As in my previous three posts on mystery beasts (mammals, insects, birds), I warn the reader that I am not a scientist–in this case, an ichthyologist. My fish-identification skills are, at best, those of an enthusiastic piscivore. The more experienced aqua-spotter may well find it easy to identify these mystery fish of the past, which, we are often told, baffled even experienced mariners. (And which so often have duck bills and legs that it seems a hoax red flag….)
As with the previous monster beasts, we find the creatures described as composite entities—made up of different animal parts like Jenny Hanivers or Feejee Mermaids. It was probably not the intent of the witnesses to suggest fraud. I suspect that many of them, when confronted with an unknown, described it as best they could by citing body parts from different animals. Still, given the odd patch-work of some of these descriptions, hoaxes must always be considered.
Although some of these mystery fish are described as sea serpents or sea monsters, I’ve tried to avoid the traditional humps in the water and periscope-necked sea creatures in favor of the more unusual. You will see that the term “fish” in this post refers to many types of aquatic creatures. Grab your net and let us wade out into the sea of historic mystery fish.
An Aquatic What Is It? A curiosity which didn’t blow in with the wind, but which was caught with hook and line at Matanzas inlet, Florida, is in the possession of Mr. Joseph R. Casey, of this city. It is described as having the body of a fish, the wings and legs of a fowl and the tail and face of a monkey, while the bill is like a duck’s and is hard. A number of persons have tried to say to what department of animal life it belongs, but its owner has classified it, to be safe, under the general name of “Miss McGinty.” Sun [Baltimore, MD] 11 January 1895: p. 6
“Miss McGinty” was a character in the farce Miss McGinty of the Comedie Francaise, a kind of Eliza Doolittle, transformed by her teacher. I assume this reference implies that the creature was also a patch-work creation.
A small fish with four legs was caught in the harbor by a native last Monday morning, which is certainly the most singular specimen of natural history we have ever observed. It is a little larger than a frog, about three inches long, and its feet, which are evidently used to walking on the bottom of the sea or for swimming, are webbed like a duck foot or perhaps seal. In shape it resembles the short sun-fish pictured in natural histories and has two teeth quite prominent. It has a dorsal fin and also a tail.
Its color is dark brown with spots. We have noticed in the United States papers that Prof. Agassiz has lately received from the California coast a fish with four legs. As no description of that is given, we can form no idea whether this resembles that one. It can be seen at Dr. Judd’s drug store. [Honolulu paper.] Deseret News [Salt Lake City, UT] 27 May 1857: p. 94
AN AQUATIC CURIOSITY A singular marine animal was brought to this city to-day by Captain Johnson, of the sloop Susan Brown, who has just returned from a fishing tour to Roanoke Island and other waters. It is of very strange conformation, measuring about ten inches in diameter, with ten horns surrounding a round hole through which it sucks its food. It possesses large eyes, wide apart, close to the roots of the horns. The back is of hard, gristly coating, and at each side, near the tail, are flaps which answer as the propelling power. Nothing of its kind has ever before been seen by our oldest fishermen or ancient mariners, many of whom have curiously examined it. Washington Star. American Traveller [Boston, MA] 18 September 1869: p. 1
A Mysterious Fish
There is a story here something akin to that old one of the presence of the sea serpent. It is vouched for, however, by over twenty-five people, nearly all of whom are Philadelphians. They started out in the sloop yacht Neptune, Samuel Gale, captain. Capt. Gale tells the story of what happened in this way, and he is borne out by everyone who was on his boat: “We were about half a mile from the sea buoy when a monster fish, or whatever it might be called, came up just ahead of us. I was at the wheel and had not time to change the course of the Neptune. In less than forty seconds we struck it with full force. The great fish sank out of sight and we rode on. It made the timbers of my boat shiver, and some of those on board were frightened. Ten minutes later, while I was making a tacking turn, we met the mysterious fish again, and again it struck us. I tried then to catch hold of it, using a skid that can be used something like a small harpoon. It evidently reached it, but without effect. The monster simply turned lazily in the ocean and was under water for some minutes. Twice afterward before we recrossed the bar we ran across it. It had a big, brown looking head, with large protruding eyes, and I should judge would weigh 1,200 or 1,500 pounds. It was about six feet in length and was very broad. I have never seen anything like it in the fifteen years I have handled the Neptune. I don’t believe in sea serpents, but I don’t want to meet this monster again.” Cor. Philadelphia Press.
Wisconsin State Journal [Madison, WI] 13 December 1889: p. 7
One recurring theme is the description of the mystery fishes as having heads like dogs or, most often, like bulldogs. The barking and hissing might be a clue that the creature is a pinniped.
A Monster of the Deep.
The strangest creature ever seen in these waters was captured in the Delaware River at Burlington by Charles Wooden and Charles Adams while they were fishing for shad. It was about six feet long, with a large head, shaped like a bulldog’s, and an immense mouth, furnished with two rows of sharp teeth. The head is attached to the body by a long sinuous neck, and the small and deep sunken eyes are protected by long lashes. The body, which gradually tapers to the tail, is covered by a short, fine fur, and two short, imperfectly formed legs, with webbed feet like those of a duck, are attached just below the neck. The tail is peculiarly formed, having four blades exactly like the screws of a propeller. The strange creature was captured with difficulty. It fought hard, and, uttering a noise that was half hiss, half bark, it seized an oar in its mouth and crunched it to splinters. A strange odor, resembling musk, was emitted. Repeated blows of a hatchet disabled the animal and enabled its capture. Philadelphia Record. Repository [Canton, OH] 13 May 1889: p. 8
A SEA SERPENT THAT BARKED
Chasing Four Trustworthy Persons Who Saw its Black Hair and Horns.
Monument Beach, Mass., Aug. 16 Charles H. Pierce, Capt. David E. Ginlet, H.E. Founce and William Vaughan of Hartford, Conn., four young men who have been camping along the shores of the bay, relates the following exciting story of their journey across from New Bedford to Wing’s Neck light: “We left New Bedford Monday at 1 o’clock p.m. in the yacht Josie, accompanied by our sailing master, Capt. Walter Briggs. When two miles off the south end of Bird Island light, at the entrance of Buzzard bay, one of the company called our attention to a singular looking object about half a mile ahead and some points off our port bow. Our captain called it a sea horse. Again, he thought its movements in the water did not resemble those of any fish he had ever seen.
“We soon ascertained that whatever it was it was propelling itself at a fearful rate of speed through the water, and making almost a straight line for our little craft. When within a few thousand feet of us it seemed to raise its immense body, or neck, some ten feet out of the water, and, at the same time, twenty feet in the rear, its tail was seen to raise up, and at times lash the water. All at once the fish or serpent vanished from sight. For over ten minutes we sailed along, and were near the black buoy not far distant from Wing’s Neck Light, when looking back, to our horror and dismay, we observed the mysterious fish again making direct for our boat at a most rapid rate. When within twenty-five yards of our craft it partly disappeared, but in an instant was seen to shoot out of the water with a sort of humming or hissing sound, and with a distinct bark like that of a dog. Then it dove again and was lost to sight. The length of this mysterious fish was twenty-five or more feet. Its body was about two feet in circumference, decreasing regularly toward the point of the tail, when it seemed but the size of a child’s wrist. Its color was a dark gray, but resembling that of the back of a crocodile. The belly was a bright yellow, with dark red spots scattered here and there, while its tail was covered with short, thick black hair. The head resembled that of a bulldog. Great flat ears were distinctly seen on either side of its ugly jaws, while two extremely long feelers or horns protruded, just over the ears. The eyes were sharp and fiery. It is said that a similar creature was seen in the bay two years ago. The members of the party are all trustworthy persons, and vouch for the truth of the narrative. New Haven [CT] Register 16 August 1882: p. 3
This next article introduced a strange mystery, which is supposedly “solved” in the second article, published a year after the first, but which raises more questions than it answers.
ANSWER WHEN IS A BULLDOG NOT A BULLDOG? NEAR SCOOBA
Persons Who Glimpse Strange Aquatic Creature Offer Various Theories, and Efforts to Kill It Are Unrewarded.
Scooba, Miss., Nov. 5 The mystery of the strange occupant of J.L. Dudley’s millpond still is unsolved. Its “brindle bull-doggish” face continues to appear and cause much speculation regarding its identity. Many persons continue to call it a “wild bulldog,” but although it strongly resembles one, it most certainly is not one, they assert.
Everyone has a theory regarding it, but the latest is it is an alligator-seal. This theory has not been accepted generally.
Dictionaries and encyclopedias have been searched from cover to cover for a description of some animal that has a bullet-proof hide and looks like a bull-dog. No such animal has been listed, it appears. In the meantime the “wild bulldog” continues to have his share of fun, seemingly, from the attempts that have been made to capture it dead or alive.
At times during the past few days it would walk out on the bank, looking warily to the right and left, and when a shot would be fired and the bullets would plow into the water or ground it would turn, wink derisively at the men seeking to kill it and then saunter into the water.
The negroes of the neighborhood are beginning more and more to regard it as a “hant” and talk earnestly of needing chill tonics, as they are afflicted with chills. There is much talk of seining the pond when the present excitement occasioned by the Rosenbaum trial in De Kalb subsides. This week most of the men of the town and country will be in attendance at the trial.
Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 6 November 1919: p. 7
The follow up article was in very bad condition so it was difficult to transcribe—hence the gaps. Why was the alligator not even mentioned in the first article? It seems a little too pat—like the wild animal who escapes from the circus train wreck explanation.
KNOCKOUT GIVEN MYSTERY OF ‘BULLET_PROOF BULLDOG’
Strange Water Animal in Dudley Millpond Near Scooba Proves to Be Alligator That Was Pet of Small Boy Until It Heard Call of the Wild.
Scooba, Miss., Nov. 4. The “bulletproof bulldog” mystery has been solved.
Three years ago Knox Dudley, the little son of Mr. and Mrs. J.L. Dudley of Scooba, received from a friend in Florida, a baby alligator. The weather was excessively cold and a warm pen with a [illegible] basin of water was pressed into service for it. As the alligator grew larger, members of the family decided that Mrs. Dudley did not care for [illegible] in the house, so the box was placed on the back porch. And the first night it disappeared. No trace of the saurian could be found so it was thought that the hogs had eaten it.
For months the alligator was not thought of, and then the people [illegible] stirred over the report that a creature resembling a bulldog was occupying the Dudley mill pond. Crowds [illegible] and endeavored to capture or kill it. The animal resisted [illegible] pond and cunning [illegible] all efforts to get near it were unsuccessful. No [illegible] for what it was could be reached before it disappeared in the pond late last spring, but citizens came to the conclusion that it must have been the alligator that was killed near Porterville a few months later.
Part of the theory was proven later to be correct; part of it was exploded. The “bullet-proof bulldog” has reappeared, an unmistakable alligator, very much alive and very determined to get something to eat, observers say. Geese on the plantation that always regarded the mill pond as their especial property and general [illegible] made a stampede, rushing with flapping wings and terrified quacks if they find themselves in the mill pond locality for the former pet, now grown to three and a half feet, has shown itself to be extremely fond of goose meat. Its taste, however, is not cultivated, as it is equally fond of dog meat, and more than one dog, intent on quenching his thirst and cooling its heated sides after a [illegible], has met death between the alligator’s strong teeth. Often the saurian uses its short legs to advantage in traveling about the plantation, doing most of its traveling at night. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 5 November 1920: p. 4
Singular Fish. The semi-monthly meeting of the Academy of Sciences was held last evening. After the minutes of the previous meeting had been read, a singular fish was presented to the academy. It is a queer fish, indeed; a sort of a cross between a cat-fish, a dog-fish and a dolphin and a sea devil. It has teeth, a horn, fins and legs capable of being doubled up and concealed when it is necessary. It was caught in the ocean, near the Cliff House, on Sunday last, and is not very common, and certainly not one that will ever become a favorite with those who love chowder.
Professor Davison exhibited a similar fish, which, he stated, had been caught off the mouth of the Cheets River, Oregon, in October last, where it had been thrown up by the surf and was secured before it could return to the water. He stated that it was a savage fellow, and when captured blew a cloud of spray from two holes in its snout, and when a stick was placed in its mouth it would seize hold of it and hold on with sufficient tenacity to permit of its being raised from the ground.
Professor Blake stated that a similar fish had been caught in European waters, and was there known by the name of King Herring, from the fact that it was always found with a shoal of herring. San Francisco Bulletin, Nov. 22 Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 15 December 1870: p. 3
The usual fish known as the King Herring is an oarfish–that long, silvery, serpent-like, deep-sea fish with a crest. This doesn’t appear to be the same creature.
A singular Fish was found upon the beach at Newport, R.I., a few days since, which was entirely unknown to all who saw it. In length it was about a foot, in form something like a mackerel, though with considerably less bulk; in color it was a dark bluish-green upon the upper part of the back and the sides and body were white, with no scales. The head was long and tapering and ended in a bill resembling that of a snipe, and about the same length. It was sent to Professor Agassiz. San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 22 January 1856: p. 4
A Sea Monster.
The latest appearance of the marine gyastacus [sic] was in the Saguenay River, down the St. Lawrence. A veracious newspaper correspondent writes:
The Saguenay seems to be a favorite ground with New Yorkers and gentlemen from the South for camping, and hundreds of them are coming to enjoy the fishing. Some native fishermen employed by one of these parties as guides started out last Monday and had not gone far before they heard an unearthly noise, neither roar nor screech, but of a nature wholly unknown. In fear, they put back hastily and reported the strange occurrence, but no further attention was paid to it, until in the middle of the night the same bellowing or roaring was heard again, and louder than before. This continued at intervals during the night and in the early morning six men put out in a small boat to investigate. At a short distance down the stream a great commotion was noticed on the top of the water, and the same strange sounds appeared to come from the spot. Every nerve was strained to the highest pitch as the oarsmen bent their oars in their eager haste to reach the strange object. In a few moments they were near enough to discover that it was a huge sea monster, about ninety feet in length, with a black head like a shark, a shining white body, and a tail divided into three long portions that lashed the water into foam for many yards. Scarcely had they time to view the singular fish, when the monster was seen approaching them. It was a fearful moment and full of danger. There was not a minute to be lost, and the boat was put about at once and never did oars fly faster. It was a race for life and was not won until after the exertion of almost superhuman strength; but at last a safe landing place was reached and the boatmen hurried up the bank in hot haste to tell the strange tale to their friends. It was a half hour later when they returned to the shore, but the monster had gone and was nowhere seen. Tis tale reminds one of a “fish yarn” or the perennial sea-serpent story; but as it is vouched for by Judge Thorndike and ex-Collector French of Baltimore, I have no hesitation whatever in accepting it. New Hampshire Sentinel [Keene, NH] 19 August 1885: p. 1
Sometimes the mystery is where the fish is found—did this next fish arrive in a solo fish-fall?
A Singular Fish. On the morning of Friday last (after a heavy southeast rain storm during the night), a lady of Brockton [MA] found in the yard of her house a singular looking fish, apparently but a short time from the water, as all parts were perfect and fresh. No one could give the name of the fish and it was brought to Boston and taken to the Natural History room and there identified as a porcupine fish, peculiar to the coast of South America, and very seldom found in northern latitudes. How it came so far inland is a question for the scientific to decide. The fish can be seen at the Natural History rooms, Boston. Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 1 February 1878: p. 2
Singular fish. Some fishermen in Enswarth Harbour, Eng. Lately caught a fish called the “Lioness.” The resemblance it bears to that animal is in its claws and the roar of its voice. With a mouth full of teeth, its tongue like a Newfoundland dog’s, the tail spread like a fan, and, when expanded, is ten inches wide. It has been brought to Portsmouth for exhibition.
Weekly Recorder [Chillicothe, OH] 27 July 1820: p. 397
WHAT IS IT?
A Strange Fish Caught in the Upper Hudson
It Has Two Wings and Four Legs
While hunting along the Hudson River near Pleasure Island, Michael Grilla, an Italian storekeeper, of Troy, saw swimming on the surface an object which he supposed to be a turtle. He fired and hit it, and when he dragged the creature ashore he was amazed. He had never seen the like before. He brought it to Troy and hundreds have visited his place, but none can tell what it is. It is about two feet long in the body, and its back is covered with coarse hair. The underside is of the color of human flesh, and the features and trunk bear a striking resemblance to a female child. It has a well-developed chest and breastbone. There are wings measuring twenty inches from tip to tip, four legs, two fins and a tail somewhat resembling a pig’s. Several doctors have examined it, but are at a loss to place it. The monstrosity has been placed in alcohol and will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. As it hangs against the wall at Grilla’s with the underside exposed, the visitor is impressed with the grotesque human features. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 26 September 1891: p. 13
This sounds very much like a skate cut up to make those “grotesque human features.”
The next story has a Fortean flavor of teleportation.
Strange Creature in Aquarium
Louis Hirsch, a dealer in gold fish, whose residence is at 1823 East Wishart street, yesterday afternoon found swimming in a large aquarium, which he has at his home, a strange looking creature, which he has asked scientists to examine and give their opinion as to whether it is a fish or an animal. Hirsch declares that it has four legs. The toes are not webbed, he says, but the thing swims as expertly as one of his gold fish. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 5 May 1911: p. 6
I wish this item wasn’t so ambiguous. Did the creature just suddenly appear in the aquarium?
This next item might fit more aptly in my post on mystery reptiles, but I include it here anyway.
FOUND STRANGE CREATURE
Superintendent M.E. O’Brien of the St. Joseph fish hatchery, who knows more than any other man in this locality about eels, fish, lizards and all the finny and web-footed tribes that inhabit the waters of the earth, has run fairly against a puzzle in the peculiar personality of an inhabitant of Big Lake, which the fish man “landed” in the pools of the State hatchery yesterday.
O’Brien has been a student of fish culture for a great many years, a part of the time in the employ of the general Government, for a term of years as a member of the Nebraska State Fish commission and more recently as superintendent in charge of the propagation of fish at the local hatchery. In all his experience he says that he has met with no species of fish, turtle alligator, eel or lizard as fearfully and wonderfully made as is the specimen whose habits he is now studying.
The “what-is-it” that is puzzling the fish man is of seventeen and one-half pounds weight and is twenty inches in length. It is built somewhat on the plan of the alligator of the Southern Everglades, has four legs, a head and mouth similar to that of an alligator, and teeth like those of the voracious inhabitant of the swamps. It is a vicious fighter and snaps spitefully when molested. Its snakelike eyes suggest that it may be poisonous and high degree of caution is observed in the care of the Big Lake monster, which, while resembling the crocodile in many particulars, differs from it in that the “what-is-it” is covered all over with scales like those of the buffalo fish, has a finny tail and webbed feet, which suggests a relationship to the duck. Without ears, the odd-looking fish or lizard appears to hear perfectly , and the interesting study of sound waves affecting forms of animal life not equipped with organs of hearing is one in which O’Brien is now absorbed. St. Joseph (Mo.) Cor. Chicago American. Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 24 October 1904: p. 8
A strange creature, caught off Bermuda, just placed in the aquarium at Battery Park, New York. It is over six feet long, formed like a snake, head like that of a turtle, fins like a fish, and a long bill for a mouth. Mansfield [OH] News 2 July 1902
Fishy mysteries continue to the present day in Lake Erie, which is known for a lake monster jauntily dubbed “South Bay Besse” after the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio. In 2001 something in the lake was biting swimmers.
Fish Attacks Three Erie Swimmers
Port Dover. Dr. Harold Hynscht has a medical mystery on his hands. He treated three patients recently who suffered major bites on their legs after swimming in Lake Erie beside the Port Dover pump house.
All were in about a metre of water when the attacks occurred.
Hynscht, a diver with extensive knowledge of aquatic life, is at a loss to identify the animal that caused them.
The bites were not minor. Six inches separated the wounds inflicted by the top and bottom teeth, suggesting the animal has a large mouth.
“That’s a big, honking fish,” Hynscht said.
The doctor has ruled out round gobies, lamprey eels, snapping turtles, walleye and other muskellunge-type fish as well as piranhas, which are sometimes released into the wild after they get too big for their aquariums.
The only species that seems plausible, Hynscht said, is the bowfin, primitive, aggressive fish that protect their nests up to nine weeks after spawning.
“One of the consistent elements of the stories I’ve heard is that it happened so fast they hardly had time to react,” Hynscht said.
“Whatever is doing this is doing so because of territory. It’s not doing this because it’s hungry.”
Hynscht is trading information and theories with a wildlife biologist in Toronto in an effort to determine the attacker’s identity. London [Ont.] Free Press 12 August 2001
A Singular Fish. The Kansas “State Record,” of the 21st instant, says:
“Mr. J.F. Newell, who is at present stopping with Judge Holmes, brought with him from Denver a strange fish. It is about six inches long, and has a wide head like a cat fish but the body is more like that of a lizard. It has fins and a tail like a fish, and in addition short legs and claws. When taken out of the water it can crawl along on the ground. It was taken from a fountain in Denver, but how it got there is a mystery, as the pipes leading into the fountain are not large enough to admit it. It is probably a fish constructed expressly for ‘drouthy’ countries, and so constituted that when ‘leaf by leaf the roses fall, and drop by drop the springs runs dry,’ it can fold up its fins, curl its tail over its back, a la yellow-dog, and wait for a ‘rise’ in the river.” Alexandria [VA] Gazette 29 October 1870: p. 2
There was caught in the waters of Sandy River, in this county, a few days ago, one of the most singular fishes perhaps on record. The fish, from the mouth to the end of the tail, is something near 24 inches in length—but what is most remarkable, from the mouth projects a bill, similar to a duck’s, that measures 14 inches, or over half the length of its body and tail. It has six rows of gills on each side of the swallow, and its eyes are quite diminutive and placed nearly in its mouth. The head (or bill) of this strange fish can be seen by calling at our office. Jeffersonville (Va.,) Democrat Easton [MD] Star 25 September 1849: p. 1
The last received Memphis Enquirer gives an account of a buffalo fish, fourteen inches in length, with but one eye and no mouth, deriving its sustenance through the gills alone, which has been caught in the Mississippi at Memphis. Daily Herald [New Haven, CT] 11 March 1839: p. 2
Let us finish with a truly mysterious fish:
The trick of placing an “invisible fish” in a store window to attract attention is by no means new in the United States, but it is interesting to learn of it through foreign channels. Our friend, Fritz Mayer, of Hamburg, Germany, sent the following newspaper quotation to Mr. F. H. Stoye, who, between chuckles, translated it:
The owner of a restaurant in America whose business was very poor had an unusual idea for an advertising stunt. He placed a glass aquarium in his window in which, by the aid of a hidden arrangement, continuous bubbles arose. Next to the tank he placed a large sign reading, “Herein are the first INVISIBLE FISH from Brazil, the only ones ever to reach the United States.”
The tank was a phenomenal attraction; his restaurant was jammed at all times, for everyone wanted to find out about the mysterious fishes. Many claimed they had seen them plainly in the aquarium.
We do not doubt that there are those who declare they saw the fish. The only “fishy” part of the story is that the exhibition jammed the restaurant with customers. Freak displays seldom produce anything but “window shoppers,” even among Americas, who have the reputation of liking to be humbugged. Aquarium High Lights, Consisting of Reprints of the Most Popular Articles from the Monthly Magazine, The Aquarium, Since 1932. Re-edited by the editor William T. Innes, L.H.D., Philadelphia, PA: Innes Publishing Company, 1951, p. 371
Identifications or thoughts on aquatic enigmas? Ice, then preserve in a jar of formaldehyde and send to 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. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.