Choo choo: The Snallygaster

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Ambient creepy image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the deep cold of February, 1909, a group of men near Sharpsburg, West Virginia crowded around a homemade incubator, close enough to feel its heat. They might have held their hands out for warmth, but I doubt any of them would have gotten too close. Carefully hidden away from the eyes of the town, that incubator housed a egg the size of an elephant. The gentleman were attempting to hatch the spawn of the Snallygaster, dreaded terror of the Middletown Valley.

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One of the said seven-point stars.

Though its name sounds like an invention of Lewis Caroll, for generations of folks living in the hills around Washington DC and Maryland, the Snallygaster was no laughing matter.  In the 1730’s, German immigrants reported a dragon-like schneller geista “quick ghost”–that came out of the sky with tentacles and a metallic beak to suck men’s blood or carry them away. The beast was half-reptile, half-bird, and had teeth sharp enough to part flesh like butter. It kidnapped children and decimated poultry. The Germans painted seven-pointed stars on their barns to keep the Snallygaster at bay; you can still see some of those stars today.

Tales of the Snallygaster seemed to abate in the late 1700’s, but reappeared, weaponized, less than a century later when white settlers wanted to scare away freed slaves. People offered the “Snallygaster” food sacrifices and hid their families indoors, but the carnage continued. For decades, white countryfolk blamed the racial atrocities they committed on the creature. That would shortly come back to bite them, as by 1909, the legend had got out of their control, and the Snallygaster began to appear and attack in places they hadn’t meant it to.

Now the Snallygaster roamed the countryside, large as a dirigible, wreaking havoc wherever it went.  It could change shape, but one man summarized the consensus that it usually had “enormous wings, a long pointed bill, claws like steel hooks, and an eye in the center of its forehead.” It passed through the sky silent as a cloud, and then would swoop down to attack with a whistle “like a locomotive,” or, as another man put it, like a “cross between a tiger and a vampire.”*

The creature left footprints in the snow of New Jersey, and scared the bejeezus out of a man who found it hanging out near his kiln. It was shot here, found roosting in someone’s barn there, seen drifting through the sky, tentacles writhing, always huge, always “headed this way.” Then there were the eggs. The Snallygaster’s eggs were the size of horses–of small cars!–and were found laying around where Snallygaster was known to have passed. Our friends from the beginning of this post never did manage to get that egg to hatch, and that’s probably a good thing for them. They might have ended up like Bill Gifferson, found drained of blood with a hole in his neck.

By now the sightings were so common (and such a nuisance) that the Smithsonian put a price on the Snallygaster’s hide to the tune of $100,000 a foot. Teddy Roosevelt himself thought about coming to collect, but then sightings of the creature abated again. Finally, the Snallygaster reportedly drowned and was subsequently exploded in a 2500-gallon vat of moonshine. Fitting dramatic end to a dramatic life, right?

You forgot about the eggs.

This is where things really get weird. In 1932, the Snallygaster (or rather, one of its children) decided to give a local resident an existential crisis. The poor man reported seeing the creature swoop down from the sky on a penny-farthing, wearing water wings and shouting Balance the budget!” Later, in 1973, the Snallygaster appeared as a land-bound ape-thing that screamed bloody murder in the middle of the night and made a mess out of the heads of cattle. After several sightings, an extensive hunting party set out to find the creature with tranquilizer darts and a large steel cage. They returned empty-handed.

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Not Eastern Racers, but alarming enough nevertheless. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where is the Snallygaster today? There doesn’t seem to be any recent sightings. Certainly the horrors that inspired it are still around–racial violence being the obvious one, but also the nasty clusters of Eastern Racer snakes (which apparently can get up to five feet long and move quite fast) that might have made people see tentacles. The last real Snallygaster sighting was over 40 years ago, and as I’ve heard tell that the Snallygaster’s lifespan is 20 years, it might be gone for good. But it’s difficult to say for sure.  Feel free to go out and try to find one, if you like.

I’ll stay here and look out for any suspicious clouds.  

Have you ever seen something strange in the sky? What do you think a “cross between a vampire and a tiger” sounds like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*I’m not quite sure what this means, as the sound my mind conjures for “vampire” is “slurp.”

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So Many Shades of Grey: The Am Fear Liath Mor of Ben MacDui

Happy (almost) Halloween! In celebration of my favorite holiday, I thought we’d cover a topic that is less strange so much as it is pants-poopingly frightening. Now, I admit that when I first uncovered the pitch for this creature—which pretty much boils down to “Scottish Yeti”—I was only mildly curious; Bigfoots and the like have never interested me much, perhaps because their story has been so played out. Then I kept reading, and uncovered a story of delightful mystery and malevolence.

The summit of Ben MacDui. Photo by Richard Webb, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s set the scene. The Ben MacDui is the highest peak in the Cairngorm Mountains and the second highest in Scotland. Nothing grows there save for the hardiest of plants; the summit rises from a huge sub-arctic upland, and is considered one of the wildest, most remote places left in Britain. The landscape is a featureless wave of snow and rock; between that and the omnipresent mists, it’s very easy to get lost. It’s also easy to remember how very old those peaks are–almost as old as the lore about them.

In 1891, Professor Norman Collie went hiking along the mountain alone, and heard something walking behind him.

The professor–a well-respected, sensible faculty member of the chemistry department at the University College London–waited thirty-four years to tell his story. “I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps,” he reported to the Cairgorm Club on a dark December night in 1925.For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own.” Collie looked back over the desolate landscape, trying to keep his head, but could see nothing through the fog. Filled with a sudden dread, he turned and walked faster, and then went the crunching continued broke out into a panicked sprint, which he continued for four or five miles until he arrived, exhausted, at the arms of Rothiemurchus Forest. To say that the experience left an impression on him would be an understatement; he vowed never to return to the mountain alone, for, as he put it, there was “something very queer about the top of Ben MacDhui.

Once his story got out, he discovered that he was not the only one who had experienced sudden terror while exploring the isolated mountain. Dr. A.M. Kallas and his brother Henry ostensibly saw an enormous figure approaching them from the other side of the cairn 1903. The figure disappeared from their view as it moved into a dip, but the brothers didn’t wait for it to get close–they, like Collie, ran down off the mountain as fast as they could, and never looked back. In 1904, the Welshcamping brothers reported unnerving sounds both during the day and at night, like “slurring footsteps as if someone was walking through water saturated gravel.”  In 1943, mountaineer Alexander Tewnion turned at the sound of menacing footsteps as he descended by the Coire Etchachan path. He saw a strange, enormous shape loom out of the fog, and pulled his revolver and shot at it before turning to sprint away. 

In 1965, investigators discovered 14-inch footprints on the slopes Ben MacDui, with a distance of nearly five feet between each. Collie and many others might have estimated this stride, given the height of the thing in the mists and the length of time between footsteps.

Sightings continued through the 90’s. The thing dubbed “The Big Grey Man” crossed train tracks, kept pace with cars, watched people from a distance and spoke, one one occasion, in a deep, booming language reminiscent of Gaelic. Hikers described it as 10 feet tall, then 20 feet tall. It was covered in grey hair, they said, and had long, long arms and a face that was human and very not human. Most, if not all, reported an uncontrollable fear and sense of dread–indeed, many of reports of the Am Fear Liath Mor are not sightings so much as they are sensations: sudden, categorical despair; panic at a sound from off in the mists. Some felt themselves drawn to the cliffs, and had to fight the urge to hurtle themselves off, others nearly slipped and fell to their death by accident as they scampered to escape the crunch of a heavy footstep.

The number of sightings and level of terror begs the question: what might it be that’s stalking up there, alone in the bleak mountain?

Example of a Broken Spectre (which is awesome). Photo by Andrew Smith, via Wikimedia Commons

First, the obvious answers: oxygen deprivation and a monotone landscape could easily lead to auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as a sense of panic. When you combine this with the power of already existing legend, it’s easy to imagine that even the most well-meaning explorer might see something that’s not really there. Another explanation is the fascinating “Brocken spectre,” an optical illusion of an otherworldly, gigantic figure created by the observer’s shadow being cast on the fog in front of him. This is bound to happen at least every once in awhile in all the mists at the top of Ben MacDui, and combined with the aforementioned physical weariness, might make quite the impression.

And for those that don’t accept the Am Fear Liath Mor as a mere trick of the mind? There are a number of theories as to what he might be, ranging from an evil spirit to the abominable snowman. The most interesting wraps the spirit of the Cairngorm in with the Grey Man himself: the creature seems intent on scaring people away, but why? Could it be that he’s guarding something? The Cairngorm, proponents of this theory claim, are a very strange and otherworldly place–perhaps because they are literally a window into another place.

Frightening as he may be, the Big Grey Man might merely be protecting the us humans from something much worse.

Have you ever heard steps that did not coincide with your own? Felt a sudden thrill of fear? Do you now have a Big Grey Idea for your Halloween costume? Share your story in the comments below.

Better than Tempeh: The Borametz

As the world transitions to autumn, let’s take a moment to celebrate this wonderful window between the mad heat of summer and the dark desperation of winter. This week, let’s give ourselves a break; let’s study a monster that does not threaten grievous bodily harm! In fact, our subject might even help someone, though it is so odd it might also induce an existential crisis.

Let’s begin with a poem. This piece, found in Dr. Erasmus Darwin’s book The Botanic Garden (1781), describes our unwonted subject:

“E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,

And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,

Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,

Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair

Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,

And round and round her flexile neck she bends,

Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,

Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;

Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,

And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb.”

Take a moment to pause and re-read that last bit there, if you haven’t already. Perhaps you’ve just skimmed the poem and are imagining a lamb frolicking in someone’s (apparently chilly) garden, enjoying the odd pepper or uprooting carrots. Perhaps you’ve read closely, and are wondering why the poem is calling out a lamb for being vegetarian. Unfortunately, the poem is speaking to neither of these things. Take a look at the following picture:

That’s one interpretation of the creature at hand. The next–perhaps more realistic–is a little more frightening:

You might ask “what in the good **** is that?”; I certainly did, and so did visitors to central Asia during the fourth through to the nineteenth century. Legend has it that there was a plant there with a bit of an odd flower–one that walks, eats, and bleats. Called variously the Borametz, the Scythian Lamb, and (my personal favorite) the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, this fellow was said to be born from the fruit produced by a particular fern, destined to  live out its days munching on the flora within reach. A vine-like “umbilical cord” attached to its belly limited the lamb’s range of motion; it could not be separated from its parent fern, or it would perish. Details about how long this cord could reach vary, but once the food within its circumference of it ran out, the lamb would die. Then predators–wolves or, every now and again, humans–could jump on the borametz and eat it. Rumor has it that its blood tasted like honey, and its wool was of the same or better quality than any other, more conventional sheep.

Though this might seem fanciful, tales of the borametz appeared in Jewish folklore as early as 436 A.E.. Back then it was called the Yeduah, was similarly attached to the earth by a stem, and could only be collected if said stem were severed via the use of arrows or darts. This version of the creature had bones that could be used in prophetic ceremonies, and so was valuable beyond being livestock and/or garden. Unfortunately, this version also had a counterpart–the Faduah, a human-shaped type of borametz that would strangle anyone who came within reach. You can hardly blame him for being cranky;  it seems that every iteration of the borametz legend involves man taking advantage of the the creature’s helplessness, whether it be slaughtering a sheep on a stem, or slicing gourds open to harvest the lambs within.

A number of people have tried to find their own borametz over the centuries, with varying degrees of success. Variations on the gourd-centered legend trickled back from Persia in the 14th and 15th centuries, with explorers trying to make sense of what seemed to be both a living animal and plant. Sir John Mandeville was the most colorful of these adventurers, and is credited with bringing the first tales of the vegetable lamb to the English public attention. Unfortunately, he is also credited with being embellisher extraordinaire. In the mid 16th century, Sigismund von Herberstein presented a more trustworthy, detailed account of the creature to Emperors Maxamillian I and Charles V. He said that it lived near the Caspian Sea, stood two and a half feet tall, and did not have normal blood and wool, but flesh more like a crab than a lamb. This incited other adventurers to look more closely for it, as well; Henry Lee would collect all the legends  in his 1887 book The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which would become a sort of bible on the subject. But even with all the hubbub, did any objective observer ever actually find a Vegetable Lamb?

The short answer, alas, is no. It might very well be that the borametz is nothing more than a wildly imaginative interpretation of the Indian cotton plant, or the giant fern cibotium barometz, which also has a fuzzy rhizome that might be interpreted as wool. This makes sense, of course…if the borametz existed, why wouldn’t everyone immediately try to plant it in their gardens? It would certainly be one way to get your kids to eat their vegetables.* It’s possible also that the creature existed, but went extinct before anyone could get bring back proof.

Or…the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary really was the giant fern cibotium barometz all along…but that fern is not what we think it is.

Sinister.

If you’re ever in the forests of central Asia, watch your back.

Have you ever encountered a plant that walked, baa-ed, or bled? What’s your favorite sinister flora? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Or make them terrified of them for the rest of their lives. Either way, the borametz is sure to have an impact.

Down, boy! The Beast of Gévaudan

Ah, France. The lush pastures; the fluffy, drifting clouds; the high-pitched whinny of a calf-sized monster as it rips out your throat in broad daylight. 18th-century France had many worries, but when something in the remote hills of Gévaudan (modern-day Lozère) attacked 240 people and killed 112,* one threat loomed above the many: La Bête du Gévaudan.

By all accounts, the beast first attacked in the early summer of 1764. A young woman tending cattle in the Mercoire forest found herself suddenly face-to-face with something like a hyena, if a hyena was big enough to stand level with one’s chest. She escaped with her life only because some of the bulls in her herd charged the creature and kept it at bay. The beast wouldn’t be slowed for long: 14-year-old Janne Boulet became its first victim on June 30, followed by two young girls on August 6th and August 8th, and a 15-year-old cowherd on August 30th. From there, things would only get worse.

This creature did not behave like your average predator. The villagers were used to wolves, which, while frightening, at least were killing for survival. Not so for la Bête, which often focused on its victims’ heads and would leave them only partially eaten, if at all. Also, it attacked women and children almost exclusively, and did not seem to have any interest in livestock or goats. Nor did it resemble anything the villagers had seen before, as evidenced from this oft-cited description:

The Beast is a quadruped about the size of a horse. It reminds witnesses of a bear, hyena, wolf and panther all at once. It has a long wolf-like or pig-like snout, lined with large teeth. […] The tail somewhat resembles the long tail of a panther, but it is so thick and strong that the Beast uses it as a weapon, knocking men and animals down with it.

These unusual characteristics led many to believe there was something supernatural about the creature, and fueled a lot of hysteria. As more and more bodies were found–some beheaded, some in an alarming state of undress–local and then national governments began to organize hunting parties with the hope of tracking and stopping the beast. The first large-scale party set off on September 15, 1764, comprised of 57 dragoons who would comb the hills and shoot at wolves, but fail to stop the attacks. As the search continued with no success, officials decriminalized the use of firearms for commoners, and offered more than 10,000 pounds for anyone who could kill the beast.

None of it did any good. On October 8th, two hunters came within ten paces of the creature and shot it twice. It fell, then got up and loped away. This wouldn’t be the last time the beast would seem impervious to gunfire, and it only made the panic worse. On December 31st, the bishop of Mende declared the creature was God’s retribution for Gévaudan’s sins. By then, 27 people had been attacked. 18 were dead

King Louis XV, struggling to maintain the illusion of control, sent world-renowned wolf hunter Jean-Charles D’Evennel into the fray. On April 21, 1765, 10,000 men joined him in combing the hillsides, but–and you’ll notice the pattern here–they had no success. D’Evennel was eventually ordered away, to be replaced by a Mr. Antoine, the king’s personal arquebusier. Antoine threw himself at the task full-force, and on September 21, 1765, shot and killed a 130 pound wolf–the biggest ever on record. The people rejoiced, and the wolf was stuffed and wheeled around in the king’s court on October 1st. Louis chuckled at how the superstitious commoners had made an ordinary wolf into such a monster. Still, he, like everyone else, was just glad it was all over.

To date, 158 people had been attacked. 71 were dead. Gévaudan remained quiet a few weeks. Then, in December, the attacks started again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This time, the crown wanted nothing to do with it. It had declared the problem solved, and wouldn’t admit to error. The people of Gévaudan were on their own.  Over 1766, the villagers continued to pray and hunters continued to hunt, but 36 more people were attacked, with 18 going to their graves. This was nothing compared to the carnage of the spring of 1767, though, which saw another 38 attacks and 21 deaths between January and June alone.  The nineteen-year-old Marquis of Apcher rallied the people yet again to go into the woods. It would be the last time.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On June 17, 1767, Jeanne Bastide–also nineteen–became the beast’s final victim, found with her throat torn apart. Two days later, during one of the hunts, farmer and innkeeper Jean Chastel came upon the creature, looked it in the eye, and shot it dead. Word has it that he’d forged silver bullets for the job, and had them blessed before going into the woods.

Thus on June 19, 1767, after three years of terror and almost 240 attacks, Gévaudan’s nightmare ended at last. But there were still a few peculiarities that were never solved.

First was the identity of the beast. It was said that the thing Chastel shot was more monster than wolf, but by the time he brought it to king, the carcass had decomposed so badly that Louis had it thrown out. No one knows where they buried it, and the remains have yet to be recovered, so historians have been unable to confirm what exactly the thing was. Based on the descriptions, the closest known analogy is the mesonychid–something like a carnivorous moose–but those were supposed to have gone extinct some 23 million years ago. It could have been a hyena or a lion–or perhaps some kind of hellish hybrid–but those would have to travel pretty far to get to France, wouldn’t they?

Unless, of course, someone brought them there. Oddly enough, it was rumored that Jean Chastel’s son had a few hyenas in his menagerie, as well as a giant red mastiff that bore some familial resemblance to the beast. The Chastels were also apparently at odds with arquebusier Antoine, and were actually thrown in prison for the duration of his stay in Gévaudan–a term which happened to coincide with a decrease in attacks. A few people did report seeing a man in conjunction with the beast, and it is odd that the attacks were so specific, almost as if the beast had been trained.

How did Chastel–a common innkeeper–manage to so effectively shoot and kill the creature, where hundreds of other, highly trained men could not?

No matter. The town erected a plaque in his honor, and he is remembered to this day as the hero that saved Gévaudan from from the 3 year-long nightmare of la Bête.

Chastel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and ​Χρήστης:Βήσσμα.

Here’s to hoping it stays dead this time.

Do you have any meddlesome pets that have got you in a bit of trouble? Feel free to share in the comments below!

*Numbers are approximate, and vary depending on the source. For the purpose of this post, I worked off the most detailed one I could find, located here.

The Kongamato: Destroyer of Boats, Soiler of Underwear

You might remember our visit a few weeks ago to the billabongs of Australia, when we encountered everyone’s favorite dog/sheep/serpent/flippery thing.  Now we travel to the Jiundu backwaters of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo, where something else waits to burst from the murk–a prehistoric monster that should have went extinct, but never did. As it turns out, a lot of scary things can come from swamps.

Accounts of the Kongamato date back to 1745, though given that this “breaker of boats” is essentially a pterosaur and that the locals were already well acquainted with it then, it’s likely to have existed long before. What’s a pterosaur, you ask? A pterosaur is like a pigeon, if the pigeon had a seven foot wingspan, an elongated head, a snout, needle teeth, black eyes, and leathery red or black scales instead of feathers. Also, the pigeon would not only fly, but walk flat-footed or run on all fours, like the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal. The pigeon comparison doesn’t work for you? Fine. Imagine instead the pterosaur subspecies that Jurassic Park has made so popular–the pterodactyl. That is what is living in the Bangweulu swamps. That is what the fisherman there have feared for centuries.

Ivan T. Sanderson, an accomplished biologist and cryptozoologist from the early 20th century, became famous for bringing his account of this hellish reptile back to the Western world. As was usual for kongamato sightings, he encountered the creature at night. Sanderson had just shot a fruit bat, which had then fallen into the water. He was reaching for it when his companion warned him to duck.

“Then I let out a shout also and instantly bobbed down under the water, because coming straight at me only a few feet above the water was a black thing the size of an eagle. I had only a glimpse of its face, yet that was quite sufficient, for its lower jaw hung open and bore a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from each other. When I emerged, it was gone. … And just before it became too dark to see, it came again, hurtling back down the river, its teeth chattering, the air “shss-shssing” as it was cleft by the great, black, dracula-like wings.”

As mentioned, the sighting was not unexpected for the local Kaonde, nor for any number of other tribes near the swamp. Many viewed the Kongamato simply as a danger to be avoided–in the same category as a lion or a rogue elephant, if more rare and more frightening. Though white cryptozoologists were never able to locate bones or other such proof of the creature’s existence, numerous, consistent eyewitness accounts and grevious wounds spoke to something out in the reeds. The kongamato was said to upset boats, attack children, dig up corpses to feed on. It was a fact of life, if an unhappy one.

But for Western tourists, the kongamato was a fascinating treat. Sanderson was far from only one to report back on them; Frank Welland emerged in 1932 to also affirm their existence, emphasizing the compatible accounts from the local people:

“The evidence for the pterodactyl is that the natives can describe it so accurately, unprompted, and that they all agree about it. There is negative support also in the fact that they said they could not identify any other of the prehistoric monsters which I showed them.”

Sightings continued through the 1950’s, with one engineer’s report making it into the newspaper after he saw two “prehistoric” dark birds glide overhead when he went to get his canteen out of his trunk. A year later, another man would be hospitalized nearby with wounds to his chest. When asked to sketch the creature that attacked him, he drew what looked like a pterosaur. Even as late as 1998, Steve Romandi-Menya, a Kenyan exchange student visiting Louisiana, affirmed that the kongamato still haunted the bush-dwellers remaining at home.

Is there something else these could be? Sanderson referred to his kongamato offhandedly as “the Granddaddy of all bats.” Considering that the largest known bat is otherwise the Philippines’ Giant Gold-Crowned Flying Fox–whose maximum wingspan is 5 feet 7 inches–the suggestion that the kongamato is actually a heretofore uncategorized species of them is not implausible, though hardly less horrifying. Another theory is that the kongamato could be a giant stingray which, when disturbed, overturns boats and flaps a bit out of the water, though that does not account for sightings of the kongamato high up in the air or running before taking off, and is not entirely reassuring, either. The simple answer is often the best one; perhaps legends are real. It was just off the coast of Africa that fishermen caught the coelacanth, a marine contemporary of the pterodactyl. Who’s to say the pterosaurs couldn’t have survived mass extinction, too?

In 2010, the Creationist group Genesis Park traveled to the swamps to look for evidence of the kongamato themselves. They interviewed local fisherman and held night-long vigils, but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps it is time we took up the torch. After all, the swamp’s other claim to fame is that they are a popular site for bird-watching. Perhaps we will spot a lovely sparrow in addition to our flesh-eating friend.

Would you come on an ornithological trip to search for a prehistoric hell beast? What three items would you bring, besides a pair of binoculars and your trusty khaki shorts? Share your answers in the comments below.