Lake Erie is the fourth largest of the five great lakes, it shores reach the Canadian province of Ontario and the U.S. states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan. The lake is named after the Erie Tribe, a group of Native Americans who lived along its southern shores. Lake Erie supports a wide array of fish species and is the reported home of a large unknown serpent like creature. This creature, dubbed South Bay Bessie or just Bessie, is described by eyewitnesses as a gray to green serpent like creature ranging from 30 to 45 feet in length.
Documented encounters with Bessie go back as far as 1817 when the crew of a schooner reported seeing a large serpent like creature swimming in the lake. On July 8th, 1898, the Daily register of Sandusky, Ohio reported that the existence of these fierce monsters had been verified and their existence can no longer be questioned. The lake monster they reported on that year was said to be able to live on both land and in water. It was a fierce, ugly, coiling creature said to be twenty five to thirty feet long and at least a foot in diameter. However by 1912 the creature had become more of the source of local practical jokes rather than a verified animal.
An example of this joking at Bessie’s expense is a Daily Register article published in the spring of 1912 that recounted an encounter between Kelley’s Island residents and a large “sea” monster. The creature was said to have broken through a large sheet of lake ice and headed for the shore, witnesses described it as a black object with a huge head, gaping mouth and a row of sharp teeth. The article’s last line read “April first,” its date of publication and the reason for the story.
On July 22, 1931, the Register reported that sea serpent had been captured in the waters of Sandusky Bay. A New York Times reporter who happened to be visiting the town that Tuesday picked up on the story. The story which followed stated that two fishermen from Cincinnati, Clifford Wilson and Francis Cogenstose, noticed the creature as it surfaced near their boat earlier that day. Frightened the two men beat the beast over the head with an oar, knocking it unconscious. They then fastened a line to the creatures head and towed it to shore.
As their catch began to regain consciousness Wilson and Cogenstose obtained a packing box, 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and about 2 feet deep, and coiled the creature in, nailing on the cover for safety. As the numerous scoffers gathered around the box neither the beasts captures or any of the curious onlookers would chance opening the box for fear of being attacked. Police Captain Leo Schively, C.J. Irwin and Mel Harmon, of the Sandusky morning paper, and E.L. Ways, managing editor of a local afternoon paper, claimed that they saw the serpent as it was being boxed up and joined the fishermen in describing it as a large, snake like beast, with a black, dark green and white hide resembling that of an alligator.
Word of Bessie’s capture made its way to Harold Madison, the curator of the Cleveland Museum of National History, who traveled to Sandusky to examine the catch, and determined that the beast was nothing more than an Indian Python. Wilson and Cogenstose quickly skipped town and further investigation revealed that the men, one of whom had family ties in Sandusky, worked for a touring carnival. Despite all of these hoaxes Bessie lived on, being sighted in 1960, 1969, 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1989. A flurry of sightings were reported in 1990 including a sighting by two Huron firefighters.
In 1991, George Repicz captured video of what he believed to be Bessie, he stated that in July of that year he and his family spent a week at a family camp on Kelly’s Island. One evening Repicz took his video camera to capture a good sun set on film, as he filmed he began to scan the lake for something more interesting to film, suddenly he spotted what he claimed to be a large creature swimming in the bay. The creature was reportedly over a mile away, using his zoom he was able to make the creature appear much closer than it actually was, the people next to him at the time could barely see what it was.
On July 28th, 1998, Leslee Rasgaitis reported seeing 3 black humps moving in the water about 500 feet from the shore of Huntington Beach, Ohio. Leslee and her family claimed that they could see the object, which was illuminated by the sun, floating in the water; it appeared to be very long and sort of round, at first they thought it might be a tree, until it moved. The family watched the creature for about 5 to 6 minutes as it caused a disturbance in the generally placid water, it eventually disappeared beneath the waves.
David Davies, a fisheries biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, along with many other investigators, has suggested that Bessie may be a large specimen of lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon can grow to be more than 150 years old, exceed seven feet in length and weight more than three hundred pounds. They look relatively prehistoric, where other fish have scales the lake sturgeon has boney plates, which give the fish a unique reptilian, leathery look.
During the 1800’s sturgeon where so common in Sandusky that it was known as the caviar capital of North America, however by the 1900’s sturgeon had been almost fished to extinction in the region. Through protective programs the Lake Sturgeon of Lake Erie are now making a comeback, and in the summer of 1998 a fishermen caught a seven foot four inch, 250 pound sturgeon off New York’s Lake Erie coast.
Some researchers of the Bessie phenomenon have theorized that the creature may be a form of large, unknown, fresh water eel. While others have suggested that Bessie could be a form of prehistoric relic, finding its way into Lake Erie after the last Ice Age. What ever theory you may support the fact remains that something, be it a large sturgeon, an unknown freshwater eel or a prehistoric relic, lurks in the water of Lake Erie to this day, allowing the legend of Bessie to live on in the hearts and minds of Lake Erie locals and outsiders alike.