Robert E. Bartholomew
Volume 37.3, May/June 2013
The famous “Mansi photo” of the Lake Champlain monster has been held up for decades as strong proof for cryptozoology—the so-called best evidence for the existence of a hidden animal. Yet, newly uncovered documents reveal troubling questions about the photo and the circumstances surrounding it.
On Tuesday afternoon, July 5, 1977, Sandra Mansi of Bristol, Connecticut, knelt on the shores of Lake Champlain somewhere between St. Albans, Vermont, and the Canadian border, and snapped what is widely touted as the best lake monster photograph ever taken. In Lake Monster Mysteries: Exploring the World’s Most Elusive Creatures, their scholarly study of lake monster traditions, Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell observe that “the Mansi photo stands alone as the most credible and important photographic evidence of the existence of lake monsters” because its authenticity “is held in such high regard by so many writers and researchers” (Radford and Nickell 2006, 43). It has become the Holy Grail of Lake Monsterdom, and a steady stream of journalists has made the pilgrimage to Vermont to hear Sandra Mansi recount the tale of what she reported seeing that day.
Two other famous lake monster photographs that once held similar positions have not stood the test of time. On April 19, 1934, British surgeon Robert Wilson reportedly captured an image of the Loch Ness Monster. Nicknamed “the Surgeon’s photo,” the picture fell into disrepute in 1994 when shortly before his death, Christian Spurling reportedly confessed his involvement in the hoax by fitting a toy submarine with a sea serpent’s head and neck fashioned from wood putty in an effort to fool the Daily Mail (Radford and Nickell 2006). After snapping his famous photo, Wilson himself later claimed that he did not believe in Nessie, and his youngest son openly admitted that the photo was a fraud (Binns 1984, 96–97). Ironically, prior to its exposure, several scientists had concluded that there were strong similarities between Wilson’s image and the Mansi photo, suggesting that “Champ” and “Nessie” may be similar species. Richard J. Greenwell, an optical science professor at the University of Arizona, remarked in 1981 that the ratio between the head and neck “was very much the same in both animals,” (Bartholomew 1981) and naturalist Charles Johnson concurred (Johnson 1980, 1).
During the 1970s, Eric Frank Searle snapped a series of well-publicized photos of Nessie. The pictures created a media buzz, exciting lake monster enthusiasts and connoisseurs of the unexplained, and elevated the native of Middlesex, England, to celebrity status. His photos were later exposed as fakes by future BBC journalist Nicholas Witchell in his 1975 book The Loch Ness Story. Searle died in Lancashire, England, in 2005 after living the rest of his life in obscurity (Tullis 2005).
The Power of a Photo
This year will mark the thirty-second anniversary of the Mansi photo’s public release in the New York Times on June 30, 1981, which triggered a short-lived media feeding frenzy, allowing Champ to bask in the world media spotlight (Wilfred 1981). While the hoopla soon died down, the Mansi photo remains a staple of photographic evidence in numerous books on cryptozoology, a relatively new field devoted to the scientific study of “hidden animals” that was founded in 1975 by Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans.
The photo’s stature cannot be underestimated and was credited, in part, with helping to build the political momentum necessary for an international Champ Conference at Shelburne, Vermont, on August 29, 1981. Among the participants who were attracted to the meeting: Roy Mackal, professor of biology at the University of Chicago, and Roy Zug, a zoologist from the Smithsonian Institution. Champ’s public profile was further enhanced the next year by the passage of two bills protecting it from harm by both the New York and Vermont State legislatures. These resolutions were useless as practical documents but essentially served as free publicity. Radford and Nickell (2006, 45) attribute publicity surrounding the photo for the Champ renaissance of the early 1980s and note that when Radford visited the Champ sighting board in Port Henry, New York, in 2004, nearly half of the 132 sightings were dated 1981 or ’82. They credit the Mansi photo with singlehandedly triggering a bandwagon effect “whereby widely publicized sightings lead to other reports independent of an actual creature’s presence or absence.”
Soon after the photo’s existence first came to light in the fall of 1979, the first red flags appeared. The original photo was sent to Philip Reines, a nautical expert at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, with the hope that he could authenticate it. Reines soon learned that the two most crucial elements in verifying the photo were missing. Sandra Mansi said that she had thrown away the negative, and that she could not locate where she snapped the photo. Images purportedly taken of monsters are notoriously blurry and vague; here was a spectacular image in full color, but without the negative or location it was impossible to determine with any degree of certainty what was in the photo. Possessing the negative would allow the image to be magnified to see greater detail, while knowing the location could reveal important clues such as the object’s size and distance, and whether the photo was even taken on Lake Champlain. When Reines could not authenticate the photo, Sandra and Anthony Mansi were soon insisting through their lawyer that the photo be returned, which he reluctantly did.
In researching my new book The Untold Story of Champ, I uncovered two important pieces of information that had previously been withheld from the public that cast doubt over the authenticity of the photo. This information was known to Joe Zarzynski when he wrote his book Champ: Beyond the Legend (1984), yet despite presenting a detailed analysis of the Mansi photo in it and affirming its likely authenticity, this information was left out.
Read the rest of this fascinating article on the Skeptical Inquirer website here: New Information Surfaces on ‘World’s Best Lake Monster Photo,’ Raising Questions
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.