Professors Search for Lizard Man in S.C.

Professors Search for Lizard Man in S.C.

When I was a kid, the Lizard Man was nothing but a T-shirt – a souvenir from one of my family’s annual month-long trips to South Carolina. I vaguely remember seeing newspaper clippings about this half-man–half-lizard that’d been spotted around the swamps not too far from my father’s hometown of Sumter.

But it’s that T-shirt that stands out. It was that T-shirt that mattered to me. I was 12 years old that summer; my brother was 6. By the next summer, we’d both outgrown our Lizard Man shirts – and, when they were hauled off in the box marked “Donate,” so too was any lingering thought of the mystery lurking in the swamps of Lee County, S.C.

The Lizard Man, however, refuses to be forgotten. Since the so-called Lizardmania of 1988 – when at least a dozen reported encounters with this 5- to 7-foot bipedal human-like lizard drew the attention of the national and international media – the scaly creature has continued to surface, emerging from the murky waters of the Scape Ore Swamp every so often to remind us that, whatever it is, it’s much, much more than a T-shirt.

It may be more than 20 years since I last saw my Lizard Man T-shirt, but the truth behind the legendary lizard is still out there. And that’s exactly what we set out to find.

It’s 6:30 a.m. the air is already getting sticky as we gather outside the campus parking garage on St. Philip Street. The heat index has been in the 110s all week, and we’re waiting for a bus without air conditioning to take us to a part of the state that has all the stifling heat and oppressive humidity of Charleston, minus the ocean breeze.

Lizard Man professors

(l-r) Robert Westerfelhaus, Scott Poole and Eric McElroy aboard the Hoobu

But what’s an adventure without a little discomfort? Besides, there’s no turning back now: Our 1970s school bus with bright scales all along its passenger side and a whimsical painting of Neptune on the driver side is chugging toward us, making a loud, yet charming spectacle of itself.

It certainly sets the stage. Between its rooftop “party platform,” its defunct gauges, its cracked windshield and its homey area rugs, the outdoor bistro furniture and squishy couches give the long-retired school bus (fondly known as the Hoobu, due to the S, C, L and S it was missing before our driver, Norman Silverman ’93, painted it so brilliantly) just the right mix of comfort and danger, of relaxation and risk.

Lizard Man Bus

Norman Silverman ’93 tinkers with the Hoobu’s engine

Sure, it feels a bit reckless, blindly barreling down the interstate at unknown speeds. But with the cross-breeze from the opened windows, somehow everything seems OK, like we’re impervious to harm. There’s no need for AC, no need for seatbelts, no need for caution.

“Some of my colleagues think I’m crazy to be doing this trip. We know that the ability for there to be something that’s half-lizard–half-man is essentially impossible. Those are two completely different parts of the evolutionary tree. They’re not going to hybridize,” says biology professor and lizard expert Eric McElroy, over the Hoobu’s sputtering purr. Still, he adds, “I do want to see what kind of biology is being put behind this whole Lizard Man thing.”

“It will be interesting to learn who believes in the Lizard Man and who doesn’t,” notes our expert in South Carolina history and on monsters in folklore, Scott Poole, a history professor and author of Monsters in America. “As a monster historian, I’m interested in what meaning the people of Lee County have prescribed to the Lizard Man, if any at all.”

“Yes, and I’m really interested in the cultural and social practices associated with the Lizard Man phenomenon, too,” says communication professor Robert Westerfelhaus, the team’s expert in pop culture. “Everything from the commercial enterprises that people have developed around this particular claim to the way it’s been incorporated into how they make sense of themselves in the outside world.”

And, as we veer off the interstate and onto the back roads of Lee County – passing kudzu-consumed homes, caved-in porches, boarded-up churches and densely wooded swamps – we realize we’re leaving that outside world behind.

And there’s no way of knowing what we’re getting into, no way of knowing what lies ahead.

Driving into Bishopville, we get the sense that everyone knows something we don’t – that there’d been a mandatory evacuation that we hadn’t heard about. The streets are empty, the businesses closed, the buildings abandoned – and they look like they’ve been that way for some time.

“Hollywood could come here to film a 1950s period piece, and they wouldn’t have to change a thing,” Westerfelhaus says softly.

Just add people,” quips Poole.

The few stragglers we do see stop dead in their tracks to stare, speechless, as the Hoobu goes by. And, when we pull into the empty lot across from the South Carolina Cotton Museum (SCCM), a small group of people clusters together to watch us through the safety of the museum’s tinted windows.

“I thought they were coming from Charleston and they’d be dignified! These people look like hippies!” one of them says to Janson Cox, the curator of the SCCM – which, as the authority on all things Lizard Man and the center of cultural life for residents in and around Bishopville, will be our home base for the next two days.

We hop off the Hoobu, navigate the horse droppings and leftover hay that litter the grassy lot and head toward the museum, which is housed in the city’s old train depot. Inside, we are greeted graciously by Cox, who is wearing a leather vest and spectacles, as well as local historian Dot Smith and retired Bishopville judge Bill Baskin, who now serves on the SCCM Board of Trustees.

We’re led to our meeting room, which, at a glance, could be staged for any conference about any subject, with presentation materials (podium, easels, maps, chalkboards, notes, television, DVD player, CD player) up front, conference-style seating with nameplates for the audience in the middle, round tables for the speakers and onlookers around the perimeter and a refreshment table off to the side.

Lizard Man Footprint

Plaster mold of Lizard Man footprint

But the table at the back of the room gives it away, with its display of Lizard Man memorabilia: the Bishopville Lizard Man action figure from Cartoon Network’s Secret Saturdays, nine different styles of T-shirts, four different hat styles, a Lizard Man costume that was made for a local play, plaster casts of the Lizard Man’s footprints and photographs of the various cars that the Lizard Man is accused of mauling.

At this point, we know we’re in for a treat. And it begins with a song:

If you want to get yourself a little thrill,
take a little trip to Bishopville –
as in South Carolina in the County of Lee.
The Browntown Road is the place to be:
the home of the Lizard Man.

Lizard Man Talk

Janson Cox, curator at the South Carolina Cotton Museum

“Over the next two days, we’re going to explore the mystery of the Lizard Man,” Cox tells us at the end of the song (an original by the late country singer and Bishopville native Jim Nesbitt), explaining that he and the other speakers will provide the historical records, oral traditions, cultural artifacts and geographical/environmental backdrop of the area so that the faculty members may come to their own conclusions. “We’re just going to present the facts. What you do with them is up to you.”

 

You can’t tell the story of the Lizard Man without the character of Sheriff Liston Truesdale.

“In fact,” Randy Burns, a reporter from the Sumter daily The Item, tells us, “if it weren’t for Liston Truesdale, I doubt you would have ever heard of the Lizard Man. Not because he promoted it, but because he didn’t joke about it. He took the reports of something terrorizing his community as serious concerns and conducted an exhaustive investigation. And that’s why media paid attention.”

It all started in July 1988, when Sheriff Truesdale responded to a report that a 1985 Ford LTD had been “chewed up.” When he arrived at the Browntown residence in Bishopville, Truesdale found bite marks on the fender well, the chrome trim pulled off, the wheel well torn off and the wires chewed up and left in a chaotic bundle. While the sheriff looked for clues at the scene, people began coming forward, reporting that several members of the Browntown community had encountered a 7-foot-tall creature with red eyes in recent months.

“Now, when you’ve got a creature that’s 7 feet tall with red eyes scaring people, you better look into that,” says Truesdale, who started collecting names of possible witnesses. “I probably collected 10 names, and not one of them had reported it. No one came and volunteered information. I had to pull it out of them.”

One of those people was George Holloman, who had stopped at the artesian well on the bank of the Scape Ore Swamp at 1 a.m. several months earlier to collect some water. When what he thought was a dead tree on the road moved and took off into the swamp, he ran home, terrified by what he described as a huge, blackish creature with red eyes.

Another one of the names that Truesdale collected was that of Christopher Davis, a shy 17-year-old who was on his way home from his job at the McDonald’s in Camden, when the tire of his car blew out on Browntown Road, half way between the Elmore Butterbean Shed and the artesian well at Scape Ore Swamp. He got out to change the tire, and that’s when he saw a tall creature with rough, green skin and red eyes running toward him. He threw his tools in the car, jumped in and drove off, but not – Truesdale says – before he felt a bump on the back of his car and the creature jumped onto the roof of the car. Davis, who sped up and swerved to shake the monster off, was so frightened by the encounter that, after he got home, it took him two hours to calm down enough to tell his parents what had happened.

“That’s the story that he told me – and I believe him,” Truesdale says, adding that Davis had passed a polygraph test. “I believed all they said, but I couldn’t believe what they were saying.”

Lizard Man

The first rendering of the Lizard Man, by Christopher Davis

By this time, whispers of a tall, bipedal beast with glowing red eyes and three-clawed hands had leaked out of Browntown, and Emory Bedenbaugh, owner and general manager of Bishopville radio station WAGS-AM – who had heard the creature called the Lizard Man – saw the newsworthiness of the rumors. Bedenbaugh, who was also on the Lee County Economic Development Board, talked about it on the Friday 6 o’clock news and put it out for the Associated Press. It wasn’t until Davis’ drawing of the Lizard Man was published in The Item, however, that the story really took off.

“In three days’ time, it was all over the news,” says Truesdale. “We were getting so many calls, we had to set up a separate office just to deal with the media.”

And not just local media – national and international media, too. Suddenly, reporters from Good Morning America, Los Angeles Times, Charlotte Observer,Herald Examiner, Time and People Magazine all wanted to interview Truesdale, who estimates that 50,000 people descended on Bishopville that summer.

“Browntown looked like a Carolina–Clemson game. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic,” he says. “It was a mess. There were people walking around in outfits made out of chrome to try to entice the Lizard Man, because – you know – they heard he liked chrome. Other people were covering all the chrome on their cars with masking tape. I was scared that some fool would get shot.”

Full-on Lizardmania had set in. Blow-up Godzilla monsters were displayed all over town. The mannequins in local clothing shops wore lizard-like masks. At least three songs were written about the Lizard Man. One Columbia radio station offered a million-dollar prize for his capture, and bets were being made every day in Las Vegas over whether or not he’d be caught.

Lizard Man Souvenirs

Lizard Man Souvenirs

The most ubiquitous Lizard Man tokens were the T-shirts and hats that were sold everywhere – even along the interstate exits.

Meanwhile, Truesdale continued the investigation, stressing to the community that if anyone “reported a sighting and it turned out to be a lie, they’d go to jail.” And still the reports kept coming in – and the evidence kept mounting: At one scene, they found trampled trees; three 40-gallon drums that had been dragged from a dump, crushed and scattered in the road; and some actual tracks that went down a nearby dirt road and into the woods. They brought in the SLED bloodhounds, which followed the tracks to a certain part of the woods, but refused to go any further.

“Something in there scared them,” says Truesdale. “Whatever this thing was, it was scaring everyone who saw it.”

“The people who were talking to the witnesses believed them,” agrees Randy Burns. “They were convinced. A lot of people made fun of Liston, but he wasn’t the only one who believed these people saw something.”

“For six months, I really caught heck about this Lizard Man thing,” says Truesdale. “I told the media, ‘We didn’t ask for this. You did this. And if you try to make us look like Barney, you’re going to jail.’”

The media attention, of course, faded away as the reported incidents died down. But, two years later, in 1990, the Lizard Man was back: first spotted by Brian and Michelle Elmore and then by the Blythers family, who was driving past the Elmore Butterbean Shed when they had to swerve to avoid the huge, dark creature that jumped into the road.

“It put the fear in them,” says Truesdale, who took separate statements from each of the five Blythers. “We have to take this thing seriously. What you don’t do is what you’re going to wish you had.”

The Lizard Man may not have been seen since 1990, but Sheriff Truesdale still appears regularly in a popular segment on Turner South’s Liars and Legends, as well as on a frequently aired commercial for that program. He is, after all, the second-most prominent character in the Lizard Man’s story, especially since Christopher Davis was murdered in 2009.

Davis, however, had shrunk away from the media’s attention long before that. As Truesdale says, “He’d had enough.” The media, of course, may never have enough. Syfy’s Destination Truth, for example, filmed an episode in Bishopville just last year.

Part of the continued interest is due to the ongoing vehicle attacks. In 2008, a minivan sustained damages eerily consistent with those of another vehicle: a chewed up fender, twisted metal, bite marks on both sides of the grill. The toxicology reports from the blood found on the vehicle showed the DNA to be canine, but when six dead cats, a dead cow and a dead dog were found nearby, it was enough to scare the family who reported it – and who was originally from New Jersey and had never before heard of the Lizard Man – right out of town.

Then, last July, just two weeks after our visit to Bishopville, a van was attacked in Lee County – its damage identical to that in the previous cases: bite marks in the fender and metal crushed like tissue paper.

“I’m skeptical” that it was the Lizard Man, the van’s owner told The Charlotte Observer. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

But, like Sheriff Liston Truesdale says, “If you don’t know, you better say you don’t know.”

By lunchtime, there’s already a lot to process, and you can almost see the wheels turning in the professors’ heads as we wait for our Lizard Man sandwiches at Harry and Harry Too, a roadside restaurant on the outskirts of town. It’s a lively, smoky place, with enough kitsch to keep you entertained for hours: cutouts of Superman, Tomb Raider, Elvis, Larry, Curly and Moe; toy trains and tractors; a mock mounted moose head; a tin man made of cans; a giant blowup of a Crest toothpaste tube; and, of course, replicas of the Lizard Man footprint cast.

I’m reminded to ask McElroy if there are any lizards that actually walk on two legs.

“Yes, a lot will run bipedal,” he says. “Some will tuck their front legs in when they run.”

“Are any of them 7 feet tall? With glowing red eyes?”

“No, but in Australia, there are the monitor lizards that stand about 3 to 5 feet tall on their back two legs. I would believe that if someone saw a monitor lizard, it could look something like a lizard man,” he concedes, adding that if you flash light into an alligator’s eyes, they will glow red. “But monitor lizards are all pretty much diurnal. I wouldn’t expect a monitor lizard to be out at one in the morning. And, if the monitor lizard was out, I wouldn’t expect it to go into the road and inspect a person changing their tire. That’s just not something I would equate with typical monitor behavior.”

Lizard Man Lunch

Eating Lizard Man sandwiches at Harry and Harry Too; (l to r) Judge Bill Baskin, Westerfelhaus, Cox, McElroy and Poole

Our Lizard Man sandwiches – which are not Lizard Man meat, but grilled chicken fingers, sautéed mushrooms and onions, topped with provolone – can’t satisfy our appetite for the truth behind the Lizard Man, and so Janson Cox, Judge Bill Baskin and the rest of us pile back into the Hoobu and head to Elmore’s Butterbean Shed.

The butterbean shed, we’d learned earlier, is more than just the landmark closest to many of the Lizard Man encounters; Elmore’s Butterbean Shed actually takes center stage in this unfolding tale of a multilayered legend.

Lucious “Brother” Elmore was a lucrative butterbean farmer, with 40-something acres of butterbeans and clients all over the state, including the Columbia restaurant chain Lizard’s Thicket. In order to keep his harvest moving quickly, he dumped the beans onto drying tables in his shed on Browntown Road, which he equipped with air-conditioning window units to further speed up the drying process.

“In those days, not everybody had air conditioning, and I guess it got so hot sometimes that it went to people’s heads, because people kept stealing the units right out of Brother Elmore’s shed,” Al Holland, owner of the local feed and seed, had told us that morning. “Well, he’d just picked up three new units from the store, and people knew this. But he was determined to make sure no one stole them.”

Brother Elmore claimed to be on a stakeout the night that Christopher Davis’ tire blew, and – when he heard the car stop just 100 yards down the road from the butterbean shed, he thought he’d found his culprit.

“He walks out to the road, which is lower than the yard, so he’s up high, hiding in the dog fennel,” Holland told us. “So he’s standing there, he’s looking down, when the kid turned around and screamed and took off.”

The way Holland tells it, Davis’ taillights reflected in Elmore’s glasses, causing an illusion of red glowing eyes; and the scrapes and scratches on his car were from the still-attached jack.

“When the story took hold, Elmore’s son decided to perpetuate the story. He made some giant feet out of wood and flip-flops and stomped all over the swamp,” Holland had said. “That’s when the sheriff fell into it, and the Elmores were so happy because no one would steal anything with all those cops patrolling.”

In the face of Holland’s story, much of the legend of the Lizard Man crumbles to pieces. We’re left with a mere shell of a story.

The judge directs Silverman to pull over on a patch of dead grass, and Cox points to a dilapidated pile of faded wood and shingles and tin: “There it is! Elmore’s Butterbean Shed.”

It looks like any other derelict ramshackle you see in fields of South Carolina’s countryside. It’s not something you would really consider a place, not now, anyway. It’s hard to imagine a time when it was viable. It’s just a leftover heap of some abandoned life, waiting for the weather, something, to beat it down so hard that it disappears.

Much like the legend of the Lizard Man.

Lizard Man Shed

Elmore Butterbean Shed, Bishopville, S.C.

Both the shed and the legend are rundown, in shambles, caving in on themselves. They’re on the brink of extinction.

As we tromp through the knee-high weeds to see what we can salvage, we notice the old sign with “Elmore’s Butterbean Shed” painted on it in a faded light green. It’s half-smothered by Virginia creeper, but it’s there.

“We’ll have to see if we can bring that into the museum,” Cox says to the judge.

There’s hope.

“People swear by these aluminum sheets – they say there’s no better place to find lizards,” McElroy says, lifting a 5×5 sheet off the ground and finding no life at all. “I’ve never had any luck.”

“Well, look at this!” Judge Bill Baskin says, mostly to himself, as he walks over to a fruiting pear tree. “They’re not ripe, but there’s a lot of them!”

Inside the structure – rather, within its walls (the roof is mostly gone) – we find a wheelchair, old furniture and documents and a couple of sliding-top coolers: “Things Go Better with Coke.”

And then we see the bags of butterbeans lying atop the drying tables.

“They’ll probably still grow if you plant them,” Cox says. “They might be magic beans that grow like Jack and the Giant Beanstalk. Only the Lizard Man is at the top.”

I put a handful in my pocket.

LizardEmbed12

Heading back to the Hoobu

Back on the road, Cox points out a curve in the road that obstructs the line of sight.

“The story as Al told it to us does not hold up!” Westerfelhaus exclaims. “There’s no way he could have seen the car from here.”

“Unless Christopher Davis was higher up,” Cox smiles.

“So you’re casting doubt on the theory that the story was a hoax, because Brother Elmore couldn’t have hidden where we were told he’d hidden and done the things we were told he did,” says Westerfelhaus. “There’s reason to doubt the story of the hoax based on what we’ve seen here. Just being at the butterbean shed site casts some doubt on the story that casts doubt on the Lizard Man phenomenon.”

And so the mystery has new life. It’s something to work with, at least.

This is it: Scape Ore Swamp. This is where the Lizard Man came from. The place he called home. The place that created the monster.

“In fact,” Al Holland had told us that morning, “people wouldn’t even cross the Scape Ore bridge because that’s where they said he’d get in and out of the swamp … and Elmore was just delighted, because he knew no one would be coming anywhere near his butterbean shed for a while.”

That there would be no Lizard Man without the Scape Ore Swamp isn’t lost on any of us as we pull our waders and our kayaks out of the back of the Hoobu and follow Cox and Judge Baskin to the Lizard Man Pool, filling our cups at the very artesian well that George Holloman was using when the Lizard Man approached. In this very spot.

If we’re going to find the Lizard Man anywhere, this is it.

Lizard Man

Westerfelhaus and Poole

And so we dowse ourselves in DEET, snap on our life jackets and take the kayaks out into the black amber water. Between the soft mud and the thick overgrowth, however, we don’t get far. And yet, there’s a sense that something – something bigger than us – could somehow be living here, thriving in this dank confusion of mud and vines.

We’re more at ease back on shore, where we take the footpath following the stream about 200 yards back – looking, listening – searching for clues, artifacts, anything, along the way. No one really knows what we’re looking for.

No one, of course, except McElroy, who is tromping around in the woods, his binoculars around his neck and his catch pole in hand. He’s in his element.

“When I go in the woods,” he says later, “I go in the woods to look at the biology that I know should be there. There are eight species of lizards. There are 20 species of amphibians, there are snakes, there are birds, there are all sorts of stuff that factually, that biologically, is there. I don’t know why people want to reach for Bigfoot or Lizard Man when you’ve got real creatures to look for.”

“It’s hard not to find a period in American history where there wasn’t an interest in things in the woods, things in the swamps, things in the oceans,” Poole says. “In fact, particularly in the settlement period, that was always a very important part of the mentality – what lies outside of the campfire, what’s just beyond the boundary of what we know about.”

“The more that science explains things, the less mysterious the world becomes to many people,” Westerfelhaus adds. “I think it also plays into a primordial fear that we have of those things that are different from us in a fundamental way, but close enough to us in likeness that we recognize some aspect of ourselves.”

Lizard Man

McElroy exploring the woods around Scape Ore Swamp

Back at the Lizard Man Pool, McElroy puts on his gaiters and goes out into the water to catch frogs. The rest of us hang back, following him awkwardly along the bank as he crosses under the overpass.

Suddenly, he flails – swinging both arms into the water and leaping onto his right leg in one swift movement. Frogs, like lizards and monsters, however, are slippery things, and McElroy comes up empty handed.

“I’m a little disappointed,” he says later. “I was expecting a swamp that had some biology, some life, some diversity. At the very least I thought we’d see a lizard.”

Frankly, we’re all a little disappointed – especially since we’d been told earlier that the Scape Ore Swamp was named for the sceloporus undulates, or the common Eastern fence lizard. It’s a theory the professors later dismissed as implausible – but, still.

“It’s all the truth according to the teller,” Cox had told us. “When the legend becomes fact, you always tell the legend.”

And, just like the vines growing on trees in the swamp, eventually the legend becomes so intertwined with the truth – so overgrown with conflicting versions – that it’s impossible to see what’s really there.

All we can be sure of is that the Lizard Man is still here, thriving on whatever it can: imagination, fascination, suspicion, fear.

As one Bishopville resident would tell us on her visit to the SCCM the next day, “Even though I was not one of those people who believed in the Lizard Man, I still look over into the swamp every time I pass over the bridge. Even today. There’s just this tiny little piece of doubt. I know better, but there are so many stories – it’s enough to plant a tiny seed of doubt.”

Maybe we didn’t know what we were looking for. Maybe we were looking too hard. But we didn’t find the Lizard Man living in Scape Ore Swamp. Maybe these are the kinds of things you only see when you’re not expecting them, when you’re completely off guard.

Like while we’re watching the Animal X episode about the Lizard Man back at the museum, and Roy Atkinson, a local farm equipment salesman whose son was in a crippling accident at a very early age, drops in unexpectedly.

“I’ve talked to the Lizard Man,” Atkinson tells us, “and he said he doesn’t want to hurt anybody or anything. He doesn’t want to eat anybody. He just wants some chrome to play against his scales!”

And so Atkinson ran with this idea, writing “The Lizard Man Stomp,” and creating the Washtar – which, simply put, is a washboard that’s been inserted into the body of a guitar – so that his son could play an instrument that both provides therapy and lets him participate in the music ministry Atkinson has dedicated his life to.

“It’s easy for special needs kids to play, because there’s no pick to hold onto, and it’s always in tune,” Atkinson explains. “My son and I go to nursing homes and special needs homes and sing ‘The Lizard Man Stomp.’”

He plays a recording of the song for us:

Lizard Man, he’s got a country band,
And he plays his scales all over the land.
And he does the stomp in the Scape Ore Swamp.

And the next thing we know, he’s gone, leaving us a little confused.

“It wasn’t clear to me that he believed in the Lizard Man as a biological phenomenon, but clearly it’s something that inspired a certain sense of hope,” Westerfelhaus says. “In that way, the legend takes on this very personal meaning. It becomes his own. And it really shows you how important it is in context to the community.”

“It gives me hope, actually,” Poole says “It’s the first time we’ve heard of the Lizard Man taking on a bigger significance.”

Finally, we know where the Lizard Man is really living: in the people of Lee County.

And so, joined by some of these very people, we cap our day at the museum with a Lizard Man toast, and – served with Bloody Lizards (strawberry daiquiris), Lizard Blood (white wine dyed green) and Lizard Man Blood (“White Lightning” dyed green, and served from a Duke’s Mayonnaise jar).

It’s clear there’s good reason to keep the Lizard Man alive.

When the Lizard Man first appeared in Bishopville, the tiny community of 3,500 was completely unprepared for the kind of attention it received – and its naïveté about its own capacity to endure not just the sheer number of people, but also their scrutiny and judgment, left a large segment of the population resentful.

“There may have been a time when the community embraced the publicity,” Randy Burns tells us, “but now it’s in the same category as the trash dump and the jail.”

What in 1988 was an economic opportunity with a fun kind of frenzy is now a source of shame among some people and annoyance among others.

The professors discussing the Lizard Man

The professors discussing the Lizard Man

“I think that there was legitimate concern on their part about how they were being represented,” says Westerfelhaus. “Even in such a remote, rural area, the way you’re perceived is important to you.”

And yet some people regret letting the Lizardmania slip away.

“Emory Bedenbaugh really thinks we dropped the ball. He saw the Lizard Man as a way to get Bishopville on the map,” Burns says. “He thinks Lee County has missed out on a goldmine.”

“The interesting thing to me is that there does seem to be a portion of the community whose interest is really commodification of the legend,” Poole notes, adding that there’s “a sense that finding ways to merchandise the Lizard Man could really be the economic redemption of Lee County – that a Lizard Man theme park, a Lizard Man gift shop, a Lizard Man statue could rescue this community.”

Of course, every little bit does help – and the Lizard Man still draws people to Lee County – people like Bigfoot hunter Tom Biscardi, for example, and other legend trippers, like us. (I’m not sure how much of an economic impact we could have possibly made in our 30 hours in Lee County, but we certainly hit the news – with at least four newspaper articles mentioning the trip.)

But the Lizard Man must find a way to coexist with the community on a consistent basis: If it doesn’t want to attract the media’s constant attention, how does Bishopville want to use this phenomenon? How can the legend fit into the cultural, economic and social life in a way that’s beneficial for all members of the community?

“The Lizard Man is something very special to Lee County,” Rev. Jim Ridenhour tells us. “But the people as a community haven’t given it any kind of higher purpose that I know of.”

Ohhh, Lee Litter Lizard,” Cox calls down the hall of the museum. And, when the green lizard mascot waddles into the room, he introduces us to the character he created to help with the Lee County Cleanup, a community pride project: “This is the son of the Lizard Man. He wants you to know that the Lizard Man is tired of us trashing his swamp.”

“I like that idea,” McElroy says. “Those people that know Bishopville probably know it because of the Lizard Man, so it’s great when they can use it for positive things.”

Because, whether they like it or not, the Lizard Man doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

Lizard Man

Heading home on the Hoobu

Our adventure, however, is coming to a close. And, as we board the Hoobu and head back home, we reflect on our in-depth – albeit brief – introduction to the Lizard Man, Bishopville and the people of Lee County.

“It was fascinating to uncover all the complications of maintaining a cultural legend,” Westerfelhaus says. “I also think some people were true believers in the Lizard Man, some people were agnostic and some people did not believe. And, while they were being very respectful, it was very clear that there’s a lot they all disagree on. They communicated that very clearly – not just in what they said and in their body language, but in what they didn’t say, too. Stories get filtered, as you know, through memory, through talk, through criticism of other people. They’re always changing.”

“Southerners are revered for their ability to tell a story, and Liston Truesdale and Dot Smith and Al Holland did not disappoint,” says McElroy. “They told excellent stories. Whether or not they were true is a different matter, but they were great stories.”

Poole shrugs: “The sheriff told us, ‘I’ll tell you the truth … most of the time.’”

Lizard Man Professors

(l-r) Westerfelhaus, Poole, McElroy

As we near Charleston, it occurs to me how silly I was to think we would find the truth behind the Lizard Man – how silly to think there could possibly be one single truth to a legend that everyone experiences differently. There are too many layers of truth to pick just one, too many stories to pretend to know anything for sure. And so, all we know is what the Lizard Man means to us as individuals, how it fits into our own particular story. That’s as close as we can get to the truth.

It’s no surprise that our faculty members find different truths behind the Lizard Man, despite being presented with all the same evidence.

“I’m skeptical, but I am an agnostic. There’s not enough proof one way or the other, so there may be something out there,” says Westerfelhaus. “But, what was most interesting is how quickly the story spread beyond this county, how much attention it generated throughout the world – and not just attention toward this crypto-zoological phenomenon, but attention toward a community that would otherwise have been ignored. I think that’s the real story here: that, absent the Lizard Man claims, people from New York, Chicago and London would not be coming to Lee County, S.C., for any particular reason. So, for me the big story was how quickly it took off and how far it went.”

Poole, on the other hand, is pretty convinced a monster lives in Lee County: “It’s the same one that’s haunted the South for 300 years.”

He suspects the Lizard Man’s racial implications are at the core of the legend – though, until he talks with the people of Browntown, it’s hard to know. He and Westerfelhaus hope to establish some student/faculty research there soon.

“I think right now the mystery is whether or not the Lizard Man is primarily a media-created sensation, or if indeed it is both that, plus something that draws on older folklore within the community as well as older anxieties about race and class,” he says, noting there were hints of older stories about strange things in the swamp – something, he suspects, like the Plantation Terror Tales about scary things living in the swamps that the white planter class told its slaves so they wouldn’t run away. What he knows for sure, though: “The legend of the Lizard Man is inextricably bound up with Lee County’s racial history, its class system, the way that it thinks about itself in relation to the rest of the world, the way the certain parts of the community perceive itself.”

And, guess where McElroy stands: “I don’t think that there’s a Lizard Man. I don’t think that there’s some creature evolved from the dinosaurs living in our swamps. I don’t think it’s a Martian or some alien that came off the meteor. I really doubt it was a monitor lizard. It could have been a gorilla released from the circus – that’s probably highly unlikely, but possible. Probably, Brother Elmore scared the crap out of this kid, and the town took it over and turned it into profit.”

But, that’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate the legend.

“What I love about the Lizard Man is, by God, he brings notoriety to the lizard – something I hold dear to my heart,” he says. “All my life, I’ve loved lizards, and I think anything that educates people about these awesome little creatures is great. I think they’re the most fascinating animals. Sit and watch a lizard some time. They’re amazing”

As for me, all the truths behind the Lizard Man add up to a really good story … and a brand-new T-shirt.

 

This article was first published as “Off to See the Lizard” in the fall 2011 issue of College of Charleston Magazine.