Monday, January 6, 2014

The Hodag

By the late 19th century, America had been settled coast to coast-- but not all of it had been explored.  It was easy to imagine monsters lurking in the nation's millions of acres of untouched forest.  And imagine people did.  Hunters and lumberjacks, on their trips back from the wild, brought with them fantastic tales of the Jackalope, Guyascutus, and Fur-Bearing Trout.  These creatures were completely fictional, created for amusement at the expense of the gullible.  Yet many of them became iconic parts of American folklore.

One such creature is the Hodag, made famous in 1893 by a surveyer and practical joker named Gene Shepard.  It is unclear whether Shepard invented the beast; some stories indicate that it already existed within local legend.  But this much is certain:  Shepard made the Hodag a media sensation after he claimed to have killed one with dynamite.  He backed up his claims with a photograph, which he had forged and sent to local newspapers.  And three years later, Shepard repeated his stunt, claiming to have encountered another Hodag and captured it.  This "monster"-- in fact, a model-- was displayed at a county fair and moved around via puppet-strings.

The hoax fell apart after scientists from the Smithsonian threatened to investigate.  In any case, it had never been particularly convincing.  Shepard claimed that his beast was on the verge of extinction, due to the rarity of its only prey-- white bulldogs.  Other sources attributed it the ability to breathe fire, a deathly fear of lemons, and the habit of crying at its own appearance.  The sheer unlikelihood of this creature-- even before its exposure as a fraud-- made it hardly a "cryptid" at all.

But to the people of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the Hodag's blatant falsehood matters little.  The creature was first "discovered" there in 1893, and has served as the town's symbol for decades.  It appears in tourism ads, as the local high school's mascot, and in the form of a gigantic fiberglass statue.  Every year, the town holds a "Hodag country" music festival to celebrate its local monster.  This creature is more famous than many real animals-- not bad at all for a wire-operated puppet.

Read more about the Hodag:
Image from (public domain)

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