oar, they determined it was dead and towed it to shore. It was said to have an alligator-like head and was coloured black, dark green, and white. However, it was identified as an Indian python (Python molurus), and its captors turned out to be carnival workers on tour.
In 1960, Ken Golic saw a large, cigar-shaped animal while fishing off a pier near Sandusky on a clear, calm night.
Demetrius Gooden and Frank Hughes were fishing for walleye about 40 miles out from Cleveland on June 10, 1985, when they saw a long, black “alligator” only a few feet away from their boat. The Coast Guard searched for forty minutes but found nothing.
On September 11, 1990, Jim Johnson and Steve Dircks saw a dark mass, 30–45 feet long in three sections, in the lake near Huron, Ohio.
In July 1991, George Repicz took twenty seconds of video footage that purportedly shows Bessie off Kelleys Island. It may actually show a floating log.
(1) Newspaper and other hoaxes, especially from 1898 to 1931.
(2) Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) were common in Lake Erie only up to the 1850s, but they may be returning. This fish can grow to 9 feet, although specimens over 7 feet are rarely reported. Its numerous bony plates are a diagnostic feature.
(3) Floating logs.
- Constantin S. Rafinesque, “Dissertation on Water Snakes, Sea Snakes and Sea Serpents,” Philosophical Magazine 54 (1819): 361, 365;
- Laurie Abraham, “Giant Snake in Lake Erie,” Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer, June 16, 1985;
- Mike Dash, “Lake Monsters,” Fortean Times, no. 60 (December 1991-January 1992): 36;
- Wall Street Journal, July 29, 1993;
- John Kirk, In Search of Lake Monsters (Toronto, Canada: Key Porter Books, 1998), pp. 144–148;
- Ron Schaffner, “South Bay Bessie: A Continuing Investigation into an Alleged Great Lakes Serpent,” North American BioFortean Review 1, no. 1 (April 1999): 35–41, http://www.strangeark.com/nabr/
Mysterious Creatures – A Guide to Cryptozoology written by George M. Eberhart – Copyright © 2002 by George M. Eberhart