His Royal Snakeship
or perhaps just one of his country cousins
People who live near Silver Lake in western New York like to think of it as the westernmost of the Finger Lakes. It’s a lovely thought but just not true: it’s not long enough, it’s not deep enough, and it’s too far west. It’s like when Vermonters try to claim that Lake Champlain is one of the Great Lakes.
Even so, Silver Lake is great place to fish: it’s calm, easily navigable, and always well-stocked with pike, pickerel and catfish. In the early 1800s a resort town sprung up on the lake’s northeastern shore, which was originally called “Slabtown” and quickly cycled through several other names before eventually settling on the “Perry.”
On Friday, July 13th, 1855 six young men from Perry decided to do a bit of night fishing. Joseph R. McKnight; Charles and George Hall; and Alonzo, Charles, and John Scribner rowed a small boat through the outlet on the north side of the lake into open water, anchored themselves between the outlet and the nearby inlet, and cast their lines upon the water.
At around 9:00 PM, they noticed something, probably a log, floating about a dozen yards north of the boat near the outlet. At 9:45 PM they spotted it again, only this time it was between the boat and the eastern shore of the lake. A few minutes later they realized the mysterious object was headed rapidly in their direction, leaving a visible wake behind it.
The six fishermen panicked. One of them tried to cut the anchor rope, dropped his knife into the water, and had to pull up the anchor by hand. The others began frantically rowing towards the western shore, but could not shake their pursuer, which dove down and resurfaced briefly sixteen feet to the northeast of them.
As they drew near to the inlet, the thing surfaced directly beneath them. This time, they all got a good look and realized it was some sort horrid and repulsive-looking snake-like monster, in coppery tones of brown and green, about 60 to 100 feet long, with a circumference somewhere between a firkin of butter and a barrel of flour, with a big ol’ fin on its back. They saw its head rising out of the water on one side of their boat, and its tail on the other side lashing about violently and threatening to capsize the boat, before it sunk out of sight.
Afraid to stay out on the water, the six young men beached their boat between the inlet and outlet and ran two miles back to Perry to tell everyone what they had seen.
Many of the locals believed the story. These young men were sober as judges and not prone to telling tall tales or fish stories. Plus, it was a bright clear night with excellent visibility in spite of the new moon. If they said they saw something, they saw something.
Of course, some of the locals remained skeptical. Franklin Morgan, Abner Glazier, Eli Bishop and George Kinsey decided to ignore the danger and go fishing the following night. At 9:00 PM they heard a splash behind them and turned to see the head of the monster slowly sinking beneath the surface of the lake near the inlet. That cured them of their skepticism mighty quick.
All doubts were removed the following day when Edwin Fanning saw the monster in broad daylight. He was sitting on the eastern shore of the lake near dusk when the serpent raised its head out of the water and started spitting water from its mouth. He called to some nearby workers to come and see, though they arrived just after the serpent submerged itself for the final time.
That sealed it as far as the locals were concerned.
Silver Lake had a sea serpent.
Now, to us it seems weird to say that Silver Lake had a “sea serpent” instead of a “lake monster,” but the concept of “lake monsters” didn’t enter the public consciousness until after the famous 1933 Loch Ness monster sightings. On the other hand, everybody in 1855 knew what a sea serpent was. If you had a big, snake-like monster that lived in a large body of water, well, that was a sea serpent. Even if it was fresh water, and the nearest ocean was some 200 miles distant.
The sea serpent sightings jogged the memories a few old-timers, who recalled seeing something unusual in the lake a few decades earlier. They went up to the Squawkie Hill Indian Reservation to consult with John John, the oldest Indian there. John John told them that the Seneca used to avoid Silver Lake because of big, foul-smelling snake that lived beneath its waters. In fact, he claimed, they had quit the region in 1820 just to get away from the beast.
The local paper, the Wyoming Times, published every scrap of information they could get about the Silver Lake sea serpent. As copies of the Times spread to nearby towns, outsiders began to take interest and soon big city papers and far-flung dailies were speculating on the odd goings-on in the town.
The Vermont Patriot and State Gazette took a neutral stance, asking, “Is there, in reality, at the source of the Genesee River, a fresh-water Leviathan before whose vast proportions the biggest Pythons of the East Indian jungles and the longest and largest of the half-fabulous serpents of the sea shrink into comparative insignificance?”
Other papers were a lot less polite. The Hornellsville Weejly Tribune warned that “to us the story appears decidedly fishy.” The Milwaukee Daily Free Democrat derided the monster it called, “his royal snakeship, or one of his big country cousins.” The Buffalo Commercial was particularly vicious in its mockery:
Sick of Nahant, tired of the belles and beaux of Long Branch, in ill humor with the Pequot House, he has by some subterranean passage come up at Silver Lake to rusticate and then return to business again in the waters of the ocean.Buffalo Commercial, July 31, 1855
The general assessment outside of Perry was that the entire story was hogwash. The only debate was whether the supposed sea serpent was a fisherman’s fever dream caused by too much cheap brandy, or a blatant hoax engineered by locals to bolster their flagging tourist trade.
Whatever the Silver Lake sea serpent was, the good citizens of Perry were not going to sit still and wait for it to eat them alive. They formed a vigilance committee which constantly patrolled the lake looking for signs of the monster.
The vigilance committee quickly proved to be somewhat less than vigilant. Wherever the beast was, they weren’t.
On Friday, July 27th two farmers spotted something floating between the inlet and outlet and only later noticed it had disappeared. They could not confirm that what they spotted was the sea serpent, but declared that if there was a sea serpent then that’s what they saw. The vigilance committee, of course, saw nothing.
On the morning of the 28th Charles Hall, who had been avoiding the lake since his first encounter with the sea serpent, decided to risk a morning fishing trip with his wife and children. Suddenly, they spotted the sea serpent lurking in the rushes near the inlet. They rowed frantically away from the beast, only to realize it was following them with its head high above the water, which only drove them to row faster. They beached their boat in the outlet near the pump factory and hoofed it back to town in an agitated state. The vigilance committee, of course, saw nothing.
The noticeably frustrated vigilance committee redoubled their efforts, putting seven boats on Silver Lake the following week. They also bolstered their numbers by recruiting young Daniel Smith of nearby Covington. Smith was freshly returned from a whaling voyage and ready to put his skills to work capturing a sea serpent. He spotted the creature on Monday, July 30th but it dove out of sight before he could get close. Smith swore he’d capture the beast alive, and headed east to procure some professional-grade whaling equipment.
On Wednesday, August 1st the sea serpent was spotted by half a dozen people from different vantage points. Two hands working in the fields of Allen Macomber’s farm saw it, as did Macomber’s wife and daughter in the main house, some men visiting a different part of the farm, and another young man just walking along the lake shore. The monster splashed and cavorted in the inlet for about 15 minutes before disappearing from sight. The vigilance committee, as usual, saw nothing.
By now the word was out, and the public was enthralled. The Buffalo Republic claimed, “The discovery of this sea-monster rivals in interest the news from the Crimea, and people cannot wait a week longer for new developments.” Looky-loos from all over the state poured into Perry, filling the hotels to capacity and congregating on the lakeshore hoping to spot the creature. Or not spot it, as was usually the case.
Then, on Monday, August 13th, something amazing happened.
As usual the shores were lined with spectators searching for the monster, while the vigilance committee did the same from their boats. They all spotted the sea serpent when it surfaced at 9:00 AM.
This time, Daniel Smith was ready for his royal snakeship. He was armed with a mighty lily iron and had some 1200 feet of whale whale line secured to stout trees on shore. Smith rowed close to his quarry and made a mighty toss, impaling the creature eight feet behind its head.
Well, the Silver Lake sea serpent didn’t like that, and swam back and forth trying to shuck the harpoon. Its struggles created violent waves that soaked spectators and almost capsized the poor whaleboat. Once its futile struggles had tired it out, Smith’s confederates hauled it to within fifty feat of the shore, where it found new life but still could not manage to break free. The serpent was pulled ashore, still thrashing and lashing about.
It was as hideous as described. It was 59’5″ long, two feet in diameter at its thickest point, with a double row of fins along its belly and a mighty tail fin almost three feet wide when fully fanned out. It was covered with a thick coat of noxious slime. Its head was the size of a calf’s but unlike anything anyone present had ever seen. It had the large, white staring eyes of a deep sea fish; no visible nostrils or gills; and a leech-like sucker for a mouth with no teeth but some sort of strange bony protrusions.
Several ladies in the crowd fainted upon seeing the creature’s hideous visage, which spared them from witnessing what happened next. With one mighty heave the creature snapped the line holding it to the trees and slithered back into the lake, where it swam in circles so rapidly that it created a small whirlpool. Then it disappeared under the surface with a mighty flip of its tail.
A vengeful Smith swore that he would set his hook better next time and went back to sharpening his harpoon.
When news of the sea serpent’s narrow escape reached Perry a few days later, they were mightily confused. Because absolutely nothing of the sort had happened there on August 13th. In fact, the only real sighting they’d had all week was a decidedly minor one that Wednesday when the creature briefly showed itself at dusk.
The story of the creature’s capture was revealed to be a hoax perpetrated by the editors Buffalo Republic. Like every other newspaper they thought the sea serpent was a hoax, but they couldn’t resist a chance to simultaneously profit off the story and mock the credulous public.
Just because the story was a hoax didn’t mean the good people of Silver Lake weren’t trying to capture the monster. At the end of August several prominent locals formed “The Experiment Company” for the express purpose of taking the beast alive. No one was sure what the “experiment” was, exactly, though the Buffalo Commercial suggested it was an experiment to see how credulous the public was.
The Company kept young Daniel Smith on retainer and also consulted other experts including diver John Green and numerous deep sea fishermen. They floated any number of plans including temporarily damming the inlet to drain the lake, placing poison bait in the marshes, and declaring open season on sea serpents for anyone with a gun. Until they could realize their plans, the company erected a 12′ tall watch tower and kept it constantly manned.
Alas, like the vigilance committees that preceded them, the Experiment Company never quite managed to spot the beast, let alone capture it. That doesn’t mean sightings were rare, though.
The sea-serpent startled a hunter who became paralyzed by fear and couldn’t bring himself to shoot. Other would-be serpent-slayers weren’t as hesitant but somehow could not manage to hit a creature 100′ long and as thick as a barrel. You would think that all this gunplay might make a sea serpent shy, but nope! He still managed to find time to threaten the occasional boater and put on a show for the gawkers on shore.
Fishermen also took cracks at the beast but had no luck, no matter what bait they used. Points for style go to the fisherman who baited a rope with whole side of pork on a meat hook, with a buoy for a bobber.
In late September there was a rash of simultaneous sightings of several sea serpents. The original monster was still around, but now people were seeing it in the company of much smaller versions, only fifteen to thirty feet long. Was the thing breeding? Was Silver Lake about to be overrun?
And then, at the end of September, the sightings just petered out as the season changed. The crowds of tourists started to dwindle, and in early October the Experiment Company decided to halt operations until the spring.
Sayonara Sea Serpent
At this point the Silver Lake sea serpent had been seen by almost a hundred different people, been written about in dozens of papers nationwide, and drawn thousands of tourists to the sleepy hamlet.
And almost no one outside of Perry thought it was real.
In the off-season the sea serpent was became the butt of the newspapers in western New York. The Buffalo Commercial snidely claimed that its agent had already managed to book it for next year’s tourist season. The Hornellsville Tribune ran a hoax claiming it had been found frozen alive in the iced-over lake. And the editor of the Buffalo Express claimed to have seen the mechanism by which the hoax was perpetrated, but would only say it “held about a pint.”
In Perry, though, the sea serpent was a point of pride. Locals entered contests with bread and bologna sculptures bearing its likeness. Won awards for them, too.
The Silver Lake sea serpent made a number of appearances throughout 1856, though they were rarely reported outside of Perry. Out-of-town papers had moved on to other fun stories like the “Wild Woman of Ouachita” or the live pterodactyl supposedly unearthed in a French mine.
Perhaps realizing that it was old news, the sea serpent’s subsequent appearances became few and far between. It was spotted a handful of times in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s but there was never a sustained string of sightings like the summer of 1855.
Perry, though, never forgot its local cryptid. Over the years Perry and Silver Lake have hoasted festivals and parades in the sea serpent’s honor, though they too have been few and far between. The most Socially Distant Sea Seprent Parade in 2020 was the first in over three decades.
Now, you’re all wondering: was the sea serpent real?
Of course not. The newspapers of 1855 had it pegged right from the start: it was a hoax designed to draw tourists to Perry.
Artemus Boniface Walker operated the Walker House Hotel in Perry, and was very conscious of the fact that fewer tourists were choosing to summer on Silver Lake as infrastructure improvements made other vacation spots viable. So he put his head together with his friend Truman S. Gillett, the editor of the Wyoming Times, and came up with a plan to draw tourists.
They settled on the idea of a sea serpent, as it was a proven draw. Rumors of a sea serpent off Cape Ann had drawn tourists to Nahant in the 1820s, and the stunt had been repeated up and down the Atlantic coast ever since. It helped that there were local legends to lend verisimilitude to their story. Those Seneca tales about a monster living in Silver Lake? Those were real, though the reason the tribe quit the area had less to do with some stinky snake and more to do with, y’know, being driven away by white people.
The two men constructed a 60′ wire armature, covered it with a waterproof canvas, and slapped a carved pony keg on top for the head. Then they painted the whole thing green with yellow spots and sunk their creation into a deep part of the lake. A rubber hose ran from a run-down shanty on the western shore to the submerged sea serpent, and a bellows allowed them to inflate the whole contraption and cause it to surface. A series of pulleys and tow ropes on the shore could be used to move the serpent in three different directions.
The “Snake Syndicate” of Walker and Gillett proved enormously profitable. The Walker House was packed throughout the summer and the Wyoming Times was selling like hotcakes. Most of the tourists lining the lake shore probably knew the whole thing was bunk, but that was part of the charm. It’s like magic, where half the fun is trying to figure out how the trick works.
Still, Walker and Gillett could never quite get the sea serpent to behave right – heck, in its first outing, the panicked marks ran a boat right over the dang thing. They knew that sooner or later they would be found out, and they also knew that while the public liked a good trick they also liked it when the folks responsible for the trick got their comeuppance. In the middle of the 1856 season they decided to call it quits, and the sea serpent went into storage at the Walker House.
When the Walker House burned down on December 19, 1857, fireman responding to the call discovered the “sea serpent” writhing in the flames. They confronted Walker, who owned up to his part in the hoax. Since the monster mania had already died down, the townsfolk forgave him, and life went on as normal.
And that’s the story of the Silver Lake sea serpent.
Or Is It?
This is the version of the story presented by Frank D. Roberts in his 1915 History of the Town of Perry, New York. For years Roberts’ book was the last word on the subject, because it was the only widely available word on the subject.
There are some issues with the story as reported. It uses a lot of passive voice and weasel words like “it is said,” probably to cover for its reliance on oral sources. And its description of the sea serpent doesn’t seem to match contemporary descriptions, which tend to make the creature a coppery brown rather than bright green.
Still, variants of the basic story had been circulating since the 1850s. The earliest versions don’t name Walker or Gillett by name, probably because both men were still alive. In some of the stories the sea serpent is made of rubber instead of canvas, or a mass-produced mail-order kit, or even a made-to-order tin automaton. (Holy Terror of the Zygons!) It may wind up being stored in the Walker House’s attic, or the basement. Sometimes the sea serpent discovered during the firefighting efforts, and sometimes it’s only discovered after the fire while the townsfolk are picking through the ashes. These are mostly minor differences, but they do start to suggest that a small kernel of truth has been highly embellished.
And then, of course, there are versions of the story so wildly different that they begin to break the basic narrative.
Some versions claim that Walker’s involvement in the hoax was obvious from the start, when he claimed a mysterious box from the train station shortly before the first sighting. (These versions seem to be conflating the Silver Lake sea serpent with the Cardiff Giant, where the movements of a mysterious crate were key to exposing the hoax.)
Some versions claim that the hoax was exposed when the wires broke and the sea serpent floated to the surface belly-up in front of the crowds on the shore. (If that’s the case, it’s amazing it wasn’t reported in any contemporary newspaper. They loved that sort of thing.)
An 1889 version claims that the serpent wasn’t even stored in the hotel, but in the hayloft of a nearby barn. An 1878 variant claims that the sea serpent could still be found in that barn and that you could go and gawk at it for a small price. (It’s possible that the 1878 sea serpent may have been a recreation, but it’s long since vanished.)
In the 1860 and 1870s there were a smattering of stories giving credit for the hoax to Hank W. Faxon, editor of the Buffalo Republic. Sometimes he’s working alone, sometimes he’s working with Walker, and sometimes he’s working hand-in-hand with Horace Greeley. Most of these stories claim that the sea serpent never existed except on the newspaper page, which is clearly not true. (Faxon is almost certainly responsible for the fraudulent story about the sea serpent’s capture and escape, and some sort of telephone game may have been responsible for inflating his role in the whole affair.)
An 1862 version of the story suggests that the prime instigator was an “East coast speculator” who had purchased a hotel in Perry, made a mint off the scam, paid of his debts, and then moved back east. (That couldn’t possibly be Walker, who spent his whole life in Perry, but I have no idea who it could be.)
Other versions put the blame on the local businessmen who founded the Experiment Company, which notably did not include Walker or Gillett. (Of course, the Experiment Company does not seem to have made any money off of the whole hoax, at least not directly.)
Still other versions claim that an inebriated Walker got fed up with other people taking credit for his hoax and blurted out the truth by accident. Other versions only allege that Walker and Gillett were merely suspected, and their involvement never proven.
Then there are the problems with the sea serpent’s supposed construction.
Most stories claim that the serpent was inflated by a rubber hose ran that ran from shore to shore. That’s almost half a mile! Now, most of the serpent sightings were in the northeastern corner of the lake near the inlet, but even if you put the pump between the inlet and outlet that’s still some two hundred to five hundred feet. It seems highly unlikely that in 1855 a small New York resort town would have ready access to several hundred feet of rubber hose. Especially since it wouldn’t be set up for gas or municipal water until decades later.
Then there’s also the matter of making a large container that’s both watertight and capable of being submerged for long periods of time.
Let’s not forget the control ropes. The area by the inlet and outlet is a high-traffic area and it seems unlikely that no one spotted them at all throughout the summer. Or hooked them with an errant cast. Or got an oar tangled up in them as they tried to outrow the monster.
Then there are the matter of sea serpent sightings that happened away from the lake, sometimes miles away. Those can’t be explained away easily.
When all these inconsistencies add up, well, it becomes clear that we don’t really know anything. It’s likely there was a hoax, that there was some sort of fake sea serpent, and that locals were involved. But other than that? We can’t claim anything with certainty. The details are muddled by the passage of time time, poor-quality reporting, the low reliability of eyewitness accounts, and our old friend mass hysteria.
Of course, if we admit that we know nothing that opens up the greatest possibility of all…
That the sea serpent was real all along.
There are several shadowy figures lurking around the fringes of the Silver Lake “Snake Syndicate,” including Colonel Joseph H. Wood, sort of the low-rent version of P.T. Barnum. Among wood’s many ventures was the “Oddity Museum” at Ninth and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, which eventually passed into other hands. In 1909 the Museum’s final owner, J.F. Hope, started his own monster hoax, making it seem like the Jersey Devil was on the loose. We told that story in our Series Six episode “What-Is-It?”
For another example of a hotelier creating a hoax to drum up business, check out the Yarmouth runestone from Series 5’s “The Icelander” and Series 8’s “Westward Huss.”
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