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This Mania.com review of American Monsters by Chuck Francisco will forever live in my heart for comparing my work to an “X-Files Survival Guide,” complete with a reference to Fox Mulder and his ever handy monstersskwerlz 002flashlight. And I love Francisco’s observation that “October brings about a collective lowering of our cultural inhibitions.” (Thus allowing even usually inhibited folks to pick up a book about monsters.) I don’t usually post my reviews here, but this one was so stylish and fun that I couldn’t resist. Here’s hoping we’ll gather a few more readers into our fold of those who, like Mulder and Scully, follow the unknown all year round.

The box ad lay between a charity’s plea for donated boats and cars and an announcement of an open house for a senior apartment village. “Giant Skeletons Found at Lake Lawn,” it declared, right there on page 9 of the May 4, 2014 Walworth County Sunday. “Lake Lawn Hotel 1911.” The ad continued: “In 1911 the Phillips brothers uncovered skeletons that ranged from 7 to 9 feet! Author L.A. Marzulli is offering a $500 reward for photographs of the dig site showing the skeletons, at the Lake Lawn Hotel.”

Lake Lawn Resort grounds

Lake Lawn Resort grounds

The mention of ancient, giant skeletons in my local paper stopped me cold. I knew that a number of such remains had long ago been disinterred from one or more of the 100-plus ancient conical and effigy mounds built along the shores of Delavan Lake, Wisconsin. This was before the structures were protected by law as sacred and historic treasures. Now known as the Lake Lawn Lodge and Golf Course, the popular resort is only about a 15-minute drive from my home. I’ve been there many times and have researched the mounds and skeletons for the “Ancient Mysteries” section of Weird Wisconsin. But I’d never found any photos of the dig site, nor even a reference to such photos. None of the original, 1911 newspaper stories on the discovery had provided illustrations. If such photos existed, I was very eager to see them.

The Delavan Lake mounds were one of the largest and most important groups of ancient earthworks in S.E. Wisconsin. They included both cone-shaped mounds similar to those found across much of the country, and the rarer animal-shaped effigy mounds. Archeologists often date cone-shaped mounds to the Early to Middle Woodland cultures that flourished in Wisconsin from about 500 BC to 500 AD. The animal-shaped effigy mounds are thought to have been built by a later culture known as the Late Woodland between approximately 500 AD and 1200 AD. (These dates and identifications are still under study and involve complex interactions between various prehistoric peoples; I recommend the book Indian Mounds of Wisconsin by Robert Birmingham and Leslie Eisenberg for a more thorough treatment.)

Original Lake Lawn Resort

Original Lake Lawn Resort

Unfortunately, great numbers many of both types of these mounds were leveled by early settlers in order to clear the land for farming, houses, and even – from 1850 until almost the turn of that century on Delavan Lake – winter quarters for members of the Mabie’s Circus and Menagerie, complete with a ring barn for training horses. Jeremiah Mabie owned the lakeside part of the property, and after he died in 1867 his widow remarried.  Anna Mary Mabie Phillips and her second husband, Ernest Field Phillips, built the original Lake Lawn Hotel on that beautiful shore in 1883.

The grounds still contained many of the original mounds at that time, but treasure seekers had opened various of them without finding much. In early March, 1911, the couple’s two sons, Ernest and Chester Phillips, decided to see for themselves whether the conical mounds might indeed contain burials and artifacts.

They chose a 40-foot-diameter mound behind the hotel’s horse barn, and soon uncovered a burial chamber six feet below the top of the three-foot high mound. The chamber measured about 7 by 9 feet, and its floor was made of carefully layered gravel, white sand and blue clay. There was evidence that the top of the chamber had been constructed of a one-foot thick layer of dirt topped with fired clay.  To the excitement of the Phillips brothers, this mound did indeed contain burials: fourteen of them, including several with fractured and otherwise damaged skulls that indicated a violent death. Most of the bodies had been interred lying on their backs with their knees flexed and arms bent upwards. But two were buried in a sitting position. The only artifacts found (and these were in the top of the mound, not the chamber) were a piece of flint, an 8-inch sandstone “pebble,” and a 6-inch red stone. Ernest Phillips submitted a full report of the findings to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society on the 21st of that month.

Page from the Delavan Enterprise showing historian Yadon's column

Page from the Delavan Enterprise showing historian Yadon’s column

A little over a year later, in 1912, the Phillips brothers decided to dig into another, similar mound in the same area as the first. This burial contained one skeleton in a sitting posture, a female and small child lying next to it, and one other adult. The remains of a possible clamshell necklace was found beneath the female burial. According to a later recap in the December, 1926 issue of The Wisconsin Archaeologist, the skulls of these burials all had “low, flattened foreheads.” But that’s not all.

This second mound dig made national news very soon after its discovery. On May 4, 1912, the New York Times carried an article from a May 3, Madison, Wisconsin news article titled, “Strange Skeletons Found.” The article ventured to state that the skeletons indicated “that a heretofore unknown race of men once inhabited Southern Wisconsin.” (The article then seems to combine the previously uncovered skeletons with the four that had just been found to arrive at a total of 18, which it describes without discrimination between the two mounds):

“The heads, presumably those of men, are much larger than the heads of any race which inhabit America today. From directly over the eye sockets, the head slopes straight back and the nasal bones protrude far above the cheek bones. The jaw bones are long and pointed, bearing a minute resemblance to the head of the monkey. The teeth in the front of the jaw are regular molars. There were also found in the mounds the skeletons, presumably of women, which had smaller heads, but were similar in facial characteristics.”

The Delavan Republican said, “The skeletons appear to be those of warriors of powerful frame and immense size when compared with people of this day and age.” The Delavan Enterprise noted that “the cranium of one of [the] ancient warriors was of unusual size, and the other bones found would indicate that they were a race of giants.” The paper didn’t note the exact height of these people, but similar skeletons estimated to be of the same time period from around Wisconsin and the U.S. have noted their heights at between seven and nine feet tall. Author Jim Brandon mentioned a few of these in his 1983 book, The Rebirth of Pan. Beside the Delavan Lake discoveries, Brandon included finds such as:

  • Brewersville Indiana, 1879, skeleton measuring 9 feet, 8 inches taken from a mound
  • Kanawha County, W. Virginia, 1844, skeleton seven and one half feet long taken from a mound chamber
  • Fox Lake, Illinois, (about 15 miles south of the WI/IL border) 1877 contained a skull similar to those described at the 2nd Delavan dig: “The large projecting eye-brows, deep set eye sockets, the low, receding forehead and the long-narrow and flat shape of the crown rendered it a very animal-looking skull.”

(More examples may be found online on a blog page titled Giant Human Skeletons at http://gianthumanskeletons.blogspot.com/p/giant-skeletons-with-double-rows-of.html)

So who were these super-sized people with sloping heads and jutting chins? They probably weren’t the Algonquian, Winnebago, Sac and Fox people encountered by European settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s, who were mostly under six feet tall and lacked the exotic skull features of those buried in the two mounds. Estimates of the age of the mounds and bones ranged as far back as 2000 years, and most traditional anthropologists would align these large people with the mound-building groups dubbed the Adena and Hopewell.

The Adena people had some rather unique and recognizable features, according to an article in March, 1985 FATE Magazine by Jim Miles. He quotes Carnegie Museum curator Don W. Dragoo to note that the Adena were distinguished both by body heights over six feet in height with “massiveness of the bones [that] indicates powerfully built individuals,” and by “a massive protruding chin.” Dragoo’s study was based on almost 100 skeletons found in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.

BeaverDamDig 001Some similar individuals may have been buried just north of Milwaukee and other points around Wisconsin. Beaver Dam’s terrific Dodge County Historical Society Museum displays photos from excavations made a few miles east of town in their Nitschke Mound Park. The skeletons in these photos don’t appear unusual. However, on a recent visit some friends and I were allowed to look through the files, where I found an old newspaper clipping of a burial dig from The Milwaukee Journal, date unknown. This one (see scan, left, of the copy the museum made for me of the newspaper clip) revealed a skeleton with a truly strange, enlarged and weirdly shaped skull that was unearthed in Kletzsch Park along the Milwaukee River, probably in the 1930s. The photo includes the silhouette of a director of anthropology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, W.H. McKern.

Researchers have proposed many theories as to the origins of these large people. Author Marzulli believes that some of these skeletons may have belonged to a dispersed remnant of the people referred to in the Old Testament chapter 6 (verses 1-4) of Genesis as the Nephilim – offspring of the “Sons of god and daughters of men.” One key element Marzulli points to is that so many of these skulls feature cranial elongations and oddities that cannot be explained by normal variations of human physiology nor by  skull-flattening practices some native peoples employed to reshape their infant children’s skulls. These anomalous skulls with huge and weirdly shaped craniums are widespread throughout the Americas, with a particularly large number found in Peru.

Some researchers believe the skeletons are those of extraterrestrial aliens or even Bigfoot, and I have to admit that the description of those massive skulls with giant eye sockets and flattened foreheads does remind me of witness descriptions of Sasquatch. Others believe that the Sasquatch are the remnants of the Nephilim, and that the Nephilim were extraterrestrials.

The traditional anthropologist’s answer, usually, is that these were simply very robust indigenous people or individuals with either naturally inherited stature or growth hormone problems. Various medical conditions that contribute to giantism do exist today. Robert Wadlow of Alton, Illinois who grew to a height of 8 feet, 11 ½ inches, needed a 10-foot casket after he died in 1940 at age 22. But photos of Wadlow show him with a very normally (according to our own Western, modern standards) shaped head.

It seems these skeletons represent a true mystery.

I called the Delavan Historical Society to see if by chance they had some shots of the digs in their collection, thinking that if they did, they might want to go collect the reward. Small-town historical societies can always use extra funds. They did know about the offer – Marzulli had already visited them in person – but alas, they had found nothing for him. One of the staffers gave me the name and phone number of the elderly daughter of a former owner of the property back in the mid-20th Century, however, on the chance that such photos may have been handed down within her family. The very kind lady wasn’t sure, but invited me to have a look through her father’s old family photo albums. That visit was a story in itself, but yielded no dig photos.

It wouldn’t surprise me if nothing conclusive about these mounds ever comes to light. For some reason, any evidence of  the remains of anomalous human beings seem to disappear into a deep, black hole of obfuscation once any sort of established institution gets access to them. Even in 1983, Jim Brandon said of the anomalous bones found in ancient North American mounds: “As soon as mound excavations became widespread in the 19th Century, these reports began to circulate. It is doubtful, however, if any topic has been more relentlessly suppressed.”

Part of the reason for that, of course, is the completely understandable outrage that Native Americans feel at seeing burials sacred to them dug up and displayed for all to see. Almost all museums and other institutions that have harbored remains of Native Americans have by now repatriated their collections to the appropriate tribal entities. But beyond that, there seems to be an extra wall of silence regarding the existence of these huge skeletons with the unusual skulls.

I do know, thanks to a 2004 interview I conducted with the late Delavan historian, Gordon Yadon, that two of the largest Delavan Lake skeletons were removed from the mound and taken to a house the Phillips brothers owned in town. The brothers, Yadon told me, coated the bones with shellac to preserve them. After both brothers died, their belongings were auctioned off but the skeletons weren’t part of the sale, said Yadon. No one knows where they went. Or if anyone does, they aren’t talking. I presume any alleged photos disappeared with the skeletons.

Some later excavations were made of a turtle mound and a linear mound at the resort in November, 1955, by representatives of the Campus Archaeological Society of the University of Chicago.  This dig was duly photographed and recorded, and from what I could discover revealed only the more usual contents of Woodland-era burials, including a few skeletons “bundled” in the traditional manner of many Native American cultures.

It’s possible that some of the remaining mounds still hide secrets from prying, modern eyes, and if so they will remain hidden thanks to our present laws governing preservation of such sites. If it’s any comfort, I’m sure that’s what their makers intended.

Sources:

“Startling and Important Discovery,” The Delavan Republican, March 23, 1911, p. 1.

“Scene of Old Battle,” The Delavan Enterprise, March 23, 1911, p. 1.

“Strange Skeletons Found,” The New York Times, May 4, 1912.

“The Legend of Lake Lawn Lodge,” 2001 Visitor Information Guide, (publisher uncertain) pp. 40-41.

“The Legend of Lake Lawn Lodge, Delavan, Wisconsin,” Ruby Reader, resort pamphlet citing the Walworth County Historical Society

“Phillips Brothers Excavated Indian Mounds,” W. Gordon Yadon, Delavan Enterprise, Jan. 22, 2004.

Jim Brandon, The Rebirth of Pan; Hidden Faces of the American Earth Spirit, Dunlap, Ill.: Firebird Press, 1983, p. 243-246.

Birmingham and Eisenberg, Indian Mounds of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis.: The University Press, 2000.

For extra research: Mary Sutherland, a researcher and co-owner of Burlington’s Sci-Fi Café, has written a book filled with many verbatim newspaper reports: The Red Haired Giants: Atlantis in North America

John James Audubon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everything’s been coming up “big birds” lately, in terms of sightings reports. A few days ago I received one that, if the reported bird is what I think it is, definitely points to the flesh-and-blood, relict population side of possible explanations. The witness (name withheld for now) happens to have a doctorate in zoology, and enjoyed a prolonged daylight look at it, along with a second witness. Here’s a slightly shortened version of the original report and a follow-up response.

“I am writing to report a sighting I had, of an incredibly large, raptor-type bird back in Oct/Nov of 2006.  I had moved to Memphis, TN in July of that year to begin a new job, and was renting a house with a large, tree-lined backyard.  It was late in the afternoon, around 5:00 pm. I went into the back yard with my dogs, a German Shepherd and a Malamute, played with them for about 15-20 minutes and then sat down on my back steps.  I looked up into a tree in the SW corner of the yard.  The leaves had fallen from the tree, and the view was relatively unobstructed.  The tree was about 30 feet from where I was sitting.  In the tree, sitting on a branch approximately 15 feet off the ground, was an enormous (and I mean enormous), raptor-type bird.  The head and body (minus the tail) of the bird measured approximately 4 – 4 1/2 feet.  The bird was a homogenous, beautiful, deep red-brown, no white was present.  The beak and feet ranged from a grey-tan to black toward the tip of the beak and claws.  The eyes were a brilliant orange.  I’ve never seen a bird like this before, or after for that matter.”

I went inside to get my girlfriend, so she could see the bird too.  It was still in the tree when we came back out.  We discussed the unusual size of the bird, as it watched us watch it.  The bird seemed to be equally interested in us.  I was able to observe the bird for close to 30 minutes.  I guess I was too fascinated to even think of grabbing a camera, which I regret.  My dogs didn’t seem bothered by the presence of the bird.  The dogs did, however, get into a barking match with the neighbor’s dog, causing me to divert my attention for only a few seconds to address that behavior.  Turning back, the bird was gone.  I never heard it take off from the tree and could not locate it in the sky, so I don’t have an estimate of its wing span.  My girlfriend and I spent the evening looking at pictures of raptors that might have fit what we saw, but we didn’t find anything that was a match.  I kept an eye out for the next few days, but never saw the bird again.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the underside of the wings.  S/he just sat on the branch looking over the neighborhood, and then looking at me.  The bird didn’t seem interested in my dogs at all.  The bird was pretty mesmerizing.  I’m not one of the ‘I’m attached to my cell phone by an umbilical cord’, so I didn’t have it with me to take a picture.  I’m not sure I would have thought of using the phone camera had I had it with me.  At first, it did cross my mind that it might be an immature bald eagle, but there wasn’t even a hint of white on this guy, and s/he was much too BIG.”

Subsequently, I went to Reelfoot Lake in NW TN, with a friend of mine, to see the bald eagles.  The backyard bird dwarfed the eagles I saw at Reelfoot.  I honestly never thought of reporting this sighting.  Partly because I never thought of it as being a possible cryptid or unidentified species, and partly because I would have had no idea where to report it.  I’m reporting it now, because I just started reading your book American Monsters.  I thought of my backyard friend, and felt you might be interested.”

***

When I read this exciting report, especially the part about the all-over, red-brown color, my mind immediately jumped to a supposedly extinct bird known as Washington’s (or the Washington) eagle.   It was documented and illustrated by John James Audubon, whose peers were very doubtful at the time that this was a separate species and not just an immature bald eagle, even though Audubon had an actual carcass that he’d shot, himself. According to Audubon, it measured over 3 1/2 feet in body length with a wingspan of 10 feet, 2 inches.

There is a great article by Scott Maruna on his Biofort blog that discusses this controversy– and the comparative descriptions of the birds — in detail. I forwarded the article link to the witness, who wrote, “The description in the link you shared is d… close. I agree that the color would be accurately described as chestnut, possibly cinnamon.”

But that historical kerfuffle wasn’t the last word on this cinnamon bird. Maruna also posted a blog about a more modern sighting of a possible Washington’s Eagle that occurred in the winter of 2004 near Stillwater, MN, which like Memphis lies along the Mississippi River. Both Stillwater and Memphis are known for their steep bluffs, a type of habitat favored by large birds of prey. Could there still be a small population of this eagle sweeping up and down the Mississippi River bluffs?

I’ve forwarded the witness’s full information and contact info (with permission) to Maruna. Perhaps between the two of us and other interested investigators, some new publicity will bring out other sightings not yet reported, and we can all learn a bit more about this rarest of raptors.

Tonight at 8PM on 30 Odd Minutes: American Monsters LIVE with Linda Godfrey! Watch at: 30oddminutes.com

DSC03794The awesome Fairiechick’s Fantasy Book Reader blog has posted a special one-year revisit of God Johnson, which is now on sale for 99 cents through the month of September to celebrate the release of American Monsters; a History of Monster Lore, Legends and Sightings in America. Thanks so much Vanessa Strickler!  http://www.fantasybookreader.net/2014/09/revisiting-god-johnson-unforgiven-diary.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+FairiechicksFantasyBookReader+%28Fairiechick%27s+Fantasy+Book+Reader%29

art by Linda Godfrey

art by Linda Godfrey

Super-sized birds are one of the most tantalizing topics for researchers of cryptid animals. Most of these weird flyers resemble some type of actual bird (often a type thought long extinct) that would seem to put them in the “likely to be ‘real’” category – except for their wingspan usually reported at 20 feet or more, their massive bodies, and their penchant for carrying off live creatures considerably larger than the rabbits, fish and squirrels preferred by even the largest of our known birds of prey.

The 2005 sighting near Hayward, Wisconsin by a Minnesota businessman named John Bolduan that I chronicled in American Monsters describes one of the better observations I’ve seen anywhere of these creatures. Bolduan’s sighting was in close range in full daylight and included seeing the bird on the ground, taking off, and then flapping away, with nearby trees, tall grasses and roadway for size comparisons. It had a stork-like appearance, but Bolduan hasn’t been able to match it to any known species.

Since the time that I had to submit the manuscript for that book, I’ve received other reports of oversized avians that I wish could have been included. A brief summary:

  • Pike County, PA, autumn 1996 or 1997: A woman reported seeing a huge birdlike creature gliding over the trees during the day. She stopped her car to watch it and estimated it was the same length as her car, 17 feet. She tried reporting it to an area animal preserve and to a game warden, who both told her she had probably seen a vulture, but she said it looked nothing like a vulture and could not find anything to compare it to other than something prehistoric.
  • State Line Island, Nebraska, May 1995: In another daylight sighting, a man hiking along the North Platte River encountered two birds standing in a clearing that appeared the size of large humans but were covered with black feathers and had raptor-like heads. No markings. One turned and looked at him, then both spread their wings to an estimated 20 foot span and jumped from the ground. One was carrying a small deer in its talons and had a hard time getting airborne with it as the other bird screeched from the treetops. He believed the deer was the same small doe he had seen at that site the day before and estimated its weight at at least 75 pounds.
  • Clements, Michigan, spring 2014: NOTE — I’m withdrawing this report of a “giant” bird that had been sent by a third party. Subsequent interviews with the actual witnesses revealed this was almost certainly a turkey vulture. According to the father and son, it had the typical pinkish-red, unfeathered head and other characteristics of this bird that is probably the Midwest’s most oft-misidentified bird of prey. Just goes to show the importance of a little extra digging, and my apologies for posting the brief version prematurely!
  • On the other hand, as if to make up for that one, I received another report from Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee, that was indeed submitted by the original witness who answered follow-up questions. Her sighting occurred in fall, 2006, in daylight, as she and her three-year old son stood in the backyard of the home they were renting. She noted that the area had enough natural cover that they often saw deer, coyotes and other wildlife. She wrote, “A bird that resembled a golden eagle, except that it was about the same height as me (five feet, four inches) landed 15-20 feet away from us, looking me in the eye. We all remained still, staring at each other for a while. I remember feeling a little scared, as it could easily fly away with my 3-year old, but also a great reverence as I felt the bird was deciding how it felt about us being on that land.”  The woman added that they all stood for about 20 seconds, eyeing one another, before it flapped away with “great ease.” After it left, she took a  yardstick and measured what its height and wingspan would have been according to where it had stood in relation to corresponding features of her lawn, and said it stood 50-55 inches tall (about a foot shorter than she thought at first) with a 12-foot wingspan. A golden eagle may have a 5 1/2 to 8-foot wingspan but stands only about 27-36 inches tall. She added that the breast color of the bird she saw was “creamish,”  which is not usual for this species. Was it a golden eagle? If so, it was a specimen considerably larger than the known dimensions of that species, with unusual coloring. I do think what ever it may have been, it probably was interested in checking out her 3-year old, and that’s the scariest aspect of this encounter. Golden eagles have been known to seize small deer and domestic animals.

Sasquatch illustration by Linda S. Godfrey for American Monsters

Sasquatch illustration by Linda S. Godfrey for American Monsters

American Monsters release day! What a great time I had on CoasttoCoastam.com with George Noory last evening talking about all the creepy critters! Thanks to all who listened, called in, and followed my blog afterward. In case you missed the show (I’m not normally up between two and four a.m. either :-) click HERE.

Also, check out my guest blog running today in Huffington Post on America’s Seven Scariest Monsters. It was extremely difficult to choose only seven, and I’ve seen a few comments wondering why I didn’t include the upright canines such as Michigan Dogman or Beast of Bray Road. It’s true that few things are scarier than encountering a menacing, upright wolf, but since I’m so identified with my wolfmen books and research, I wanted to emphasize that this book is a survey of the whole weird menagerie from giant birds to lake monsters. Besides, the canine crew gets its due in the book’s section on land beasts. And I wouldn’t care to run into any of these creatures on a dark trail at night. 

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