by Len Faytus
The Beast of Bray Road first came to light in southeastern Wisconsin when The Week ran an article by Linda Godfrey on the last Sunday of December 1991. The article described a werewolf-like creature that had been recently seen on Bray Road just east of Elkhorn, north of Lakeland Hospital and the old county poor farm and insane asylum.
Almost immediately, it became the topic of local conversation which commonly led to jocular speculation by armchair theorists that it was the result of a strange experiment at the county hospital. Others felt that the logical answer was an escapee from the insane asylum which had been closed for decades or a deformed dog or coyote that walked on two legs. The sheriff’s department suggested the latter as the most reasonable explanation of the phenomena. For numerous reasons, that particular theory was the most ludicrous suggestion of all.
Dozens of witnesses claimed to have seen the werewolf throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Sightings were especially concentrated on Bray and Bower roads, Highway 11 between Elkhorn and Delavan, and La Grange Township, all in Walworth County. The beast was also seen, however, in a large twenty-five mile belt, a wide corridor stretching from Geneva Lake to the small city of Jefferson, 32 miles to the north. Some sightings were reported in Rock County to the west. To the northeast, the beast was sighted throughout the Kettle Moraine State Forest area and into Waukesha County and as far as Holy Hill in Washington County. The entire area alternated between farmland, dense woods, and impassable swamps.
Linda Godfrey, the premiere beast expert of Wisconsin, reported that Mark Schackelman had seen the creature twice at St. Coletta, which was a Catholic convent east of Jefferson, in 1936. It was messing around with an ancient burial mound and he stated that it was “straight out of hell.” The Hebron area in Jefferson County was also a hotbed for sightings.
By most accounts, the Beast of Bray Road was man-sized at 150 to 200 pounds, standing 5 to 6 feet tall when erect. Witnesses described it as being covered in fur, barrel chested, with a wolf-like face with pointed ears. It possessed a bushy tail and canine legs. The beast was seen eating road kill, chasing down deer, and actually kneeling.
Showing little fear of humans, the creature eerily stalked witnesses on several occasions in a menacing fashion. Reportedly, it had high shoulders with a downward sloping back like a hyena when it was on all four legs and could glide both swiftly and smoothly on four legs. Surprisingly, it was also observed walking and running quickly on two legs. As a biped, the werewolf’s gait was odd but not ungraceful. It was powerful, and the beast was not just nocturnal as it was also seen during the day.
Similar sightings have been reported in states such as Michigan, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia where it was known by different local names. In Tennessee, there were reports of its violent appearance in the 1800s. Native Americans called it Windigo. The fairly recent appearance of the Chupacabra and its subsequent sightings, appear to almost describe the same animal, especially those reported in historic times.
The Beast Makes an Appearance in Geneva Woods
With all the recent sighting of the werewolf in southeastern Wisconsin, you may wonder if the creature is of recent vintage or was the animal also sighted in the past by early pioneers? The answer is that it was indeed seen in the region in earlier times and was first documented in 1857.
The affair took place eight months before the county’s first murder when Richard Pierce had shot and killed David Hamilton at a small charivari outside of Whitewater. Pierce had retained two lawyers for his defense, Asa W. Farr of Geneva and 26-year-old Newton S. Murphy. Murphy lived at the Whitewater Hotel across from the train depot and kept an office on Center Street, Whitewater, at the Metropolitan Block. The defense lost the case at the trial and Pierce was given a life sentence. More important for us however is the correspondence that Murphy received from his brother F. S. Murphy in June 1857.
The letter described strange events that had recently occurred in Geneva Township, which was located 17 miles southeast of Whitewater and 6 miles south of Bray Road. There had been an unusual occurrence at the 64 ¼ acre homestead of 33-year-old John Deignan. The farm was one mile east of what is now Schofield Road on the north side of Highway 50, on the edge of the large and then still wild Geneva Woods, between Como and Geneva lakes.
The forest consisted of old growth oak that had occupied half of the township, encompassing some 18 square miles. At one time it surely covered some 200 square miles and was first described in 1831 by Mrs. John H. Kinzie who accompanied her husband and a small party from Fort Dearborn to Fort Winnebago. Somewhat provocatively, Geneva Lake, which was called Kish-wa-ke-ta, roughly “crystal water” by the Potawatomie, was known as Big Foot Lake by early settlers. The name hints of Sasquatch but actually and much less mysteriously referred to Chief Big Foot. He had migrated to western Kansas with his entire village from the headwaters of the lake, now Fontana, in 1836.
The Strange Abduction of Catherine May Deignan
John and his wife, 31-year-old Ann Flynn Deignan, had emigrated from Ireland and were just starting their family. Their daughter Catherine May was born in nearby Bloomfield Township a few years earlier on April 23, 1854. Her younger brother John was born in 1856. The family’s frightening experience began late in May. At the time, the homestead was still surrounded by forest. On Friday morning, May 29, three-year-old Catherine was seized from the threshold of the Deignan home by a large and ferocious looking animal which had emerged from the shadows of the woods.
It immediately took off with the girl, heading back towards the dense cover. The frantic screams of her mother caused the fierce animal to drop Catherine after she had been carried some 50 to 100 feet. Incredibly, this was the second time that the animal had appeared and taken the girl. On Tuesday morning, May 26, it had come out of the woods and snatched Catherine from the front yard of the homestead. The animal had succeeded in carrying her about 88 yards into the dark woods, in spite of the efforts of John and Anna to rescue their daughter, before it reluctantly let her go.
The animal that had twice grabbed the girl had been seen several times that spring by neighbors but always at a distance. Their isolated farms, which were hacked out of the forest, were surrounded by large tracts of woods. They did not know what kind of animal it was but recognized that it had little fear of humans. People that had not seen the animal firsthand assumed it was a bear, based on the descriptions given by the terrified family.
Eyewitnesses did not identify it as a bear, however. Furthermore, Murphy’s letter to his brother implied that the creature grabbed the girl up in arms rather than by its mouth. The neighborhood was both alarmed and agitated by the event. Subsequently, a large party of determined township men hunted for the creature beginning on Wednesday, May 27, looking for its lair, but did not meet with success.
They planned to capture it if it was still in the area, which in 1857 meant that they planned to kill it. The sly creature unfortunately proved to be quite elusive. Kate, who survived the harrowing ordeal, never married. She died at Lake Geneva on the morning of January 15, 1896 of consumption, outliving her father by 12 years. Interestingly, her younger brother John who was alive during the abductions had died in 1889. The last person to witness the abduction firsthand, Anna Deignan, died on April 25, 1902. The farm remained in the family until the early 1990s.
Another Early Appearance of the Beast
On November 5, 1869, a very similar strange looking animal was seen by farmers, east of Janesville, on the Delavan Road, now Highway 11. It had been seen for a few evenings and was described as being very ferocious. It had fearlessly attacked some large and rough farm dogs. From appearances, the local farmers suggested that it looked like it was capable of quickly devouring a good sized boy. Once again, non-witnesses proposed that it was also a bear, a suggestion scoffed at by those that had seen it.
Other Rare Animals
People of the nineteenth century generally knew a bear when they saw one, especially rural folk. In the late 1830s, early pioneers had shot numerous black bears in the area, some quite large. A real bear was spotted in Perry Township, Dane County, a few times over a 12-day period in 1866. A dozen men were organized to capture it and on a drive on September 30, Ole Halverson shot it with a .58 caliber Minnie ball, from an army musket. The bear weighed 400 pounds.
Other uncommon animals also wandered into the area on occasion. On the afternoon of July 29, 1867, August Hager, a 43-year-old Prussian, killed a large wildcat in some bushes near the Crawfish River bridge, about one mile from Jefferson, with two shots. It was three feet long and two feet tall. Three men, Lorenzo Dow Abbey, 48, his brother-in-law William Carnes, 44, and son-in-law James M. Burnham, 33, killed an enormous lynx with the help of a couple of boys including 13-year-old George Abbey on June 22, 1868.
The boys had seen it cross an open field on the William Harnden farm in Hebron Township, Jefferson County, just 16 miles north of Bray Road. Dogs were used to pursue it and after a severe fight with the dogs it took to the trees. Shot had no effect onit and it took a rifle slug to the head to capture him. He was 5 ½ feet long, measured 2 feet 9 inches high, and had black tasseled ears. Although the bear, wildcat, and lynx had not been native to the area for decades, the farmers knew what they were and never described them as strange unknown creatures.
Early Mention of Bigfoot
The creature was more than likely not a Bigfoot type creature either. Bigfoots had been seen periodically in the Midwest and were not described as strange creatures but as large hair covered wild men. One sighting appeared in the Jefferson Banner on July 15, 1868. The paper stated that another wild man had been seen, in this case, on the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan. The wild man was 8 feet tall, covered in hair, with a heavy brow. It was explained that the wild man was probably a 4-year-old boy that had grown up there. There was a rumor that he was lost there about 20 years earlier. Plainly, people of the era attempted to rationalize what was seen.
Wolves, Cougars, and Weirder Things
Curiously, several animals have made reappearances in the area in recent years. Lone male wolves that were eradicated since WWI have been seen, albeit mainly found dead on the highways. Black bears also occasionally lumber down from the north. An image of a bear was captured near Delavan in 2011 and authenticated. I myself saw a dead cub on Highway 12/18 in 2010 a few miles west of Cambridge in southeastern Dane County.
More than one cougar has been sighted in this part of the state too, verified by the Department of Natural Resources. In addition, a half dozen years ago, there were many reported sightings of the more paranormal black panther along Turtle Creek within the eastern city limits of Beloit, 27 miles to the southwest of Elkhorn. The creek, surrounded by dense woods and undergrowth, flows from Turtle Lake, midway between Whitewater and Delavan. Many of the witnesses were credible. One witness in those sightings was a Beloit schoolteacher.
I accompanied an APHIS wildlife specialist late in January 2009 on his niece’s Watertown Township farm. The federal specialist was investigating the slaying of a horse named Ginger. A second mare, Big Mama survived the predawn barnyard attack, 50 yards from the farmhouse. In that case, the agent determined that that it was an example of canine, possibly wolf, depredation.
The Wisconsin DNR, on the other hand, remained convinced that the culprit was a rogue cougar. Interestingly, a lone set of canine tracks were found at the scene. While the prints were definitely large enough to be wolf tracks, the gait was more like that of a domestic dog. While no plausible explanation was forthcoming, the incident did have elements to suggest some other creature was involved.
The Watertown affair seemed strangely reminiscent of another incident described by Godfrey that also occurred in Jefferson County, over three decades earlier. In that event, which took place near St. Coletta in 1972, a creature had been seen walking in a barnyard. Two weeks later it had caused pandemonium at the farm by shaking the screen door and leaving a 30-inch slash wound in a horse’s neck. It was investigated at the time by the DNR. Accounts of that creature tended to suggest it was a Bigfoot rather than werewolf.
Both of the above mentioned incidents involved physical confrontations with an unknown predator and possessed elements more related to the Deignan affair than to most sightings. The majority of Beast of Bray Road encounters were not physically aggressive although, many times, the animal was aggressive in nature. Many witnesses have reported to be frightened or threatened during their encounters but were not actually attacked.
The Beast of Bray Road was indeed actually seen by early pioneers, who attempted to hunt it down after it snatched up a young girl. The pioneers were quite skilled in woodcraft but were unable to kill it, not surprisingly. Undeniably, the werewolf is never seen by the large numbers of modern hunters that traverse the country side during deer season either. No lair, hair, or other evidence has ever been discovered.
Skeptics propose that for these reasons the beast does not exist or is the creation of hoaxers. The idea that it is a hoax would imply logistics over a great length of time that would be unsustainable. A prankster, furthermore, would be risking being shot by a 30.06 or 12 gauge slug for his or her efforts in this mostly rural area. Not much fun and definitely not worth the risk. Perhaps the answer lies more in the paranormal although when it is seen ,it appears to consist of real flesh and blood. Not that the creature really cares what humans believe anyways. It is as resilient as the Jeepers Creepers bat-like monster of movie infamy that was also described as coming “straight out of hell.”