"And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids."
--sundry villains, Scooby-Doo
Scooby's villains never demonstrated much understanding of human nature. They would go to great lengths to scare people away by pretending to be the Creeper or a Ghost Clown or some other such monster-- in short, by doing the very thing that would guarantee hordes of people would investigate, cameras or shotguns in hand. An obscure Walt Disney flick from 1971, The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove gets it right. There, the kids build a fake monster to vindicate their favourite teacher, held up to ridicule because he supposedly saw the title beast. The film's villains immediately try to squelch the rumour and conceal the phony evidence, because they know their ability to operate secretly in the cove will disappear if anyone takes the monster story seriously.1
Of course, someone really built a fake monster, in Silver Lake, Wyoming County, New York, back in the 1850s, with the end result a boom in local tourism.
Then again, maybe they didn't.
Perry, New York, the Unlucky 13th of July, 1855. It's night. A handful of men and boys are fishing by moonlight in Silver Lake. One of them spies an object floating by, some distance away. They soon realize the thing is alive and moving: "a most horrid and repulsive looking monster" (Wyoming Times, 1855, quoted in Nickell).
Sightings became more frequent; word spread. Sightseers found their way to Perry, and hunters, intent on killing or capturing live the enigmatic beast of Silver Lake. The entire town benefitted from increased tourism: few more so than Artemus B. Walker, who owned Perry's only hotel.
The serpent became a local attraction for a year or so, and then vanished. It reared its ugly head again in 1857, when a fire broke out at Walker's Hotel. The fire went out, but the town uncovered at the site the remnants of the artificial monster.
At this point, accounts diverge. According to some sources, Walker confessed to the hoax. He and a handful of associates had fabricated a serpent, and painted to look suitably monstrous. They sunk it surreptitiously in Silver Lake, and used ropes to move it, allowing it to tour the lake, and appear at different locations. A length of hose ran from serpent to shore, and a large concealed bellows filled the form full of air, so that it would rise and be glimpsed breaking the surface. Weights ensured it sank once the air was released.
Other accounts involve a monster animated by compressed air or gas. And in some versions, Walker is merely suspected, but does not actually confess. Turman S. Gillet, the editor of the Wyoming Times also may have confessed to helping, or not, according to the source. The twisted tale of the Silver Lake Serpent has been told and retold many times. Even most credulous cryptozoologists relish the retelling, acknowledging that yes, sometimes, hoaxes do occur in their field.
More recently, Joe Nickell of the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and others have wondered if the monster hoax isn't a hoax itself.
Accounts from the newspaper in 1855 include observations of two creatures at once, and sightings further off shore than the hoaxers's hoses could possibly have reached-- but witnesses and journalists have been known to distort facts, and the Times editor has been implicated by some in the monster's creation. The earliest report of the hoax appears in 1860, and gives very few details. The more elaborate accounts first appear in 1880 and 1915, and it's clear the authors are relying upon local memories and twice-told accounts.
The elaborateness of the literally monstrous 1855 mechanism raises further suspicion about the tale. Never mind the alleged laying of the "gas pipe," when gas lines did not come to Perry until 1909 nor piped water until 1896, raising questions about the availability of the pipe. And never mind the "small light rubber hose" that reportedly extended from shore to serpent, when the availability of that seems equally doubtful in a mid-nineteenth-century village. There is a large old bellows, attributed to the hoax, that is displayed in the Pioneer Museum at Perry... but its display card states only that it is "believed to have been used to inflate the Silver Lake sea serpent"
Materials aside, the complexity of the alleged contraption as described by Roberts provokes skepticism..... the propulsion method Roberts describes raises serious questions. The three ropes that were reportedly attached to the serpent and extended to three lakeside sites would have greatly complicated the operation, not to mention multiplying the danger of detection....
Indeed, the Silver Lake contrivance would seem to have been a rather remarkable engineering feat-- especially for a hotelier and some village friends. One suspects they would have sewed a lot of canvas and made many experiments before achieving a workable monster, yet Roberts claims theirs worked on the first attempt. In fact, over the years attempts to replicate the elaborate monster have failed.
Perhaps a hoax was perpetrated that was less elaborate than the one that has come down to us. But whether we're dealing with a real hoax or a fake hoax, it serves its purported purpose still. Perry celebrates a Silver Lake Serpent Festival annually, and the creature figures prominently in local tourism.
1. The Disney film loosely adapts "The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake" (1960), a story written by Bertrand R. Brinley for his "Mad Scientists Club" series. Brinley's kid heroes get replaced by the trio of children from an earlier Disney film, Secrets of the Pirates Inn (1969). These characters had already replaced the heroes of that film's source, Wylly Folk St. John's homonymous children's novel. The approach allowed Disney to reuse the protagonists without having to pay further royalties.
The same child actors appear in both films.
Lee Krystek. "Lost Worlds Exhibition" The Museum of Unnatural History. http://www.unmuseum.org/lostw.htm
Joe Nickell. "The Silver Lake Serpent: Inflated Monster or Inflated Tale?" Investigative Files.
Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
Frank D. Roberts. History of the Town of Perry, New York. Perry: C. G. Clarke and Son, 1915.
Carl Sifakis and Mark A. Nelson. "The Silver Lake Serpent." The Big Book of Hoaxes. New York: Paradox Press, 1996. 106-108.