Arkansas’s White River Monster: Very Real, but What Was It?

Joe Nickell

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Arkansas’s White River holds claim to a “monster” that has been said to have appeared intermittently for a century or more. Its reality is defended by cryptozoologists and skeptics alike (I am both), but what is the huge aquatic creature that has proven so elusive? The late cryptozoologist Roy Mackal (1980) thought he knew, but there were problems with his theory. Can we finally solve the mystery?

Monster and Lair

Sightings have been claimed from 1912 and 1917, among other years, but it was July 1937 that confirmed the existence of a great river creature—albeit one that is variously described. At some point, named for its lair, it was dubbed “Whitey,” although almost everyone agreed its color was gray. Some added that its skin was “crusty” or “peeling.”

Its size was not so certain, with estimates ranging from at least twelve feet to sixty-five feet or more—although Mackal wisely cautioned (1980, 205):

I ask the reader to take my word for the observation that untrained observers estimating size of unknown objects in water range from exactly right to threefold or fivefold too great. This is especially true when the observer has no object of known size with which to make a comparison. It is generally not appreciated to what extent we rely on comparison to make size estimates.

The creature’s weight was also variable—1,000 pounds or more. Although the head was almost never seen, one eyewitness reported glimpsing it and thought it had a protruding horn (Mackal 1980, 207; Cox 2011).

The 1937 sightings placed the creature at a portion of the White River—a major tributary of the Mississippi—just below the city of Newport. A farmer named Bramlett Bateman signed an affidavit as to his observations—which began at about one in the afternoon on July 1 and lasted for five minutes. He subsequently saw it several times over more than two months and believed it to be “about 12 feet long and 4 or 5 feet wide.” Three other affidavits were produced—one by a deputy sheriff—and Bateman said he knew of two dozen others who could similarly attest to the unusual creature. Resulting newspaper accounts catapulted the monster of White River “into national prominence” (Mackal 1980, 200).

During the flap, a woman named Ethel Smith of Little Rock stated she had seen the creature thirteen years earlier—i.e., in 1924—while vacationing with her husband and children. Elements of her description tallied with those of others: “It was making a loud blowing noise but never did show its head or tail. It was a terrible-looking thing with dingy gray crusted hide. It frightened me badly.” A local fisherman said he had also seen the creature previously at the same site around 1915, and sightings were also reported in 1971 and 1972.1 As was common, the creature appeared following a widening ring of bubbles and thrashed about for five minutes or more before resubmerging (Mackal 1980, 204). It left in its wake open-mouthed eyewitnesses.

Mackal’s Identification

Roy Mackal (1925–2013), a biologist as well as a cryptozoologist, featured the White River Monster in his seminal cryptozoological book, Searching for Hidden Animals (1980, 197–208). He brought a great deal of expertise and good sense to the subject.

Mackal was persuaded that those who encountered the White River creature offered useful testimony: “Except for size there is a remarkable consistency among the different witnesses over a long time. There can be no doubt that a real animal or animals had been observed” (Mackal 1980, 205). Mackal collected and summarized the applicable zoological details to produce a sort of composite picture of the creature, as we have seen.

He concluded:

The White River case is a clear-cut instance of a known aquatic animal observed outside of its normal habitat or range and therefore unidentified by the observers unfamiliar with the type. The animal in question clearly was a large male elephant seal, either Mirounga leonina (southern species) or Mirounga angustirostris (northern species).

His identification has convinced many, but there is a serious problem.

Ranging Afar?

The creatures (it’s unlikely to be the same individual given such intervals) would have had to enter the river from the Mississippi, and to have connected with it from the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is more than difficult to hypothesize, in the gulf waters, either species of the elephant seal. The Northern species ranges over the Pacific coast of northern Mexico, the United States, and Canada (Whitaker 1996, 742–744), while the Southern elephant seal migrates from Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters north to Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa, and even wandering individuals are not found above the equator (“Ocean” 2018).

Another plausible aquatic mammal is the hooded seal. Although it is smaller than the Northern elephant seal (at up to ten feet versus thirteen), it could fit descriptions of “Whitey” pretty well. Although the hooded seal’s habitat is the Arctic and North Atlantic, it is very migratory, and individuals have “strayed as far south as Florida” (Whitaker 1996, 739–741). Nevertheless, I am unaware of one ever having reached the Gulf of Mexico, let alone to have then traveled far up the Mississippi and to have done so repeatedly.

One of the seals, the Caribbean or West Indian monk seal, did once populate the very waters of the gulf. Unfortunately, it is now extinct (Whitaker 1996, 741–742).

I believe there is yet another possibility, and it is not only found in the Gulf of Mexico but known to have swum hundreds of miles up the Mississippi!

The Best Suspect

I am referring to the Florida manatee (a subspecies of the West Indian manatee).2 It is a “massive” aquatic mammal with a minimum length of about thirteen feet (although the largest recorded was fifteen feet). It may weigh as much as about 3,500 pounds. Like the White River monster, it has gray, smooth skin that can appear mottled due to barnacle-like crusts of algae or to common injuries from boat propellers (Whitaker 1996, 807–808; “Florida” 2018; “West Indian” 2018).

It has no “horn,” but whereas Mackal postulated that that once-only descriptor was due to the elephant seal’s proboscis (short trunk), I suggest it was one of the manatee’s front flipperlike legs, seen beside its head when it rolled over in the water. These appendages have three nails at their end and would seem capable of leaving on shore the fourteen-by-eight-inch, three-toed tracks attributed to the “monster,” which also flattened grass and saplings (Mackal 1980, 203, 205, 207). Manatees do crawl onto shores to graze on plants as part of their herbivore lifestyle. And just like the monster, the manatee also makes “blowing” noises (“Manatee” 2014). Again, it basks on the water, rolls, dives, and so on (“West Indian” 2018).

Significantly, the manatee is adapted to both fresh and salt water and so is found in rivers and in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic Ocean. It ranges as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts. In fact, in 2006 one traveled some 720 miles up the Mississippi River to enter the Wolf River near Memphis. It was eventually found dead on the banks of McKellar Lake, a slackwater lake south of that city (“Manatee” 2006). That animal’s journey shows a manatee to be a very real possibility as the White River creature.

The Memphis manatee died in October and was thought to have succumbed to the cold. However, when a manatee is found north of Florida, it is as “mainly a summer immigrant” (Whitaker 1996, 807). That is consistent with the fact that the White River monster was observed mostly during the summer months: July 1924; June to early September 1937; June, July, and August 1971; and June 1972.

All things considered, the Florida manatee surely represents the preferred hypothesis in the case, which I believe we may now mark closed.

 


Notes

  1. One witness in 1971 made a Polaroid snapshot of the supposed creature, which “appeared to have a spiny backbone that stretched for 30 or more feet” (Mackal 1980, 202). In my opinion this looks unnatural and more like a series of dashes made by a retoucher using a pen.
  2. I learned a bit about manatees in 2001 when I was in Appalachicola National Forest in the Florida panhandle, which is also supposedly home to a Bigfoot-like creature called the Florida Skunk Ape.

 


References

  • Cox, Dale. 2011. A River Monster in Arkansas? Available online at http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/whiteriver1.html; accessed January 29, 2018.
  • Florida manatees. 2018. Marine Mammals of the Gulf of Mexico, brochure of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
  • Mackal, Roy P. 1980. Searching for Hidden Animals. Reprinted, London: Cadogan Books, 1983, 197–208.
  • Manatee found dead on banks of McKellar Lake. 2006. Available online at http://www.wmcactionnews5.com/story/5798366/manatee-found-dead-on-banks-of-mckellar-lake; accessed January 24, 2018.
  • Manatee Making Strange Noise: Blowing Raspberries. 2014. Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SZ-eJ1Ub71; accessed January 25, 2018.
  • “Ocean Treasures” Memorial Library. 2018. Available online at http://otlibrary.com/southern-elephant-seal/; accessed January 26, 2018.
  • West Indian manatee. 2018. Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Indian_manatee#Description; accessed January 19, 2018.
  • Whitaker, John O. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North America, revised edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.