Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription


The sheer wrath and condemnation that than one would incur for the use of the phrase "the weaker sex" is an apt and simple demonstration of how far we as a society have come from the days of just a century ago. As the nineteen century turned to the twentieth, terms such as 'hysteria', derived from the Latin word for female sexual organs, and phrases like 'womanly function' were accepted without contention.
In 1902, an advertisement ran in a local newspaper that, shockingly to our modern ear, read as follows:
"In girlhood there is a great need of motherly watchfulness and care. A growing girl needs all her strength, and if she is nervous and melancholy, and loses appetite, there is surely something wrong. This is especially true as the young girl approaches that important period of change when the womanly function is established. Timely care and proper treatment at this period may save much after suffering.
"The best medicine for girls who are nervous, melancholy, and irregular of appetite is Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription. It cures nervousness, dizziness and melancholy, promotes the appetite, and gives the body robust health. There is no alcohol in "Favorite Prescription" and it is entirely free from opium, cocaine, and all other narcotics."
The patent medicine that was commercially known as Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription was immensely popular at the time. Dr. Pierce's Buffalo, New York-based company sold nearly two million bottles per year for numerous years. Undoubtedly, many mothers my area partook of the advertised product.
While perhaps the entire ad was in many ways disturbing, the last sentence may have particularly piqued your curiosity. Advertising that it was free of opium and cocaine?
This was economically necessary at the time, as the nation's foremost family magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, published in the same year a scathing expose on the product. In it, it was revealed that an independent lab analysis had determined the medicine’s all-botanical ingredients: savin, cinchona, agaric, cinnamon, water, acacia, sugar, digitalis, opium, oil star anise and alcohol.
Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce, a licensed physician and free enterprise mail-order pharmacist who was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (but, ironically, had to resign at the age of 40 due to "ill health"), promptly sued the magazine for $200,000 over the article which he deemed libelous. He insisted that his concoction did not, nor did it ever, did contain alcohol, opium or even digitalis.
The Journal did all it could, chemically sampling hundreds of bottles, but found no opium or alcohol. The courts sided with Dr. Pierce; the Journal backed down and paid up. It was later determined that, not being at all regulated, Pierce had simply discontinued the inclusion of the narcotic and spirits after the original analysis and prior to the Journal article.
While it was not unusual for a patent medicine to include an extremely potent and addictive narcotic such as opium (from which heroin is derived), it did perhaps explain the product's vast and long-term popularity. It must be remembered that even an iconic product such as Coca-Cola, in 1902, still contained – for proprietary reasons – traces of the extract of coca leaves, cocaine.
However, the real controversy about this fashionable product was shadowed by the looming debate over the narcotic. Little known to many, it was the herbal contents that were perhaps the basis for the commercial demand for the medicine by mothers purchasing it for their daughters. Some of the herbal ingredients were fairly benign:
Herbalists claim that oil star anise promotes proper digestion, cinchona produces a chemical in the body similar in nature to quinine that acts as a natural painkiller and agaric (produced from deadly poisonous mushrooms) inhibits perspiration. In a world that was pre-antiperspirant, young women must have coveted this effect. Digitalis is well know for its ability to increase blood pressure while decreasing pulse rate, thus perchance calming all those poor nervous young ladies.
More sinister though are the last two. Without much doubt, mothers – far more knowledgeable of herbal remedies than today’s counterparts – knew of the effects of these plants and winked at each other as they insisted their daughters take the elixir for their 'feminine problems'. Acacia is believed to dampen sexual appetite and response. Then there is savin...
Savin has been used for thousands of years; it is believed that the Romans discovered the extract of the European juniper berry's effects on the female body. Medicinally, it is known as a strong emmanagogue. That is a fancy word for anything that induces menstruation. If this savin-based medicine were taken regularly by a young woman, even if she were to have an egg fertilized, it would not implant. She would always menstruate. In theory, she could not get pregnant.
Our world, which wrestles with the morality of everything from birth control pills to the morning-after pill, is often thought to be radically dissimilar from 'the olden days'. Perhaps, we are not all that different.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Recent Shark Found in Lake Michigan No Surprise

I read in the newspaper this morning that a gentleman from Traverse City, Michigan found a dead shark in Lake Michigan. This did not surprise me. Rick Fasi discovered the two-foot long fish while boating and had it identified as a juvenile blacktip shark by an expert from the University of Florida. This species surprised me. I would have expected it to have been a bull shark. Let me give you some historical background on Lake Michigan and some surrounding freshwater rivers to explain why:

In September of 1937, the patience of Alton, Illinois anglers "Dudge" Collins and Herbert Copes was completely exhausted. More times than they cared to count, something—something big—had destroyed their Mississippi River fish traps while helping itself to a quick, easy meal. They guessed it was an opportunistic, gigantic catfish. They decided to end its marauding once and for all by setting a seine net to snare it.

When they returned they found that the trap had apparently worked, as the net’s buoys showed signs of a terrific struggle beneath the muddy water’s surface. What the men pulled up, though, left them shocked and scared. Ensnared in the net was a bull shark that was over five-feet long and 84 pounds. For those not familiar with bull sharks, here are a few facts:
- They can reach eleven feet in length.
- They are considered by divers to be the second most dangerous shark (after the great white). Unprovoked bull shark attacks on humans are not uncommon. Some studies have shown that bull sharks kill more humans per year than any other shark species.
- These unusual elasmobranches can not only survive in freshwater, but have been known worldwide to actually prefer it to saltwater. They are common inhabitants of—or visitors to—rivers that enter the ocean, such as the Ganges in India, the Zambezi in Africa, and our very own Mississippi and its tributaries.

Many authorities, presumably wanting to prevent panic among river dwellers and water-sport enthusiasts, insist that, due to the extensive lock-and-dam system built on the river shortly after the Alton catch, it would now be impossible for a shark to wend its way up the Mississippi, Illinois, or Ohio Rivers. That sounds comforting, but how can the authorities account for the following horror and oddity that occurred in 1955 and 1969 respectfully, well after the completion of the locks?

The day was beautiful, and consequently many were cooling off by boating or swimming in Lake Michigan. Among them was George Lawson, a boy from Chicago, who was swimming not too far from a boat off the shore. While splashing and playing, George was abruptly pulled underwater. Upon resurfacing, his screams for help brought John Adler to his rescue. Nevertheless, by the time he was brought into the boat, George’s right leg had been severed. The boat’s stunned passengers could do little but stare in dumbfounded awe at a large "tell-tale dorsal fin" that headed out to deeper water.

"I just couldn’t believe it, but I had to believe what I saw happening right before my eyes!" exclaimed a stunned Adler.

Doctors were certain that the boy’s injuries were inflicted by a shark, but were unable to explain from whence it came.

The second inscrutable encounter also played itself out on Lake Michigan. Anglers Gil Scharnek and Cal Lukasavitz literally stumbled upon a second shark specimen—much smaller, but a shark none-the-less.

"We saw a seagull sitting on what we thought was a piece of flotsam," recalled Scharnek. "When we got closer, the seagull flew away and we saw it was a fish. Cal said ‘Look, it’s a sturgeon,’ but when we got up to it we could see it was a shark."

The two brought the curiosity home with them, froze it and eventually had the identity of their find verified by a museum ecologist as a bull shark. Even though the lake’s temperature was a bone-chilling 42 degrees, the ecologist confirmed that even that was not too cold for a shark.

Out-of-place animals have always fascinated me, but these sharks may have a purely biological origin...though blacktips are not known for their freshwater forays. The Michigan DNR, of course, proposed that "someone might have caught the shark of the Atlantic coast and kept it on ice while bringing it to norther Michigan." This begs the question: who keeps a two foot blacktip shark?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lawndale "Thunderbird" Should Have Been Déjà Vu

The article below is from 1929: A sad truth exists in the anomalistic portion of the world: Those individuals who report that they were witnesses to extraordinary events are destined to be subject to extraordinary ridicule.

I am certain that the whole Lowe family of Lawndale, Illinois - who witnessed the extraordinary event of a giant bird attempting to carry away their 10-year-old son - would now all ask the same question: "George Meece...where were you in 1977?". How much grief could have been spared had he spoken up for little Marlon?

For you see, the case of Lawndale's famous giant bird attack became a renowned story - the standard for its genre - largely due to the quick interviewing done by Jerry Coleman, an anomalist then of Illinois, and the wide-spread reporting of the event by his brother, author Loren Coleman. Poor little George Reece did not benefit from such publicity (though "benefit" may be the wrong word, as still today - 30 years later - Marlon Lowe, the attempted avian abductee, struggles and strives to live an anonymous and normal life in the little hamlet of Lawndale).

When analyzed, contrasted and compared, the events in Marlon Lowe's fitful day were simply eerie replications of another scary day forty-eight years prior in Ruth, Kentucky, as recounted in the above article from the September 24, 1929 edition of the Columbian Missourian. Consider the many similarities:
  • Ruth, Kentucky, like Lawndale, Illinois was and is a rural village so small as to not appear on some maps
  • George and Marlon were both mid-age youth, 8 and 10 respectively
  • Both victims were similar is size, small for their age - George 50 lbs and Marlon 65 lb
  • Both were playing with friends when attacked - George 4 friends, Marlon 2
  • Both were grabbed by their clothing, different and respective for each era - George his overalls and Marlon his tank-top
  • Both were physically lifted off the ground by the bird, before screams spurred the birds to drop each child
  • Both birds were estimated to be of tremendous size - George's at 10' and Marlon's at 8-10'

Perhaps the sole variation in the stories was the taxonomic family to which each bird seemed to belong. Meece's bird was distinctly described as a bald eagle (no distinction being given here for whether this was a mature dichromic adult or a brown immature, which of course makes me ponder the outside possibility of this being a Washington eagle - Audubon killed his type-specimen near there), while the Lowes identified their bird as a large vulture or condor-like species.

In the days subsequent to their 1977 report being filed with the sheriff's department and the Department of Conservation, the Lowes were subject to what can only be described as "extraordinary criticism". A series of dead birds, including an eagle, were left on their home's door step and poor Marlon - L. Coleman reported - was so tormented at school that he suffered physically with hair loss and even temporary color change.

What if Meece had heard of Lowe's case though the AP in 1977? How much easier could life have been had Meece - he would have been around 58-years-of-age at that point - written to the Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph or the Lincoln Courier (the two closest towns with newspapers that thoroughly covered the events of 1977) and attested to his incident and asked others to believe the Lowes?

The world is full of "what ifs", though. Where were you George Meece?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Avian Abuctions Back in the News - New Evidence

The city of Springfield, Illinois (like many others) has a Starling problem. Millions of these birds haunt the historic downtown area, leaving behind sidewalks on which few want to walk. The solution...James "the Bird Whisperer" Soules was hired for $164,000 to drive the birds away (he claims to never hurt or kill a healthy bird, use poison of any sort or use explosives...his technique is a trademarked, and much locally guffawed-at, secret). But even more fascinating (and locally laughed at) is an answer this octogenarian gave at a press conference of how and why he got into this business: When he was a child of two, a bald eagle swooped down on him near Decatur, Illinois and attempted to carry him away...a classic attempted avian abduction. Needless to say, Soules claim has brought a barrage of criticism upon himself and his contract.

Most ornithologists insist that such abduction scenarios are physically impossible. Eagles, they say, are simply not capable of lifting and flying with such weight. For anomalists, the first case that may come to mind is the attempted avian abduction of 10-year-old Marlon Lowe of Lawndale, Illinois. Witnesses insisted that a large bird lifted Lowe off the ground and carried him for dozens of feet before dropping him. A previous post of mine argued for the possibility of such avian abductions by listing 30 historic cases of such instances. Now I have uncovered new, difficult to dispute evidence:

The Article above was carried by the July 18th, 1937 edition of the Fresno Bee-The Republican out of Fresno, California. The startling story features Richard L'Estrange, a long-time Hollywood actor, director and producer from 1920-1956. Today, he is remembered for producing such movies as "Revenge of the Zombies", "Charlie Chan in The Chinese Cat" and the reasonably-popular sci-fi TV series "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger".
But for me, the most important film he produced was a shocking, short clip featuring his infant daughter Jill and an eagle. An excerpt from the article shown here reads as follows:
"Recently, movie director Richard Le Strange [an alternative "Americanized" spelling he utilized early in his career], an ametuer naturalist, decided it was useless to wait until the savants settled the controversy as to the man-eating habits of the king of the birds, and made a test that was conclusive enough for him by casting his own 18-month-old daughter as "victim" in a harrowing sequence, partially depicted on this page [above]. The child was elaborately protected, so the bird never got more than a few feet off the ground with his "prey", but it was a relief when the child was safe again in its daddy's arms. The mere fact that the great bird was able to lift Jill Le Strange from the ground [as seen in the above photos] would seem to contradict the statements of Alexander Wetmore about the strength of the bird."
While as a father, I cannot condone what L'Estrange did with his daughter (she also starred in another feature film he produced), but it is difficult to argue against the fact that large raptors are (or were...pre-1920) capable of carrying away toddlers...and who knows how much more?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Avian Abductions: Lawndale was Last

Thirty years ago, in 1977, central Illinois was all abuzz over Marlon Lowe. This diminuitive 10-year-old child had been attacked by what can only be described as a giant bird. Accounts of this event are all over the web, so I will not attempt to go into the details here. The most frightening aspect of this sighting was not the sheer size of the bird, but the fact that the bird made an abduction attempt on the child, lifting him off the ground and carrying him for some distance. This case has become an internet sensation for this reason and...some are actually naive enough to believe that this was perhaps the only time this type of event had been documented. To counter this, on this 30th anniversary of the Lawndale incident, I am presenting my top 30 Avian Abductions from the past 100 years (in chronological order):

1 “A bald-headed eagle hovering over St. John’s Island suddenly swooped down and attempted to carry off a two-year-old child of Mr. Clancyl’s that was playing in the field alone. The light clothing gave way with every tug of the voracious bird and torn into ribbons. Some men working nearby came up in time to save the child from injury, but the eagle refused to go away until it was shot at.” (Evening Gazette, Reno, Nevada 8/26/1881 from the Toronto Globe)

2 “Saturday afternoon, while the wife of Jean Baptist Romillen, living ten miles from here, accompanied by here two-year-old child, was feeding the fowls, a large bald-headed eagle swooped down and bore the little one off in its talons. The neighbors turned out with shotguns, but the only effect of their firing was to accelerate the eagle’s flight. The bird alighted on top of a barn a mile away, and was seen to make several strokes at the child’s head with its beak. The neighbors had got pretty close by this time, and succeeded in frightening the eagle away. The child’s body was recovered, but life was extinct, a hole having been made in its skull, and a portion of the brains devoured by the bird.” (Manitoba Daily Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba 10/20/1885)

This was one of the rare (and tragic) successful and fatal avian abductions.

3 “An eagle attacked a nine year old son of I. Martin of Hamilton township Franklin County a few days ago and attempted to carry him off. The glorious bird did not succeed in this but the boy was badly injured.” (Wellsboro Agitator, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania 8/31/1886)

4 “A few days ago a child of a Mrs. Smith living on West River street, was playing in the back-yard when a monstrous eagle swooped down, and fixing its talons in the child’s clothing attempted to fly away. The Screams of the child attracted the mother, who rushed out of doors at which the big bird flew away. It is thought that the eagle measured ten feet from tip to tip, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the mother the child would certainly have been carried off.” (Weekly Nevada State Journal, Reno, Nevada 9/17/1887 from the Truckee Republican)

This incident is eerily similar the Lawndale event in many ways.

5 “Detroit, Mich., Aug. 5 – Two eagles had a duel to the death for the possession of a 6-month-old baby of Peter Shaw, who lives four miles north of Allis, in Presque Isle county. Mrs. Shaw had laid the baby down in the grass and returned to the house for a few seconds; when an immense eagle swooped down on the infant and sunk its talons into the little one’s flesh and clothing…Mr. Shaw arrived just in time to witness a terrible sight. Two eagles were hovering above the crag of rock, filling the air with their cries and battling for the possession of the baby that lay high upon the cliff. Before the father reached the summit one of the eagles had fallen to the ground, while the other had taken up the child for another flight. The father fired and the bird and baby fell into the water. The frantic father plunged into the lake and caught up the body, but the little one was dead.” (Galveston Daily News, Galveston, Texas 8/6/1892)

6 “Mrs. Anna McDowell, 19 years old, and a resident of Ouakoke valley, near Wilkesbarre, Pa., is at present superintending the work of a local taxidermist who is stuffing one of the largest bald eagles ever seen in that section. The giant bird was killed by the girl while it was endeavoring to carry off a three-year-old child named Nettie Hinkle…Little Nettie, badly wounded though she was, made her way to her home, a short distance away, and told her parents that “a good lady saved me from a bad bird at the creek”. (San Antonia Daily Light, San Antonio, Texas 1/4/1897)

7 “Council Bluffs, Iowa, June 23 – Mrs. Christina Mortensen, living near Honey Creek, Pottawatomie county, was attacked by an eagle yesterday while hoeing in her garden. The bird swooped down upon her from a cloudless sky, and with a scream sank its talons deep into the flesh of her shoulders in an effort to carry her off, notwithstanding the fact that Mrs. Mortensen weighs 160 pounds. Failing in its efforts to bear its prey away, the eagle beat the woman with its wings, at the same time tearing her face and head with its beak, lacerating her in a frightful manner…Owing to her age (70) and frail condition her injuries proved fatal. She appeared to suffer as much from nervous shock as from her wounds.” (Daily Republican, Decatur, Illinois 6/23/1897 and a follow-up from San Antonio Daily Light, San Antonio, Texas 8/4/1897)

8 “A resident of Eagle Valley says that a big eagle swooped down into his yard a few days ago and tried to carry off his child. Its mother saw the little one’s peril and drove the hungry bird away with a club.” (Daily Argus, Middletown, New York 9/6/1897)

9 “A bald eagle, measuring more than six feet between its wing tips, flew into the yard of William H. Berry, Pinedale, and attacked his 2-year-old son. Mrs. Berry ran screaming into the yard and the eagle rose, being joined by its mate, and both circles over the house.” (Weekly Tribune, Hornellsville, New York 9/8/1899)

10 “On Saturday the three children of Julius Housechild, two boys and a girl, were sent across lots by their mother to a neighbor’s house for milk. The youngest of the children is Paul, a boy 7 years old. The children started from the house about 9 o’clock in the morning and loitered on their way, “playing horse” as children do, with a rope for the reigns. They had come to an unfrequented place when the little girl looked up and then gave a scream. The boys started to look up to see what had caused the little girl’s fright when the flapping of great wings above their heads was followed by the resting of a heavy weight on the shoulders of Paul…An eagle had swooped down, striking the boy in the neck and had fastened its talons in the boys clothes. Paul had been the “horse” and the reigns were still under his arms, his brother still holding the other end. Slowly the eagle flapped its enormous wings, lifting the boy from the ground…Paul’s older brother held on tightly to the reigns, which were five feet long, and his weight added to that of his brother, was too much for the monster bird to carry, so that after getting five feet into the air the eagle sank down to the ground again…The little girl had run for a stick and brought a club she luckily found, and the big brother belabored the eagle with the club, until it let go off its hold and flew away.” (Daily News, Naugatuck, Connecticut 9/13/1899)

11 “Two wires which are strung across the lawn at the courthouse yesterday saved a 4-year-old boy from feeling the talons of [an] eagle in his tender flesh. That it was the intention of the bird when it swooped down to carry off the child there can be little doubt, but that it could have done so is doubtful…The bird is an unusually large black eagle. A number of them have been seen about the city lately and it is assumed that the recent snows in the mountains have driven them to the plains.” (Anaconda Standard, Anaconda, Montana 12/9/1900 from the Denver Republican)

12 “Colorado Springs, Colo., Sept. 29 – An immense bald eagle yesterday afternoon tried to carry away to the mountains Alfred, the 8-year-old son of Cornelius A. Starr, Sexton at Evergreen cemetery, southeast of this city. The timely arrival of the lad’s father and another man with a shotgun no doubt saved the boy from death or serious injury.” (Evening news, Lincoln, Nebraska 9/29/04)

13 “Coweta, Ok – The five-year-old son of Nero Charles, a farmer living near Coweta, was attacked by a large gray eagle a few days ago, and narrowly escaped with his life after being carried 50 yards by the fierce bird. So far as known, this is the first time in the history of Indian Territory that a child has actually been picked up and carried by an eagle…The child weighs 50 pounds, and at no time did the eagle succeed in getting more than eight to ten feet above the ground with him. The child was not injured save for a bruises and scratches when his parents found him.” (Evening News, Ada, Oklahoma 2/2/1907)

14 “Confluence, W. Va., -- A little child belonging to D.M. Riffee, a merchant of Braxton County, was nearly carried away by a large bald eagle to-day. The child was playing in the doorstep of its home, when the immense bird swooped down, catching the child about the shoulders and waist with its claws. The screams of the little one attracted its father, who came out of his store just as the bird was raising with the child. Mr. Riffee immediately seized one of the rakes which he had on display in front of his store, and with it literally raked down the bird and child. The child was injured but little, while the parent managed to deal the bird several telling blows with the rake. Despite this it managed to fly to some tall trees nearby, where, while nursing its injuries, it was killed by a rifle ball. The eagle is one of the largest ever seen here.” (Washington Post, Washington D.C. 5/14/1907)

15 “Medicine Hat, Alberta, April 23 – While Anna Jergensen, a 2-year-old child of a farmer, was playing in the yard of her home, near here, yesterday, an enormous eagle swooped down and carried her off in its talons. The bird flew to its aerie on a mountain nearby. The Parents are prostrated.” (Syracuse Herald, Syracuse, New York, 4/23/1908)

16 “Swooping down into a crowd of persons who were watching a recent baseball game near Point Richmond, S. I., an American eagle attacked John Pollackson, 8-years-old. A group of men set upon the bird and the father of the boy ran to his home, procured a shotgun and returning, killed the eagle…The eagle measured seven feet six inches from tip to tip.” (Fort Wayne Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana 9/15/1908)

17 “New York, Sept. 18 – While Blanche Cribler, 3 years old, the daughter of Fred Cribler, a summer resident of Helmetta, N.J., was at play near her home, a large eagle swooped down and attempted to carry the child away in its talons. Cribler was working near by and the screams of his daughter attracted his attention. He fought off the bird and as it attempted to fly away his brother, who came up with a shot gun, fired and crippled the eagle. Its capture was then an easy matter. Except for a few scratches, the child was unhurt.” (Fort Wayne Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana 9/18/1908)

18 “Eau Clair, Wisc. May 19 – Harold Ness, the ten-year-old son of Otto Ness, a farmer near here, was attacked by an eagle while he was walking through a grove. Though the big bird fastened his talons into the child’s shoulders, causing much pain, the boy seized the neck of his feathered assailant and wrung it until death ensued. A few minor injuries were received by the lad.” (Iowa City Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa 5/19/1909)

19 “South Norwalk, Conn., June 15 – The largest eagle ever seen or shot in these parts attacked Emma Trewald, an eight-year-old girl, in the rear of her home in Westport. The bird which measured seven feet from tip to tip of the wings, soared down on the child while she was picking daisies. The eagle grabbed the girl by the back of her gingham dress with his claws and started to fly away with her, but the goods gave way and the child fell into the grass.” (Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 6/15/1912)

20 “Binghamton, N.Y., July 6 – Only the brave fight put up by Mrs. Martin Hunsucker, of Geneganslet, Chenango county, prevented her son William, 4 years old, [from] being carried away, or at least injured, by an eagle this afternoon. The child was playing near the house when the bird swooped, fastening its talons in his hair. The boy screamed, and the mother, catching up a stick, beat off the eagle. The big bird at first gave battle, then suddenly released its hold and soared away.” (Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 7/7/1913)

21 “Geneva, Switzerland, Aug. 8 – An enormous eagle carried off the 4-year-old child of a woodcutter while it was playing near him when he was working in the forest in the vicinity of the village of Andeer, not far from Chur. A large body of hunters, accompanied by dogs, set off to rescue the child, but they were unable to find any traces of the eagle or its prey.” (Daily Bulletin, Van Wert, Ohio 8/8/1913)

22 “Glendo. Wyo., Nov. 23 – Attacked by a giant eagle, with a wing spread of more than eight feet, which had apparently swooped upon him with intention of carrying him away, eight-year-old Walter Spaulding seized his adversary by the neck and screamed for help. John. Walter’s 7-year-old brother, came to his assistance and beat the eagle with a club. A third brother ran for help. Mrs. Spaulding came and attacked the eagle with a stick, but the bird continued the attack. Mr. Spaulding arrived on the scene with a shotgun and dispatched the bird.” (Standard-Examiner, Ogden City, Utah 11/23/1920)

23 “Lubec, Maine, Aug. 11 (AP) – An immense eagle swooped down into the yard at the farm of Guy Lyons, near here, yesterday, seized 2-year-old Buddy Lyons in its talons and sought to carry him away. Buddy’s 5-year-old brother grasped the child’s and after a tussle pulled him free. The bird, which had a wing spread of 7 feet soared to a nearby tree and remained there all day. It was the first time that an eagle had been known to attempt to carry off a child in this territory.” (Fresno Bee, Fresno, California 8/11/1928)

24 “Sturgeon Bay, Wis., May 31 – After a vain 12-hour search for 3-year-old Edith Dorschell, who disappeared at a picnic yesterday, belief grew today that the child was carried away by a pair of giant eagles which have attacked sheep flocks in this vicinity for two weeks…The child wandered away from the group and disappeared in a wild wooded area nearby. Picnickers recalled that the eagles had hovered over the picnic grounds shortly before the child had disappeared.” (San Mateo Times, San Mateo, California and Sheboygan Press, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 5/31/1929)

25 “It is reported that Mrs. Callahan, of Gallagher township, Clinton county, had a desperate fight the other day with an eagle which was trying to carry away her two-year-old child. The child’s face and hands were torn by the bird’s talons, and Mrs. Callahan was quite painfully pecked before she succeeded in driving off the big bird.” (Standard-Examiner, Ogden City, Utah 5/30/1931)

26 “Trento, Italy, July 28 – An eagle today carried off Ola Marie Robizert, year-old daughter of a peasant farmer, as she slept on the edge of a field her father was cultivating.” (Indiana Progress, Indiana, Pennsylvania 7/29/1936)

27 “With his father’s shotgun, 14-year-old John Naglish, Monday, killed a 50-pound Mexican eagle as it swooped toward a baby girl in the yard of his father’s farm at 110th and Calumet Lake. The bird had a wing spread of seven feet and would have been able to injure seriously, if not carry away little Jean O’Neil, 13-months-old, target of his swoop. The eagle had been carrying away poultry and small pigs in the vicinity, and the gun had been kept in readiness.” (The Pointer, Riverdale, Illinois 9/11/1936)

28 “Cold ran the blood of a Finnish farmer one day in 1931. His two-year-old child had been playing outside his cottage near the Russian border. Now the baby was the gone. He and his friends searched far and wide, found no trace. Last week, near the farmer’s home, lumbermen brought down a tall pine tree. High in the branches they spied an eagle’s nest. They came close to examine it. What they found made them cross themselves. There, surrounded by tatters of baby clothing, lay the skeleton of a 2-year-old child.” (Sheboygan Press, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 2/4/1937 from Time magazine)

29 In 1927, Edward Forbush, then the state ornithologist of Massachusetts and the author of A Natural History of American Birds, related the following current account: “M. Spencer Mapes, British Columbia, witnessed an attack by a golden eagle on Ellen Gibbs, nine-years-old…As the child ran toward her house, the eagle flew directly over [Mapes’] head in pursuit of the child. The bird sank its claws into her arms before he could reach her. He had partially disabled the eagle when the child’s mother rushed up and killed it with an ax.” (Fresno Bee-Republican, Fresno, California 7/18/1937)

30 “Carlsbad, N.M. (AP) – A pair of pliers and a bed slat were the weapons used by a Carlsbad couple to save their four-year-old son from an eagle’s clutches. The mother, Mrs. C.J. Reinhart, told it this way: The child was playing in the yard while she hung out a wash. Suddenly, the big bird swooped down and dug its talons into her son’s head. For a minute she pulled in vain at the eagle’s legs, then ran to the house. Returning with a pair of pliers, she jerked the talons free, snatched up her son and rushed him to a doctor. Three talons had pierced the child’s skin.” (Herald Journal, Syracuse, New York 2/21/1948)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Beast of the Bluffs: Have Cougars Returned to Central Illinois?

It had been a frustrating late April 2005 morning of turkey hunting. John [not his real name] and his father-in-law had conceded that they were destined to return to their Jacksonville homes—which weren’t too far from the densely wooded area in which they were currently hiding—gameless. John would not go home though without a great story.
It was pre-sunrise, but the sky was lit enough to see clearly. John’s hunting partner was the first to step out of the woods into a vast, still untilled field.
“Whoa, stop!” shouted John, who was just emerging from the woods some fifteen feet behind his father-in-law.
Oblivious to what was in front of him, his father-in-law unfortunately turned his head back to inquire as to his concern and missed once again the object of it.
“As I followed him out of the woods here,” John recalled from the same location days later. “I saw it there, crouched low in the field not far from [my father-in-law]. It couldn’t have been more than twenty-five feet in front of him, but he didn’t seem to see it. It was huge, I would guess six to seven feet long. It was definitely a cat.”
“At the very moment that he turned his head back to see what had startled me, [the big cat] bolted off that way, covering thirty feet in just two or three bounds in about two seconds,” said John. “By the time I pointed in front of him and he turned back, it had easily cleared a five-foot fence and was back in some tall, dense shrubs...gone...I would guess that it was headed toward Mauvaisterre Creek. I was, sadly, the only one to see it. It was definitely a big cat...a black panther...are there cougars around here?”
Unfortunately for John, the official answer to that question is “no”.
The only “big” cat recognized as a resident of Illinois is the bobcat—and even they are not all that big. They are, by all statistical measures, making an amazing population recovery in certain parts of the state, and certainly one of them would be startling to see for one not expecting a large feline.
“I have seen bobcats before while hunting. This was certainly not a bobcat. Not with the size of this thing. It was way beyond a bobcat. This looked like a dark-colored cougar,” John explained.
A similar beast was also sighted just outside of Jacksonville in the opposite direction of John’s sighting, closer to the small village of Murrayville.
“Three or so years ago, I am positive I saw a large tan cat in a grassy area near my home,” said a rural-living Murrayville grandmother. “It was as large as a retriever-type dog, and had a long cat-like tail. It was an extremely brief sighting and I have not seen it again. However, there are rumors that another elderly neighbor lady’s family had some concerns about her safety because a large cat had been sighted in her back yard near where she dumps scraps. The area is wooded, surrounded by fields and meadows east of Murrayville and northwest of Nortonville. I personally wish to remain anonymous since my family thinks I am a crazy old lady. Of course they thought the same thing twenty or so years ago when I first told them I heard a turkey, and now they are a common sight.”
Gerald Day was residing near Walkerville in the late spring of 2003 when his opinion on the existence of cougars in Illinois was cemented into a “without a doubt certain” position.
“I was looking out a window at a field, when out of some bordering timber stepped a cougar,” Day recalled. “It was yellow or tan and was some two hundred feet away. It had a really long tail and was about the same size as a lab dog, but this was definitely a cat. My family was in the house, so I called to them and got multiple witnesses, but unfortunately we did not have a camera ready before it went back in the timber.”
The cougar (often commonly known by alternative names such as puma, mountain lion and panther) is classified by the Illinois Natural History Survey as being an extirpated species. It is commonly believed that the last free roaming cougars in Illinois were shot and killed in the 1880’s. Most government wildlife agencies maintain that, outside of the subspecies known as the Florida Panther, there are no longer any active cougar (Felis concolor cougar) populations east of the Mississippi River.
Authorities are quick to admit though that there are a number of cougars, both legal and illegal, being kept by individuals as “pets” in Illinois. Though the state’s laws preventing the importation and keeping of big cats were strengthened in the 1980’s, a black market for exotic animals has always thrived. It is to the possibility of intentional or inadvertent escapees from this stock of caged cats that state officials and academics have always attributed cougar sightings in Illinois. That is until everything changed on July 15, 2000.
It was on this date in Randolph County that a chance collision between a tawny cougar and a train gave science their first Illinois carcass to study. The specimen was diagnosed as a healthy male that had a DNA configuration that matches the wild populations of the western states. The Illinois State Academy of Science proclaimed it to be the first documented wild cougar found in Illinois in 135 years.
Four years later, a hunter in Mercer County, near New Boston, stumbled across another dead cougar; this one had succumbed to a wound apparently from an arrow. The body was turned over to Dr. Clay Nielson of Southern Illinois University who specializes in the study of big cats. This too was a large (84 inches from head to tail) male with a stomach containing wild game it had hunted and grasses—a common occurrence in wild bobcats. A DNA analysis for the cat has not yet been released.
When asked about cougars in the state, Bob Bluett, a certified wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that it “seemed likely” that the Mercer County cat was indeed of wild stock and that the two males “fit the profile of pioneering individuals”.
Most male cougars are known as transients, lack a distinct territory and can travel as many as thirty miles in one night. These transient males though can set up territories of 20-40 square miles and will eventually seek out multiple transient females who will remain then within the territory. The monogamous females generally produce one to six offspring every two years.
But have cougars really returned to Illinois? Is there a permanent, albeit small, residential, breeding population in central Illinois?
If there are cougars in Illinois, there is perhaps no one who had a better chance of coming across one in his professional career than Dennis Langellier—and come across cougars he did. Langellier is a former state employee who was daily required to drive from Jerseyville to Mt. Sterling, a path that runs parallel to the heavily wooded bluffs of the Illinois River.
Langellier’s first sighting occurred on a sub-zero January morning in 1994 as he was heading north (just south of Exeter). Not one but two full-sized cougars crossed the road a quarter of a mile in front of him. As his car neared where they crossed, he saw them roughly twenty-five feet from the highway.
“I would guess that each was two hundred pounds in weight. They were tan colored and both had long tails,” he said. “From what I know about them, they are solitary creatures. The only time more than one are seen together is a mother with her young. Though they were both large...full grown...I can only assume that that is what I saw.”
His second sighting occurred six years later during the summer of 2000, not far from the first. It was on Route 100, not more than a half of a mile south of Interstate 72, that another tawny yellow big cat crossed fifty yards in front of his car.
“This cat wasn’t either of the ones I had seen before. This one was not as big...it was still big, just not full grown. Still a cougar though, no doubt,” he said.
“My oddest sighting though was fairly recent. I live in rural Patterson along some woods and a creek. This was a couple winters ago. I was outside working when I see this big cat—all black—come out of the creek bed and jump over my fence and head back into the woods. This didn’t look like a cougar to me, but it was no house cat. It was at least three times as big as a house cat and had a really muscular rear end and a long tail like a cougar. I don’t know what it was, but I saw it,” he said.
Like Langellier, Vic Lanzotti logs more miles on west central Illinois’ back highways than most of us could imagine in his job as a FedEx Express Driver for the counties of Morgan, Scott, Greene, and Macoupin. And like Langellier, he too came across a cougar two years ago, in mid-July, and enjoys sharing other stories he has been told because of his sighting.
“[It was] in Green County, east of White Hall, in the Apple Creek Bottom. The cat crossed the road in front of me and jumped the ditch into corn about five or six feet tall. There goes the ‘knee high by the 4th of July’ saying”, said Lanzotti. “I was reluctant to tell anyone, but I had some friends I trusted and as it turns out a few had also seen big cats. A Lady in White Hall had seen a black cat—cougar size—cross the road south of Greenfield on 108. Another farmer from Carrollton saw a large black cat cougar in about the same area. There is a farmer in Eldred that says a mother and cub wintered in a hollow on his place close to Spanky on the Macoupin Creek. Several people have said the Conservation Department has released cougars in areas where the deer are in high concentrations and places where there are heavy deer road crossings. The same people have said Conservation won’t admit the releases because of probable liabilities.”
It seems that conspiracy theories are inevitable in any situation where unexplained phenomena and the government intersect. Just less than half of all those interviewed as first-hand witnesses and those who related second-hand stories of cougars for this article expressed a belief that the big cats were indeed released by the Department of Natural Resources secretly.
This Roswellian idea of a government cover-up is most popularly promoted by Virgil Smith of Harrisburg who insists that a group he founded, Shadows of the Shawnee, secretly worked in conjunction with a government agency and received grant funding from large insurance companies to release twenty-six cougars in southern Illinois. Calling in to local and national radio programs, Smith insisted that the state now boasts a cougar population nearing three hundred. Former Natural Resources Director Brent Manning firmly denied all of Smith’s claims.
“Repeated requests not withstanding, Mr. Smith failed…to produce just one piece of irrefutable, tangible evidence to support his allegations,” said Manning in 2001. “We believe he hasn’t produced such evidence for one simple reason—he doesn’t have any.”
While Smith has never retracted his statements, as the IDNR has insisted he should, it must be admitted that even if there were a couple hundred big cats in our state, with as reclusive and intelligent as these creatures are, “irrefutable, tangible evidence” of their means of entry into the state would be difficult to produce.
When contacted, Smith declined to give further information on his claim, saying that it might compromise an ongoing investigation.
“A great deal of the information that we have concerning the cougars in Illinois and thirteen other states is considered evidence in an investigation into the release of the same. Our project will be going to the president of the United States, and on to congress, with a recommendation for a formal congressional inquiry. So as you can see, this is very serious and we consider ourselves public advocates,” said Smith.
Dave Holterfield of Beardstown doesn’t put much faith in the “the-government-is-releasing-cougars” rumors though; he insists that they have always been in Illinois. He accepts that the beasts may be expanding their territory, but believes that they have always haunted the secluded corners of the state. To back his claims, Holterfield tells four tales from his younger years.
Holterfield was born and raised “in the hollers and hills of Calhoun County”, a region renown for and often proud of being behind the times. His family in 1958 was still without indoor plumbing and his father, though he owned a primitive tractor, still plowed much of his land with a team of horses. It was in this year that while his father was leading these horses, their reins wrapped around his shoulder, over a hill where the family had planted “taters” that the senior Holterfield first saw the beast. At the crest, he stopped the team to rest and roll a cigarette.
It was in mid-roll that he spotted a full-grown cougar emerging from the dense woods surrounding the farm approximately 50 yards away. The cat most definitely spotted him and his team. Its waving tail and dead stare left no doubt of its awareness. Holterfield reached for his pocket knife, even though he fully realized it would be of little help against an attack from the seven-foot long cat. The real danger to his father though, Dave explained, was not the cat itself, but the reins his father had firmly wrapped around himself. Had the horses, which were oblivious to the predator’s presence, been downwind of the cat’s scent and gotten spooked, Dave might have grown up fatherless.
Not less than a year after this incident, young Dave himself came face-to-face with the cat.
Holterfield explained: “The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was plenty of morning light to see by. I was headed out to the privy, and had just stepped out of the house when...there it was, just sitting there on its haunches. It was huge, tawny and just staring at me. ‘Damn’ is all I could bring myself to say. I ran back inside and woke my dad shouting ‘that cat is out there again!”. He got his gun, but by the time he got out there, it was gone. I’ll never forget how long its tail was.”
Years later, the Holterfield’s had a pig go missing. After a short search, Dave found it...part of it. The entire front half was missing.
“It was not torn apart like coyotes would do, it was cleanly cut in half,” said Holterfield.
In 1972, Dave married a young lady from Hamburg. It was on a trip to visit his new in-laws, while driving on the road from Mozier to Kampsville, that he saw, just lounging not twenty feet of the side of the road, a pair of juvenile, tawny cougars.
“They were half the size of the cat I seen years before,” Holterfield explained, “but there was no mistaking it...they were not bobcats or big house cats. You could see it in their haunches, head and tail. These were cougars. No doubt about it. But I didn’t say a thing when I saw them. My wife and I kept driving in silence for several minutes when she asked, ‘Did you see what I saw?’ I just said ‘Yes, I did’ and we drove on.”
Not long after that, Holterfield moved to the Beardstown area and hasn’t seen a cougar since. But, just a few months ago, while at a tavern in rural Schuyler County, his friend, Joe, walked in looking like he had seen a ghost.
“You are never going to believe what I just saw...a huge black cat. Not a cat, but a black panther!” Joe exclaimed.
Black Panthers in Illinois? If the Department of Natural Resources is denying the proliferation of Illinois cougars, they are downright laughing at the thought of “big black cats” in the state. But don’t be too sure.
Kathy Thompson owns forty-five acres of land situated right between Rushville and the Littleton Township in Schuyler County and insists that she saw the same thing—what she described as a black cougar. It was towards the end of the summer of 2003, approximately at 4 PM when she spotted the huge cat running fast, not fifty yards from her, across her property.
Homer Briney is a down-to-earth, successful farmer owning a large plot of land up on the Illinois River bluffs just north of Beardstown, but his blacktopped driveway is currently anything but normal. Made in late spring after a heavy rain (and preserved through much of the summer through the lack thereof) is a trail of mud prints crossing the drive. Each footprint is just over four inches wide and three and a half inches long. Briney is convinced they are from the feet of a large cougar. Admittedly, cougar prints and dog prints are quite similar, the primary difference lying in the rear lobes of the ball of the print, which were, unfortunately, poorly distinguishable in the muddy imprints.
“I believe there is a cougar living in the bottoms near my farm,” said Briney. “We have the perfect environment for one out here. Two winters ago, a friend of mine was hunting on my property and shot a huge buck. It was so big that he had problems moving it, so he called me. It had started to rain, so I told him ‘Let’s get it in the morning’. Well, the next morning we go to right where he knew it was and it is gone! We searched everywhere and eventually found it some five hundred feet away. All that was left was the skin, the end of the legs and most of the head. It wasn’t ripped apart like coyotes would do. This was different. That was a three hundred pound buck, dragged that far.”
He claims that the same thing happened this last winter to a deer that was hit on the road in front of his house. They found very similar remains dragged into a field near his home.
“The night that these prints were made, my dog (a loved and pampered pug mix) acted really strange, standing at the back door being protective, but at the same time you could tell that it was scared to death,” said Briney. “My neighbors have seen it! They were sitting on their back porch at dusk when it came out of the woods, crossed behind their garden and disappeared back into the woods. They said it was jet black, definitely a cat and monstrous in size!”
In this very rural area, Briney’s “neighbors” live scores of acres north of Briney. Sandwiched between the two homesteads are deep, dense almost impenetrable lowland woods that look far more like the Shawnee Forest than any of the plains of central Illinois.
Melanism, the condition of a furbearing mammal being born with too much melanin and appearing all black, is as rare as its opposite phenomenon, albinism. In a small population with a limited gene pool, the occurrence of such an individual could skew its collective genome and cause the rate of incidence of such individuals to increase. This has been documented in remote coyote populations.
The problem with this hypothesis though is that, outside of a singular photograph from Puerto Rico dating from the early twentieth century, no scientific documentation of a truly melanistic cougar exists. The commonly used term “black panther” is generically utilized to describe two different species, the genetically recessive melanistic phases of the jaguar and the leopard. Neither of these cats exists—in any genetic state—in the United States. The sheer number of reports of big black cats in Illinois and across the Midwestern United States puts an odd, almost X-files-like twist into the mainstream biological discussion of whether the western cougars have permanently migrated east of the Mississippi.
Based on State Police reports and the carcasses found, two facts are inarguable: attracted by our large deer population, transient male cougars do occasionally roam into Illinois from the western states and cougars are certainly kept secretly and illegally in “home zoos”, often by less-than-responsible parties. With these two polar theories of origins, it must be noted though that a person placed in the very frightening and potentially dangerous position of meeting a cougar face-to-face would find the argument over whether this beast’s ancestry was of North American wild stock or of a captive breed South American genome a highly irrelevant and moot point at that moment.
Officially, the answer to the question of whether cougars are really back—having established a resident breeding population in Illinois—must still be “unknown”. The search for them though and the insistent stance from both sides of the controversy have begun to resemble a Midwestern version of the Northwest’s “Bigfoot”.
Maurice Hornocker, the director of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute at the University of Idaho and the first to utilize radio telemetry in field studies of cougar movements and travels, said recently, “[Cougars] will hit the Mississippi in the next decade. The Midwest is beautiful cat country, full of deer and cover.”
Ask some folks in rural central Illinois though and they will tell you that Dr. Hornocker’s projection is behind schedule by about a decade or so.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Washington Eagle Reference -- 1858

Fellow biofortean Chad Arment, who kindly posted a comment on my previous post on my paper on the Washington eagle, has posted on his website a transcript of an entry from 1859 that references Audubon's Washington eagle. Though it is, substantially, a reworking of Audubon's writings on the mighty bird that are also included in my paper, it also contains commentary from C. W. Webber on his opinions of the bird's authenticity. Definitely worth a read. Thanks Chad!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Substantiating Audubon's Washington Eagle

This paper originally appeared in The Meadowlark: The Journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society

For over one hundred years, ornithologists have been in general consensus that John J. Audubon's enormous (10+ wingspan) "Bird of Washington" (Washington eagle) was a classic case of misidentification. New research now shows that it may have truly existed until modern times.
Firstly, my apologies to those who do not like long blog entries. This is not short. The following entry was a paper I composed that was originally published in two ornithological jounrals, Meadowlark: The Journal of Illinois Birds and The Ohio Cardinal: The Journal of the Ohio Ornithological Society. Only, if you are not a member of either of these ornithological societies, one could not be exposed to the findings. Therefore, I have chosen to finally publish the paper here, as a means of opening it to the public at large for comment and review:

Substantiating Audubon’s Washington Eagle

It is widely known that American statesman Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the wild turkey to serve as America’s national bird, but few know which species the great naturalist John James Audubon would have promoted had he had a voice in the matter. His preference can be gleaned from the following excerpt from his early writings, in his Ornithological Biography (1840):

…it is indisputably the noblest bird of its genus that has yet been discovered in the United States, I trust I shall be allowed to honour it with the name of one yet nobler, who was the saviour of his country, and whose name will ever be dear, to it. To those who may be curious to know my reasons, I can only say, that, as the new world gave me birth and liberty, the great man who ensured its independence is next to my heart. He had a nobility of mind, and a generosity of soul, such as are seldom possessed. He was brave, so is the Eagle; like it, too, he was the terror of his foes; and his fame, extending from pole to pole, resembles the majestic soarings of the mightiest of the feathered tribe. If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her great eagle. (Audubon 1999:220)*

Audubon had admired, studied, and painted both bald and golden eagles, but this “great eagle” he lauded as “mightiest of the feathered tribe” was neither of these. North America was once home to no less than seven species of eagles, but the demise of the great mega-fauna that once dominated the New World landscape and the emergence of humans onto the continent had whittled the number of native species to two long before Columbus arrived (Brodkorb 1964, Howard 1930 & 1932). That is, unless one considers certain writings of the early nineteenth century; it is here archivists find Audubon’s (and others’) detailed descriptions of a possible third American eagle species surviving into the modern era: the “great eagle”—the Bird of Washington.
Over many decades, this bird was given several consubstantial names: Washington’s eagle, Washington’s sea-eagle, Washington eagle, and the great sea-eagle. Audubon’s most frequently used appellation was the “Bird of Washington.” For simplicity’s sake, the bird will herein be referred to as the Washington eagle.
This impressive bird was a favorite of Audubon’s, eliciting euphoric expressions of the sentiments inspired by sightings of the species:

It was in the month of February 1814, that I obtained the first sight of this noble bird, and never shall I forget the delight which it gave me. Not even HERSCHEL, when he discovered the planet which bears his name, could have experienced more rapturous feelings (Audubon 1999:217).

Later, upon finally acquiring a specimen, he described himself as filled “with a pride which they alone can feel, who, like me, have devoted themselves from their earliest childhood to such pursuits, and who have derived from them their first pleasures” (Audubon 1999:220).

* All references herein to the writings of Audubon are to C. Irmscher’s superb Library of America edition (1999).

Even as Audubon first published and described the Washington eagle as the ninth and largest of the world’s species of sea-eagles, he recognized the bird as already exceedingly rare and possibly near extinction (Aud.1829:116). Audubon referred to it in correspondence as the “great rara avis” (Rhoads 1903:382). It was popularly accepted as a unique species throughout Audubon’s lifetime, and included as a good species in texts by the most reputable ornithologists (Cassin 1853). It was not long after its inclusion in his Ornithological Biography in 1831, however, that the Washington eagle was labeled as suspect among some naturalists. In 1838, Jared P. Kirtland, in the course of cataloguing Ohio’s birds, hinted at this doubt by using the phrase “if it be a true species” when referring to the Washington eagle. Misgivings he may have harbored did not prevent him from later recording a sighting of a Washington eagle on a Cleveland beach in 1842 (Christy 1936).

Though the great eagle’s rarity and the fact that such an enormous bird had so long escaped description were primary causes for consternation among early critics, the mere fact that it was Audubon who had first encountered it was enough for the most vocal of them. Audubon was never at a loss for detractors of his written and artistic works. Their attacks were most notoriously orchestrated by George Ord and Charles Waterton, and played out in personal correspondence (including a ten-page letter/thesis Ord sent to Waterton, arguing that the Washington eagle could not have been as large as Audubon described) as well as in scathing papers, many of them published in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History during its early years of publication 1831-1835 (Souder 2004:323, Klauber 1971:493). Audubon seldom replied publicly to such abuse, commenting that “[t]o have enemies is no uncommon thing.” Eventually, these canorous critiques cost Audubon certain impressions of credibility that ultimately hindered the acceptance of his Washington eagle, along with those for other natural phenomena he had witnessed and described.

When Audubon illustrated mockingbirds for his Birds of America, he depicted them defending a nest against a rattlesnake. His enemies and deprecators assailed him on this, arguing that rattlesnakes cannot climb trees (Herrick 1917). Observations in times to come, however, have justified Audubon’s artistic license and showed that rattlesnakes can and do indeed climb trees, though rarely (Klauber 1971:493-494). Likewise, until his death Audubon was accused by botanists of having fabricated the presence of the “yellow water-lily,” which he included in his Birds of American under the name of Nymphaea lutea. Only decades later in 1876 was his defiant refusal to retract his depiction justified by the “rediscovery” of the long-lost plant in the Florida Everglades (Lockwood 1877, Davis 1997).

Following Audubon’s death in 1851, incredulity about the Washington eagle accelerated to the point that a generation later it was said only “amateur ornithologists” still considered it a valid species (Allen 1870:525). When asked to comment on the Washington eagle, the eminent Elliot Coues was quoted as saying, “I wonder how many times the ‘Washington eagle’ must be put down before it will stay down! As a species, it is a myth...” (Gilpin 430).

Today, it is universally believed that the few Washington eagles Audubon and others saw and expounded upon were not members of a previously unidentified eagle species, but were rather a common bird known long to naturalists: the northern subspecies of the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus in its immature state of development. In early days, the immature bald eagle was sometimes referred to as a separate species: the brown or sea eagle, Falco ossifragus, but the best early naturalists, Wilson and Audubon among them, soon recognized the true relationship. Critics explain that Audubon was unacquainted with the distributional, developmental, and sexual-dimorphic variations in the bald eagle’s size and the multiple plumages involved during its development to maturity (Durant et al. 1980:61, Allen 1870:525). While it is true that the immature stages of the bald eagle are generally brown, it would be hasty to unquestioningly conjoin the two birds without a thorough discrimination of their traits, and an examination of Audubon’s detailed physical description of a specimen. It would also be unjust to such a noble bird, if it were to have existed, to brush it aside with so little ado.

To make a case for the existence of the Washington eagle and prove that the Washington eagles were not immature bald eagles, it is necessary to rebut historical and contemporary skeptics by demonstrating that the bird’s distribution, morphology, and ethology lay outside the accepted range of variation for the bald eagle, especially those of its juvenal stages.

If indeed the Washington eagles were simply immature northern bald eagles, they should have been seen and noted quite frequently in Audubon’s winter travels along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers. Indeed, his river journals are replete with sightings of “brown eagles,” but Audubon was aware of Alexander Wilson’s theory that these “brown” and bald eagles were of the same species (Audubon 1999:17), and even noted for the uninformed reader that the term “brown eagle” is used “meaning the White-headed eagle (Falco leucocephalus) in its immature state” (Audubon 1999:218). The sole time within his 1820-21 journal that he references the then-unnamed Washington eagle, the addendum “i.e. S. Eagles” [sea eagles] was added to the label of “brown eagles” to clarify the difference. Here he noted that the “S. Eagles” he had seen previously—the Washington eagles—were “at least ¼ longer” than the bald and brown eagles he was encountering on the lower Ohio River (Audubon 1999:19).

Audubon recorded numerous encounters with the abundant bald/brown eagles in his lifetime, but only five sightings of the Washington eagle. In chronological order, these occurred on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers near the cities of Grand Tower, Illinois; Evansville, Indiana; Henderson, Kentucky; Clarksville, Indiana; and Mound City, Illinois. The five sightings involved ten birds (never more than two adults in any one area), yielded a close observation of a nesting pair complete with two young, and resulted in the acquisition of one spectacular specimen.
Ironically, it was near his residence in Henderson, Kentucky that Audubon, who claimed to always carry a gun, finally managed to bring a Washington eagle down as it scavenged at a pig slaughter. Audubon writes how he, like a schoolboy who stumbled upon a treasure, quickly wrapped the bird up and ran with it to the home of Dr. Adam Rankin. Rankin, a long-time resident on the Ohio River and an experienced hunter, proclaimed of the bird that “he had never before seen or heard of it” (Audubon 1999:220). Together they undertook a meticulous study of the specimen and Audubon recorded the following qualitative description:

The male bird weighs 14 ½ avoirdupois, measures 3 ft. 7 in. in length, and 10 ft. 2 in. in extent. The upper mandible dark bluish black. It is, however, the same colour for half its length, turning into yellow towards the mouth, which is surrounded with a thick yellow skin. Mouth blue; tongue the same; cere greenish-yellow; eye large, of a fine chestnut colour, iris black, the whole protected above by a broad, strong, bony, cartilaginous substance, giving the eye the appearance of being much sunk. Lores lightish blue, with much strong recumbent hair; upper part of the head, neck, back, scapulars, rump, tail coverts, femorals, and tail feathers, dark coppery glossy brown; throat, front of the neck, breast, and belly, rich bright cinnamon colour; the feathers of the whole of which are long, narrow, sharp-pointed, of a hairy texture, each dashed along the center with the brown of the back; the wings, when closed, reach within an inch and a half of the tail feathers, which are very broad next to the body. Lesser coverts rusty iron grey, forming with that colour and elongated oval, reaching from the shoulders to the lower end of the secondaries, gradually changing to the brown of the back as it meets the scapulars. The secondaries of the last middle tint. Primaries brown, darkest in their inner veins, very broad and firm; the outer one 2 ½ in. shorter than the second, the longest 24 in. to its root, about a half an inch in diameter at the barrel. The under wing coverts iron grey, very broad, and forming the same cavity that is apparent in all of this genus with the scapulars, which are also very broad. Legs and feet strong and muscular: the former one and a half inches in diameter; the latter measuring, from the base of the hind claw to that of the middle toe, 6 ½ in. Claws strong, much hooked, the hind one 2 in. long, the inner rather less, all blue black and glossy. Toes warty, with rasp-like advancing hard particles, covered with large scales appearing again on the front of the leg, all of dirty strong yellow. Leg feathers brown cinnamon, pointed backwards.

The following is Audubon’s abbreviated version which he included in his Ornithological Biographies.:

Tarsus and toes uniformly scutellate in their whole length. Bill bluish-black, cere yellowish-brown, feet orange-yellow, claws bluish-black. Upper part of the head, hind neck, back, scapulars, rump, tail-coverts, and posterior tibial feathers blackish-brown, glossed with a coppery tint; throat, fore neck, breast, and belly light brownish-yellow, each feather, with a central blackish-brown streak; wing-coverts light greyish-brown, those next the body becoming darker; primary quills dark brown, deeper on their inner webs; secondaries lighter, and on their outer webs of nearly the same light tint as their coverts; tail uniform dark brown (Audubon 1840:1:56).

Audubon’s description, and the painting that corresponds to it, concern two significant anatomical features that differentiate the specimen from the bald eagle.

1) The Washington eagle’s cere is conformed in a manner unlike any known variation in bald eagles.
2) The uniform scaling found on the Washington eagle’s tarsus is unknown at any stage of bald eagle development (Mengel 1953:145-7, Allen 1970:526).

Regarding the unusual uniform tarsal scutellation, Allen hypothesized that as the
Washington eagle was one of the first figures Audubon published, that this characteristic had not been accurately drawn and that his written description, published years later, was made from his flawed rendering rather from the specimen itself (Allen 1870:526). This hypothesis is nullified though by Audubon’s oft-overlooked earliest published account of his eagle where he noted that his description is “described and faithfully figured from a fresh-killed specimen” (Aud. 1829:120). Though both Allen and Mengel assert that Audubon did not preserve his type specimen, this supposition is dubious as, in an 1838 letter to Edwin Harris, Audubon indicated that he did indeed still possess a Washington eagle specimen (Rhoads 1903:382).

Gilpin, who viewed tarsal scutellation as a valueless specific character of eagles, offered an explanation for the appearance of the unique scales. He asserted that because of Audubon’s choice of angle of view, and the figure’s position atop a rock in the illustration, the eagle’s tarsal and phalangeal scutellation appears continuous and that, in the same position, any bald eagle might present the same appearance (Gilpin 1873:429). This optical illusion theory, however, fails to take into account Audubon’s detailed and corresponding published description. Gilpin was unable to explain either the inscrutable uniform size of the scutellae or the continuity of each as described by Audubon.

Audubon described the Washington eagle as being staggeringly large—three feet seven inches in length, and possessing a wingspan of ten feet two inches—eclipsing any raptor native to North America and matching that of any known worldwide. These stunning dimensions opened a floodgate of criticism of Audubon and his great eagle. Modern commentators accuse Audubon not only of grossly exaggerating or even intentionally falsifying the Washington eagle’s measurements, but also of mis-sexing it (Mengel 1953:149). Again, Audubon refutes this inaccuracy by emphatically noting that the “sex [was] well ascertained at the time the bird was killed” (Aud. 1829:120). Earlier critics were more forgiving, one of them observing for example that “a few grains of allowance must be safely made for slight inaccuracies on the part of its enthusiastic discoverer” (Allen 1870:527).

Evidence, and perhaps proof, of the impressive magnitude of the Washington eagle was provided by the meticulous technique Audubon employed to insure that his paintings for the Birds of America were life-sized. He utilized for each an identical double-grid system—one behind his mount and the other for his folio—to match his image with the specimen. Audubon biographer William Souder provides the following quantitative analysis of Audubon’s paintings of the adult bald eagle, the immature bald eagle, and the Washington eagle made on an original double-elephant folio:


With the postulation that the inner wings are proportionally larger, the Washington eagle’s wingspan, as painted, would exceed the Audubon’s bald eagle by over 55 cm, making Audubon’s measurement of ten feet two inches legitimately possible.

Audubon described the Washington eagle as brown in its plumage—uniformly and without blemish. There are two more or less brown eagles known in America today: the golden eagle and the immature bald eagle. Therefore, some have hypothesized that the birds Audubon identified as Washington eagles were actually oversized golden eagles. That speculation, though, is undermined by the fact that Audubon was quite familiar with the distinguishing extended leg feathers of the golden eagle, which clearly reveal it to be of a different genus from that of the sea eagle. The Washington eagle’s preference for, and skill at, fishing also clearly places it in the genus of sea-eagles rather than with the golden eagles (Audubon 1999:219).

It is worthy of note that in Audubon’s accounts of his five Washington eagle sightings he does not mention any variation in the birds’ appearance or size. Because he penned his Ornithological Biography entry on the bird long after his last sighting, it must be assumed that the eight adult birds he observed were similar to the type specimen he possessed.

Through their first four to five years of life, bald eagles exhibit six distinct plumages. Two of these are poorly differentiated; collectively known as the juvenal plumages, they occur within the first year of life. Immediately following are four distinctive molts in as many consecutive years, culminating in the well-known adult plumage (Gerrard 1978, Harmata 1984).

The only bald eagle developmental stages that demonstrate any degree of superficial affinity to the Washington eagle are the juvenal plumages of the first twelve months of life (Fig. 2). Even Audubon admitted that the juvenile stages of both the bald and Washington eagles resemble each other in outward appearance, but appends this by emphasizing that the size difference is great and that such likenesses cease in mature birds (Aud. 1829:116) Regarding Audubon’s type specimen, Coues insisted that it was “a big, youngish bald eagle—the two-year-olds of which, before getting the white head and tail, are usually larger than the mature birds” (Gilpin 1873:430). Coues was underpinning Gilpin’s assertion that immature balds often exceeded adults in wingspan by more than a foot (Gilpin 1873:430). Reiterating this misunderstanding more than half a century later, T. Gilbert Pearson established “misidentification” as the official Audubon Society stance on the Washington eagle (Pearson 1926:81). Modern published sources do not support Gilpin and Pearson’s claims, however, as the differences between immature and mature bald eagles’ wing spans average only two to five centimeters, depending on the bird’s sex (Harmata 1984, Imler 1955). These differences—primarily in contour wing feather length—are insufficient to account for the size differences measured and observed between the bald and Washington eagles.

Developmentally, several facts argue against the idea that the Washington eagles were oversized first-year bald eagles:

1. All immature bald eagles have some degree of white mottling, markedly at the wing pits (Domazlicky 1992:6, Stalmaster 1987:12). Additionally, first-year bald eagles have nape and contour feathers with white bases, making them appear mottled (McCollough 1989:2-3). The Washington eagle was never described with any white mottling.
2. Audubon observed a breeding pair with nestlings. While it is known that fourth- and rarely third-year bald eagles—the appearances of which are markedly different from the Washington eagle—are occasionally capable of reproduction, only two documented instances in which both partners were immature exist, and both involve a fourth-year individual that would show unmistakable signs of being a bald (Buehner 2000:19, Stalmaster 1987:46, McCollough 1989:6).

Audubon even suspected Wilson of the same misidentification gaffe. Wilson included the Washington eagle in his early works, but Audubon remained certain that Wilson “had confounded [the Washington eagle] with the bald…one of the young of which he has given the figure of, to represent it…I am strongly inclined to believe that he never saw [a Washington eagle]…had he met with it, [he] could hardly have fallen into so great an error” (Aud. 1829:116).
The sheer size of Audubon’s randomly collected specimen places the Washington eagle outside the realm of what is known of bald eagles’ sizes at any stage of development. After a statistical analysis, a frustrated Mengel conceded that the Washington eagle was too large to be considered a bald eagle of either sex of either the southern or northern race (Mengel 1953:148). The most astonishing feature of Audubon’s specimen is that it was a male. With reverse sexual size dimorphism applying to eagles, the measurements of Audubon’s specimen may be presumed smaller than the species’ potential. The difference in size between Audubon’s male and the upper-extreme measurements of female northern bald eagles is significant enough to justify subspecies recognition by most taxonomists (Mengel 1953:147).
Consider the following comparative measures (Washington eagle measurements offered are metric equivalents of those in Audubon’s Ornithological Biography):

1. The Washington eagle, from beak to tail, measured 110 cm. The known range for northern bald eagles is 71-96 cm (Palmer et al. 1988).
2. The Washington eagle’s wingspan of 310 cm surpasses the largest known bald eagle by 66 cm. The wingspan range for northern bald eagles is 200-244 cm (Stalmaster 1987:12).
3. The average length of an adult male northern bald eagle’s hallux is 3.98 cm while the Washington eagle’s measures 6.35 cm (Bartolotti 1984).
4. In northern bald eagles, the range of bill lengths is 4.17-6.06 cm, with a male juvenile mean of 5.04 in length and 3.22 in depth (Bartolotti). The Washington eagle possessed a bill 8.26 cm in length and 4.45 cm in depth.
5. Immature northern bald eagles have wing chords ranging from 54.1-69.2 cm, with northern males averaging 60.1 cm (Bartolotti). The Washington eagle’s wing chord was 79 cm.

Washington eagles nested not in trees, but rather in ground nests built on rocky cliffs adjacent to water (Nuttall 1832). Surveys of 899 bald eagle nest structures east of the Mississippi River revealed no ground nests (Stalmaster 1987:184-5). Ground nests are used by bald eagles only in treeless areas (Buehler 2000:15), which does not describe the lush lower Ohio River valley where Audubon observed breeding Washington eagles.
It was also noted by Audubon that the Washington eagle’s flight was:

very different from that of the White-headed Eagle. The former encircles a greater space, whilst sailing keeps nearer to the land and the surface of the water, and when about to dive for fish falls in a spiral manner, as if with the intention of checking any retreating movement which its prey might attempt, darting upon it only when a few yards distant. (Audubon 1999:221)

In addition, the Washington eagle did not share the bald eagle’s bullying and piratical behavior towards the osprey (Nuttall 1832).
Mengel argued against the Washington eagle’s existence because there is no fossil record of any other species of Haliaeetus in the United States. His error, though, was referencing only a search of Pleistocene tar pits in Rancho La Brea. This location is some 3000 km from the Washington eagle’s winter habitat, which was described as the northern Great Lakes (year round), with winter visitations to southern Illinois/western Kentucky (Nuttall, 1832).
Many authors imply that Audubon was the sole observer of this species. In fact many others reported having seen one. In 1838, Edward Harris told Audubon he had seen this majestic eagle (Rhoads 1903:382). Kirtland recorded a firsthand sighting in 1842 in Ohio (Christy 1936). Dr. Lemuel Hayward of Boston acquired a live Washington eagle and was said to have kept it for “a considerable time”; while in captivity, he described the bird as being “docile” (Nuttall 1832:71). The bird was eventually delivered to the Linnaean Museum in London. Nuttall mentions having examined a specimen in the New England Museum, as well as another preserved male, as long as and heavier than Audubon's 14.5-lb specimen, displayed at a small museum in Philadelphia (Nuttall 1832: 72). Richard Harlan, the esteemed author of Fauna Americana (1825) wrote to Audubon that he had acquired a specimen from the Brano Museum, where Audubon had earlier examined it and declared it identical to his rendering; Audubon had attempted to purchase the specimen, but could not afford the price asked. Harlan avers he subsequently deposited it in the museum of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Audubon 1999:221). The whereabouts of this specimen today are unknown. The New England Museum and the Cleveland Academy of Science listed Washington eagle specimens in their catalogs during the nineteenth century. Literature concurrent with Audubon’s implies that multiple birds were known to have been kept and raised in captivity (Nuttall); Mengel, however, insisted that no specimen existed (Mengel 1953:150).
Finally, many current biographers have cited the Washington eagle as but one more proof of Audubon’s self-aggrandizing and over-zealous temperament. An early biographer did not deny these Audubonian traits, but defended him by reminding readers that Audubon did have an occasional weakness for being careless in statements of matters of fact and that this did lead to a pervasive attitude of distrust in even his accurate writings (Burroughs 1902). What Audubon did prove in his lifetime though was that he was definitely not rafinesque.
While few men’s names become adjectives, few men deserved it as much as Audubon’s brilliant but misunderstood 1818 houseguest, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. In short, he was a naturalist who had come to America to fulfill his obsession: discovering new species. He was convinced that in America they were everywhere. We have an account of one comical scene in which he destroyed Audubon’s violin while using it as a weapon to procure a bat—he was convinced it was an unnamed species—that had flown in through an open window of the guest room. To poke fun at his mania, Audubon fabricated and sketched ten non-existent, fanciful fishes that Rafinesque, to Audubon’s embarrassment, later published in Europe and attributed to him (Rafinesque 1820, Audubon 1999). After having suffered such scorn and scientific discomposure in the 1820s, it is especially doubtful that he would have risked a similar fate a subsequent time by describing such an imposing new species within his area of expertise without being confident of its authenticity.
Audubon’s conviction about the Washington eagle was reinforced in 1820 as he procured, studied, and painted a bald eagle specimen for four straight days, often forsaking sleep. Upon completion of this marathon and the completion of his painting of a juvenile bald eagle (plate CXXVI), he recorded in his journal that he was—as perhaps we today should also be—convinced that the Washington eagle was, at the time, indeed an exceedingly rare and distinctive species (Aud. 1999 Nov. 23).
Today, the “Washington eagle” has become one with the northern bald eagle. By the 1950s, Mengel had pronounced it “virtually forgotten and long buried in the crypts of synonymy.” Modern revisionism has erased this bird from the annals of ornithological history, as exemplified by the replacement of Bowen’s original Washington eagle woodcut with one of a bald eagle in the popular Chamberlain edition (1929) of Nuttall’s Manual, or the Audubon Society’s Baby Elephant Folio edition of 1981, which has banished the name to a footnote.
While morphometrical comparisons reveal that Audubon’s huge eagle was in all likelihood not an immature bald eagle, it is not feasible, without his specimen, to establish exactly what it was. It will only be through a methodical and open-minded examination of the catalogs of nineteenth-century museums and other collections, both here and abroad—one of which must it seems still contain a tagged Washington eagle specimen—and the use of modern DNA analysis that the answer to questions on the validity of Audubon’s enormous eagle will be finally established.
Historical illustrations of Washington eagles can be found here.
Acknowledgments:
I would like to thank Bill Whan and Dr. Angelo Capparella for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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