Twenty Years Ago Today: The Loch Ness Monster Uncovered

It's evidence, I tell you! Solid evidence! Twenty years ago today, a 60-year old hoax was uncovered: at long last, the 1934 photograph of the Loch Ness Monster was revealed to be nothing more than a trick to sell newspapers - although the newspaper in question hadn't actually organised the hoax itself.

The newspaper that was so desperate for sales in 1934 was the Daily Mail, which had hired a big game hunter the year before to go on the lookout for Nessie and discover once and for all if the legend of a strange beast lurking beneath the waters of the loch was true. Marmaduke Wetherell went a-hunting, and found some impressive footprints - which were swiftly revealed to have been made by the amputated foot of a hippopotamus. Or to be more exact, the amputated foot of a hippopotamus that had been made into an umbrella stand.

So the Daily Mail was all too pleased to have an actual photograph of the beast fall into its lap the next year, and did very little to question its authenticity. The image, known to history as the 'Surgeon's Photograph', was allegedly taken by Col. Robert Wilson, a London gynaecologist, who happened to be driving past when the beastie surfaced - although he was never terribly willing to shed any light on the precise circumstances of how the photo came to be. The reason for his reticence is not because he was driving with a married woman, as he quietly implied to his medical colleagues so they would stop asking him about it. The truth was even more simple: he was secretly working with the erstwhile hunter Wetherell, who had decided it was high time that the Mail got its evidence of Nessie, even if he had to invent if from scratch. Again.

Wetherell enlisted his son, Ian, and his stepson, Christian Spurling, to help build the model that would be photographed. A toy submarine was procured, carefully weighted with lead so it would reliably stay under the surface, and then surmounted with a protrusion that resembled the head of a sea serpent. The photograph was duly published and proclaimed to be proof positive that there was something uncanny living beneath the depths of the loch; at least until Spurling reached the end of his days at the age of 90, when he admitted to two researchers that the whole thing had been made up.

However, these weren't just any researchers. They were Loch Ness Monster researchers, and the uncovering of a hoax did not in any way dent their certainty that the Loch Ness Monster existed. After all, there were so many eyewitness accounts over the years! They couldn't all be hoaxes. Or simply false. Could they? Human beings aren't capable of getting things repeatedly wrong over a stretch of decades or even centuries, right? Surely we never make wild assumptions about things that have perfectly mundane explanations? And it's not as though we have parts of our brains that fill in the gaps when we can't quite see something, or which generate memories according to our expectations of what we think should have been there...

Well, yes, actually our brains do these things all the time. Which is why we need to rely on more objective methods like sonar (just to take one example). But the fact that no such objective evidence has ever been found will, of course, never deter those who truly believe, for when it comes to things that don't exist, belief is the greatest sense of all: it can see anything, so long as the believer wants it to.

For more on this subject, the Skeptic's Dictionary has all the exasperated noises you could ever want.