As a child I was frequently parked at puppet shows in the meeting room of a local department store while my mother shopped. Most of the time the puppets were the usual kiddy fare, but occasionally they included ghost and skeleton puppets which disarticulated themselves as they danced to what I remember as “Fossiles” from Saint-Saens Carnival of the Animals and which were sent swinging out over the heads of the audience. (Woe to those in the front rows!) I found these inexplicably frightening.
Skeletons, of course, are the ultimate symbol of Death. As mentioned in my previous post on Fearing the Reaper, the medieval image of Death was a skeleton with a scythe. Like the Grim Reaper, skeletal apparitions are relatively rare in collections of supernatural tales. I’ve collected a few stories of dry bones walking: a young woman living in an old farmhouse in Champaign County, Ohio one night saw a skeleton walk into the living room. “It looked like a person in a skeleton halloween costume; I could see a black outline around the bones.” The creature’s mouth opened and made an “O’ of surprise. Then it threw up its hands, startled. “It jumped. I jumped. We both turned and ran.” A child in a Trumbull County house in the 1920s saw an animated skeleton, literally in a closet, while playing hide and seek. Drivers on US Route 40 in the 1950s were terrified by what looked like a luminous skeleton driving a car.
Judging by the numbers of people which the papers of the past reported as being frightened nearly to death by “walking” skeletons or skeletal ghosts, I was not alone in my fears of the skeleton puppets. Skeleton pranks were common both among medical students and just for pure devilry. Here is a story both comical and visually unsettling, which conveniently covers two fears at once: the Devil and Death as personified in the skeleton.
Found Beneath an Old Japanese Temple and Smuggled Out of the Country.
A TERRIFYING CREATURE
Representation of His Satanic Majesty as the Japanese Understood Him.
TO SERVE THE PRIESTS’ ENDS
Interred with a Description of the Alleged Manner of his Death.
The devil is dead. Not only so, but his remains have been shipped to New York and are to be seen today in a cooperage establishment in Water Street.
The remains of the devil were smuggled out of Japan at the risk of the lives of several men who confessed that they stood in fear of the personage whose bones they were attempting to carry to this country. To be plain, there was found some years ago, in the ruins of a Japanese temple, a grave in which there were the bones making up an apparently perfect skeleton of gigantic proportions and altogether strange and hideous in appearance, which, according to an inscription found above the tomb, constituted nothing less than the remains of His Satanic Majesty, as the Japanese understand him.
A doctor in Yokohama to whom news of the discovery was brought succeeded in obtaining possession of the astonishing skeleton, and in time conspired with the captain of a tramp steamer which visits New York and succeeded in having the dead devil forwarded to this city.
As Miller & Sons, who now have the skeleton devil in keeping, have much to do with shipping men, Captain Williams, of the steamer Argyle, decided to place in their possession the seven foot box in which the skeleton was contained.
When the box was opened a few weeks ago and the straw and strange wrapping paper removed, Mr. Miller found an apparently perfect skeleton of some creature of giant stature. The box was only seven feet long, and in order that the giant bones might be accommodated, those of the thighs and legs had been placed beside the rest of the skeleton. To begin with, there was a terrific head. The skull presented a frontal bone almost a foot across, showing eye sockets of astonishing size, a square jaw like nothing that anatomists know, and a mouth fully six inches wide garnished with twenty-eight teeth, which were closed and interlocked, and of astonishing size and sharpness. New York Herald 22 September 1895: p. 4
Another, longer version of the story above continues:
Altogether the effect was truly terrifying. The head was articulated to the vertebrae, and the spinal column was almost five feet in length, to which ribs of tremendous proportions and a sternum of immense strength and size were joined. The skeleton was apparently complete from the skull to the end of the pelvis. Beside it were placed thigh and leg bones, which it seemed at first glance must have belonged to some monster of the guerilla [sic] species.
The legs apparently had been of the short and tremendously powerful order, which New Yorkers have seen in the Central Park menagerie when Chico [a chimpanzee] was alive and imprisoned there.
The foot was fully fourteen inches long, and had but three toes, each of which, in addition to being of enormous length, was furnished with an almost claw-like nail. Its appearance, therefore, was between that of the human foot and that belonging to a bird of the ostrich species greatly exaggerated.
Some attempts had been made to rearticulate the skeleton, for the knee joints were furnished with modern couplings of brass and the bones were really ready for mounting….
On Friday last I succeeded in interesting Dr. William J. O’Sullivan, the medico-legal expert, in the death of the devil and the discovery of its remains, and in inducing him to visit the Miller cooperage and inspect the bones.
Dr. O’Sullivan was at once pleased and astonished. He examined the bones with great care, then he said: “Here is something which, while it has been manufactured with an art which the Japanese only possess, will excite great interest among the archaeologists in this country….
“There are some human bones here, some which belong to the equine and bovine families and some which I think have been those of birds and fishes. The head is the crudest piece of workmanship in the whole thing.
“We are ready to laugh at the Japanese or at any one else, for having believed in a devil whose image they could create, or to laugh at any one else who, upon discovering anything like this was ready to believe that it represented the remains of a demon, or of some creature which inhabited the mountains of Japan in the old days.”
Then the professor laughed. “And yet,” he said, “here they have some evidence of the devil, and I believe that a great many among us talk of and fear the devil of which we have no evidence whatever.
“It is impossible to speak precisely of these bones, which are in a measure, disguised by the art of the person who placed them in their present form. At a glance I should say that the ribs and vertebrae were those of some animal of the bovine species. The sternum, for instance, is apparently that of one of the grazing tribe.
“This foot, with three toes, is apparently that of some bird, like the ostrich. You can see that where the manufacturer has found it necessary to elongate a bone he has covered the place with a skin, which now presents a dried appearance, but which is still sufficient to hide the patch. The skin resembles that of some member of the shark family. The mouth is plainly artificial. Here, for instance, there are twenty-eight teeth. Some of them, I should say, are those of horses of a certain age, or at least of some member of the equine species.
“Altogether it is a most interesting relic of the demonology of Japan, and demonology, you know, is older than theology….” Los Angeles [CA] Herald 6 October 1895: p. 22
The creature might have been an oni, a Japanese horned demon. Shinto does not have a version of Satan, although there is a belief in Buddhism and Shinto that evil spirits can possess individuals who must be exorcised. There is also a Buddhist personification of evil called Mara and a deity named Emma-O, the King of Hell, whose minions are the oni. Neither seems to have the scope that the Christian Devil has. The notion of a Japanese legend about killing the Devil is a puzzle.
Writer Lafcadio Hearn in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan tells of seeing exhibits of similar wonders and curiosities:
Some of the most extraordinary beliefs of old days are kept alive in Izumo and elsewhere by what are called in America “travelling side-shows;” and the inexperienced foreigner could never imagine the possibilities of a Japanese side-show. On certain great holidays the showmen make their appearance, put up their ephemeral theatres of rush-matting and bamboos in some temple court, surfeit expectation by the most incredible surprises, and then vanish as suddenly as they came. The Skeleton of a Devil, the Claws of a Goblin, and “a Rat as large as a sheep,” were some of the least extraordinary displays which I saw. The Goblin’s Claws were remarkably fine shark’s teeth; the Devil’s Skeleton had belonged to an orang-outang,—all except the horns ingeniously attached to the skull; and the wondrous Rat I discovered to be a tame kangaroo. Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, 1907
Japan was noted as one of the leading producers of Feejee Mermaids and other composite creatures. While, apparently not uncommon in Japan, this skeletal Satan is a unique export as far as I know. But it reminds me of a similar, ingenious production that was made in the U.S.A., to a fell purpose, as I previously quoted in my post on the macabre mirth of past Halloweens.
FATAL END OF PRACTICAL JOKE
Rochester, NY, Nov. 1 The authorities of Allegany County are looking for the persons who manufactured a skeleton out of animals’ bones which frightened Mary Oldfield of Karrdale to death last night.
Miss Oldfield, accompanied by two friends, was returning from a Halloween party, where they had listened to grewsome stories until their hair stood on end. When about to enter the woods a rattling of bones was heard overhead, and looking up, the trio were overcome with horror at seeing a skeleton of gigantic proportions sweeping down on them from above. With a cry of terror. Mary dropped dead.
A searching party found a wire leading from the ground to a tree top, to which was attached a skeleton by a pulley. New York Times 2 November 1900: p. 5
Any other Japanese Devil carnival gaffs? Fatal skeleton pranks? Explanations of a Japanese legend about killing the Devil? Send on a pulley down a zip-wire to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
You’ll find more 19th- and early 20th-century stories of ghosts and apparitions in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past. Available as an e-book for Kindle and in paperback at Amazon and other online retailers. Ask your local library or bookstore to order copies from hauntedohiobooks.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.