Jennifer Wilber is a writer who also works as an English tutor and substitute teacher. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
What Is the Lake Erie Monster?
We’ve all heard the stories of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster who inhabits Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. But did you know that there have been reported sightings of a similar cryptid in Lake Erie?
The Lake Erie Monster, known by the locals of Ohio and Michigan as Bessie or South Bay Bessie, has been sighted by numerous people in Lake Erie since 1793. Legends describing a water serpent living in the Great Lakes go back even farther. Most reports describe this monster as a gray-skinned snake-like creature measuring between 30 and 40 feet in length, with a body estimated to be a foot in diameter. Other observers have described Bessie as being more similar to a Plesiosaurus, much like her more well-known counterpart in Scotland, Nessie. Some locals speculate that there are two different cryptids lurking in the shallow depths of Lake Erie, while others believe that these sightings are all the same monster.
Some cryptozoologists believe that Bessie can live on both land and in the water. Though skeptics claim that a creature the size of Bessie could not possibly live in Lake Erie because the lake could not sustain such a creature, let alone a breeding population, many cryptozoologists believe it would be possible for such a creature to adapt to its environment over time, and be able to inhabit Lake Erie.
Some skeptics believe that the legend of Bessie comes from misidentification of sturgeons, as sturgeons have no limit to their growth potential and can live for over 100 years. The largest sturgeon ever recorded was 12 feet long and weighed 1100 pounds. Believers claim that Bessie is not a sturgeon, and is, in fact, a monster similar to either a sea serpent or a plesiosaur. They claim that Bessie is much larger than even the largest sturgeon.
Bessie’s First Reported Sighting in 1793
The first modern report of Bessie dates back to the 18th century. In 1793, the crew of the sloop Felicity claimed to have seen the creature in Lake Erie, just north of Sandusky, Ohio. The captain of the vessel stated that they accidentally disturbed the monster while shooting at ducks.
Close Encounters With Bessie Throughout the 1800s
There were also a number of sightings of this creature throughout the 19th century. In 1817 alone, there were at least three sightings of this monster reported by locals.
In July 1817, the crew of a schooner reported seeing a large, dark-colored, spotted serpent measuring almost forty feet in length.
Later that same year, a similar creature was spotted by another boat crew. This crew reported that the animal was copper-colored and about 60 feet in length. The crew shot at the monster with their muskets, but it had no visible effect on the animal.
A similar sighting was reported near Toledo, Ohio later that same year. Two French settlers, the brothers Dusseau, reported seeing a huge monster on the beach of Lake Erie. This time, the creature was thrashing about as though it was in pain, and possibly dying. The brothers claimed that the creature was about 30 feet long and looked similar to a sturgeon, but it had arms. They ran to get help, but the creature was gone by time they returned, presumably washed back out to the lake by waves after succumbing to death. All that was left were marks on the beach where it had been thrashing about, and a few silver scales that were about the size of silver dollars.
Bessie disappeared from the news record for several decades but was seen again in 1892. Local newspapers reported that, in July of 1892, the entire crew of a ship heading from Buffalo, New York to Toledo, Ohio encountered a huge sea serpent on their voyage. The captain saw a large area of water about half a mile ahead of the boat churn up and begin foaming. As the ship approached this area, they saw the huge creature “wrestling about in the waters, as if fighting with an unseen foe.” The creature later relaxed its body and stretched out to its full length, which the crew estimated to be about 50 feet long and 4 feet in circumference. Its head stuck up above the water another 4 feet. The monster appeared brownish in color and its eyes were described as being “viciously sparkling.” The creature was reported to have had very large fins.
Bessie was reportedly encountered again a few years later on May 5th, 1896. This sighting occurred in Crystal Beach near Fort Erie, Ontario. Four eyewitnesses reportedly watched the creature swimming in the lake for 45 minutes until it disappeared into the water before nightfall. The creature was described as being about 30 feet long with a dog-shaped head and a pointy tail.
September of 1990: Bessie Resurfaces
Bessie seems to have gone into hiding for the first part of the 20th century, with only a handful of unverified reports of sightings appearing in 1969, 1985, and 1987. Then, on September 4th, 1990, Bessie apparently resurfaced from the depths of the lake.
A local man named Harold Bricker, then 67, and his family claimed to have seen the creature while on a fishing trip. The family claimed that a large creature swam through the water about 1,000 feet from their boat. It swam alongside the boat, keeping up the pace. This creature was apparently about 35 feet long, black, and had a snake-like head.
Harold Bricker said to reporters “I told my son that I wanted to get a look at it. My son said: 'No way, that thing is bigger than we are.' So we stayed where we were."
After news of this encounter broke, there were three more reported sightings of the creature in September of 1990. The sightings were reported by locals including a firefighter from Huron, Ohio, and a 50-year-old woman from Pennsylvania vacationing at her Lake Erie cottage.
Following the September 1990 sightings of this local aquatic cryptid, John Schaffner, editor of a weekly newspaper in Port Clinton, Ohio ran a contest to name the creature. The name “Bessie” was chosen after the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Port Clinton, which is located near where Bessie was first sighted. The name “Bessie” rhymes with “Nessie,” making it the obvious choice.
Thomas Solberg, the owner of Huron Lagoon Marina, has offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who captures Bessie alive. So far no one has come forward to claim the reward.
Alleged Bessie Attacks
In addition to numerous sightings of this strange creature, there have also been several maritime attacks in recent decades that have been attributed to Bessie.
Three people were left dead following an incident on the lake in 1992. One survivor of the group claimed that they had been attacked by a creature with a head the size of a car. This report remains unconfirmed and is thought to be a local myth.
About a decade after this alleged incident, an article published by the Ottawa Citizen on August 13th, 2001 reported that a creature had been attacking swimmers near the Port Dover pump house. Some believe that these attacks were carried out by none other than the Lake Erie Monster. Examinations of the swimmer’s bites were ruled out as being from round gobies, lamprey eels, snapping turtles, walleye, piranhas or muskellunge-type fish. It is possible, however, that the bites could have been from a primitive type fish known as a bowfin.
Could Bessie Be the Water Serpent of Native American Legends?
Though modern accounts of Bessie sightings began in the late 18th century, there have been local legends of similar creatures inhabiting the waters of Lake Erie for centuries.
The Seneca tribe tells the story of the Good Spirit and the Evil Spirit, in which the Evil Spirit commands a huge water serpent who swims through the waters of the Niagara River and Lake Erie.
Iroquois legends also describe a similar creature, called Oniare. Oniare is a dragon-like horned water serpent who lives in the Great Lakes. Oniare is said to have poisonous breath. Onaire, according to legends, capsizes canoes and eats travelers. To protect oneself from the Oniare, people must provide offerings and invoke Onaire’s mortal enemy, the thunder god Hinon.
Could these water serpents from Native American legends be the same creature that still lurks below the surface of Lake Erie?
Is Bessie Real, or Just a Local Myth?
There have been numerous reported sightings of a strange monster living in Lake Erie for several centuries. Are these sightings real, or are they simply myths and local legends? Have people really seen an ancient monster living in the Great Lakes, or is Bessie nothing more than a misidentified sturgeon? Do you believe in Nessie’s North American cousin, Bessie?
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 15, 2018:
I grew up by Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio and never heard of Bessie. Of course, that was before 1990. This was an interesting article, and I doubt Bessis is true, but there sure are some strange things that occur at times. Maybe some more definitive facts will surface soon.