Greetings From the Land of the Make-Believe Species

Postcards provided proof of lake serpents, jackalopes and assorted curious monsters

Nebraska State Historical Society

The Serpent of Silver Lake, New York

Serpent of Silver Lake
(Courtesy of Loren Coleman, International Cryptozoology Museum)
Under the surface of Silver Lake—“a beautiful sheet of water three miles long”—strange things swam. Native Americans long reported seeing unidentified animals, and one night in 1855, fishermen saw the “most horrid and repulsive-looking monster,” according to the Wyoming Times, a New York newspaper. A subsequent search turned up nothing. Still, crowds flocked to the area to catch a glimpse of the 60-foot-long lake serpent. Two years later, when a fire tore through A. B. Walker’s lakeside hotel in Perry, fireman reportedly found the charred remains of a fabrication of waterproof canvas and coiled wire. What had given wings and scales to the local legend? Probably, as folklorist Harry S. Douglass suggested in a 1956 paper in New York Folklore Quarterly, it was Walker’s collusion with the local press.

A Kansas Air Ship

Kansas Air Ship
(Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-44534)
Swarms of locusts descended on the Great Plains in the 1870s. Vast clouds darkened the skies and devoured crops all across Kansas. Farmers lost it all. Twenty-five years later, the plague of locusts disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived—the last one reportedly seen in California.
But no one in 1909 could have expected this giant insect, or rather, “A Kansas Air Ship,” to reappear and loft a baby girl in an American flag-clad basket high above the plains. Imagined by Marion W. Bailey, a photographer based in Hutchinson, Kansas, this illustration was similar to other “exaggeration” or “tall-tale” post cards that proliferated across the region. The images of giant insects doing battle with humans provided both a thinly veiled analogy and some levity in dealing with disaster.

Giant Rabbits

Giant rabbits
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)
In the early part of the 20th century, rabbits, long known for their reproductive capabilities, appeared to proliferate in even greater size and number than usual. William H. Martin of Ottawa, Kansas captured this hunting party in 1909. He first experimented with trick photography in 1908, the year the U.S. Post Office reported more than 677 million postcards delivered. The total U.S. population was then 89 million—meaning that eight postcards were sent for every person in the country! By 1910, Martin had cranked out seven million photographic postcards—a killing in terms of more than just rabbits.

Ice Worms

Ice worms
(Alaska State Library)
The flamboyant Alaskan newsman, Elmer J. “Stroller” White, a columnist for the Nugget newspaper in Dawson, Alaska, went out drinking one night, and, legend has it, he heard the snow squeak. His next column—January 20, 1906—recounted a meeting with a 125-year old “Canadian doctor” who collected and prepared soup from greasy little ice worms. White later elaborated, saying the worms appeared when blue snow fell and the mercury plunged to 74 degrees below zero. In 1911, poet Robert Service recorded an ice worm ditty; by his account, the temperatures had to dip to 99 below. Around then, Lloyd Winter, of the Juneau photographic studio Winter & Pond, created this image of a sourdough (a name for someone who spent the winter in the north and kept his sourdough culture alive by keeping it close to his body) picking ice worms. What’s most remarkable about ice worms: They actually exist. Italian explorer Luigi Amedeo di Savoia discovered real, live ice worms in 1887. Still, Stroller remained convinced that he made the creatures up. He told an interviewer for the book Alaskan All, “It did no good for me to assure [eager questioners] that the blue snow and the ice worms had no existence outside of my imagination.” In this case, though, the artful fiction unknowingly imitated life.

Fur Herring in Rice Lake, Wisconsin

Fur herring
(Courtesy of Loren Coleman, International Cryptozoology Museum)
The geographic range of fish sprouting fur tends towards areas of North America distinguished by long winters and frozen freshwater lakes. In 1929, Montana’s J. H. Hinken reported catching one. He said, “The change of temperature from this water to atmosphere is so great that the fish explodes upon being taken from the water.” Why exactly herring, trout and even salmon grow fur instead of scales has had many possible explanations over the years: the accidental release of hair tonic by an enterprising traveling salesman in Colorado, an evolutionary adaptation to tolerate exceptionally cold weather, or a badly translated letter from Scandinavia. This species from 1939, wasn’t a product of tall tales or a crafty taxidermy studio, but was a unique ichthyologic cross from E. C. Kropp’s photography studio in Milwaukee.

Capture of the Hodag at Rhinelander, Wisconsin

(Courtesy of Loren Coleman, International Cryptozoology Museum)
Seven feet long, 265 pounds, the ferocious hodag bristles with Triceratops-like horns. Long the stuff of lumberjack lore, the beast was finally captured by Eugene Simeon Shepard, a naturalist in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, in 1896. He kept it in a pit behind his house. (The pit reportedly still exists.) When outside scientists and zoo officials came to check it out, they found an equally intriguing creation made out of wood and ox-hides, bull horns and bent steel rods.

The Monster of Big Alkali, Nebraska

The monster of Big Alkali Nebraska
(Nebraska State Historical Society)
In 1923, a prehistoric, 40-feet-long alligator of a beast emerged from a Big Alakali lake near Hay Springs, Nebraska. The thing started devouring calves and flattening cornfields. It also reportedly left behind a peculiar smell—“a very distinctive and somewhat unpleasant odor”—when it reentered the subterranean lair where a man named J. A. Johnson thought the beast lived. At first, the town planned to drag the lake and charge admission to gawkers, but those plans fell through. Shortly thereafter came reports of another curious attraction, found frozen in the same lake: a mermaid.


(Courtesy of Loren Coleman, International Cryptozoology Museum)
Sometime during the 1930s (the exact date remains disputed), an animal with the body of a jackrabbit and the antlers of a deer appeared in Douglas, Wyoming. By no great coincidence, the crossbreed emerged from the home of rogue taxidermists and brothers Ralph and Douglas Herrick. Images and souvenirs of the jackalope, like this 1957 postcard, remain a totem of the West—a symbol of human ingenuity and, you might say, hybrid vigor.

The Sea Serpent of Nantucket

Sea serpent of Nantucket
(Creative Commons, Nantucket Historical Association)
As early as the 1830s, residents of Nantucket, Massachusetts, reported seeing sea serpents, ranging in size, scale and monstrosity. In 1937, local businessmen discovered giant footprints on the beach. Radio and newsreel reporters were called in and soon discovered that the creature was a rubber balloon, inflated on the beach of Coatue and sailed across the harbor by Tony Sarg, a man better known for making floats at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The Geoduck, Puget Sound

(Courtesy of Steve Shook)
Geoduck clams can live to be 163 years old—really. The bivalve's elephant trunk of a siphon extends three feet from its buried shell to the muddy ocean floor. The clams can weigh up to 16 pounds. When an unknown photographer dug up this memorable specimen, a clam so large and unwieldy it had be wheeled out of the Puget Sound, the image left a lasting impression. So much so that, in 1981, the journal Science republished the photograph. Judging by the mismatched shadows on the clam and the kid, though, the photo may better reflect our outsized perception of one of the West Coast’s wildest clams rather than a one-of-a-kind find.

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