By Loren Coleman
This article appeared in the November 2000 edition of FATE.
Reports of hairy, humanlike creatures comparable to the legendary Yetis of Tibet are older than American history. In a study published in The INFO Journal in 1970, Mark Hall and I noted: “A vast folklore and a belief in a race of very primitive people with revolting habits is found from northern California up into the Arctic lands themselves. This tradition covers not only the whole stretch of the Pacific Coast, but much of the rugged territory to the east, even into Greenland. Generally, these subhominids are described as very tall, fully haired, and retiring. Sometimes they are described as carnivorous.”
First nations’ folklore and cultural artifacts (such as masks, totem poles, and carvings) exist in abundance, demonstrating the prehistoric knowledge of these creatures.
Native accounts discuss these half-men with words peculiar to each linguistic and tribal group. Among Euro-Americans, early reports talk of these beings with words such as “wild men,” and, later, “gorillas.”
The first known written account of such a creature in western America dates back to 1811 and appears in the journal of one David Thompson, surveyor and trader for the Northwest Company of Canada. But accounts from the eastern U. S. appear soon thereafter. In fact, the oldest North American newspaper account appeared in the Exeter Watchman of New York on September 22, 1818.
The item reported the sighting of a “Wild Man of the Woods” near Ellisburgh, New York, on August 30, 1818. The creature was said to bend forward when running, to be hairy, and to leave footprints showing a narrow heel with spreading toes. These were followed by reports of smaller, hairy, child-sized creatures seen in Indiana and Pennsylvania in the 1830s. Beginning in 1834 in Arkansas, a giant wild man was seen by many people in the Ozarks. The Memphis Enquirer of May 9, 1851, reported on one of the later Arkansas sightings of the previous March, noting: “This singular creature has long been known traditionally in St. Francis, Greene, and Poinsett counties, Arkansas sportsmen and hunters having described him so long as 17 years since.” The wild man was said to be of gigantic stature, hairy, and with shoulder-length hair on his head. The manlike beast reportedly stared at those in pursuit, ran away very quickly, and leapt 14 feet at a time. Footprints found measured 14 inches long.
Sightings of these hirsute hominoids have continued up to the present day. Researchers have attempted to standardize the names used. The term “Neo-Giant” has been used by Ivan Sanderson, Mark Hall, and myself to describe creatures observed in the western part of the country, including the Pacific Northwest’s “Sasquatch” (a name coined by Canadian journalist J. W. Burns in the 1920s) and the now very popular “Bigfoot” (a moniker first used by Bluff Creek construction workers and widely disseminated by California newspaperman Andrew Genzoli in 1958). But something else is haunting the East.
Today, practically every state and province in North America has logged its share of so-called “Bigfoot” reports. In the past several years sightings have increased dramatically, and probably will continue to grow. From the 1960s through the 1990s, sightings of these “Bigfoot” increased in many parts of the continent, but the ones in the eastern U. S. and Canada are some of the most problematic in mysterious America. Something different from the classic or traditional Neo-Giant is being seen. Could a different regional subspecies, or even varied species, be responsible for these sightings?
Show-Me State’s Weird Corner
Northeastern Missouri has had its share of mysteries. “Momo,” as the monster of July and August 1972 was called, is only the most famous. Along River Road, which stretches north from Highway 54 along the Mississippi River and past the mouth of the Salt River, there is a longstanding tradition about a phantom man who walks across the road and vanishes. In the 1940s, travellers and residents repeatedly heard what sounded like a woman’s screams emanating from the general vicinity of an abandoned lime kiln. The screams always came around midnight; they were never explained.
In addition to recurring reports of fireballs or spook lights, there have been a number of mysterious deaths in the area. The strangest of all occurred during the winter of 1954, when a man and a woman were found dead in a car along the roadside. The woman sat on the passenger side and seemed to be asleep. The man lay crouched under the steering wheel completely nude, his clothing piled neatly 20 feet behind the car. The coroner listed the deaths as caused by “asphyxiation” even though the window on the driver’s side was open all the way-this in ten-degree-below-zero weather.
Stinky, Gurgling Freak
Joan Mills and Mary Ryan were not on River Road that day in July 1971, but they were not far from it. Highway 79 is a backwoods road which runs north of Louisiana, Missouri, a place that would achieve a measure of immortality in Fortean annals a year later. Mills and Ryan had taken the highway on their way back to St. Louis because they were looking for a picturesque spot for a picnic. When they found a promising spot, they turned off on a dirt road, put out a blanket, and brought out the food. “We were eating lunch,” Miss Ryan recalled, “when we both wrinkled up our noses at the same time. I never smelled anything as bad in my life.”
Her friend suggested they were smelling a whole family of skunks. Suddenly her jaw dropped and she pointed toward a brushy thicket behind her companion.
“I turned around and this thing was standing there in the thicket,” Miss Mills said. “The weeds were pretty high and I just saw the top part of this creature. It was staring down at us.”
Miss Ryan added, “It was half-ape and half-man. I’ve been reading up on the abominable snowman since then, and from stories and articles, you get the idea that these things are more like gorillas. This thing was not like that at all. It had hair over the body as if it was an ape. Yet, the face was definitely human. It was more like a hairy human.
“Then it made a little gurgling sound like someone trying to whistle underwater,” according to Miss Mills.
The hairy creature stepped out of the brush and proceeded to walk toward the young women, who dashed for their Volkswagen and locked the doors. The beast, continuing to gurgle, caressed the hood of the car and then, in a clear demonstration of intelligent behavior, tried to open the doors.
“It walked upright on two feet and its arms dangled way down,” Miss Ryan stated. “The arms were partially covered with hair, but the hands and the palms were hairless. We had plenty of time to see this.”
The women were terrified — all the more so because Miss Mills had left her car keys in her purse, which she had abandoned outside in the flight to the safety of the automobile. “Finally,” said Miss Mills, “my arm hit the horn ring and the thing jumped straight in the air and moved back.” She kept on beeping the horn.
“It stayed at a safe distance, then seemed to realize that the noise was not dangerous,” Mary Ryan said. “It stopped where we had been eating, picked up my peanut butter sandwich, smelled it, then devoured it in one gulp. It started to pick up Joan’s purse, dropped it, and then disappeared back into the woods.”
Joan Mills ran out of the car to retrieve her purse and returned to roar on down the highway at 90 miles an hour. Once back in St. Louis, the two women submitted a report to the Missouri State Patrol.
“We’d have difficulty proving that the experience occurred,” Miss Mills wrote, “but all you have to do is go into those hills to realize that an army of those things could live there undetected.”
This was a dramatic enough introduction to the events scheduled to erupt exactly one year later. Joan Mills and Mary Ryan were due to have their story confirmed in startling fashion.
The “Momo” (“Missouri monster”) scare began on Tuesday, July 11, 1972, at 3:30 p.m. on the outskirts of the city of Louisiana (pop. 4,600). Terry Harrison (age eight) and his brother Wally (age five) were playing in their yard, which sits at the foot of Marzolf Hill. The two boys had gone off by some old rabbit pens in the woods next to the Harrison property. Suddenly, their older sister Doris, who was inside, heard them scream and looked out the bathroom window. She saw something standing by a tree: “Six or seven feet tall, black and hairy. It stood like a man but it didn’t look like one to me.”
The thing was flecked with blood, probably from the dead dog it carried under its arm. Its face could not be seen under the mass of hair covering it, and it seemed to be without a neck.
The Harrisons’ dog got very sick shortly after the incident. Its eyes grew red and it vomited for hours afterwards, finally recovering after a meal of bread and milk.
That same afternoon Mrs. Clarence Lee, who lives half a block away, heard animal sounds: growling and “carrying on something terrible.” Not long afterwards she talked with a farmer whose dog, a recent gift, had disappeared. He wondered if the “monster” had taken it.
On July 14, Edgar Harrison — Terry and Doris’ father and a deacon in the Pentecostal Church — conducted the regular Friday evening prayer meeting at his house. Around 8:30, the meeting began to break up. As Harrison and a dozen or so members of his congregation lingered, talking, they sighted two “fireballs” soaring from over Marzolf Hill and descending into the trees behind an abandoned school across the street. The objects appeared at five-minute intervals. The first was white and the second green.
About 9:15, Harrison heard ringing noises such as might be caused by the throwing of stones onto the metal water reservoir which stands at the top of the hill. The reservoir, which holds a million and a half gallons of water, is in an area where neighborhood children often play. After one especially loud ring, Harrison reported, “I heard something that sounded like a loud growl. It got louder and louder and kept coming closer. At that time my family came running from the house. They began urging me to drive off.
“I wanted to wait and see what it was that was making this noise. My family insisted that I drive away, and so I drove down Allen Street across the Town Branch.
“I stopped the car and my wife and family told the congregation, ‘Here it comes!’ And those forty people turned and ran down the street.”
Police officers Jerry Floyd and John Whitaker went to the Harrison home. They searched the residence but found nothing.
Late that evening, Harrison, along with several others, explored Marzolf Hill and came to an old building from which a pungent, unpleasant odor was emanating. Harrison subsequently described it as “a moldy, horse smell or a strong garbage smell.” This was not to be the only time he encountered the odor — in the days ahead, he would find it whenever he approached an area from which the strange noises seemed to be coming.
Around five o’clock the following morning, Pat Howard of Louisiana saw “a dark object” walking like a man cross the road near the hill.
On the 19th, Police Chief Shelby Ward led a search through Marzolf Hill, accompanied by Harrison, State Conservation officer Gus Artus, and 17 others. Nothing was uncovered.
But the next day Richard Crowe (a reporter for Chicago’s Irish Times and for FATE Magazine) and Loren Smith went up the hill with Harrison for another look. Near the tree where Doris had seen the monster, Crowe wrote, “There was a circular spot in the brush where leaves and twigs had been stripped from the branches.” Further along Crowe found evidence that someone or something had been digging in an old garbage dump, and not far away Harrison showed him two disintered dog graves with the bones scattered about.
Higher up the hill they came upon two tracks some distance from each other. The first, over ten inches long and five inches wide, appeared to be a footprint; the other, five inches long and curved, was evidently the print of a hand. The prints had been made in hard soil (there had been no rain for ten days), and Crowe estimated that it would take a minimum of 200 pounds of pressure to create such impressions.
Harrison led Crowe to an abandoned shack which Harrison thought might serve as a resting place for the monster. While they were there, Harrison’s dog Chubby suddenly ran away; “Then,” Crowe wrote, “we smelled an overwhelming stench that could only be described as resembling rotten flesh or foul, stagnant water.”
“That’s him, boys!” Harrison exclaimed. “He’s around here somewhere.” They shone their flashlights through the surrounding trees but saw nothing. In the distance they could hear dogs barking furiously. (While the monster was about, dogs would refuse to go up the hill, but would run up and down the street in agitated fashion.) Within five minutes the odor had subsided.
Harrison, Smith, and Crowe smelled it twice more before the night was over. On Friday, July 21, Ellis Minor, who lives along River Road, was sitting home alone around 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. when he heard his bird dog start to growl. At first, Minor thought the stimulus was another dog passing through the yard, but when the dog growled again, Minor snapped on his powerful flashlight and stepped outside-where he saw a six-foot-tall creature with long black hair standing erect. As soon as the light hit it, the thing turned around and dashed across the road, past the railroad tracks and into the woods.
Read more of Loren Coleman’s work in FATE’s The World’s Strangest Stories, available at the FATE Store.