POCATELLO, IDAHO, FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 1972 Idaho State Journal - Section C - Page 7
REAL OR NOT?
MONSTER by J. Pat Wilde The Bear Lake Monster 'It had sturdy legs, a serpentine like tail, ears that looked like bunches on the side of a head amost like a horse's except for extended nostrils and a forked tongue that flicked in and out as it shifted its head about.'
MONTPELIER — Western folklore
abounds throughout the Rocky Mountain area.
Unless one is a purist, all he has to do is
accept the version that suits him best. The
original may be harder to trace.
Often times we find the beginning steeped in the early legends of the area Indians.
Such is the case of the "Lovers Leap"
near Soda Springs. Occasionally, some prominent character of the time such as Jim
Bridger or "Peg Leg" Smith promoted a
campfire yarn that caught on and became a
legend of the area. Such local characters
as "Six Shooter Sal" or "Cariboo Jack"
can still be recalled by some residents.
But it is doubtful if any individual
or legend, prefabrication of trapper or
custom of Indian, gained as much prominence for an area or captured the attention of as many people as did the story
of the Bear Lake Monster. It spewed forth
from the fertile mind of Joseph C. Rich
in the late 1860s and became a prominent
topic of conversation for the next forty
As to why the monster was born, there
is considerable controversy. Some authors
say that Joseph, the versatile son of Bear
Lake's founding father, Charles Coulson
Rich, was in love and created the monster
to show his beloved, Ann Eliza Hunter of
Salt Lake City, that life was just as exciting in the wilderness of Bear Lake as in
the bigger metropolis.
Another claimed that the young lawyer
had lost his father's favorite mare in a
poker game near Randolph, Utah, and felt the
necessity of creating a suitable end to the
animal that would satisfy his father's skepticism.
Other theories state that his intention
to test the gullibility of his fellow men
was foremost in his mind or that the monster came into being merely to counteract
the loneliness and boredom of the long
Bear Lake winter evenings.
At any rate, the monster was "born"
in the year 1868 and was exceeded in its
growth only by the number of tales that
were soon circulating about it. Young Joseph, himself, was not entirely responsible
for all of them, but there is little doubt
that he was the original author or the one
responsible for bringing national recognition
to the area.
During the remaining years of the
century, especially from 1868 to 1875, such
prominent characters of literature as John
Colter's Hell (Yellowstone Park); the explosive Mike Fink, (half-man-half alligator
from the Mississippi), Paul Bunyan and his
tall timber tales or Pecos Bill and his
Grand Canyon folklore could do nothing but
play second fiddle to J.C. Rich's monster.
In its early days, Bear Lake was considered tobepartof RichCounty, Utah. Young
Joseph was closely associated with the happenings of that state. He was an energetic
27, a budding lawyer and the assistant
clerk of the Utah Legislature. He was
also Rich County surveyor, successful busi-
church leader and quite an impressive writer. Best of all, as far as the
monster was concerned, he was an established correspondent for the Evening Deseret News, top intermountain edition of that
day. It was through this medium that Rich
chose to introduce the monster to the world
outside of the Bear Lake Valley.
He began by hinting to his readers that
something strange was going on in the beautiful blue lake and . . ."it is a mystery to
me that all the leading journals of the
world do not have journalists in the area
to cover the events . . .in fact," he continued ..." I don't know how people will
tolerate their publications without."
That was in the July 27, 1868 column.
It continued to point out that an ancient
Indian legend told of a monster that lived
in the lake and annually carried to a watery
grave at least a dozen maidens or braves.
Rich said that for some reason the monster had not been seen in the area since the
buffalo had left.
Early descriptions were vague. A serpent like animal, water spurting out of its
head, with the capabilities of moving about on
land with short muscular legs sufficed.
Rich stated that since settlement in the
valley (five years before) people had been
seeing strange things on the lake but final
"proof" was not obtained until a Mr. S.M.
Johnson who lived on the east side of the
lake at a place called South Eden offered a
close-up description as follows:
"It had short sturdy legs, a serpentine
like tail, ears that looked like bunches on
the side of a head almost like a horse's
except for extended nostrils and a forked
tongue that flicked in and out as it shifted
its head about."
Soon other "verifications" developed.
A Mr. Sleight and a Mr. Davis saw sides of
the animal that were "at least ninety feet
long—er—at least forty." It was really
quite difficult to tell just how long because
of the terrific speed at which it traveled.
More columns and more monsters followed. Soon there were four large ones and
six small ones. Color had been added. It
was brown or buff with huge spots on the
large ones and when it kicked up its speed
it sent waves shoreward that were three feet
Throughout the year of 1868 columns
concerning it continued to pour into the
"News." Word spread to the Denver papers. The farther the word traveled the
more skepticism arose. Not so at home. In the valley, the monster became a constant threat to wayward youngsters. Where later generations must have heard the "boogey man will get you," a suggestion that the monster had a special appetite for bad little boys and girls was often adequate to allow the youngsters to visualize their own tragic encounter. Rich kept his creation. One way or the other, he was able to obtain reliable persons to make statements about the phenomena. At the end of his columns he addes a short note, supposedly from he famous father, Apostle Charles C. Rich, noted colonizer and church man. It was addressed to Brother Cannon, editor of the Deseret News and it said "I have talked with some of the parties in relation to the monster story and it is as Joseph has stated it.
I am, yours truly.
Charles Coulson Rich."
Any doubt about the truthfulness of the
monster seemed to fade with the statement.
Who would doubt the word of such an honest
and noted man as Charles C. Rich?
Once the monster was accepted there
was little limit to the stories that developed. The hoaz continued into the 1870s. The fact that government surveyors delcared half of the lake and the valley to be in Idaho made little difference. In turth, it may have enhanced an interest in the little community of Paris. In a May 18, 1874 column postmarked Paris, Oneida County, Idaho, a letter written to President Brigham Young was printed which reactivated the hoax again. Wm. Budge, author of the letter, reported he and two bretheren, William Broomhead and Milando Pratt were returning from a LDS Church conference in Richland County when they saw something in the water "one hundred yards ahead and about 25 yards from the shore." This time the animal was described as "not more than six or eight feet long, face and head covered with fur or short hair of light spud color, wide spread eyes and the whole face resembled that of a fox with a pointed snout." Budge conluded his letter to Brigham Young as follows, "We had an excellednt opportunity to see what was above the water as the lake was perfectly still and visibility good. As there has been considerable interest excited in regard to the "Bear Lake Monster," I submit this description of what we have seen. Very respectfully yours, Wm. Budge." For several years plans were formulated on how to capture one of the monsters. Phineas Cook of Swan Creek though it could be done with a giant hook attached to a huge buoy. The hook was to be "baited with a mutton or a young Indian." If any attempts were actually made to trap or ensnare one no reference was available to this author. As the years continued and the interest began to wane, Rich added to his hoax by creating a traveling writer known as "A. Monsterio." Monsterio conveniently consented to allow his column to be published
in the Deseret News, as well as his "other papers." He wrote that he had traveled far
to seek the "eighth wonder of the world, The Bear Lake Monster."
Suddenly, to the surprise of many readers, Monsterio began to debunk the hoax
in his column as he testified that "I could easily obtain the signatures of nearly 20
people to the effect that no such critter existed except in fertile imaginations."
Bear Lakers, now in support of their attention getter defended their monster valiantly, but in vain. Monsterio continued his condemnation by stating in his columns, "Should I ever get close enough to the monster it is my intention to brand him J.C.R. on the left hip."
There were those who suspected Monsterio and Rich were the same but all the
partial confession did was create two battalions—those who believed and those who
The trouble was, the monster never left. Perhaps it never will, because today,
it has become one of the finest examples of homespun western folklore. One hundred years later it still remains fresh in the minds of Bear Lakers and many an old timer would welcome the chance, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," to spin a yarn.
Whatever Joseph C. Rich had in mind when he began the legend no one will ever
know. He must surely be recognized for his creation. His authorship could, and
perhaps should, be pointed to with pride. Only a small portion of literary work ever continues in popularity for a full hundred years. Recognizing its popularity, the centenial committee for the Bear Lake County Centennial held in 1963 offered a competition for the best Bear Lake Monster stories in existence. Response was satisfying and an accumulation of them are now on record.
Pat Wilde, high school teacher and the
Journal's correspondent in the Montpelier-
Bear Lake area, is a student of Idaho history as well as Bear Lake Monster stories.
Pen-and-ink sketch is by Bear Lake High
School student John cook, patterned after
one which appeared In the 1868 editions of
The Deseret Evening News.
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.