Birth of a Legend
The "surgeon's photo," published in 1934, became the very image of the Loch Ness Monster.
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Famous Photo Falsified?
In the 65 years since the birth of the modern
legend, dozens of people have come forward with photographs purporting to show
the monster. Most were quickly dismissed as either outright frauds or images of
ordinary objects mistaken for monsters. But one photo stood above the rest.
Taken in 1934, it shows what appears to be the slender neck of an animal rising
from the surface of the water. From the moment it was published in the
London Daily Mail, it became the very image of the Loch Ness Monster
and, for many, the strongest evidence that Nessie actually exists.
One reason the photograph had such an impact on the Loch Ness legend was that
it came from such a credible source. The photo was sold to the Daily
Mail by a London physician named R. Kenneth Wilson, who said he had
taken the picture when he noticed a commotion in the water as he was driving up
from London to photograph birds with a friend near Inverness. Few believed that
such a respected doctor could be party to a deception.
But in 1994, 60 years after the photo was first published, newspapers around
the world reported the claim that the "surgeon's photo" was a fake, part of an
elaborate plot to dupe the Daily Mail. The man behind the story was a
former English art teacher named Alastair Boyd, who had become an avid student
of Loch Ness lore after he and his wife had had their own sighting of a large
animal in the loch in 1979. Years later, a friend of Boyd's named David Martin
discovered an old newspaper clipping in which Ian Wetherell (the son of
Marmaduke Wetherell of hippo foot fame) claimed the surgeon's photo was a hoax.
The article had attracted little attention when it was published in 1975, but
two details caught Boyd's eye.
The credibility of the surgeon's photo hinged on its source—a respected London doctor named R. Kenneth Wilson (L).
Loch Ness researcher Alastair Boyd (R) helped uncover evidence that the surgeon's photo was part of an elaborate hoax.
First, Wetherell said the plot had involved a man named Maurice Chambers—the very same man that Dr. Wilson said he had driven up from London to visit in
1934. Second, Wetherell mentioned that the surgeon's photograph included the
scenery of Loch Ness in the background. In fact, the familiar Nessie photo
includes only the protruding neck and the water around it. Boyd knew that the
original photo had included a bit of the far shoreline in the
background, because he had rediscovered the uncropped version in the late '80s.
But that full photo had been published only once, in 1934. So how could
Wetherell have known this detail? "Either he had a very long memory, or he took
the picture," Boyd says.
The full, uncropped surgeon's photo, published only once in 1934, was rediscovered by Boyd more than 50 years later.
Ian Wetherell had died by the time Boyd and Martin read the article, but they
were able to track down his step-brother, Christian Spurling, in the south of
England. Spurling, 93 and near death, confessed. Unhappy with the way he was
treated by the Daily Mail after the hippo foot fiasco, Duke
Wetherell had set out to get his revenge, enlisting his son and step-son in the
plot. First Spurling built a model monster by grafting a head and neck onto the
conning tower of a toy submarine. Then Wetherell and his son Ian drove up to
the loch and staged the photograph, taking care to include the actual Loch Ness
scenery in the background. Finally, to conceal his own role in the hoax,
Wetherell persuaded Dr. Wilson, through their common friend Chambers, to have
the photo developed and sell it to the Daily Mail as his own. The plot
worked better than any of them could have imagined.
Not everyone accepts the Spurling story. American journalist Richard Smith,
for example, notes that toy experts question whether the toy submarines of the
1930s could have performed as described, and he wonders why Boyd waited until
after Spurling's death to reveal his confession. But in the aftermath of Boyd's
1994 bombshell, most people now believe the surgeon's photo was yet another
Loch Ness hoax.
The 93-year-old stepson of Marmaduke Wetherell told Boyd he made the monster in the picture by grafting a plastic wood neck to a toy submarine.
Does that finally disprove the monster's existence? Not at all, says Boyd. One
of the great ironies of the Loch Ness story is that the man who brought down
the most famous piece of evidence remains a firm believer in Nessie. "I am so
convinced of the reality of these creatures that I would actually stake my life
on their existence," he told NOVA. "I trust my eyesight ... I used to make my
living teaching people how to observe, and I know that the thing I saw was not
a log or an otter or a wave, or anything like that. It was a large animal. It
came heaving out of the water, something like a whale. I mean, the part that
was actually on the surface when it stopped rolling through was at least 20
feet long. It was totally extraordinary. It's the most amazing thing I've ever
seen in my life, and if I could afford to spend the rest of my life looking for
another glimpse of it, I would."
Stephen Lyons is the Senior Editor for Program Development at the WGBH Science
Unit. He was the co-writer and co-producer of NOVA's "The Beast of Loch Ness."
Photos: (2) Daily Mail; (3) ABC News; (4) BBC-Tomorrow's World; (5) North Scene Video;
(6) Bob Rines; (7) Adrian Shrine/Bob Rines; (8,11) Fortean Pictures Library; (12)
The Sunday Telegraph.
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© | Updated November 2000