Wellesley librarians get to the bottom of the Wellesley lake monster legend

Thanks to Greg Peverill-Conti from Wellesley Free Library Information Services for this story—part investigative journalism piece, part plug for The Library of Things—about the Lake Waban Wiggler, Wellesley’s very own lake monster legend. Almost 90 years ago, multiple news agencies including The New York Times reported in all seriousness about a monster, 6o-feet in length, swimming about in the 40-foot deep lake on the campus of Wellesley College. As it happens, just one year earlier, the iconic “head and neck” photo of the legendary monster who reportedly inhabited Scotland’s Loch Ness, was first published. Perhaps the Nessie pic engendered monster envy at Wellesley College?

Greg thought it all sounded fishy and decided to do a deep dive into the story. We’ll turn it over to Greg from here so he can tell you what he reeled in.

On a warm August evening in 1935, five people saw something they could not believe and would never forget: a sixty-foot sea serpent gliding through the still waters of Lake Waban. Astonished, the group raced to the shore at Tupelo Point but the monster had vanished. Fanciful? Perhaps, but soon, the story appeared in major newspapers in Boston and New York. 

Lake Waban Wiggler, Wellesley
Newspaper headline from the Boston Evening Transcript.

What newspapers said about the Lake Waban Wiggler

  • “A sixty-foot, brownish-gray reptilian monster, similar in description to the legendary sea serpents, was seen by five Wellesley persons . . . in Lake Waban, near Wellesley College.” —New York Herald Tribune, August 20, 1935
  • “‘The animal’s neck appeared to be rough, but not scaley,’ a spokesman for the group recounted, ‘We were walking down by Tupelo Point and the thing just reared up out of the water . . . the eyes gave off sort of a blueish gleam as it turned in the water.’”—Boston Evening Transcript, August 20, 1935 
  • “The animal, with a knobby, horselike head and a sinuous body, emerged from the water off Tupelo Point shortly after 11 o’clock, swung around and disappeared into the darkness in the direction of the other side of the lake.”New York Times, August 20, 1935 

Wellesley Free Library dips a toe into the mystery

After an initial flurry of interest, the story faded out of memory and was almost lost. Until the Wellesley Free Library caught wind of it . . . 

In June of 2023, while considering ways to promote a new pair of night vision goggles from the Library of Things, we immediately thought of monster hunting. Of course, the Dover Demon came to mind, but we wondered if there was something even closer to home. That’s when we discovered the Lake Waban Wiggler. That wasn’t the “official” name of the serpent, but it worked for us! 

Lake Waban Wiggler, Wellesley
Greg Peverill-Conti  (Information Services) and Rachael Hobson (Acquisitions and Cataloging) of the Wellesley Free Library search high and low for the Lake Waban Wiggler

We traveled to Lake Waban with a slew of items from the Library of Things: night vision goggles, electro-magnetic field detector, thermal camera, a decibel meter, and more. We had a swell time at the lake and even produced a fun little video about our adventures. Fun as it was, we found no answers. 

Lake Waban Wiggler, Wellesley
A selection of Library of Things items used to hunt the monster.

Undeterred, we shared the story with library patrons. One, whom we’ll call “Bob” to protect his privacy, thought he might know who was behind the original incident: Ward Fearnside, a Wellesley resident, World War II veteran, and UU Wellesley Hills member. We explored the theory, but the trail quickly grew cold. A few months later, however, Bob returned with some fresh clues. “There’s an old boathouse,” he said, “that belongs to the Wellesley Boat Club, where Ward Fearnside kept his canoe, I’ll bet it’s still there.” 

Intrigued, we found our way to the boathouse, but learned nothing from the outside of the building. Before calling it quits, we asked around the neighborhood and were eventually connected to the Captain of the Boat Club. He confirmed that Ward had been a member and offered to introduce us to his granddaughter, Libby, who is now the club’s vice president. 

It was with mounting excitement that we followed this new lead. A meeting at the boathouse was suggested. We leapt at opportunity! 

 On a raw and rainy January morning, we arrived at the boathouse where we met Libby, and her mother Wendy, the daughter of Ward Fearnside. After a few preliminaries, Wendy cut to the chase. “Yes,” she confirmed, “that was my father and his brother horsing around on Lake Waban that night in 1935.” 

Lake Waban Wiggler, Wellesley
A canoe from the period of the Lake Waban Wiggler sighting.

Reformed prankster Ward Fearnside breaks his silence

Although Ward died in 2011, thanks to a family oral history project, the story lives on. Here is the story, in Ward’s own words: 

“When I was about 16, I was swimming with my brother Thomas off Tupelo Point from quarter of nine to quarter past nine p.m. We had a canoe with us which we tipped over, and one of the things we used to do with the tipped over canoe was to get a good air bubble enclosed in the canoe, then duck under the gunwale and come up into the air bubble inside the canoe. We were doing this off Tupelo Point at nine o’clock in the evening.

“As we learned later, three people came down to Tupelo Point and saw the bottom of the canoe in the faint evening light. They concluded it was a “sea monster” in the lake. They hastily retreated, reported the story, which came out on the front page of the Boston Herald, two columns wide at the bottom of the page, “Sea Monster Sighted in Lake Waban!” We never let on that we were the sea monster. Today, with my desire to debunk the supernatural, I would have exposed the nonsense.”

While some of the details do not match the media accounts, Rachael and I believe there is no doubt that they are describing the same incident. 

It was an unexpected journey, and a mystery solved after nearly 100 years. We are happy to have fulfilled Ward Fearnside’s desire to “expose the nonsense.” It was also a great opportunity to share our Library of Things collection. If you have a Wellesley mystery, please, let us know. The Wellesley Free Library is a unique resource and we’re happy to help in any way we can. 

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