Sea Serpents in the Ohio River (And Other Cincinnati Monsters)

In the dim, pre-dawn light of Friday, 11 January 1878, Ben Karrick was driving his horse-drawn delivery wagon over the Roebling Suspension Bridge when he saw a most unusual sight in the Ohio River below – a sea serpent. He told the Cincinnati Gazette:

“Protruding from the water some twelve or fifteen feet was what seemed to be the head of a huge serpent or animal, that was rushing through the water at a very rapid rate, and occasionally lashing the water with its tail into a perfect foam.”

Karrick told the newspaper that the beast made a noise similar to the deep lowing of a cow, interspersed with a loud hissing noise. It looked, he said, nothing at all like a cow:

“Its head and neck seemed to me to be covered by a black glossy substance like hair, and further back from the head, the hide looked like that of an alligator. The head was shaped somewhat similar to that of a sea horse, which we have so often seen in pictures.”

Sea monster illustration
Sea monster illustration

Cincinnati Gazette 8 February 1880 image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The great serpent swam rapidly upstream. Karrick, said, and headed toward the Ohio shore before it disappeared from sight.

A few days later, the Gazette carried a letter on the front page suggesting that Mr. Karrick’s monster was none other than the great serpent of Clermont County’s Hartman Mill dam that escaped some years prior. That serpent was reputedly fifteen to twenty feet long and as thick as the body of a man and lived in the pool of a dammed creek upstream from the Little Miami River. A letter to the Cincinnati Commercial recorded memories of the “Great Snake Hunt” of 1847 organized out of Williamsburg in which a posse armed with “guns, pitch forks, corn knives, clubs and almost every other conceivable weapon” was organized by a couple of local military veterans in a fruitless search for the Hartman Mill monster.

Mr. Karrick’s sea serpent matches closely with the report, just one day earlier, of a sea serpent swimming in the Ohio River. John Davidson, master of the Silver Moon steamboat, was docked at Vevay, Indiana, when he saw an amazing apparition. As he wrote to the Cincinnati Enquirer [11 January 1878]:

“I had no faith in the reports I had read of the river monster, so graphically described in the newspapers, but I am now convinced of the actual existence of the terrible beast. At one time it reared its head high above the surface of the water in the manner of the sea lions of the Zoological Gardens of your city. The long pelican beak, the slimy mane, and the extreme serpentine length of the animal answer exactly to the previous descriptions that have been published.”

The monster dove beneath the surface before Captain Davidson could call his first mate to witness the beast. The captain had some serious advice for the city of Cincinnati:

“I would suggest the employment of your Gatling gun along the banks of the river for a few days, and it is probable the beast can be destroyed and its body captured.”

Giant serpents were not, apparently, limited to the Ohio River and its tributaries. In 1885, the Cincinnati Gazette described an immense snake terrorizing the inhabitants of Ripley County, Indiana. The edition of August 23 carried a breathless report describing the experience of Thomas Leppar and his grown son, who collected loads of wood to sell in Pierceville, near Milan.

“Mr. Leppar and his son had loaded their wagon with stovewood, and started to drive through the thick undergrowth and tangled bushes which abound in all woods in this section of the county, when all of a sudden young Leppar, who was driving saw the monster with his head lifted five feet from the ground, his eyes flashing fire and darting his forked tongue from his massive mouth with lightning rapidity. The young man, although, as he describes it, ‘almost paralyzed,’ had the presence of mind to turn his team short around, thereby avoiding the stroke of the snake, and no doubt saving his horses from the coil of the monster, which meant death.”

The Leppars estimated (which the Gazette acknowledged might have been affected by “intense excitement”) that the giant snake was 24 feet long and two feet in diameter. The Leppar’s story was corroborated by one John Lane, who was cutting wood in the same area for charcoal. He rushed over with his axe,

“ . . . but the serpent was thoroughly aroused, and in its fury tore up the ground and lashed into fragments the bushes for yards around.”

Although it does not appear that anyone captured or killed any Ohio River sea serpents or Ripley County anacondas, there are records of a very unusual reptile captured from the river at Cincinnati—alligators. The Cincinnati Gazette [23 October 1879] reported that an alligator some three feet in length was snared on the Covington bank.

“Since the capture several others of the same species of animal have been seen between the empty coal barges, near the mouth of Willow Run. This is the first time alligators have ascended the Ohio as far as Cincinnati.”

A Cincinnati surgeon, A. Jackson Howe, took possession of the captured alligator “for scientific purposes” and had it displayed at the Cincinnati Society of Natural History at 108 Broadway.

“The captive is exceedingly pugnacious and vicious. Small boys should not bathe in the river at present.”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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