I suppose every family has its stories of ghosts or other odd phenomena. This one belongs to the latter category.
Utah Lake, a 150 square mile body of water in north-central Utah, has a rich tradition of monsters and other unnatural creatures living in its depths. The Ute Indians told legends about evil dwarfs living in the waters of the lake. The Indians called these “water babies” [pawapicts] because they made sounds like crying babies that lured mortals into the water where they drowned. The Ute also told of a “Water Indian” who would drag unlucky braves to their deaths. They also told of a creature so large it was able to swallow a man whole.
Local natives said the great serpents had disappeared in the 1820s, but by the 1860s white settlers were reporting incidents involving huge, terrifying, scaly creatures.
On a clear, calm day [in 1871], Goshen Bishop William Price was traveling south on the road west of Utah Lake when he, C.G. Webb, and another man glimpsed the Utah Lake Monster. The creature was about one mile from shore and traveling in the same direction as the men.
The Deseret News quoted Price’s brief description of the creature: “It had a snakish appearance and stood several feet out of the water like a section of a large stove pipe.” The bishop concluded the serpent was about 60 feet long.
The News gave Bishop Price’s claim lukewarm support. The paper printed the following comment: “Men, whom we would readily believe upon any other subject, have stated that they saw a monster, and have described it with a minuteness that has left their hearers but little foundation to dispute them.”
The Daily Corinne Reporter took a much lighter-hearted approach. Referring to Price’s story and relating it to a reputed monster in the Great Salt Lake, the Reporter‘s editor wrote, “The story invented by Bishop Price, that our monster has changed his abode to Utah Lake, is a sheer fabrication. The big fish was at Monument Point last Monday.”
William Price is my uncle twice over: first by blood — his brother Charles is my third-great-grandfather — and again by William’s marriage to my great-grand-aunt, Mary Ann Gardner. (I’ve written about the Gardners and Goshen before.) He was indeed a man “whom [people] would readily believe upon any other subject”; his position as bishop was one of some responsibility, comprising something like the duties of pastor, mayor and magistrate all rolled into one. He was also fairly well known throughout the Territory: Utah’s Price River and the city of Price that sits on it are both named for him. And other historical evidence (unrelated to paranormal apparitions) indicates that he was generally thoughtful, levelheaded and moderate in outlook and opinion.
Obviously there is no way of knowing what exactly it was that William Price saw (or thought he saw) that day; but there were several other accounts of sightings during the 19th century (one family even reported finding a very unusual tusked skull), as well as one later account in 1921. Before that anachronistic last gasp, however, the local press had many years of fun with lake monster stories even as controversy continued as to their veracity:
By 1880, the Utah public had generally lost faith in the existence of the lake monsters. The News reported that many people were convinced the monsters were a “large species of bug, commonly known as humbug.”
(That assessment, however, may have been a bit premature: within a few months there was yet another reported encounter with the leviathan.)
As with Loch Ness, Lake Champlain and other places of mystery, rational (or quasi-rational) explanations for the monster have been suggested over time and include everything from floating logs to otters, giant beavers (really!) and an odd-duck waterfowl known as the “hell diver” (possibly the American coot), which “had to flap its wings furiously and water ski many yards to get airborne, a clumsy maneuver that could be mistaken for the wake of a sea serpent.” But as one of the articles quoted above notes,
Utah Lake’s monster likely surfaced as the result of the vivid imaginations of Utah County residents being stimulated by strange Ute Water Baby tales, Joseph C. Rich’s Bear Lake Monster articles in the Deseret News, illusions caused by the reflecting waters of the lake and a dearth of good optometrists.
The photos I’ve seen of him display neither spectacles, pince-nez nor monocle, and History herself has wisely maintained a discreet silence regarding William Price’s ocular acuity.