WISCONSIN'S MONSTERS OF THE DEEP
Illustration by Sharon Anderson
His Royal Snakeship
Newspapers of the Day Say Wisconsin Once Harbored a Variety of Fresh Water 'Sea' Monsters and Great Horned Serpents
By Herbert Wagner
Copyright 1993 Herbert Wagner, all rights reserved.
Originally published in WISCONSIN OUTDOOR JOURNAL
Wisconsin has produced many records from the finny tribe over the years. Yet there have been other accounts of bigger game observed around our lakes. Big nasty critters that terrify fishermen, overturn boats, and cause summer people to close up early and flee to the city.
No, not Wisconsin’s eagle-sized mosquitoes, I'm talking about lake monsters, sea serpents, water dragons, or His (Her) Snakeship. Yep, right here in Wisconsin. Just like their more famous cousins in Lake Champlain, Lake 0kanagon, and Loch Ness.
While sightings of Wisconsin lake monsters have diminished in recent decades, that should not be unexpected. Human encroachment, shoreline development, high tech equipment, and a rise in angling skill have driven our indigenous monster population to the remotest corners of the state. And while many of the following reports are newspaper accounts from earlier and simpler times, no one should think our local monsters have departed altogether. Common sense should tell us that water monsters have very long life spans, be masters of camouflage, and possess the ability to survive underwater even longer than a wood tick - reported in these parts to be at least two years.
Possessing such tenacity for survival, this ancient order is certainly still out there somewhere. Therefore a word of caution is in order. While this guide is intended for educational purposes only, undoubtedly there will be some over skilled anglers (I am not one) or budding monster hunters who will be tempted to go in pursuit of this elusive beast. State hunting and fishing regulations show no size or bag limits for water monsters so the field is wide open. But if some of you he -men (or she -women) venture forth, better put some fresh sparkplugs in your outboard motor -- just in case!
While sightings of lake creatures in Wisconsin go back several
hundred years, the best documented outbreak of home grown monsters occurred between
1869 and 1917. This activity took place largely in the southeastern part of the state,
originating at Rock Lake in Jefferson County.
Beginning in 1869 and on countless occasions for the next 15 years, a mysterious oversized serpent was spotted lurking around rush beds, caught hissing at boaters, and periodically seizing baited trolling hooks. Fred Seaver of Lake Mills once hooked it and was given a fast tow for a half mile before the creature got off. Described as a huge serpent the beast was also tough. A fisherman named Hassam once stuck a spear into the monster, but couldn't hold what he described as being "as powerful as an ox."
By 1882 the Rock Lake "terror" as it was being called by then had grown in size and increased in temper. The latter trait was no doubt due to numerous molestations upon the creature's person. That summer it took revenge. Two men from Lake Mills were rowing a race from the steamboat landing out to the first bar when they saw an object lying in their path.
Well acquainted with stories of lake serpents, they approached cautiously what they took to be a log. It wasn't. The "log" suddenly showed signs of life, raising a large snake like head out of the water and aggressively spreading its jaws wide open!
Before the startled men could react, the monster dove, only to
surface an moment later next to Ed McKensie's boat. Again it reared up and threateningly
displayed its gaping mouth. McKensie was scared witless and ignored Seybert's shout
from the other boat to take an oar and hit it. All he could do was cry out: "Bring
a gun! Bring a gun!”
This frenzied activity out on the lake alerted some men on shore. Seizing a shotgun, Capt. Wilson and some others jumped in a boat and quickly reached the spot. But the monster had already vanished into the murky depths of the lake and made no encore appearance that day. A sickening smell hung in the air that was either a product of the serpent or of McKensie's fear. That detail wasn't explained. But every man present was willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that the monster had been there, longer than a boat, and terrorizing the human population.
Supposed lake monster head found on Lake Superior UFO hotspot beach in Douglas County
With things getting hot for the monster in Rock Lake (a location
also known for its tradition of mysterious underwater pyramids), the giant water
snake seems to have migrated overland to nearby Red Cedar Lake.
There the creature went on a virtual rampage. It seized hogs and sheep from farms surrounding Red Cedar Lake and carried the terrified animals into the water where it dined upon them. William Ward lost five sheep in one day. Their paritally devoured bodies were found lying in the mud.
By then the “monster” was estimated as being 40 to 50 feet long with sawtooth protuberances down its back. It was greatly feared that the "dragon" (as some were calling it) would migrate into the larger and much deeper Lake Ripley through an underground river believed to exist between the two lakes.
This caused considerable panic among Lake Ripley's summer residents. Many closed their cottages early and left for home. The monster must have snickered over that one. If we didn't already know the story of Ole Evinrude and the ice cream, we might postulate it was this freshwater sea serpent that inspired Ole (who grew up at Lake Ripley) to invent the outboard as a faster means of escaping lake monsters. Motorcycle enthusiasts will also be glad that Arthur Davidson, who spent time at Cedar Lake and Lake Ripley also escaped "His Snakeship" as some were then calling the beast.
Arthur Davidson (left) with monster hunting squadron at Cedar Lake
During the late 1890s and into the new century the great serpent went calling at various southeastern Wisconsin lakes. These included the Madison chain of lakes, plus Koshkonong, Elkhart, Pewaukee, Oconomowoc, Delavan, and Lake Geneva.
Whether this was a single individual with a severe case of wanderlust or several young snakelings escaped from a nest is not clear. Estimates of size varied greatly, but this must be expected from over-excited observers. The beast ranged in size from 20 feet for a Lake Monona specimen to 70 feet for one seen in nearby Lake Waubesa. Most reported the creature to be a great serpent, but this wasn't universally true. One witness at Lake Monona who saw it under bright moonlight described its shape to be "like the bottom of a boat." Most agreed it was of dark green color, often traveling with its head held above the surface in typical snake like fashion. More imaginative observers claimed it had flashing eyes or spouted a stream of water.
Although no records yet discovered show any permanent injury or
death of humans that can be laid at the feet, er, scales of the creature, the serpent
could be quite nasty. A dog swimming in Lake Monona was swallowed whole. At Lake
Koshkonong several pigs were devoured. At the latter place it broke out of a seine net set by carp fishermen. Halvor Skavlem,
a well known naturalist of the day, spent an entire summer at Lake Koshkonong trying
to track the monster down. He killed several large pike with an axe, but there is
no record that he killed any lake monsters.
The serpent was also accused of overturning small boats, canoes, and was blamed for damage to piers and other structures. At Elkhart Lake a set line fisherman was pulled into the water and broke surface only to come face-to-face with the water demon’s gaping jaws. That ended swimming in Elkhart Lake that summer.
Lake Mendota's water serpent was as big as any other, but seemed to be cast in a different mold. In 1917 there was a report of a girl sunbathing dockside when suddenly she felt her foot being tickled. She turned to see the head of a huge snake, its long tongue flicking out to gently caress the sole of her foot. In spite of her terror, she later described the creature as having a friendly and humorous look in its large soft eyes. The serpent was promptly nicknamed "Bozho" and was seen several times near Lake Mendota’s university campus, most often late at night during wild frat parties.
Sceptics derided these sightings as "yarns," the result
of heavy drinking, or hoaxes perpetuated to lure gullible visitors to lake resorts.
Some tried rationalizing the sightings away, claiming they were huge fish with metal lures clinging to their heads, or they
were large tropical snakes escaped from traveling circuses that would perish once
winter set in. On Lake Wingra a huge snapping turtle was found to be the culprit
responsible for some sightings.
Others swore their observations were accurate and true. Several reliable witnesses saw the monster on Lake Geneva in broad daylight in 1902. That summer the Reverend M.N. Clark of Delavan saw a similar creature while fishing. The local newspaper reported it as "a monster rearing itself up out of the water ... to all appearances a huge serpent." It then dove with a gigantic splash. Clark's supporters answered his critics by reminding them he was a parson so his story couldn't be dismissed by saying he was out hitting the bottle again.
Could lake monsters be survivors from dinosaur age?
By 1920, the great water serpent seemed to have quit southern Wisconsin for good. Why it left or where it went remains a mystery. Some large bones caught in a suction dredge on Lake Monona were thought by some to be evidence that the serpent had finally died. Other reports suggest it escaped into Lake Michigan.
For an explanation of the creature's finer points we must again
consult the Native Americans. They've known about it for years! As early as the 1600s,
French missionaries heard tales of fabulous and dangerous creatures in the region.
In 1673, Father Marquette described one such monster as depicted in a Indian bluff
painting seen along the Mississippi River:
They are as large as a calf, with head and horns like a deer or goat; their eyes red; beard like a tiger's; and a face somewhat like a man's. Their bodies are covered with scales. Their tails are so long that they pass over their heads and between their forelegs, under their belly, and ending like a fish's tail.
On Lake Superior Jesuit missionaries reported an entire Indian
pantheon of fabulous water creatures. Most enduring, however, appears to have been
the great water serpent, not to be confused with another famous deity of the lake,
the mizzibizi or underwater copper-tail lynx.
The Native American name for the great water serpent was mishegenabeg, roughly translated as "big snake." Indian legend provides a few more details about the adult form, which is identified from its offspring by the presence of rather incongruous antlers similar to a deer's upon its head. The eyes are described being very large, hypnotic, and reflecting light like "looking glasses."
Legend tells that the serpent enjoyed the ability to change form including into that of a human being. During that time it indulged in all sorts of tasteless pranks upon mankind. In early days the creature inhabited a large portion of North America, while presently it resides in a pathetic fraction of its former range. In Wisconsin it probably survives in only the largest and deepest of our northern lakes, but more certainly in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. In 1906 there was a rash of sightings near the Apostle Islands. In the 1930s the serpent was seen near Lake Superior's Grand Island and Pictured Rocks. The natural entry near the City of Superior has long been one of its haunts. In 1992 the Weekly World News reported a 140 foot long water monster captured in northern Lake Michigan by the U.S. Navy. Naturally the government is keeping this catch under wraps for national security reasons.
Only the most bold Native American sorcerers were willing to summon the great serpent and obtain its supernatural power. Most people then and now (except for radical bunny huggers), consider the critter highly dangerous and shun it. Adolescent Indian children, when engaged upon vision quests, were warned not to accept favors or blessings if tempted by the great serpent. Those who ignored this warning often lived to regret it. The mishegenabeg, however, was not omnipotent. The great serpent’s natural enemy was the thunderbird that loved to torment it.
The German traveler J.G. Kohl, who visited Lake Superior in the
1850s, vividly recorded one instance of an Indian magician summoning up a mishegenabeg,
which in this account could talk. Kohl writes: "the water king emerged
from the placid lake, in the form of a mighty serpent. 'What wilt thou of me?' he
said. 'Give me a recipe,' the Indian replied, 'which will make me healthy, rich,
and prosperous.' ‘Dost thou see,' the snake said, 'what I wear on my head, between
my horns? Take it! It will serve thee. But one of thy children must be mine in return'."
Former city librarian
One modern authority on the creature, the former city librarian at Superior, has suggested the scientific name Mishegenabeg superiorensis for the creature’s Lake Superior form. Last heard of he had embarked with a local UFO expert in a 12 foot punt, equipped with a three section spyglass and a 1930s box camera in a quest to substantiate "Soupy's" existence. I just hope he doesn't use his children as bait.
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Herbert Wagner is a historian and author from Northern Wisconsin.