Robert E. Bartholomew’s “Untold Story of Champ” is a thorough, witty account of the sea serpent alleged to live in Lake Champlain.
Bartholomew, a history instructor at Botany College in Auckland, New Zealand, is well-suited to present what he describes as the first “detailed picture of the serpent’s rich, colorful history, beginning in the 19th century when it became a household name across the United States.” He grew up in Whitehall, at the southern end of Lake Champlain.
Hearing the stories
As a child, he listened to his grandmother’s stories about Champ. Many of them came from the nearby town of Dresden, where a sustained flurry of sightings occurred in the 1870s.
This book is organized part chronologically and part topically. The first half enumerates and describes sightings back to prehistoric times. The second half analyzes the sightings and considers the reliability of observation in general and the role that belief plays in seeing Champ — or other phenomena such as UFOs. The illustrations are photographs and delightful sketches by the author’s daughter, who is an artist.
Sometimes, the number of sightings described is overwhelming. However, I am not sure how this could have been avoided; Bartholomew uses the details of the sightings to explain how the scientific method was used in evaluating claims of Champ’s existence.
‘The Untold Story of Champ: A Social History of America’s Loch Ness Monster’
Author: Robert E. Bartholomew
Published by: SUNY Press, 267 pages
How much: $24.95
Public opinion ranges from skepticism to a deep faith in the serpent’s existence. On this continuum, Bartholomew is a sympathetic skeptic.
He does not believe that many of stories, videos and photographs prove Champ exists, although in a recent email he wrote that “a hard core 10 percent of cases are not easily explained.”
Many sightings, he asserts, can be explained as fish, mammals, logs, tree stumps, freak waves or even hoaxes. Misidentifications are more likely because the human power of observation is often fallible.
He also shows how suggestibility causes such sightings. He describes a clever experiment by Richard Frere at Scotland’s Loch Ness. Frere and a friend parked next to the Loch, began taking pictures, waving excitedly and telling people they saw Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. Soon motorists pulled over and started scanning the Loch. Many thought they saw Nessie; one observer sketched a sea monster-like creature that he believed was visible.
New Yorkers and Vermonters claimed to have spotted Champ hundreds of times in the 1800s, long before Nessie was widely known in the 1930s. Bartholomew lightly observes that “Nessie would have given her left dorsal fin” for the publicity that Champ received.
Many modern Americans think the Internet is the ultimate in rapid communication. Bartholomew says reports of Champ sightings in the 1870s spread from Lake Champlain to the rest of America with Internet-like speed. No computers were needed: railroads and local papers quickly brought news from the countryside to city newspaper editors hungry for unusual news.
Some writers assert that Samuel de Champlain noted in his log that he saw a serpent when he arrived on the lake. While appealing, this story is false. Champlain Valley historian Connie Pope went through Champlain’s logs and found no mention of a serpent.
An important moment in the hunt for Champ was when Sandra Mansi claimed to have photographed him in the late 1970s from the Vermont shore. Bartholomew finds many inconsistencies in Mansi’s story. He details attempts by researchers to find where the photograph was taken and notes Mansi’s own lack of interest in showing people where the photograph was taken. Bartholomew raises reasonable doubt that the photograph shows a real sea serpent.
If compelling evidence ever arrived, such as the carcass of a serpent or sonar evidence gathered by an expert, Bartholomew would believe in Champ.
But even if such evidence never arrives, the serpent symbolizes for him “the beauty, awe and mystery of nature and the importance of preserving it.”