Many places have fantastical creatures: the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, Sweden’s skvader (half hare, half wood grouse), and, of course, the Pacific Northwest’s tree octopus. The state of Wyoming has even gone so far as to declare a hunting season for its mythical jackalope. (It’s held on June 31st from midnight to 2 a.m. and prospective hunters may not have an IQ higher than 72.)
Here in the Northeast we have our own incredible beasts, perhaps less universally known, but just as colorful. In older, simpler times, they were front page news.
In August of 1817, a large sea serpent was sighted repeatedly in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dozens of reports were made, although accounts varied radically: the monster was 45 feet long or 100; it had shark’s teeth or a horse’s head. Sightings as far north as Nova Scotia and Maine fueled belief in sea serpents across the Northeast for the next 30 years. Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale University, initially a sea serpent skeptic, eventually admitted they could exist. But if they existed, where was the physical evidence?
Enter Albert C. Koch, a paleontologist of dubious credibility. In 1845, Koch arrived in New York City with a 114-foot-long fossil sea serpent he called Hydrargos sillimani, in honor of the Yale professor. He exhibited Hydrargos to enthusiastic crowds, earning both a lot of publicity and a lot of money.
Scientists, however, were less impressed. Paleontologists who visited the New York exhibit declared that Hydrargos was made from at least five individuals and was a mammal, not a serpent. Undaunted, Koch took his sea serpent to Europe, where it was ultimately purchased by the King of Prussia and disassembled by scientists at the Royal Anatomical Museum into its components: five or six fossil whales. Some of these extinct whale species were new to science and, one can argue, would have been a more remarkable find than Koch’s sea serpent, even if the latter had been real.
Around the same time, New York City (New Yorkers were especially fond of scientific hoaxes in the 1930s and 1940s) was host to a mermaid from the Fiji islands. The specimen became a city-wide sensation, helped in no small part by P.T. Barnum’s pamphlets showing voluptuously bare-breasted mermaids. Unfortunately for museum goers, the mermaid was neither voluptuous nor beautiful, but a hideously wizened thing – an example of an East Indies traditional craft where fishermen made faux mermaids by stitching monkey bodies to fish tails. Barnum’s mermaid perished in a Boston museum fire in the early 1880s.
Further inland, Lake Champlain’s Champ has been making news since at least 1819, when the Plattsburgh Republican related the account of a Captain Crum, who saw a black monster, 187 feet long, with a head like a seahorse, rearing 15 feet out of the water. It had 3 teeth, eyes “the color of a pealed [sic] onion,” a white star on its forehead, and a red band around its neck. Perhaps most remarkably, Crum saw all these details although the monster was 200 yards away.
1873 would prove a busy year for Champ, who had many dramatic encounters with people. A railroad crew working near the lake spotted the head of a gigantic serpent with silvery scales, at which point both men and monster promptly fled. In July of the same year, the Clinton County sheriff saw a water serpent he estimated at 25 to 35 feet. In August, the steamship W.B. Eddy collided with Champ (or a sandbar), nearly turning over.
While Champ may be the most famous lake monster in the Northeast, New Hampshire has a few tales of its own. According to Rob Morphy, who collects stories of unknown animals on his American Monsters website, a skin diver went missing at Dublin Lake in the early 1980s. He was found days later, naked and babbling about monsters in caverns at the bottom of the lake. A decade earlier, twenty-two miles down the road, a scuba diver in Spofford Lake claimed that a large underwater log came to life and swam away like an eel.
While fantastic monsters seem especially fond of water, some seem to prefer our region’s trackless forests. A hundred years ago, logging camps were hotbeds for tall (possibly liquor-fueled) tales of fantastic creatures like the fur-bearing trout; one logger in eastern Canada went so far as to send a specimen to his incredulous family in Scotland – a taxidermied fish with fur stitched on Frankenstein-style. The shagamaw in the Adirondacks paced the tote roads, counting its yard-long strides and switching between its moose hind feet and its bear front feet to avoid losing count. The billdad – known only in Boundary Pond, Maine – was said to use its kangaroo-like hind legs to jump into the water after fish, then smack them with its beaverlike tail to stun them before snatching them up in its hawk bill. William Cox’s book Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts, published in 1910, profiles these and many similarly amazing creatures.
Not to be outdone, hikers in the Green Mountains have their own animal legends. On the slopes of Mount Mansfield, Vermont, is a trail with the strange name Wampahoofus, after a bizarre local animal. Described as looking something like a moose-gnu hybrid, the wampahoofus is reported to have lived only on this one mountain, at between 2,600 and 3,200 feet in elevation. It walked in perpetual circles around the peak, but only in one direction: males walked clockwise and females counterclockwise, boosting the likelihood that they’d meet to mate. One leg was said to be shorter than the other, an adaptation for a life spent walking in circles on a steep slope. According to sources at the Green Mountain Club, the short-leg adaptation was too dominant, and over time the animal’s legs became shorter and shorter, until males and females could no longer mate with each other and the animal went extinct.
Some mystical creatures have a supernatural component. The Dover Demon is one such creature that haunts Dover, Massachusetts. Witnesses – usually teenagers – describe it as having the overall shape of a baby, but with spindly limbs, orange-tan skin, and a melon-shaped head with no facial features except glowing orange (or green) eyes. Some fantastic creatures are misidentifications of perfectly normal animals. Most park rangers are familiar with reports of coonigators – plump, gray-furred animals with the body of a raccoon and the face of an alligator. Skeptics claim they’re just opossums.
The logical (and cynical) among us may dismiss these tales as child’s play, or evidence that people used to be more gullible in the old days. A monkey mermaid? Seriously? But nature has conjured up some pretty bizarre animals. Consider the platypus, which scientists initially suspected of being a hoax. Is a fur-bearing trout any more improbable?