The Loch Ness Monster (or LNM for short) has been associated with numerous cryptozoological controversies down through the decades, especially ones involving procured visual evidence allegedly supporting its reality. However, the most infamous of these latter controversies concerns the so-called 'Surgeon's Photograph', whose image of what is reminiscent of a head and slender neck protruding up through the water is everyone's immediate mental picture of Nessie whenever the subject of Loch Ness is aired.
According to the official history of this iconic image, it was the best one of four photos (two of which did not come out when developed) that Lt-Col. Robert K. Wilson (1899-1969), a gynaecologist based in London's medically-prestigious Harley Street, claimed to have snapped after seeing something on the loch from a spot about 2-3 miles northeast of Invermoriston during a car journey along the A82 road one morning in April 1934. After then taking the photographic film containing them to be developed at a chemist's shop in Inverness, he sold them to London's Daily Mail newspaper, which on Saturday 21 April 1934 published what was dubbed 'London Surgeon's Photo of the Monster' (in recognition of Wilson's profession), causing a sensation that ensured this picture's lasting fame both within and far beyond the realms of cryptozoology. (Incidentally, in the Daily Mail's article of 21 April it quoted Wilson as stating that he had snapped the photos during his visit to the loch "on Thursday", thereby confirming the precise date of his visit as having been Thursday 19 April – assuming of course that we can believe Wilson's testimony... – much more about this later!)
Sceptics have variously attempted to dismiss the photograph's 'head-and-neck' image as that of a bird, or the tail of a diving otter, or even as the dorsal fin of an out-of-place killer whale or a giant sturgeon. During the 1990s, however, two rival allegations were made that sought to expose this photo as a blatant hoax – but as these allegations are mutually exclusive, only one (if any) can be correct; and, to be perfectly frank, I am not persuaded by the claims for either of them!
Before I go any further, however, I wish to stress that what I am presenting in this ShukerNature blog article concerning the evidence (such that it is) on offer for the Surgeon's Photo being a hoax is my personal opinion, nothing more. Consequently, it should not be thought of as a fact, because an opinion is not a fact, and cannot be a fact.
In 1992, the Danish weekly magazine Hjemmet published an article in which musicologist Prof. Lambert Wilson, a former conductor of the Aberdeen Symphony Orchestra, asserted that he had constructed a 'sea serpent' swimming mask, featuring the famous head and neck configuration in the 'Surgeon's Photo', with tiny eyeholes enabling him to see, which he had worn while swimming in the loch on a day in late summer 1934. According to his story, this is what the London surgeon, coincidentally sharing the professor's surname, had seen and photographed. However, all other accounts concerning the taking of this photo placed the date in question in April, not during the summer (with the Daily Mail having published it in April too). In any case, the very concept of someone swimming around in the loch with the model of a Nessie perched on top of their head is one for which I personally would be most reluctant to stick my neck out (so to speak!).
The second, far more serious allegation received widespread publicity during March 1994, when Loch Ness researchers David Martin and Alastair Boyd announced that, only a year before he died in November 1993, expert model-maker Christian Spurling (1904-1993) had confessed to them that the photo's image was actually that of a roughly 1-ft-tall 'head-and-neck' model – constructed by him from plastic wood in early 1934, then attached to the conning tower of a roughly 14-in-long clockwork toy submarine (later painted grey and serving as the fake monster's largely submerged body) that had been purchased at Woolworths in Richmond, Surrey, in southern England, by his stepbrother, Ian Wetherell (1912-1986). According to Spurling, this bizarre-looking mini-craft monster was then secretly photographed (and afterwards sunk) in the loch by a member of a team of hoaxers (which had included himself, but more about them later) – not by Wilson, despite his public statements. (Incidentally, Spurling had initially made his confession in February 1991, but only to Martin, visiting with his wife Jane, who did not tape it; in July 1992, however, he made it again, this time to Martin and Boyd together, who did tape it.)
Apparently a prankster very fond of practical jokes, and supplied by the hoaxers with full details concerning the head/neck model affixed on top of the toy submarine, Wilson had supposedly been recruited by them merely to state publicly that it was he who had taken the photos, his professional status as a highly respectable surgeon guaranteeing that these pictures would by association be taken seriously, and ensuring that the involvement of the hoaxers would remain concealed. Martin and Boyd subsequently documented their investigations that had led them to support Spurling's startling claim in an absorbing book, Nessie: The Surgeon's Photo Exposed (1999).
Of especial note at this point is that a long-overlooked article uncovered by Martin and Boyd that had appeared in London's Sunday Telegraph newspaper back on 7 December 1975, and had been written by 'Mandrake' (the pen-name of one Philip Purser), had actually claimed that Ian Wetherell had admitted to 'Mandrake' that while in the company of his film director/big-game hunter father Marmaduke ('Duke') Wetherell (1886-1939) and an insurance broker friend called Maurice Chambers (d. 1944), he had taken about five photos with a Leica camera of a small toy submarine bearing a head/neck model made of rubber tubing and just a few inches tall in an inlet of the loch before his father, Duke, sank this craft using his foot when a water bailiff showed up, with the clearest of these pictures becoming the Surgeon's Photo. Curiously, however, no mention was made of Wilson. No less intriguing, additionally, is that this potentially significant newspaper article signally failed to be mentioned in any Nessie-related publication for almost two decades. More about this article a little later. Meanwhile, both of the Wetherells (and Wilson too) were dead by the time that Spurling made his own alleged confession, so they could not be questioned about it following its public release.
Spurling claimed to Martin and Boyd that he had been requested to produce this monster model by his stepfather Duke and stepbrother Ian (who, Spurling alleged, also recruited Wilson as the fourth member of their conspiracy) – in order to avenge the then-recent public humiliation suffered by Duke when he rashly identified as genuine some footprints found on the shores of Loch Ness that were soon afterwards exposed as crude fakes. They had been produced by someone using an ashtray (not an umbrella stand, as claimed in many other publications) set into the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus! Bearing in mind, however, that the Wetherell family actually owned such an object, it is by no means unlikely that Duke himself was the footprint hoaxer (although it has never been definitely proved, some investigators have openly claimed this to be so, especially as Duke's fondness for trickery was apparently well known, and Spurling himself inferred it to Martin and Boyd, calling his stepfather a Walter Mitty character), but had not anticipated the ridicule that would rebound upon him. Consequently, as far as the Wetherell/Wetherell/Spurling family trio was concerned, there could be no better way of seeking retribution for this humiliation of one of their own members than to discredit the monster itself.
Sadly, the media's coverage in 1994 and since then of this supposed hoax was and continues to be largely uncritical (indeed, it is still widely if mistakenly assumed to have been conclusively proved). So it was left to some astute newspaper readers and also various cryptozoological investigators on social media and elsewhere to point out its array of inconsistencies and contentious issues, to which I have added various concerns of my own too. They can all be collectively summarised below as follows:
First and foremost is a statement that I shall deliberately reiterate on a regular, specific basis throughout the present ShukerNature blog article of mine, because it is absolutely integral to this cryptozoological case and therefore needs to remain uppermost in everyone's mind. Namely, there is absolutely no physical, tangible, direct evidence that the head/neck-bearing toy submarine ever existed, only anecdotal, testimonial evidence in the form of verbal conversations and written communications that, as will be seen, contain all manner of conflicting claims and details.
But why isn't anecdotal evidence sufficient by itself to prove a hoax if a hoax has indeed occurred? The intrinsic problem is that there is generally no way of independently confirming how truthful or accurate such evidence is by itself. If we are listening to someone describing an occurrence that they claim to have experienced or we are reading a written description of what they claim to have experienced, we cannot know for certain whether all or indeed any of that description is genuine. We weren't there, we didn't see or hear what the claimant is claiming to have seen or heard – we don’t even know if the claimant himself/herself was where they claimed to be. Their entire testimony could be a lie. And even if they are being truthful, we don't know how accurate their description is, how gifted their powers of description are. Are they given to unconscious exaggeration when describing something, for example, or do they omit essential details because they don't realise that those particular details are essential? How extensively have their brain and sensory organs filtered their experience? We simply cannot know for certain. Similarly, even if two different people provide similar descriptions of an event that they both experienced, how can we know for sure whether or not they have colluded in any way before providing their testimonies, especially if they are work colleagues, neighbours, friends, or family members who are in contact with one another? The most that we can do in these situations is formulate an opinion as to whether we believe their testimony to be true, false, or truthful/untruthful in parts, but we cannot determine conclusively whether their testimony is true, false, or truthful/untruthful in parts if all that we have is their testimony. In contrast, a physical, tangible piece of evidence can, if for example it is a section of an animal carcase or even just a clump of hair, enable DNA samples to be extracted from it in order to determine the taxonomic nature of the animal from which the section of carcase or clump of hair came from. Comparative hair analyses can also be conducted with it, and so on.
Back now to the head/neck-bearing toy submarine. According to the alleged hoaxers' claims, this curious mini-craft was sunk by one of them (Duke) in the loch after having been photographed on it and was therefore placed for all time beyond the reach of any kind of direct physical examination. How very convenient! Yet even if it was indeed real and truly had been sunk in the loch, it has probably long since been broken apart by underwater currents and buried who knows where beneath the loch bottom's thick layer of mud, ooze, and silt. Either way, there can never be an examination of the hoax claim's key component. But that is not all.
No photographs of this mini-craft snapped with or without any of the supposed hoaxers positioned alongside it before it was allegedly placed on the loch and then sunk are known to exist either, nor are any preliminary sketches of it with the head/neck model attached or of the head/neck model itself, nor even any preparatory notes about how the latter model might be produced and attached. Not even the shop receipt from Woolworths where the original toy submarine was supposedly purchased exists, nor does any manufacturer's carton or box in which it would have been packaged and sold – and so on, and so forth. Instead, all that IS available to assess that has any specific bearing upon whether this extraordinary model-bearing craft was truly a reality is anecdotal, testimonial, circumstantial, indirect evidence, nothing else at all. Please keep this remarkable but deeply unsatisfactory, unpromising situation firmly in mind – it is absolutely vital.
Moving on: the type of small clockwork toy submarine available for use by Spurling at that time (only 14 in or so long, according to his confession) could not have supported such an unwieldy structure as (according to Spurling once again) a roughly 1-ft-tall head/neck model without the submarine being in serious danger of overbalancing (due to the attached head/neck model giving it a very high centre of gravity), especially when placed on a medium as mobile as water. The usual way to prevent such a problem occurring would have been to place ballast inside the submarine – but this would have promptly sent it plunging down beneath the water! True, in more recent times an ITN film crew and a Japanese film crew successfully floated what they considered to be replicas of Spurling's head/neck-bearing toy submarine. But as no-one involved in the creation of these replicas could actually examine or even view the latter craft (always assuming of course that it ever existed to begin with!), having to rely instead entirely upon Spurling's verbal description of it provided by him before he had died, and a picture of a toy submarine shown to him by Martin and Boyd that he claimed to be similar to the one that he had used, such accomplishments by the two teams clearly are by no means as impressive as they might outwardly seem to be.
Speaking of overbalancing: Spurling claimed that his alleged head/neck-bearing toy submarine had been fitted with a metal (lead) strip or keel to act as a counterbalance. Yet without anyone being able to physically examine the submarine, his claim is just that – a claim, i.e. anecdotal, unsubstantiated by any tangible evidence, as is everything else too, therefore, that has been said about this supposed object's structure by various people down through the years. Put another way, it is futile to quote Spurling's claim that a counterbalancing metal strip was present as proof that the submarine was stable, because this 'proof' originates from within the physically-unsubstantiated claim that the submarine actually existed to begin with, not from outside it, i.e. independent of it.
In any case, it should go without saying that anyone making up some elaborate fictitious story of a head/neck-bearing toy submarine having been created by them and used for the photo would definitely have the common sense to also claim that a counterbalancing strip was present – they would certainly realise that not to do so would yield a gaping, readily-visible hole in their story. If any hoax is to succeed or at least be convincing, it has to be well thought out in advance, in a bid to ensure that every possible flaw or gap in it is identified and plugged, before actually putting it into practice.
There have also been claims by some that wires are visible in the Surgeon's Photo that could be holding this alleged counterbalance strip in place, but others (including me) have been unable to discern any such structures. Yet even if they are present, the submarine (always assuming, as ever, that it had indeed originally existed) cannot be examined to confirm whether or not they really are wires. So the most that can be said about these reputed structures (should they genuinely exist and not prove to be as illusive or selectively visible as the emperor's new clothes in the famous fairytale by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen!) is that they seem wire-like. However, 'wire' and 'wire-like' are not necessarily the same thing at the best of times, and certainly not in this particular instance. Moreover, without any physical evidence existing for the submarine's own reality, any discussion appertaining to whether such structures, if truly present, are indeed wires is moot anyway.
The Surgeon's Photo shows the ostensible head and neck surrounded by ripples. Yet surely this is not to be expected if the craft were moving at the time of being photographed, as was variously claimed by Wilson (in a letter of 24 May 1955 to LNM authoress Constance Whyte, for example) and by Wetherell (in the 'Mandrake' article). If it were moving, wouldn't there be a V-shaped wake trailing behind it instead? Having said that, this line of argument necessarily assumes that Wilson actually did snap the photos, which as already seen is very far from certain, but even if he didn't snap them and his supposed photographic session at the loch was entirely fictitious, you'd still think that when inventing the story of his non-existent session he'd at least have the nous to ensure that his verbal description of the head-and-neck object and its behaviour corresponded with what can be seen of it in the photo. Ditto for Wetherell, who stated in the 'Mandrake' article that after having found a suitable location at the loch for snapping the photos, it was: "…just a matter of winding up the sub and getting it to dive just below the surface so the neck and head drew a proper little V in the water" – a V that is of course singularly absent in the Surgeon's Photo!
Some investigators have claimed that the 'head-and-neck' object seen in this photo looks to be rather more than 1 ft tall. Based upon a comparison of the length of adjacent wind waves (with the wavelength estimated from modern results on wind waves and contemporaneous weather information), oceanographers Prof. Paul LeBlond and Dr Michael Collins calculated in a research paper of 1987 published within the International Society of Cryptozoology's peer-reviewed scientific journal Cryptozoology that the neck's height above the water level may have been around 4 ft, although this has since been disputed via counter-analyses prepared by others.
So far, I have focused my attention entirely upon the Surgeon's Photograph, but as noted at the beginning of this ShukerNature article, a second (albeit much less famous) photo, also allegedly snapped by Wilson of the head-and-neck object, exists too. Yet how can the head/neck model-bearing toy submarine identity explain this second photo, bearing in mind that the head-and-neck image depicted in it has a very different outline and orientation from those of the image in the Surgeon's Photo? Remember that Spurling's supposed head/neck model would necessarily have been of rigid, inflexible construction in order for it to retain its form while being photographed, and would therefore have been unable to change either its shape or its orientation. Two contrasting explanations have been proposed – either the photographed head-and-neck object was part of a genuine living creature, not a model, and had moved its position and orientation between the taking of the two photos; or the second photo did not depict the same object as was present in the Surgeon's (and may not even have been taken at the same time and/or location). Unfortunately, there seems no way of determining conclusively which (if either) of these explanations is the correct one; there is some circumstantial, testimonial evidence presented in Martin and Boyd's book indicating that the latter explanation may be correct, but, as ever, no hard, direct, physical evidence.
At this point I am inserting an additional, very worthy consideration that I freely confess had not occurred to me at all when preparing this article. It was put forward by Facebook friend Mike Potts shortly after I had originally posted this article on Facebook earlier today (19 March 2021) and is extremely deserving of attention here, hence my inclusion of it now. In his FB post, Mike commented:
It’s puzzled me how and why a model specifically designed to float – despite its awkward specifications – was so easily sunk! Especially when there could have been no certainty at the time that the photography had even been successful and it may have been needed for a further shoot. As well as it hardly being conclusive that said model wouldn’t then simply be discovered by someone else should its deliberate buoyancy be so resilient. It would have surely been more likely in terms of human nature and concealing one's activities to remove all evidence from the scene?
I totally agree with every point raised above by Mike, all of which are valid, thought-provoking, and extremely pertinent to this subject. After all, if their head/neck-bearing toy submarine did truly exist, the last thing that the Wetherells and Spurling would have wanted, surely, was for it to subsequently resurface further along the loch where it might be found and retrieved by someone? Yet simply by pushing it underwater with his foot, there is no way that Duke, or the others, could be certain that such an occurrence wouldn't indeed happen. As far as I am concerned, therefore, this constitutes a notable weakness in their toy submarine-featuring hoax claim.
Furthermore, Mike's comments inspire me to present herewith the following cautionary advice to any would-be hoaxers. Before carrying out your hoax, be sure to decide whether in years to come you will be intending to come clean and confess everything publicly – because if this is indeed what you plan to do, then please make certain during or directly after your hoax that you do NOT dispose of the one key piece of physical evidence that could unequivocally prove that you had indeed conducted the hoax. Instead, hide it away in a secure location where no-one else can find it until you decide to confess, at which point you can then retrieve it and reveal it to the world. If, just for the sake or argument, we assume that the confession-of-hoax testimonies of Wetherell and Spurling are genuine, what a shame that they didn't adopt this policy in relation to their unique head/neck-bearing toy submarine when planning their hoax? A major oversight on their part, if you ask me…
And while in the subject of confessions: significantly, there are various noteworthy discrepancies between Ian Wetherell's confession as contained in the 'Mandrake' article of December 1975 and Spurling's own confession as given by him to Martin and Boyd, which do not appear to have been highlighted anywhere before my own investigations into this matter. According to Wetherell, the hoaxers were himself, Duke, and Chambers (but no mention of Wilson), whereas according to Spurling they were himself, Wetherell, Duke, and Wilson (but no mention of Chambers). So why was Wilson absent from Wetherell's confession (despite his having supposedly played such a key role in their hoax), and Chambers from Spurling's? In the 'Mandrake' article, Wetherell is quoted as saying: "I took about five shots with the Leica", but if so, where are the others? Did they not come out? Only the Surgeon's Photo and the second photo are known to exist. Also in the article, the head/neck model is said by Wetherell to have been made from rubber tubing, whereas Spurling claimed that it was made from plastic wood. Wetherell also claimed that the head/neck model-bearing toy submarine was "only a few inches high", whereas Spurling stated that it was "about 12 inches". How can these discrepancies be explained – a whole succession of memory lapses, or the fundamental failure of two stepbrothers to synchronise their stories before going public with them?
In addition, I am always very wary of 'death bed' confessions. Why did Spurling wait so long, especially as the 'Mandrake' article containing his stepbrother's supposed confession had already been published way back in 1975 anyway? Even the faking of a photograph that went on to become immensely iconic is not a crime in itself (and publicly releasing via a published newspaper article a supposed confession to having done precisely that certainly hadn't troubled Ian Wetherell). Indeed, if anything, the release of the 'truth' while the hoaxers still lived might well have guaranteed them fame and lucrative financial gain (or at least it might have done for Wetherell had the article containing it not instantly sunk into absolute oblivion for two decades before finally resurfacing, by which time he had died).
In their book, Martin and Boyd also put forward as proof that the Surgeon's Photo was faked a very odd claim made in a letter written on 3 November 1970 by a Major Egginton, one of Wilson's friends, to a then-upcoming Nessie researcher/author/TV newsreader Nicholas Witchell. Egginton alleged that Wilson had told him that this photo had been faked by a keen amateur photographer friend of his (unnamed by Wilson but presumably Ian Wetherell?), who had first of all snapped a photo of the loch and then, once back home, had superimposed a LNM model (presumably Spurling's?) onto the photographic plate. In other words, Wilson was seemingly claiming to Egginton that the Surgeon's Photo was actually a composite of two separate images. Martin and Boyd have claimed that this letter plus two slightly later ones also written by Egginton to Witchell (though these add little to what was already contained in the first one) and retained by Witchell, constitute the most important evidence against the Surgeon's Photo that has ever been uncovered. Yet in reality this is yet again only anecdotal evidence – a persistent yet highly frustrating, deeply unsatisfying theme running throughout this saga. In addition, few photographs have ever received such in-depth scrutiny as the Surgeon's Photo, so if it had indeed been created by superimposing one image upon another one back in the early 1930s, when photographic techniques were far less sophisticated than they are today, I feel sure that someone would have revealed this by now.
Moreover, the most surprising element of this particular aspect of the case, yet one that Martin and Boyd may not have realised, as they have apparently not focused upon it during their own investigations, is that if Egginton's claim is true, then a crucial component of the much-vaunted 'confessions' of Wetherell and Spurling is false. This is because the Egginton and the Wetherell/Spurling testimonies do not support one another. On the contrary, they fundamentally contradict each other.
After all, if the Surgeon's Photo were indeed a single photo resulting from a Spurling-constructed head/neck model borne upon a toy submarine being directly photographed by Ian Wetherell in the water at the loch and then sunk there by Duke, simple logic dictates that it couldn't have also been a composite photo created by Wetherell at home by superimposing the head/neck model's image upon the plate of an earlier-snapped photo of the loch, because these two scenarios are mutually exclusive. Or have I misunderstood this completely? Here is the relevant extract from that first letter written by Egginton to Witchell, so judge for yourself:
His [Wilson's] friend…was a very keen amateur photographer who had taken a photograph of the loch and then at home had apparently superimposed a model of a monster on the plate.
It seems clear enough to me, and with any mention of a toy submarine bearing a head/neck model having been directly photographed at the loch being conspicuous only by its absence.
Worth mentioning at this point, incidentally, is that in the past there was also some public palaver as to whether plastic wood – the material claimed by Spurling (but not by Wetherell, who stated instead that it was rubber tubing) to have been used in creating the head/neck model – even existed as far back in time as 19 April 1934, when the Surgeon's Photo and the second photo were supposedly snapped. (Having said that, if Wilson didn't actually snap them himself, but was only hired by the hoaxers to say that he did, they could have conceivably been produced quite some time earlier, ostensibly by Ian Wetherell, judging from Egginton's recollection of Wilson's claim to him.) Anyway, after I began investigating this aspect, fellow cryptozoological researcher Scott Mardis kindly informed me that the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following pertinent quotation that dates from 1921: "This material…is named by the firm 'Plastic Wood'". Also, the first issue of the newly-relaunched version of the long-running weekly UK magazine Hobbies, which was published on 4 October 1930, contained an article entitled 'Plastic Wood and Its Many Uses'. And p. 25 of London's Daily Mirror newspaper for 21 February 1934 carried a recommendation for the use of Rawlplug Plastic Wood. Moreover, veteran LNM researcher Roland Watson has discovered an advertisement for plastic wood in the March 1928 issue of the periodical Popular Science. So it seems evident that plastic wood did indeed exist prior to the two photos being snapped, even if their snapping actually occurred quite some time prior to the 'official' date of 19 April 1934 claimed for them by Wilson.
And speaking of Wilson: lastly, but in my view crucially, Martin and Boyd's book has provided an absolutely invaluable service in demonstrating just how unreliable Wilson's testimony was with regard to his supposed involvement in this highly contentious cryptozoological case. Via no less than a double-page listings table of discrepancies plus comparative analyses contained in their book's main text, they have painstakingly shown how Wilson's recollections varied considerably, not only in verbal conversations but also in written communications. Subjects upon which these recollections vary include: Wilson's precise location at the loch when he supposedly snapped the photos, and the time at which he snapped them; the prevailing weather conditions there; the ownership of the camera that he used, the reason why he'd taken it with him to the loch, and its position when he'd supposedly snapped the photos; his description of what he actually saw in the loch, and how it behaved; and its distance from him. Moreover, as already documented above, whereas he claimed to many people and media that it was he who had snapped the photos, he told Egginton that a friend had done so. A number of additional examples of Wilson's ambivalent memory are also given by Martin and Boyd in their book.
In fact, there is surely enough information available relating to Wilson's narrative inconsistencies by themselves to form the basis of a valuable, telling book on the Surgeon's Photo, without even needing to include supposed confessions centring upon an intangible head/neck-bearing toy submarine for whose existence there is not a shred of physical, conclusive evidence, especially as Wilson even reputedly claimed on occasion to various figures that the photo was a hoax. Needless to say, however, in an ironic example of being consistently inconsistent he yet again gave differing details about this claim to different people (in the earlier-mentioned letter of 4 May 1955 written by him to Whyte, Wilson even asserted that it may have been either the chemist who developed them or Wilson's own lady friend who had accompanied him to the loch who had hoaxed the photos!), leading to a farcical 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' scenario in which no-one can be sure any more about what (if anything) to believe from his various, varying assertions. In short, as a reliable source of information concerning the Surgeon's Photo, Wilson has in my view entirely discredited himself, and all hypotheses relating to this cryptozoological case that draw or are directly based upon his claims should therefore be automatically discounted as potentially unsound.
After all, why go to the complicated and wholly unnecessary trouble of laboriously constructing a monster-mimicking mini-craft (one that by its very nature, moreover, is highly impractical and improbable) and perpetrating a hoax with it (thus facing all the attendant risks of being caught and castigated), when all that you need to do is to release many years later (in 1975 and 1991/2 respectively) a superficially plausible story of a hoax featuring a monster-mimicking mini-craft – a story that most likely can never be conclusively proved or disproved by anyone else afterwards, yet which will nonetheless cast for ever more a deep shadow of doubt not only upon a photo that has become over the years one of the most famous pieces of evidence put forward in support of the LNM's existence but also directly upon the LNM itself? (Some media accounts have indeed gone so far as to claim that because – albeit in their mistaken view – the Surgeon's Photo is a proven hoax, the entire LNM history is too.) Such a scenario would achieve the desired effect to the maximum extent yet via the minimum, simplest of effort. Parsimoniously, therefore, this is more likely to be the scenario that actually did occur (Occam's Razor). Or, to express this intriguing situation in a different but equally apposite manner: "The genius is simplicity – any damn fool can get complicated" – a Woody Guthrie quote that Martin and Boyd include at the very beginning of their book.
The ultimate irony here is that because there is no direct, physical, tangible, unambiguous evidence to confirm its existence, only anecdotal, the LNM is routinely dismissed out of hand by sceptics and critics of cryptozoology (as are most other cryptids by them, for that matter, and for precisely the same reason). Yet, paradoxically, they expect everyone to believe unquestioningly in a head/neck-bearing toy submarine for which there is no direct, physical, tangible, unambiguous evidence either, only anecdotal once again. To me, this seems logically inconsistent at the very least, if not downright hypocritical. And please don't quote to me that hackneyed statement about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence as a valid reason for discounting anecdotal evidence for the reality of cryptids while accepting it for the reality of the head/neck-bearing toy submarine. After all, if a claim featuring as inherently unstable and unlikely a craft as a toy submarine bearing a tall vertical head/neck model (thereby giving it an undesirably high centre of gravity liable to make it tilt over when placed on water, yet presumably lacking ballast for fear of sinking it) is not considered extraordinary (and thus requiring extraordinary evidence in order for its reality to be accepted, but which is noticeably absent), then what is?? Yet, disconcertingly, cryptozoology sceptics and critics do not seem to be remotely troubled by the absence of any physical evidence, let alone extraordinary evidence, when accepting the toy submarine claim. Double standards?
By the way: just in case anyone should be wondering whether I have any inherent bias in relation to the Surgeon's Photo that is influencing my own scepticism concerning the toy submarine confession claims of Wetherell and Spurling, let me make my position perfectly clear. No, I have no such bias, and this is why. There is no place in cryptozoology (or indeed anywhere else) for hoaxes, which serve only to destroy its credibility and make it vulnerable to criticism from mainstream researchers and sceptics. Consequently, as can be readily seen by browsing through the contents of this ShukerNature blog of mine as well as those of my many books and countless articles published elsewhere, whenever I discover physical, tangible, unequivocal evidence that a given cryptozoological case or specimen (whatever it may be) is a hoax, I lose no time in publishing full details concerning it, in order to expose its fraudulent nature for all to see. In turn, therefore, the reason why I currently cannot accept that, based upon the submarine-themed confessions, the Surgeon's Photo is a proven hoax is not due to any bias on my part but is instead because – as I have stated time and again throughout this present ShukerNature article – there is NO physical, tangible, unequivocal evidence for the submarine's existence. Simple as that. So I hope that this answers any possible bias-themed queries.
Having said all of that, it's time for me now to throw a curveball into the proceedings. Yes indeed, it may sound ironic, possibly even contradictory at first, but quite frankly I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Surgeon's Photo IS indeed a hoax! The 'head-and-neck' object depicted by it simply doesn't look like any living thing that I've ever seen, either personally or in pictures. The tail of a diving otter comes closest, but even that seemingly fails to yield the angled, head-like portion of the object in the Surgeon's Photo. Moreover, in order to make my position absolutely, unambiguously clear, I'll even go so far as to say that I'm not actually ruling out the toy submarine explanation per se. Confused? Please allow me to explain.
What it is that I AM ruling out is the toy submarine explanation in its current form, i.e. an explanation that – at the risk of boring you by repeating this mantra yet again – is based solely upon anecdotal evidence, with no physical, tangible evidence to hand for direct, physical examination. Moreover, as I have shown earlier here, there are all manner of conflicting issues and inconsistent aspects associated with this anecdotal evidence. True, at least some of them may not be wholly insurmountable – for example, perhaps at least portions of the Wetherell/Spurling confessions really are factual (with conflicting details due merely to memory lapses after all), perhaps there even really was a head/neck-bearing toy submarine (and which really was sunk in the loch and thereby rendered unavailable to any future physical examination) – but based solely upon the anecdotal evidence available, we cannot be certain, nor even fairly sure. This in turn means that media accounts and suchlike that have stated and continue to state categorically that the Surgeon's Photo is a proven hoax are mistaken, or, to put it bluntly, just plain wrong. And it is to make this fundamental, exceedingly important, yet all-too-frequently ignored or unrealised point readily apparent that I have researched and written this entire article.
Yes, the Surgeon's Photo may be a hoax; yes, Spurling and/or Wetherell may have been telling the truth; yes, there may have been a head/neck-bearing toy submarine – but with only anecdotal evidence to hand, we simply cannot state categorically that it is, that they were, and/or that there was. Only physical, tangible, unequivocal evidence supporting the above possibilities can enable us to do that, and at present there isn't any.
Should any evidence of this latter kind be found in the future, however, such as design plans for the head/neck model in Spurling's own handwriting found tucked away in some hitherto-unexamined archive of documents, for instance, the entire scenario would change dramatically. In turn, I would naturally then need to reassess my opinion accordingly, and I would therefore do so without any hesitation.
As for the existence of any competing explanations: as far as I am aware, there is currently no physical, tangible evidence for the Surgeon's Photo having been created fraudulently by any other means either. In short, therefore, this famous image presently remains an enigma.
Speaking of enigmas, here's an interesting digression: shortly after I uploaded this present article of mine onto my ShukerNature blog today (19 March 2021), a message was posted beneath it by Tyler Greenfield (check it out) recalling a little-known retouched version of the Surgeon's Photo in which the distinctive bump on top of the 'head' in the head-and-neck image was missing, as if it had been smoothed out. Although I'd heard of this, I'd never seen it and didn't know where it had been published, but Tyler helpfully stated that it had appeared in an issue of the monthly magazine Popular Science from 1934. Later today, longstanding correspondent and Facebook friend Bob Skinner saw Tyler's posted message and succeeded in tracking down online an extensive run of searchable Popular Science issues, including all 12 for 1934. He sent me a link to them, and after carefully searching through each issue onwards from April 1934 (when the Surgeon's Photo made its public debut in the Daily Mail), I discovered on p. 18 of the July 1934 issue a short article reporting that eminent American zoologist Prof. Roy Chapman Andrews and other naturalists had identified the head-and-neck object in the Surgeon's Photo as the dorsal fin of a killer whale, and that in their opinion: "the whale evidently had strayed up an inlet from the sea into the lake" – but that was not all.
In addition to including a photo of a large model of a killer whale, the short article included for comparison the Surgeon's Photo – or, to be precise, a clearly retouched one, in which, exactly as Tyler had noted, the 'head' of the head-and-neck object lacked its prominent bump. The close juxtapositioning of these two photos (the retouched Surgeon's and the model killer whale) within the article was obviously designed to facilitate direct visual comparisons of them by the readers. So too, I'd assume, was the retouching of the image in the Surgeon's Photo, in order to enhance its similarity to the model killer whale's dorsal fin. Yet no mention of any retouching was made anywhere in the article – on the contrary, the opening line of its retouched photo's caption (positioned directly to the right of the photo) stated: "Left, first photo of the Loch Ness sea serpent which apparently had a head and neck protruding above the water". In my opinion, this wording gives the impression that the photo is the original, unmodified Surgeon's Photo (as opposed to a retouched version of it), which is misleading in the extreme. My thanks to Tyler for providing me with the necessary bibliographical details to enable this tricksy Surgeon's Photo variant to be tracked down and observed by me at last. End of digression.
Summarising everything: Is the Surgeon's Photograph a hoax, or a hoaxed hoax? With Wilson, the Wetherells and Spurling all long gone now, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure, unless some physical, tangible evidence does indeed turn up unexpectedly somewhere. Yet thanks to the above-named persons' physically-unsubstantiated toy submarine confessions, the media and numerous online websites nowadays largely accept and repeat entirely uncritically that the Surgeon's Photo is indeed a proven hoax, thereby unscientifically destroying the credibility of the LNM's single most significant piece of proffered visual evidence – which is of course precisely what Spurling and his family had hoped for.
All in all, therefore, an excellent result for Spurling et al., not to mention die-hard Nessie sceptics, critics, and cynics, but a sad result indeed for modern-day cryptozoology. This is especially true for those who seek to scrutinise crypto-cases logically, objectively, scientifically, with an open mind that lets the facts guide it to its conclusions (rather than with a closed one that ignores or twists the facts if they inconveniently threaten to lead it away from its preconceived notion or idée fixe).
There is no doubt in my mind after reading their book that although for the reasons given by me here I personally do not presently subscribe to the toy submarine-themed confessions of Wetherell and Spurling that are included in it, David Martin and Alastair Boyd have conducted sterling detective work in pursuit of answers concerning the Surgeon's Photo, in particular bringing to belated widespread attention the long-forgotten 'Mandrake' article and highlighting Wilson's singularly flexible memory of his involvement regarding this photo. Consequently, I heartily recommend everyone with an interest in the LNM and cryptids in general to obtain and read their book, and I very sincerely congratulate them upon a most meticulous and fascinating investigation.
In conclusion, I fear that Spurling and the Wetherells, aided and abetted by their public stooge Wilson, not only very effectively destroyed the credibility of the most iconic cryptozoological image of all time but also may have succeeded in achieving this feat without actually having to do anything more tangible than spin a very fanciful, inconsistent yarn that LNM detractors and disbelievers were only too happy – delighted, even – to seize upon and utilise accordingly in their ongoing debunking crusade, conveniently turning a blind eye to just how factually deficient the whole story was, and still is.
Stating one last time what I have already stated, but doing so in order for there to be no possible confusion or misinterpretation: if some physical, tangible, unequivocal proof of the head/neck-bearing toy submarine's erstwhile reality ever does come to light, I shall be more than happy to revise my opinion accordingly concerning the Surgeon's Photo, letting whatever new hard facts have been uncovered lead me to draw new conclusions. But somehow I feel that I may have a very long wait before (if ever) any such revelatory new discovery is made. Until then, all that exists concerning this supposed mini-craft is speculation, nothing more.
Finally: several other cryptozoological researchers, including Prof. Henry Bauer, Paul Bestall, Loren Coleman, Richard Freeman, Scott Mardis, and Carl Marshall, plus American investigative journalist Richard D. Smith, have independently voiced similar doubts online and elsewhere to my own concerning the Wetherell/Spurling toy submarine-featuring hoax claim, and acclaimed Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology author Michael Newton has devoted an informative chapter highlighting its perceived failings in his excellent book Hoaxed! (2014), which once again I highly recommend. So it's good to know that I'm not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness!
Indeed, I can think of no more appropriate a way of bringing this investigative article of mine to a close than by presenting the following extremely pertinent quote from one of the afore-mentioned Richard D. Smith's own articles (Fate, November 1995) on this same contentious subject:
The Spurling saga demonstrates that cryptozoologists and the mainstream media have been cowed by skeptics into accepting a double standard. According to this standard, no amount of photographic evidence, photo analysis, sonar tracings, or eyewitness testimony is acceptable, but hypothetical counter-explanations or the mere allegations of hoax enjoy the status of proof.
How very true – and, in turn, how very sad.
I wish to thank very sincerely my fellow cryptozoologist and longstanding friend Carl Marshall for inspiring and encouraging me to prepare this extensive ShukerNature article, one that I had long promised myself I would write but somehow had never got around to doing. I hope that you enjoy it, Carl, and I wish to place on record here that I feel very happy and optimistic for the future of cryptozoology, knowing that it rests in such sound, steady hands and such a knowledgeable, scientifically-disciplined mind as yours and those of others like you.
What do you think of the allegation by Roy Chapman Andrews that the "head" in the surgeon's photo was retouched? There is an alternate version of the photo published in Popular Science magazine in 1934 that lacks the "hump" on the top of the head. I'm not sure if it is indeed the original version or if it was retouched to fit Andrews' claim.ReplyDelete
Thanks for bringing this up. I'd heard of this allegation but I didn't include any mention of it in my article because I hadn't personally seen any retouched version, so I felt unable to comment without having done so. Now that you have provided me with the above reference to where it appears, I'll see if I can obtain a copy of the article. I'll certainly be most interested to see this version.Delete
Very interesting. I don't think I've come across that article in Popular Science before. https://t.co/UVdNzS9HtG?amp=1Delete
I've tracked down this article. The 'head' of the head-and-neck object in the Surgeon's Photo has indeed been retouched in the manner described by you, but the article in which it appears doesn't feature Roy Chapman Andrews alleging that the Surgeon's Photo was retouched. What it instead says is that R.C.A. and other naturalists have identified the object in the Surgeon's Photo as the dorsal fin of a killer whale and that "the whale evidently had strayed up an inlet from the sea into the lake". The article also includes a model of a killer whale with the dorsal fin arrowed, so it would seem that the Surgeon's Photo in the article had been deiberately retouched, removing its head bump, in order to make it look more like a killer whale's dorsal fin. Yet there is no mention in the text that any retouching has been done, which in my opinion is rather misleading to say the least. Thanks again for bringing this article and unusual Surgeon's Photo variant to my attention.Delete
Thanks for the link, Vigus.Delete
Here is what Andrews says about the surgeon's photo in his 1935 book "This Business of Exploring":Delete
"The Loch Ness Monster was seen several times and photographed once. The picture, as it appeared in the New York Times, showed a long curved neck surmounted by a small head. Evidently it had been retouched by an artist who was obsessed by the 'camel head' complex. I got a copy of the original from the Times and it showed just what I expected - the dorsal fin of a killer whale. A killer's dorsal is six feet high and curved. It would make a wonderful neck for a sea serpent. The head could easily be supplied out of the imagination as the newspaper artist did, in fact. Doubtless what happened was that the killer made its way through the narrow gate of the Loch from the open sea and remained there for some days. It may even have gone in or out several times."
Although not mentioned in the Popular Science article itself, the version of the photo in PS seems to fit Andrews' description of the "original" photo.
So Andrews was stating that the version lacking the head bump was the original version? In other words, the bump was somehow added byb someone? Have I understood this correctly? If so, this is wholly contrary to the simple fact that the photo was sold to the Daily Mail, which was the very first publication anywhere in the world to publish it, and its version shows the head bump. Therefore, if Andrews had received a version of the photo from the New York Times that lacked the head bump, that version had clearly been retouched. Andrews was presumably unclear about the chronology of the photo's publication, or he would have known that it first appeared in the Daily Mail, and with a head bump.Delete
In any case, it would appear that the head-and-neck object was only small, certainly not 6 ft high as a killer whale's dorsal fin would be.Delete
Curiouser and curiouser - I have just obtained a copy of the New York Times article of 22 April 1934, containing the Surgeon's Photo, and which I assume is the article that Andrews is referring to having seen, and guess what? The head of the head-and-neck object has the head bump! Moreover, the text beneath it actually refers to it as "an unretouched photograph". So only the Popular Science article has a photo version that lacks the head bump, as far as I am aware. Andrews was therefore only opining that someone had added the bump to the original photo when attempting to identify the object as a killer whale's dorsal fin - he had no evidence for this. Presumably he offered up that opinion as a way of enhancing the plausibility of the object being a killer whale fin, as the bump argued against it so he needed to come up with something to discredit the bump's presence.Delete
What I wonder is who created the "bumpless" version and how it ended up making its way to both Andrews and Popular Science. I doubt that Andrews would just make up his story, so he had to have seen that version at some point. Maybe a New York Times editor sent it to him as a prank? If I recall correctly, Andrews' orca hypothesis was quoted in the Times in 1934 so the staff would have been aware of it.Delete
I don't recall reading any account that says that the bumpless version did make its way to both Roy Chapman Andrews and Popular Science, only that it appears in the PS article alongside RCA's view that the head/neck object is a killer whale's dorsal fin. As RCA clearly fully believed this to be the correct explanation, he therefore assumed that the inconvenient bump must have been added by retouching (as opined in his book), even though there is absolutely no evidence for this. If we are talking about the New York Times article of 22 April 1934, no, there was no mention of RCA's killer whale/orca hypothesis. In fact, all that was said, directly below the photo itself, was this: "CAMERA CATCHES THE LOCH NESS MONSTER. An unretouched photograph received here yesterday by radiograph from London of the picture taken last Thursday by Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, noted surgeon of the London Hospital, when the monster appeared out of the waters of the loch within 200 yards of the point where the doctor was seated with his camera". Taking the most straightforward, parsimonious view, I think it likely that what happened was that RCA saw the original, bumped Surgeon's Photo, thought that it looked exactly like a killer whale's dorsal fin except for the inconvenient bump, so mistakenly assumed that the bump had been added by someone at the newspaper in which he'd seen it via retouching. RCA then gave his view accordingly to PS, who decided to create a bumpless version of the Surgeon's Photo (i.e. creating the non-existent bumpless version that RCA mistakenly assumed must have been the original Surgeon's Photo) in order to correspond with RCA's view, and then published it alongside his view in the PS article discussed by us above. Presumably, the reason why PS made no mention of their bumpless version being a retouched version of the original Surgeon's Photo was to avoid conflict with RCA and also any possible accusations that PS was tampering with the evidence.Delete
I assume that RCA did actually see the bumpless version at some point, since he specifically claimed to have done so. He didn't just speculate that the photo was retouched, he claimed to have seen the unretouched version himself.Delete
I found the NYT article about RCA's killer whale hypothesis which was published April 24, 1934, two days after the photo was first published in NYT. Unfortunately I can't access the full article.
Yes, the unretouched version being the original bumped version, as shown in the New York Times for 22 April 1934 and in every other newspaper at that time. Conversely, I know of nowhere where he claimed to have seen the retouched, bumpless version. Please be sure of descriptions here. As confirmed by the picture above it, what the NYT of 22 April 1934 was referring to when it called it "unretouched" was the bumped Surgeon's Photo (but which RCA stated in his book was "retouched", because he did not believe that the bump on it was genuine). In his book he confirmed that he saw the bumped version, stating: "Evidently it had been retouched by an artist who was obsessed by the "camel had" complex". If you look at a camel's head in profile, you'll see that it has a bump on its head in much the same place as the bump on the 'head' of the head/neck object in the Surgeon's Photo. So when RCA was referring to the photo seen by him as evidently having been retouched, he was clearly referring to the original, bumped version of the Surgeon's Photo. However, I have not seen any mention of him having claimed to have seen the bumpless, retouched version, which to my knowledge has only ever appeared in the Popular Science article showcasing RCA's belief that the head/neck object was a killer whale's dorsal fin. If you know where RCA states specifically that he saw the bumpless version (i.e. not resembling a camel's head), please post details. Thanks.Delete
Excellent article sir! ... This photograph in my opinion is the epitome of "we'll never really know?" .. and as to the 'confession' aspect to this case, it is identical to the myriad identical 'confessions' in my own main field of study [ufology] ... "to be taken with a grain of salt, unless accompanied with the requisite amount of unequivocally sound provenance!" ... [celebrity is a mighty incentive for deceit.]ReplyDelete
.. A good intelligent bit of work , and a damn good read Dr Shuker.
Thank you so much, Alex, for your very kind, positive comments - I am delighted that you enjoyed my article and share my own opinion regarding this case.Delete
Interesting read Karl. Cheers.ReplyDelete
I remember seeing some show years ago that stated the photo is a cropped photo and there is much more to the photo. They then produced an uncropped photo. Skeptics say it was a toy submarine in 3ft of water, but the larger photo clearly showed that the head/neck were further out in the open water.ReplyDelete
As for your comments on the box, receipt, and photos/pictures of the model........It's been almost 100yrs, I'm sure all of that would have been lost to time by now as well. Your article states the first mention of a model was in the 1970s. That's plenty of time for any evidence of a model sub to be lost. You couldn't even go back to the store to enquirer about the purchase.
Very difficult to generalise when referring to the retention of items, as some people are hoarders whereas others are binners (i.e. binning everything asap). For instance, I still have receipts and many original boxes and cartons in which items were sold that date back over 50 years, to my early childhood, and with such a noteworthy item as the toy submarine in terms of what it was used for, it does not seem implausible to me that some such ephemera relating to it would have been retained by the hoaxers, as mementoes of their scurrilous activity, assuing of course that the hoax had indeed been real.Delete
Karl has a good point on this as you can look at the giant penguin of Florida.Delete
Surgeon's photo is realReplyDelete
Yes, its a real photo. Other than that it's a matter of what one chooses to believe.Delete
Love your work! The "hoaxers" alleged they needed Dr. Wilson for credibility's sake, however, the Dr. intended to keep his name out of publication and was even fined for "what was regarded as a breach of professional ethics" when he was linked to it. Hard to imagine him agreeing to be the frontman for a hoax.ReplyDelete
Very interesting that he was a Special Ops man in WW2, though. He was parachuted into Sarawak, Malaysia, where there are said to be some cryptids. And, later in life, was a doctor in Papua New Guinea, another hotspot for cryptids. Something tells me there is more to this Dr.
Thanks very much for your kind words re my work and for providing some extremely interesting additional information re Dr Wilson's later career, which I am very glad to have here.Delete
If you do not subscribe to the "toy submarine" story, what do you believe the photo depicts? Plesiosaurs-- the most commonly proposed identity for Nessie-- were apparently unable to lift their necks above the surface of the water, according to computer models.ReplyDelete
Palaeontological theories concerning a given fossil form's appearance and capabilities are in a constant state of flux. New fossil finds inspire new ideas and modifications of old ones all the time. The current computer models re plesiosaur neck movement are just that, current, just the latest in a long line of ideas (one of which, incidentally, is that they may have positioned themselves vertically in the water at times, which if so would indeed permit their necks to emerge vertically above the water surface, as this would not involve any bending of the neck). Also, don't forget that if a plesiosaur lineage has somehow survived 65 million years from the KT event at the end of the Cretaceous into the present day, it will have experienced 65 million years of continuing evolution, which could have drasticallty changed plesiosaur anatomy and morphology from those we know via fossil records. Having said all of that, the Surgeon's Photo at least for me does not contain sufficient information for me to feel confident in stating what I feel it depicts, which is why I have never made any such claim. In short, I don't know what it depicts, it might be any of numerous different possibilities. All that I do know is that in my opinion the story of the toy submarine identity for it contains more holes than a sieve or a chunk of Swiss cheese, for all the reasons given by me above in my article.Delete