Creature Feature: A Query of What-is-its

An engaging feature of the papers of the past is the monster story. Some monsters or, to give them their pet newspaper name, “what-is-its?”, are genuine puzzles for the witnesses. I did a whole series on “Mysterious Beasts” a couple of years ago, trying to ferret out cases where creatures could not be identified by their captors. Some of these might easily be given their proper taxonomy by some keen-eyed zoologist examining the animal’s description. Other monsters are Silly Season flights of fancy, although you will notice that only one of the articles below was published during the summer months.

Our first “what-is-it” probably falls into the “identifiable” category, although I’m not sure how a large marine mammal found its way into Lake Erie.


Long, Silky Hair, a head Like a Sea Lion’s and Front Tusks

Painesville, O., June 6. Mentor Plains, four miles west of this city, comes to the front with a sea serpent story. Knaff Brothers have two fishing pounds in the lake near that place, and a few nights since Henry Knaff, James Malone and Ed Proudfoot went out in a boat for the purpose of inspecting the pounds. The moon was shining brightly, and on nearing one of the pounds, a strange looking serpent or animal was seen swimming about endeavouring to climb over the edge of the nets. It is described as having large, snake-like eyes, was covered with hair that glistened in the moonlight like silk, and was fully thirty feet in length. In a nearly successful effort to get out of the net it was seen to have front feet. It kept the opposite side of the pound from where the boat lay and kept its head constantly above the water. The head is described as resembling that of the seal or sea lion, but more tapering towards the end of the nose. It was decided not to raise the net and on going to the pound the next morning the marine monster had made his escape, probably by climbing over the net. The Plain Dealer reporter obtained the particulars from Henry Knaff of the firm of Knaff Brothers, who is a truthful young man with no disposition to exaggerate. Cleveland [OH] Plain Dealer 7 June 1887: p. 3

There were many “what-is-its” of alien aspect. This creature suggests an owl—except for the lips and teeth—which suggest a certain journalistic license.


From the Goshen Patriot of Dec. 7.

Something curious. Two or three weeks ago, as several persons were at work on the land of Mr. Joshua Tuthill, in the neighorhood of Goshen, one of them discovered a strange creature on the ground, where a tree had just been felled; its singular appearance somewhat shocked and terrified him, and he hesitated about touching it, but pointed it out to another person near him, who immediately took it in his hands and examined it, and from him we have received the following description. Its head was about the size of a walnut, and bore a perfect resemblance to the head of a child, with nose, mouth, lips, teeth, and chin; the head was covered with fine hair—the neck was very short—the body was like that of a bird, about two inches long, also covered with fine hair; it had wings, which when extended might measure eight inches, from the end of one to the end of the other—they were supported by a bone running through them the thickness of a pin—they were of a remarkably fine skin, of a greenish colour; the body was brown, and also the hair on the head; it had neither legs nor feet; the lips and teeth were uncommonly beautiful—the former very red and the latter very white—there was no appearance of any feathers or down about it. It had probably been hurt by the falling of the tree, as it seemed to struggle to breathe with difficulty.

Perceiving it unable to fly, our informant laid it down on the ground, and went to call a third person, who was at work some distance off. But before they returned, it had recovered its strength, and flown away, much to the regret and mortification of those who had had it in their power or preserve it. The person who first saw it, and who remained near the spot at his work all the time, says that when it flew it uttered a scream, very similar to the cry of a child. Such is the relation of our informant, who is an aged and respectable citizen among us, a man of truth and veracity, who has read much, and seen much of the world—who handled the object with his hands, and saw it with his eyes; and who unhesitatingly declares that he has never read of, seen, nor heard of anything of the kind before. Vermont Intelligencer [Bellows Falls, VT] 20 December 1819: p. 4

Frankly this next creature sounds like the Ananais Club was giving out a prize for “Monster with the Largest Variety of Body Parts from Dissimilar Species.”


Mountain People Alarmed and Fortifying.

[Jonesboro (Tenn.) Flag and Advertiser, 14th.]

A gentleman recently from the Shelton Laurel District of North Carolina, some forty miles from this place, informs us that the people in that “densely thicketed” country are greatly excited in regard to the appearance, upon several different occasions and in several different places of a huge mountain monster, the species of which is unknown. Mr. George Anderson, one of the gentlemen residing in the Laurel country, being one of the persons who saw the monster, also furnishes us with the following description of it:

“I was out in the jungle hunting up some lost hogs, when all of a sudden there came into my path a beast, the appearance of which, I must confess, caused me to quake for the first time in many years. Aside from its strange and unusual appearance, the unearthly yell it uttered on perceiving me, which reverberated and reverberated through the forest, was enough to shake the senses of the most daring adventurer. The animal was some hundred yards distant from me, and appeared to be a huge black bear with mane and head like a lion, but had horns like an elk upon it. Its tail was long and bushy, with dark and light rings around it to its very extremity. Its eyes gleamed like a panther’s, and its size was that of an ordinary ox, but somewhat longer. Just previous to making its appearance I had shot off my gun at a squirrel, and felt little prepared to meet such a ferocious beast without any weapon of defense. I immediately set about reloading my rifle, but had scarcely begun when it started toward me. I retreated in as good order as possible and must say I did some good running—not looking back until I had reached an open spot, when I found the animal had disappeared in the laurel thicket. This is no story, Mr. Editor, gotten up to scare naughty children. I am not the only one who has seen the monster. Several have seen it since I did; and, as sheep and calves are lately missing, it is presumed to be a carnivorous brute. Many have fortified their homes to prevent a night attack from the strange monster, the like of which was never seen in these mountains before. Some think it has escaped from some rambling menagerie, while others superstitiously think it is sent to warn the people of some great approaching danger. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 February 1873: p. 3

Some mysterious creatures may have been pranks, like this vicious wer-sheep. The sheep/polar bear description hints of a fleece costume, although the thing may have merely been a shape-shifting Pennsylvania wool-boggart.


Residents Say Uncanny Animal Appears to Be Half Man, Half Beast.

Philadelphia, Dec. 2. These are sleepless nights in Upland.

A wild creature, which, according to eye-witnesses, is half man, half beast, has literally terrorized the borough. No one ventures out after dark without a club or lantern, and the more determined carry guns. The perturbation of the residents is such that they are ready to shoot first and investigate afterward. This, they say, is the only way to tackle such weird game.

As no one knows whether the thing is human or not, residents speak of the creature as “it.”

Tales told by those who have been cuffed and chased by “it” are more uncanny than “The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow,” or “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Judging by the descriptions gathered yesterday from a score of persons who saw the creature it has a body like a bear and a head like a man. Its eyes glitter like hot coals; its voice is sepulchral and changes rapidly to thunderous tones, and it can run like the wind.

Aroused by the actions of the creature, which chased their sisters and sweethearts, the football team of the Upland high school and a number of citizens, armed with clubs and guns, descended last night upon the woods at Summit avenue, intending to surprise the thing in its lair.

The searchers spread out in a circle and then closed in. In the heart of the woods they found a small bonfire and the remains of a meal, but the mysterious creature had disappeared.

Among those who have been chased by “it” are Albert Murphy and Horace Kemmerle. Murphy said: “The thing jumped out in front of me as I was walking along Summit street. From the quick glance that I took the thing looked like a polar bear with a man’s head. I didn’t stop to investigate, but ran home as fast as I could. The thing followed me for a short distance and then suddenly disappeared.” Walter Dunkirk said it chased him while he was walking along Concord avenue. “It looked like a sheep and walked like a man,” he said. “It struck me on the neck and I felt as if I had been struck by a thousand needles.” Horace Kemmerle, who was chased along Providence avenue by “it,” said that the creature looked like a sheep with a man’s head. He didn’t stop to make a minute examination.

Policeman Harry Beals, who is the entire force of Upland, said yesterday: “This thing has been seen on Summit and Providence avenues and those places are on the beats of the Chester police. I have been keeping my eyes open, however, and the first glimpse I get at the thing, I’ll run it down anyhow.” Duluth [MN] News-Tribune 3 December 1906: p. 6

Our last “what-is-it” is an excerpt from The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past.  This Thing always gives me a shudder. It sounds like a creature from a painting by Bosch—The Haywain, perhaps.

Some might picture this as a walking shock of cornstalks; I see it as a spidery heap scuttling into the road.

A clerk of William Talbottom, of Macon, Ga., while returning from the residence of his sweetheart last Sunday night was attacked by a ghost. His horse suddenly became frightened and turned to one side of the road. Something like a pile of cornstalks, but with hideous face, was coming right toward him in the middle of the road. He could not discern any feet or legs, but he heard a thunderous tramp. He drew his revolver and fired five shots at the object, which neither spoke nor moved, but would not yield the road. So he gave it a wide passage, laying whip to the horse, and got into town so frightened that he has not slept or eaten since. Juniata Sentinel and Republican [Mifflintown, PA] 20 March 1889: p. 2

The “What-is-it” is so much a feature of nineteenth-century journalism that it needs its own collective noun. I propose a “Query” of “What-is-its.” Other candidates? chriswoodyard8 AT

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 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.

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