1976: Johnnie in Jacksonville

From The Tampa Tribune, January 18, 1976

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.”

From The Tampa Tribune, January 18, 1976

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.”

From The Orlando Evening Star, April 23, 1953

From The Orlando Evening Star, April 23, 1953

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.”

Courtesy savethemanatee.org

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.”

Foot of LaSalle Street in San Marco

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 usual stick their heads up out of the water and Humm couldn’t imagine one making its way into the St. Johns River.

Stockton Park.

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!’”

People fishing at Stockton Park, July 2020.

No leviathan, no Jörmungandr, no Loch Ness Monster, Walters’ 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.”

Wallace McLean’s drawing of the St. Johns River Monster, from The Tampa Tribune, January 18, 1976

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.”

Article by Tim Gilmore. For the full story, visit Jax Psycho Geo.