Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Wild Men of Rockaway Beach

"Wild, Weird Man Scares Rockaway" trumpeted the November 29th, 1893 edition of the New York Herald, a suiting way to describe the uproar the community of Rockaway Beach experienced in the fall of that year. A strange wild man was stalking the town, attacking people in the neighborhood and breaking into homes to steal food. Mass panic seized Rockaway Beach, with rumors running wild that the beast was devouring children and fear among the residents due to the fierce nature of the wild man. The strange creature itself was described in the article as being "large of stature, weird in appearance, with fierce, bloodshot eyes, long, flowing, matted hair and a shaggy beard."

It was first seen a week prior to the article by two men, "Red" McDowell and George Farrell, who were in their boat near the Rockaway Inlet shore when the wild man appeared on the beach, yelling wildly and bearing an axe. The men rowed quickly away from the shore and watched as the beast entered the cabin of one Uncle Dicky, an old clamdigger who used the cabin as a summer home.

No mention is made of what happened after this, but the following evening John Louth witnessed the creature "skulking" in the trees while driving through Rockaway Park. The next day, while walking along the same road, his daughter Susie was attacked by what she described as a "ragged and tattered tramp", who knocked her down with a slap on the back and then ran away, issuing loud yells.

The wild man was not seen again until the Friday before the article's publication, when, in the author's own words, "he turned himself loose in dead earnest and nearly ran everybody out of the place". "Bill" Tweedle, a plumber by trade, was the first early on Friday morning, when he reported encountering the wild man, who grabbed his gun and knocked him to the ground, all while clutching a half eaten chicken. Later that morning, "Ned" Tracy also witnessed the beast on the beach, this time eating raw clams. The wild man again ran off, only to return that afternoon to attack John Corning, a house mover, and his assistant William McVay while both men were working near the beach. He descended upon them and hit them with his fists, forcing Corning to fight back and try to grapple with the crazied brute. The creature escaped with the aid of what the newspaper called an "oilskin coat" and dashed away towards Rockaway Point, escaping until that evening when it next attacked the wife of the Rockaway Chief of Police, Mrs. McArthur. She was grabbed from behind by the wild man and brutally choked until one "Fred" Sauer came to her rescue, beating the beast off.

The wild man reappeared the next day, on that Saturday night, when it smashed through the window of a saloon in Rockaway, interrupting a game of cards. This time, the creature held a large cavalry sabre, smashing all the bottles and glasses withing reach while screaming "like a demon" before dashing out the door, leaving his sabre behind. In a fascinating turn of events, two days later "Red" McDowell and a group of young men rowed down to Uncle Dicky's cabin on Rockaway Beach, only to met by the wild man waving a gun, from which he fired a round of buckshot. The group retreated, with Chief McArthur later organizing a group together to go back to the cabin and apprehend the wild man. The results of this expedition remain unknown, as do any follow up reports of the mysterious wild man, although interestingly enough a different version of the preceding events was reported in a later newspaper article. In this later article, the location and basic flow of events remains the same, but some of the names and details have been changed, with "Red" McDowell being changed to Read Rockaway and William McVay being changed to George McVeigh, and Uncle Dicky's cabin being changed in the later story to an abandoned oyster house. The existence of two different articles with slightly different details in both makes things very problematical, as will be discussed below.

Finally, who was this bizarre wild man and what should we make of this bizarre episode? One popular theory at the time was that the wild man was the first mate of the wrecked Maggie Devine (Medicine in the later version), which had ran aground a few weeks prior during a fierce storm with all hands saved, except for James Rush, the mate who was thought drowned. It was thought, however, that he apparently survived the crash and was driven insane by it, emerging a few weeks later to terrorize Rockaway's populace. While it remains impossible to verify this, the use of weapons and the wearing of clothing by the wild man display a level of humanity that makes the "insane sailor" story more plausible. It remains interesting to note that the wild man, according to the article, seemed to lurk on or around Rockaway Beach, more specifically near Uncle Dicky's cabin, as if he was guarding his territory. It is possible that, if the wild man was James Rush, in his insanity he claimed the beach as his territory and attacked those whom he viewed as intruders. Perhaps, even, the wild man was Uncle Dicky himself, since the creature was seen entering his cabin, suggesting a connection to the man that, if followed up upon, was not mentioned in the article. This connection, however, remains frustratingly out of reach, for it would be impossible to follow up on this lead after over a century.

There is of course, one more option: that one or both of the versions may have been newspaper hoaxes created to boost sales. Newspapers in the 19th century were notorious for creating fake stories and passing them off as real simply to make their papers more interesting, since back then there weren't the strict regulations for journalist integrity as there are in contemporary times. The existence of two versions of the story that contain the same basic framework but have some slightly different details between them makes this theory plausible, but at this point all we can do is simply speculate and wonder.

(With my next blog entry, I plan on wrapping up the "wild man" series by examining several reports of wild men that bore a closer resemblance to the beings we know as Bigfoot/Sasquatch than actual human beings. Stay tuned!)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Primates on Long Island

"Strange things are being seen these days", starts off the July 31, 1895 article in the New York Herald, "on the earth and in the sea - to say nothing of the woods. These are times of sea serpents, huge reptiles, wild men and bogies. Every day brings news that some wild and freakish thing has broken loose."

Bizarre creatures were stomping around on Long Island in those days, showcasing an amount of cryptozoological activity that rivaled what was to be found anywhere else in the country at the time. These were strange times indeed, during which "wildmen" and apelike animals were reported by many residents of the island and terrified them with their nighttime antics and piercing screams. The local newspapers regularly reported on such incidents, usually in a serious and straight forward manner, expressing as much puzzlement over the mysterious happenings as the actual witnesses themselves. These strange sightings defied all common sense, for a breeding population of apes to stay hidden on the island was clearly impossible, and it is unknown whether any zoos or circuses reported missing or escaped apes from their exhibits. Yet, for all their nonsensical nature, these reports continued to be documentated in the press as the people of Long Island persistently witnessed strange apelike creatures that evaded all capture and effort to prove their existence. The following cases, gathered from local newspapers of the time, are a sample of the bizarre events that had occurred on Long Island nearly a century ago in relation to reports of hairy, apelike animals:

Man, Beast or Demon? It's Loose in Amityville (New York Herald Tribune):

Amityville faced a mysterious vandal early in the twentieth century, described in the Tribune article as a "large monkey", who damaged private property and left no evidence behind other than small footprints. These footprints, described as being about eight inches long, not to mention "very spatulate, with long claw marks", were found near the home of a Mrs. Alfred C Abernethy, whose daughter Madeline was a witness. A Mrs. Harry Fajans, who lived nearby to the Abernethy home, also reported footprints found in her lawn, although whether these footprints were found to belong to any known species of animal remains unknown at this time.

According to the Tribune article, the primate reported in Amityville was first seen "about 1 a.m. on Sunday, August 25, by residents of North Massapequa, across the border, in Nassau County". Early September 4th, Ms. Madeline Abernethy reported that she was awakened by "a fearful chattering and yowling under her window, punctuated by the furious barking of the family dog." She later found the footprints, along with scratches on her automobile and that "the dust that covered it revealed the same footprint". Besides the automobile, the monkey also tore up an old fur coat and several mattresses in the outside garbage.

Interestingly enough, it is reported that Nassau County police disproved a report of a escaped chimpanzee from a circus in Farmingdale, demonstrating a rare example of even the officials turning down the "escaped zoo/circus animal" theory that is so routinely troted out in cases of out of place animal reports. There was speculation as to the exact identity of the creature, with guesses ranging from "a gorilla, chimpanzee, orang-outang, or just a man that walks like an ape". If there were any followup cases in Amityville, they still remain unknown for now.

Lion and Big Ape Play I-Spy with Nassau County (June 27, 1931 - New York Herald Tribune):

As reported in Charles Fort's classic book Wild Talents, Mineola in 1931 apparently suffered an epidemic of the maned and hairy kind, with lion and gorilla reports coming in steadily for at least a two month period from the Nassau County town. Indeed, as the author of the piece notes, "The lion and monkey situation in Nassau County is becoming acute and is under serious consideration by the police. More lions and monkeys have been seen loose in the last week, or at least have been seen by more residents of the county, than in any week ending June 26 since the compilation of lion and monkey statistics was started."

Focusing solely on the "monkey" reports for now (the lion issue will be part of a future blog), the creature was variously described as being "about half the size of a heavy set man" and "large and hairy and had a long face, grayish in hue". It is said to have first appeared in Albertson Square, frightening a family when it dropped out of a tree and then scrambled off into some brush alongside the road. It then reappeared two days later, being witnessed by a John Hammond of East Williston before disappearing once again. Patrolman Fred Koehler of the Nassau Country police is stated to have reported "that at least ten persons had seen the animal in the last three days."

Perhaps it is best to quote Mr. Fort (and his unique style of prose) for the history of the gorilla scare:

"And, near Mineola, Long Island, a gorilla was reported.

The first excitement was at Lewis & Valentine's nursery -- story told by half a dozen persons -- an ape that had come out of the woods, had looked them over, and had retreated. It seems that the police hadn't heard of "mass psychology": so they had to explain less learnedly. Several days later, they were so impressed with repeating stories that a dozen members of the Nassau County Police Department were armed with shot guns, and were assigned to ape-duty.

No circus had appeared anywhere near Mineola, about this time; and from neither any Zoo, nor from anybody's smaller menagerie, had the escape of any animal been reported. Ordinarily let nothing escape, or let nothing large, wild, and hairy appear, but let it be called an ape, anyway -- and, upon the rise of an ape-scare, one expects to hear of cows reported as gorillas: trees, shadows, vacancies taking on ape-forms. But -- New York Herald Tribune, June 27th -- Mrs. E.H. Tandy, of Star Cliff Drive, Malverne, reported something as if she had not heard of the ape-scare.(8) She called up the police station, saying that there was a lion in her back yard. The policeman, who incredulously received this message, waited for another policeman to return to the station, and share the joke. Both waited for the arrival of a third disbeliever. The three incredulous policemen set out, several hours after the telephone call, and by that time there wasn't anything to disturb anybody's conventional beliefs, in Mrs. Tandy's back yard. [103/104]

There was no marauding. All the stories were of a large and hairy animal that was appearing and disappearing --
And appearing and disappearing in the vast jungles not far from Mineola, Long Island, were skunks that were coming from lawyers. Some of them were caught and rendered inoffensive by disbarment. There was a capture of several dozen medical hyenas, who had been picking up livings in the trains of bootleggers. It could be that an occurrence, in New Jersey, was not at all special, but represented a slump back toward a state of about simian development. There was an examination of applicants for positions in the schools of Irvington. In mathematics, no question beyond arithmetic was asked; in spelling, no unusual word was listed. One hundred and sixteen applicants took the examination, and all failed to pass.
(9) The average mark was 31.5. The creep of jungle-life stripped clothes from people. Nudists appeared in many places.(10) And it was not until later in the year, that the staunchest opponent of disclosures spoke out in the name of decency, or swaddling -- or when Pope Pius XI refused to receive Mahatma Gandhi, unless he'd put on pants.(11)

Upon the 29th of June, the ape-story was taken so seriously, at Mineola, the Police Captain Earle Comstock ordered out a dozen special motor patrols, armed with revolvers and sawed-off shot guns, with gas and ball ammunition, led by Sergeant Berkley Hyde. A posse of citizens was organized, and it was joined by twenty nurserymen, who were armed with sickles, clubs, and pitchforks. Numerous footprints were found. "The prints seemed to be solely those of the hind feet, and were about the size [104/105] and shape of a man's hand, though the thumb was set farther back than would be the case with a man's hand." However, no ape was seen. As to prior observations, Policeman Fred Koehler, who had been assigned to investigate, reported statements by ten persons.

The animal disappeared, about the last of June. Upon July 18th, it was reported again, and by persons who were out of communication with each other. It was near Huntington, L.I. A nurseryman, named Stockman, called up the police, saying that members of his family had seen an animal, resembling a gorilla, running through shrubbery. Then a farmer, named Bruno, three miles away, telephoned that he had seen a strange animal. Policemen went to both places, and found tracks, but lost them in the woods. The animal was not reported again.

and finally for an oddball report that at first doesn't seem to fit in with the others (and which I am still trying to date):

Shrieking Apparition Rouses Long Island (New York Herald):

As with the population of Liberty, Ohio in 2005 (see here but ignore the idiot reporters), during the 1920s the towns of Quogue, Patchogue, and Eastport were visited by a unknown being that issued high pitched and terrifying screams in the night, drawing comparisons among some residents to the famed banshee of Irish folklore. Sidney Seaman, an engineer, claimed to have heard the cry on multiple occasions and states that while his brothers were out searching for the creature, "They heard a movement in the tangle of underbrush, a loud cry and then the animal went swiftly away from there."

Several different theories competed to establish the identity of the creature, including that it was a type of bird, a panther (which are known to sometimes issue a scream that sounds like the shriek of a woman), a primate of some sort, or, most interestingly, even the Jersey Devil itself (which a decade earlier had caused mass panic in New Jersey). To quote the article (which displays tongue firmly in cheek), "Many of the residents of Westhampton believe that the creature which is making all this adoo is a baboon which, Robinson Crusoe fashion, is said to have come ashore last fall on wreckage of a deep sea bark and to have taken to the woods. An equally reliable source of information ascribes the uproar to a monkey which several months ago escaped from the Douglaston home of Harry Williams, a song writer who is the author of that beautiful lyric entitled 'I'm Afraid to Go Home in the Dark'. The efforts of the animal to sing the words or to extract music from the tune which he heard while it was in the making might in a measure account for the terror of the Long Islanders".

Tongue in cheek explanations aside, what should we make of this report and the ones listed before it? Escaped apes and monkeys from a zoo and/or circus seems the most logical explanation, except there were no reports of escapees and indeed in the Amityville case even the police downplayed the idea. This of course is the persistent problem with the OOP(out of place) animals phenomenon as a whole, for Long Island has no breeding population of apes and certainly none could hide in the wild for very long without being discovered on the island. It is possible that the animals may have escaped from a private collector who chose not to report it, but this idea can only be brought forward so many times before it is made obvious that there would need to be an inexhaustible amount of private collectors to account for all the reports.

It is even possible, albeit very improbable, that at some of the reports may have been of juvenile Bigfoot, for it would explain some of the characteristics of the animals reported in the different cases. Sasquatch have been to issue piercing shrieks that terrify witnesses (as do other strange phenomena: see an example under the article "Ghosts of Long Island" and Loren Coleman's thoughts), and the beginning of the "Shrieking Apparition" article, notes that the beast had "eyes of flame" (although this may be just be a figure of speech). There are quite a few Bigfoot reports (and reports of other strange entities) that mention their "glowing red eyes", although this is often believed to be eye shine due to light reflecting off the eye, and of course a juvenile Bigfoot may very well look like a gorilla or monkey to a startled witness. There have not been any credible Sasquatch reports on the Island since, which is a blow against the theory, but the possibility still remains open, and thus should not be entirely ruled out.

Up Next: The Wildman of Rockaway Beach