Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription

The sheer wrath and condemnation that than one would incur for the use of the phrase "the weaker sex" is an apt and simple demonstration of how far we as a society have come from the days of just a century ago. As the nineteen century turned to the twentieth, terms such as 'hysteria', derived from the Latin word for female sexual organs, and phrases like 'womanly function' were accepted without contention.
In 1902, an advertisement ran in a local newspaper that, shockingly to our modern ear, read as follows:
"In girlhood there is a great need of motherly watchfulness and care. A growing girl needs all her strength, and if she is nervous and melancholy, and loses appetite, there is surely something wrong. This is especially true as the young girl approaches that important period of change when the womanly function is established. Timely care and proper treatment at this period may save much after suffering.
"The best medicine for girls who are nervous, melancholy, and irregular of appetite is Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription. It cures nervousness, dizziness and melancholy, promotes the appetite, and gives the body robust health. There is no alcohol in "Favorite Prescription" and it is entirely free from opium, cocaine, and all other narcotics."
The patent medicine that was commercially known as Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription was immensely popular at the time. Dr. Pierce's Buffalo, New York-based company sold nearly two million bottles per year for numerous years. Undoubtedly, many mothers my area partook of the advertised product.
While perhaps the entire ad was in many ways disturbing, the last sentence may have particularly piqued your curiosity. Advertising that it was free of opium and cocaine?
This was economically necessary at the time, as the nation's foremost family magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, published in the same year a scathing expose on the product. In it, it was revealed that an independent lab analysis had determined the medicine’s all-botanical ingredients: savin, cinchona, agaric, cinnamon, water, acacia, sugar, digitalis, opium, oil star anise and alcohol.
Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce, a licensed physician and free enterprise mail-order pharmacist who was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (but, ironically, had to resign at the age of 40 due to "ill health"), promptly sued the magazine for $200,000 over the article which he deemed libelous. He insisted that his concoction did not, nor did it ever, did contain alcohol, opium or even digitalis.
The Journal did all it could, chemically sampling hundreds of bottles, but found no opium or alcohol. The courts sided with Dr. Pierce; the Journal backed down and paid up. It was later determined that, not being at all regulated, Pierce had simply discontinued the inclusion of the narcotic and spirits after the original analysis and prior to the Journal article.
While it was not unusual for a patent medicine to include an extremely potent and addictive narcotic such as opium (from which heroin is derived), it did perhaps explain the product's vast and long-term popularity. It must be remembered that even an iconic product such as Coca-Cola, in 1902, still contained – for proprietary reasons – traces of the extract of coca leaves, cocaine.
However, the real controversy about this fashionable product was shadowed by the looming debate over the narcotic. Little known to many, it was the herbal contents that were perhaps the basis for the commercial demand for the medicine by mothers purchasing it for their daughters. Some of the herbal ingredients were fairly benign:
Herbalists claim that oil star anise promotes proper digestion, cinchona produces a chemical in the body similar in nature to quinine that acts as a natural painkiller and agaric (produced from deadly poisonous mushrooms) inhibits perspiration. In a world that was pre-antiperspirant, young women must have coveted this effect. Digitalis is well know for its ability to increase blood pressure while decreasing pulse rate, thus perchance calming all those poor nervous young ladies.
More sinister though are the last two. Without much doubt, mothers – far more knowledgeable of herbal remedies than today’s counterparts – knew of the effects of these plants and winked at each other as they insisted their daughters take the elixir for their 'feminine problems'. Acacia is believed to dampen sexual appetite and response. Then there is savin...
Savin has been used for thousands of years; it is believed that the Romans discovered the extract of the European juniper berry's effects on the female body. Medicinally, it is known as a strong emmanagogue. That is a fancy word for anything that induces menstruation. If this savin-based medicine were taken regularly by a young woman, even if she were to have an egg fertilized, it would not implant. She would always menstruate. In theory, she could not get pregnant.
Our world, which wrestles with the morality of everything from birth control pills to the morning-after pill, is often thought to be radically dissimilar from 'the olden days'. Perhaps, we are not all that different.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Recent Central Illinois Giant Bird Sighting Rings Familiar

Sunday, October 26 was, to say the least, a blustery day here in central Illinois. In these conditions, sometimes you don't know what will be carried in or out by these currents.

On that evening, I was contacted by Tom Sheets, a long time, avid outdoorsman and a gentleman who has worked as a land surveyor for the past forty years. He related the following sighting to me from earlier that day:

Today, October 26, 2008 at about 1:15 p.m., I was sitting in my pickup at the end of my driveway looking Westward, waiting for traffic to clear. I am located south of Lacon, Illinois on State Route 26. I saw two giant birds that were low over the field directly across from me; they appeared into view from behind a set of low outbuildings, probably 10 to 15 feet above the field. They were being pursued by a hawk, probably a red tail hawk or one of that size. These birds had a wing span of at least 10 feet; at first I thought they were cranes of some type. They were at least five times larger than the hawk. They flew toward the river across a green field of winter wheat; and at the end of the field, about a quarter mile wide, they tried to land in a tree and they flapped about and the hawk was attacking them, then they turned and caught the wind, about 30 mile per hour at this time, and soared up into the sky and went directly over my head. I did get a look at one of their under sides which I noted in my mind. He was marked similar to a turkey vulture; which I see on an everyday basis, but much wider front to back. The marking was the typical wedge shaped marking; however there was a band of grey and or white inside the wedge. Later that afternoon I looked in my bird book and note that it is very similar to a California condor. The wind carried them East over the trees and out of sight. Today was a great day for soaring birds. In the morning, there were hundreds of white pelicans in the air and shortly thereafter, we watched three bald eagles soar from a few hundred feet high above us to reach altitudes so high that they were small specks in the sky.

The avid Fortean biology fan will remember that the 1977 Lawndale giant bird was also, after the primary witnesses, the Lowes. did research at the Lincoln, Illinois library, described as looking identical to a California condor in size, patterning and color. It makes one wonder what ornithological and Fortean wonders might be soaring high over Illinois' river flyways.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The New 2008 Mad Gasser of Mattoon Toy!

Ever since my research on and subsequent publication of my first book on the maddening case of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, Illinois (very near where I grew up), this unsolved mystery -- be it a fascinating historical true crime, from my research, or a case of paranormality from the promalgation of other online writers -- has fascinated me to no end. I was thrilled when I found that the subject of my book was an actual toy from the 1990's. It was produced as part of a large series of mythical mosters and creatures (The Mad Gasser of Mattoon" was #110 in the series - left) entitled "Monster in my Pocket", made by the Matchbox Company. I had to have one and found it easily on eBay (in a lot containing some 40 others beasties). I was always disappointed though that the creature depicted -- though fittingly scary -- really didn't lend itself to the actual research on the case at all. In fact, the only characteristic that gave away its identity was the obvious gas mask. I was satisfied though with my prize...until recently.

The "Monster in my Pocket" line of toys was acquired by an El Segundo, California-based toy manufacturer named CEG and has been totally revamped for a new 2008 updated release. This new set features 48 initial creatures ranging from fictional favorites like the ogre, the vampire, the zombie, the invisible man (I wonder if that is just empty packaging) and a gremlin to cryptozoological classics like the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, India's Monkey Man and even a Bishopfish! Thankfully this reissued set includes "The Mad Gasser". Ok, so they dropped "of Mattoon". In my research, I have found "Mad Gassers" in numerous locales, so I will accept that (reluctantly).

Each toy comes with a "power card" so that youngsters may play a game pitting monster vs. monster (I always wondered who would win between a hobgoblin and a ghost). The "Mad Gasser", I must admit, has pretty low attribute scores - it won't fare well in the battles, so it won't be a kid favorite, is mine.

The card bears the following description:

"This mysterious maniac, the Mad Gasser, haunts the night, releasing a strong,
nauseating and paralyzing gas into the homes of his innocent ictims and they
sleep! He has never been identified or clearly seen. The only proof he exists is
a trail of blue vapor and poisonous fumes. DON'T INHALE!"

Someone did their research. However, there are three contentions I have:

  1. As for "He has never been identitfied", the company must not have read my book on the subject or preferred to keep it a mystery as -- I will admit -- it is scarier that way.

  2. The desciption repeatedly uses "he", but the toy and accomanying illustration -- in my opinion -- clearly depict a female Gasser. My research does support this.

  3. Frustratingly, this series of toys is not available in the United States. I had to order mine from Great Britain...but it was worth it.

KUDOS to the Morrison Entertainment Group for this fine addition to my collection!!

Recent Shark Found in Lake Michigan No Surprise

I read in the newspaper this morning that a gentleman from Traverse City, Michigan found a dead shark in Lake Michigan. This did not surprise me. Rick Fasi discovered the two-foot long fish while boating and had it identified as a juvenile blacktip shark by an expert from the University of Florida. This species surprised me. I would have expected it to have been a bull shark. Let me give you some historical background on Lake Michigan and some surrounding freshwater rivers to explain why:

In September of 1937, the patience of Alton, Illinois anglers "Dudge" Collins and Herbert Copes was completely exhausted. More times than they cared to count, something—something big—had destroyed their Mississippi River fish traps while helping itself to a quick, easy meal. They guessed it was an opportunistic, gigantic catfish. They decided to end its marauding once and for all by setting a seine net to snare it.

When they returned they found that the trap had apparently worked, as the net’s buoys showed signs of a terrific struggle beneath the muddy water’s surface. What the men pulled up, though, left them shocked and scared. Ensnared in the net was a bull shark that was over five-feet long and 84 pounds. For those not familiar with bull sharks, here are a few facts:
- They can reach eleven feet in length.
- They are considered by divers to be the second most dangerous shark (after the great white). Unprovoked bull shark attacks on humans are not uncommon. Some studies have shown that bull sharks kill more humans per year than any other shark species.
- These unusual elasmobranches can not only survive in freshwater, but have been known worldwide to actually prefer it to saltwater. They are common inhabitants of—or visitors to—rivers that enter the ocean, such as the Ganges in India, the Zambezi in Africa, and our very own Mississippi and its tributaries.

Many authorities, presumably wanting to prevent panic among river dwellers and water-sport enthusiasts, insist that, due to the extensive lock-and-dam system built on the river shortly after the Alton catch, it would now be impossible for a shark to wend its way up the Mississippi, Illinois, or Ohio Rivers. That sounds comforting, but how can the authorities account for the following horror and oddity that occurred in 1955 and 1969 respectfully, well after the completion of the locks?

The day was beautiful, and consequently many were cooling off by boating or swimming in Lake Michigan. Among them was George Lawson, a boy from Chicago, who was swimming not too far from a boat off the shore. While splashing and playing, George was abruptly pulled underwater. Upon resurfacing, his screams for help brought John Adler to his rescue. Nevertheless, by the time he was brought into the boat, George’s right leg had been severed. The boat’s stunned passengers could do little but stare in dumbfounded awe at a large "tell-tale dorsal fin" that headed out to deeper water.

"I just couldn’t believe it, but I had to believe what I saw happening right before my eyes!" exclaimed a stunned Adler.

Doctors were certain that the boy’s injuries were inflicted by a shark, but were unable to explain from whence it came.

The second inscrutable encounter also played itself out on Lake Michigan. Anglers Gil Scharnek and Cal Lukasavitz literally stumbled upon a second shark specimen—much smaller, but a shark none-the-less.

"We saw a seagull sitting on what we thought was a piece of flotsam," recalled Scharnek. "When we got closer, the seagull flew away and we saw it was a fish. Cal said ‘Look, it’s a sturgeon,’ but when we got up to it we could see it was a shark."

The two brought the curiosity home with them, froze it and eventually had the identity of their find verified by a museum ecologist as a bull shark. Even though the lake’s temperature was a bone-chilling 42 degrees, the ecologist confirmed that even that was not too cold for a shark.

Out-of-place animals have always fascinated me, but these sharks may have a purely biological origin...though blacktips are not known for their freshwater forays. The Michigan DNR, of course, proposed that "someone might have caught the shark of the Atlantic coast and kept it on ice while bringing it to norther Michigan." This begs the question: who keeps a two foot blacktip shark?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lawndale "Thunderbird" Should Have Been Déjà Vu

The article below is from 1929: A sad truth exists in the anomalistic portion of the world: Those individuals who report that they were witnesses to extraordinary events are destined to be subject to extraordinary ridicule.

I am certain that the whole Lowe family of Lawndale, Illinois - who witnessed the extraordinary event of a giant bird attempting to carry away their 10-year-old son - would now all ask the same question: "George Meece...where were you in 1977?". How much grief could have been spared had he spoken up for little Marlon?

For you see, the case of Lawndale's famous giant bird attack became a renowned story - the standard for its genre - largely due to the quick interviewing done by Jerry Coleman, an anomalist then of Illinois, and the wide-spread reporting of the event by his brother, author Loren Coleman. Poor little George Reece did not benefit from such publicity (though "benefit" may be the wrong word, as still today - 30 years later - Marlon Lowe, the attempted avian abductee, struggles and strives to live an anonymous and normal life in the little hamlet of Lawndale).

When analyzed, contrasted and compared, the events in Marlon Lowe's fitful day were simply eerie replications of another scary day forty-eight years prior in Ruth, Kentucky, as recounted in the above article from the September 24, 1929 edition of the Columbian Missourian. Consider the many similarities:
  • Ruth, Kentucky, like Lawndale, Illinois was and is a rural village so small as to not appear on some maps
  • George and Marlon were both mid-age youth, 8 and 10 respectively
  • Both victims were similar is size, small for their age - George 50 lbs and Marlon 65 lb
  • Both were playing with friends when attacked - George 4 friends, Marlon 2
  • Both were grabbed by their clothing, different and respective for each era - George his overalls and Marlon his tank-top
  • Both were physically lifted off the ground by the bird, before screams spurred the birds to drop each child
  • Both birds were estimated to be of tremendous size - George's at 10' and Marlon's at 8-10'

Perhaps the sole variation in the stories was the taxonomic family to which each bird seemed to belong. Meece's bird was distinctly described as a bald eagle (no distinction being given here for whether this was a mature dichromic adult or a brown immature, which of course makes me ponder the outside possibility of this being a Washington eagle - Audubon killed his type-specimen near there), while the Lowes identified their bird as a large vulture or condor-like species.

In the days subsequent to their 1977 report being filed with the sheriff's department and the Department of Conservation, the Lowes were subject to what can only be described as "extraordinary criticism". A series of dead birds, including an eagle, were left on their home's door step and poor Marlon - L. Coleman reported - was so tormented at school that he suffered physically with hair loss and even temporary color change.

What if Meece had heard of Lowe's case though the AP in 1977? How much easier could life have been had Meece - he would have been around 58-years-of-age at that point - written to the Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph or the Lincoln Courier (the two closest towns with newspapers that thoroughly covered the events of 1977) and attested to his incident and asked others to believe the Lowes?

The world is full of "what ifs", though. Where were you George Meece?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Avian Abuctions Back in the News - New Evidence

The city of Springfield, Illinois (like many others) has a Starling problem. Millions of these birds haunt the historic downtown area, leaving behind sidewalks on which few want to walk. The solution...James "the Bird Whisperer" Soules was hired for $164,000 to drive the birds away (he claims to never hurt or kill a healthy bird, use poison of any sort or use explosives...his technique is a trademarked, and much locally guffawed-at, secret). But even more fascinating (and locally laughed at) is an answer this octogenarian gave at a press conference of how and why he got into this business: When he was a child of two, a bald eagle swooped down on him near Decatur, Illinois and attempted to carry him away...a classic attempted avian abduction. Needless to say, Soules claim has brought a barrage of criticism upon himself and his contract.

Most ornithologists insist that such abduction scenarios are physically impossible. Eagles, they say, are simply not capable of lifting and flying with such weight. For anomalists, the first case that may come to mind is the attempted avian abduction of 10-year-old Marlon Lowe of Lawndale, Illinois. Witnesses insisted that a large bird lifted Lowe off the ground and carried him for dozens of feet before dropping him. A previous post of mine argued for the possibility of such avian abductions by listing 30 historic cases of such instances. Now I have uncovered new, difficult to dispute evidence:

The Article above was carried by the July 18th, 1937 edition of the Fresno Bee-The Republican out of Fresno, California. The startling story features Richard L'Estrange, a long-time Hollywood actor, director and producer from 1920-1956. Today, he is remembered for producing such movies as "Revenge of the Zombies", "Charlie Chan in The Chinese Cat" and the reasonably-popular sci-fi TV series "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger".
But for me, the most important film he produced was a shocking, short clip featuring his infant daughter Jill and an eagle. An excerpt from the article shown here reads as follows:
"Recently, movie director Richard Le Strange [an alternative "Americanized" spelling he utilized early in his career], an ametuer naturalist, decided it was useless to wait until the savants settled the controversy as to the man-eating habits of the king of the birds, and made a test that was conclusive enough for him by casting his own 18-month-old daughter as "victim" in a harrowing sequence, partially depicted on this page [above]. The child was elaborately protected, so the bird never got more than a few feet off the ground with his "prey", but it was a relief when the child was safe again in its daddy's arms. The mere fact that the great bird was able to lift Jill Le Strange from the ground [as seen in the above photos] would seem to contradict the statements of Alexander Wetmore about the strength of the bird."
While as a father, I cannot condone what L'Estrange did with his daughter (she also starred in another feature film he produced), but it is difficult to argue against the fact that large raptors are (or were...pre-1920) capable of carrying away toddlers...and who knows how much more?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Avian Abductions: Lawndale was Last

Thirty years ago, in 1977, central Illinois was all abuzz over Marlon Lowe. This diminuitive 10-year-old child had been attacked by what can only be described as a giant bird. Accounts of this event are all over the web, so I will not attempt to go into the details here. The most frightening aspect of this sighting was not the sheer size of the bird, but the fact that the bird made an abduction attempt on the child, lifting him off the ground and carrying him for some distance. This case has become an internet sensation for this reason and...some are actually naive enough to believe that this was perhaps the only time this type of event had been documented. To counter this, on this 30th anniversary of the Lawndale incident, I am presenting my top 30 Avian Abductions from the past 100 years (in chronological order):

1 “A bald-headed eagle hovering over St. John’s Island suddenly swooped down and attempted to carry off a two-year-old child of Mr. Clancyl’s that was playing in the field alone. The light clothing gave way with every tug of the voracious bird and torn into ribbons. Some men working nearby came up in time to save the child from injury, but the eagle refused to go away until it was shot at.” (Evening Gazette, Reno, Nevada 8/26/1881 from the Toronto Globe)

2 “Saturday afternoon, while the wife of Jean Baptist Romillen, living ten miles from here, accompanied by here two-year-old child, was feeding the fowls, a large bald-headed eagle swooped down and bore the little one off in its talons. The neighbors turned out with shotguns, but the only effect of their firing was to accelerate the eagle’s flight. The bird alighted on top of a barn a mile away, and was seen to make several strokes at the child’s head with its beak. The neighbors had got pretty close by this time, and succeeded in frightening the eagle away. The child’s body was recovered, but life was extinct, a hole having been made in its skull, and a portion of the brains devoured by the bird.” (Manitoba Daily Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba 10/20/1885)

This was one of the rare (and tragic) successful and fatal avian abductions.

3 “An eagle attacked a nine year old son of I. Martin of Hamilton township Franklin County a few days ago and attempted to carry him off. The glorious bird did not succeed in this but the boy was badly injured.” (Wellsboro Agitator, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania 8/31/1886)

4 “A few days ago a child of a Mrs. Smith living on West River street, was playing in the back-yard when a monstrous eagle swooped down, and fixing its talons in the child’s clothing attempted to fly away. The Screams of the child attracted the mother, who rushed out of doors at which the big bird flew away. It is thought that the eagle measured ten feet from tip to tip, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the mother the child would certainly have been carried off.” (Weekly Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada 9/17/1887 from the Truckee Republican)

This incident is eerily similar the Lawndale event in many ways.

5 “Detroit, Mich., Aug. 5 – Two eagles had a duel to the death for the possession of a 6-month-old baby of Peter Shaw, who lives four miles north of Allis, in Presque Isle county. Mrs. Shaw had laid the baby down in the grass and returned to the house for a few seconds; when an immense eagle swooped down on the infant and sunk its talons into the little one’s flesh and clothing…Mr. Shaw arrived just in time to witness a terrible sight. Two eagles were hovering above the crag of rock, filling the air with their cries and battling for the possession of the baby that lay high upon the cliff. Before the father reached the summit one of the eagles had fallen to the ground, while the other had taken up the child for another flight. The father fired and the bird and baby fell into the water. The frantic father plunged into the lake and caught up the body, but the little one was dead.” (Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Texas 8/6/1892)

6 “Mrs. Anna McDowell, 19 years old, and a resident of Ouakoke valley, near Wilkesbarre, Pa., is at present superintending the work of a local taxidermist who is stuffing one of the largest bald eagles ever seen in that section. The giant bird was killed by the girl while it was endeavoring to carry off a three-year-old child named Nettie Hinkle…Little Nettie, badly wounded though she was, made her way to her home, a short distance away, and told her parents that “a good lady saved me from a bad bird at the creek”. (San Antonia Daily Light, San Antonio, Texas 1/4/1897)

7 “Council Bluffs, Iowa, June 23 – Mrs. Christina Mortensen, living near Honey Creek, Pottawatomie county, was attacked by an eagle yesterday while hoeing in her garden. The bird swooped down upon her from a cloudless sky, and with a scream sank its talons deep into the flesh of her shoulders in an effort to carry her off, notwithstanding the fact that Mrs. Mortensen weighs 160 pounds. Failing in its efforts to bear its prey away, the eagle beat the woman with its wings, at the same time tearing her face and head with its beak, lacerating her in a frightful manner…Owing to her age (70) and frail condition her injuries proved fatal. She appeared to suffer as much from nervous shock as from her wounds.” (Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois 6/23/1897 and a follow-up from San Antonio Daily Light, San Antonio, Texas 8/4/1897)

8 “A resident of Eagle Valley says that a big eagle swooped down into his yard a few days ago and tried to carry off his child. Its mother saw the little one’s peril and drove the hungry bird away with a club.” (Daily Argus, Middletown, New York 9/6/1897)

9 “A bald eagle, measuring more than six feet between its wing tips, flew into the yard of William H. Berry, Pinedale, and attacked his 2-year-old son. Mrs. Berry ran screaming into the yard and the eagle rose, being joined by its mate, and both circles over the house.” (Weekly Tribune, Hornellsville, New York 9/8/1899)

10 “On Saturday the three children of Julius Housechild, two boys and a girl, were sent across lots by their mother to a neighbor’s house for milk. The youngest of the children is Paul, a boy 7 years old. The children started from the house about 9 o’clock in the morning and loitered on their way, “playing horse” as children do, with a rope for the reigns. They had come to an unfrequented place when the little girl looked up and then gave a scream. The boys started to look up to see what had caused the little girl’s fright when the flapping of great wings above their heads was followed by the resting of a heavy weight on the shoulders of Paul…An eagle had swooped down, striking the boy in the neck and had fastened its talons in the boys clothes. Paul had been the “horse” and the reigns were still under his arms, his brother still holding the other end. Slowly the eagle flapped its enormous wings, lifting the boy from the ground…Paul’s older brother held on tightly to the reigns, which were five feet long, and his weight added to that of his brother, was too much for the monster bird to carry, so that after getting five feet into the air the eagle sank down to the ground again…The little girl had run for a stick and brought a club she luckily found, and the big brother belabored the eagle with the club, until it let go off its hold and flew away.” (Daily News, Naugatuck, Connecticut 9/13/1899)

11 “Two wires which are strung across the lawn at the courthouse yesterday saved a 4-year-old boy from feeling the talons of [an] eagle in his tender flesh. That it was the intention of the bird when it swooped down to carry off the child there can be little doubt, but that it could have done so is doubtful…The bird is an unusually large black eagle. A number of them have been seen about the city lately and it is assumed that the recent snows in the mountains have driven them to the plains.” (Anaconda Standard, Anaconda, Montana 12/9/1900 from the Denver Republican)

12 “Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 29 – An immense bald eagle yesterday afternoon tried to carry away to the mountains Alfred, the 8-year-old son of Cornelius A. Starr, Sexton at Evergreen cemetery, southeast of this city. The timely arrival of the lad’s father and another man with a shotgun no doubt saved the boy from death or serious injury.” (Evening news, Lincoln, Nebraska 9/29/04)

13 “Coweta, Ok – The five-year-old son of Nero Charles, a farmer living near Coweta, was attacked by a large gray eagle a few days ago, and narrowly escaped with his life after being carried 50 yards by the fierce bird. So far as known, this is the first time in the history of Indian Territory that a child has actually been picked up and carried by an eagle…The child weighs 50 pounds, and at no time did the eagle succeed in getting more than eight to ten feet above the ground with him. The child was not injured save for a bruises and scratches when his parents found him.” (Evening News, Ada, Oklahoma 2/2/1907)

14 “Confluence, W. Va., -- A little child belonging to D.M. Riffee, a merchant of Braxton County, was nearly carried away by a large bald eagle to-day. The child was playing in the doorstep of its home, when the immense bird swooped down, catching the child about the shoulders and waist with its claws. The screams of the little one attracted its father, who came out of his store just as the bird was raising with the child. Mr. Riffee immediately seized one of the rakes which he had on display in front of his store, and with it literally raked down the bird and child. The child was injured but little, while the parent managed to deal the bird several telling blows with the rake. Despite this it managed to fly to some tall trees nearby, where, while nursing its injuries, it was killed by a rifle ball. The eagle is one of the largest ever seen here.” (Washington Post, Washington D.C. 5/14/1907)

15 “Medicine Hat, Alberta, April 23 – While Anna Jergensen, a 2-year-old child of a farmer, was playing in the yard of her home, near here, yesterday, an enormous eagle swooped down and carried her off in its talons. The bird flew to its aerie on a mountain nearby. The Parents are prostrated.” (Syracuse Herald, Syracuse, New York, 4/23/1908)

16 “Swooping down into a crowd of persons who were watching a recent baseball game near Point Richmond, S. I., an American eagle attacked John Pollackson, 8-years-old. A group of men set upon the bird and the father of the boy ran to his home, procured a shotgun and returning, killed the eagle…The eagle measured seven feet six inches from tip to tip.” (Fort Wayne Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana 9/15/1908)

17 “New York, Sept. 18 – While Blanche Cribler, 3 years old, the daughter of Fred Cribler, a summer resident of Helmetta, N.J., was at play near her home, a large eagle swooped down and attempted to carry the child away in its talons. Cribler was working near by and the screams of his daughter attracted his attention. He fought off the bird and as it attempted to fly away his brother, who came up with a shot gun, fired and crippled the eagle. Its capture was then an easy matter. Except for a few scratches, the child was unhurt.” (Fort Wayne Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana 9/18/1908)

18 “Eau Clair, Wisc. May 19 – Harold Ness, the ten-year-old son of Otto Ness, a farmer near here, was attacked by an eagle while he was walking through a grove. Though the big bird fastened his talons into the child’s shoulders, causing much pain, the boy seized the neck of his feathered assailant and wrung it until death ensued. A few minor injuries were received by the lad.” (Iowa City Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa 5/19/1909)

19 “South Norwalk, Conn., June 15 – The largest eagle ever seen or shot in these parts attacked Emma Trewald, an eight-year-old girl, in the rear of her home in Westport. The bird which measured seven feet from tip to tip of the wings, soared down on the child while she was picking daisies. The eagle grabbed the girl by the back of her gingham dress with his claws and started to fly away with her, but the goods gave way and the child fell into the grass.” (Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 6/15/1912)

20 “Binghamton, N.Y., July 6 – Only the brave fight put up by Mrs. Martin Hunsucker, of Geneganslet, Chenango county, prevented her son William, 4 years old, [from] being carried away, or at least injured, by an eagle this afternoon. The child was playing near the house when the bird swooped, fastening its talons in his hair. The boy screamed, and the mother, catching up a stick, beat off the eagle. The big bird at first gave battle, then suddenly released its hold and soared away.” (Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 7/7/1913)

21 “Geneva, Switzerland, Aug. 8 – An enormous eagle carried off the 4-year-old child of a woodcutter while it was playing near him when he was working in the forest in the vicinity of the village of Andeer, not far from Chur. A large body of hunters, accompanied by dogs, set off to rescue the child, but they were unable to find any traces of the eagle or its prey.” (Daily Bulletin, Van Wert, Ohio 8/8/1913)

22 “Glendo. Wyo., Nov. 23 – Attacked by a giant eagle, with a wing spread of more than eight feet, which had apparently swooped upon him with intention of carrying him away, eight-year-old Walter Spaulding seized his adversary by the neck and screamed for help. John. Walter’s 7-year-old brother, came to his assistance and beat the eagle with a club. A third brother ran for help. Mrs. Spaulding came and attacked the eagle with a stick, but the bird continued the attack. Mr. Spaulding arrived on the scene with a shotgun and dispatched the bird.” (Standard-Examiner, Ogden City, Utah 11/23/1920)

23 “Lubec, Maine, Aug. 11 (AP) – An immense eagle swooped down into the yard at the farm of Guy Lyons, near here, yesterday, seized 2-year-old Buddy Lyons in its talons and sought to carry him away. Buddy’s 5-year-old brother grasped the child’s and after a tussle pulled him free. The bird, which had a wing spread of 7 feet soared to a nearby tree and remained there all day. It was the first time that an eagle had been known to attempt to carry off a child in this territory.” (Fresno Bee, Fresno, California 8/11/1928)

24 “Sturgeon Bay, Wis., May 31 – After a vain 12-hour search for 3-year-old Edith Dorschell, who disappeared at a picnic yesterday, belief grew today that the child was carried away by a pair of giant eagles which have attacked sheep flocks in this vicinity for two weeks…The child wandered away from the group and disappeared in a wild wooded area nearby. Picnickers recalled that the eagles had hovered over the picnic grounds shortly before the child had disappeared.” (San Mateo Times, San Mateo, California and Sheboygan Press, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 5/31/1929)

25 “It is reported that Mrs. Callahan, of Gallagher township, Clinton county, had a desperate fight the other day with an eagle which was trying to carry away her two-year-old child. The child’s face and hands were torn by the bird’s talons, and Mrs. Callahan was quite painfully pecked before she succeeded in driving off the big bird.” (Standard-Examiner, Ogden City, Utah 5/30/1931)

26 “Trento, Italy, July 28 – An eagle today carried off Ola Marie Robizert, year-old daughter of a peasant farmer, as she slept on the edge of a field her father was cultivating.” (Indiana Progress, Indiana, Pennsylvania 7/29/1936)

27 “With his father’s shotgun, 14-year-old John Naglish, Monday, killed a 50-pound Mexican eagle as it swooped toward a baby girl in the yard of his father’s farm at 110th and Calumet Lake. The bird had a wing spread of seven feet and would have been able to injure seriously, if not carry away little Jean O’Neil, 13-months-old, target of his swoop. The eagle had been carrying away poultry and small pigs in the vicinity, and the gun had been kept in readiness.” (The Pointer, Riverdale, Illinois 9/11/1936)

28 “Cold ran the blood of a Finnish farmer one day in 1931. His two-year-old child had been playing outside his cottage near the Russian border. Now the baby was the gone. He and his friends searched far and wide, found no trace. Last week, near the farmer’s home, lumbermen brought down a tall pine tree. High in the branches they spied an eagle’s nest. They came close to examine it. What they found made them cross themselves. There, surrounded by tatters of baby clothing, lay the skeleton of a 2-year-old child.” (Sheboygan Press, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 2/4/1937 from Time magazine)

29 In 1927, Edward Forbush, then the state ornithologist of Massachusetts and the author of A Natural History of American Birds, related the following current account: “M. Spencer Mapes, British Columbia, witnessed an attack by a golden eagle on Ellen Gibbs, nine-years-old…As the child ran toward her house, the eagle flew directly over [Mapes’] head in pursuit of the child. The bird sank its claws into her arms before he could reach her. He had partially disabled the eagle when the child’s mother rushed up and killed it with an ax.” (Fresno Bee-Republican, Fresno, California 7/18/1937)

30 “Carlsbad, N.M. (AP) – A pair of pliers and a bed slat were the weapons used by a Carlsbad couple to save their four-year-old son from an eagle’s clutches. The mother, Mrs. C.J. Reinhart, told it this way: The child was playing in the yard while she hung out a wash. Suddenly, the big bird swooped down and dug its talons into her son’s head. For a minute she pulled in vain at the eagle’s legs, then ran to the house. Returning with a pair of pliers, she jerked the talons free, snatched up her son and rushed him to a doctor. Three talons had pierced the child’s skin.” (Herald Journal, Syracuse, New York 2/21/1948)

Friday, November 23, 2007

The American Sârâph: An Unnatural History of Winged Snakes in North America

Even in today’s decidedly cynical and rational culture, legends and alleged sightings of exceptional and mysterious creatures are still—on occasion—featured in the news media and dominate the 100-realm of our libraries’ Dewey decimal classification section. In the modern age, these are cryptozoologically dominated by the “big three”: Sasquatch, lake monsters and the Chupacabra. Rewind the clock back 125 years though and a new “top three list” of whispered-about mystery creatures emerges from North America: “Wild men of the woods” (likely an early nomenclature for what will later come to be known as Bigfoot), sea serpents and…

Winged Snakes
If one were to design the simplest animal that would generate the greatest commotion among the public at large, the winged snake might be the ideal conception. Coalescing the most ominous features of two of the most traditionally feared critters—the snake and the bat, the idea of the existence of winged snakes was, historically, a nineteenth century hullabaloo just waiting to happen.
The idea of a serpent that can fly is by no means a contemporary concept. The classic Chinese dragons, though wingless, were built upon this notion. The belief peaked perhaps in ancient Egypt, where numerous examples of winged snakes can be found depicted in tomes of all types from the region. These were, ostensibly, not merely for dramatic graphic illustration. The prominent historian Herodotus wrote about these animals as actual biological components within the Egyptian ecology. Consider the following passage from his History of Egypt, Book 2. chapt. LXXV:
I went to a certain place in Arabia, almost exactly opposite the city of Buto, to make inquiries concerning the winged serpents. On my arrival I saw the back-bones and ribs of serpents in such numbers as it is impossible to describe; of the ribs there were a multitude of heaps, some great, some small, some middle-sized. The place where the bones lie is at the entrance of a narrow gorge between the steep mountains, which there open upon a spacious plain communicating with the great plains of Egypt. The story goes, that the spring the snakes come flying from Arabia towards Egypt, but are met in this gorge by the birds called ibises, who forbid their entrance and destroy them all. The Arabians assert, and the Egyptians also admit, that it is on account of the service thus rendered that the Egyptians hold the ibis in so much reverence.
While many historians dismiss this passage as a misguided reference to swarms of locusts, it is problematic to reconcile this explanation with Herodotus’s reference to having been witness to their “bones” and “ribs”. Similarly damning is the fact that Herodotus described their wings as bat-like rather than feathered as a bird. Others reject the account as a mere fable to explicate the Egyptians’ reverence for the ibis.
The Bible too mentions these creatures in Isaiah 30:6 and refers to them as “saraph”, often translated as the “fiery flying serpents”. The “fire” here referring to their poison’s burning sensation.
In the seventeenth century, the belief in the existence of these animals was waxed through a proposed hypothesis on the conception of natural chimeras. Edward Lloyd, curator of the Oxford Museum, suggested that—captured in the natural processes of evaporation and precipitation—snake semen could fertilize nest-bound bird eggs to produce a blended beast, a process he termed “fermentational putrefaction”. Today, the idea is zoologically laughable, but one must ask why such a conjecture was even needed if there were no documented sightings of such organisms.1

In North America?

The Arabian Peninsula does not have an exclusive claim to these mystery animals by any means. Accounts of such creatures stretch as far back as our country’s westward expanding history. Admittedly, the believability of the existence of such an extraordinary North American cryptid would have been made far easier had the roll call of known sightings revealed marked similarities; alas, the reports vary from the mundane and minute to the inordinately bizarre. In a brief review of some of the prominent sightings, the reader will be guided from the former to the latter.
The earliest known recorded sighting can be found in the journal writings of Hieronymus Benzo, an Italian naturalist who traversed the New World from 1541 to 1556. In his text Istoria de Mondo Nuovo Libr. III, Benzo included the following entry on an expedition into what is now Florida:
I saw a certain kind of Serpent which was furnished with wings, and which was killed near a wood by some of our men. Its wings were so shaped that by moving them it could raise itself from the ground and fly along, but only at a very short distance from the earth.
The next known flap of sightings emerged from the area of Leavenworth, Texas and, in fact, culminated in the acquisition of a sample specimen. In August of 1875, an unnamed woman dwelling in the southern side of this town made local headlines with her insistence that a smallish winged snake was undertaking excursions over her neighborhood. So astonishing was her testimony that a local, aged psychic was stirred to boldly foretell (to the local newspaper) “in a short time the air would be full of flying serpents”. Perhaps, if the next 35 years might be interpreted as “a short time”, she was partially right.2
In September of that same year, two young men surnamed Remington and Jenkins, while hunting in the woods near Leavenworth, were astonished to see this oft-gossiped about creature soaring straight toward them at an altitude of about four feet. Jenkins quickly removed his cap and, with an accurate sweep, netted the little beastie. It turned out to be quite harmless; it was approximately one foot in length, spotted and bore wings approximately the size of their hands. After dispensing of it, the two intelligent lads brought the now lifeless body home and preserved it in a jar of alcohol. Tragically, this essential physical specimen appears to have been lost to time, most likely in much the same manner as myriads of copies of Action Comics #1 have been innocently tossed by mothers with other attic junk, without realization of what they possessed.2

Another diminutive winged snake was witnessed by an entire family, that of H. C. Cotton, of White County, Tennessee. The creature nonchalantly soared over their home as they were all upon their porch in August of 1899. An Atlanta, Georgia newspaper commented upon the story by noting that “the coves of White County are famous for the production of a fine quality of apple brandy. Whether this had anything to do with the phenomenon or not is not stated.”3
A slightly larger and more alarming specimen was observed over St. Charles, Missouri, not far from the Mississippi River in 1911. Mrs. John Bishop and her children were startled from their work and play by an odd sound evocative of a monoplane. This buzzing though was not from an engine, but rather from the highly rapid fluttering of a sizeable pair of wings attached to a three-foot-long spotted snake passing over their residence. The awe that overtook the unsuspecting family quickly transformed into terror however, as the airborne snake turned and approached the terrified group of witnesses. The mother hastily herded the children into the home where they watched in safety as the creature performed various aeronautic feats for almost twenty minutes before it disappeared over the horizon in the direction of Alton, Illinois.4
Farm hands working on what was one of the most renowned plantations in King George, Virginia, “Berry Plain”, did battle with a winged snake in September of 1905 and emerged victorious. The enigmatic reptile had been seen many times on the plantation—always in flight or arboreal, never terrestrial—prior to its demise. The beast was five feet long, one inch in diameter and possessed wings “of good size” covered with something that resembled feathers. The plantation was located on the banks of the Rappahannock River; thus, locals surmised that the creature must have “come from an impenetrable marsh of the river or some neighboring creek”.5
More outlandish yet was the monster witnessed in Greensburg, Indiana in September of 1893. While riding in a buggy, Mrs. Joseph Groswick and Mrs. Casper were literally pursued for most of a mile by a seven-foot winged serpent that emerged from a roadside tree. In addition to its inexplicable wings, the two women claimed that it also possessed a beak like an eagle. Only a providential, chance encounter with a pair of hunters and their dogs persuaded the beast to abort its fearsome chase and flee back into the woods.6
In 1914, an American Indian of the Seminole tribe named Jim Sanitu traversed the country with his “trophy”, the fully mounted skeleton of a large winged snake that he claimed to have bested in a battle in the Everglades.7
Just Prior to the turn of the nineteenth century, the New York Times, ran an expose on the rare sighting made by Robert McDougall, described as “the most prominent citizen of Waterford [New Jersey]”. He had been startled by a five-foot winged snake flapping its wings as it descended from the low branches of a nearby tree during a stroll through the woods.
“It had the look of a bat in its face,” said McDougall. “But it was a flying snake, sure enough. One of a venomous kind I would say. The skull resembled that of a puff adder…I have seen all sorts of things in my time, but never before did I set eyes on a monster like that.”
Apparently, the creature was spotted again just a few days later by a man named Hiram Beechwood, who witnessed it crossing a road entering a swamp. He noted that its wings appeared to be bat-like in design, as opposed to avian.8

They might be giant

The labeling of a winged snake’s head as being similar to a puff adder’s was echoed less than a month later by a subsequent sighting hundreds of miles down the Atlantic coast. This was clearly not the same animal though; this new critter was far more a monster by any definition of size and shape. Once again from the Everglades, it was described as bearing a head shaped like a puff adder’s, possessing a dark, bluish body that was estimated by the witness as being up to thirty-five feet in length and boasting not two, but four wings—the arrangement of which was left unstated. Like many of the sightings already described, the commotion created by the report spurred locals to form a posse to eliminate the terrifying threat. Unfortunately also similar was the lack of success that this mob suffered in the ensuing search.9
This was not the only North American giant winged snake ever reported though. The Times-Independent of Bedford, Iowa told the tale of a local man named Lee Corder and his late summer 1887 encounter with an enormous flying snake. When he and a group of people he was with at the time first sighted it in the distance, it appeared to him to be a large buzzard-like bird. It was not until it flew much closer that the creature’s undulating serpentine body became obvious. The snake was described as being nearly a foot in diameter, with great glistening scales. While watching it with astonishment, the snake landed with a thud in a cornfield approximately one hundred feet away, but out of sight. The men’s fear prevented them from investigating into the field further and prompted them to take a quick leave of the area. The local paper challenged any who might belittle this result to “call on Lee Corder, or any of the family, who reside five miles from this city, [so that] they may be convinced of its truth, as they are people of unimpeachable veracity.”10
South Carolina alleged its own giant aerial serpent in 1897. Witnessed twice in the same day at locations twenty-two miles distant from each other, this huge winged beast was described by both witnesses as being anywhere from twenty-five to forty feet in length and eight to ten inches in diameter though its largest part.11

They came from the water?

The idea of a snake with wings seems anomalous at best if viewed from an evolutionary perspective. Would not wings be a serious detriment to the burrow-dwelling nature of a terrestrial snake? Likewise, it does not seem plausible that the lop-sided, elongated serpentine body could be advantageous to flight. The only way such a combination could be viewed as logical—and perhaps beneficial—would be in the context of a water snake that could take to the air as necessary. Along that line of thought, a couple important sightings of large winged water snakes were documented in the media.
The Washington Post noted in 1911 that the “passengers and crew of the White Star liner Celtic brought with them to New York today a revival of the sea serpent tales of other years. They reported having passed early yesterday morning a formidable looking creature that was going at a high speed in pursuit of a school of young whales. The monster, they say, had wings, and rose frequently 10 feet or more from the water. Whales and pursuer faded from sight within a few minutes.”12
What would appear to be, by description, the same or a similar animal was witnessed a few years earlier in the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. A local newspaper account noted that “Miss Rachel Talbot, daughter of W. A. Talbot, who has a summer villa opposite Grunderville, was the first to see the creature as it came swimming up the middle of the river. The head protruded several feet above the surface. She called to ‘Hank’ Johnson, ferryman for the Warren Lumber Company, who ran for his rifle and opened fire. Immediately the reptile reared its head at least 10 feet into the air…and charged for the shore. Jackson steadied himself and, taking careful aim hit one of the wings, disabling it. The snake flew as high as the ferry cable which hangs 20 feet above the water and then vanished.”13

Not really ‘wings’?

An intriguing variation on the mythology and anecdotal history of North American winged snakes is the contemporary investigation of Northern Arizona University anthropology student Nick Sucik into Navajo and Hopi legends that tell of snakes known as the Tł.iish Naat’a’í that can take brief flight through convoluted spiral contortions and lunges. He published a well-researched paper in 2004 on these mystery animals that nicely bridged the fields of theoretical herpetological physiology and cryptic anthropological folklore.
Sucik’s flying snakes of Arizona were hypothesized to be wingless—by definition of bat or bird—but capable of limited aeronautics through extended flaps that stretched over a significant portion of their bodies. He discredited the few reports he found (which did not include any of these presented here) that testified to bat-like or scaled wings, writing them of as justifiable misidentifications made under startling circumstances. It is difficult to reconcile this suggestion though with the sightings presented previously, especially those that lasted for dozens of minutes or even produced a type specimen carcass.14

The Winged-snake Platypus

Our world does not seem to like chimeric critters. When the first drawing and pelt of the world’s most celebrated chimera, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) was delivered to British naturalists, it was mocked as an obvious hoax, with the renowned natural George Shaw even attacking the pelt with scissors in a vain attempt to expose the seams of this fraud.
The winged snake may be one of history’s most notorious mass-perpetuated hoaxes; if not, the extraordinarily rare species is certainly extinct. Nevertheless, let us not take the figurative scissors of skepticism to the winged snake too hastily. The world has always been filled with wonders and without a doubt, these magnificent animals--be they cryptids or tall-tales—certainly made the world a more wonder-filled place.

Reference Sources

1 New York Times, New York, NY, April 29, 2003
2 Athens Messenger, Athens OH, 9/16/1875
3 Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta GA, 8/19/1899
4 Washington Post; Washington DC, 10/29/1911
5 Wisconsin Valley Leader, Grand Rapids WI, 9/28/1905
6 Decatur Daily Republican, Decatur IL, 9/25/1893
7 Decatur Review, Decatur IL, 10/17/1914
8 Galveston Daily News, Galveston TX, 5/23/1899
9 Daily Iowa State Press, Iowa City IA, 6/15/1899
10 The New Era, Humeston IA, 8/11/1887
11 The Landmark, Statesville NC, 7/20/1897
12 Washington Post, Washington DC, 6/5/1911
13 Indiana Evening Gazette, Indiana PA, 9/8/1906
14 Exploring the Prospect of an Unidentified Species of
Reptile within Navajo and Hopi Lands. In Search of
Tł.iish Naat’a’í (Snake-That-Flies). Nick Sucik. April 2004.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Holiday Heresy - Let's Move Thanksgiving

While writing this, I am preparing for my 37th artery-clogging Thanksgiving. In reality, my preparations usually amount only to checking to make sure the reclining chair is still functioning properly and locating my one-size-too-large pants that I pull out specifically for this annual celebration. This year though, my pre-holiday groundwork also includes composing the following heresy.
In fact, I have no idea how my subsequent proposition will be viewed by the American people. For all I know, the nation as a whole, beginning with central Illinois, will let out a collective gasp of relief in that someone has finally expressed what they have secretly (or publicly) grumbled about for years. On the other hand, I could very well be branded the contemporary Benedict Arnold. Perhaps as you read this, a burning stake is being assembled and a search for me has commenced.
What profanation am I suggesting? I want to change the date of Thanksgiving.
You read that correctly, the fourth Thursday in November just does not work any more and it needs to be moved. My arguments for this run the gamut from practical to economical to the very safety of our children. Allow me to catalog my case against the current date:

● To begin with, the fourth Thursday in November is just too close to Christmas. For some extended families, Thanksgiving and Christmas are sometimes the only occasions on which they all gather.
“Hey Grandpa, how have you been?”
“No different than I was four weeks ago! Now pass me that gravy.”
● In the nineteenth century, when Abraham Lincoln chose the fourth Thursday as the nation’s day of Thanksgiving, harvests often didn’t begin until November and would regularly finish in December. The date made sense then. Now, almost all crops are in long before the celebration of thanks for them is offered.
● Though we were certainly spared this year, how many times has the first really bad winter storm hits Illinois just as we were all either en-route to or from our familial destinations. How many accidents and even deaths have occurred on these ice-covered roads traversed by tryptophan-laced drivers? Unfortunately, I do not have the statistics to answer these questions, but can remember many a Thanksgiving where I seriously asked how much we would be missed at the family gathering if we allowed calmer heads to prevail and did not travel in dangerous conditions.
● It’s the economy, stupid. History would have us believe that we Americans do not begin our Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving. I can attest that a certain huge, low-cost department store in my hometown had Christmas decorations and trimming on the shelves days before Halloween! While many a customer will bemoan this holiday encroachment, the fiscal facts must be appreciated: no store would do this unless there were customers who were willing and wanting to buy these goods at this time.
Moving Thanksgiving away from Christmas would, I suppose, make the day after Halloween—November 1—the “official” first day of the Christmas shopping season. In actuality, it probably already is. Longer shopping season = more shopping = more $. Just ask FDR.
After more than a half a decade of pressure from the nation’s big businesses, he finally changed the holiday of Thanksgiving from “the last Thursday in November”, as it had been celebrated ever since Lincoln reinstated the Holiday tradition in 1863, to “the fourth Thursday in November”. The change prevented two of every seven years from having the “official” beginning of the shopping season start on the last day of the month or even the first of December, drastically shortening time for shopping.
● Whether you look at Thanksgiving from a religious or patriotic viewpoint (or both), the holiday is simply too important to allow it to fade away due to its overshadowed status between two gaudily over-commercialized holidays like Halloween and the secular celebrations of Christmas. It is sad enough that our two greatest presidents have had their birthdays clumped together in Presidents’ Day, but made shamefully worse by the fact that this day is little remembered outside of large-scale mattress sales. We cannot allow this to happen to Thanksgiving also.

So, what is the solution? Where do we put Thanksgiving?
The move is easy, logical and unlikely to be opposed, in my opinion, by few other than the most radical conspiracists. I propose that we move Thanksgiving to September 11th. The date is already, by the media, more recognized and celebrated than the fourth Thursday in November. Christians piggy-backed December 25th from the pagans and turned it into the biggest day of the year. Why can’t we, as Americans, similarly take a date that turns and swells all thoughts toward those for whom we are most thankful—our family, loved ones, those serving and protecting our country, the police, firefighters, and heroes from all walks of life—and make it our wonderful country’s official day of Thanksgiving. Perhaps as a side benefit, it would also show enemy nations that the events of September 11th, 2001 (and any others that would attempt to mimic such attacks) have and not divided, but rather united our nation’s resolve and loyalty.
Address your letters to your local congress members. Perhaps you could just enclose this article.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Beast of the Bluffs: Have Cougars Returned to Central Illinois?

It had been a frustrating late April 2005 morning of turkey hunting. John [not his real name] and his father-in-law had conceded that they were destined to return to their Jacksonville homes—which weren’t too far from the densely wooded area in which they were currently hiding—gameless. John would not go home though without a great story.
It was pre-sunrise, but the sky was lit enough to see clearly. John’s hunting partner was the first to step out of the woods into a vast, still untilled field.
“Whoa, stop!” shouted John, who was just emerging from the woods some fifteen feet behind his father-in-law.
Oblivious to what was in front of him, his father-in-law unfortunately turned his head back to inquire as to his concern and missed once again the object of it.
“As I followed him out of the woods here,” John recalled from the same location days later. “I saw it there, crouched low in the field not far from [my father-in-law]. It couldn’t have been more than twenty-five feet in front of him, but he didn’t seem to see it. It was huge, I would guess six to seven feet long. It was definitely a cat.”
“At the very moment that he turned his head back to see what had startled me, [the big cat] bolted off that way, covering thirty feet in just two or three bounds in about two seconds,” said John. “By the time I pointed in front of him and he turned back, it had easily cleared a five-foot fence and was back in some tall, dense shrubs...gone...I would guess that it was headed toward Mauvaisterre Creek. I was, sadly, the only one to see it. It was definitely a big cat...a black panther...are there cougars around here?”
Unfortunately for John, the official answer to that question is “no”.
The only “big” cat recognized as a resident of Illinois is the bobcat—and even they are not all that big. They are, by all statistical measures, making an amazing population recovery in certain parts of the state, and certainly one of them would be startling to see for one not expecting a large feline.
“I have seen bobcats before while hunting. This was certainly not a bobcat. Not with the size of this thing. It was way beyond a bobcat. This looked like a dark-colored cougar,” John explained.
A similar beast was also sighted just outside of Jacksonville in the opposite direction of John’s sighting, closer to the small village of Murrayville.
“Three or so years ago, I am positive I saw a large tan cat in a grassy area near my home,” said a rural-living Murrayville grandmother. “It was as large as a retriever-type dog, and had a long cat-like tail. It was an extremely brief sighting and I have not seen it again. However, there are rumors that another elderly neighbor lady’s family had some concerns about her safety because a large cat had been sighted in her back yard near where she dumps scraps. The area is wooded, surrounded by fields and meadows east of Murrayville and northwest of Nortonville. I personally wish to remain anonymous since my family thinks I am a crazy old lady. Of course they thought the same thing twenty or so years ago when I first told them I heard a turkey, and now they are a common sight.”
Gerald Day was residing near Walkerville in the late spring of 2003 when his opinion on the existence of cougars in Illinois was cemented into a “without a doubt certain” position.
“I was looking out a window at a field, when out of some bordering timber stepped a cougar,” Day recalled. “It was yellow or tan and was some two hundred feet away. It had a really long tail and was about the same size as a lab dog, but this was definitely a cat. My family was in the house, so I called to them and got multiple witnesses, but unfortunately we did not have a camera ready before it went back in the timber.”
The cougar (often commonly known by alternative names such as puma, mountain lion and panther) is classified by the Illinois Natural History Survey as being an extirpated species. It is commonly believed that the last free roaming cougars in Illinois were shot and killed in the 1880’s. Most government wildlife agencies maintain that, outside of the subspecies known as the Florida Panther, there are no longer any active cougar (Felis concolor cougar) populations east of the Mississippi River.
Authorities are quick to admit though that there are a number of cougars, both legal and illegal, being kept by individuals as “pets” in Illinois. Though the state’s laws preventing the importation and keeping of big cats were strengthened in the 1980’s, a black market for exotic animals has always thrived. It is to the possibility of intentional or inadvertent escapees from this stock of caged cats that state officials and academics have always attributed cougar sightings in Illinois. That is until everything changed on July 15, 2000.
It was on this date in Randolph County that a chance collision between a tawny cougar and a train gave science their first Illinois carcass to study. The specimen was diagnosed as a healthy male that had a DNA configuration that matches the wild populations of the western states. The Illinois State Academy of Science proclaimed it to be the first documented wild cougar found in Illinois in 135 years.
Four years later, a hunter in Mercer County, near New Boston, stumbled across another dead cougar; this one had succumbed to a wound apparently from an arrow. The body was turned over to Dr. Clay Nielson of Southern Illinois University who specializes in the study of big cats. This too was a large (84 inches from head to tail) male with a stomach containing wild game it had hunted and grasses—a common occurrence in wild bobcats. A DNA analysis for the cat has not yet been released.
When asked about cougars in the state, Bob Bluett, a certified wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that it “seemed likely” that the Mercer County cat was indeed of wild stock and that the two males “fit the profile of pioneering individuals”.
Most male cougars are known as transients, lack a distinct territory and can travel as many as thirty miles in one night. These transient males though can set up territories of 20-40 square miles and will eventually seek out multiple transient females who will remain then within the territory. The monogamous females generally produce one to six offspring every two years.
But have cougars really returned to Illinois? Is there a permanent, albeit small, residential, breeding population in central Illinois?
If there are cougars in Illinois, there is perhaps no one who had a better chance of coming across one in his professional career than Dennis Langellier—and come across cougars he did. Langellier is a former state employee who was daily required to drive from Jerseyville to Mt. Sterling, a path that runs parallel to the heavily wooded bluffs of the Illinois River.
Langellier’s first sighting occurred on a sub-zero January morning in 1994 as he was heading north (just south of Exeter). Not one but two full-sized cougars crossed the road a quarter of a mile in front of him. As his car neared where they crossed, he saw them roughly twenty-five feet from the highway.
“I would guess that each was two hundred pounds in weight. They were tan colored and both had long tails,” he said. “From what I know about them, they are solitary creatures. The only time more than one are seen together is a mother with her young. Though they were both large...full grown...I can only assume that that is what I saw.”
His second sighting occurred six years later during the summer of 2000, not far from the first. It was on Route 100, not more than a half of a mile south of Interstate 72, that another tawny yellow big cat crossed fifty yards in front of his car.
“This cat wasn’t either of the ones I had seen before. This one was not as was still big, just not full grown. Still a cougar though, no doubt,” he said.
“My oddest sighting though was fairly recent. I live in rural Patterson along some woods and a creek. This was a couple winters ago. I was outside working when I see this big cat—all black—come out of the creek bed and jump over my fence and head back into the woods. This didn’t look like a cougar to me, but it was no house cat. It was at least three times as big as a house cat and had a really muscular rear end and a long tail like a cougar. I don’t know what it was, but I saw it,” he said.
Like Langellier, Vic Lanzotti logs more miles on west central Illinois’ back highways than most of us could imagine in his job as a FedEx Express Driver for the counties of Morgan, Scott, Greene, and Macoupin. And like Langellier, he too came across a cougar two years ago, in mid-July, and enjoys sharing other stories he has been told because of his sighting.
“[It was] in Green County, east of White Hall, in the Apple Creek Bottom. The cat crossed the road in front of me and jumped the ditch into corn about five or six feet tall. There goes the ‘knee high by the 4th of July’ saying”, said Lanzotti. “I was reluctant to tell anyone, but I had some friends I trusted and as it turns out a few had also seen big cats. A Lady in White Hall had seen a black cat—cougar size—cross the road south of Greenfield on 108. Another farmer from Carrollton saw a large black cat cougar in about the same area. There is a farmer in Eldred that says a mother and cub wintered in a hollow on his place close to Spanky on the Macoupin Creek. Several people have said the Conservation Department has released cougars in areas where the deer are in high concentrations and places where there are heavy deer road crossings. The same people have said Conservation won’t admit the releases because of probable liabilities.”
It seems that conspiracy theories are inevitable in any situation where unexplained phenomena and the government intersect. Just less than half of all those interviewed as first-hand witnesses and those who related second-hand stories of cougars for this article expressed a belief that the big cats were indeed released by the Department of Natural Resources secretly.
This Roswellian idea of a government cover-up is most popularly promoted by Virgil Smith of Harrisburg who insists that a group he founded, Shadows of the Shawnee, secretly worked in conjunction with a government agency and received grant funding from large insurance companies to release twenty-six cougars in southern Illinois. Calling in to local and national radio programs, Smith insisted that the state now boasts a cougar population nearing three hundred. Former Natural Resources Director Brent Manning firmly denied all of Smith’s claims.
“Repeated requests not withstanding, Mr. Smith failed…to produce just one piece of irrefutable, tangible evidence to support his allegations,” said Manning in 2001. “We believe he hasn’t produced such evidence for one simple reason—he doesn’t have any.”
While Smith has never retracted his statements, as the IDNR has insisted he should, it must be admitted that even if there were a couple hundred big cats in our state, with as reclusive and intelligent as these creatures are, “irrefutable, tangible evidence” of their means of entry into the state would be difficult to produce.
When contacted, Smith declined to give further information on his claim, saying that it might compromise an ongoing investigation.
“A great deal of the information that we have concerning the cougars in Illinois and thirteen other states is considered evidence in an investigation into the release of the same. Our project will be going to the president of the United States, and on to congress, with a recommendation for a formal congressional inquiry. So as you can see, this is very serious and we consider ourselves public advocates,” said Smith.
Dave Holterfield of Beardstown doesn’t put much faith in the “the-government-is-releasing-cougars” rumors though; he insists that they have always been in Illinois. He accepts that the beasts may be expanding their territory, but believes that they have always haunted the secluded corners of the state. To back his claims, Holterfield tells four tales from his younger years.
Holterfield was born and raised “in the hollers and hills of Calhoun County”, a region renown for and often proud of being behind the times. His family in 1958 was still without indoor plumbing and his father, though he owned a primitive tractor, still plowed much of his land with a team of horses. It was in this year that while his father was leading these horses, their reins wrapped around his shoulder, over a hill where the family had planted “taters” that the senior Holterfield first saw the beast. At the crest, he stopped the team to rest and roll a cigarette.
It was in mid-roll that he spotted a full-grown cougar emerging from the dense woods surrounding the farm approximately 50 yards away. The cat most definitely spotted him and his team. Its waving tail and dead stare left no doubt of its awareness. Holterfield reached for his pocket knife, even though he fully realized it would be of little help against an attack from the seven-foot long cat. The real danger to his father though, Dave explained, was not the cat itself, but the reins his father had firmly wrapped around himself. Had the horses, which were oblivious to the predator’s presence, been downwind of the cat’s scent and gotten spooked, Dave might have grown up fatherless.
Not less than a year after this incident, young Dave himself came face-to-face with the cat.
Holterfield explained: “The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was plenty of morning light to see by. I was headed out to the privy, and had just stepped out of the house when...there it was, just sitting there on its haunches. It was huge, tawny and just staring at me. ‘Damn’ is all I could bring myself to say. I ran back inside and woke my dad shouting ‘that cat is out there again!”. He got his gun, but by the time he got out there, it was gone. I’ll never forget how long its tail was.”
Years later, the Holterfield’s had a pig go missing. After a short search, Dave found it...part of it. The entire front half was missing.
“It was not torn apart like coyotes would do, it was cleanly cut in half,” said Holterfield.
In 1972, Dave married a young lady from Hamburg. It was on a trip to visit his new in-laws, while driving on the road from Mozier to Kampsville, that he saw, just lounging not twenty feet of the side of the road, a pair of juvenile, tawny cougars.
“They were half the size of the cat I seen years before,” Holterfield explained, “but there was no mistaking it...they were not bobcats or big house cats. You could see it in their haunches, head and tail. These were cougars. No doubt about it. But I didn’t say a thing when I saw them. My wife and I kept driving in silence for several minutes when she asked, ‘Did you see what I saw?’ I just said ‘Yes, I did’ and we drove on.”
Not long after that, Holterfield moved to the Beardstown area and hasn’t seen a cougar since. But, just a few months ago, while at a tavern in rural Schuyler County, his friend, Joe, walked in looking like he had seen a ghost.
“You are never going to believe what I just saw...a huge black cat. Not a cat, but a black panther!” Joe exclaimed.
Black Panthers in Illinois? If the Department of Natural Resources is denying the proliferation of Illinois cougars, they are downright laughing at the thought of “big black cats” in the state. But don’t be too sure.
Kathy Thompson owns forty-five acres of land situated right between Rushville and the Littleton Township in Schuyler County and insists that she saw the same thing—what she described as a black cougar. It was towards the end of the summer of 2003, approximately at 4 PM when she spotted the huge cat running fast, not fifty yards from her, across her property.
Homer Briney is a down-to-earth, successful farmer owning a large plot of land up on the Illinois River bluffs just north of Beardstown, but his blacktopped driveway is currently anything but normal. Made in late spring after a heavy rain (and preserved through much of the summer through the lack thereof) is a trail of mud prints crossing the drive. Each footprint is just over four inches wide and three and a half inches long. Briney is convinced they are from the feet of a large cougar. Admittedly, cougar prints and dog prints are quite similar, the primary difference lying in the rear lobes of the ball of the print, which were, unfortunately, poorly distinguishable in the muddy imprints.
“I believe there is a cougar living in the bottoms near my farm,” said Briney. “We have the perfect environment for one out here. Two winters ago, a friend of mine was hunting on my property and shot a huge buck. It was so big that he had problems moving it, so he called me. It had started to rain, so I told him ‘Let’s get it in the morning’. Well, the next morning we go to right where he knew it was and it is gone! We searched everywhere and eventually found it some five hundred feet away. All that was left was the skin, the end of the legs and most of the head. It wasn’t ripped apart like coyotes would do. This was different. That was a three hundred pound buck, dragged that far.”
He claims that the same thing happened this last winter to a deer that was hit on the road in front of his house. They found very similar remains dragged into a field near his home.
“The night that these prints were made, my dog (a loved and pampered pug mix) acted really strange, standing at the back door being protective, but at the same time you could tell that it was scared to death,” said Briney. “My neighbors have seen it! They were sitting on their back porch at dusk when it came out of the woods, crossed behind their garden and disappeared back into the woods. They said it was jet black, definitely a cat and monstrous in size!”
In this very rural area, Briney’s “neighbors” live scores of acres north of Briney. Sandwiched between the two homesteads are deep, dense almost impenetrable lowland woods that look far more like the Shawnee Forest than any of the plains of central Illinois.
Melanism, the condition of a furbearing mammal being born with too much melanin and appearing all black, is as rare as its opposite phenomenon, albinism. In a small population with a limited gene pool, the occurrence of such an individual could skew its collective genome and cause the rate of incidence of such individuals to increase. This has been documented in remote coyote populations.
The problem with this hypothesis though is that, outside of a singular photograph from Puerto Rico dating from the early twentieth century, no scientific documentation of a truly melanistic cougar exists. The commonly used term “black panther” is generically utilized to describe two different species, the genetically recessive melanistic phases of the jaguar and the leopard. Neither of these cats exists—in any genetic state—in the United States. The sheer number of reports of big black cats in Illinois and across the Midwestern United States puts an odd, almost X-files-like twist into the mainstream biological discussion of whether the western cougars have permanently migrated east of the Mississippi.
Based on State Police reports and the carcasses found, two facts are inarguable: attracted by our large deer population, transient male cougars do occasionally roam into Illinois from the western states and cougars are certainly kept secretly and illegally in “home zoos”, often by less-than-responsible parties. With these two polar theories of origins, it must be noted though that a person placed in the very frightening and potentially dangerous position of meeting a cougar face-to-face would find the argument over whether this beast’s ancestry was of North American wild stock or of a captive breed South American genome a highly irrelevant and moot point at that moment.
Officially, the answer to the question of whether cougars are really back—having established a resident breeding population in Illinois—must still be “unknown”. The search for them though and the insistent stance from both sides of the controversy have begun to resemble a Midwestern version of the Northwest’s “Bigfoot”.
Maurice Hornocker, the director of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute at the University of Idaho and the first to utilize radio telemetry in field studies of cougar movements and travels, said recently, “[Cougars] will hit the Mississippi in the next decade. The Midwest is beautiful cat country, full of deer and cover.”
Ask some folks in rural central Illinois though and they will tell you that Dr. Hornocker’s projection is behind schedule by about a decade or so.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Farmer City Monster

When one hears of “Bigfoot”, one of two thoughts immediately come to mind: a large, lumbering four-wheel drive vehicle popular at state fairs or a large, lumbering “ape-man”-like beast that roams the Pacific Northwest. Rarely would one think of running into one on your “trip to town” or driving across the plains of Illinois, but consider the year 1970 in Illinois…
The Farmer City Monster
It was in July of 1970 that four teens parked at a popular “lover’s lane” woods area near Farmer City received the fright of their lives when a huge, hairy humanoid with piercing yellow eyes decided to see what was going on in their car. After the creature was “scared away” by a flashlight, the terrified girls demanded to be taken home immediately. The boys returned to investigate and again encountered the creature; even with windows closed its stench permeated the vehicle. They didn’t stay for long. The boys led local police to the area, but a search turned up only a much flattened area of foliage - hypothesized to be its “nest”.
During the next two weeks, multiple sightings of the creature were made around the area - including one sighting by a Farmer City police officer. A week after this sighting, the creature was spotted 20 miles southwest in Weldon Springs State Park near Clinton IL - it was “bathing” in a lake, but fled to dense woods when it realized it was spotted.
Days later the creature migrated 15 miles north to Heyworth IL where it was spotted late at night crouching by the side of a county back road - it jumped and fled when the car slowed to observe it. The startled observer described it as “ape-like”.
Still seemingly on the move, the beast was, 10 days later witnessed by a team of construction workers outside of Waynesville IL (10 miles west of Heyworth). It sprinted across the road (from woods to woods) in front of their van near dusk. Another Waynesville resident reported seeing it too within days.
But then…no more reports or sightings were made.
Illinois can be a weird place...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Washington Eagle Reference -- 1858

Fellow biofortean Chad Arment, who kindly posted a comment on my previous post on my paper on the Washington eagle, has posted on his website a transcript of an entry from 1859 that references Audubon's Washington eagle. Though it is, substantially, a reworking of Audubon's writings on the mighty bird that are also included in my paper, it also contains commentary from C. W. Webber on his opinions of the bird's authenticity. Definitely worth a read. Thanks Chad!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Southern Illinois' Ghosts Are Their Faults

At this time of year, many minds and ears turn to tales of ghostly phantoms. Biofort is no exception to this. But before you, my dear reader, believe I have fully scrapped science for the supernatural, consider a new book I recently acquired. Just released and written by Jim Jung, of Carbondale, Illinois, Weird Egypt: The Case for Supernatural Geology, has absolutely fascinated me.

Primarily, it is an exhaustive look at all things unusual and even paranormal within the southern one fifth of the state of Illinois. Even though I do not reside (and actually haven’t even visited) this region, the stories are unique and mesmerizing. I have read extensively on paranormal occurrences in Illinois, but most of these stories are new to me. I didn’t get the book for the sightings of monsters, tales of ghosts or legends of earth structures though…it was Jung’s out-of-the-mainline theory on these occurrences that hooked me.

Jung is a scientific soul and though, like myself, he loves ghost and monster stories, he has looked deeper, beyond the accounts and into the root of them. He is convinced, and has some incriminating evidence to back his belief, that Southern Illinois’ haunts and ‘boogers’ are the direct result of an extensive series of fault lines that subterraneously crisscross the region.

Jung is quick to admit that neither he nor anyone else is exactly sure how the connection between faults and haunts physically and biologically transpires, but the correlation between the two is “striking” and often referred to the TST, the Tectonic Strain Theory.

Jung explains: In brief, the TST states that rocks under compressive stress generate relatively large electromagnetic fields that—when they build to sufficient strength—are released in brief low-level bursts of electromagnetic energy. These fields seem capable of altering the perceptions of human senses.

Recent university studies have somewhat duplicated these results by electrically stimulating certain sections of the brain. Could nature be doing this to us intermittently, creating paranormal experiences and sightings?

In Jung’s book, he superimposes a plot map of paranormal occurrences in Southern Illinois over a map of the regions fault lines. Though not perfect, the proximity relationship is hard to deny.

Jung does acknowledge exceptions to the ghost-origins theory he promotes: 1) His home town of Carbondale IL is home to numerous historical and contemporary haunts and sightings of bizarre creatures even though there are no known faults under the area. Jung points out that the key word in the previous sentence is “known”. 2) There are 2 or 3 cases documented in his book that, he admits, seem to “manifest themselves as the classic demons or evil spirits of worldwide sacred literature.

For readers who enjoy unique local tales and lore and for those looking for a more scientific view of monsters and haunts, I wholly recommend this book. It is available from his website.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Witness Claims a Washington Eagle Sighting

In recent posts, I have introduced the giant, Thunderbird-like Washington eagle and attempted to show how it could have existed in minimal populations undetected by science until modern days. These ideas have prompted a gentleman to finally go public with a giant bird sighting he and his wife shared in 2004. He now wonders if it wasn't a Washington eagle that he witnessed. Here is the email (reproduced with permission) that I recently received from William McManus (All caps left from e-mail):


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Images of Washington Eagles (From the 19th Cent.)

Open for Comments

Just so everyone is aware: There was a technical glitch that was allowing only some people to post comments to Biofort, and not others. This has now been corrected and--I believe--everyone should be now able and invited to comment to this blog. Thanks!
--Scott Maruna