This week’s History Thread looks at the most notorious photographic hoax of the 20th Century: the Surgeon’s Photograph of the Loch Ness Monster.
The Monster made its modern debut in 1933, with a burst of sightings that were eagerly covered by British media looking to fill column inches. The most famous of these came when George Spicer and his wife encountered a disgusting hell-beast slouching across the road in July 1933, described as a slug-like mass with no limbs or head that scared the bejesus out of them before plunging into the Loch. Unfortunately for posterity, the Spicers did not have a camera, but the vividness of their description made quite the impression on 1930s readers.
It wasn’t long, however, before photographs appeared. The first known photo of the Monster came in November 1933, when a gentleman named Hugh Gray snapped pictures of what appears to be a serpentine beast writhing in the water. Of course, in recounting the incident Gray left out one detail; he was taking his Labrador retriever for a walk when he allegedly saw the beast. So, if you’re inclined, you might note that Gray’s creature resembles a dog with a stick in its mouth more than a prehistorical monster.
But it was the “Surgeon’s Photograph,” taken April 21, 1934 that really captured the public’s imagination. An English surgeon named Colonel Robert Wilson claimed to see the monster splashing in the shallows of the lake on the 19th; the locals he told ridiculed him, already growing wary of tourists reporting nonsense. Undaunted, Wilson (in his telling) trekked out to the Loch two days later with a camera, and snapped several photographs, including the most famous one showing what looks like a plesiosaur sticking its head above the water. The photo found its way to the Daily Mail, which naturally ran the monster picture without criticism or comment, and a legend truly began.
Along with the Patterson film of Bigfoot, the Surgeon’s Photograph became an icon of cryptozoology. What’s striking about the photograph, and what should have tipped off “serious” cryptozoologists long ago, isn’t so much its appearance as the fact that it contradicts virtually every other sighting of the monster. Eyewitness accounts, and photos like Gray’s, tend to describe a serpentine monster, more like a sea snake, a giant eel or even (like the Spicer’s road-crossing critter) a massive worm than a picturesque saurian. Nonetheless, the cryptozoological community (and much of the public) accepted the photograph as gospel, always laughing at those who insisted that Nessie was merely the result of overactive imaginations.
As early as 1975, the Sunday Telegraph discovered that the famous photograph was cropped from a much larger original, showing the “Monster” as, if authentic, rather a tiny thing. Corroboration for this came in 1984, when photographic expert Stewart Campbell published a detailed examination arguing the Monster couldn’t have been more than two or three feet long; if not hoaxed, he suggested it was a goose or other bird. Cryptozoologists were undaunted (of course skeptics would say that), producing among other things a NASA enhancement of the photographs claiming that the Monster possessed whiskers! Was Nessie a seal, or were plesiosaurs more mammalian than we’d ever imagined? The mind reels!
The nonsense was finally dispelled when, in 1993, one Christian Spurling came forward admitting the whole thing had been faked. Spurling and a gentleman named Marmaduke Wetherell concocted the scheme after Wetherell’s claims of spotting Nessie’s footprints were exposed as a fraud. “I’ll give them their monster,” Wetherell reportedly vowed. Spurling, a skilled sculpture, designed the creature using a wooden cut-out on a toy submarine, while Wetherell’s brother Ian took the actual photographs. Colonel Wilson, a friend of the Wetherells, acted as a patsy, claiming to have taken the pictures (though disavowing the avalanche of publicity that resulted). Thus the most famous of all Loch Ness photographs was exposed as a hoax.
Nonetheless, sightings, photographs and video continue to trickle in, most of them as vague or blurry as ever. Which seems to be the fate of cryptozoology; it’s hard to take researchers’ claims, however voluminous they are or plausible they seem, seriously when the most they can is a gray blur in an amateur photograph. Of course, we could consider F.W. Holiday’s hypothesis that Nessie and other cryptids are interdimensional beings who psychically sense the presence of photographers and teleport back to their home planet when someone tries taking a snapshot. That explains so much!
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