The “What-is-It?”: A Monster Story.
This post started out as a straightforward query on a little-circulated Fortean phantom attacker story. It ends, well, somewhere else. The article below is a piece by “M. Quad,” a pseudonym for Charles Bertrand Lewis [1842-1924], humorist, journalist, newspaper publisher, and novelist.
The gentleman had a checkered career: he began his career as a typesetter and printer. An “em quad” is a metal piece used by printers to space type. Lewis chose the name to indicate he’d done time as a devil among the type-trays. He fought in the Civil War. And he was a would-be newspaper editor, en route to his new job at the Maysville [KY] Bulletin, who got blown up when the boiler on his Mississippi steamboat exploded. By the time he recovered from his severe injuries, the job was gone. With the settlement he got from the steamboat company, he bought a share of the Detroit Free Press. He wrote columns and articles for papers all over the country, as well as dime novels. He also wrote Under Five Lakes: Or The Cruise of the Destroyer , a lost-world fantasy novel set during the Civil War. While I haven’t found an online copy of this novel, I’ve skimmed through several books of his humorous pieces (some of which are laugh-out-loud funny—at least to me.) But the article below, about a mysterious attacker, is quite different in tone from Quad/Lewis’s usual work. My question about “What-Is-It?” is “what is it?—a mostly factual news report or a fantasy?” The “By M. Quad” gives no clue. Quad’s stories, both humorous and factual, were the most widely syndicated in the country and appeared with his hard-earned byline.
By M. Quad
On a certain highway in a Western state, between two villages 10 miles apart, a farmer was driving home one evening. There was a full moon, and it was almost as light as day. The horses were trotting along, and the farmer was busy thinking when someone or something suddenly grabbed him by the shoulders from behind, and gave him a yank and a twist that landed him on his shoulder on the highway. Someone had climbed into the wagon from the rear and attacked him. By the time the farmer had regained his wits the unknown had disappeared. Not a footstep had been heard, and there could be no explanation of why the farmer had been thus attacked.
This was the beginning of the “What-Is-It” mystery, which aroused the country for a good many miles away. Two evenings later, as one of the farmers living on that road was milking a cow in the twilight, he was seized from behind and flung 10 feet away, while the cow ran away as if in alarm. By the time the farmer had regained his feet it was too late to hope to see any one. Who had done it? Who had approached him as softly as a mouse and picked him bodily off his milk stool and given him such a fling as only a giant could?
The incident was talked over, and it was agreed that it must be the same party who flung the farmer from his wagon, and there was more or less scare along the road. It was only four or five days later that one of the farmer’s hired men went courting a girl who lived about three miles away. He carried a hickory club with him, and boasted of what he would do in case he was attacked by the “What-Is-It.” He stopped his courting about 11 o’clock and started to wend his way homeward. He was just crossing a bridge over a small creek, when he was lifted up bodily and thrown over the low railing into the creek. He was quite badly hurt, and came near being drowned besides. Question him as they did, no information could be elicited. He neither saw nor heard. The first thing he knew he was being lifted up and flung.
Such a mystery as this could not go unsolved. No farmer felt himself safe after nightfall, even at his own kitchen door. The mystery was put into the hands of the sheriff to solve, and with a posse of 500 men [misprint for 50?] all armed with a gun, he patroled the road for three or four successive nights. Nothing was discovered. Whoever it was that was playing upon the fears of the farmers seemed to have suddenly vanished, but had he vanished? On the second night a citizen of one of the villages who had been to the store for a can of kerosene was approaching his home. Suddenly he took a flight through the air and over a picket fence. The “What-Is-It?” had got him. Not a footstep had been heard. It seemed the most impossible thing for a human being to approach the citizen in that way, but the trick had been worked.
Now the outskirts of both villages were patroled and a reward of $100 was offered to whoever should solve the mystery. It was agreed that the “What-Is-It?” should be shot down without mercy if he was encountered. The main thing was to encounter it. While the sheriff and his men kept to the highways, the mysterious person did his work on the farms.
At 8 o’clock one evening a farmer’s wife who had been out to close the door of the henhouse stopped for a moment just outside her kitchen door to look around and see that none of the fowls had been left out. She was suddenly heard to scream, and some of the family, on rushing out, found her tangled up in some currant bushes, 15 feet away. All she could say was that she had been grabbed from behind, as others had been, and given a fling. The “What-Is-It?” had picked up a woman weighing almost 300 pounds and flung her aside as if she was a child.
On the same evening, and two miles away, a farmer’s hired man fell asleep while lying on the grass in front of the house. He was picked up and given the usual fling, and he landed on his shoulder with such force as to put it out of joint. Of course, he could give no particulars. He had not meant to go to sleep, but only to do some thinking. He was in the land of Nod when picked up, and it was the fall that awoke him.
Now the news spread wider and wider. A hundred men turned detective, and they spooked about everywhere at night, seeking a clew. The only thing thus far discovered that could lead to the identity of the “What-Is-It” was a theft from a farmer’s kitchen. The family went to bed one night leaving several windows raised. During the night someone entered and helped himself liberally to food and drank all of two quarts of milk. He came and went so softly that no one heard him. At first they said it was the work of some tramp, but no tramp could have traveled a quarter of a mile over the road without being arrested. Then people said it must be some animal; but what animal could it be to do these things?
The reward finally reached $500; but the most vigorous search failed to track the trail of the “What-Is-It?” He always attacked from behind, and he always contented himself with giving his victim a fling. It was as if its only object was to have a little sport. In one case he threw a farmer from the ground to the top of a haystack, twenty-two feet high, and from this all judged that, whatever it was, was possessed of wonderful strength. It seemed curious that none of the victims had felt the leg or arms of the mysterious object, and they could not say whether he wore clothing or was clad in fur.
One day, when the mystery was at its height, two men arrived at one of the villages. They were perfect strangers. They at once began to talk about the “What-Is-It?” and seemed greatly interested. They had no new theories to offer, but they listened very carefully to the theories of others. They had come with horse and buggy. On the second day they went to the sheriff and said:
“We think we can solve your mystery, and if you will do one thing for us you may have all the reward. We want the creature instead of the money. Call off everybody who is patrolling the highway at night, and let us two alone patrol it. We think we can capture the “What-Is-It?” in one night, but it may take us two or three.”
The sheriff agreed to the proposition and the patrollers of the road were notified. The two strangers left the village at 9 o’clock at night, and it was remembered that they carried with them a number of ropes and straps. A farmer living about five miles from the village stated afterwards that he heard a peculiar whistling on the road, and another stated that he saw the two men in the wagon and thought there was a boy sitting between them. That was all. The men never returned, and neither was the “What-Is-It?” seen afterward in that part of the country. All the explanation anybody ever got was that a gorilla had escaped from a circus showing about fifty miles away, and that some of the circus hands were searching the country for him. The two strangers were probably looking for their lost pet, and they found him and thought it best not to give any information.
Baltimore [MD] American 4 November 1917: p. 4
What do you think? Does this strike you as factual? The tone is quite sober for Quad/Lewis. Discounting the “500 men,” there does not seem to be much exaggeration. Yet no real details of locations or names are given and you have the tired “animal escaped from the circus” motif. Oddly, the “peculiar whistling” is a motif that sometimes arises in more modern stories about Bigfoot.
There is surprisingly little about Quad/Lewis on the internet. I went back to the papers to see if anyone had any comment about Quad/Lewis’s accuracy. Under the heading “Striving Always for Variety” I found this encouraging statement:
“M. Quad,” said one of the Detroit editors to me [photographer Frank G. Carpenter] last night, “is one of the best detectives in Michigan. He knows all about the cases that come before the police here, and he has a wide knowledge of all classes of people.” Pittsburgh [PA] Dispatch 26 April 1891: p. 20
But then, just as the last em-quad was set and the form locked, some search algorhythm clicked and up popped a lengthy article on how Quad/Lewis got into newspaper work. The narrator is novelist Robert Barr [1849-1912], a Scottish-Canadian author based in Windsor, Ontario, who contributed stories to the Free Press while Quad/Lewis worked there:
“He could make an interesting story out of something that would degenerate into a list of names or worse in other hands. But he wasn’t particularly strong on facts….One of the most remarkable of these specials appeared the day after the great railroad accident at Ashtabula [The Ashtabula Bridge Disaster.] The special told the personal experiences of an old man and his wife who had survived the catastrophe and had been interviewed in Detroit on their way home by the correspondent. The story was nothing less than a human document. It related the sensations of the couple as they went down with the bridge, of their terror as they disappeared under the ice in the frigid waters of the creek, of their struggle to the surface, of the burning cars and the dual peril—fire and water—that threatened all hands, of their ultimate rescue, of the scenes about the wreck and of the kindness of strangers to them. No other paper had half so absorbing a story of the wreck and the correspondents of all the other sheets were brought up with a round turn by their managing editors for missing the old couple. There was one point about the story that none of the fault-finding editors knew of, however—there wasn’t a grain of fact in the whole thing, the old couple and their thrilling experiences being creations of Quad’s imagination….
“He used to be constantly on the lookout for good pegs to hang his long and picturesque telegraphic fiction on. And on one occasion he got all ready to write an account of an expected execution in Canada, not far from Detroit. He didn’t propose to see the execution, his intention being to supply the details from his own Imagination.
“But, working through the Free Press, I managed to have the proposed victim of the law reprieved, and so he wasn’t executed. The day after the reprieve, Quad said to me, almost with tears in his eyes, that I had played him a low-down trick. Then he asked me a lot about the lay-out of the jail in which the condemned was imprisoned.
“I gave him the information, and a day or two later the New York paper he wrote for printed the most extraordinary special it had had from Quad for a whole year, in brief. It told how the condemned murderer, on the night before the day for the hanging, had opened his cell door in his sleep and walked to the end of the corridor with measured step.
“There he had gone through the motions of mounting a flight of steps, had bent his head as if to receive the death cap and afterward the noose, and then had jumped Into the air, strangled, as if actually hanged, afterward falling down apparently lifeless.
“All this was witnessed, the dispatch said, by a jail attendant, who was rendered speechless with horror by what he saw. The special continued with the statement that the man believed himself dead on regaining consciousness, and for a long time would not be convinced otherwise. At the wind-up it was stated that a broad black mark was found round his neck, as If he had actually been hanged, when he was taken back to his cell. ‘Scientists may scoff as they will,’ runs the concluding sentence, ‘but this is fact and it is exciting much comment here.’ “The story attracted no end of notice, not only among the people at large, but also among those who thought themselves thinkers. One, a professor in Yale college, wrote elaborately to show how it was quite within the scientific possibilities that the man’s belief in his own execution could actually cause a black mark around his neck. Moreover, the sheriff in charge was severely reprimanded by the Canadian minister of Justice for allowing the cell door to be left unlocked. Had Quad told me why he was asking about the lay of the jail, I’d have told him that the cell doors were always locked and that no condemned murderer could get out into the corridor at night.
“The sheriff asked me to help him disprove the story and I took him to Quad for advice, without explaining that he was the correspondent. Quad gravely read the account he himself had written and the letter from the minister of justice.
“‘It’s all a frightful shame,’ he cried with tears in his voice, ‘and I don’t wonder you want a denial printed. But really you shouldn’t have any such thing done. You are a man of some dignity—the highest official in your county, and you can’t afford to pay any attention to a low down, scoundrelly scribbler like the fellow who did this. It would be sadly infra dig. Just say nothing and hold your head high.’
”The sheriff agreed to this, and that’s why the story was never denied.”
Omaha [NE] Daily Bee 25 February 1900: p. 17
Is there a moral to this discursive post for those of us who mine the papers of the past? Distrust and Verify? Watch out for humorists? (as we’ve seen recently with stories about psychotic traits in comedians.) I’ve mentioned the problem of journalistic ethics and standards of truth in all of the books in my “Ghosts of the Past” series. We like to think we have higher standards now, but this kind of thing certainly did not stop with the vintage press. Think Janet Cooke and her 8-year-old heroin addict.
Must we have a bio and a psych eval of the author in order to weigh the bona fides of any strange tale from the 19th-century press? Sometimes I despair of the whole business. Anyway, what I thought might be a Fortean scoop has, right before going to press, been killed. You’ll excuse me, as my trust in humankind shattered, I’ll just go make a cup of tea and stare out the window at a bleak and hopeless world.
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.