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Thursday, May 14, 2009

THE BIG THREE: Mike Hallowell


Mike Hallowell:

I've always been a romantic at heart. Indeed, I have vague recollections of trying to snog Toby the CFZ dog at a Weird Weekend party after I'd imbibed a surfeit of tequila, and still have the scars to prove it. Toby rebuffed my advances, although he did send me a get-well card when I was discharged from the Accident & Emergency Unit later that day. My romanticism, I think, heavily influences my choice of favourite cryptids and before I go on to tell you what they are I need to elaborate a little.

I've never been a great fan of mystery big cats, for, truth to tell, they aren't really much of a mystery. You take a big cat and plonk him in the middle of Dartmoor or Durham and get everyone into a panic. Where's the mystery? We know what big cats are, and where to find them. The only enigma is how a Bengal Tiger happens to be running around Milton Keynes instead of Bengal. Once that's sorted, any cryptozoological magic disappears like the early morning dew.

For that reason, then, I've always been far more interested in exotic cryptids that bear no relationship whatsoever to taxonomically-recognised species. They are far more interesting and, I think most researchers would agree, present a much greater challenge. One of the rules of the Big Three Competition is that "the three cryptids must be ones that have some chance of existing; not purely mythological creatures or something esoteric from a movie or comic book". I think I'm going to be skating on thin ice here, then, as I name my three entries. Still, I think I'm operating within the rules, if only just. I do not believe that these truly bizarre cryptids are purely mythological, I truly think that they do (or did) exist and none of the ones I'm going to present to you here have, as yet, found their way into the pages of a comic book; which is a shame, but never mind.

Counting backwards from the least to the most favourite, I'd have to start with the legendary (but I'm convinced very real) Brancepeth Brawn.

Brancepeth is a picturesque village not far to the west of Durham, at the entrance to Weardale. The earliest known historic reference to the village occurred in the latter half of the 11th century, but recent discoveries have proven that the settlement was there for some time before the Norman Conquest.

How the name Brancepeth originated is an intriguing question. It has been suggested that the village – or at least an adjoining Roman roadway – were once owned by someone called “Brand” and that Brancepeth is a corruption of “Brand’s Path”. It’s not impossible, but the supporting evidence is scant as far as I can tell.

Another explanation is that the name is a corruption of “Brandon’s Path”, and its is true that there is a village called Brandon nearby. This suggestion has a bit more beef on the bones, but there is a third possibility that should intrigue Forteans even more. Brawn is an old word for boar, and so we must consider the possibility that Brancepeth is a corruption of Brawn’s Path. In fact, this is the most widespread and popular explanation for the name of the village, and it just so happens that there is a well-entrenched tradition that a giant – nay, colossal - boar did indeed inhabit the region in times past. In fact, the neighbouring village of Brandon may also take its name from Brawn’s Den, giving further weight to the tale.

No one knows exactly when the incident occurred on the historical timeline, but there is some evidence that it was on the cusp of the 12th and 13th centuries. The story goes that a huge, ferocious boar lived in nearby woods and that its presence was making life unbearable for the villagers. A number of brave souls had tried to hunt it down, but according to legend their arrows merely bounced off its tough hide, or at best merely scratched it superficially. One man attacked the creature with his sword, but ended up being so severely injured that no further assaults upon the creature were launched.

Apart from its boar-like appearance and its uncannily tough hide, the creature was also said to be able to run with nigh-miraculous speed between a number of different feeding places. It had a habit of hiding itself in long grass and was said to be exceedingly cunning. It had an acute sense of smell, and was on occasion seen “sniffing the air”. This enabled it to detect the presence of hunters at a considerable distance, after which it would run off and hide.

At the nearby village of Ferry Hill (now Ferryhill) there lived a man called Roger de Fery. On hearing about the Brawn he decided to write himself into the history books by killing it. Like others before him he tried conventional methods of tracking the beast down, all of which failed miserably. Roger de Fery then realised that he was going to have to attempt something spectacular. After giving the matter some thought he hit upon a plan. Previous attempts to kill the Brawn had failed primarily for two reasons: Firstly, because the creature was simply too fast and could outrun any hunters, and, secondly, because its tough hide made it almost impervious to arrows. Roger aimed to circumvent the first difficulty by hunting the beast on horseback instead of on foot. The second problem could be overcome by not using a bow and arrows at all, but instead employing a heavy lance.

It almost worked. After days of hunting the Brawn he eventually cornered it as it fed in a copse near the aforementioned village of Tudhoe. The Brawn was approximately fifty paces away when Roger raised his lance and charged. The creature, enraged, saw him coming and returned the compliment by charging at him. It was at this juncture that things went awry. Roger de Fery’s steed, although sturdy and fleet-footed, became terrified at the sight of the Brawn and reared its forelegs into the air. Roger was catapulted backwards and hit the ground just in time to see both the Brawn and the horse galloping off in separate directions. Winded but essentially unhurt, the man returned home to rethink his strategy. Patience, he decided, was the key to winning the day.

For several days afterwards Roger de Fery did not attempt to engage the Brawn. He simply followed it at a distance, observing its every move. With every passing hour he came to know his enemy a little better. He observed its strengths, and duly noted its weaknesses. Slowly but steadily he began to see that the Brawn had an Achilles Heel – all he needed to do was capitalise on it.

The first thing that Roger noticed was that the Brawn had a particular strategy for feeding. It would visit an area, eat, and then move on to another. Each time it travelled between one feeding area and another it would always use the same, well-worn track; the one it believed would afford it the greatest degree of camouflage and protection. Roger also noticed that it was always about the same time every afternoon that the Brawn found its way to a feeding ground near Ferry Hill. After feeding there, it would then head off down the path to nearby Mainsforth where, according to legend, it could dine sumptuously on a large supply of acorns. Roger de Fery decided that it was at this spot where he would again do battle with the Brawn.

Because the Brawn never visited Ferry Hill and Mainsforth until late afternoon, he knew he would have all day to prepare his trap there without being seen. At dawn the next day he set off. On reaching Mainsforth he promptly proceeded to dig a huge pit large enough to contain the beast. By mid-afternoon he’d finished digging, then he set about covering the maw with branches, leaves and other bits of natural detritus. According to some accounts I have read, to be sure of outwitting the sharp-eyed Brawn he also carefully hid all the soil he had removed from the pit. He did not stop working until the path between Ferry Hill and Mainsforth looked pretty much the same as it had done before he’d started work. Satisfied at last, he placed himself at a good vantage point – on top of a nearby rock – and waited.

The plan worked perfectly. Late in the afternoon the Brawn came trotting down the path at a fair pace. Without warning it suddenly found itself plunging into the pit. Worse, it was unable to get out. The last thing it ever saw was a grinning Roger de Fery staring down at it from above, lance in hand. He thrust his weapon into the Brawn over and over again until it resembled a sieve. When he was sure it was dead, he went off to announce the good news to the local villages. The good folk of Brancepeth (or whatever they called it then), Brandon, Mainsforth and Ferry Hill were naturally delighted. In fact, they erected a stone cross at the exact spot where the beast was slain. Alas, this historical marker disappeared many years ago, but at the site of Cleve’s Cross Farm there is an old stone plaque set into a wall which reads:

YEAR 1200

The stories about the Brawn of Brancepeth are remarkably consistent. In some accounts the hero is called Roger de Fery, in others he is called “Hodge”. This is easily explained, for yet other versions call him “Hodge of Fery”. Hodge of Fery and Roger de Fery are so close it is obvious that they are the same person.

Of all the cryptozoological legends throughout the Durham and Wearside area, this one has one of the strongest claims to be historically true. In 1867, renovations were being carried out at Cleve’s Hill Farm when the remains of a large pit were uncovered. “Experts” (we do not know who) apparently stated with confidence that this was indeed the pit where the Brawn of Brancepeth was lured to its death and executed. How they knew this we cannot say, but the presence of the pit in itself adds some credence to the account. As for Roger de Fery, he was subsequently buried at Merrington Church and achieved the fame he rightly deserved.

Why do I like the Brancepeth Brawn? For a number of reasons. Firstly, I believe it truly existed. Whether it was simply a conventional wild boar of incredible size or something more exotic I cannot say, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Brawn lived. Secondly, I am overawed with the sheer power of the beast. Even after the passing of several centuries, there is something about this cryptid that curdles the blood, chills the spine and brings the flesh out in goose-bumps.

Moving up to number two on my list, let me introduce you – if you haven't already heard of it, and if you haven't then shame on you – to the Wadsworth Racer.

Some time ago I interviewed musician Drake Eblis from Winthrop Harbor, Chicago, who has done quite a bit of research into the creepy story of Resurrection Mary, the seductive ghost who allegedly haunts a Chicago cemetery after dying nearby in a road accident. Through Drake I met fellow musician “Big Joe” Penley, who also lived in Winthrop Harbor before moving to Spring, Texas. Joe is a Logistics Control Manager with an internationally renowned computer company, although enthralling listeners with his own brand of country rock seems to be his real passion.

In 1991, Joe and his girlfriend Kim, to whom he is now married, were travelling through the picturesque village of Wadsworth in Lake County, Illinois. They’d been out to dinner, and decided to “cruise around for a while”. Joe decided to take a run up near St. Patrick’s Cemetery, which is a pretty spooky place, and freely admits that the eerie atmosphere may just have increased his chances of getting a quick hug from Kim, who found the location rather scary.

There had long been rumours circulating that the area around the graveyard had a sinister side. Dark tales of diabolic rituals and even human sacrifices occasionally circulated, although some researchers dismiss them as nothing but romance. Joe Penley believes that there is something decidedly strange about that old cemetery and its surrounding environs, and he has good reason – both he and Kim had their own close encounter there back in 1991 as they cruised down the potholed, bumpy road past St. Patrick’s.

Joe told me, “I was driving my Chevy Beretta GTZ past the cemetery gates when I looked out of the driver’s window. There was this creature – I can only describe it as looking something like a bear – running right next to my car.

“Kim, who was in the passenger seat, turned to talk to me just then and she saw it too. She just screamed and completely freaked out. The thing looked at me and snarled. It was growling loudly and both Kim and I were shocked. Well, I just gunned the car and sped down the road, but the thing just kept pace with us effortlessly. It wasn’t until I hit 60mph that we left it behind”.

Joe describes the creature as something “like a bear”, but is adamant that it certainly wasn’t one. The truth is that the nearest bears are over 150 miles from Wadsworth, and they certainly can’t run at 60mph. Their top speed, on a good day, is 35mph. Regardless, others have seen the same creature and it has all the hallmarks of a living, flesh-and-blood animal. The fact that it lives in an area where it would be impossible for a breeding population of such beasts – whatever they are – to survive without being seen only adds to the enigma.

Joe held back from telling others about his experience, sharing the couple’s eerie encounter with their good friend Drake and a small number of trusted associates. For the first time in over fifteen years they allowed me to declare their story. I felt privileged.

There is no doubt that Joe and Kim saw something truly beyond their comprehension that night. In his desperation to remove the couple from the entity’s attention he confessed that he “almost wrecked the car” as he sped off into the darkness.

What intrigues me so about what, superficially, seems to be "just another monster" sighting? A number of things, actually. Firstly, witnesses insist that the creature looks more like a bear than a typical "Bigfoot", which makes its provenance – physical or psychic – all the more intriguing. Secondly, the phenomenal speed that the creature attained is similar to that reported in other stories of anthropomorphic cryptids. What this tells us about the creature's physiology I'll have to leave to the experts, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that big, fast, violent and strong are the four perfect ingredients for an above-the-ordinary cryptid. Well, they are in my book.

Finally, let me introduce you to my favourite cryptid of all time. As you'll have guessed by now, I'm not one for milking fashionable cows; most of the cryptids that fascinate me are obscure and poorly reported. However, this makes them more intriguing, not less. Top of my list, then, is the Beatty Screamer – a bizarre animal which I truly believe exists and proves that there really is something odd up in them thar hills, folks.

Old newspapers are a great source of spooky stories. As readers of my WraithScape column know, I’ve dug up a good few from dusty archives over the years. That said, I’d like to take you on a journey through time and space – specifically to the town of Beatty, Nevada, USA. The date is Saturday, December 21, 1907, and we’re standing outside the busy offices of the Beatty Bullfrog Miner, the town’s popular broadsheet newspaper. Both the editor and his chief reporter are shaking their heads in bewilderment. Before we examine why, let me tell you something about the town of Beatty.

Beatty was founded in 1900 by the Bullfrog Mining District to accommodate the gold and silver miners flooding into the area during the Great Boom, as it was called. The mining company, the town and the newspaper were all named after the nearby Bullfrog Hills. Although Beatty was a new town, it had already accumulated a wealth of spooky stories and eerie tales. Most of them relating the barren hills and mountains which locals often avoided – particularly after darkness fell. Many of these stories had been written up in the Bullfrog Miner, making the residents even more wary.

The headline in The Bullfrog Miner that day read, “Man Dragged 500 Ft”. The story gave a strange account – one of many – which had the Miner’s editors and reporters baffled.

Bill Keyes was an adventurer and prospector. During one trip in the hills he stopped at some "tule holes" for water. Tules are actually the large bulrushes that surround many pools and lakes in Nevada. Keyes knew that the area was renowned for its paranormal happenings and had been so for the last three centuries. Still, he wasn’t superstitious and decided to pitch his tent for the night. It wasn’t long before a sequence of strange events captured his attention, the first being the mysterious appearance of strange, dancing lights in the adjacent valley. Keyes watched, fascinated, as they shot through the air, twisting and turning at bizarre angles.

Then he heard voices. The air became filled with unearthly moans and groans, bizarrely interspersed with the sounds of bullfrogs croaking, even though, despite the name of the mountain range, there were none in that vicinity. Eventually exhaustion forced him into a slumber

The next morning as Keyes yawned, blinked, stretched and opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sunrise. He was no longer in his tent. Alarmed, he jumped up and looked around him. He was amazed to see a furrow in the sand where both he and his bedroll had been dragged the distance of 500 feet whilst he slept.
Someone – or something – had managed to drag the sleeping prospector a large distance without rousing him. Who or what had done this, and why?
Keyes decided that discretion was the better part of valour and headed for the nearby town of Rhyolite. Here he bumped into the editor of The Bullfrog Miner, and blurted out his story. Seeing a good headline in the making, the editor quickly pulled out his notebook and pencil. On December 21, the residents of Rhyolite, Bullfrog, Beatty and other towns of Nye County, Nevada read Keyes’s account. "I am telling the truth when I say I was dragged across the Wash, and heard a bunch of unearthly and disturbing sounds”, he stated.

Why do I like the story of the Beatty Screamer so much? Well, it leaves researchers begging for more factual information and therefore encourages further investigation. Just why was the creature called the Beatty Screamer, for instance? I discovered that some witnesses had heard the beast's unearthly high-pitched wails during the night. The other thing that fascinates me is that this cryptid, almost uniquely, has never actually been seen by witnesses. This allows the imagination to work overtime, of course, and visually make up our own monster. This will have the blood of more academic researchers boiling, of course, but I care not one fig. I've never been a fan of reducing cryptids down to facts and statistics. To me, that's a bit like seeing a bird in a nightclub without make-up. Cryptids are better when surrounded by an aura of mystery. In this case, that aura is only enhanced by wonderful visions of old miners, ramshackle cowboy towns and tumbleweed. They don't come better.

Do I believe that the Brancepeth Brawn, the Wadsworth Racer and the Beatty Screamer actually existed? Yes I do. The Brancepeth Brawn was a true enigma, but historically its existence seems to have been well verified. There certainly wasn't a herd of giant boars living in the area at the time, so what was the Brawn? A one-off freak or mutant? Something spectral from another world or dimension? I don't know, and its uncertain provenance simply adds to its already intimidating aura of mystique.

The Wadsworth Racer is a fascinating cryptid, because its just possible that it may belong to an entire species of bear-like animals that, like Sasquatch and against all the odds, has managed to avoid being caught and catalogued by scientists.

The Beatty Screamer? There's no doubt it existed, but whether it's still around now or not we just can't say. There may be (or may have been) an entire colony of the things living up in the remote hills of Nevada. Or, there may just have been one.

And that's about it, then. These are my three favourite cryptids of all time; a huge boar, a car-chasing bear-like anthropomorph and a creature which has never been seen but likes dragging miners through the dust. Nothing lasts forever, though, and next year all three may have been supplanted by entities that are even stranger. Well, I live in hope, anyway.

Mike Hallowell

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