Monster season is over on Utah's lakes, and once again this overtaxed historian has missed the opportunity to visit Rich County and prove once and for all that the legendary Bear Lake Monster is no legend.
But the historical record is clear--the Monster not only existed, but an enterprising citizen actually captured "a junior member of the notorious Bear Lake monster family" near Fish Haven in the summer of 1871.
Under the title "Monster Captured," the Herald, one of Salt Lake's leading Mormon newspapers, reprinted an article from the Corinne Journal announcing this amazing development. It was an exceedingly rare example of both Mormon and non-Mormon newspapers agreeing about anything in Utah Territory.
News of the capture came from "a reliable gentleman direct from Bear Lake Valley," who reported that the astonishing beast was "now in possession, and the property of" a determined Fish Havenian who had been fishing for it for nearly two years.
The Herald had tracked the story relentlessly. "The Bear Lake monster is not yet captured but one has barely escaped," it reported in June 1870. "They have come so near him that they have secured one of his teeth which can now be seen in the Menagerie. It weighs something less than four pounds."
The weight of the tooth proved that the animal it came from was no otter, as some had thought. The repeated testimony of respected religious authorities like William Budge added credibility to the incredible reports.
"Bishop Budge informs us the Bear Lake Monster has been seen very frequently of late. Even the most skeptical are giving way. One reliable gentleman saw three of them together recently; and a large number have been seen by different persons at different times within a short period, the Herald claimed in August 1870. "It is to be hoped a specimen will be captured and placed in the Museum in this city."
On July 8, 1871, the newspaper learned that its dream had come true. The Herald was at last able to provide its readers with a reliable physical description of the beast.
"This latter-day wonder is said to be about twenty feet in length, with a mouth sufficiently large to swallow a man without any difficulty, and is propelled through the water by the action of its tail and legs." The determined angler had caught the beast "in a large trap, manufactured for the special benefit of itself and relatives, and set in the water near the shore."
The creature's legs proved it was not a fish, unless it was a relative of the dreaded crawling Snakehead that terrorized fishermen in North Carolina and Maryland last summer.
Reportedly, there was a striking resemblance between this invaluable specimen "and the monster represented on the trade mark of the Home Bitters." ("Bitters" were popular patent medicines that usually contained enough alcohol to promote visions much more bizarre than your ordinary lake monster.)
The captured chimera, the Herald noted, offered "a good opening" for P. T. Barnum, who had allegedly offered Brigham Young one-half of all ticket sales (an estimated $200,000) when the Mormon prophet asked what he would pay to exhibit him and his wives.
Unfortunately, the fate of the captured Monster is a historical mystery. One report suggests scientists proved the creature was actually an immense imported codfish with eight chicken legs attached to it, but such a ridiculous story is unworthy of serious consideration.
More probably, conclusive proof of the Monster's existence lurks in the depths of Bear Lake or perhaps hidden away in an attic in Fish Haven.
A large attic.
Historian Ardis Parshall provided author Will Bagley
with previously unknown evidence of the existence of Utah's most famous lake monster.