Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Saturday 20 January 2024


Fibre-glass hodag statue in front of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce (© Gourami Watcher/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Back in the pioneering days of North America, when European settlers were attempting to tame the vast wildernesses full of unfamiliar creatures in what to them was the new and very strange, even somewhat frightening continent of North America, rural workers such as lumberjacks and loggers would often spend appreciable periods of time away from their families and homesteads.

Consequently, for company and to keep safe, they would bond together by gathering around fires in their campsites at night, deep within the dark, forbidding forests, and while away the hours by telling tall tales to amuse and play-scare each other, seeing who could spin the most outlandish, spine-chilling yarns, full of daring feats and terrifying monsters – the latter often being inspired by sightings and sounds of what to them were still very mysterious, potentially dangerous native creatures inhabiting this immense New World.

A 1932 hodag-depicting commemorative medallion from Rhinelander (public domain)

These largely made-up monstrosities became known collectively as 'Fearsome Critters' or 'Fierce Critters', and took many different forms. Some were fantastical mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians, others were colossal fishes, creepy-crawlies, or totally bizarre unclassifiables. Today (which just so happens to be ShukerNature's 15th anniversary!), I am documenting possibly the most famous one of all, Wisconsin's truly horrific, horrible and unequivocally hideous hodag – an allegedly ferocious terror beast that has long fascinated folklorists and even a few cryptozoologists.

With many Fearsome Critters, their origins have been lost in the mists of time, which makes the hodag's history particularly memorable, in every sense, because this is one whose origin in its modern-day form is known very specifically, thanks to a certain Eugene Simeon Shepard.

Eugene Shepard as a young man (public domain)

Born on 22 March 1854 in Old Fort Howard (later renamed Green Bay), Wisconsin, Shepard moved with his family shortly afterwards to this US state's New London area, where he worked on his father's farm for a time after leaving school before moving further afield when his father died to work on other, larger farms in wilder, more remote regions. At 16, he became an apprentice timber cruiser, in Wisconsin's Northwoods, where he learnt how to assess tracts of forested land for their lumber value.

And it was here, working for years alongside the lumberjacks and loggers who did the physical toiling required to convert the tracts assessed by him into timber, and listening at night to their humorous, highly imaginative stories of Fearsome Critters, that embryonic visions of what would become the fearsome hodag in the form by which it is so well known today began to stir inside Shepard's singularly inventive mind – a mind that proved more than capable of outdoing even the lumberjacks and loggers for weaving yarns. In short, Shepard had a serious talent for tall tales, and practical jokes too, so he decided to put this talent to good, financially-sound use.

Ever the showman, Eugene Shepard in a cart pulled by a moose (public domain)

For although timber cruising had made him rich over the years, Shepard could see that the timber and logging industry, for such a long time a highly profitable one, was now beginning, slowly yet surely, to die, due in no small way to the wholesale denuding by unceasing logging of great swathes of land once profusely covered in trees. So if he wanted to stay wealthy, he needed to look elsewhere to make money.

Since 1882, Shepard had lived in the Northwoods town (now small city) of Rhinelander, within northern Wisconsin's Oneida County, where in addition to timber cruising he had made good money buying and selling property, including areas of tree-cleared land for use in farming. Consequently, this is what he saw as his – and Rhinelander's – future, turning the town into a renowned, famous centre for land speculation, property development, and farming. But in order for this to succeed, Rhinelander needed to be placed fairly and squarely on the map – the media map, that is. In other words, it needed an attraction, one that would serve to draw in from far and wide as many prospective land buyers and farmers interested in settling here as possible.

Vintage hodag illustration by Margaret R. Tryon (public domain)

And this was when the enterprising Shepard remembered those folksy fireside lumberjack tales of monsters, in particular the then only vaguely-defined hodag, and decided to put them to good, practical use – by bringing the hodag to life, literally!

Shepard recalled that the lumberjacks had claimed the hodag to be the demonic, vengeful spawn engendered by all the tortured souls of dead cremated oxen that when alive had been cruelly abused as beasts of burden by these selfsame loggers. Yet apart from stating that like its bovine progenitors it possessed a fearsome pair of long curved horns, they gave little consistent indications of what this malevolent monster actually looked like.

Phineas T. Barnum (public domain)

Consequently, if he wanted to employ the hodag as his media magnet, Shepard needed to provide it with a well-defined form, which is something that his inordinately creative imagination had little problem in conjuring forth. He then needed to transform this newly-rendered manifestation from a bogey beast of tall tales and yarns into a bona fide physical, tangible reality – and once again, his entrepreneurial skills soon showed him the way to achieve this. Not for nothing has Shepard been popularly compared to that most famous of all 19th-Century American showmen and shysters, the great Phineas T. Barnum himself!

So it was that via a sensational article written by himself and published in an October 1893 issue of a Rhinelander newspaper entitled the Near North, Shepard claimed in his well-honed flair for melodramatic monologues that he and some fellow workers had lately encountered – and killed – an actual hodag in Rhinelander's very own forests. He described it as "a terrible brute [that] assumes the strength of an ox, the ferocity of a bear, the cunning of a fox and the sagacity of a hindoo [Hindu] snake, and is truly the most feared animal the lumbermen come in contact with".

Artistic representation of the hodag (© Richard Svensson)

As for its physical appearance: Shepard claimed that the hodag sported the scaly body of a dragon (and breathed fire like one too), plus the head of a huge bull-horned frog, a terrifying elephantine face that snarled with a fanged grin-like grimace, a row of thick curved spines running along its back, four short but sturdy legs with razor-sharp claws on their feet, and a lengthy tail that bore spear-like spines at its tip.

In short, this hodag sounded more than a little reminiscent of certain non-avian dinosaurs (and was subsequently likened to such by some chroniclers), in particular certain spine-bearing stegosaurs armed with thrashing thagomizers, like Kentrosaurus and Huayangosaurus, for instance – overlooking of course its carnivore-consistent fangs, which were conspicuously lacked by these strictly herbivorous prehistoric reptiles!

Top: Kentrosaurus, life restoration (© Connor Ashbridge/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence); Bottom: Huayangosaurus, life restoration (© Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Speaking of the hodag's meat-eating proclivities: perhaps the most surprising, offbeat characteristic attributed to it by Shepard was its supposed fondness for devouring an extremely singular, highly specific item of prey – pure-white bulldogs, but only on Sundays! During the remainder of the week, it satiated its hunger pangs by consuming cattle, mud turtles, water snakes, and large freshwater fishes.

Shepard also added somewhat histrionically that this revolting hodag stank of "buzzard meat and skunk perfume" (a distinctive characteristic that he would return to in a subsequent hodag-themed escapade – see later), and that despite shooting it with "heavy rifles and large-bore squirt guns loaded with poisonous water", the creature withstood all of their efforts to dispatch it. In addition, it had already torn apart the hunting dogs that he and his companions had used to corner it after having encountered this monster in the forests.

Reconstruction of the hodag based directly upon the specimen in Shepard's 1893 hodag photograph – see below for details re this latter photo (public domain)

Continuing his febrile fable, Shepard asserted that finally, after hours of fruitless, futile struggle against it, in desperation he and the other men resorted to a very extreme measure – blowing up the hodag using dynamite! Not surprisingly, this certainly worked, reducing it to a mass of charred, unidentifiable remains.

Fortunately (or conveniently, depending upon your point of view!), however, prior to annihilating their aggressor they had been able to photograph it alive – the resulting picture revealing the hodag in all its savage (albeit unexpectedly diminutive) splendour (and despite its pose being decidedly wooden, in every sense!). This photo was reproduced alongside Shepard's account within his published article, and here it is now in mine:

Shepard's 1893 hodag photograph (public domain)

Although this hair-raising tale certainly achieved Shepard's aim of attracting some much-needed publicity for, and interest in, Rhinelander, he was not content to put aside his prankster predilection just yet. Three years later, the hodag reappeared in Rhinelander, courtesy once again of Shepard, who went one stage better this second time round than he'd previously done. For instead of a mere photograph and some charred cinders, he now chose to present the genuine item – a living, breathing hodag!

The year 1896 saw the very first Oneida County Fair, organized to promote Rhinelander as a prospective location for future business and farming developments, and just a few days before it opened another hodag-themed article by Shepard appeared in the Near North newspaper. Once again it related in stirring fashion how he and some companions had supposedly encountered a hodag in Rhinelander's neighbouring forests – but this time they didn't kill it. Instead, after trapping it inside its den with stones so that it couldn't escape, they successfully chloroformed the creature, enabling them to capture it alive – and now, at the forthcoming Oneida County Fair, it would be on display, still very much living and breathing, for the fair's visitors to see for themselves!

Eugene Shepard's Rhinelander home, with its hodag-holding shed on the right (public domain)

And sure enough, held captive within a shanty yet sturdily-built shed attached to Shepard's own house in Rhinelander, was a real-life hodag – or, to be precise, something that its nervous observers believed to be a real-life hodag. Partially concealed by shadows and a curtain, and held some distance back from its fee-paying public (who were only permitted to glance upon it through a small knot-hole), something seemingly resembling Shepard's famous 1893 description did indeed lurk, measuring 7.5 ft long, 2.5 ft tall, pitch black in colour and bristly, armed with 12 lengthy spines along its back, moving jerkily on its short but formidably clawed limbs, and growling. Also, of particular note, it gave off a putrid stink, just like Shepard had described for it in his original 1893 article.

Confronted by such a menacing entity, its visitors did not stay long enough or approach close enough to obtain a good view of it, which was just as well, at least as far as Shepard was concerned. For, needless to say, the hodag was a hoax – a large model sculpted from wooden logs with fine wires attached to make it move. It had been skilfully constructed by Luke Kearney, one of Shepard's friends (who, years later, went on to write the very informative book The Hodag and Other Tales of the Logging Camps), and was deftly manipulated by Shepard's sons Claude and Layton, acting like puppeteers (with a hidden dog giving voice to the supposed hodag's belligerent moans, groans, and growls when prodded by a small boy). As for its stench, this derived from rank, discarded animal hides obtained from the local tannery that were used to cover the hodag model's wooden framework.

Artistic reconstruction of Shepard's captive hodag of 1896, in Wide World Magazine, May 1915 (public domain)

Whether Shepard would have ever owned up of his own volition to committing this fraud, or whether he would have continued with it, will never be known, because in the event he had no option but to confess. For he learned that some scientists from the Smithsonian Institution were so intrigued by media reports of this astonishing animal that they were planning to visit Rhinelander and observe it directly. The game was definitely over, and so was the hodag marionette, which performed no more.

Nevertheless, Shepard's promotion-serving pranks had achieved all that he had hoped for, and more. Rhinelander was indeed on the map now, and the hodag duly entered local folklore on a permanent basis. Yet ironically, Shepard's success actually worked against him on a personal level, because his hodag hoaxes turned him into an infamous, despised figure locally, who became shunned both within and even beyond his Rhinelander homeland. Tragically, on 26 March 1923 aged 69, Shepard died alone, of kidney failure, still estranged from his family and former friends. In modern times, conversely, his reputation has been largely regained and his contributions to Rhinelander's thriving success repatriated, due in no small way to the hodag's fame and lasting legacy in Rhinelander, and Wisconsin in general, for that matter.

Eugene Shepard in c.1915 (public domain)

Indeed, like all the best local legends, down through the decades since Shepard's time the hodag's mythology has continued to evolve and expand. Nowadays, for example, several different types of hodag are recognized.

These include the self-explanatory shovel-nosed hodag, which also has longer limbs than the standard variety, and the highly-specialised cave-dwelling hodag, distinguished by its complement of three eyes, enabling it to see clearly within its realm's stygian darkness.

Shovel-nosed hodag (top) and cave hodag (bottom) (© Richard Svensson)

Also, some of the more free-thinking members of today's cryptozoological community actually harbor suspicions that the hodag may be more than a fanciful fabrication.

Such speculation posits that there could in fact be a real, still-undiscovered animal species evading scientific detection amid the more remote regions of Wisconsin that inspired Shepard's morphology musings when creating his hoax specimens.

Traditional Native American pictograph of Mishibeshu at Lake Superior Provincial Park (© D Gordon E Robertson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

It has even been tentatively linked to a superficially similar-looking mythical entity known as Mishipeshu ('great lynx'), also dubbed the water panther, and traditionally claimed by a number of different indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands and Great Lakes region to inhabit Lake Superior.

Oral descriptions as well as petroglyphs of Mishipeshu that date back as far as 400 years ago portray a lengthy reptilian water monster covered with scales but sporting a pair of large cow-like horns on its head, plus a snarling feline face with prominent fangs, four stout clawed limbs, and a series of long spines running down its back and lengthy tail. Might Shepard have conceivably been inspired by folk-stories of this legendary aquatic beast when fleshing out his hodag specimens?

Image of water panther, from the National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center library (public domain)

Notwithstanding any such hypothetical real-life or legendary water-dwelling hodag precursors, what is unquestionably a fact is that today Wisconsin's most exceptional, unexpected representative is commemorated in all manner of different cultural ways here. Several Rhinelander organizations and businesses incorporate the hodag in their formal names, for instance, plus this city's annual music festival is known officially as the Hodag County Festival, its high school embraces the hodag as its official mascot, and many shops here sell a wide range of hodag souvenirs, including friendly hodag cuddly toys.

In autumn 1959, the then-Senator John F. Kennedy was even presented with a miniature hodag figurine when he visited Rhinelander during a political campaign, this unusual gift impressing and delighting him so much that he placed it on display at his home afterwards for guests to talk about. He also specifically referred to it himself in a subsequent press interview (Rhinelander Daily News, 16 July 1960).

Fibre-glass hodag statue in front of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce (© redlegsfan21/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Most impressive of all, however, are a number of spectacular hodag statues dotted around this city. Perhaps the most famous one is the larger than life-size, bright green, fibre-glass example created by local artist Tracy Goberville that stands proudly in the grounds of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, with another two on display at Rhinelander's Ice Arena (one of which even blows out smoke from its nostrils as its red eyes light up!).

These and other eyecatching replica hodags attract countless tourists visiting Rhinelander every year. Were he here to see them himself, I feel certain that Eugene Shepard would have approved!

'All Eyes on the Hodag' statue by artist Linda Gilbert-Ferzatta in Rhinelander (© Corey Coyle/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Last, but by no means least: from where is the name 'hodag' derived? It certainly didn't originate with Shepard, because this term existed long before his hoax specimens did. In fact, there is no common consensus as to its etymological origin.

However, the most popular explanation on offer, and favoured by leading hodag historian Kurt Kortenhof (author of the definitive 2006 book Long Live the Hodag: The Life and Legacy of Eugene Simeon Shepard) is that 'hodag' derives from lumberjack slang for one of the implements that they used in their work. The two likeliest possibilities are a type of heavy-duty hoe known technically as a grub hoe, or a type of flat-faced pickaxe known technically as a maddox. So now we know…sort of!

Top: Photograph of a re-creation of Shepard's 1893 hodag capture scene for a 1950 Rhinelander pageant (public domain); Bottom: Vintage picture postcard presenting Shepard's 1893 hodag photograph in close-up (public domain)


1 comment:

  1. The Hodag sure looks like a Mishipesu. I doubt if the similarity is just coincidence. Have you written more about the Mishipesu,or might you do so in the future?I wonder if traveler's tales about Alligators were part of the Mishipesu legend. It is supposed to be aquatic.By the way, I don't want to be a stickler,but I don't think there's such a tool as a maddox. I've heard a mattock called a maddox more than once.