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If you've tried everywhere else, come to the capital city for a monster; 22 witnesses have reported seeing a strange, serpentine monster on Madison's lakes on at least nine separate occasions. Early Madisonians dubbed the monster "Billy Dunn's Sea Serpent," after a letter carrier who claimed to have seen it.
Sightings began in the 1860s, when W.J. Park and his wife were boating near Governor's Island on Lake Mendota. Park was a printer who wrote an early history of Madison. The couple were rowing in a small boat when, as was so often the case, they came alongside what appeared to be a log or piece of driftwood. When Park raised his oar to tap the log, the water suddenly boiled up. The "log" was diving.
"That this was a monster of some sort, we have no doubt," wrote Park. "And we were not too long in deciding that retreat was the better part of valor and we resolved to say nothing about the matter." He and his wife came forward only after others made their own reports.
On July 21, 1892, Darwin Boehmer and a friend saw the creature while they were boating on Lake Monona. Boehmer was the son of a local harness maker. He said that when he and his friend saw the creature it was moving quickly toward Ott's Springs, near Esther Beach on the south shore. The creature passed within 75 feet of them, undulating in an up-and-down motion. Its head, they said, resembled that of a dogfish. Several people on shore at the time also reported seeing the creature, and described its body as 10 to 15 feet long and a foot in circumference.
On Sept. 26, 1892, Joe Daubner, a laundry operator, reported seeing the creature on Lake Monona. On Oct. 7, 1892, an anonymous Oregon resident said he too saw it on Lake Monona, and that he would not go out on the lake again "for all the money in the capital city." He had wanted to go fishing and had hired a boat from John Schott's boat livery. According to the man's story, he rowed out into the lake and the creature passed underneath, apparently trying to turn the boat over. It appeared to be 20 feet long, with a large head that was flat on top. The man dropped his fishing pole and quickly rowed to shore. Once safe, he vowed never to return to the city without a Winchester rifle and two revolvers.
On Oct. 17, 1892, a group of 12 young men saw a 35-foot-long creature once again in Lake Mendota. Around that time, a young man reported encountering the creature in the Yahara River, which links Mendota and Monona. It looked like a log, except that it swam and dove - and tried to overturn his boat.
Five years later, on June 11, 1897, the creature was reported near the eastern shore of Lake Monona. Eugene Heath, a Madison farm machinery salesman, shot at it twice. It turned and came for him. He fled. According to a newspaper headline: "Bullets Had No Effect on Its Hide. Looked Like Bottom of a Boat, But Twice as Long." The paper also reported that "it is probably the same animal which is credited with having devoured a dog which was swimming in the lake a few days ago."
John Schott, owner of the boat livery mentioned above, saw the creature for himself at this time. "He saw it plainly in the bright moonlight, and its shape was like the bottom of a boat, but it was about twice as long. Mr. Schott's two sons saw it, and were so firmly convinced that it was a dangerous animal that when soon after two ladies desired to be rowed over to Lakeside [a resort across the lake], neither of the Schotts, who had spent a large portion of their lives on the lake, would venture out."
If you are in the business of renting pleasure boats or fishing equipment financing, this would seem to be an odd sort of publicity campaign.
The Schotts would have done better to keep the sightings to
themselves. Yet, all involved told the paper, "Mr. Schott and others
who saw the 'thing,' whatever it may be, insist that it is a reality
and not a joke or a creature of their combined imaginations."
Two years later, on Aug. 22, 1899, Barney Reynolds reported seeing the creature in Lake Mendota, near the landing for the Bernard Boat Yard. It was also seen in Lake Waubesa, a few miles to the south. An Illinois tourist was anchored in the lake when he saw the water a few hundred feet away begin to heave and swell. A body, then a head, came up - and paused. The creature appeared to be basking in the summer sun; it was 60 to 70 feet long, dark green, with a "serpent head." The tourist tried to decide if it was a fish or an eel or what - and then carefully, gently rowed to shore. There he was called a liar and and alcoholic.
That same summer a man and wife swimming on Waubesa Beach saw the head of an odd creature surface and swim toward them, its eyes glittering. "The couple were good swimmers and did not linger," writes historian Charles Brown.
For these reports I have depended largely on newspaper accounts of the day. There's little doubt that newspaper hoaxes were a well-established tradition in 19th-century journalism. In an age before television and radio, the public enjoyed newspaper hoaxes as recreation. However, the last Madison sightings occurred too late to be explained away as reporters' tall tales.
In the summer of 1917, a fisherman at Picnic Point on Madison's Lake Mendota was the first to see something with "a large snake-like head, with large jaws and blazing eyes." It was less than a hundred feet away. The man was paralyzed at first but then ran away, leaving his pole and catch basket behind. He and his story were ridiculed.
Around the same time, a male and female university student were lying on their backs on a Lake Mendota pier getting a suntan, with their feet hanging over the edge, when the woman felt a sort of tickle on the sole of one foot. It happened a few more times, and she looked at her friend, who she thought was flirting. He was sleeping. She relaxed and closed her eyes. After a time, the tickling began again. Annoyed, she turned over - and saw "a huge snake or dragon" bobbing nearby. The students said "it had a friendly, humorous look in its big eyes," but the two still fled to a nearby fraternity house.
Additional reports were made that summer by bathers and sailors. Overturned canoes and uprooted piers were blamed on the serpent all season. In all, however, the monster was "a rather good-natured animal, playing pranks," in the eyes of Brown, writing little more than a decade after the fact. But, he also noted, "People made more use of the lake after he disappeared."
Were these sightings all hoaxes or misidentifications of more common creatures? I would argue against the possibility of all the reports being hoaxes simply because they are so, well, boring. A made-up story could have provided a lot more description, better action and greater drama. True newspaper hoaxes of the 19th century were carried on for weeks, growing in fantastic detail; after all, the point of the hoax was to build circulation. The longer and better the hoax, the more papers were sold.
As for misidentifications, it's entirely possible that exceptionally large fish survived in Wisconsin's lakes well into the first decades of commercial fishing. A 5-foot muskie actually was caught in Lake Mills in this century - certainly a monster by anyone's definition.
I myself have seen things I cannot immediately explain. But let me stress the word "immediately." Walking along the lakeshore path, on Mendota's southern edge, I have seen blots of dark flesh roiling the water, all in a row, one-two-three. The humps of an undulating serpent? As I watched, and the actions repeated, I saw that the humps were fish spawning in the warm shallows.
But compared to the state's early residents, I know nothing of the lakes. They lived on them, measured their days by them, and in many cases made their livings off them. It was a time of ferries and excursion steamers. Appreciation of the landscape was one of the few recreational pastimes available. I think that if they believed they saw something unusual, they saw something unusual.
Skeptics, of course, will set the entire matter aside for a lack of physical evidence.
An unusual scale, "of large size, thick and very tough," washed up on the shore of Picnic Point on Madison's Lake Mendota, before the 1917 wave of sightings. Its nature stumped experts at the University of Wisconsin. The State Historical Society records that one anonymous professor, originally from New England, believed the scale belonged to a "sea serpent." And according to the society, dredging on the same lake, near Madison's Olbrich Park, in the 1890s revealed some "huge vertebrae" belonging to a long-dead, unknown creature.
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