Archive for the ‘Monsters’ Category

“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

That awful secret was once the talk of Europe. From perhaps the 1840s until 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was home to a “mystery of mysteries”—an enigma that involved a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements.

The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glarms”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.

This celebrated historical mystery seems to be largely forgotten now, but as late as the 1970s it was chilling new generations as a staple of numerous ghost books. Come to think of it, paperback compilations of old ghost stories seem to have gone the way of the dodo as well, but those crumbly Armada books used to frighten me when I was young. Anyway, you can read the unexpurgated story over at Past Imperfect.

[This is a fully revised, expanded and updated account of a mystery first discussed here, featuring the fruits of much subsequent research.]

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Pius XI - cryptozoologistEleven Popes have sat on the throne of St Peter since the turn of the last century, and most authorities would rank Pius XI (b. Achille Ratti, r. 1922-39) among the two or three most influential of that number. An able diplomat, fighter for social justice, noted critic of capitalism, fervent opponent of contraception and, inter alia, a one-time librarian and founder of the Pontifical Academy of Science, Pius was the first Pontiff in nearly half a century to abandon successive Popes’ self-imposed exile within the precincts of the Vatican. In the course of his reign, he had to deal with the rise of Fascism and Nazism – which he condemned rather more forcefully and consistently than his controversial successor, Pius XII. But in his spare time, it now emerges, Il Papa was also an enthusiastic cryptozoologist.

We owe this rather startling bit of information to an equally colourful character, Sir David Hunter-Blair: an able scion of an ancient Scottish noble house who, after a youth spent at Oxford University (where he was an intimate friend of Oscar Wilde), took vows as a monk and eventually became the second abbot (1912-1917) of the new Benedictine monastery at Fort Augustus, at the southern end of Loch Ness [below]. Hunter-Blair – or Abbot Oswald, as he was known to his brethren – spent much of the remainder of his life on the shores of the loch, and was buried there when he died in September 1939. He took a keen interest in his surroundings, and was a noted believer in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster – “I became and remain,” he wrote, “absolutely convinced on the testimony of a veritable cloud of credible eye-witnesses, which it would be absurd as well as unreasonable to flout or to ignore, that a weird and mysterious creature really and truly does haunt these waters.” Indeed, Hunter-Blair was personally convinced that the LNM was a surviving dinosaur, and later experienced his own sighting – a rather unusual one, which lasted for all of 40 minutes, during which “I watched it… gambolling in the deep water and lashing it into a foam with its powerful tail.” [Constance Whyte, More Than A Legend: The Story of the Loch Ness Monster (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957) pp.58-9]

Fort Augustus Abbey, Loch NessAll of which brings us to March 1935, and a visit Abbot Oswald made to Rome, where he was granted a private audience with Pius. Abandoning the usual formality, the Pontiff invited Hunter-Blair to sit next to him; the Abbot responded by pulling out some photos depicting his abbey’s beautiful setting on Loch Ness. Seeing these, Pius delightedly exclaimed: “Enfin, nous l’avons – l’habitat du Monstre!” (“At last we have it – the home of the Monster!”) As Hunter-Blair later recorded, it transpired that the Pope had long been fascinated by tales of the LNM, and made a habit of interrogating any Scottish priests and bishops he encountered for further information. When he discovered that his visitor actually claimed a sighting of his own, “it proved impossible to steer the conversation onto any other subject.” [Hunter-Blair, ‘A last audience with Pius XI,’ PAX 210 (Spring 1939) pp.5-11]

Mere sidelight on the long and complex history of the Loch Ness Monster though this is, Hunter-Blair’s unexpected Vatican encounter certainly does provide a startling illustration of just how rapidly and widely the legend of the Monster spread during the 1930s – not to mention an intriguing and sympathetic glimpse at the broad interests of a Pontiff more usually remembered for the altogether grimier reality of his fraught relationship with Mussolini.

[Acknowledgement: My thanks to James Downs for sending me a copy of his unpublished memoir of Abbot Oswald. PAX, the source of Hunter-Blair’s anecdote, was the journal of the Benedictine community on Caldey Island, in South Wales, with which the Abbot was also intimately associated.]

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Artist's  impression of Arthur Grant Loch Ness land sighting, 1934Let’s begin with the obvious: the camera lies. And because we know it lies, we tend to doubt the things it tells us. A million gallons of ink have been spilled on analyses of classic photographic images, very often with devastating results for those who have chosen to place faith in them as “proof” of any sort. Adamski’s UFO: a chicken brooder.* The Surgeon’s Photograph: a model mounted on a clockwork submarine. The ghosts snapped from the SS Watertown: nothing but a cut-and-paste job. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall: a simple case of double exposure.

The consequences of this home truth are profound, if obvious. Photos can’t be trusted. The stuff that does exist tends to fall broadly into two categories. On the one hand are the hazy, badly-focussed shots of “something” – which might possibly be genuine, but are rarely proof of anything. On the other are unambiguous, clear images, which look exciting at first glance but are almost always fakes. And the whole field is the Fortean equivalent of a money pit, sucking up endless resources without producing anything concrete in return.

All this means that anyone with experience in this field tends to look extremely sceptically at the photographic evidence. What about other sorts of image, though? Well, oddly enough the sceptics’ tool-kit tends to get tossed out of the window whenever illustrations get involved. For the most part that’s easy enough to understand; they’re not seriously meant to be part of the evidence. But there’s one interesting exception to this rule, and what I want to do right now is take a hopefully instructive look at the under-rated role “artists’ impressions” have played in our subject.

By artists’ impressions, I mean not generic illustrations – “Hey, this is what a flying saucer looks like” – but images that are based directly on witness testimony, and make some claim, however subliminally, to represent “what was actually there.” And what really interests me about this neglected facet of the Fortean universe is an unremarked-on disconnect: these are images that purport to show something real, something genuinely important, and there’s no question that they have played a major role in shaping the way in which we think about most things Fortean (think back to your own earliest encounter with our field. Whatever it was it was that sucked you in, I’ll bet a dollar to your dime that a compelling bit of artwork was involved along the way.) Yet, almost without exception, the images concerned are the work of everyday commercial hacks, who know little and care less about the subject, and for whom success is measured not so much in achieving the closest possible approximation to “what the witness saw,” but in selling newspapers, or books, or magazines. I’d go so far as to suggest that, in 75 percent of cases, the drawing that enticed you was the product of a fleeting afternoon’s commission. It might, with luck, have begun with the handing over of some evidence, some witness statement. But almost certainly it ended with: “Draw this. But better make it look dramatic.”

From this perspective, it’s easy to see that the vexed question of how closely pictures of this sort approximate to what the witness said, or saw, is rather a red herring. The real problem goes deeper than that. It is that commercial and artistic pressures combine to all but guarantee that these impressions will be very poor reflections of the original experience. They may be biased in all sorts of unexpected, unaccounted ways – I remember, while working at Fortean Times, commissioning a painting of the chupacabras from an illustrator who point-blank refused to depict the thing as anything other than a quadripedal cryptid. What we can say, though, is that they’re almost certain to over-dramatise, elaborate, and draw on existing imagery for inspiration – and so will inevitably tend to reduce complex subjects to simple explanations. When UFOs are drawn as spaceships, or lake monsters as dinosaurs, it’s most likely not because spaceships or dinosaurs were seen. It’s because spaceships and dinosaurs make for better pictures.

What, then, are the consequences of this dangerous-sounding difficulty? What we’re left with, I’d contend, is a plethora of highly misleading “almost-photographs”. These artists’ impressions actually have much of the authority of photos – after all, they claim to show us what the witness saw. But they can’t be challenged in the same way that we can challenge photographic images. Artists don’t draw in tell-tale clues (the sun in the wrong position, “spaceships” made from buttons, “monsters” pasted onto backgrounds). They don’t do ambiguity, either; their impressions almost always strip out all uncertainty from what was most likely quite a hesitant and speculative eyewitness report. More important still, artists’ impressions simply don’t concern themselves with the sort of problems that investigators confront in the field. You very rarely see commercial images that show an object at a distance, in poor viewing conditions – and it also goes without saying that you’re not shown it in the form of the snatched glimpse so typical of strange experiences – a “something” seen from the corner of an eye for only a second or so. No, artists’ impressions tend to show things closer and clearer than they were. Not to mention frozen in time, eternally presenting themselves for study, proffering answers that are not answers at all. They really are responsible for an awful lot of trouble.

Enough of the theory. To give you an idea of what I mean, let’s take a look at a couple of instructive examples. And since it’s pretty difficult to know just how far drawings depart from what was seen when we deal only with written statements, I’m going to confine myself to cases for which, fortuitously, we can compare witness sketches to completed artists’ impressions.  It’s relatively rare to have access to both, so I won’t go so far as to assert that what follows are typical examples. But my guess is that they may well be.

Sea serpent seen from HMS Deadalus, 6 August 1848The case that first got me thinking about the perils of the artist’s impression is a famous one, the HMS Daedalus sea-serpent of 1848. Most of you will probably be familiar with the bare bones of this celebrated incident – identified by Rupert Gould as “the locus classicus of the sea-serpent” – and remember how, off the coast of Namibia in the southern midwinter, an “enormous serpent” was spotted from the quarterdeck of the British fifth-rate Daedalus. This monster was seen by the ship’s Captain, Peter M’Quhae, by the First Lieutenant, Edgar Atheling Drummond, and by five others as well. But pretty much every subsequent description of the case has been based on the evidence of just one of those witnesses: Captain M’Quhae. He gave an account to his superior, which found its way into the columns of the Illustrated London News. According to this recollection, the monster’s “head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and as nearly as we could approximate it by comparing it with the length of what our mainsail topyard would show in the water, there was at the very least 60 feet of the animal á fleur d’eau [visible at the surface].” M’Quhae added the compelling detail that the monster “passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should easily have recognised his features with the naked eye.” There followed a detailed description of the creature, which – the Captain said – had a snakelike head, a neck some 15 or 16 inches round, no fins, “but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed” washing about its back.

What’s important to remember here is that M’Quhae’s Daedalus report was made some months after the fact – not until October, actually, when the ship reached her home port – and that the famous images that everyone remembers [above and below] were not drawn by M’Quhae himself, but by an artist commissioned by the ILN – the leading illustrated paper of the day [Gould, The Case for the Sea-Serpent (London 1928) pp.94-103].

CLose up of the head of the HMS Daedalus sea serpent, Illustrated  London NewsWe have a pretty good idea how the News artist produced his engravings, since after they were published M’Quhae wrote a letter to the paper expressing his gratitude to the man, “to whom I beg to acknowledge myself greatly indebted for the patience and attention with which he listened to the various alterations suggested by me during the progress of the drawings.” [ILN, 4 November 1848] Here, then, we have an apparently ideal case – one in which a talented artist has been carefully directed by the chief eyewitness, who in turn has expressed himself entirely happy with the engraver’s labours. So far as most cryptozoologists are concerned, this makes the ILN‘s dramatic engravings pretty much as good as photographs, and there has been much excited comment over the years regarding the fine details of the drawings. Dr T.S. Traill, a Scot who addressed the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the matter, went so far as to draw some inferences from the sea-serpent’s “short obtuse muzzle,” while Gould drew attention the apparent presence of a ‘crescentic mark’ on a close-up of the monster’s head [above left] that he thought might be a nostril. [Oudemans, The Great Sea Serpent (Leiden, 1892) pp.287-8; Gould op.cit. p.104] That extrapolating details such as this from a commercial illustration might be taking things a little far was at least admitted by Gould, who ruefully remarked that “the existence of the ‘crescentic mark’… is doubtful; in the original, it might equally be a piece of fancy shading.”[Gould, op.cit., captions to plates]

So far as most anomalists are concerned, nonetheless, the Daedalus report remains among the top two or three accounts of sea-serpents, a celebrity that’s due in no small part to those elegant ILN engravings. It was with great interest, therefore, that I learned a dozen or so years ago of complimentary evidence in the form of a journal belonging to the ship’s First Lieutenant, Edgar Drummond. Drummond (1825-93), a scion of a noted banking family who traced his descent back to the time of Macbeth, in the eleventh century, had been one of the seven original witnesses on board the Daedalus, and an extract from the journal in question appeared in The Zoologist for 1 December 1848. What was not previously apparent, though, was that Drummond had also sketched the monster. His drawing of what appeared to him to be “a large snake or eel” was published, rather obscurely, in The Log of Mystic Seaport, vol.46-47 (1995-96) in the context of a letter from the sailor’s grandson, Maldwin Drummond, and picked up from there by Matt Bille’s Exotic Zoology newsletter. [Bille, ‘The enduring “sea serpent”,’ Exotic Zoology 4 (3) (1997) pp.1-6] The date of Edgar Drummond’s sketch is not given, but since we know he made an entry in his journal on or shortly after the date of the encounter, it is reasonable to suppose it is contemporary, and thus pre-dates M’Quhae’s encounter with the ILN‘s engraver by about two months. Rather revealingly, the same journal also notes that Drummond saw only a head and a “back fin,” while Maldwin Drummond’s letter asserts – presumably from the same source – that M’Quhae initially estimated the monster’s length at 120 feet, revising his estimate down by 50 percent after discussion with his officers.

Below, anyway, is the – vastly less detailed and far less dramatic – sketch that Drummond made, most likely almost on the spot. Note the presence of two small “fins”, set 30 feet apart, and the entire absence of the long, serpentine body described so convincingly and vividly by Captain M’Quhae. Reflect, too, that M’Quhae – a Royal Navy officer, remember, of nearly 50 years’ standing – is pretty much most researchers’ idea of the perfect “reputable witness”. Then compare the sketch to the ILN‘s far more detailed and dramatic engraving, and ask yourself: if two depictions are so different, how safe is it to assume that those News engravings really are “almost-photographs”, as M’Quhae’s letter to the News‘s editor implies, and most cryptozoologists have tended to assume? Bear in mind that Maldwin Drummond thought his grandad’s sketch entirely consistent with Richard Ellis’s theory that the Daedalus creature was actually a giant squid. If you know anything about the history of the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century, finally, you will also realise that an officer such as M’Quhae, who rose to the rank of commander as early as 1814, yet was offered only two minor commands as captain over the succeeding 35 years, would have been known to the Admiralty as an officer far from the very top of his profession. All these observations tend to degrade M’Quhae’s standing as the perfect witness, and so call into question the accuracy of his memory when briefing the Illustrated London News‘s man.

Edgar Drummond sketch of HMS Daedalus sea serpent

So much for the Daedalus‘s sea-serpent but, lest it be thought that this case is exceptional, I stress that it is possible to draw some not dissimilar conclusions from two other water monster cases that I have followed up on over the years. The first, dating to 1934, concerns a Loch Ness land sighting – the celebrated Arthur Grant affair, illustrated in fine style at the head of this article. [Modern Mechanix, April 1934] The second is an Irish case dating to a couple of decades later. First, though, Grant.

Arthur Grant, rather like M’Quhae, is often portrayed as an “ideal witness” – he was a trainee vet, and local, and hence assumed to be familiar with most varieties of Highland wildlife. This notion has actually been robustly challenged [Ronald Binns, The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (Shepton Mallet, 1983) pp.189-90], but certainly Grant was adamant that when, on the night of 5 January, he all but ran over something crossing the north shore road, the thing that he encountered was no ordinary animal. Said Grant:

I had a splendid view of the object. In fact I almost struck it with my motorcycle. It had a long neck and large oval-shaped eyes on the top of a small head. The tail would be from 5 to 6 feet long and very powerful… the total length of the animal would be 15 to 20 feet. Knowing something of natural history I can say that I have never seen anything in my life like the animal I saw. It looked like a hybrid… [and] entered the loch with great speed. [Constance Whyte, More Than A Legend (London, 1957) p.74]

Now, exciting though all this is, the truth is that the circumstances of the Grant sighting were far from ideal. It took place on a dark winter’s night, and the scene was only fitfully illuminated by the solitarty headlight on Grant’s motorcycle. The incident itself, if real at all, can have lasted for no more than a few seconds, and there are at least a couple of unsettling details in the vet’s account. For one thing, Grant was plainly well aware of the earlier, even more spectacular, Spicer land sighting of July 1933. [Binns, op.cit. p.91] Second, returning to the spot next day, the student claimed to have found physical evidence to back up his claims in the shape of a patch of flattened grass. [Whyte, op.cit. p.76] Both circumstances seem a little too convenient, and Maurice Burton, for one, expressed incredulity at the sheer amount of detail Grant purportedly drank in: “Arthur Grant was not only able to make a drawing of the animal, but he was able to estimate its size, describe its poise and general form, estimate the size of its head and eye, gauge the length of its neck and of the tail, note the colour and texture of its skin, and describe how the animal moved.” [Burton, The Elusive Monster (London, 1961) pp.148-9]

Arthur Grant sketch of Loch Ness Monster, Daily Mail 8 January  1934I feel some sympathy for Burton’s point of view, for the fact is that trainee vet seems to have been a good deal less certain of exactly what he saw that might be supposed from his written description. Grant made several drawings of the whatever-it-was he saw – at least six, Binns suggests – and these contradict each other in significant details. The earliest of them, moreover [right], published in the Daily Mail of 8 January 1934, is the least detailed, and exhibits what seems to be considerable uncertainy as to the shape of creature’s under-parts – scarcely surprising, one might think, given that these must have merged rather with the road in the dark, seen from the witness’s perspective. The animal in the sketch also looks much less like a “monster” than the vet’s later efforts, and quite different to the popular depictions of the creature that appeared in newspapers worldwide [top]. Burton and Binns agree it suggests that what Grant saw was probably an otter, a view that it would be difficult to embrace if one had access only to the dramatic and entirely unambiguous artists’ impressions that we have of the event. The point being that no-one who thought that such excitable drawings accurately reflected what Grant had seen would agree for a moment with the otter theory.

Lough Fadda Monster - 1954 - The Unexplained, after Georgina  CarberryMy third example differs rather from the two above, in that no witness drawings are available to us. What we do have, however, is something equally intriguing: a detailed description, given by one witness, an artist’s impression, based on it, and the remarks of a second witness, tracked down later, who turned out to be quite critical of the image concerned. The case in question is an Irish one, and it concerns the famous monster of Lough Fadda, in Connemara, seen, supposedly, by a party of angling picnickers in the summer of 1954. According to the principal witness, a local librarian by the name of Georgina Carberry, what she and three friends saw in the lough that day was a veritable monster, which approached to within 20 yards of them, so that

we could distinctly see two big humps showing behind its head out of the water. And the tail we noticed, when it swung round the rock, ’twas a kind of a fork – a V-shaped tail. And the mouth which was open when it came in quite close to us at the shore and the eyes and that I can’t really remember. But I distinctly remember the whole body had movement in it. [FW Holiday, The Dragon and the Disc (London, 1973) p.37]

Lough Fadda Monster - 1954 - after "Ann"Carberry’s interview, given 14 years after the encounter in question, may or may not give an accurate version of what actually happened – though it’s certainly worth pointing out that she, as a librarian, falls very much into the same category of “reliable witness” as do Peter M’Quhae and Arthur Grant. It is, however, certainly quite detailed, and it was enough for an artist commissioned by the Orbis partwork The Unexplained to produce a drawing [above left] in about 1982. There’s no indication, by the way, that Carberry ever even saw it, but no other depictions of the Lough Fadda monster are readily available, so The Unexplained‘s image has become, if only by default, the accepted version of what Carberry’s creature looked like. It is, thus, rather instructive to learn that when the Fadda case was reinvestigated in 2001, a second member of the picnic party took issue with that same impression. According to researcher Nick Sucik, when this witness, a woman he named only as Ann, was shown the illustration based on Carberry’s description, she insisted that the monster she had seen had had no tail, and also possessed a much thicker neck and blunter mouth. Sucik had Ann sketch her own impression of the creature over a Tippex’d print of The Unexplained‘s version [above right]. The contrast between the two images is instructive.

Finally, just in case it be thought that  the problem of artists’ impressions be confined solely to the realms of cryptozoology, let’s take a brief look at what is probably the best-known, most controversial, British UFO case of them all: the Rendlesham encounter of December 1980. In this case, as is well known, US Air Force personnel from an airbase in Suffolk reported strange lights that flashed through the forest that ran almost up to the base itself. A security detail entered the woods, and there, supposedly, encountered a triangular object, brightly lit and hovering a few feet off the ground. There is certainly much of interest to be said about the Rendlesham case, which has been explained variously as an encounter with a UFO that left physical traces and as the radical misperception of the lighthouse at Orford Ness, five miles away, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that the case has become so celebrated that a plethora of artists’ impressions have been produced to illustrate it. Here are three, all based, however remotely, on witness descriptions, and all supposed to accurately depict the various stages of this renowned encounter:

Rendlesham UFO encounter Rendlesham Forest encounter Rendlesham UFO encounter

Note, once again, how very detailed and how unambiguous these artists’ impressions are. And consider how illustrations of this sort might impact upon the naive, the ill-informed and the credulous, with special reference to convincing them that this encounter was “real”. Now compare the objects the artists’ show to the original witness sketches, produced soon after the incident in question, archived on astronomer and sceptic Ian Ridpath‘s excellent website [and reproduced below].

If you’re satisfied that the originals could reasonably inspire the artists’ impressions, if you’re not bothered by that tell-tale – honest? havering? – question-mark on the second witness drawing, and if, after everything you’ve read and and seen, you still think most artists’ impressions are worth the paper they are drawn on, you’re a better man, I’d say, than me.

Witness drawing, Rendlesham Forest UFO Rendlesham Forest UFO - witness drawing

* Maybe. Could also be a saucepan lid with ping pong balls, or a tobacco humidor with the nipple of a baby’s bottle glued on top.

[Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Matt Bille, Dave Clarke and Ian Ridpath for their help in sourcing images for this post.]

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Of giant eels

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle

The thing about lake monsters, I think it’s generally agreed, is that they really ought to be seen a lot more often than they are. Take even a reasonably substantial body of water, one the size of Loch Ness, for instance, add a self-sustaining monster population (25 animals? 40? Nobody really knows, but it’d have to be a decent number), and the brain begins to boggle slightly at the sheer implausibility of all those creatures paddling about the centre of the Highlands, within a few yards of a major road, and yet being spotted and reported perhaps three times a year.

The real problem, of course, is that virtually all of the usual suspects – the plesiosaurs and long-necked seals and, god help us, giant prehistoric whales (if there’s one LM candidate that combines the worst aspects of every conceivable theory in one utterly unlikely package, the zeuglodon is it) – are air-breathers. And you don’t have to spend too long at a place such as Loch Ness, just 22 miles long and only one mile wide, to realise how preposterous the idea of air-breathing lake monsters is. Seals, which do get into the loch occasionally, are quite regularly spotted and identified, so there’s simply no reason to suppose larger animals would go unnoticed. That’s why I long ago converted to the idea that the solution to this mystery more likely lay in the realms of witness perception, human psychology and cultural expectation than it did in cryptozoology. But, even so, I still suspect that one type of animal does play a central role in some lake monster sightings: fish.

There’s little doubt in my mind that fish are responsible for much of the sonar evidence from places like Loch Ness, and none that animals large enough to awe witnesses exist (though not necessarily in Scottish lakes). There’s a surprisingly large amount to be said in favour of sturgeon as the explanation for many “upturned boat”-type sightings. But, for those who remain convinced by numerous reports of lake monsters with long necks, only one candidate really satisfies: the eel – or, more specifically, a hypothetical giant eel, perhaps with an unusually thickened body; Roy Mackal was keen on those.

Bristol Mercury 29 October 1842Hull Packet 6 November 1840I’m no scientist, and I’ll leave it to the likes of Darren Naish to discuss the problems with the eel theory; there are many. Still, seen from my layman’s perspective, there are a couple of things to be said in favour of the notion, aside from the fact that eels are predominantly bottom-dwellers that don’t come to the surface very often. One is that many accounts of the existence of giant eels exist – here are two, discovered in a cursory search of 19th century British regional newspapers. [As always with this blog, you can see such clips in a more readable format by downloading and opening the image, or clicking on it and dragging to your desktop.] The one on the left is from the Bristol Mercury of 29 October 1842, and the clip on the right is from the Hull Packet of 6 November 1840. Both describe animals significantly larger than eels are supposed to get in the UK, or indeed anywhere else; the largest recognised eel species, the Moray, can grow only to about 12 feet (3.75 metres).

A second point is that eels are capable of travelling surprising distances over land, which may help to explain some of those pesky land sightings of lake monsters; a third, and the one that most interests me today, is that there demonstrably is, or was, a tradition in Ireland and Scotland that monstrously large and ugly “hairy eels” exist. The Irish called these creatures horse-eels, supposedly because their heads and foreparts resembled those of horses, while their tails were those of eels. I’m going to devote the rest of this post to setting out some little-known descriptions of these creatures. How you interpret this material is up to you; cryptozoologists may choose to see it as evidence that such animals really exist,but even if you doubt this I think the folkloric aspects of the tales are interesting, and they certainly tell us a great deal about the background against which Scottish and Irish lake monster reports were originally made – before the cryptozoologists and mystery-mongers got their hands on them, that is.

The first source I want to publish here is an extract from a memoir by a Scottish Catholic priest named Alexander Campbell (1818-1891), who was based on the Hebridaen island of South Uist. The memoir was written right at the end of Campbell’s life, but the period alluded to is c.1850. The memoir is preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives in Edinbugh, which, by the by, contains most of the surviving papers of the abbots and monks of the old Benedictine monastery at Fort Augustus, and is a surprisingly rich source for a wide variety of nineteenth and early twentieth century Highland Forteana.

Another prominent feature of the long island is its enumerable lakes teeming with eels and trouts, some of the former attain an almost incredible size. These eels when they arrive at this monstrous size according to the opinion and also conviction of the natives, make their way over land to the sea. And I have reason to believe that this opinion of theirs will be found to be correct. I myself for some years was an eye witness[,] one of these huge monsters appearing in a lake situated in the township of Boisdale lashing at times furiously the water with its tail and making at the same time a hissing sort of noise. But for the last three years it has left the lake and is not now to be seen. Its disappearance was no matter of surprise to the inhabitants because they expect all monster eels of this description to make at length their way to the sea.

It is equally known here that these eels migrate from one lake to another and crawl along the land like serpents. In confirmation of this fact, I was told by an eye witness worthy of credence that he and others were assembled together on a Sunday evening on a knoll in Ormiclate and saw a great many sea gulls assembling over a field at no great distance, darting now and then down to the ground. The unusual manoeuvres on the part of the gulls excited their curiosity so they went to see what was making such a swarm of them congregate in one place. Upon their arrival they discovered a number of large eels making their way to the neighbouring lake, which was more than a quarter of a mile distant from the one from which they started. No consideration will induce an Uist man or woman to taste an eel and they even intertain the strangest prejudice against them who do so.

[Source: Alexander Campbell, ‘The Mission of South Uist.’ Scottish Catholic Archives DA9/45B]

South UistThe area that Campbell describes can be seen on a map of the southernmost portions of Uist (right), but one thing that’s not so clear from this close-up is how close Uist itself is to Ireland. In fact it’s only just over a hundred miles directly north of Ulster, and – more importantly – it sits astride an ancient sea route that, during the Middle Ages, closely linked Ireland and the Western Isles to Scandinavia. The intermixing of Irish and Scots along this route is key to understanding much of the history of this region (for example, the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway until the 1260s, and the repercussions of the plantation of Scots in Ulster during the seventeenth century still looms large in Irish politics today.) It’s also very important to understand that Irish and northern Scottish folklore is inextricably interlinked. From the folkloric point of view, it’s no surprise that both the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and their Irish counterparts, the wild western parts of Eire, are equally rich sources of lake monster traditions.

The chief source of information on the Irish horse-eel tradition is old school monster-hunter F.W. “Ted” Holiday: a man in whom I generally place limited faith, as previously discussed. Nonetheless, horse-eels play a leading role in his The Dragon and the Disc (1973), which deals in large part with a series of bizarre lake monster reports that emerged from the bogs of Connemara during the 1960s – and by bizarre I mean not only that the creatures were frequently reported at remarkably short range, and hence in unusual detail, but also that the loughs that they were seen in were minuscule – far too small to support even a single large animal for any length of time.

The thing that makes Holiday’s work valuable is that it includes a long series of interviews with his Connemara witnesses. These were tape-recorded and transcribed, and reprinted without passing through the filter of the autor’s preconceptions, which makes them unusually interesting. I commend all of them to you, but there are too many, actually, to give them in full here, so I am going to confine myself to one especially peculiar type of story: traditions concerning gigantic eels that for various reasons became trapped in a variety of obstacles, allowing – at least hypothetically – for detailed observation, and the collection of physical evidence. (The fact that no such evidence was, in fact, collected says something about all these accounts, I’m sure.)

Those who know a little about lake monsters may be familiar with at least one such story: an account, which comes via the Irish monster-hunter Captain Lionel Leslie, of a Mrs Cameron, of Corpach. Writing probably early in the 1960s, Mrs C. describes an animal “found in the Corpach canal-locks when these were drained at the end of the last century,” or c.1899. Corpach is at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal, which runs from Inverness, through Loch Ness, to Fort William. According to the letter which Mrs Cameron addressed to Leslie,

In appearance it resembled an eel but was much larger than any eel ever seen and it had a long mane. They surmised it had come down from Loch Ness as even then the loch had a sinister reputation.

[Source: FW Holiday, The Great Orm of Loch Ness (London: Faber, 1971) p.172]

As a source, this account is less than perfect – it’s at second, or more likely third, hand, and even if it does contain a grain of truth it’s pretty definitely been corrupted by later accretions from the Loch Ness legend; Ronald Binns and others have amply demonstrated that the loch had no “sinister reputation” as early as 1900. The idea of a gigantic eel, particularly one with a “long mane” is, however, pretty consistent with the material collected by Holiday and his colleagues in Connemara in the 1960s. These accounts dealt with eel-like lake monsters seen in a number of western lochs located close to the district capital, Clifden. These include Lough Fadda, Lough Auna, Lough Shanakeever and tiny Lough Nahooin, as well as Crolan Lough – all of which I have identified on the Connemara map below.

Map ofWestern Connemara showing lake monster reports

The first of these accounts comes from an interview with a Connemara man by the name of Tom Connelly, “who had worked in America and London before returning to his native heath.” The interview was conducted by Holiday with Ivor Newby and Lionel Leslie; the date was 11 July 1968, and Connelly, who was then 65, described his sighting of a “horse-eel” in Crolan Lough in April 1961. The bogs of Connemara, incidentally, are good country for eels; as Connelly explained, Crolan Lough fed into Lough Derrylea and thence “a continuation of little rivers takes them into the sea.” After he described his sighting – of a 12 or 14 foot long creature seen at roughly 40 yards – Connelly added some further information about Crolan Lough:

Culvert between Crolan Lough and Lough Derrylea, ConnemaraHoliday: You’ve never seen anything like this before?

Connelly: No, not before or since. Only that when we were small our parents always kept us away from that lake in particular. They’d never let us go near it.

Holiday: Was there any local name for the creatures that you ever heard of?

Connelly: Some of the people called them…”horse-eels”…The old people used to make out that the things in these lakes used to travel overland. I often heard about that.

Holiday: From lake to lake?

Connelly: Yes, from lake to lake.

“Mr Connelly,” Holiday’s account continues, “then took us across the bog to a point on a hillock where he had looked down upon the monster. On the way back we examined a shallow, sedge-filled stream which connects Crolan Lough with Lough Derrylea. A culvert, about a yard in diameter, takes this stream under a bog road. The witness described how a monster became stuck in this culvert about eighty years ago [c.1888] during his father’s time.”

Holiday: Did you hear this from your father?

Connelly: From me mother. I used to hear me father talk about it, too, but her in particular always used to talk about it.

Holiday: “Did they ever describe what it looked like?

Connelly: Only just an oversized eel, like, caught in the gully. It couldn’t wriggle itself through. They didn’t bother going near it and it stayed and it just melted away.

Holiday: No bones? They never found any bones?

Connelly: There couldbe but they just didn’t take much remark of it. Only just that when we were small they’dalways keep us away from that lake in particular.

Concluded Holiday: “Further questioning suggested that the creature damaged the culvert during its struggles and this had to be rebuilt. The carcass was so loathsome that no-one would remove it.”

[Source: FW Holiday, The Dragon and the Disc (London: Futura, 1974) pp.52-4]

Culvert at Crolan LoughDuring a holiday I took in Connemara during the hot summer there in 1991, I visited the same district and located the culvert and the stream, which, as can be seen from these snaps (above right and, left, in close up), was an is a pretty modest affair, so overgrown it was difficult even to make out the mouth of the culvert. The “monster” of Holiday’s second Irish story, though, was apparently a good deal larger. This tale was set a few miles to the east at Ballynahinch, a castle from which the Irish Protestant landowning family the Martyns held sway over much of Connemara between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The castle is built on a very picturesque lake, from which a shallow river that for most of the year is not much more than a stream runs two miles south to the sea at Bertraghboy Bay, and it was beneath a bridge on this river that a monstrous eel was supposedly caught at roughly the same time as the Crolan Lough incident – c.1888. On this occasion, Holiday’s witness was Patrick King, “an old man” living in a cottage on the road from Clifden. Because Mr King was shy of strangers, he was interviewed on Holiday’s behalf by “an alert young man” from the same cluster of cottages named Martin Walsh.

“About this big eel that was seen at Ballynahinch,” Walsh began.

Patrick King: Well, I don’t remember it but I heard my father talk about it. It was jammed under the bridge at Ballynahinch. By Ballynahinch Castle.

MW: Well, what preparations did they do to catch him?

PK: They couldn’t kill him so they were making a spear… the blacksmith pointing a spear to spear him with it and get a rope tied onto a tree [sic].

MW: What was the name of the blacksmith?

PK: Patrick Connelly.

MW: And where was he from?

PK: He was from Cashel.

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle beneath which a horse eel supposedly  became stuck, c.1888Walsh then established that Connelly had been working at Ballynahinch when “the eel [became] jammed under the bridge [and] the water stopped.” My photos of this location (right and below) give some idea of how large the creature in question would have had to be to genuinely dam the stream – though perhaps during a drought the river would have dried to nearly nothing, and in any case the detail has something of a folkloric ring to it.

MW: Was there much water under the bridge at the time?

PK: There wasn’t.

MW: What height would it be about?

PK: His back was over it. And they made a spear for him and that night there was  a big flood and it went over himand took him off.

Holiday: How big was he?

MW: How big did you hear he was? What length was he?

PK: I hear he was about 30 foot.

MW: Thirty feet long. And how thick do you think he’d be?

PK: About as thick as a horse.

Holiday: Did you hear what his head looked like?

PK:  I didn’t hear about his head. I only heard them talk about him. That would be… about 80 years ago now.

MW: What length was the spear that they were making for him?

PK: Oh, the spear was a pointed one to drive into him and hold him with feedin on it. [Feedin is a type of line – MD]

MW: So that when it went into him it wouldn’t come out.

Holiday: I know. With barbs on it. How long was he stuck under the bridge then?

PK: A couple of days. He came down and was jammed under it.

[Source: The Dragon and the Disc pp.70-2]

As I say, you can interpret these stories as you wish. I think it would be wise to assume the material may be distorted by the witnesses’ desire to please their interviewer, perhaps by conjuring up details where really there were none. But Patrick King’s refusal to describe the Ballynahinch monster’s head is quite an encouraging sign that his account may be reasonably accurate – though by that I mean only that it was probably an honest report of a tradition dating back to well before his birth.

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle from the north looking southIf horse-eels did dwell in Connemara in the 1880s, though, there’s still the question of why they are so rarely seen there now. Father Campbell’s memoir, which suggests that once the creatures reached a certain size they left the lakes that they had made their homes and returned to the sea broadly correlates with the known life-cycle of eels, which famously breed in the Sargasso. Further than that, though, I’m relucant to go. For me, these accounts can simply be enjoyed as stories, no matter what the “truth” in them. And from that perspective, Holiday’s The Dragon and the Disc is well worth a read. There are lots of stories in it, and it’s very thought-provoking.

[Afterword: Dick Raynor, one of the best Loch Ness researchers, has a very useful page documenting a series of horse-eel reports from Loughs Auna and Shanakeever, two other loughs that Holiday mentions in his book.

[Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Alasdair Roberts, former editor of the Innes Review, for sending me the SCA material from Father Campbell’s account of South Uist.]

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The Welsh dragon on the First World War memorial to the men of the 38th (Welsh) Division at Mametz Wood

Today is St David’s Day, the national day of Wales, and it seems an appropriate moment to post what remains my very favourite story among all the thousands of strange tales that have featured in Fortean Times over the years. That is a large claim – the complete set of FT must run to several million words by now – but even after all these years I still find what follows so surreal and so magical, in its combination of the gentle, the mundane and the extraordinary, that for me each reading is like immersing myself in a warm bath. All right, it’s pretty hard to credit that it’s literally ‘true’; it helps that it’s a Welsh story, and that I’m a proud Welshman – and that the tale remains all but unknown; the account first appeared in print in 1928, and so far as I can tell has never made it onto the Internet. The Fortean Times version of the story is by Paul Sieveking, and it was published in FT48:32 (Spring 1987). The names of the characters involved are so common that it would be extremely difficult to check if they were actually real or not; Radnor Forest, though, is real – and is, according to local legend, the place where the last Welsh dragon still lies sleeping (Daniel Parry-Jones, A Country Parson. London: Batsford, 1975). The strange stamps you’re about to read of apparently did exist. No other comment is possible – but then perhaps none is necessary. The best thing to do is simply to sit back and enjoy.

Natives of the Red Dragon

Trigolion y Ddraig Goch, 'Natives of the Red Dragon'.A curious article, ‘The Red Dragon Stamps’ by C.H.R. Andrews, appeared in a journal called The Stamp Lover in 1928. Apparently, collectors had been mystified over the previous months by the appearance of certain small denomination British stamps overprinted with a red dragon. Some 20 letters and postcards were known to exist, all having pairs of stamps, the left one of which bore the overprint. Invariably, both were cancelled, although only the normal one could pay postage. At the time of writing, none had been reported for nearly two months.

The first of these stamps was reported shortly after the disappearance of Rhys Evans, 71, a well-known Welsh book collector and expert. Evans left home in Sketty, Swansea, on the afternoon of 4 April 1928 to show his friend, Professor Jenkins of University College, a very old Welsh book of stories and legends, which he carried in a waterproof wrapper. It included an account of a secret sect or clan responsible for the guardianship of five sacred dragons, and a crude plan which Evans hoped his friend would decypher.

Evans never reached the college, a short walk away. Two days later, his wife received a letter from Cardiff, bearing a pair of penny ha’penny stamps, one of which had the dragon overprint. The message, in Welsh, told her not to worry, as her husband was quite well, and it bore what was undoubtedly his signature. The note ended with the words Trigolion y Ddraig Goch, ‘Natives of the Red Dragon’. Various people subsequently received letters from the group, all bearing dragon stamps and all referring to old Welsh articles. The postmarks were from Cardiff, Cardigan, Wrexham and various towns on the sites of old Roman camps.

Evans turned up five days later, sitting by a lake in Brynmill Park. He was in good health, and would give no explanation of his absence. The ancient book was missing, and he seemed unconcerned about its loss, which was quite out of character. He stated enigmatically that “there were dragons in Wales today,” but refused to elaborate.

Coincidentally, a report from Llandegley, near Radnor Forest, stated that three children saw a huge beast in the woods, and that one, bolder than the rest, attempted to follow it. His way was blocked by two men who escorted him part of the way home. They were dressed in white with red dragons emblazoned on their chests.

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BasiliskFew creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example above comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. According to Jan Bondeson, who wrote extensively on the subject in an essay published in his The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) pp.161-92, the monster was

the subject of a lengthy discourse in the early-thirteenth-century bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais. An aged cock, which had lost its virility, would sometimes lay a small, abnormal egg. If this egg is laid in a dunghill and hatched by a toad, a misshapen creature, with the upper body of a rooster, bat-like wings, and the tail of a snake will come forth. Once hatched, the young basilisk creeps down to a cellar or a deep well to wait for some unsuspecting man to come by, and be overcome by its noxious vapours.

The king of snakes also crops up occasionally in the chronicles of the period, and it is in these accounts that we are mostly interested here. Among the principal cases we might note the following:

• In the ninth century, during the pontificate of Leo IV (847-55), a basilisk concealed itself under an arch near the temple of Lucia in Rome. The creature’s odour caused a devastating plague, but the Pope slew the creature with his prayers. Julius Scaliger (1484-1558), Exercitations.

• In 1202, in Vienna, a mysterious outbreak of fainting fits was traced to a basilisk that had hidden in a well. The creature, which fortunately for the hunters was already dead when they found it, was recovered and a sandstone statue erected to commemorate the hunt. Bondeson, 172.

•  According to the Dutch scholar Levinus Lemnius (1505-68), “in the city of Zierikzee – on Schouwen Duiveland island in Zeeland – and in the territory of this island, two aged roosters… incubated their eggs… flogging them they were driven away with difficulty from that job, and so, since the citizens conceived the conviction that from an egg of this kind a basilisk would emerge, they crushed the eggs and strangled the roosters.”

• In Basle, in 1474, another old cock was discovered laying an egg; the bird was captured, tried, convicted of an unnatural act, and burned alive before a crowd of several thousand people. Just before its execution, the mob prevailed upon the executioner to cut the rooster open, and three more eggs, in various stages of development, were discovered in its abdomen. EP Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London: William Heinemann, 1906) p.269.

• At the royal castle at Copenhagen, in 1651, a servant sent to collect eggs from the hen coops observed an old cockerel in the act of laying. On the orders of the Danish king, Frederick III, its egg was retrieved and closely watched for several days, but no basilisk emerged; the egg eventually found its way into the royal Cabinet of Curiosities. Bondeson pp.175-6.

• When the parish church of Renwick, Cumbria, was torn down in 1733, a huge, bat-winged creature, supposed to have been a basilisk, angrily flapped at the workmen. One of them, a man named John Tallantire, killed it with a tree branch, earning him and his descendants exemption from the fees due to the manor. George Eberhardt, Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (Santa Barbara [CA]: ABC Clio, 2002) p.82.

By far the best known of all such accounts, however, is the strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk of 1587, which one quite often sees cited as the only instance of an historically-verifiable encounter with a monster of this sort. Bondeson (pp.173-4) gives one of the fullest accounts of this interesting and celebrated incident:

The 5-year-old daughter of a knifesmith named Machaeropaeus had disappeared in a mysterious way, together with another little girl. The wife of Machaeropaeus went looking for them, along with the nursemaid. When the nursemaid looked into the underground cellar of a house that had fallen into ruins 30 years earlier, she observed the children lying motionless down there, without responding to the shouting of the two women. When the maid was too hoarse to shout anymore, she courageously went down the stairs to find out what had happened to the children. Before the eyes of her mistress, she sank to the floor beside them, and did not move. The wife of Machaeropaeus wisely did not follow her into the cellar, but ran back to spread the word about this strange and mysterious business. The rumour spread like wildfire throughout Warsaw. Many people thought the air felt unusually thick to breathe and suspected that a basilisk was hiding in the cellar. Confronted with this deadly threat to the city of Warsaw, the senate was called into an emergency meeting. An old man named Benedictus, a former chief physician to the king, was consulted, since he was known to possess much knowledge about various arcane subjects. The bodies were pulled out of the cellar with long poles that had iron hooks at the end, and Benedictus examined them closely. They presented a horrid appearance, being swollen like drums and with much-discoloured skin; the eyes “protruded from the sockets like the halves of hen’s eggs.” Benedictus, who had seen many things during his fifty years as a physician, at once pronounced the state of the corpses an infallible sign that they had been poisoned by a basilisk. When asked by the desperate senators how such a formidable beast could be destroyed, the knowledgeable old physician recommended that a man descend into the cellar to seize the basilisk with a rake and bring it out into the light. To protect his own life, this man had to wear a dress of leather, furnished with a covering of mirrors, facing in all directions.

Benedicus did not, however, volunteer to try out this plan himself. He did not feel quite prepared to do so, he said, owing to age and infirmity. The senate called on the burghers, the military, and police but found no man of sufficient courage to seek out and destroy the basilisk within its lair. A Silesian convict named Johann Faurer, who had been sentenced to death for robbery, was at length persuaded to make the attempt, on the grounds that he be given a complete pardon if he survived his encounter with the loathsome beast. Faurer was dressed in creaking black leather covered with a mass of tinkling mirrors, and his eyes were protected with large eyeglasses. Armed with a sturdy rake in his right hand and a blazing torch in his left, he must have presented a singular aspect when venturing forth into the cellar. He was cheered on by at least two thousand people who had gathered to seethe basilisk being beaten to death. After searching the cellar for more than an hour, Faurer finally saw the basilisk, lurking in a niche of the wall. Old Benedictus shouted instructions to him: he was to seize it with his rake and carry it out into the broad daylight. The brave Johann Faurer accomplished this, and the populace ran away like rabbits when he appeared in his strange outfit, gripping the neck of the writhing basilisk with the rake. Dr Benedictus was the only one who dared examine the strange animal further, since he believed that the sun’s rays rendered its poison less effective. He declared that it really was a basilisk; it had the head of a cock, the eyes of a toad, a crest like a crown, a warty and scaly skin “covered all over with the hue of venomous animals,” and a curved tail, bent over behind its body. The strange and inexplicable tale of the basilisk of Warsaw ends here: none of the writers chronicling this strange occurrence detailed the ultimate fate of the deformed animal caught in the cellar. It would seem unlikely, however, that it was invited to the city hall for a meal of cakes and ale; the versatile Dr Benedictus probably knew of some infallible way to dispose of the monster.

Strange and unbelievable stuff, one thinks – not least because, even setting aside the Warsaw basilisk itself, there are quite a few odd things about this account. For one thing, Renaissance-era knifesellers were invariably impoverished artisans – and what sort of artisan could afford a nursemaid? Come to think of it, moreover, whoever heard of a knifeseller with a name like Machaeropaeus? It’s certainly no Polish name, though it is certainly appropriate: it’s derived from the Latin “machaerus”, and thence from the Greek “μάχαιρα”, and it means a person with a sword.

Now, the only sort of person likely to be mooching around central Europe with a Latin monicker in the late 16th century was a humanist – one of the new breed of university-educated, classically influenced scholars who flourished in the period, rejected the stifling influence of the church, and sought to model themselves on the intellectual giants of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanists played a vital part in the Renaissance and the academic reawakening that followed it; they communicated in the scholars” lingua franca, Latin, and proudly adopted Latin names. So whoever the mysterious Polish knifeseller lurking on the margins of this story may have been, we can be reasonably confident that he himself was not a humanist, and not named Machaeropaeus. It follows that his tale has been refracted through a humanist lens, and most likely put into print by a humanist.

Bondeson, a reliable and careful writer, unusually gives no source for his account of the Warsaw basilisk, and my own research has traced the story only back as far as the mid-1880s, when it appeared in the first volume of Edmund Goldsmid’s compilation Un-natural History [Goldsmid, Un-Natural History, or Myths of Ancient Science: Being a Collection of Curious Tracts on the Basilisk, Unicorn, Phoenix, Behemoth or Leviathan, Dragon, Giant Spider, Tarantula, Chameleons, Satyrs, Homines Caudait, &c… Now First Translated from the Latin and Edited… Edinburgh, 4 vols.: privately printed, 1886. I, 23]. This is a rare work, and I’m certainly not qualified to judge its scholarship, though there’s no obvious reason to doubt that Goldsmid (a Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Scottish Society of Antiquaries) should be regarded as a reliable source. According to the Un-Natural History, anyway, the Warsaw basilisk was chronicled by one George Caspard Kirchmayer – actually Georg Kaspar Kirchmayer (1635-1700), who was ‘Professor of Eloquence’ (Rhetoric) at the University of Wittenberg – in his pamphlet On the Basilisk (1691). Goldsmid translates this work and so gives us a few additional details – the implements used to recover their bodies were “fire-hooks”, and Benedictus, in addition to being the King’s physician, was his Chamberlain as well. As for Faurer, the convict, “his whole body was covered with leather, his eyelids fastened down on the pupils [and his suit was] a mass of mirrors from head to foot.”

Kirchmayer, in turn, gives another source for his information on the Warsaw case. He says he took his information from an older work by “D. Mosanus, Cassellanus and John Pincier” called “Guesses, bk.iii, 23”. The Latin names are a bit of a giveaway here; the mysterious Guesses turns out to be, as predicted, a humanist text, but it is not – a fair bit of trial and error and some extensive searching of European library catalogues reveals – a volume titled Conectio (‘Guesses’). The account appears, rather, in book three of Riddles, by Johann Pincier (or, to give it its full and proper title, Aenigmata, liber tertius, cum solutionibus in quibus res memorata dignae continenturAenigmatum, libri tres, cum solutionibus in quibus res memorata  dignae continentur, published by one Christopher Corvini in Herborn, a German town north of Frankfurt, in 1605.)

The authors named by Kirchmayer can also be identified. There were two Johann Pinciers, father and son, the elder of whom was pastor of the town of Wetter, in Hesse-Kassel, and the younger professor of medicine at Herborn – then also part of the domains of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel – and later in neighbouring Marburg. Since Aenigmatum was published in Herborn, it seems it was the younger of the two Pinciers who was actually the author of the book and hence of the original account of the Warsaw story, which – a copy of his work in the Dutch National Library in The Hague reveals – appeared on pp.306-07 of the book (above). Pincier’s close connection with Hesse-Kassel, meanwhile, is confirmed by his dedication of the whole volume to Moritz the Learned (1572-1632), the famously scholarly reigning Landgrave of the principality at the time Aenigmatum was published.

The identity of Kirchmayer’s “D. Mosanus” is more of a puzzle. He certainly wasn’t the co-author of Aenigmatum, and exactly how his name came to be connected to the tale of the Warsaw basilisk is something of a mystery, but – taking Hesse-Kassel as a clue – it’s possible to identify him as Jakob Mosanus (1564-1616), another German doctor-scholar of the period – the “D.” standing not for a Christian name but for Dominus, or Gentleman – who was personal physician to Moritz the Learned himself. This Mosanus was born in Kassel, and this explains the appearance of the word “Cassellanus” in Kirchmayer’s book – it’s not a reference to a third author, as I at first supposed, but simply an identifier for Mosanus. And, whether or not the good doctor wrote on the basilisk, it’s well worth noting that he was – rather intriguingly – both a noted alchemist and a suspected Rosicrucian.

The latter connection suggests that Mosanus would certainly have been interested in basilisks; basilisk powder, a substance supposedly made from the ground carcass of the king of snakes, was greatly coveted by alchemists, who believed it was possible to make ‘Spanish gold’ by treating copper with a mix of human blood, vinegar and the stuff (Ursula Klein & EC Spary, Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009, p.45). I conclude, therefore, that the two men identified by Kirchmayer as his authorities for the Warsaw tale both enjoyed the patronage of Moritz the Learned, may perhaps have been collaborators, and were certainly close enough in time and place to the Warsaw of King Stefan I to have sourced their story solidly. In the close-knit humanist community of the late sixteenth century it’s entirely possible that one or both of them actually knew Benedictus – another Latin name, you’ll note – the remarkably learned Polish physician who is central to the tale.

Does this mean that there is anything at all to the story? Perhaps yes, perhaps no – but I would certainly be interested to know a good deal more.

[Update (29 March 2010): My grateful thanks to Dr Henk Looijesteijn, of Amsterdam, whom regular readers of this blog will recall assisting with the folklore of bottomless lakes a few weeks ago. Henk not only supplied identification of Aenigmatum, but also sent me a copy of the section devoted to the basilisk.

He adds that, so far as he was able to tell from the tightly-bound copy of the book in the National Library, Pincier’s account of the Warsaw basilisk was considerably less detailed than that given by Kirchmayer. ‘Maybe,’ Henk continues, Kirchmayer

also relied on something written by Mosanus, but I have not come across a title by Mosanus which looks as though it might contain the story of the basilisk.

It may well be that Mosanus functioned as Pincier’s authority, but never actually wrote anything down. He may have been an eyewitness, or come to know of the story in some other way, but he was certainly still alive when Pincier published his book.

I have also consulted my own modest library concerning the basilisk, and note that Leander Petzoldt’s Kleines Lexicon der Dämonen und Elementargeister (Munich 1990) discussed the creature on pp.29-31. The only historic incident that Petzoldt mentions is the Basle case from 1474, but he adds some detail. The old cock was aged 11 years, and was decapitated and burned, with his egg, on 4 August 1474. A possible explanation for this case is found in Jacqueline Simpson’s British Dragons (Wordsworth, 2001) pp.45-7. Simpson mentions an interesting theory about so-called egg-laying cock, suggesting they were in reality hens suffering from a hormone imbalance, which it seems is not uncommon and causes them to develop male features, such as growing a comb, taking to crowing, fighting off cocks, and trying to tread on other hens. She still lays eggs, but these are, of course, infertile. An intriguing theory, I think, which may explain the Basle, Zierikzee and Copenhagen cases. It does not explain the Warsaw case, of course.]

[Afterword: There is another Polish account of a basilisk in Warsaw. See here for further details. Meanwhile, here – for those who fancy giving it a try – are the instructions for producing basilisk powder. Source: Klein & Spary p.45.]

Instructions for producig basilisk powder. From Klein & Spary,  Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe

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U28 sea serpent reported by Baron Von Forstner. torpedoing of SS Iberian, 31 July 1915. Original image from Begegnungen Mit Seeungeheuren - Encounters With Sea Monsters - by Gould and Von Forstner. Leipzig: Grethlein & Co., 1935.

This much is beyond dispute: that on the afternoon of 31 July 1915, in the first year of the First World War, the British steamer Iberian was shelled, torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U28. This much is disputed: that when the Iberian went down, there was a large underwater disturbance – caused, it is supposed, by her boilers imploding. Quantities of wreckage were hurled into the air, and there, amid the debris, six members of the U-boat’s crew beheld “a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly”, which “shot out of the water to a height of 60 to 100 feet.” [Source: Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1968) p.395]

This sea-monster yarn first saw light nearly 20 years later, in the autumn of 1933, at a time when the Loch Ness Monster was much in the news. It was told by the U-boat’s skipper, Georg-Günther Freiherr (Baron) von Forstner (1882-1940), an old U-boat hand who had formerly commanded SMS U1, and who wrote an article about Loch Ness for a German paper that dragged in his own sighting. According to Von Forstner, the creature had also been seen by five other members of the submarine’s crew, all standing in the conning tower. It “had a long, tapering head and a long body with two pairs of legs. Its length may have been some 20 metres [roughly 65 feet]. In shape, it was more like a crocodile than anything else.” [Source: Deutschen Algemeine Zeitung, 19 October 1933]

Since Von Forstner first mentioned it, the story of the U28‘s strange sighting has been frequently repeated, and the U-boat’s “giant crocodile” now ranks among the most iconic of all monster reports – no mean achievement for such a definite oddity, or for a creature that bears practically no resemblance to the received notion of what a sea serpent should look like. Von Forstner’s account has been influential, too, for it forms a central plank in the skimpy evidence for one of Bernard Heuvelmans’s celebrated nine species of sea serpent: an animal the Belgian authority on aardvark dentition labelled the “marine saurian” and speculated was “a surviving thalattosuchian” – in other words a giant sea crocodile from the age of the dinosaurs. Heuvelmans’s database of 587 sea serpent reports contains only four “certain” encounters with marine saurians, of which Von Forstner’s is by a distance the most dramatic and most definite. Without the U28‘s sighting, evidence for the existence of any such animal looks patchy indeed.

Hevelmans version of the U28 monsterWhat made Von Forstner’s sighting so memorable? The strange circumstances, for one thing, and the fact that the animal was supposed to have been flung far into the air for another. That gave the surprised members of the U28‘s crew a rare and unsurpassed opportunity to inspect the whole of a “sea serpent’s” body, making their report of unusual interest and significant potential value. Then there was the chief witness’s apparently impeccable credentials – it is hard to imagine a more ostensibly sober and reliable witness to strange maritime events than a German baron who was also a career naval officer. To this list I would add the illustration Heuvelmans printed alongside the U28 report (right): a crude but memorable etching showing a surprised-looking giant croc eternally suspended in mid air above a small scattering of wreckage.

For all this, though, there are good reasons to doubt that Von Forstner’s encounter was anything but a figment of an over-active imagination – and it is to these reasons I now want to turn. It is, to begin with, apparent that the circumstances under which the baron made his report were less than ideal. The sighting appears not to have been set down in writing until more than 18 years after it occurred, and at a time when marine monsters were frequently discussed; plenty of time had elapsed in which memories could have become distorted or confused, and it’s even possible to suggest an element of nationalism may have crept into the reports; Scotland had its famous lake monster, but here, in a country rapidly gaining in self-confidence, and in which Hitler had become Chancellor at the beginning of the year, was a German report more spectacular than anything yet heard of at Loch Ness – one that had been published, moreover, in a right-wing, pro-government newspaper. (Von Forstner’s pre-1933 silence, incidentally, stretched to not mentioning the story in a 1917 booklet he published about his U-boat experiences, which covers in some detail several other, less dramatic encounters with enemy ships in that same year.)

To make matters worse, there are also several versions of Von Forstner’s story, which vary one from another in subtle but significant ways. The first account to appear in English was published by Rupert Gould,  who corresponded with Von Forstner, and translates the baron’s article from the Deutsche Algemeine Zeitung in his The Loch Ness Monster and Others (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1934) p.187. The key points, as given in this article, can be paraphrased as follows:

The Iberian was sunk off the west coast of France [sic]. The steamer sank very rapidly, with her bow in the air. Some time after her disappearance – at least 25 seconds – there was a “moderately-loud” explosion underwater. “Immediately,” wreckage flew into the air, and the monster was seen among it. The witnesses were Von Forstner, officer of the watch Dieckmann, Chief Engineer Ziemer and engineer officer Romeiss, Cox’n Parisch and Able Seaman Bartels. The “Deep-Sea crocodile, as we named it, was flung some 20 or 30 metres [65 to 100 feet] into the air, [and] disappeared under water again after some 20 or 30 seconds.”

Compare this to the Heuvelmans version, vaguely attributed to “a newspaper” [Heuvelmans p.395]:

The Iberian, which was about 600 feet long, was intercepted in the North Atlantic and “sank quickly… towards the bottom a thousand fathoms or more below. When the steamer had been gone for about 25 seconds, there was a violent explosion at a depth which it was clearly impossible for us to know, but which we can reckon, without risking being far out, at about 500 fathoms [3,000 feet/915 metres]. A little later pieces of wreckage wreckage, and among them a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly, were shot out of the water to a height of 60 or 100 feet.”

Naming the same six witnesses as Gould, Heuvelmans continues Von Forstner’s account:

“We were, alas, unable to identify it. We did not have time to take a photograph, for the animal sank out of sight after 10 to 15 seconds… It was about 60 feet long, was like a crocodile in shape and had four limbs with powerful webbed feet and a long tail tapering to a point.

Whether or not Gould and Heuvelmans based their English-language accounts on the same German source is uncertain, but there are enough similarities in the phrasing to suggest they did – in which case it is disturbing to see so many more-or-less significant differences between them. A length of 600 feet would be a huge size for a merchant vessel, for one thing* – it is nearly a hundred feet longer than the battleship HMS Dreadnought – and even Heuvelmans, who is by no means much of a sceptic, draws attention to the fact that the doomed Iberian would have had to be sinking at a speed of 90 miles per hour to reach a depth of 3,000 feet in only 25 seconds.  Fortunately a third, more authoritative account is also available. This appeared in the German-language edition of Gould’s The Case For The Sea Serpent, a volume published in 1935 as Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn (“Encounters With Sea Monsters”) by Grethlein & Co. of Leipzig. This book incorporates some notes from The Loch Ness Monster and Others and additional material by Von Forstner, who is listed as co-author.

First page of Begegnungen mit SeeungeheurenAccording to Von Forstner’s own account [Begegnungen pp.9-10 – see right], he published in the Deutschen Algemaine Zeitung

die Beschreibung jenes Tieres von 20m geschätzter Länge, das von mir und Teilen der Besatzung des mir seinerzeit unterstellten Unterseebootes “U28” am 30. Juli 1915 im Atlantischen Ozean etwa 60 seemeilen rechtsweisend Süd von Fastnet Rock, der Südwestecke Irlands, nach der Versenkung des englischen Dampfers “Iberian” gesichtet wurde. Dieses Tier war durch eine Unterwasserdetonation ungefähr 25 Sekunden nach Sinken des genannten Schiffes in voller Länge aus dem Wasser etwas 20 bis 30 metre in die Luft geschleudert worden. Es ist möglich, dass diese nicht allzu starke Detonation von mitgeführter Sprengladung herrührte, die uns in den übernommenen Schiffspapieren verheimlicht wurde, oder von einer kleinen Kesselexplosion… Ebensogut konnte diese Detonation aber meiner Meinung nach auch nur durch das Bersten der auf Tiefe durch Luftdruck gesprengten Schiffsräume erfolgt sein.

Das etwa 20m lange Tier hatte krokodilsähnliche Gestalt, je zwei Vorder- und Hinterbeine mit starken Schwim flossen under eine langen, nach vorne spitz zulaufenden Kopf…

Die von unserm leitenden Ingenieur, Marineingenieur Romeihs, sofort nach dem Wiederverschwinden des Tieres im Wasser – Beobachtungszeit etwa 10 bis 15 Sekunden aus 150 bis 100m Abstand bei hellem Sonnenschein unter Zuhilfenahme starker Glaser.

the description of an animal estimated at 20 metres in length, seen by me and some of the crew of the submarine U28 on 30 July 1915 in the Atlantic Ocean; [it] was sighted on the starboard side, about 60 nautical miles south of Fastnet Rock, off the southwest corner of Ireland, after the sinking of the British steamer Iberian. This animal was hurled some 20 or 30m into the air by an underwater explosion about 25 seconds after the sinking of that vessel, thrown full length from the water. It is possible that this was caused by the detonation of an explosive device on board, the existence of which we assumed was  concealed in the ship’s papers, or from a small boiler explosion… This explosion certainly could have been the result of a detonation, but in my opinion only the bursting of the spaces deep inside the ship could have produced such air pressure.

The animal was about 20 meters long and crocodile-like in shape, with pairs of strong front and hind legs adapted for swimming, and a long head that tapered towards the nose…

Our senior engineering officer, marine engineer Romeihs, watched the animal for 10 to 15 seconds at a distance of about 150 to 100m in bright sunshine with the aid of powerful glasses.”

Richard Hennig, Les Grandes énigmes de l'universA better idea of what the U28‘s monster is supposed to have actually looked like can be had from an illustration Von Forstner had published in a second newspaper, the Kölnische Illustrierten Zeitung of 10 February 1934. The U-boat captain does not state whether or not the artist worked under his supervision, or how accurate his depiction of the creature was, but it seems more than likely that this sketch was the one which appears as plate 27 of Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn and which is reproduced at the head of this entry. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that Von Forstner approved of it. (It will be noted, parenthetically, that the original differs somewhat in content, and considerably in detail, from the version printed by Heuvelmans, which crops up so frequently on the net. The Heuvelmans sketch is not only much the cruder of the two, especially around the area of the forelimbs, but also shows more of the tail. This is a more than incidental point, since it proves that Heuvelmans had not read Von Forstner’s lengthy account in Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn – a book which does not feature in his bibliography. Instead, he appears to have got his information from some other source – not Gould, since the two men’s translations of Von Forstner’s article differ so substantially – and the solution to this minor mystery can be deduced from Heuvelmans’s caption to his illustration. This states that it has been drawn “after Richard Hennig”, and Hennig, a German hack writer of the 1950s, was the author of a popular potboiler on a variety of mysteries, translated into French as Les grandes enigmes de l’univers, and published in several best-selling editions between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s.** The fact is worth mentioning only because it shows how little effort Heuvelmans invested in investigating the Von Forstner case, and what poor sources of information he was willing to accept in preparing what remains, for the most part, a highly-respected work.)

So much for Von Forstner’s story. There are plenty of problems with it, and with Heuvelmans’s interpretation of it. To begin with, the creature, as depicted, is remarkably unlikely. I leave it to the reader to consider quite how plausible it is to suppose that a population of 60-foot long crocodiles, which require a base on land, could survive undiscovered today, and to any physicists among you to calculate the force needed to hurl an animal of such a size through a large body of water and then “60 to 100 feet” into the air, but salt-water crocodiles are cold-blooded reptiles, and though they can roam widely – they have been sighted in the Sea of Japan and within 40 kilometres of the New Zealand coast – they lack the cold-water adaptations of creatures such as the leatherback turtle, and are certainly not adapted to live comfortably in waters as cold as those off Fastnet Rock, even in July. Nor do they grow anywhere near the size described by Von Forstner – the largest Australian “saltie” measured to date was no more than 20 feet (6.1m) long. This problem led Heuvelmans to hazard his guess that the U28 sea serpent was a thalattosuchian, or metriorhynchid – that is, a surviving prehistoric marine crocodile of the sort that flourished 75 million or more years ago, but his identification is itself fatally flawed, since Von Forstner clearly describes “legs” and his illustration shows a typically crocodilian tail, while the metriorhynchids were far more fully adapted to life in the water: they lacked the crocodile’s osteoderms (the bony ridge along the back), sported small fin-like limbs in place of legs, and had a bilobal, fishlike tail. All this is bad news for Heuvelmans, since neither fins nor fish-tail were mentioned by the U-boat’s skipper, while the sketch he apparently approved certainly seems to suggest the presence of a bony ridge along the back. The baron’s evidence, in short, suggests that Von Forstner’s creature was wildly unlikely to be a surviving metriorhynchid, while if it was an out-of-place saltie it was not only half a world away from home, and in hostile waters, but also at least three times larger than it had any right to be.

There is, moreover, every reason to doubt that the monster, at least as sketched for the Kölnische Illustrierten Zeitung, bore any direct resemblance to the creature Von Forstner asserts he saw. I am indebted to Dr Darren Naish for the penetrating observation that

the more I look at the animal in the picture, the more I think it’s copied from a stuffed specimen of a baby croc/caiman. The head is distinctly juvenile in shape (short rostrum, big eye, bulging cranium). The curled, folded limbs could conceivably have been copied from a contorted stuffed specimen, and the tail is strangely lumpy and misshapen, as is typically the case in badly stuffed crocodilian specimens.

This theory makes perfect sense, and certainly seems much more plausible, as an explanation for the morphology on show in the famous illustration, than the notion that Von Forstner was able to find an artist, in the Germany of the 1930s, familiar with salt-water crocs – or that the U-boat skipper perfectly recalled an animal he had glimpsed only fleetingly nearly two decades earlier, and was able to describe it with precision for his artist.

Cryptozoological literalists, I have no doubt, will easily rationalise all this by suggesting that the U28 had encountered an as-yet-unknown species of giant marine crocodile, adapted to life in northern latitudes, yet so elusive that, a century after Von Forstner’s alleged observation, neither further sightings nor a specimen have come to light. So this might be the moment to move from the zoological problems with Von Forstner’s account to the purely historical ones – which are, frankly, even more damning.

It is, to begin with, rather noteworthy that the baron was the only member of the U28‘s crew ever to speak of the monster croc they supposedly saw in July 1915. Indeed, according to Von Forstner’s own account, none of the other five men who were with him in the sub’s conning tower that day survived the war (Begegnungen mit Seeungeheurn pp.10-11). This is not in itself all that surprising, given the high mortality suffered by U-boat crews in both World Wars, and it is tempting to suppose that all five men may have stayed with the sub until she was lost, on 2 September 1917, in another wildly bizarre incident at sea. (In the tale told by a Royal Navy officer named R.S. Gwatkin-Willians, writing in Under the Black Ensign (London: Hutchinson, 1926), U28 surfaced in the freezing waters off North Cape to shell a cargo ship, the Olive Branch, which was carrying a consignment of army trucks as deck cargo. A German shell touched off ammunition stored on board, and in the resultant explosion one of the Olive Branch‘s trucks was flung into the air, “only to land (from a great height) on the U-boat, sinking her” – an unlikely-sounding account that has been challenged, but is simply too good not to be passed on here.) In fact, according to the baron’s own detailed account, there was a seventh witness –

Leider sind fast alle Zeugen der Vorfalles später gefallen. Es lebt aber noch unser damaliger Koch, U-Boots-Obermatrose Robert Maas in Gross Ottersleben bei Magdeburg, den ich kürzlich zu meiner Freude wieder zufällig traf under der das noch zappelnde Tier in der Luft sah…

Unfortunately, almost all witnesses to the incident were later killed. But one lives on: our then cook, submariner Robert Maas, who lives in Gross Ottersleben, near Magdeburg, and who saw the animal while it was still flailing in the air. To my delight, I recently met him again by chance…

– but if seaman Maas did indeed see anything, he never seems to have placed the fact on record.

U28 KTB 31 July 1915 IberianOne other piece of German evidence survives, however, and it is well worth citing here. Every U-boat kept its own Kriegstagebücher (war diary, or KTB), and – thankfully, given the frequency with which submarines were sunk or disappeared throughout the war – it was standard procedure for these to be typed up on a boat’s return to port and submitted to the flotilla commander. Most U-boat KTBs survived World War I and World War II to be captured, in 1945, by American troops. A vast mass of German naval material was subsequently microfilmed, and copies were retained by NARA, the US National Archives, when the originals were transferred back to the Germany a few years later. The U28‘s Kriegstagebücher is, fortunately, among them, and the entry for the Iberian sinking is shown here (left – as with all illustrations on this blog, you can download the file, or drag to your desktop and open, to see and read the original at a readable scale).

This, rendered roughly from the German, gives a good deal of detail concerning the action – it states that the submarine fired 11 shots as it chased the fleeing steamer and got two hits, that fire was opened at 6000 metres and much coal smoke was seen to emerge from the ventilators and funnel, that the ship sank with her bow in the air and that her cargo was cellulose consigned to Boston. Von Forstner also mentions that he found two wounded in the lifeboats and supplied bandages to treat them; that there were 70 or 80 men in six boats; that four men were left dead on board; and that the U28’s target had ziz-zagged desperately in her attempt to escape, and might have succeeded had she not been struck by the shells. There is, conspicuously, no mention of an underwater detonation, nor of wreckage flung into the air, nor of gigantic sea monsters writhing amid the debris.

This, admittedly, is not entirely conclusive evidence that Von Forstner did not see what he said he saw. The crews of some vessels who saw what they believed to be sea serpents have noted the fact in their logs – one thinks of the case of the SS Umfuli (1893). But others, cautiously, have not – among them the crew of HMS Daedalus (1848) and HMS Hilary (1917) [Source: Gould, The Case for the Sea Serpent (London: Philip Allan, 1930), pp.96, 192, 210]. It may be that the baron thought the matter of no interest in wartime, or feared ridicule or censure.

What, though, of the Iberian‘s crew? No fewer than 61 of them (Von Forstner had his figures wrong) survived to take to the boats, and these men were picked up at midnight by a patrol craft and taken back to port in Ireland. They included several Americans, who spoke freely to the US press. Members of the British crew spoke of their experiences to Irish and English newspapers.

Washington Post, 1 August 1915 IberianThe Times 2 August 1915 IberianThis fact was first noted by Ulrich Magin, who in an essay highly critical of Bernard Heuvelmans studied contemporary copies of the Cork County Eagle & Munster Advertiser – an Irish paper published close to the spot where the Iberian‘s survivors were put ashore – and discovered that the issue for 7 August 1915 “devoted a complete page-length column to the stories of the crew… who gave their version of the incident. They had all watched the ship go down, yet none saw a monster.” [Magin, “St George without a dragon: Bernard Heuvelmans and the sea serpent”. Fortean Studies 3 (1996) p.230.] I have duplicated Magin’s exercise and consulted stories in The Times (2 August 1915) – right – the Washington Post (1 August 1915) – left – and the New York Times (17 August 1915). All contain detailed descriptions of the chase and sinking, and none mentions what would surely have been the memorable and remarkable sight of a 60-foot-long crocodile thrashing amid the wreckage of their ship. Not one of the three, indeed, so much as mentions an underwater detonation or the violent eruption of any wreckage, though there is every sign that the reporters responsible took pains to make their descriptions as dramatic as possible. The report in the New York Times, for instance, makes much of the concussion of the torpedo explosion, mentioning even the minor detail that it shattered the glass on the watch worn by one of the survivors. The Times described dramatic scenes in the lifeboats as the seas rose in the evening. And the Post gave a minute description of the names, homes and occupations of the Iberian‘s American crew. While it is possible to imagine that The Times might have deemed news of a sea monster too frivolous to give in time of war, no such restrictions applied to the American papers (the United States did not enter the war until 1917). More than three score potential witnesses, in short, seem to have missed this unmissable sight, for it is as inconceivable that the survivors in the Iberian‘s boats would not have watched their ship as she went down as it is that they could have failed to observe the appearance of the U28‘s monstrous crocodile. Hence I conclude that Von Forstner at best misperceived some flying piece of wreckage, and, more likely, simply invented his tale years later. Scratch the “marine saurian” from Heuvelmans’s inventory of sea serpents.


* Thanks to Loren Coleman of the celebrated Cryptomundo blog, we now know the Iberian was  436 feet and 4.22 inches long. Which certainly makes her a pretty big ship.

** My own edition of this book, published in 1957, contains a passing mention of the U28 incident, but no illustration. Hennig’s book appeared in many different editions in France, however, and unfortunately I have had neither the time nor the resources to check each one.

Follow-up: Loren has also posted a thought-provoking article about a likely  inspiration for the illustration of the U28’s monster here.


My grateful thanks to Darren Naish, for discussing the U28 animal’s morphology, and Michael Lowrey, of the superb  Uboat.net site, for supplying a copy of U28‘s KTB.

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