Creating a Monster: the case of Eachy, the Wikipedia monster of Bassenthwaite Charles Paxton The Skeptic

In 1971, the magazine Man, Myth and Magic reported sightings of the ghost of an eighteenth-century vicar on the docks of Wapping in east London (Smyth [anonymously] 1971). The article quoted several witnesses to a sinister vicar whose ghostliness was revealed by his tendency to suddenly disappear. Historically, there had been a local vicar who ran a boarding house where the unfortunate tenants were murdered.

Except there wasn’t. In fact, the vicar of Ratcliff Wharf was a hoax generated by Frank Smyth as an experiment, as he revealed in the London’s Sunday Times several years later (which was also broadcast by the BBC in a program called A Leap in the Dark on February 18, 1977). But by then, the hoax had apparently become local folklore and generated actual reports of a ghost in Wapping.

Intrigued by Smyth’s experiment, I wanted to give it a twenty-first-century cryptozoological twist. Could I generate cryptid reports by simply saying a specific location was associated with a monster? Ideally, such an experiment should be undertaken at locations that had no monster tradition, so any resulting monster reports could be directly linked to my actions.

I therefore intended to create an entry on a monster in Wikipedia for two localities where there was no evidence of any sort of monster history (or at least where I thought there was no monster history): Bassenthwaite and Windermere, two freshwater lakes in the English Lake District. Both lakes had had regular extensive biological sampling of plankton, fish, etc, for decades undertaken by the Freshwater Biological Association and the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (e.g., Paxton and Winfield 2000), so the chances of an actual giant unknown species genuinely being present were negligible.

I wanted to make the monster distinctive so it would not be a generic sea serpent–type monster that could be generated by boat wakes, etc, but instead a monstrous aquatic humanoid. So on July 9, 2006, I placed an anonymous request to create a page on Wikipedia for a monster from “northern Britain” known as an Eachy, a play on Each-Nisge, the Scots Gaelic name of the kelpie or water horse. I pronounce it, incorrectly, as if it had had an actual Gaelic origin, “Eekee.”

After initial prevarication by one Wikipedia checker, the article was posted on July 12 as below, including typos:

An Eachy is a name given to a species of lake monsters from a variety of locations in northern England and Scotland. An Eachy was typically a large humanoid being of gruesome and slimy appearence seen to occasionally emerge from the lake. An Eachy was reported from Windermere in 1873 and Bassenthwaite Lake as late as 1903.

Sources
– Gould, M.J. (1980) ‘Folklore of Northern Britain.’ Nix. Kendal.

The original Wikipedia editor had accepted an anonymous article, although he/she noted that there was no other mention of such a thing on the internet. However, the presence of the bibliographic reference convinced him/her to proceed with the creation.

After that, the addition of the false etymology created an aura of scholarship about the article (to be fair, procedures for creating and adding to Wikipedia articles have tightened since then; see “Skepticism One Wikipage at a Time: Talking with Wikiskeptic Susan Gerbic-Forsyth” in the March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer). The Gould book was entirely fictitious. There were minor edits (tags, etc.) to this, but then on July 28, I added a false etymology:

Presumably the name comes from the middle English “iker” which was a type of sea monster or perhaps Each-uisge, the water horse although the latter was not anthropoidal.

Sources
– Gould, M.J. (1980) ‘Folklore of Northern Britain.’ Nix. Kendal.
– Lewis, R.E. (1954) Middle English Dictionary. University of Michigan Press.

The account of the Eachy was quickly reproduced on Wikipedia mirror sites. It did not spread from there, although it spread within Wikipedia. Then someone reported an actual aquatic monster from Windermere.

In February 2007, a professional photographer, Linden Adams, reported and photographed a strange wake. In fact, he contacted me about it, and an article appeared in the local press. But the Eachy, being a gruesome humanoid, was completely different from the monster being reported. As far as I could tell, Adams was sincere and completely unaware of the fake “tradition” of the Eachy. Indeed, he then coined the term Bownessie for the wake monster (a pun on Bowness, a village by the side of the lake, and Nessie, the Loch Ness monster). It was all a most unfortunate coincidence.

On March 26, 2007, I added a link and mention of the Eachy to the Bownessie Wikipedia page, which someone had created but, alas, no longer exists. Reports of Bownessie have continued somewhat infrequently to this day.

Meanwhile, the Eachy got into print. The book Further Cryptozoology by Ronan Coghlan was published in May 2007, containing a catalogue of cryptozoological entities, including the Eachy, where it was described as a “humanoid of English legend.” This was the first of several printed accounts.

Some strange edits to the Wikipedia page then happened. In August 2007, for some unstated reason, the date of the most recent Eachy encounter in Bassenthwaite was changed from 1903 to 1973. There may have been a justification for this (see below). In response to my foolishly announcing my little experiment in August at a cryptozoological conference, a kind and helpful spoilsport added the following comment:

At the Weird Weekend in Devon (2007) it was averred that the article above has no basis in genuine folklore.

Fortunately, this helpful and true comment was removed by another editor with no connection to me soon thereafter. I never mentioned the Eachy again at a conference.

Meanwhile, the account of the Eachy was added to the Bassenthwaite Wikipedia page on August 27, 2007. This was something of a catalyst. Within two months, the information on the Eachy had spread to some Bassenthwaite and Windermere tourism sites, such as Lakelubbers.com.

As of January 17, 2008, I discovered that Eachy monster t-shirts were being sold on the internet.

Eachy T-shirts. The left-hand t-shirt is closer to how I imagined the Eachy. The right-hand t-shirt was based on a cartoon style rendition of the chupacabra, the goat-sucker monster reported from various locations in Latin America (Radford 2011)

On February 10, 2008, I discovered a website, now deleted, which helpfully classified monsters and mythical beings into categories. Eachy made it into the “Giant” (≥ 3.00 m/9’10”) humanoid section, and hence for the first time, internet denizens explicitly gave the Eachy a size.

Having lived in Cumbria – and never having heard of a monster (except for some biggish pike) in Windermere or Bassenthwaite prior to my creation of the Eachy – it did not occur to me that anyone would actually find any historical monster stories. However, an edit to the Wikipedia page on March 16, 2008, using a website titled “Folklore of Bassenthwaite”, added more to the story: photographs were taken of the Eachy in 1973!

The author of the website, a self-described “esoteric explorer,” says of the 1973 sighting that two photographs were taken, and he named the witness. I asked him about this, and he told me he got it from another website but could not remember the details. I was doubtful as to the existence of the other website and thought the seemingly factual information was made up.

On September 14, 2009, a Wikipedia editor named Sigurd Dragon Slayer added a new dictionary reference for the etymology, which did not in fact mention any of the relevant words. A little later, the Eachy would be listed under the Northumberland folklore disambiguation page. When an editor asked why this was listed as Northumberland folklore, the same Sigurd Dragon Slayer gave the following surprisingly confident reply (on March 10, 2010),

Because it isn’t only Cumbrian but also Lothian and occasionally found on the English east coast (parts of Durham mainly). Though it is more commonly Cumbrian it must be said.

Figure 2. The hunt for a monster from Bassenthwaite, The Age, September 12, 1961, page 4.

To my chagrin, more historical information turned up in 2010. On January 10, 2010, a new edit to the Wikipedia page occurred. Someone had dug up a newspaper report from September 1961 from a newspaper called The Age that says that three “atomic scientists” did an underwater exploration for a monster in Bassenthwaite. This was a real newspaper article. I have found no other reference to this event in any other newspaper, so the article was presumably a hoax made for reasons unknown.

Then it turned out that the “esoteric explorer” was vindicated. I had found his source, and there was indeed a report of a monster sighting on Bassenthwaite in 1973. Tourists Gunnar Jacobsen and Rudolf Staveness saw something. However, their photos look a lot like birds. There is also something slightly suspicious about their dates. One of their photos appears to show a Loch Ness Investigation Bureau van, but the Bureau had finished its operations on Loch Ness in 1972 (Williams 2016), although Loch Ness monster researcher Adrian Shine told me it is possible some vans were still around at that time.

I started paying less attention to the Eachy, but people were and are producing Eachy artwork and even occasionally mentioning it on Twitter (where I naturally helpfully retweet). All was then well until August 6, 2019, when Wikipedia editor Rich Flambrough decided to investigate the background of the Eachy. He correctly noted one of the references could not be found and the other did not actually mention the Eachy. He listed the article for deletion. According to Wikipedia rules, it would be debated for a week and then if necessary be deleted.

However, this would mean it would be only the second longest exposed hoax on Wikipedia (at thirteen years and one month). Two more months, and the Eachy could claim the title – at least temporarily – of being the longest hoax on Wikipedia. The Eachy had to be saved.

An appeal to my Fortean and skeptical colleagues then resulted in some edits to the page. In my first intervention in the article for several years, I argued that it should be kept, because I managed to find an article that bizarrely mentioned in passing Victorian accounts of the monster. However, the majority of editors who participated in the debate were for deleting the article, and the Wikipedia page for the Eachy was then unceremoniously deleted.

Conclusions

The Eachy experiment shows that truth can be stranger than intended fiction. I assumed there were not any historical monster reports from Bassenthwaite, and yet some reports did emerge. Who would have guessed someone would report a monster on Windermere independent of my experiment? I really do not think the Bownessie sightings were due to me, as none of the Bownessie sightings reflected the specifically humanoid aspects I attributed to the Eachy. Maybe a more plausible monster would have generated sightings, but then I would not have recognised Adams’s report as independent of my experiment. The local newspaper The Westmoreland Gazette has mentioned Bownessie several times but has never mentioned the Eachy.

My experiment failed in that I did not manage to generate eyewitness testimony of the Eachy from Bassenthwaite or Windermere sightings; to that extent Smyth’s results were not replicated. Nevertheless, I did create a monster yarn that continues online and in print to this day, demonstrating how little solid evidence is really required to create a “tradition” of a mythical creature.

Monster localities clearly can have distinct unrelated traditions. Bownessie was, as far as I can tell, entirely independent of the Eachy. My Eachy of Bassenthwaite was independent of the Norwegians’ sighting of 1973 and the sighting by the “atomic scientists” in 1961. The Jacobsen and Staveglass sighting (if not a hoax) became part of the historical rationale of the Eachy even though there is no actual connection between the phenomena. Likewise, at Loch Ness, the 1,500-year-old Adomnan’s Life of Columba (Adomnan 1995) account of an aquatic beast discovery is cited as the first ever Loch Ness monster report, ignoring the multitude of monsters encountered by legendary Irish saints and the huge gap in time between Columba and the first modern sighting in 1930.

More interestingly, I think the tale of the Eachy tells us the dangers of how Wikipedia can be subject to manipulation. The Eachy escaped from Wikipedia into the wider world despite no factual basis whatsoever. Some editors were adding spurious information to the page, not for my honest reason of deceit but seemingly out of an inflated sense of their own erudition!

More insidiously, of course, if an Eachy article were created in the near future, a naive (or knowing) contributor to Wikipedia could write it by citing the now wholly “independent” sources created by the original article – just as I tried to do in the deletion debate on the page on August 8, 2019. This problem has been recognised by some journalists, and it was even illustrated in the web comic xkcd.com, which termed it citogenesis. It is clearly a major problem.

Such a tactic surely must be being undertaken by other far more sinister agents on Wikipedia than I am. Want to change history or besmirch someone’s reputation without evidence? Create nonsense on Wikipedia, wait until someone uses it, and then use that usage to justify the article on Wikipedia with the whole insidious circular process lost to history – though, as noted, the rules have become more stringent since my experiment.

Of course, I could argue by virtue of this article, the Eachy is now notable enough to justify its own entry, but I will leave that to the reader to decide. I suspect the Eachy has now escaped from Wikipedia, and it cannot return to its fictional depths. The Eachy now exists in various cryptid lists online, tourism sites, artwork, books, and on online clothing stores. If you buy an Eachy t-shirt, no commission comes to me. The Eachy is now the property of the world.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to those who tried to preserve the Eachy in its last dying days.

References

Adomnan. 1995. Life of Columba. Translated by R. Sharpe. London, UK: Penguin.Paxton, Charles G.M., and Ian J. Winfield. 2000. Some statistical aspects of the long-term gill net monitoring programme for pike Esox lucius in Windermere (English Lake District).  Freshwater Forum 14: 35–50.Radford, Benjamin. 2011. Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. ‎ Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.Robinson, Richard. 2017. Beast resurfaces. The Lake District Wildlife Park (October 4). Available online atSmyth, Frank (anonymously). 1971. The phantom vicar of Ratcliff Wharf. Man, Myth and Magic 105: 2957–2958.Williams, Gareth. 2016. A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness. London, UK: Orion.

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The online life (and eventual death) of Eachy, the monster of Bassenthwaite lake, shows the potential risk of feedback loops in Wikipedia’s citation policies
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