Modern sightings of the White River Monster started in mid-June of 1971, just six weeks after the first Fouke Monster sighting. It was described by a witness (who wished to remain anonymous) as being an enormous gray serpent, "six feet across, as long as three pickup trucks" and wrinkled all over as if its skin was peeling from sunburn.
Unlike the Fouke Monster case, the White River Monster had some earlier sightings that could be verified. In the summer of 1937, four people signed affidavits swearing they had seen a gigantic creature in the river, and by the end of the summer, thousands of visitors had come to Newport hoping to catch a glimpse of the monster. Similar reports occurred in the 1890's.
In the first week of July, 1937 (while search parties combed the south Pacific for lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart and while Japanese armies pounded at the gates of Beijing and while bloody civil war raged in Spain), negro tenant farmers on Bramlett Bateman's plantation (on the White River six miles south of Newport) told Bateman that they had spotted some kind of monster in an eddy along the river. They had been complaining that the fishing had been poor of late, and they thought the monster might be responsible. Bateman was skeptical, but they persuaded him to come down to the river for a look.
After seeing the monster for himself he contacted D. N. Graves of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to get permission to dynamite the eddy and kill the creature, which he and his sharecroppers considered a potential hazard. Graves told Bateman that to do such would violate the law. Blasting in an inland waterway was only allowed as a method of dislodging a dead human body, as in the case of a drowning victim. This law was to counter the ecologically damaging practice of stunning fish with dynamite and taking all the fish from an area, a technique so common that fishermen jokingly referred to a stick of dynamite as a "DuPont spinner."
The monster was exhibiting a predictable pattern of behavior, surfacing late in the afternoons and staying up five to fifteen minutes at a stretch before submerging again. Bateman described the monster as having skin like that of an elephant and being "as wide as a car and three cars long." Something familiar about those descriptive terms,eh? Graves, not having seen the monster at this point, speculated that it might be a deep-sea creature that had found its way upriver and had become trapped in the 60-foot-deep eddy by shifting sand bars and fluctuating water levels.
By the eighth, word was out and hundreds of people flocked to the eddy. Many brought cameras. Many others brought dynamite. At least one concerned citizen arrived on the scene toting a machine gun. Deputy Sheriff Z. B. Reid saw the monster (about twelve feet of its back) for about three seconds and reported that it looked like a giant catfish. Dr. S. C. Dellinger, professor of zoology at the U. of A., guessed from reports that it might be an unusually large sturgeon, a theory given weight by the fact that an unusually large sturgeon had been caught days before in the Tallahala at Laurel, Mississippi.
Local fisherman Tom Shiras guessed that the monster might be the inverted hull of an old sunken boat which fills with gas from rotting vegetation and rises. As the hull reaches the surface it becomes top heavy so that it tips, releasing enough gas so that it once again sinks. A voice of reason! You won't be hearing from him again.
On the eleventh, locals Sam Larimore, B. H. Bateman (I assume that's Bramlett, the plantation owner) and A. Snooks were out on the eddy in a johnboat when they saw the monster "rise in a rush of bubbles." It remained on the surface for about a minute before sinking again. They also reported seeing on the surface a quantity of decaying leaves that had been stirred up from the river bottom by the monster.
Let's examine their actions. These three guys, hereafter known as the "brain trust," believe there is a monster in the eddy by Bateman's plantation, so they load themselves into a low-sided flatbottom skiff and paddle into the monster's lair. Were I in the audience at a monster movie and that happened onscreeen, I'd finish my popcorn and walk out.
On July 12 one W. E. Penix, a state toll bridge collector, announced that he would direct the construction of a huge rope net (40 by 15 feet with an 8-inch mesh) for the purpose of capturing the monster. He expects to have the net ready in ten days, and is accepting cash donations to help defray the cost of its construction. Arrangements were simultaneously being made with a West Memphis radio station to broadcast the capture attempt live.
In those days, shallow draft tugs called snagboats prowled the river system removing logs, stumps and miscellaneous debris from navigation channels. The town council of Newport solicited the federal government to send such a boat to investigate and aid in the capture attempt. Captain Jack Carter of the U. S. Snagboat Tom Stallings, having not yet visited the site, declared that bubbles in the Eddy were "certainly caused by some living object." The Tom Stallings was working its way downstream and was expected to arrive within a couple of weeks.
On July 13, one W. E. Penix, a state toll bridge collector, reported that he had suspended construction on his giant monster net because he had run out of materials and donations. The West Memphis radio station decided that a broadcast from the location (here for the first time called "Bateman's Eddy") would be prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, Bramlett Bateman, offended by implications that he was perpetrating a hoax, stopped granting interviews, insisting only on the truth of his original statement that he saw a 600-to-1500 pound monster in the eddy.
On July 17, Newport Chamber of Commerce president Marion Dickens announced that he would hire a diver from Memphis to search for the monster. The diver (one Charles B. Brown, a former Navy deep sea diver with 12 years' experience) agreed to dive from Thursday the 22nd through Sunday the 25th to search for the monster. Signs were posted along major roads and representatives of dozens of newspapers were invited.
All stores in Newport closed for the dive. A public address system was set up to broadcast results of the dive to the hundreds of picnickers, some from as far away as California. Visibility in the eddy was eight inches. Brown took with him an eight-foot harpoon, never mind that he couldn't see the tip of it unless he held it up to his face. I assume that he used it more as a probe than as protection. The only excitement on the first day came when the diver descended into a ten-foot-deep bank of silt and had to be dragged to the surface with ropes.
Unsolicited aid came from David Smythe, a White River pearl diver who showed up unannounced in his homemade pearl diving gear which consisted of a helmet made from a Model T gas tank, a rubber hose and a bicycle pump. In the middle east, young Prince Farouk was coronated king.
And that was the last mention of the 1937 search for the monster. I could not find any mention of the Saturday and Sunday dives in the Gazette. Then, in June of 1971, while Apollo 15 was taking the seventh and eight American astronauts to the moon....
Some local believers tried to make something out of the (roughly) forty-year cycle of the White River Monster sightings. Jimmy Driftwood of Timbo (That's Jimmy "Battle of New Orleans" Driftwood to you, bub) suggested that it migrates upstream from the Sargasso Sea periodically to lay an egg. I don't know how he decided on the Sargasso Sea as the monster's home, but that's what he said. Mr. Driftwood also related a story about the monster sinking a riverboat gold shipment during the Civil War, and also suggested that panicky sightings of Japanese submarines in the river during the second world war might actually have been the monster.
In the meantime, the monster made another appearance. About a week after the first report, Earnest Denks of Newport claimed to have seen a long, gray, thousand-pound creature with a pointed horn protruding from its forehead.
On June 29th, an employee of White River Lumber Company by the name of Cloyce Warren, sold a polaroid photograph to the Newport Daily Independent. Warren said that he and two companions were fishing when a column of water erupted twenty feet from their boat. As the creature swam away, they saw a spiny backbone that stretched twenty feet or more. I've only seen poor reproductions of the photo, and no matter how much I squinted, I couldn't see the monster in it. I called Pat at the Newport Daily Independent, and she told me that the paper had lost track of the original polaroid.
Although the Warren photo doesn't provide a taxonomically useful view of the monster, on the reverse of the Jacksonport welcome sign is an artist's conception compiling traits mentioned in the eyewitness accounts. The funnel cloud on the right of the picture commemorates the March 1, 1997 tornadoes which devastated a diagonal stripe through the state from Arkadelphia to Newport.
The first week in July a string of 3-clawed, 14" long tracks was found on Towhead Island by a "former city official who wished to remain anonymous." For some reason, a psychologist (Mike Loos) from the local mental health clinic was brought in to investigate. Regarding the tracks he said, "I'm still a little skeptical, but I don't think that anyone would fake something as real looking as these."
On July 14th, a CBS news crew arrived in town and set out for Towhead Island, where law enforcement officers had made casts of three-clawed tracks that had been linked to the monster. The (still anonymous) former city official who found the tracks said he'd seen such footprints occasionally for a couple of years, but never gave them a second thought until the monster sightings began. Meanwhile, Bramblett Bateman, one of the people who sighted the monster back in '37 (there were over a hundred sightings that summer), declined to be interviewed by the CBS crew.
The last sighting in 1971 to make it into the Little Rock paper came two weeks later. Sixty-six year-old Ollie Richerson and his grandson were fishing when the monster rose under their boat and pushed it around on the surface of the river.
In February of 1973, in a bill introduced by Senator Robert Harvey of Swifton and adopted by voice vote, the State Senate designated a section of the White River from Jacksonport to Possum Grape to be an official "White River Monster Refuge." This is a section of the monster refuge that runs through Jacksonport. The resolution makes it "unlawful to kill, molest, trample or harm the White River Monster while in its native refuge."
I have only one question about that piece of legislation.
If the White River Monster stays on schedule, we can expect another visit from it a few years after the turn of the millennium.
In the neighborhood: Freshwater Pearls