“Everything is false, everything is possible, everything is doubtful” – Guy de Maupassant
We all have our little addictions. Some folks drink. Some smoke. Some do pilates. An inadequately explored area of cryptozoology is the problem this presents for the fearsome, yet elusive monstrosities that haunt our nightmares. Bigfoot would ruin his reputation as notoriously unphotographable if he were to wander into the local bodega and ask for a pack of Marlboro Lights and a non-fat latte. I figure he smokes “lights” and goes easy on the calories, since it’s highly likely that the nickname we’ve applied to him carries with it serious body image issues. This would also explain why your average cryptozoological critter tends to be a tad surly. Heck, without two cups of coffee and a cigarette, I can be something of a monster in the morning, and avoiding human contact until my mood has been chemically enhanced seems like an eminently reasonable strategy.
Now, life as a lake monster must be particularly constrictive in comparison to those glamorous, globe-trotting, attention hogs we call sea serpents. Unless you happen to live in a Great Lake or another relatively roomy body of water, the only vessels you get to crush tend to be small watercraft, and when does that get fun? We must surmise that the most pressing problem for the average lake monster, aside from eluding capture when the boundaries of your habitat are so clearly delineated, is pure boredom, which we all know can lead to picking up some rather unsavory recreational habits. The infamous Water Demon of Lake Koshkonong, sighted periodically in Wisconsin since long before Europeans landed in North America and commenced busting heads, appears to have developed a nicotine dependency, which would largely explain the subsequent ill-manners he is credited with, that is, when his tobacco connection got cut off.
Lake Koshkonong is a 10,500 acre lake, largely in southwestern Wisconsin’s Jefferson County (one of the largest lakes in the state) connected to the Rock River on both ends, but has an average depth of only six feet. The name “Koshkonong” is believed to derive from the Ojibwe word Gishkzhegonang (“Catfish Place”). Certainly, when the local catfish get top billing, it’s a blow to one’s monstrous pride. The Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans maintained camps and villages around the lake long before European settlers arrived, settling there in the 17th Century as they fled Michigan to avoid the expanding Iroquois, but by the early 19th century had been relocated with extreme prejudice to reservations in Oklahoma. Potawatomi traditions held that a water demon occupied Lake Koshkonong, and no man in his right mind would attempt to cross the lake without first making said demon an offering of tobacco. Without an offering of tobacco, the nasty brute was rumored to overturn canoes and drag victims underwater to drown and devour them.
Many years ago the Mascouten, or Prairie Potawatomi, had villages on the shores of Lake Koshkonong. A water monster of great power and terrible form dwelt in its depths and made havoc with every Indian canoe. No Indian dared to attempt to cross the lake from shore to shore even in mild weather, because of fear of this destructive denizen of its waters…Near the narrows of the lake rises a high rocky hill, and near it there is an island on which the Indians camped when trapping muskrats. On the west side of the hill there was a place where no Indian could cross. All who attempted it were sure to be drowned. Once there were two Potawatomi brothers who concluded that the story of the water monster was false. One day, starting in opposite directions, they set out to navigate the lake in their canoes. All the Indians watched them in fear. They expected that they would never be seen again. Soon a big wind arose, and it was so strong and fierce that it even blew the ducks that were flying overhead into the water. The Indians in the camp sang sacred songs for the well-being of the two boys, but night came and they did not return. The two canoes were later found capsized. After some time several white men told the Potawatomi that they had found the bodies of the boys floating in the lake. There was white clay in their nostrils and ears, a sure sign that the Lake Koshkonong monster had caught them and drowned them. Some Indians are afraid of the waters of Lake Koshkonong to this day, believing that the water monster still prowls about its shores (Brown, 1948, p16-17).
As white settlers descended upon the area and drove out the Potawatomi, legends persisted of the water demon of Lake Koshkonong. Sadly, nobody was providing the traditional tobacco offerings to the beast anymore. Lake monsters are not particularly skilled at cultivating tobacco, what with the lack of hands and general aquatic-ness, so one can only assume that our friend the water demon had to go cold turkey. That makes the best of us grumpy.
Indians had a legend of the presence of a destructive water demon in Lake Koshkonong. White residents of its shores, therefore, had every right to similar beliefs. Some former carp fishermen once told how their seine engaged a very large water animal which completely wrecked its meshes. It may have been a huge pickerel, but they thought otherwise from the way it twisted and tore the stout seine. A farmer living on the west side of this big lake was quite sure that this same animal devoured several of his pigs which were feeding off shore. Others saw a strange water animal they could not identify off the mouth of Koshkonong Creek. The late well-known naturalist, Halvor L. Skavlem, in one summer caught a large number of big pickerel in this lake. These he killed with an axe handle. A large number of cuts on his handy weapon each represented a dead pickerel, but there is no mark to show that he ever caught and killed the water demon (Brown, 1942, p9).
The monster of Lake Koshkonong seems to have laid low for a little while, that is, until November 1887, when the critter made its final appearance. The Watertown Republican (a neighboring town’s newspaper) republished an account first posted in the Fort Atkinson Sunday Sentinel, of two intrepid duck hunters that spotted the elusive cryptid.
Considerable interest is manifested here in the remarkable experience of A.I. Sherman, of this city, and a cousin, Charles Bartlett of Milwaukee, while out hunting a few days since on Lake Koshkonong. They were rowing down the south edge of the northeast bay, when both saw at about fifteen rods off a huge snake-like object swimming toward the center of the lake. It swam with the head raised about two feet above water, and about ten feet of the trunk, apparently eight inches thick, was partly visible. The water was calm and from the tremendous long wake the animal appeared to be about thirty or forty feet long. The gentlemen rowed rapidly toward it with the hope of killing it at close range, but as soon as the saurian saw them it slipped under the water and they were forced to give up the chase. This is about the sixth or seventh appearance of perhaps the same animal, as Red Cedar Lake, only a few miles away, has a big snake history with a record of five or six appearances (Watertown Republican, Nov 16, 1887, p5).
It’s not unreasonable to consider that the Water Demon of Lake Koshkonong moved on to find a more reliable source of tobacco products, but local rumors still abound that the creature lurks in the “depths” of the lake, jonesing for a smoke, trying to keep his distance from us pesky humans, and remembering the time when he was feared and respected. Edgar Allan Poe once said, “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.” Poor, sad water demon.
Brown, Charles E. (Charles Edward), 1872-1946, and Wisconsin Folklore Society. Sea Serpents: Wisconsin Occurrences of These Weird Water Monsters In the Four Lakes, Rock, Red Cedar, Koshkonong, Geneva, Elkhart, Michigan, And Other Lakes. Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin folklore society, 1942.
Brown, Dorothy Moulding, 1896-, and Wisconsin Folklore Society. Wisconsin Indian Place-name Legends. [Madison, Wis.: Wisconsin Folklore Society, 1948.
Watertown Republican (Watertown, Wis.), November 16, 1887.