This is the first in a series on mystery creatures—not necessarily the usual sea serpents or wildmen so often reported in silly-season stories—but beasts that were described, but not, as far as I know, identified. Often they were called “What-is-its,” “Wangadoodles,” “Nondescripts,” or “Whatzits.” Some of these may be journalistic hoaxes. Many may simply be out-of-place animals. I am not a zoologist and I haven’t got a clue. I fully expect that some of you will snort derisively and say, “Oh, that was a far-from-home coypu—anyone with half a degree in taxonomy could see that.”
I report; you do the formal scientific description.
So here, beginning with what appear to be mammals and in no particular order, is part one of Mystery Beasts. Future installments will include birds, insects, aquatic creatures, felines, and reptiles.
A MYSTERIOUS ANIMAL
Some animal with sharp teeth has been lurking about the hills of Sutton for several weeks, and has a good deal annoyed some of the farmers in that town. It first attacked a man by seizing his coat tail, but didn’t do any damage to the gentleman’s flesh, as the mutual fright of the two induced them to part company about as quick as they met. The next we hear it lacerated the legs of a fine colt belonging to Mr. King, in the west part of the town; and soon after that, it ran after two little girls near their mother’s residence, and frightened them almost out of their wits. Then it drove some cows away from a spring of water where they had gone to drink. But strange to say nobody can tell whether it is a ‘hawk or a handsaw.’ It is described by one man as a catamount; by another as a very like a hyena; others say it is a lynx, which is most likely true. But the people don’t know what it is, or how much they ought to fear it. The selectmen of the town have offered $50 for the head of the animal, but still its frightful screams are heard through the woods and near the residences of some of the farmers of the town. Last Saturday it was reported that a lynx had been killed the day before in the south part, near Quabin, but Monday morning, a young man direct from Quabin, had heard nothing of it.
So it is yet an unsolved mystery, and the easily alarmed don’t know whether they must look out for an escaped hyena from the caravan which lately passed through Douglas [the old “escaped from the Circus” story!], or whether a vicious dog is roaming among the hills and woods in the vicinity of Purgatory. National Aegis [Worcester, MA] 11 July 1855: p. 2
STRANGE BEAST SEEN BY ITALIAN PAINTER
Rome, Oct. 26. If the Italian painter, Professor Felice del Santo, is not the victim of his own imagination, the Spezia district is the haunt of an animal as strange in its way as the “sea-serpent.”
According to the story, the professor was the other day painting near the Castle of San Giorgia, when there suddenly stood before him a strange beast, about sixteen feet long, with a long trail and a head like a fox hound, with a heart shaped tuft upon it. After pawing the ground for a few minutes, the beast bolted into the thick wood. One or two other people claim to have seen it within the past year or two. Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 27 October 1907: p. 4
KILLS QUEER ANIMAL
Strange Creature Slain by E.A. Martin in Shandon
While in his back yard yesterday E.A. Martin of Shandon saw an animal about the size of a cat carrying dead grass and leaves and old paper under his house. He waited for it to come out and after some delay struck it on the head with a stick as it was running through some bushes.
The rodent was covered with coarse gray hair and had a short tail. The ears were small and lay close to the head, and the front teeth were long and sharp, somewhat like those of of a rabbit. The front feet had four toes each, while the hind feet had five toes. The animal was shown to several persons. Some thought it a gopher, others held it was a ground-hog, and various others confessed their ignorance as to its correct name. It was apparently burrowing in the ground for the winter. State [Columbia, SC] 8 October 1921: p. 3
A “What Is It?”
A Strange Animal Seen in the Hills Near Woodland
It is reported that a strange creature much resembling a gorilla, has been seen in the hills adjacent to Capay Valley, says a telegram from Woodland. The story is vouched for by more than one responsible man. It is said to be at least six feet tall when standing erect, travels on all fours, climbs trees and has wonderful strength in its hands. It has a shaggy covering. Much interest is excited over the find of this “what is it?” and an effort is to be made to learn more concerning it. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 11 April 1891: p. 3
WEIRD HARLEM WHAT IS IT
Squawked and Skimmed Around Dark Flats o’ Nights
The Thing has gone away from the homes of the Stahls, the Seipers, the Crosskills and the McDowells. At least they hope the Thing has gone. It was a pestiferous, night-waking, squawking, singing, chattering, skipping, impertinent, irresponsible Thing, and the tenants of the top flats of 277 West One Hundred and Fourteenth Street hope it will never come back. They don’t know what it was. They don’t care so long as it stays way.
It came the night after Christmas. The people in the Stahl-Seiper flat, top floor, west side heard it first. It chattered and woke Mrs. Stahl. She said “Shoo!” to it. It chattered out of the darkness all the louder. Mrs. Stahl did not feel warranted in getting out of bed without more definite information about the creator of the disturbance. It chattered away into the front room after a while and she lighted the gas, and the family and other families hunted for it with fire shovels, stove lid lifters, brooms and other domestic weapons. They found nothing at all. They searched high and low without any result at all. Some of the folks said that the Thing was not a material thing at all, but a mere Christmas dinner nightmare.
The next night the Crosskills, on the other side of the hall, had reason to withdraw their skepticism. At 2 o’clock in the morning chattering and scampering began in their own flat. They rose in force and lighted the gas. They saw the creature. It was, as they described it, the color of a mouse, but much larger than a mouse and smaller than a rat. It had eyes that glittered balefully. It traveled about the floor with frightful velocity, uttering a shrill buzzing sound that was almost musical. They chase it until it vanished into thin air. Then they told their neighbors about it.
A day or two later they heard that Mrs. McDowell, who has recently come into the house and with her husband and children occupies the east flat on the floor blow, had spent much of one night chasing an unnamed wild beast about her parlor and bed room. Its favorite place in the McDowell flat was at the head of Mrs. McDowell’s bed. Had it not been for the children and the fear that the Thing meant some harm to them, Mrs. McDowell says, she would have enjoyed the Thing’s song. It stayed about the house for three days, defying capture or injury.
Its last appearance in the house was last Tuesday. Mrs. Stahl waked the Seipers with loud alarms at an hour after midnight.
“Help!” she screamed. “The Thing is in the house again. Scat! Go away! Get out!”
The clans gathered at the door of Mrs. Stahl’s bedroom. She called on the Seipers to come in and save her life. Mrs. Seiper said she thought too much of her own life to go in. Who, she asked, would care for her orphan boy when she was gone? No! no! Much as she esteemed Mrs. Stahl she did not even think her husband ought to go in. It would be in their own rooms soon enough, she said, without his going after it.
Mrs. Stahl tells the rest of the story:
“And I sat up in bed and yelled for help, and the Thing it went off into the other room. And with that I lit the light and reached out and opened the hall door, so that it could get out. I felt safe in doing that, for I could hear it scratching around the far corner of the parlor. Then I got back into bed and leaned out and got hold of my shoes, so as to have some means to protect myself should the Thing pass my way again. It’s a wonder the police and the fire department didn’t come for the noise we made, me on the one side of the door and she on the other. So in the end her husband he came in and went out in the other room to look for the Thing. And I sat up in the bed with my shoe just waiting.
“First I knew it came; and it was so terrible and went so fast and made such a noise that I hugged my shoe close to myself and yelled for help, and forgot all about throwing it, and first I knew it was back in the other room again. It got under a screen in the back of the room and we all of us went in and got around it. But when we lifted up the screen it stopped yelling and wasn’t there. It must have gone out the door. Ever since then, every night, I’ve stuffed paper into the crack under the door and into the keyhole. The Thing has never left the floor to climb, but it might and I’m taking no more chances.”
Mrs. Stahl said she had no time to see what it looked like, except that it was about as long as her forefinger. Mrs. Stahl’s hands are quite small. She did think that it had wings or fins or something besides legs, although it never left the floor. Her brother-in-law told her that it was a very common insect known as the clocks. She really thought it was an insect herself, which, taking its size and rapidity of motion into question is all the more terrifying!
The janitor of the flat aroused the unlimited derision and contempt of everybody who had seen the beast by saying that is was a fledermaus, which is German for bat.
The ghost reporter of the Sun, who was called in consultation, found nothing to explain the queer visitations. He went to Dr. J.A. Steele of the Museum of Natural History, who knows all about animals. It seemed possible that the Thing was an animal known to science. There is no beast that crawls or runs or walks or hops or rolls that Dr. Steele doesn’t know all about. He took a cold, scientific view of the data which were laid before him. It was either a mouse or a bat, he says. His reasons may be stated in unscientific language by a transposition of the words of a popular song:
“It ain’t got nothing else to be.”
He justified this conclusion by saying that certain varieties of bats run with great speed and mice sometimes sing. Dr. Steele doesn’t believe in Things. The tenants of 277 West 114th street think that he is disqualified from judging the matter. They would like to know what sort of animal is gifted with the power to vanish into thin air. Anaconda [MT] Standard 6 February 1899: p. 10
I would be inclined to think this was a bat—they can squeeze through phenomenally small holes and cracks—but it seems to have been more vocal than some bats.
TERROR OF THE TOWN
A Strange Wild Beast That Can Easily Whip Two Men.
The farmers of Liberty Township, Ohio, are again thrown into a fever of excitement over the reappearance in their midst of some unknown wild animal that has been making that section its headquarters for a number of years, and has frequently been seen by hunting parties that have been organized form time to time, for the purpose of putting this terrorizing animal out of the way, and stop the wholesale slaughter of sheep, hogs and poultry that it has been carrying on for years.
Recently, as Mr. J.H. Dazy, a prominent farmer, in company with a neighbor was returning home they were attacked by the strange animal, which is described as being about six feet long and as all as a large St. Bernard dog, bushy tail and white head, while its body is of a brindle color.
The two men had a desperate fight for their lives and but for the timely arrival of assistance would undoubtedly have been killed. A party of nearly 100 men was at once raised and with the aid of hounds, the strange beast was tracked to what is known as the Black Swamp, a tract of nearly 3,000 acres.
The hunters were divided into small parties and two men whose names could not be learned routed the beast to of a large thicket, were both knocked down and terribly bitten and clawed, and were only saved frmm a horrible death by the timely arrival of some of their companions, when the animal again turned and sprang into the thickets.
The greatest excitement prevails in and around the city, and people are afraid to venture out unless in numbers, as it is know the animal can easily down any two men. The speed with which the animal covers the ground is something wonderful. It has a peculiar gait when it runs, something similar to the leap of a mink, and the great strides it makes when in motion makes it impossible for the fleetest hound to overtake it. Trenton [NJ] Evening News 27 December 1891: p. 6
This next creature certainly sounds like someone knew the classic description of the Jersey Devil as well as the story of the Devil’s Footprints from 1855 Devon.
A WHAT IS IT IN APPLEJACK SEASON
Creatures Has Two Legs, Hoofs and Can Run or Fly.
Woodbury, N.J., Jan. 19. Gloucester county towns are much excited over the finding of numerous hoof prints made by some strange animal not as yet classified or named by the local scientists.
Judging by the trail of the beast, without the additional verification of reliable eye witnesses, the creature is two-legged, with hoofs like a horse, has wings and is able to fly, possesses a remarkable form, so that it can crawl through a hole less than a foot in diameter, and is sufficiently catlike to walk on fences and over chicken coops that wouldn’t bear up a twenty-pound weight. So far, the trail of the animal has been followed through and about Swedesboro, Huffville, Manuta, Woodbury, Westville, the city of Gloucester and the village of Mount Ephraim. It is reported that the same tracks have been seen also in Haddonfield and Mount Holly.
Anyway, the hoof prints have been noticed in hundreds of places over a strip of country at least sixteen miles long and three wide.
Residents of these towns have been wondering over the marks of the strange hoofs ever since the snowfall on Saturday. The news has been slow in getting into the papers, because the editors were cautious, knowing that the applejack season in South Jersey is at its height. But the mystery is as yet inexplicable and for days scarcely anything else has been talked in Woodbury of the villages around.
Of course, the animal itself may have been wandering about for some time prior to Saturday, as there was no soft snow on the ground to betray its movements. Boston [MA] Journal 20 January 1909 p. 12
FEEDING UPON GRAVES.
A STRANGE BEAST IN OHIO
A FOUL AND FEROCIOUS CREATURE
Fostoria, Ohio, Jan. 22. The strange animal which has been desecrating graves in Perry Township, Wood County, has again been seen. A gentleman whose veracity is not questioned gives this description of the novel graveyard ghoul: its neck and breast are white, and the rest of the body is black: the tracks of its front feet are about eight inches long and three wide, making impressions in the snow with its claws about twice the length of a man’s finger. The tracks made by the hind feet are nearly round, and about the size of a large dog’s, except the claws, which are longer and sharper. The animal is about three feet long and eighteen inches high.
It burrows into the ground in the graveyard, and penetrating the coffins therein contained, devours the contents thereof. It travels with such rapidity that all attempts thus far to kill it have proved futile. The man who last saw the animal says it was in the middle of the road, having gone from a farm by literally tearing the fence to pieces. His dog gave chase to the beast, but soon returned scared almost to death.
The people living in the vicinity have frequently heard loud noises which are now supposed to have emanated from this peculiar, unnamed, unknown beast. The animal is said to be slowly working its way toward Toledo. New York Herald-Tribune 23 January 1884: p. 1
People more knowledgeable than I have suggested that this was a wolverine.
The latest addition to natural history here is a queer animal, half cat and half rabbit. The forequarters of the animal are those of a cat, and the termination those of a rabbit. The animal was found in the woods near Piqua, but is now as tame and playful as an ordinary civilized cat. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 6 December 1875: p. 1
STRANGE ANIMAL KILLED
CREATURE WHICH FRIGHTENED W. 14TH ST. NEIGHBORHOOD
LOOKS LIKE MONKEY, CLAWS LIKE CAT.
A mysterious animal appeared several days ago at the Pelton apartment house on West 14th St., coming down the flue and out upon a gas stove of one of the apartments. The women in the kitchen nearly fainted. The animal escaped and for several days roamed at large in the neighborhood.
Yesterday it was killed. The queer beast is said to have attacked a cripple who was moving along Siam Ave. S.W. Several men saw the odd looking little animal and took after it. The beast climbed a tree, where it snapped viciously at an inoffensive sparrow, killing the bird and devouring it. Louis Marten, who lives at Siam Ave. and Fulton Rd. S.W., picked up a rock and threw it at the beast, bringing it to the ground. Marten’s thumb was bitten before he killed the animal.
The little beast is queer looking. It has some of the characteristics of a monkey, but claws like a cat. It weighs seven pounds and has a tail two feet long. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 1 June 1906: p. 14 [This story and the one about the graveyard ghoul are found in The Headless Horror.]
In an article of jocular tone titled “Summer Has Arrived but Ohio Didn’t Wait To Feel the Heat” described a huge snake, an escaped monkey and a roving, 80-pound panther (actually caught) and this mystery creature:
“Tracks of a great beast—type unknown” came out of Cleveland yesterday as Mrs. Joseph Gyusrsa declared, “I wondered who had been messing around in my garden.”
There were 12 foot or paw prints that indicated: if the animal had four legs, it left three sets of tracks; if it had three legs, four sets of tracks; if it walked on its back two – or front two—six sets of tracks. The prints were two inches deep.
Warm isn’t it?”
The Lima [OH] News 22 June 1946: p. 1
Mystery Animal Shot in Pennsylvania
Pottsville, Pa. Remember “The Thing” everybody was singing about a while back?
Well, Lamar Thomson of Newtown, thinks he shot it yesterday.
It resembles a rabbit he said except that it has a pair of small horns and four tusks protruding from its mouth. Zanesville [OH] Signal 8 November 1953: p. 15 [A Jackalope?]
Mystery Animal Blamed in Death.
Painted Post, May 13 (AP) A 70-year-old farmer was found dead tonight and a state trooper said that the man may have died after being frightened by a mystery animal.
The dead man was Willis Robinson, of Painted Post RD 2. His body was found near a corner of a barn on his farm.
Trooper Robert Coveny said several persons told him they had seen a strange animal in the vicinity of the Robinson farm earlier this evening. One neighbour said he fired two rifle shots at the beast but that the animal ran into a woods, Coveny reported.
The trooper said it appeared that Robinson either encountered the animal as he rounded the corner of the barn or that he saw the beast from a distance.
Reports have persisted around this Steuben county area for about six weeks that a strange type of animal had been seen many times. Coveny said some persons who claimed to have seen the animal described it as a panther. Others insisted it was a wildcat. Syracuse [NY] Post-Standard 14 May 1952: p. 1
Despite this last story, I am surprised how often mystery animals are described as small and rodential, rather than large and ravening.
Any solutions to any of these mystery animals’ identities? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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.