Review: “Adventures in Cryptozoology”

adventures in crytpozoologyRichard Freeman’s Adventures in Cryptozoology: Hunting for Yetis, Mongolian Deathworms, and Other Not-So-Mythical Monsters (Mango; 2019) takes the familiar, survey-like approach to the undiscovered animals that make up the world of cryptozoology, not unlike Bernard Heuvelmans did in his landmark 1955 book On The Track of Unknown Animals.

In five of his six chapters, Freeman breaks up the mystery menagerie into several broad categories—Dragons, Lake Monsters, Sea Monsters, Giant Apes and Hominins and  the intriguingly-named “The Magic Zoo”—and he then details sightings and examines evidence of each in a region by region tour of the subject. As for the other chapter, that is the first in the book, and it details the history of cryptozoology, including a generous section devoted to many of the field’s leading lights and lesser-known participants throughout that history.

The discussions of water monsters and giant apes and hominins will include many instances and anecdotes familiar to readers of past cryptozoological works, but the dragons section is particularly interesting. Freeman’s definition of a dragon is a wide one, and while there are a few sightings of animals that seem straight out of medieval legend, complete with fire breath, there are also discussions of outsized lizards and what might be relict Pterosaurs…anything that might be mistaken for a dragon, basically.

In “The Magic Zoo” chapter, Freeman explores various legendary animals once thought to exist—unicorns, griffons, basilisks, the fire-resistant salamander—and a couple of famous creatures of cryptozoology, the colorfully-named Mongolian deathworm and the tatzelwurm. He also tackles the 18th century mystery killer known as “The Beast of Gévaudan,” which he quite confidently identifies as a sub-adult male lion, likely escaped from a wealthy person’s personal menagerie.

The first installment of a two-volume series—the second volume, In Search of Real Monsters, was just released this January—Freeman’s Adventures in Cryptozoology is a great first book on the subject, mixing a voraciously wide set of examples with reasonable, rather convincing deductions regarding the possible reality and identify of the cryptids under discussion.

The Lake Erie Monster

It’s also relevant to the subject of monsters in Ohio, or, at least, a part of it is. The third chapter, “Monsters of Lochs and Lakes” includes this section:

The Great Lakes of the eastern USA, and southern Canada, five linked massive bodies of water, are not without serpent reports. Samuel Rafinesque, a biologist who catalogued many North American species wrote of a thirty-five to sixty-foot serpent that had been seen on Lake Erie in July 1817. It was a foot thick, dark mahogany in colour, and had shining eyes.

He is, of course, talking about The Lake Erie Monster, and he goes on to share a dozen sightings of the monster between 1960 and 1993, including such locales as South Bass Island, Cedar Point Causeway, Huron and Kelley’s Island. Freeman closes his section on Lake Erie by saying Lake Erie has the most monster sightings of any of the Great Lakes, though not a monopoly. He also expresses his displeasure at one of the monster’s nicknames, “South Bay Bessie,” which he says “continues the slightly irritating convection of giving monsters ‘twee’ names.”

Other Lake Erie Monsters

When one hears the words “Lake Erie Monster,” one likely immediately thinks of the large, serpentine creature that has been so often sighted, and is thus widely believed to make its home in Lake Erie. But there are plenty of other Lake Erie Monsters too. For example…

The beer: Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Company describes its seasonally available Lake Erie Monster Imperial IPA as a “South Bay Bessie-inspired brew” that “launches an intense hop attack amid torrid tropical fruit flavors” and pairs well with “steak, aged cheeses and tall tales.”  The art on the can features a scary-looking green sea serpent rearing out of the lake.

The  sandwich: Cleveland-based restaurant chain Melt Bar and Grilled’s Lake Erie Monster is a Guinness-battered fillet of walleye, perch or cod, with American cheese and a jalapeño tartar sauce between two thick slices of toast. Like all of Melt’s sandwiches, the portion-size is truly monstrous. The sandwich is part of Melt’s rotating line-up, but you can always attempt your own with the recipes published in Field & Stream or The Washington Post (Me, I’m vegetarian, so I’ve never tried it, but I’d happily recommend the restaurant to anyone). 

The ice cream: The Sandusky-based Toft’s Dairy has been in business for over 120-years now, and one of its many offerings is an ice cream called Lake Erie Cookie Island Monster, which starts with a base of blue cake batter ice cream and mixes in chunks of cookie dough, chocolate chips and chocolate cookies and cream. The artwork on the half-gallon container features a friendly-looking black serpent shaped creature with fins on its humped back, making its way through a moonlit lake. If you can’t find it in the store, there’s always the Toft’s Dairy parlors, in Sandusky, Port Clinton and inside Cedar Point. Hitting one of them to taste this concoction is on my to-do list for next summer.

The milkshake :The Fairport  Harbor Creamery in Fairport Harbor offers a Lake Erie Monster among their boozy milkshakes, consisting of mint ice cream infused with whiskey and Creme de Menthe, along with chocolate sauce and crushed Oreos and topped with whipped cream and a cherry.

The hockey team: The Cleveland Monsters are an American Hockey League team that began life as The Lake Erie Monsters in 2007, their logo featuring a black, finned head and a pair of yellow eyes breaking the surface of the water. They later changed their name to the Cleveland  Monsters, but kept the cool logo. They are currently the top affiliate of the NHL’S Columbus Blue Jackets, and play in downtown Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

The comic book: Cleveland artists J. Kelly and John G.’s quarterly horror anthology The Lake Erie Monster featured a serially-published chapter of their “adaptation” of their pretend movie, also called The Lake Erie Monster, which was originally concieved part of a series of “Ten Imaginary Movie Posters.” Set in 1970s Cleveland, the melodrama featured a scaly fish-man like monster that had more in common with the Charles Mill Lake Monster than the more familiar serpentine image of Bessie. Each issue, hosted by the Cryptkeeper-like character The Commodore, also featured a back-up story.

Meet the Monsters: The Lake Erie Monster

Lake Erie, 1793-Present—Perhaps the most famous Ohio monster is also the one with the longest track record of sightings, going back to at least 1793, when a ship startled a “giant serpent” near the Lake Erie Islands. 

The Lake Erie Monster has been described in a variety of ways, among the wildest of which was in an 1887 report from a pair of brothers who said they found a glowing, 20-30-foot long, fish-like creature with long arms on a beach near Port Clinton and a 1912 report in which the ex-mayor of Milan saw a horned creature with tentacles eat a dog and a groundhog near the banks of the Huron river. 

The more standard picture that emerges of the Lake Erie Monster is something just below the surface and out of sight, something long and snake-like in shape and dark in color, with a head, fins or tail only appearing in the most colorful sightings. This is one reason that skeptics have for believing the monster is really just a series of misidentifications of strange waves or debris floating on or just below the surface of the lake.

The monster has had its champions over the years, however. One of them was the Put-In-Bay Gazette, which ran a joke story about a serpent based on an unusual piece of driftwood and, to their surprise, received dozens of reports from people claiming to have actually seen the monster.

Another big monster booster was the city of Huron, which in September of 1990 took various steps to promote the city by using the monster sightings. This climaxed in a pair of big stories in two quite different publications in the late summer of 1993: A Wall Street Journal cover story about Huron’s efforts to become a monster city, and a Weekly World News cover story, complete with doctored image of a sauropod-like dinosaur attacking a sailboat said to have been taken by a passing airplane pilot, headlined “Lake Erie Monster Sinks Sailboat.”

The monster is sometimes known as Bessie or South Bay Bessie, names that rhyme with “Nessie” being popular for lake monsters, or Lemmy, and extrapolation of the initials for Lake Erie Monster. It’s even been given the scientific name of Obscura eriensis huronii (Roughly, “unknown creature in Lake Erie near Huron”), by Charles

The monster is sometimes known as Bessie or South Bay Bessie, names that rhyme with “Nessie” being popular for lake monsters, or Lemmy, and extrapolation of the initials for Lake Erie Monster. It’s even been given the scientific name of Obscura eriensis huronii (Roughly, “unknown creature in Lake Erie near Huron”), by Charles Herdendorf, a retired Ohio State University biologist enlisted by the city of Huron to give a presentation on the possibility of the creature’s existence.

It should be noted that when Herdendorf assigned the monster its name, he did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek, which is why it’s probably best to keep calling the monster “The Lake Erie Monster”—at least until someone finally catches one, anyway.

Illustration by Janie Walland