Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Josh Bazell: The Loch Ness hoax

From the National Post: Josh Bazell: The Loch Ness hoax
osh Bazell is the author of Beat the Reaper, which was one of Time’s top 10 novels of 2009 and has been translated into 32 languages. His new book is called Wild Thing. Bazell will be guest editing The Afterword all this week.

As far as I know, the first person to definitively lay bare the Loch Ness monster hoax was Ronald Binns, in The Loch Ness Mystery: Solved (Open Books, 1983). Additional particulars and confessions have come out since, but none that contradict Binns’ research or surmises. Which, essentially, suggest the following story:

On 27 August 1930, the Inverness-area Northern Chronicle published a report that three unidentified anglers had seen a fish wriggling toward them that was so big it could be seen from 600 feet away. The report also quoted a fourth unidentified witness as claiming to have seen a creature “some years ago” that was “like an upturned angling boat and quite as big.” The report concluded with a solicitation for further information.

Sure enough, the following issue of the Chronicle ran three anonymous letters from people who also claimed to have seen the creature, one of them using the word “monster” for the first time in regard to it. However, a barrage of subsequent letters offering alternative and more rational explanations (seals, schools of salmon, etc.) quickly snuffed out public interest.

Binns provides compelling evidence that the author of both the report and the three letters (all of which are similarly worded) was a man named Alex Campbell, who at the time was both the water bailiff of Loch Ness and the Fort Augustus (a town on Loch Ness) correspondent for the Inverness Courier and the Northern Chronicle. Campbell himself admitted on numerous occasions to having been the first person to use the word “monster” in conjunction with the loch. Binns also argues — successfully, to my mind — that Campbell tried again, with more urgency, perserverance, and success, three years later.

The opening salvo of the second attempt was an anonymously-written article in the Inverness Courier (2 May 1933) entitled “Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness,” which began “Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster.” The article went on to describe the sighting two weeks earlier by “a well-known businessman, who lives in Inverness, and his wife (a University graduate), while motoring along the north shore of the loch,” in which the couple witnessed a “creature [that] disported itself, rolling and plunging for a full minute, its body resembling that of a whale,” and realized “that here was no ordinary denizen of the depths, because, apart from its enormous size, the beast, in taking the final plunge, sent out waves that were big enough to have been caused by a passing steamer.” Later the piece noted that “It will be remembered that a few years ago, a party of Inverness anglers reported that when crossing the loch in a rowing boat, they encountered an unknown creature … But the story, which duly appeared in the press, received scant attention and less credence.”

One reason for the UNHOAX (unknown hoaxer, likely Campbell) to have expected a better reception this time around is that in the intervening years he’d grown much more sophisticated. His representation of a single source (himself) as multiple sources is newly complex, spread now across separate events and newspapers, although Campbell was writing for both papers at both times. Furthermore, the UNHOAX seems to have learned the value of attaching his claims to a strand, at least, of truth. There actually had been a reported sighting in the loch on the date given by the article: Mrs. John Mackay of Drumnadrochit, while her husband was driving and saw nothing, witnessed what she said several months later revealed reminded her of “two ducks fighting.” Both of the Mackays were friends of Alex Campbell’s.

More significant is the much stronger claim the 1933 UNHOAX makes for the monster’s historical pedigree. False back story is often the means by which hoaxes achieve their greatest power. To say that the world will end in 2012 makes you look like an idiot. To say that the world will end in 2012 because the Mayans predicted it makes you look like a slightly different idiot. A rebuttal letter to the UNHOAX’s new report in the Courier, from John Macdonald, a well-respected steamer captain on the loch, takes specific issue with the technique:

In the first place, it is news to me to learn, as your correspondent states, that ‘for generations the Loch has been credited with being the home of a fearsome monster,’ as I have sailed on Loch Ness for fifty years, and during that time I have made no fewer than 20,000 trips up and down Loch Ness. During that half century of almost daily intercourse with Loch Ness I have never seen such a ‘monster’ as described by your correspondent. [Although the phrase “almost daily intercourse with Loch Ness” sounds like the title of a Viriginia Wade novel, a more likely title is simply Something Down There.]

The Captain Macdonald letter not withistanding, this time the UNHOAX wasn’t about to let mere mockery and local expertise prevent the creation of a monster myth. On 4 August 1933 the Courier, while editorially expressing the opinion that the animal under discussion was probably a large otter, published a letter from a “Mr. Spicer” describing how Spicer, while adjacent to the loch, “saw the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life. It crossed the road about fifty yards ahead and appeared to be carrying a small lamb or animal of some kind.” The following day four separate people — two young women who worked at the Abbey in Fort Augustus, a retired commander in the Engineering Branch of the Royal Navy, and the retired commander’s wife — reported seeing the monster. On 5 August Campbell wrote in the Courier that “Many people in the district now think that the ‘monster’ is certainly a prehistoric creature, and that there may be a great deal more truth in ‘the water-kelpie’ legend than the great majority of the public realize.’” The retired commander and his wife were Campbell’s neighbors.

Past that point the number of sightings increased steadily. On 11 August the Courier was able to report a sighting by someone who wasn’t even from Scotland, let alone Fort Augustus, but from Stafford in England. On 17 October the national newspaper the Scotsman sent a reporter to interview Alex Campbell — who, though anonymously, claimed for the first time to have seen the monster himself. The Scotsman’s investigator afterward gave a credulous interview to BBC Radio, attracting the attention of, among other people, Lieutenant Commander Rupert Gould, author of Oddities (1928), Enigmas (1929) and The Case for the Sea-Serpent (1930), and himself a regular guest on the BBC. In November Hugh Gray took a photograph that, while it doesn’t look much like a lake monster, doesn’t look much like anything else, either. In December Gray’s photo was published in newspapers around the world, and within a year Ealing Studios had released the first feature film about the monster, The Secret of the Loch. Alex Campbell’s story was flying on its own.

One of the mysteries it left behind, however, was what Campbell’s motives were for starting the hoax in the first place. In my next two columns I’ll examine them.

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