STEAMPUNK BESTIARY: METAL MON­STERS AND ELEC­TRIC SER­PENTS

THEO PAIJMANS uncovers some truly bizarre mechanoid ter­rors of the 19th cen­tury’s age of in­dus­try

Fortean Times - - Blasts From The Past -

As the 19th cen­tury with its rapid in­dus­trial ex­pan­sion was draw­ing to a close, a new breed of mon­ster emerged from the pages of the Amer­i­can news­pa­pers. The anatomies of these steampunk hor­rors with their ma­chine­like parts and metal hides mimic the age of boil­ers, riv­ets and cast-iron, and Tesla and Edi­son with their war of the cur­rents.

What Charles Wooden and Charles Adams caught in the Delaware river one April day in 1889 for in­stance, was ‘The strangest crea­ture ever seen’: “It fought hard, and, ut­ter­ing a noise that was half hiss, half bark, it seized an oar in its mouth and crunched it to splin­ters”. It also re­leased a “strange odour re­sem­bling musk”. The crea­ture was about 6ft (1.8m) long, “with a large head shaped like a bull­dog’s and an im­mense mouth fur­nished with two rows of sharp teeth”. Two small and deep sunken eyes glared from a mon­strous head, pro­tected by long lashes. The head was at­tached to the body by a long neck from which stuck “two short, im­per­fectly formed legs, with webbed feet like those of a duck”. It was cov­ered in short, fine fur – but this was not all: “The tail is pe­cu­liarly formed, hav­ing four blades ex­actly like the screws of a pro­pel­ler.” 1

Three years later, Jer­rold Thomp­son, Aaron Job­bings and Charles En­gel started out on an early morn­ing jour­ney to Nor­ris­town, Penn­syl­va­nia. They were ap­proach­ing the Old Oaks ceme­tery when they heard pe­cu­liar ring­ing and hiss­ing noises. They saw a thing “as long as a fence rail” and about a foot in di­am­e­ter where the body was thick­est. It had a head like a horse and “from be­tween its eyes and ex­tend­ing to the top of the head and for a short dis­tance down its body was a growth of bris­tle-like hair that stood up like the clipped mane of a mule. Back from where the hair ended was on either side a web-like pro­tu­ber­ance nearly a foot in length and much the shape of an ele­phant’s ear”. The mon­ster was cov­ered with heart-shaped scales that gave out a metal­lic ring, sound­ing like a small sleigh bell, “though more sil­very”. The colour of the mon­ster was “a beau­ti­ful bronze green, with a row of pur­ple on either side which blended grad­u­ally to al­most a pure white on its un­der parts. Its tail was like that of a fish.” 2

Four years later, a news­pa­per claimed that a

“The ob­ject crossed my path, and as it did so I felt the air grow colder, and a pe­cu­liar moan­ing sound arose, like the sigh­ing of the wind through the trees...”

new breed of metal leviathans was ca­vort­ing in the sea. The small­est was as broad as a row­boat and as long as a sail­ing ves­sel, and these ser­pents were the nightly talk of the East Coast: “Sea­men tell of the cun­ning of this new sea ser­pent. They tell of two ser­pents in­ter­lock­ing horn and dor­sal fin to make a stretch of 30ft [9m] long, and of an­other ser­pent join­ing it­self to this great mus­cu­lar chain. Stretched un­der the keel of a boat and clasp­ing its sides high upon the hull, they can give an aw­ful pres­sure that will make the tim­bers creak and cause the ar­mour to bend like tin.” On one oc­ca­sion, one of these sea ser­pents was seen from nearby: “… there ap­peared above the wa­ter an ugly black head. It was the shape of a horse’s head about 10ft [3m] long, with a great horn grow­ing out of its nose. The ex­pres­sion of its mouth was a laugh­ing one, and in­side there gleamed two rows of deadly white teeth. Above the teeth glis­tened the long fishy eyes pe­cu­liar to a man-shark.” It was cov­ered with what looked like “a coat of mail. The colour was the sub­dued glis­ten of ox­i­dised sil­ver, ex­cept the tail, which turned to gold.” 3

Three years be­fore, one day in April 1893, farmer Mark We­ston, liv­ing near the small town of Alexan­der, In­di­ana, en­coun­tered an elec­tric ter­ror. We­ston was go­ing to his barn to look af­ter his horses one evening, when he saw “some­thing play­ing along on the ground that looked like a tremen­dous fiery snake. The ob­ject crossed my path, and as it did so I felt the air grow much colder, and a pe­cu­liar moan­ing sound arose, like the sigh­ing of the wind through the trees, only it was loud enough to drown a man’s voice when he would shout. Then I felt some­thing come over me like elec­tric­ity, and I be­came mo­tion­less, as though I had grown fast to the ground”.

Think­ing there must be some­thing “pe­cu­liar in the air” that had paral­ysed him, he no­ticed how “the thing had got per­haps 50ft [15m] from me, go­ing west, it turned and came back, and as it did so the moan­ing sound changed to a shrill whis­tle, some­thing like a lo­co­mo­tive would make…” It trav­elled very rapidly and looked like “a large, ragged streak of fire, per­haps 30ft [9m] long and 18in [46cm] in di­am­e­ter”. When it reached the barn, it ran over it in ev­ery di­rec­tion. It stopped in front of the barn, el­e­vat­ing it­self straight on its tail, “fully 30ft [9m] in the air”. The poor farmer was still un­able to move, but af­ter a few min­utes the thing dis­ap­peared with the sound of an ex­plo­sion. “With the dis­ap­pear­ance of the strange phe­nom­e­non I felt a shock like the first one I had felt, and at the same time I gained con­trol of my limbs.” We­ston found that the barn was cov­ered with “a re­mark­able net­work re­sem­bling large ropes of ice. They ap­peared to pass around the build­ing in ex­actly the same way the fiery mon­ster had passed. It was not ice, how­ever, but seemed to be more of a crys­tal, for it would not melt, even when we held a flame to it, and when struck with a hatchet, it sim­ply gave a dull-like sound, and did not break”. In­side the barn he found his two horses un­able to move, and his dog dead and pet­ri­fied. 4

Three months later, a fish­ing party at Black Fish Bay, Wash­ing­ton, met with an­other elec­tric ter­ror. The men, Wil­liam Fitzhenry, HL Beal, WL McDon­ald, JK Bell, Henry Black­wood and two un­named men, had made a camp on its shore. The party soon went to sleep. Around mid­night they were awo­ken by a ter­ri­ble noise and, as one of the men de­scribed, “in­stantly the whole air was filled with a strong cur­rent of elec­tric­ity that caused ev­ery nerve in the body to st­ing with pain, and a light as bright as that cre­ated by the con­cen­tra­tion of many arc lights kept con­stantly flash­ing.” They saw a mon­ster slowly swim­ming to­wards the shore. “As it ap­proached, from its head poured out a stream of wa­ter that looked like blue fire. All the while the air seemed to be filled with elec­tric­ity, and the sen­sa­tion ex­pe­ri­enced was as if each man had on a suit of clothes formed of the fine points of nee­dles.” One of the party, who stepped to­wards the shore­line, was hit by a stream of wa­ter and fell down as if dead. The pan­ic­stricken men scat­tered in the woods. Roar­ing like thun­der, the mon­ster sent out flashes of light that il­lu­mi­nated the coun­try­side for miles around. Fi­nally it re­treated into the wa­ter. The men could trace the course of the mon­ster for some time, the man said, “by a bright lu­mi­nous light that was on the sur­face of the wa­ter”. With the mon­ster gone, the elec­tric sen­sa­tion had also stopped, but: “We were un­able to tell the time, as the pow­er­ful elec­tric force had stopped our watches.” The ‘de­mon of the deep’ or ‘elec­tric fish’ as the men named it, was a be­he­moth of some 150ft (46m) long and 30ft (9m) in di­am­e­ter at its thick­est part. “Its shape was some­what out of the or­di­nary in so far that the body was nei­ther round nor flat but oval, and from what we could see the up­per part of the body was cov­ered with a very coarse hair. The head was very much shaped like a wal­rus… Its eyes, of which it ap­par­ently had six, were as large around as a din­ner plate and were ex­ceed­ingly dull, and it was about the only spot on the mon­ster that at one time or an­other was not il­lu­mi­nated. At in­ter­vals of about ev­ery eight feet [2.4m] from its head to its tail a sub­stance that had the ap­pear­ance of a cop­per band en­cir­cled its body, and it was from these many bands that the pow­er­ful elec­tric cur­rent ap­peared to come. The bands near­est the head seemed to have the strong­est elec­tric force, and it was from the first six bands that the most bril­liant lights were emit­ted. Near the cen­tre of its head were two large, horn­like sub­stances, though they could not have been horns for it was through them that the elec­tri­cally charged wa­ter was thrown. Its tail from what I could see of it was shaped like a pro­pel­ler, and seemed to re­volve…” 5

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this steampunk bestiary would man­i­fest them­selves well into the first half of the 20th cen­tury. An un­canny ‘light­ning ghost’ ter­rorised the com­mu­nity of Rah­way, New Jersey, in 1905 for in­stance. “The spook, which has chased sev­eral young men, is de­scribed as be­ing very tall (about 7ft [2m] in height) out­lined in and emit­ting phos­pho­res­cent rays of light and im­preg­nat­ing the air about him with an odour of ozone.” 6

And then there was the last re­main­ing ‘hor­ri­ble Hyp­no­bat­tery­boob’ or ‘Horned Mag­net of Labrador’ that Col. Amos Tal­leyrand Luther al­most fell vic­tim to. Camp­ing in the Maine woods he was forced up­right from his sleep­ing po­si­tion and dragged though the trees by an ir­re­sistible, in­vis­i­ble force that acted “like a mag­net” to­wards this bizarre crea­ture. The Hyp­no­bat­tery­boob was 15ft (4.6m) high and more than 20ft (6m) in length. It had horns fore and aft, and “an im­mense hump ris­ing from the cen­tre of his back”. Its head slightly re­sem­bled that of a camel, “ex­cept for the ears, which were as large as those of an ele­phant and stood straight out like im­mense fans. His feet were webbed, and his legs, ap­par­ently, were dou­ble-jointed. Two tusks pro­jected down­ward from his up­per jaw, he was cov­ered with dense curly hair, and un­der the rays of the high-ris­ing Moon his colour was that of fresh-minted gold. The odour of the beast was sick­en­ing and of­fen­sive in the ex­treme, not un­like that of steak smoth­ered in onions”. The mys­te­ri­ous trac­tion beam-like force that the mon­ster used to draw in the vic­tim was ex­plained as “an­i­mal mag­netism”. 7

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