Thursday, March 12, 2015

Arkansas History's Mysteries

The White River begins just south of Fayetteville, flows northward into southern Missouri, then makes its way south again into Arkansas, eventually emptying into the Mississippi River in Desha County.  At one point in the river’s travels, it passes through the town of Newport in Jackson County, and here is where this month’s mystery begins.  

In late June, 1937, Brambelett Bateman walked down to the edge of the river near his home ten miles south of Newport.  He had been concerned about the fact that the river level seemed to have dropped a full fifteen feet since the night before.  While he stood there puzzling over this strange occurrence, he noticed something thrashing out towards the middle of the river.  “Whatever it was, and everyone and his brother has speculated about that, it was alive and large, at least the length of two Buicks,” he told the Newport Daily Independent in 1971.  He watched the object bob up and down in the water, throwing a tremendous amount of water into the air.  

Over the next few months, Bateman claimed to have seen the phenomenon hundreds of times, and it seems that all of Jackson County got interested in what they quickly began calling the White River Monster.  Observers reported that the monster seemed to surface every afternoon and float around on the surface for around ten to fifteen minutes at a time.  The monster never reared its head from the water, leaving many to speculate as to what its head looked like.  Others that saw it that summer reported that it had smooth, scaleless, grey skin.  People flocked to the Bateman farm to try to catch a glimpse of the White River Monster.  Enterprising vendors set up a temporary dance stage next to the river along with several concession stands.  It was all the rage that summer to go and see if one could catch a glimpse of the monster.  

Memphis radio station WREC came to Newport hoping to broadcast from the shoreline near the site.  Along with the radio men, reporters from the Memphis Commercial Appeal also came, cameras in hand, hoping to take a picture of the creature.  For some, though, photographing the monster was not enough. Several people hoped to catch the monster and went so far as to ask the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for permission to use dynamite on the river monster to blast it out of its hiding place.  Luckily for the monster, and whatever other creatures lived in the river, the agency denied such a request.  And then, just as suddenly as it began, it stopped.  Eventually the monster was only a memory, something old men could discuss over coffee at the local diner.  Maybe the constant public attention had been enough to cause the monster to seek a quieter abode.

In the summer of 1971, all of that changed.  That spring, the entire state had been thrown into frenzy by the sighting of a monster near Fouke in southwestern Arkansas.  Just as the shock of the Fouke monster was beginning to fade, the White River Monster made another appearance.  On June 18, 1971, reporter Mike Masterson of the Newport Daily Independent received a call from an anonymous man who claimed to have seen the monster.  The witness claimed that the monster was as long as three or four pickup trucks, “I was scared . . .  I didn’t see his head, but I didn’t have to. His body was enough to scare me bad.”  This time, though, some would see the monster’s head.  Earnest Denks claimed that he saw the monster rear its head out of the water, revealing a large pointed bone sticking out of its forehead.  When skeptics questioned Denks about his sighting and his sobriety, he told reporters, “I am a god-fearing man, and haven’t touched liquor in thirty years.”  

This time, reporters were able to get a photograph of the monster.  Unfortunately, like its cousin in Loch Ness, the monster is not known for holding steady for press photos.  The picture shows little more than ripples on the water.  That same summer a man found tracks on an island on the White River.  “I didn’t believe in this monster hoaky until I saw those tracks,” he told Newport reporters.  Soon, the man was joined by a game warden and several members of law enforcement including Jackson County Sheriff Ralph Henderson.  They took plaster casts of the prints, some of which were as large as 14 inches long.  Soon, though, like in the 1937 sightings, the monster soon disappeared again.

Folklorist Jimmy Driftwood argued that the monster was certainly real.  He pointed to the 1937 reports as well as folklore that the monster had been spotted in the 1890s as proof of the monster’s existence.  The creature seemed to appear every 40 years or so, Driftwood argued.  “He’s just like the eel,” he told reporters, “He comes up the White river to get big, then goes back to the Sargasso Sea.”  The Newport Daily Independent worried that the constant attention from the public was responsible for the sudden disappearances of the creature.  It called for the public to protect the habitat of the creature, not hunt it.  “If we go around declaring open season on our monsters, before you know it, they’ll all be extinct,” it reasoned.  As such, a couple of years later, State Senator Robert Harvey of Swifton, sponsored a bill in the state legislature establishing a portion of the White River as the White River Monster Sanctuary and Refuge.  This resolution, which passed in 1973, declared that it is illegal to “molest, kill, trample, or harm the White River Monster while in its native retreat.”  So, whether or not it is a large sturgeon, an alligator gar, or some strange leftover from prehistoric times, it is a protected species in the state of Arkansas, possibly the only monster to have such an official designation.  Big Foot, and the Fouke Monster, for that matter, must be green with envy.