STEAMPUNK BESTIARY: METAL MONSTERS AND ELECTRIC SERPENTS
THEO PAIJMANS uncovers some truly bizarre mechanoid terrors of the 19th century’s age of industry
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