Article by Tim Gilmore

2020: Here’s Johnnie

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

It’s been called “Johnnie,” for the river it purportedly calls home, “Borinkus,” inexplicably, by a wisecracking racist state attorney, and other terms ranging from “monster” to “beast” to “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 Jacksonville’s Westside, claims to have kept track of the St. Johns River Monster for decades.

The St. Johns River at the end of LaSalle Street in Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood.

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.”

1849: A legend begins… maybe

Vern Vandivier’s “The Way Things Used to Be” column from the Franklin Daily Journal.

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 Daily Journal in Indiana. 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 when, at the mouth of the St. Johns River on the 18th of February, 1849, “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.”

Jacksonville in 1847.

Vandivier assures readers that “the citizens of Jacksonville” vouched fully for Captain Adams’ 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 (in)famous fake photograph of the Loch Ness Monster, 1934

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.

1953: Sightings in Central Florida

From The Orlando Sentinel, October 22, 1953

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, promised 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.

Owen Godwin with his anaconda, Big Bertha, and her babies, The Orlando Sentinel, February 21, 1957.

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 1910s, “plenty of them” swarmed the St. Johns in various Jacksonville confluences, “and the name for them,” Hunter said, “was Borinkus.”

According to Hunter, Barney Dillard, a citrus magnate and personal friend “who still lives at Volusia, used to use a team of them to ferry across the river.”

Florida State Attorney Jesse Hunter, The Tampa Tribune, December 8, 1952

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 who prosecuted the Groveland Boys, four Black boys accused of raping white 17-year-old Norma Padgett in Central Florida in 1949. Following a trial in which no evidence was presented, the four were convicted by the all white jury, triggering a bloody series of events including white mob attacks and murders. In 2016, 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.

Sheriff Willis McCall, Jailer Reuben Hatcher, and three of the four Groveland Boys, Walter Irvin, Sammy Shepherd and Charles Greenlee. The fourth, Ernest Thomas, had been killed by McCall’s posse. Not long after this photograph, McCall murdered Shepherd and shot Irvin. Photo courtesy National Public Radio.

In October 1953, 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.

Mermaids, as imagined from reported sightings in the Caribbean and off Florida, by Gautier d’Agoty, 1759

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.

Next page: 1976: Johnnie in Jacksonville