dinsdag 8 oktober 2013

The Devil of Bracken County

For the greater part of 1866, various American newspapers[1] printed a letter written by one Nathaniel G Squires and dated 17 February, chronicling the terror the inhabitants of Bracken county, Kentucky, found themselves in. It had all begun on the Monday night previous to his writing the letter. As Squires told it: 

… after myself and family had retired to rest, we were suddenly aroused by a great outcry from the negro quarters – which are immediately to the rear of the house – in which prayers vied for supremacy with blasphemies, men, women and children screaming “fire!” and “murder!” at the top of their voices, all conspiring to create a scene worthy of a pandemonium. Terribly startled, my wife and I sprang from our bed. The room was illuminated as brightly as by a flood of sunlight, though the light was of a bluish cast. Our first and most reasonable conclusion was that the negro cabins were being consumed by fire. We rushed to the windows and beheld a sight that fairly curdled the blood in our veins with horror, and filled our hearts with the utmost terror. My daughter, shrieking loudly, came running into my room, hysterical with fear. This is what we beheld: 
Standing to the right of the upper cabin, near the fence that separates the negroes’ garden from the house yard, was a creature of gigantic stature, and the most horrifying appearance. It was nearly as high as the comb of the cabin, and had a monstrous head not dissimilar in shape to that of an ape; two short very white horns appeared above each eye; its arms were long, covered with shaggy hair of an ashy hue, and terminated with huge paws, not unlike those of a cat, and armed with long and hooked claws. Its breast was as broad as that of a large sized ox. Its legs resembled the front legs of a horse, only the hoofs were cloven. It had a long tail, armed with a dart-shaped horn, which it was continually switching about. Its eyes glowed like two living coals of fire, while from its nostrils were emitted sheets of bluish coloured flame, with a hissing sound, like the hissing of a serpent, only a thousand times louder. Its general colour, save its arms, was a dull, dingy brown. The air was powerfully impregnated with a smell of burning sulphur… I do not know how long this monster, demon or devil, was visible after we reached the window – possibly some three seconds. When it vanished, it was enveloped in a spiral column of flame that reached nearly to the tops of the locust trees adjacent, and which hid his horrid form completely from view. The extinct­ion of the flame was instantaneous, and with its disappearance we were relieved of the presence of this remarkable visitor. 

Squires would have been willing to believe that he and his family had experienced a horrible nightmare, but for the fact that all were awake at the time. Even so, he claimed, he might still have convinced himself that it had been some kind of hallucination – and wouldn’t have written the letter – save that the creat­ure was sighted at other places and by other witnesses: 

… precisely the same apparition made its appearance at my neighbour’s, Mrs Wm. Dole, appearing there in precisely the same shape in which it presented itself to us, save the head, which appeared to those who witnessed it at Mrs D.’s to resemble that of a horse. At Mr. Adam Fuqua’s, another neighbour, its head was that of a vulture. On Tuesday night it appeared at Mr Jesse Bond’s, there wearing the head of an elephant. At all these places it made the same appearance as at my house – excepting only the changing of the head – and disappeared in the same manner.[2] 

The letter vouched for the reliability of the witnesses. As a postscript, a declaration drawn up by John G Finley, Justice of the Peace, was added, in which all the witnesses declared that the contents of Squires’s letter were true and the persons involved certified by Finley as credible and reliable persons “and their statements entitled to full faith and credit”. Every fortean, though, knows that these declarations are often found attached to all kinds of weird stories found in 19th-century newspapers and cannot be taken as any guarantee of the truthfulness of the tale. 

The Devil of Bracken County, however, was just the start of a minor flap of similar devil sightings across the United States. Some two months after the events in Kentucky, something not unlike the Bracken County demon appeared in Brighton, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois: 

It will doubtless be recollected that a veritable devil, with cloven hoofs, tail, flaming nostrils, and all the other traditional appurt­enances of his Sable Majesty was produced a few weeks since in Kentucky, where he was ‘seen of many men’. Our Chicago friends, not to be outdone in any other part of the globe, have secured the services of a first-class devil, who, if the following account, from the Post, is to be credited, first appeared in the suburb of Brighton: 
“The demon was sitting on a fence by the roadside, not far from the Brighton race course, smoking a short clay pipe – at least, he saw smoke issuing from his mouth and nostrils, and is disposed to believe it was tobacco smoke, although there was cert­ainly a faint smell of brimstone in the air, and every whiff of smoke seemed to be accompan­ied by a little tongue of bluish flame.” The creature was further described as “extremely hid­eous; his body, of Titanic size was covered with mail like the hide of a rhinoceros, full of great seams and scoriated like a field of lava, which it resembled in colour.” No feet or hoofs were seen, but, as the horse shied away from the creature and nearly overturned the buggy, the rider did not have time to take a close look. When he did look back, the thing had vanished. “If it was not Satan, our friend is at a loss to imagine what it was.” That the description did not exactly match that of what was seen at Bracken county, was explained as follows: “it is known – if it is not known it is believed – that the demon has power to assume a variety of shapes, or, as he seems to have done at Brighton, to divest himself of any shape or substance. We do not choose to vouch, however, for the verity of the Brighton devil, whose actuality rests upon the testimony of a single witness.[3] 

I found a brief mention of something similar seen at Missouri during this time, and a larger account of the appearance of a devil-monster in Middle­town, New York State:

… It appears that he has gone to Middletown, New York. He is a terrible monster. A contemporary says: “Amid electric, phosphoric and other red and blue lights, he suddenly appeared, entered the house, the doors and windows of which were quickly and violently thrown open, and presented to the affrighted natives a form which was ‘neither man nor beast, but bearing, in huge, and distorted proportions, the shape and form of the upper extremities of the one, and the lower parts terribly elongated, and reeking with mire and filth and emitting a smell of phosphorous of the other.’ He lifted his scaly wings, brushed them in the faces of the terrified mortals, and with a yell left through the back door and disappeared in the woods. – His course was tracked next day by the sulphur that he shook from his horrid hair. Doubtless he will [turn] up in jail one of these days.”[4] 

As can be seen from the last remarks cited above, we leave the realm of the unexplained with the suggestion that a human agent was involved, and this seems to have been the case in regards to the devil of Bracken county. In April, several newspapers reported more news from Kentucky: 

… the old-fashioned Satan with horns and tail is no longer at large… The ‘Squier’s family’ and Mrs. Dole, and the rest of the Bracken county people, who were scared out of their wits and their moveable effects by this monst­rous visitor, may rest in peace. The luminous eyes, the gnashing teeth, the scaly hide, the cloven feet, the horrid horns, the terrific tail, will trouble them no more forever. Satan is bound, and his name is Oden. 

A man bearing the name of Oden, a resident of Carlisle, Nicholas County, Kentucky, procured a horsehide, with which he clothed himself, and having furnished himself with a phosphorous substance, to imitate the devil’s eyes of fire, started forth to alarm the timid. He would approach a dwelling, making a strange noise, causing the inmates to leave hurriedly. He would then enter the house and appropriate what valuables he could find. He was shot at repeatedly, but being protected by a coat of mail the shots failed to take effect. Finally, a number of persons surrounded and succeeded in lassoing him and he is now confined in the narrow walls of Carlisle jail, to answer to numerous charges for theft, which will be arrayed against him.[5]

Imaginative as Oden’s ruse was, he certainly was not the first to hatch such an elaborate scheme. Mike Dash has noted in his study of Spring-heeled Jack that in the 1840s a Georgia man had disguised himself as the Devil in order to rob a wealthy woman, but paid for it with his life,[6] and I have found several other cases. There was the ‘demon’ captured in Moscow in the 1800s who wore “horns, tail, fiery eyes and all” but turned out to be a rather creative thief.[7] There was the similarly dressed burglar in Maple Grove, Wisconsin, who was fatally shot in 1877 by the boy in the house he intended to rob.[8] And there was the thief dressed as the Devil who was again fatally shot by two boys in Huntsburg, Germany, in 1897.[9] 

All of which explains nothing about some of the other sightings. Middletown, especially the Mount Hope area, was plagued by unusual occurrences the year before.[10] In 1868, Prince Will­iam county in Virginia suff­ered an outbreak of nightly visit­ations of what was described as “an immense figure… with large horns and terrible claws, which it contracts to a sort of hoof” that was estimated as “three times as large as a man”. It was of a “pale bluish colour when first seen, but upon being irritated by the near approach of any person becomes a deadly white, and issues from its surface a small volume of smoke, accompanied by a sickening smell”.[11] And in 1876 Douglas County, Missouri, was visited by “a real devil… a horrible monster – a creature beyond human ingenuity to describe; he was girdled about with chains, and his breath when exhaled, was a blaze of ignited brimstone; he was of immense size and seemed to travel with perfect ease and without noise, save the rattling of his chains.”[12] 

I have many more accounts of sightings of horned, fire-spitting demonic creatures on file, but cannot list them all here. It’s unlikely that even a very enterprising guild of thieves would have wholeheartedly embraced this particular disguise. If not embellishment, yarn or hoax, some of these devil sightings may indeed have been cases of something very odd indeed.  

Originally published in Fortean Times 276, 2011

1 I collected 34 reports, all with the same wording, in newspapers from various states. 

2 “Extraordinary Excitement in Bracken County, Kentucky”, Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 19 Mar 1866. 

3 “The Devil In Chicago”, Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 23 Apr 1866; Racine Journal, Racine, Wisconsin, 25 Apr 1866. 

4 “The Devil Again”, Macon Telegraph, Macon, Georgia, 14 May 1866; Little Rock Daily Gazette, Little Rock, Arkansas, 18 May 1866. 

5 “The Devil Caught And Caged”, Macon Daily Telegraph, Macon, Georgia, 4 Apr 1866; Georgia Weekly Tele­graph, Macon, Georgia, 9 Apr 1866. 

6 Mike Dash: “Spring-heeled Jack: To Victorian Bugaboo from Suburban Ghost”, Fortean Studies, vol. 3, 1996, p117. Aside from Dash’s source, I found the account in all instances headed “The Devil Killed”, in: Cleveland Daily Herald, Cleveland, Ohio, 20 Nov 1841; Indiana Journal, Indianapolis, Indiana, 26 Nov 1841; Pensacola Gazette, Pensacola, Florida, 4 Dec 1841; Wabash Courier, Terre-Haute, Indiana, 4 Dec 1841. 

7 “Arresting A Ghost. A Spook That Set A Whole City Wild. Captured And Unmasked By A Brave Policeman”, Laredo Times, Laredo, Texas, 27 Nov 1891. 

8 “Killed The Devil”, Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Texas, 3 June 1877. 

9 All accounts headed “Killed The Devil”, in: Waterloo Daily Courier, Waterloo, Iowa, 11 Mar 1897; Atchison Daily Globe, Atchison, Kansas, 4 Feb 1897; Hornellsville Weekly Tribune, Hornellsville, New York, 12 Feb 1897; Edwardsville Intelligencer, Edwardsville, Illinois, 19 Mar 1897; Cambridge City Tribune, Cambridge City, Indiana, 8 Apr 1897; Daily Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada, 18 Apr 1897. 

10 “Diabolism – Satan on the Rampage”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, New York, 4 May 1866. 

11 “A Ghost – or Something – in Prince William County, Va.”, Petersburg Index, Petersburg, Virginia, 18 Dec 1868. 

12 “Douglas County Devil”, The Phelps County New Era, City of Rolla, Missouri, 1 July 1876.

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