It’s the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birthday today and I really should have done something special on the Bard. But I used up all my good “Shakespeare at a Séance” material last year and, frankly, I can’t cope with ciphers, mystery vaults, or Bacons of either sex. So when I found that the date was also St George’s Day, I was glad of any pretext to seize upon the theme of dragons.
Rich as the United States is in reports of Bigfoots, Thunderbirds, and Jersey Devils, there are comparatively few reports from North America of creatures described as dragons. It is a moot point whether the flying snakes, formerly so plentiful in the Southeastern United States, or flying humanoid entities like Mothman or the Van Meter Monster should be classified as dragons. On the whole, I think not.
In these three reports we find the usual monstrous hybrid of fact and fiction.
THE OLD DRAGON.
He Banquets on Young Sheep at Fletcher, Ill, and Flies about the Country to the Great Alarm of the Rustics
A correspondent writing from Blue Mound, Ills., to a Bloomington paper tells this remarkable story: James Vincent, sr., a farmer of Fletcher, was startled the other day by the unusual bleatings of his lambs, and on going to the spot he saw a huge reptile raise his head many feet above the ground. He at once hurried to Fletcher and got the assistance of friends, among whom were John N. Clingan, W.H. Lier, A.H. Conger and J.S. Scott, all well known citizens of the place. They accompanied Mr. Vincent to his farm, and, mounting a fence, saw the sheep on the other side of the field running in a circuit. They remained until the sheep came around to their side, when they found they were not in the presence of the one monstrosity only, but three smaller ones, each of which, the men claim, measured from eighteen to twenty feet. The three little snakes then got hold of one of the lambs and started for the monster snake. While they were struggling with the little fellow, John C. Clingan threw a fence rail at them. They then relinquished their hold and made an attack upon the men, but were beaten back, and again started for the lambs. Seizing one, the little bleater was hurried through the air to the big snake, and no more was seen of it after it reached the jaws of the devourer. At this point the men fired several shots at the old fellow. It acted strangely and advanced no further, being struck, no doubt, by some of the bullets. It lay still for several minutes and the small snakes ran into its mouth. It unfolded its wings and started, but it was some time before it could get out of the field, for it was surrounded by a big hedge fence. It finally rose high enough and started away eastward passing William Lanster’s house. His sister Katy, who was in the yard, was frightened so badly that it is feared she will never recover. It then passed Mr. Zable’s house; his daughter Minnie saw it and she has since been warned by an overruling power to stay in. Thence it passed over Cooksville. It was high when it reached that place. Doc. Shattler and Col. Jno. Wells saw it, but they thought it was fowls flying in a row. Benigh Brigham says his attention was drawn by a strange noise in the air, and on looking up it was too high to tell what it was. He gave it very little attention, thinking that it was something blow up by a storm and that the noise was made by something on the ground. When he saw it it was three miles northeast of the farm where it was first seen. At least twenty persons saw it and it cannot be doubted. Great excitement prevails over the strange visit. William Smith and the Rev. C.D. Belleville were on the ground a few minutes afterward and saw several of the lambs still bleeding. The Rev. Mr. Belleville is one of the most reliable men in this county. He is a minister of the Methodist Episcopal church at Fletcher, and says there is no doubt that the men are telling the truth. He can’t help but believe them as the men were almost frightened to death. John N. Clingan fell prostrate and was carried to Mr. Vincent’s house, where medical aid was summoned, and it was some time before he came to. The snake came here about 3 p.m. and stayed fully and hour and a half. Kansas City [MO] Star 7 August 1885: p. 2
When we note that one of the witnesses to an anomalous event is named “W.H. Lier,” well, really, could the author be more obvious? None of the protagonists I checked appeared in the usual grave databases, so I shrugged and assumed that this was entirely fictional. But my Swiss sense of duty sent me to the census reports where I found that some of the principals actually existed. In the 1880 census we find:
James Vincent, age 55, Blue Mound, farmer, born in England, so rich in dragon lore.
John Clingan, age 40, Blue Mound, farmer
Benajie Brigham, age 39, Blue Mound, farmer
William Zable and daughter “Winnie,” age 3 Peach Orchard, Ford, IL farmer
And it turns out that Lier is a legitimate surname, rather than merely a journalist’s joke. When I returned to the grave database, I found a William Lier of the correct dates, buried in Adams County, Illinois, which isn’t exactly adjacent to the McLean County site of the alleged dragon sighting.
Once again, we find real people as characters in an impossible story. Why?
A point perhaps worth noting: The odd note that the Doctor and Colonel thought that the dragon was “fowls flying in a row,” is an explanation reminiscent of a certain theory about Arnold’s flying saucers. There has also been a suggestion that sightings of certain species of birds explain flying snakes. [I think I read it in Fortean Times, but the reference escapes me.]
Our next entry is described as “dragon-like,” although it sounds more like a very large snake–limbs are never mentioned. There is also a hint of the classic circus-escapee.
Which Disturbs the Good People of a Missouri Town.
(Gorin (Mo.) Spec. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
For the past four years numerous credible people of this vicinity have while passing the railroad bridge over the Fabius, just west of here, caught sight of a monster reptile. As far back as four years ago last May a party of duck hunters saw this strange creature sunning itself on a log and made efforts to capture it, without success. They then reported it a foot in diameter and 12 to 15 feet in length. One of these men was the banker here, and all truthful men.
A year later Rodney Lease crept up to its den and watched for an opportunity to shoot it, but became so fascinated with the sight of his snakeship that he forgot to shoot until it had crept back into the dense undergrowth.
Since then every spring some one from country or town, has run across it, always with great damage to their equanimity. The reports they bring in coincide, all describe it alike, color black, hooded head, at least 15 feet in length and as big around as a telegraph pole. Last night as William Gilmore came along the track toward Gorin he met it stretched out at full length on the bridge; he thought to get close to it and either kill it or at least get accurate measurements of it by counting the ties it was lying on, but as soon as his presence became known to the monster it quickly coiled itself, and the sight so frightened Gilmore that he sprang backward down the embankment and lost no time in getting to town. The dimension he gave of it are too large to report; however his word is as good as gold, and a party is being made up in town to try and capture this nameless species of the reptile family. Taking all reports into consideration, some believe it to be an escaped boa constrictor from some show, but its head is different from any known snake’s, resembling that of a dragon. The Enquirer [Cincinnati, OH] 27 June 1896: p. 14
For form’s sake, I found a Rodney Lease, age 36, farmer, in the 1900 Census. There were also a number of William Gilmores in Scotland County.
I thought I knew all of the monsters said to haunt Ohio. This account of a “river dragon” in the Maumee River was a new and startling one.
RIVER DRAGON RIVAL TO SEA SERPENT
Napoleon, Ohio. September 13, 1902
The existence of a “sea serpent” is now established beyond a doubt, but the idea of a “river dragon” at first seems unreasonable, although such a creature does exist, and in this vicinity.
The stories told are by no means new, for reports of such a creature have been in circulation here for 15 years. Many persons have seen the animal, and its appearance is accurately described. In form the creature is said to be somewhat like a river lizard [hellbender?], although considerably larger. It has been seen on the banks of the Maumee River and appears to move as easily on the land as in the water. The principal feature about the animals’ body is a huge tail, covered with minute scales like a fish. It also has two small, web-shaped feet, possibly six inches in length. Its eyes are very small, set far apart, and are of a peculiar greenish color. The whole body of the creature seems covered with a coarse, heavy hide of a dull brown color.
It is almost impossible to give anything like the exact measurements of the animal, but it is estimated that the creature is nine or ten feet long, and would measure anywhere from 24 to 30 inches in height, while its body would measure perhaps 14 inches across. Some one who has seen it has remarked, “if there is such a thing as a cross between an alligator, a lizard and a snake, I believe our river ‘haunt’ would exactly fill the bill.”
Cannot Be Classified.
Parts of the body of the animal are ill proportioned, giving it a squatty appearance when seen at its full length. Characteristics of both the water and land are mingled at times very noticeably together, and it is impossible to classify the creature with any accuracy. The name it has come to bear along the river if the “river Dragon,” although who first suggested the mystic creature of superstition as its namesake, it would be impossible to say. The home of the animal is on Savage’s Island, about 12 miles below here. At that point there is a series of rapids in the Maumee River, and it is supposed that the animal was washed into the river from Lake Erie, into which the stream empties, a short distance below. In parts the island is covered by a thick shrubbery, reaching to the water’s edge, but although the ground has been carefully explored, no trace of the lurking place of the animal could be found. It is now believed that the creature inhabits a cave in the island, entrance to which is effected from the river, the water concealing all trace of it. The theory of the pioneer of this section was that there is a vast honeycomb of caverns in this vicinity, many of which are below the bed of the river, and it is believed by many that the animal makes its home among these passages.
When First Seen.
About 15 years ago the animal was first seen. The view was only momentary, but of a very startling nature. A party of fishermen were rowing home about dusk from their day’s sport, when suddenly in the vicinity of Savage’s Island one of them uttered a low exclamation of terror and dropped his oars. The attention of the others was attracted by his actions, and the course of the boat was stopped. Directly on a jutting point of the island, hardly 40 feet away, lay an animal, the sight of which could well inspire fear. In the gathering gloom the weirdness of the creature’s appearance was intensified. “It reminded me more of a huge snake than anything else,” one of the party afterward said. Its head was turned toward the occupants of the boat, and suddenly it raised itself, giving the startled watchers a vivid idea of its size, and plunged into the water with a tremendous splash. This move was enough, and the men bent to their oars heartily. But the creature evidently had no idea of attacking them, for that was the last seen of it that night.
The story the party told of their encounter with the strange creature of the river aroused wide interest, but although a close watch was kept on that section of the river, nothing further was seen of the animal until nearly a month afterward. On this occasion the view was obtained in much the same manner was before, and the creature dived into the water almost instantly on being sighted, but the previous story was corroborated, and that the Maumee River contained a strange sea animal was no longer doubted.
No signs of other animals of the same kind have been seen in the vicinity, and it is the common supposition that the creature is alone, although what became of the former “dragon” and how this one succeeded in effecting an entrance to the river unseen, are questions it seems impossible to answer. There, however, seems to be several of the creatures in existence somewhere, as the two experiences here can hardly have been with the same one. Bay City [MI] Times 14 June 1903: p. 18
Familiar as I am with the Maumee River area, I can find no “Savage Island” on the maps, new or historic. Possibly Girty’s Island is what is meant, two miles downstream of Florida, Ohio, which is roughly 13 miles from Napoleon. There is also an “Indian Island,” south of Waterville, which might suggest a less hostile renaming. I would not call the distance from Napoleon to Maumee Bay a short way, but strange creatures have been seen in the Bay and in Lake Erie proper. It has been suggested that marine mammals sometimes stray down the St. Lawrence Seaway/Welland Canal into the Lake.
Any marine specialists out there who would care to comment on the creature’s description? Leather hide and scaly tail? Tiny webbed feet? The newspaper illustrator was obviously enchanted by classic fairy-tale dragons. Apparently no one thought to interview the witnesses with an Identi-kit to hand. I will say that the description is remarkably free from the hyperbole sometimes found in reports of the anomalous. [Hideous Ice-Worm I am looking at you.] Nine or ten feet is scarcely monstrous. The river teems with fish, particularly during the spring Walleye spawning season so a hungry dragon would find plenty to eat.
These three accounts were all published in June and August—the proverbial Silly Season for water monsters. Can all three be dismissed as mock-Leviathans? The use of named witnesses continues to trouble me, as I mentioned in my post on the fairy abduction in Dubuque. It would be a kindness if anyone out there who studies historic newspapers could explain why citizens, sometimes described as “prominent” or “well-known” would allow their names to be published in connection with an outlandish hoax tale. Thoughts to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, whose veracity no one will question.
In other dragon news, previously I wrote of a missionary’s encounter with a hideous dragon-like reptile in Mexico.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.