by Tim Gilmore, 7/29/2020
It’s been called “Johnnie,” for the river it purportedly calls home, “Borinkus,” inexplicably, by a wisecracking racist state attorney, a “monster,” a “beast” and a “thing.” It’s never been photographed, though several people have expressed regret at not having cameras when they saw it. Someone drew it once, in the 1970s, but the drawing’s not much to go by.
Simon Smith, a keeper of snakes and lizards and an “amateur cryptozoologist,” who lives on Old Gainesville Road on the Westside, claims to have kept track of the St. Johns River Monster for decades.
Simon says people almost always get certain details wrong. For one thing, he says, “Johnnie is a she,” a fact that “should be obvious to anybody ever studied Marine Science.” He considers various testimonies of Johnnie being black or dark gray or brown or beige or pink nonsensical discrepancies. The abrasions of sand and salt and water and sun on skin contribute easily to such a spectrum. He says people have seen Johnnie frequently in the past few years, and probably as reported in my 2016 story, “Beer Hole and Horse-Legged Fish,” but that people today are smarter than to report that fact to “the lamestream media.”
The first account of Johnnie in a mainstream newspaper, Simon says, was in 1849. He has a clipping, but it’s from October 8, 1970, from the Franklin [Indiana] Daily Journal. That day’s “The Way Things Used to Be” column by Verne Vandivier, ostensibly about the Loch Ness Monster, refers to “a monster of the deep” reported by a Captain Adams of a Florida schooner called Lucy and Nancy.
From a newspaper called The Examiner, the Daily Journal quotes the story of Adams, on the 18th of February, 1849, when, at the mouth of the St. Johns River on the coast, “his own and the attention of the crew was riveted upon an immense sea monster which he took to be a serpent.”
The monster “lifted its head, which was like that of a snake, several times out of the water and at such times displayed the most of his body, exhibiting a pair of frightful fins several feet in length.” Adams “judged the leviathan to be about 90 feet in length. Its neck tapered from the head of the body and appeared to be about seven feet across the widest part of the back. The color of the creature was a dirty brown.”
Vandivier assures readers that “the citizens of Jacksonville” vouched fully for Captain Adams’s character, that “all circumstances” seemed to “favor the idea” of the existence of sea serpents, though scientists had not yet characterized and classified them, and that Jacksonville residents found it “unthinkable” Adams “would invent such a story.”
Vandivier wanted to know whether a “prehistoric beast of the dinosaur age” could exist in modern times and said “documented evidence” existed in Scotland. Though many people “pooh-poohed” the idea, “the English Parliament” had recently “set up a bureau” to investigate the Loch Ness Monster.
The infamous 1934 photo of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, was long ago proven a fake. It’s not clear who vouched for Adams’s character back in Jacksonville. The namesake of Adams Street was the second U.S. president. Whom Captain Adams may have been nobody knows.
In October 1953, The Orlando Sentinel reported, “That old St. Johns River monster may be an ugly, terrifying creature but he’s worth at least $5,000 to one man.” That’s about $50,000 today.
Owen Godwin, owner of Godwin’s Snake Village in Kissimmee, Florida, was promising to pay five grand for the living monster, or 1K for the slain beast. There was a condition. The sea monster must stretch 30 feet long and have a horn like a narwhal or unicorn. Said the Sentinel, “At least six witnesses said he does.”
It bothers Simon Smith they had the gender wrong. He’s also doubtful, because of the gender, of the existence of the horn. Simon says he worked with Owen, an okay guy with whom to do shots, but he didn’t like the way he treated some of his serpents, including the anaconda named Big Bertha and her babies.
Former Florida State Attorney J.W. “Jesse” Hunter replied to Orlando Sentinel columnists, “I thought they were extinct.” He referred to “the discovery of the beast, animal, snake or whatever it was, on the St. Johns River.” Back in the 19-teens, “plenty of them” swarmed the St. Johns in various Jacksonville confluences, “and the name for them,” back then, Hunter said, “was Borinkus.”
“Barney Dillard,” he said, a citrus magnate and personal friend, “who still lives at Volusia, used to use a team of them to ferry across the river.”
Jesse Hunter may have been pulling reporters’ legs about “Borinkus,” but he was directly connected to real world monstrosities. He’s best remembered today as the attorney prosecuting the Groveland Boys, four black boys accused of raping white 17 year old Norma Padgett in Central Florida in 1949. Sentenced by an all white jury, no evidence presented, the case of the Groveland Boys recalled that of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teenagers falsely accused of the same crime in Alabama in 1931.
The accusations led to white mob attacks on black families. Headlines spoke of the Klan burning “negro homes” and firing gunshots into the “negro section” of town. In short order, 1) the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial, 2) Sheriff Willis McCall handcuffed and shot two of the Groveland Boys, Sammy Shepherd and Walter Irvin, killing Shepherd, 3) Harry T. Moore, director of Florida operations for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demanded McCall be indicted for murder, and 4) the Ku Klux Klan bombed Moore’s house, killing him and his wife.
In 2016, three years after the publication of Gilbert King’s book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America, the Groveland Boys were exonerated. They were all long dead. The mayor of Groveland offered them a “posthumous apology.”
In Florida, even when you dig into legends of sea monsters, you unearth lynchings and massacres. In October 1953, 63 years before the mayor’s apology, The Orlando Sentinel reported that “a lady” described the St. Johns River Monster as “the beast that swims like a fish and walks like a dog.” At least it wasn’t “the beast with two backs” Iago references in Shakespeare’s Othello. After it came “up to her boat” somewhere between Orlando and Jacksonville, “two other parties of fisherfolk reported having seen the beast.” The leviathan stretched 35 feet long “with a head 30 inches wide and a 10 inch horn in the middle of its head.”
Biologists told newspapers the monster was probably a manatee, a “sea cow.” After all, Christopher Columbus had apparently seen manatee when he wrote in his journal of mermaids. In the 1750s, French anatomist and printmaker Gautier d’Agoty engraved images of mermaids as human-fish hybrids, but also androgynous and racially ambiguous. It was impossible for Europeans at that point to imagine the Americas otherwise. Perhaps they were right.
Homer J. Wright, president of the Astor Florida Chamber of Commerce disagreed with contemporary scientists. On June 18, 1954, Wright told the Sentinel an unnamed wildlife officer “who didn’t happen to have his camera with him at the time” had recently seen the river monster. Wright said he “wouldn’t be surprised at all if in the wilds of Florida there weren’t some creature like that monster.”
What Wright thought of the likelihood of monsters in the form of white sheriffs and lynch mobs deep in the Florida woods and swamplands, if his imagination admitted of such horrors, he did not say.
Jacksonville glass installers Wallace McLean, 24 years old, and Eddie St. John, 33, were fishing with friends in May 1975 when, according to The Florida Times-Union and The Tampa Tribune months later, “Brenda Langley, one of two women on board,” suddenly stood, pointed and gasped.
McLean watched the monster’s head rise from the water “like a periscope,” then turn and stare at him for a minute and a half. The monster was “the color of boiled shrimp.” Said McLean, “And if it wasn’t pink, then I’m not sitting here talking to you.”
When Langley was asked what the monster looked like, she said, “Like pictures of dragons.” Her friend Dorothy Abram said it looked “like a dinosaur with its skin pulled back so all its bones were showing.”
McLean provided newspapers a drawing of the monster. It did indeed look “like pictures of dragons.” Drawn by five year olds.
At first, the friends hadn’t mentioned it for fear that no one would believe them. Once the story came out, “the kidding” wouldn’t stop, though McLean said they’d received phone calls “by scientists from as far away as England.” He said “an 80 year old woman” had called him to say she knew he wasn’t lying, “because she’d seen the big pink creature herself—40 years ago.”
Marine Patrol Captain D.B. Newbold told The Tampa Tribune on January 18, 1976, “They used to report them to me back in the ’50s when I was water patrolling. What they’re seeing are manatee (sea cows) playing.”
Said the Tribune, “Like others of its ilk—Bigfoot, the Swamp Ape, the Big Bird spotted in Texas this week, the Loch Ness Monster himself—the Serpent of the St. Johns seems to thrive on publicity.”
Months would go by without a sighting, Newbold said, and then his office would be flooded with calls for days. Explaining why he didn’t know how many monster sightings had been reported, Newbold waxed snarky. “We just keep records of manatee and other animals protected by state and federal laws. We don’t have any laws protecting sea monsters.”
Others who’d seen the monster included Larry Atkinson and Bobby Holt, who drank beers downtown while fishing from the Fuller Warren Bridge on December mornings. Holt said, “The thing was out in the middle of the channel under the bridge and as it swam, its humps came completely out of the water. It looked like a sea serpent. We were both baffled.” Atkinson added, “It wasn’t an otter, wasn’t sea cows and it wasn’t a snake. Snakes swim sideways and this thing, whatever it was, had humps and it was moving in an up-and-down motion. Snakes don’t do that.”
John Baumgartner, foreman for the Jacksonville Public Works Commission, claimed to see something that made no sense to him or the other men working in the San Marco neighborhood by the LaSalle Street bulkhead. The beast was “black or dark gray” with “a watermelon-sized head sticking up about a foot above the water.” It sprayed water from the top of its head. “What got my attention was I heard something go ‘pssssh’—like a snort—and a spray came up.”
Though Baumgartner turned away, one of his workers saw “a split tail” rise out of the water. The men said the beast “could have been 20 feet long.” The crew followed its course for another half hour, but after it dove down, they never saw it resurface.
Dr. Harold J. Humm, a University of South Florida marine science professor, said it was possible that when people thought they were seeing a sea monster, they truly were not seeing a manatee. No, indeed. They might be seeing eels. Humm noted that “moray eels, which come in both dark and brightly colored varieties, reach a length of 15 to 20 feet,” but the eels didn’t usually stick their heads up out of the water and Humm couldn’t imagine one making its way into the St. Johns River.
In July 1976, Kathy Kirkland was fishing in the river at Jacksonville’s Stockton Park when she noticed “something with a head the size of a basketball” about 50 feet from shore. “I had a line in the water when it first came up and I thought it was headed toward my bait. At first I thought it was three sea cows,” she admitted, “but after watching it a while, I realized it was all connected together.”
Two Jacksonville residents, Earl Boylston and H.L. Walters, told newspaper reporters they’d seen Johnnie several times since the early 1960s and knew the secret to his (or her) identity.
“The first time I saw it was about 15 years ago,” Walters said. “I thought, ‘God! What a snake! It must be 30 feet long!’” For several weeks, he believed he’d seen a sea serpent. Then there it was again. It poked its head up from the water “close enough,” Walters said, “that I could spit in his eye. I thought, ‘Well I’ll be damned. There’s my snake!’”
No leviathan, no Jörmungandr, no Loch Ness Monster, Walters’s snake was a long line of otters, “swimming nose to tail.” Boylston and Walters had seen them several times in the last 15 years. As the otters “dip in and out of the water in a long single-file parade,” Walters said, “they create the illusion of one long serpentine creature.”
Besides, he added, this was the South, and this was Florida, and if a sea monster had truly called the St. Johns River home, some redneck would have shot and killed it a long time ago.
But Baumgartner said he was sure the beast he’d seen was no manatee, no eel, no line of otters. “I’ve never seen anything like it, not even on Jacques Cousteau,” he said. “They might call me a dummy, but I know what I seen.”
What he “seen,” he defended, felt protective toward and chose his language carefully to describe. Johnnie was no “monster,” Baumgartner said, just a “thing.” That “thing” had opened Baumgartner’s eyes and mind to new ways of seeing the world. The world was bigger than Baumgartner knew or could imagine and that was a comfort. Everything outside his understanding wasn’t, by definition, frightening or threatening, and why should it be?
Johnnie, Baumgartner said, “didn’t look like a mean son-of-a-gun, just kind of casual. He looked so kind and innocent.”