The Biography of America’s Lake Monster

April 25, 2013

 

Robert Bartholomew and his brother Paul grew up near the shores of Lake Champlain, sparking an early interest not only in the lake monster said to dwell within the lake but also steeped in the social and cultural context of the mysterious beastie. In his new book The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster Robert, a sociologist, fortean investigator, and former broadcast journalist, takes a fresh look at Champ, long dubbed "America's Loch Ness Monster."
There have only been a handful of other books dealing in any depth or scholarship with Champ, among them Joe Zarzynski's Champ: Beyond the Legend, and of course Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures, co-authored by Joe Nickell and myself. The Untold History of Champ builds on these books and others, correcting some mistakes and putting the information in its social and historical context-which, as I have often argued, is vitally important for truly understanding mysterious phenomena. Along the way Bartholomew fills in fascinating gaps and details in the story of Champ.


But Bartholomew does something that no other author has, taking us behind the scenes for a glimpse at the colorful personalities that have gathered over the years (and especially in the early 1980s when Champ fever was at its peak). The story of those who looked for Champ is just as interesting as the story of Champ itself. Famed showman and huckster P.T. Barnum makes an important appearance (offering $50,000 for the monster's carcass in 1873), as do many prominent cryptozoologists including Philip Reines, Loren Coleman, J. Richard Greenwell, Roy Mackal, and others who convened a 1981 conference titled, "Does Champ Exist? A Scientific Seminar." The intrigue between and among these researchers is interesting enough to fill several chapters.


There are several good books about the people involved in the search for Bigfoot, including Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot, by Michael McLeod; Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, by Joshua Blu Buhs; and Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology, by Brian Regal. But there has been comparatively little insight into the motivations and personalities of those searching for lake monsters, and this book nicely fills that gap.
The book exhaustively reviews Champ sightings, both early and modern. He uncovers common myths along the way, such as that the beast was first sighted by the explorer after whom the lake was named, Samuel de Champlain. The best evidence for Champ, the famous 1977 photograph by Sandra Mansi, is presented in some detail, and the book offers new, tantalizing revelations about the circumstances of Mansi's sighting and the publication of her photograph.


Like virtually all "unexplained" phenomenon, the history of Champ is in part a history of hoaxes, and the book examines several of them in detail, along with similar stories from nearby Lake George, which had its own lake monster-and, of course, its own lake monster hoax. Bartholomew's book is, at its heart, an overall skeptical book, but its goal is not to prove nor disprove the creature's existence. It is instead exactly what the subtitle announces: an objective social history of the creature covering nearly a century and half of sightings, discussion and debate, informed by folklore, cryptozoology, fortean studies, local Vermont history, skepticism, and the inevitable crackpot....

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