Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

Search This Blog



In between each episode of OTT, we now present OTTXtra. Here are the last three episodes:


Click on this logo to find out more about helping CFZtv and getting some smashing rewards...


Unlike some of our competitors we are not going to try and blackmail you into donating by saying that we won't continue if you don't. That would just be vulgar, but our lives, and those of the animals which we look after, would be a damn sight easier if we receive more donations to our fighting fund. Donate via Paypal today...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

MICHAEL NEWTON: What's Eating You? Florida's Hungry Sea-serpent Revisited

TOP: The sea monster sketched by Edward McCleary for Tim Dinsdale in 1965
MIDDLE: The sinking of the USS Massachusetts in 1921
BOTTOM: An exhibit from the Creation Museum, wherein a child plays with a dinosaur in the Garden of Eden!

In May 1965 readers of Fate magazine were treated to a remarkable tale, penned by then 19-year-old Edward Brian McCleary. Titled 'My Escape from a Sea Monster,' the story has achieved near-legendary status in cryptozoological circles, and forty years after the fact inspired a bizarre Internet parody.

The facts of the case—if facts they are—may be simply summarized. On Saturday, 24th March 1962, McCleary and four young companions left their homes in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for a diving expedition offshore from Pensacola. Their target was the USS Massachusetts, a decommissioned battleship deliberately sunk by naval gunfire in January 1921, still popular today with scuba divers who enjoy exploring wrecks. Joining McCleary on that fateful day were 17-year-old Warren Salley Jr, 16-year-old Eric Ruyle, 15-year-old Larry Bill, and 14-year-old Bradford Rice.

Aboard an rubber raft, the five companions paddled toward the Massachusetts, but they ran afoul of unexpected currents, gale-force winds, and fog that left them stranded on a buoy anchored to the sunken hulk. At nightfall, according to McCleary, a long-necked and foul-smelling sea monster approached the buoy, prompting all five boys to swim in panic through the fog. McCleary saw the beast grab Eric Ruyle and drag him underwater, followed shortly by the sound of Salley shouting, "It's got Brad!" Moments later, a scream signaled Salley's fate, while McCleary lost sight of Larry Bill in the mist. McCleary alone reached the shore, spending the night in World War II-era gun emplacement near Fort McRae, where a helicopter crew from Pensacola's Naval Air Station found him at 7:45 A.M. on Sunday.

Writing three years after the supposed event, McCleary claimed that he immediately shared his monster tale with personnel at Pensacola's naval hospital, where he was treated for shock and exposure to the elements. E. E. McGovern, a verified member of the Escambia County Search and Rescue Unit, allegedly listened in awe, then said, "The sea has a lot of secrets. I believe you, but there's not much else I can do."

Two months after Fate published his story, McCleary sent an abbreviated and amended version to Loch Ness researcher Tim Dinsdale, who apparently accepted the tale at face value and remarked on "the potential danger faced by those who swim in waters inhabited by these animals, which must be fish-eating carnivores." As for the fate of McCleary's friends, Dinsdale wrote, "I feel Mr. McCleary has been right to omit the details in his letter, because the facts cannot be proven."


Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans briefly recapped McCleary's story in 1968, suggesting a possible hoax but leaving room for speculation. Sensationalist author Warren Smith presented the tale as fact eight years later, suggesting that
"a storm, unfamiliar waters, or other factors affecting behavior could trigger a vicious attack by these beasts." In 2007 researcher Matt Bille told Internet readers: "As so often happens in cryptozoology, we are left with a story with no corroborating evidence. That story, as unbelievable as it sounds, still could be true. But we don't know. Until and unless we get a specimen of a creature that matches McCleary's beast, the death of four young men will remain a mystery of the sea."

Or will it?

While researching Florida's Unexpected Wildlife in 2005, I attempted to locate any available corroboration of McCleary's tale. Fate had referred to stories published in the "Pensacola Journal" (actually the News Journal) and the Playground News of Fort Walton Beach, but I struck a dead-end on that front. Archivists at the News Journal denied any record of the case in their paper (incorrectly, as I later learned), while the Playground News eluded me, having changed titles during 1988. Strangely, despite published descriptions of a full-scale search for the five young divers, my inquiries to local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard likewise proved fruitless. No one, it seemed, had any record of the case.

Enter Kent Hovind, a Christian evangelist who once styled himself "Dr. Dino" while promoting a doctrine of creationism, including tales of l
iving dinosaurs cited to prove that Earth is only 6,000 years old. Presently incarcerated at Jesup Federal Correctional Institution in Georgia, serving a term for tax evasion that will keep him caged until August 2015, Hovind formerly referred skeptics to Val Bill, stepmother of alleged monster victim Larry Bill, as a corroborating witness.

According to Hovind, Mrs. Bill approached him following a sermon he delivered in 1998, relating the tale of her son's grisly fate.
"You can write her a letter," said Hovind, providing an address in Fort Walton Beach. I did so, and received no answer.

Enter Dusty Ricketts, a reporter with the Northwest Florida Daily News (formerly the Playground News). Armed with a copy of my book, Ricketts launched his own investigation of McCleary's story and phoned to get my take on the events. He had unearthed copies of four newspaper articles about the case, published between 26 March and 2 April 1962, providing me with photocopies that shed more light on McCleary's article in Fate and his letter to Tim Dinsdale. (He had also located McCleary, hoping for an interview, apparently in vain.)

First, it should be noted that McCleary hedged his bets in Fate, claiming that Florida reporters warned him they could not publish a monster story, which was "better left unmentioned for all concerned." And in fact, the Pensacola News Journal quoted McCleary at length on 26 March 1962, including this description of the fatal incident:

"Larry, Eric and I tried to swim together. Eric suddenly developed cramps. Larry and I tried to hold him up and suddenly my legs stiffened and I wasn't able to use them to swim with. I tried to get Eric to hold onto me. He finally started shouting that he couldn't make it. I told Larry that I didn't think we were going to make it and he said, 'We're sure going to try.'"

Whatever happened next remained unstated, as McCleary jumped ahead to his arrival on the shoreline, by himself. There was no mention of a monster, or indeed any description of what befell his friends. More to the point, the Playground News of 2 April 1962 reports the funeral of Brad Rice, washed ashore on 31 March, a presumed drowning victim. Larry Bill, Eric Ruyle and Warren Salley Jr. rated no mention at all.

Which raises the question: why not? Was the disappearance and presumed death of three teenagers so routine that the local paper in their relatively small town—19,992 residents as of 2008—chose to ignore their passing entirely?

In an effort to resolve that question, I consulted the U.S. Social Security Death Index, a public resource that purports to list dates of death for any resident of the United States who has possessed a Social Security card since Congress launched the program in 1935. No resident of the U.S. may legally work without first acquiring a Social Security number, and paying mandated taxes into the system. Warren Salley and Eric Ruyle were certainly of working age in 1962, while the other alleged monster victims may also have possessed Social Security cards. (I obtained mine at age 13, for my first summer job. Child actors may be registered in infancy.)

That said, a note of caution is required, since research on other projects has shown me that some persons who should be listed are not, including both the famous and infamous. With that in mind, my search for McCleary's companions revealed the following information:

According to federal records, only one Eric Ruyle has died in the U.S. since Social Security was established. Born in August 1883, he died at Alton, Illinois, in January 1965, aged 81.

Two Warren Salleys made the government's list. One was born in 1921 and died in Panama City, Florida, at 85, in March 2007. The other was born in 1925 and died a month before his namesake, in February 2007, at Derby, Kansas.

By comparison, we have too many Larry Bills. The only one with that precise name—Larry G. Bill—died at Naples, Florida, in April 2008, age 72. Five Lawrence Bills, born between November 1898 and November 1953, died in Virginia (July 1972), Louisiana (February 1983), New York (October 1985), North Dakota (June 1996), and Ohio (July 2006). Laurence B. Bill was born in 1935 and died in Pennsylvania, in October 1996.

Seeking other avenues of verification, I checked the weather for Pensacola, Florida, and environs on 24 March 1962, through the Old Farmer's Almanac online. The day was reasonably warm, with a high of 64.9° Fahrenheit. No precipitation or fog was recorded, visibility was cited as 4.8 miles, and the stormy winds that allegedly drove McCleary's raft off-course never topped 13 miles per hour.

So, was the story a shameless hoax?

One Internet prankster obviously thought so, when he mocked Kent Hovind's recitation of the case on the FARK "not news" Web site, quoting fabricated author "MacArthur Vick's" proclamation that "Dinosaurs are Sodomites!" In that piece, we are regaled with the story of 23 teenage divers swept off-course in March 1959, while searching for a shipwreck near "Surf City, New Jersey." Lost in a "satanic" fog, they are attacked and fatally buggered by a reptilian beast, which spares only survivor " Percival Patterson." "Atheist satanic scientists" dismiss the tale, but author "Vick" proclaims that the youths "had been ravaged and eaten by the sea monster."

And there, at least for now, the matter rests. Unless McCleary someday offers evidence supporting his account, whatever that might be after the passage of nearly half a century, logic demands dismissal of his claim.


Anonymous said...

I have responded to Lindsay's reposting of this story with comparisons of the drawing with a large seal (Leopard seal) and the head is in fact closely similar. I was not the author of that theory and I was only responding to that theory at that time. I did notice there were some peculkiarities with the drawing and with the anatomy it portrayed, and Matt Billie and I had discussed it before that point.

With the further evidence that there was NOT a batch of multiple funerals for missing teenagers at the time and there was NOT stormy weather reported, I think it has definitely gone over into the "Hoax" category. However, the story of Sodomite Satanic Sea Monsters has no bearing on the validity of the original statement.

Richard Freeman said...

A great bit of research. Another fortean classic bites the dust!

Richard Freeman said...

A great bit of research (i wonder why no one had checked those records already?) Another fortean classic bites the dust!

Peter Hassall said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but as there are newspaper accounts about the tragedy, there would seem to be no doubt the deaths happened. What could be disputed is if a sea monster was involved or not (all relying on one person's claim). Although not unheard of, it would be a very callous person who would make up such a story to profit from the deaths of friends. Also, you seem to be using an implied association with creationism to discredit the report which smacks of character assassination of the witness. Lastly, have you thought of checking census and phone book records for the town/area? Perhaps surviving relatives of the dead could shed more light on the incident?

Anonymous said...

Hi there Peter, since you gave me such a perfect opening it was hard to resist.

The Newspaper accounts in question merely quoted McCleary, evidently they did not check for the multiple deaths. Michael N. is saying that the records he examiined did NOT indicate a mass death of teenagers at the time-nor yet the stormy night that the story required. This means that the newspaper accounts in question did NOT do the same checking that Michael N. did. This is common enough in newspapers and sometimes when subsequent investigations by the paper turn up evidence that a given story is a hoax, that evidence turns up years later.

So rather than saying the other media coverage of the story corroborates the story, I would say that the other printings merely parrot off the same account without any attempt to critically evaluate it. And it is entirely piossible that other newspapers DID check up later on but their findings indicating the event did NOT happen went unnoticed. You really have to dig to find some of this stuff.

Jon D'Souza-Eva said...

The newspaper report which crops up on a Google search: http://tinyurl.com/3fedm65
is dated the 26th March 1962 and at least two of the names doesn't match ("Warren Felley", "Harry Ruyle").

I'm too mean to pay to read the article, but perhaps someone who reads this already has a subscription?

Jon D'Souza-Eva said...

Here's another news story from 26th March which gives the name "Warren Felley":

Jon D'Souza-Eva said...

The death of Larry Stuart Bill is recorded here:

Jon D'Souza-Eva said...

Note that the sister of Larry Stuart Bill appears to have posted a message on a forum here:

"Sandra" matches the name in the family tree page I posted just now.