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Blasts from the Past - The News that Time Forgot
Lake Monsters of Italy and Germany

The serpentine denizens of European waters

Lake Monsters Europe

FT274


In November 1946, a monster appeared suddenly in Italy’s Lake Como, making headlines first in the regional press, then in Italy, Europe, and even the United States:

Como’s “rose-coloured” sea monster developed “gleaming red eyes and green scales”’ today and intrepid hunting parties patrolled the eastern shore determined to do him in with pitchforks and shotguns the next time he appears.

Three fishermen said they spotted the marine mammoth Wednesday. They said he had “gleaming eyes, green scales and black stripes”. “We were terror-stricken,” said two of the fishermen, with the third nodding an anxious assent. The exact size of the monster still is unsettled. Some say he’s about 100ft long. Others say he’s only 12ft long. All agree, however, that Lake Como is no longer a place for fishermen. The firemen have taken over.

Firemen… patrol the lake shore day and night, armed with weapons ranging from shotguns to pitchforks. The slightest ripple on the blue water attracts their attention… Dredging barges cruise along the eastern lake shore. One fisherman claimed he wounded the colourful monster with a rifle shot. Barge operators said that might help them to capture the beast.

Whether this new giant of the deep is the same one an Italian journalist said he sighted six years ago has not yet been established. The Italian journalist didn’t say anything about “black spots or great horns” on the head of the monster he saw. Villagers can’t remember whether the Italian journalist’s monster had green or red scales.

“We were going to Varenna in a rowboat,” one of the eyewitnesses said, “when we saw on our left a strange, foaming wake, my companion remarked how strange it was – because the lake is always so calm. We turned and saw an enormous, frightful head.

“The monster opened its mouth and we could see big eyes and black spots or bumps on its head. It swall­owed some water, plunged and re-emerged with the fins on its body showing. We started to row away fast – and when we looked back it was gone.”
[1]

Italian researcher Giorgio Castiglioni has shown, in several well-argued papers, that the whole episode (which comprised several sightings) was a well-orchestrated hoax.[2] But it’s an odd thing – whenever you look for a precursor of a recent event, you turn up historic antedecents.

Tourists on their European tour in the 19th century visited the usual hot spots of the well-to-do – Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, Germany’s Lake Constance – and reported interesting monsters that predate Nessie by years.

German painter Max Nohl gives a hint in a diary of his journey through Italy. From Lake Como, under the heading “Cadenabbia, 8 August 1858”, he writes: “We had several amusing events. Kids surrounded us, there was an alleged sea serpent.”[3] We can only wonder what this single reference meant – did he and his friends actually see something strange? Did the children report it to them?

Brooklyn author Virginia Johnson (1849–1916) lived most of her life in Europe. In one of her travel books, Lake Como: A World’s Shrine, she has this to say about the fishermen of the lake:

Who knows if there are fabulous creatures, half-monster and half-merman in the depths of the lake, such as the ancients believed in? The ledges are treacherous, and bodies of the drowned seldom recovered here. What fright if one of these shapes got entangled in the net sometime![4]

I know nothing about Ian H Driscoll apart from his books about aircraft and the War. Some time before 1945, he must have visited Lake Como when one of his acquaintances, Daphne, thought she hooked a monster:
We drove on to Villa Carlotta for tea, after which we hired a boat and decided to spend the summer evening fishing. Our luck was not outstanding, although Daphne nearly upset the boat in one wild moment of enthusiasm when she apparently imagined that she had hooked a member of the whale family. When we did get her line in, however, there was nothing but her untampered bait on the hook, although she would stand for no contradiction, in spite of this solid fact, that anything less than the Loch Ness Monster had made contact.[5]

One year later, of course, the Italians created their own monster, and rumours and sightings have been reported ever since.

I myself invented a monster in Lake Constance, Europe’s third largest lake, on the border between Germany, Switzerland and Austria. I had a few hoaxed reports and some old allusions in the legends about saints when I wrote a suspense novel about a giant, carnivorous newt which suddenly threatens the cosy banks of the lake in 2008.[6]

Little did I know that this monster, entirely of my own invention – or so I believed – had already been reported in the 19th century by an English traveller! British Army officer Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington (1858–1925) worked as a war correspondent for the Times. In his autobio­graphy, Records of an Active Life,[7] he reports from Mellau in the Bregenzer­wald at some point between 1871 and 1875: “The local people from the hills round used to frequent the inn to hold various festivals, and on these occasions there was hung up a scroll with a picture of a strange monster, half-fish, half-snake, which was supposed to inhabit Lake Constance, and all sorts of odes were sung to it.”



Notes
1 “Rose-Coloured Sea Monster Terrorizes Italy Fishermen”, Reading Eagle, 22 Nov 1946, p35.
2 Giorgio Castiglioni: Un mostro nel lago di Como, 1946; Studi Della Biblioteca Comun­ale di Cavallasca 1, 1999, pp6–8.
3 Maximilian Nohl: Tagebuch einer italien­ischen Reise, Ebner & Seubert, 1866, p53. Incidentally, it was another Max Nohl who discovered the mysterious pyramids in Rock Lake, Wisconsin!
4 Virginia Wales Johnson: Lake Como: a world’s shrine, AS Barnes, 1902, p192.
5 Ian H Driscoll: Mercury sped on, J Crowther & Goodsman, 1945, p133.
6 Ulrich Magin: Der Fisch, Aufbau, Berlin, 2008.
7 Charles à Court Repington: Records of an Active Life, Houghton, 2001, p31.

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