The Strange Merman of Banff: Legendary Lake Monster or Just a Trading Post Treasure?
As a researcher of unusual historical phenomena, I investigate strange stories, but I had no intention of doing so in Alberta, Canada. Nevertheless, I came across something that was truly odd in the small vacation town of Banff.
I stopped into a trapper’s store called the Banff Indian Trader Shop. In the back was a glass case that housed a strange looking mummy, one that was supposed to have belonged to a merman. Just looking at it, it was obviously fake: different animal parts all combined to create a creature that likely does not exist.
However, in the same case was an article entitled A Merman in Lake Superior that had been printed initially in the Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository in 1824, and a story credited to a Stoney Nakoda named Enoch Baptiste, which was translated by Horace Holloway in 1954. This is the story as it appears in the case:
“Northeast of Lake Minnewanka is a mountain with a high, sharp peak shaped like a tower. From a long distance you can see snow on its top, but there is never any on its side. The Mountain is so steep that snow does not stay on it. Because spirits lived on top of it, Indians called it Spirit Mountain.
“The nearby lake they called Minnewanka, which means Water of the Spirits. Whenever they traveled in the neighborhood of the lake, they heard the voices of spirits. As they passed by, they could see nothing that made the sounds, but they could hear the sounds.
“One time when our people were camping near the lake, my father heard what seemed to be the beating of a drum. The noise seemed to be coming from the water. He could also hear voices down in the lake. Soon he noticed that water was coming up on the shore. It came close to the camp, and then it went back again.
“Soon my father saw, near the center of the lake, a strange creature rise out of the water. It was half a fish and half human being. It had blown the water toward the shore, and then it had come above the surface. As my father stood watching, the fish-person sank back into the lake.
“Other people also saw the strange creature. They were so frightened that they broke camp and never camped there again. All Indians stayed away from that water. There was no fishing or canoeing on Lake Minnewanka until white people came.
“Strange creatures in other lakes were sometimes killed by lightening, but I never heard of this one being killed.
“Many Indians are still afraid of the lake. A few years ago some Indian boys were working there, helping to build a dam. They did not want to work at that place, because they had heard about the strange fish-person. One of the boys was killed in a strange accident. Some people say that the accident happened because the spirits did not like to have trees near the lake destroyed.”
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Obviously a strange tale, there is no information available regarding whether or not this story is even legitimate, if it is in fact a Native American legend. Assuming that it is, we have to look at the elements of the story to venture a guess as to why it was created. The first possibility is an unlikely one: that there actually was a creature spotted in the lake. Another is much more plausible: the mountain near the lake and the lake itself were considered holy locations, places called Spirit Mountain and Spirit Water, yet according to the Stoney Nakoda legend, the indigenous inhabitants were afraid of the location and avoided it; only the invaders frequented the location. The legend of a supernatural creature might have been created to keep settlers away from a perceived numinous location.
Was a mysterious creature spotted in the lake, spurring Native American legend?
Although this is certainly possible, there are other, more modern stories to explain the merman at the Indian Trading Post, located near Banff Avenue Bridge. People in town have varied explanations, such as it coming from England in the 1940s and its creation as some kind of a freakshow attraction, but the executive director of the Whyte Museum in the Canadian Rockies has proof that another story is the true one: Norman Luxton (1876-1962), an important figure in the development of the Banff town, was the original shop owner.
The beautiful and historic Banff, Alberta, Canada.
The son of William Luxton, co-founder and chief editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, Norman worked for his father for some time before heading to Calgary, where he worked for the Calgary Herald. In 1901, he traveled to Vancouver, where he continued working as a writer for Town Topics. There, he met John Voss (1858-1922) who had a seemingly insane idea: to travel around the world in a century-old Nootka canoe. Norman decided to accompany John on this trip, and they left British Columbia and headed west. After traveling about 10,000 miles over the course of five months, the boat struck a reef off the coast of Fiji, and both men were injured, Voss severely. He was taken to a hospital in Australia and Luxton soon returned to Banff to recover.
In Banff, he became a prominent community member. He got the Crag and Canyon Newspaper up and running, built the King Edward Hotel and the Lux Theatre, and established the Sign of the Goat Curio Shop. He also established the trading post in which the odd mummy is located. The Whyte Museum has a collection of artifacts belonging to William Luxton, including a shipping bill from Java that reads “one fish-man.” Ted Hart, the museum’s director, believes that Luxton bought the piece when he was in the South Pacific in 1915 and then crafted a story, which was published in local newspapers, to bring customers into his trading post, thus resulting in increased revenue.
Many facts align to support this. Java, located in Indonesia, is 4,500 miles northwest of Fiji, where their boat was destroyed, and they claimed to have traveled about 10,000 miles before the crash. Given the size of their boat, it is likely that they chose to remain near the coast. If so, they would have passed very close to Java, so he could have purchased it there legitimately and then just made up a story to accompany it. His background in publishing and writing, and the prominent position he held might have stopped anyone from doubting his tale. In addition, he may have even convinced some Native Americans to back up the story, including Enoch Baptiste, who allegedly told the tale that is displayed in the case alongside the body.
Norman Luxton sold Native American goods in his store, which means that the more he made the more they earned. Why not tell a tale if it will result in a better life for yourself and your family? After all, he even had a body to back it up! Local resident Michelle Garbert now owns the trading post, and her father was good friends with Luxton. She doubts that the receipt from Java is authentic; instead, she believes that Norman created it to support his fictional story, stating that it was just like him to do something like that.
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The merman is clearly a composite creature. With an upper body that was likely crafted from some unknown substance to resemble a ribcage and flesh, and a scaly lower body that is clearly made from at least one variety of fish, it also has short, fur-like, grey hair on his head, arms, and midsection. I wouldn’t even say that it was artfully done. However, it continues to draw curious visitors into the back room of the local trader’s shop. Still, despite the fact that the creature’s creation as a customer magnet is the most likely explanation regarding its origin, there are unanswered questions.
The strange, cobbled-together creature – where did it come from?
The other document in the case (A Merman in Lake Superior) mentions the possible existence of many unusual creatures that witnesses claim to have seen. Asking the question, “Does it exist?” its author ventures a response:
“It’s being seldom seen, and but little known, is no argument against it; for although the ardent spirit for investigation has, in latter ages, made many discoveries, these have only served to the more firm establishment of the fact that ‘myriads of beings possess this world unseen to mortal eye.’ In the course of his search after the hidden things of this world, the farther man proceeds, the more widely extended a field for his investigation opens to his view; and but a short progress on the course will compel him to confess that there are more things in this world than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” In other words, a variety of unlikely creatures may actually exist, despite the fact that they are seldom seen.
Today, the merman of Banff shows up on websites, including that run by the Banff Indian Trading Post, and he even seems to have his own Twitter account (btpmerman), where his self-introduction reads: “My name is Herman the Merman. I enjoy nice swims in the lake at sunset and shopping at the Banff Indian Trading Post.”
Ken Jeremiah has written extensively about unusual historical and spiritual phenomena. More information can be found at www.kenjeremiah.com and he can be followed on Twitter at @drkenjeremiah.
Featured image: The strange Merman of Banff, Alberta (Canada).
By: Ken Jeremiah
All images courtesy of the author, © Ken Jeremiah