Meet the Monsters: The Norwalk Ape

 Norwalk, 1930—The case of the Norwalk Ape is an interesting one, particularly as it relates to the possibility of Bigfoot in Ohio.

If, for example, everyone who told a newspaper reporter that they saw an ape in or around the city of Norwalk in Huron County in the summer of 1930 really did see a genuine flesh-and-blood creature, then it’s possible what they were seeing wasn’t an escaped ape of some kind, but rather what we would have called “Bigfoot”, if it the term “Bigfoot” had existed at the time (The word didn’t start getting used to describe hairy humanoid creatures seen in the United States until 1958).

After all, the witnesses seemed to have trouble deciding just what sort of ape it was they were seeing, and no one seemed quite sure where, exactly, it might have come from. (That the Norwalk Ape sightings represent an early twentieth century of Bigfoot sightings in Ohio is a possibility suggested by author Chad Arment, whose 2006 book The Historical Bigfoot collects many of the Norwalk Ape newspaper articles of that summer).

Despite plenty of  sightings and lots of articles in the local press at the time, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of agreement as to what the ape actually looked like, as it was described alternately as a chimpanzee, an “organ-otang”, “a huge ape,” “a large gray animal,” “some kind of lumbering, half-upright creature” and, my favorite, “the shape of what appeared to be a man.”  It’s behavior seemed all over the place too, as in addition to lurking around houses and farm fields, it was also seen climbing  in a tree, beating its chest and, in one case, invading a couple’s kitchen.

The popular explanation for its appearance in northern Ohio, a place where no wild apes should be found—unless, of course, we want to entertain the theory that the ape was really an example of the species that would eventually come to be known as Bigfoot—was that it had escaped from a traveling circus or animal exhibit of some kind, although, as is often the case in such sightings of mysterious, out-of-place animals, no circus or exhibit reported missing an ape.

The Norwalk Ape’s fate was ultimately as mysterious as its origin, as it was never caught or killed, it just stopped appearing in papers. 

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monster: The Melonheads

Lake County—There are multiple versions of the story of The Melonheads , but they all seem to involve a character named Dr. Crow in Kirtland, a small town of about 7,000 people in Lake County. Crow is either a malevolent or benevolent figure. In the stories where he’s a good guy, he takes in children suffering from some sort of dramatic macrocephaly—or, um, big-headedness—and cares for them, until a tragic accident sets his house aflame, and he dies in the fire, leaving the children alone. 

In the more popular stories where he’s a bad guy, he acquires children to experiment on—sometimes from the government, sometimes on his own—and he injects their heads with water and performs other cruel experiments that lead to their melon-headed appearances. Again, there’s a fire and he’s killed—sometimes an accident, sometimes the children cause it, but, at any rate, when he’s dead  they escape into the woods.

And they are said to still roam the woods, a nomadic tribe of feral, hunter-gatherers looking for potential victims. Or, in some stories, the Melonheads in the woods are the ghosts of the original children who died in the fire as well. Being an urban legend, there are plenty of variations on almost every aspect of the story.

Though actual, reliable sightings of the Melonheads are rare, driving around the lonely roads said to be their haunts and looking for them has long been a popular pastime for teenagers and young people in Lake County.

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: The Grassman

Akron, 1995—The name “Grassman”  has gradually started to become a term that refers to Bigfoot in Ohio  in general, being used in such a way in a 2008 episode of The History Channel’s MonsterQuest and a trio of episodes of The Destination America reality show Mountain Monsters, as well as an episode of the latter channel’s Monsters and Mysteries in America.

The name seems to have first appeared in print in writer Christopher L. Murphy’s 1997 book Bigfoot in Ohio: Encounters with the Grassman, and came from a 1995 investigation of Akron-area sightings by Murphy’s co-authors, Joedy Cook and George Clappison of the Ohio Bigfoot Research and Study Group. During their field research investigating sightings by a pair of local men, they found what they thought might be some sort of Bigfoot “nest,” an igloo-shaped structure made of large sticks woven together with smaller sticks and covered in grass, branches and leaves, big enough for three men to sit in.

The nest might be the origin of the name Grassman…or might not be. Other theories included Murphy telling MonsterQuest that European settlers in the area first saw Bigfoot-like creatures in the tall grass, and an Akron woman saying her grandfather used the name as a sort of boogeyman to scare children  away from playing in the tall grass by his house.

Joedy Cook seems to have carried the name with him, though, as he—and the nest—appeared in the episode of MonsterQuest and Cook was further interviewed in the previously mentioned episode of Monsters and Mysteries in America.

Cooke also  released his own 2010 book on Bigfoot in Ohio,Traces of the Grassman: The Search for the Ohio Bigfoot

Similar nests have been found in other states, so it might be a more common form of Bigfoot behavior than just an Ohio thing, but, whatever its exact origins, the name “Grassman” has taken hold as a local name for Bigfoot.

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: Big Head

Butler, 1978—This local variation of Bigfoot exists in only a handful of sightings from in and around Richland County, several of them generated by the children from a single household. Those sightings were quite thoroughly documented in police reports, however, giving them a lot more weight than they might otherwise have. 

The first of these reported sightings was made on July 8, 1978, in Butler, a village of about 1,000 people situated a half-hour or so southeast from Mansfield. At around 11 PM, the children heard some strange noises coming from a wooded area near their home on Elm Street, at which point they investigated and found the creature. They described it as being somewhere between seven and eight feet tall, with large red eyes and, most remarkably of all, a head that was about three-feet in diameter.

A few days later their sister was outside unloading hay with their parents. A train was coming down the tracks not too far behind their house, as one did a few times a day, but in this particular instance the train was whistling with uncommon frequency and for longer than usual durations. The girl eventually  turned her flashlight in the direction of the train, and that’s when she saw the monster….or, really, just its eyes. These she said were the size of golf balls, and glowed the same orange-ish red of the lit tip of a cigarette.

She retreated to her bedroom with her mother, from where they could both hear “crying” noises—which they described like those of a cat, but deeper. The noises were accompanied by a very strong and very foul odor. The police came and took another report, but they apparently had just  missed the monster again.

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: The Minerva Monster

Minerva, 1978—The Minerva Monster takes its name from the village of Minerva, about 20 miles or so east of Canton. In August of 1978,  Evelyn and Herbert Cayton’s grandchildren ran up to the house saying they had seen  a monster in the gravel pit nearby. The Caytons and their daughter went to investigate, and found the kids were telling the truth; they too saw a monster in the gravel pit.

They described the creature they saw as seven-foot tall, weighing about 300-pounds and covered in thick, dark, matted hair, hair that was so  thick and shaggy that it completely obscured the humanoid creature’s facial features. 

The most dramatic of several other sightings came on the night of August 21st. The Caytons were entertaining friends and family when they heard strange noises coming from the direction of an old chicken coop in their backyard. They could see something moving in the dark, and there  were two pairs of yellow eyes there, reflecting the light from the porch.

In order to get a better look, eighteen-year-old Scott Patterson got into a car and turned the headlights on, which revealed the owners of the eyes to be two large, “cougar-type” felines of some sort. At that point, a large, bipedal creature like the one from the gravel pit stepped in front of the cats, as if to protect them. 

The sheriff was called, and the area investigated, but no monster or its pet cats were ever found by law enforcement, although the Caytons and others in the area continued to see the monster, sometimes accompanied by a pair of what were variously described as cougars, mutant cat-like creatures or smaller versions of itself going about on all fours.

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: Bighoot

Highland County, 1982-1983—Provided that all the people who said they saw Mothman in the Ohio River Valley in 1966-1967 had really seen some sort of flesh and blood creature, could it be that what they were seeing was some sort of undiscovered species of giant, monstrous owl?

That was a theory put forward by the late cryptozoologist and writer Mark Hall, who in his 2004 book Thunderbirds!: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds (Cosimo Classics; 2004) noted the prevalence of stories of giant birds and owl-like creatures in the Ohio River Valley, of which Mothman might have only been a more recent example.

There was also a Birdman, said to be a giant red bird with the head of a man that, like Mothman, also made a habit of chasing cars. And there were Native American legends about wicked supernatural creatures called “Flying Heads” which were just what they sounded like—giant, flying heads with claws attached. 

Hall thought a large owl could account for these various descriptions as well as the stranger reports of Mothman’s figure; which claimed it had no head, but eyes embedded in its chest. Given an owl’s small round head that seems to sit right atop its round-ish body, as if it had no neck, couldn’t an owl look a little like a large flying human head, or a perhaps a headless winged figure? Especially in the dark, and while in motion?

Owls also, incidentally, give off red eye-shine when light hits the membranes in the back of their eyes in the dark, and Mothman’s most striking feature was, of course, shining red eyes.

Now, how big an owl are we talking about here? After all, Mothman was said to be man-sized and have a ten-foot-wingspan.

Well, we could be talking about a very large owl indeed.

Hall recorded a pair of sightings by a single woman a year apart, in 1982 and 1983, at Rocky Fork Lake park in Highland County in southwest Ohio. In the first sighting, she said she saw what she thought was a  tree start to move…until she realized, once it flexed its small airplane-sized wings, that it was actually a giant owl camouflaged as a dead tree. On the second instance, she noticed that it had huge, yellow legs with three toes on each foot.

Hall called this giant owl “Bighoot,” which didn’t prove too terribly popular among his fellow cryptozoologists, being a bit too cute a name. 

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: Mothman

Ohio River Valley, 1966-1967: You have undoubtedly heard of The Mothman, one of the most famous cryptids in the world. You’ve also probably heard that the mysterious creature hails from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where it was seen over 100 times in a 13-month period between 1966-1967, before the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people. After that tragedy, Mothman sightings stopped as suddenly as they began. 

So what’s Mothman doing on a blog—and in a book—on Ohio monsters? Well, the Silver Bridge connected West Virginia to Ohio, and monsters, like all animals, aren’t confined by state borders: The Mothman was reportedly seen at least three times in the state of Ohio during its year long reign of terror and high strangeness in the Ohio River Valley.

In the first instance, a gray, man-sized bird-like creature with a 10-foot wingspan chased the car of a 17-year-old boy on the highway along the river.

In the second, four women driving at night found their car “buzzed” by a huge bird with a brown and silvery body and large red eyes.

And  in the third and final instance, a pair of women driving late at night saw a large, white creature with curving, 10-foot wings and long hair in the road in front of them that  then soared straight up into the sky.

No one really knows what exactly people in the Ohio River Valley were seeing that year, but theories abound: Was it a demon? An extraterrestrial? An ultra-terrestrial? A mutant bird? A man-made construction? The result of a curse?

One of theory was that many Mothman sightings were the result of people mistaking owls for bigger, scarier creatures. And, another, related theory is that, if we can be permitted to replace one species of monster with another, that the creatures people were seeing were actually some sort of giant, undiscovered monstrous owl. But more on that next week…

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: The Defiance Wolfman

Defiance, 1972—The town of Defiance is about 50 miles southwest of Toledo, and, in August of 1972, it was apparently home to a wolfman…or, at least, someone dressing up like a wolfman. That was when the local paper the Crescent-News first revealed that the local police department was on the lookout for a wolfman, after first wanting to keep it quiet, not wanting to incite a panic. 

According to the Crescent-News story, on three different occasions witnesses saw a figure that they described as some kind of wolfman near the railroad tracks in downtown Defiance, between the hours of 1:30 and 4:20 AM. On one occasion, it struck a man from behind on the shoulder with a two-by-four or some kind of club it was carrying.

All said it was very hairy and that it seemed to be a person wearing “some disguise such as a mask”. It apparently wore dark clothing—one witness said blue jeans—and was described as ranging from six to nine feet tall. Which is actually awfully tall for someone just wearing a mask.

The first witness, railroad man Ted Davis, said he had seen the monster in the early morning hours of July 25. He was in the act of connecting an air hose between two train cars and thus had his head down. “I saw these huge hairy feet,” he told the reporter. “Then I looked up and he was standing there with that big stick over his shoulder. When I started to say something, he took off for the woods.”

The article, and another in the Toledo Blade, helped set off a bit of mass hysteria, just as the police had originally feared, and they received  all kinds of calls from frightened citizens worried about the wolfman. 

If it was just someone in a disguise, police never caught who it was, and, like so many other monsters in Ohio, it simply stopped appearing in newspaper stories.

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: The Peninsula Python

Peninsula, 1944—Unlike many of the other monsters covered in my book, the Peninsula Python belonged to a real, recognized animal species, it was just in a place it should not have been: The Village of Peninsula, in the middle of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Summit County, in the summer of 1944.

How exactly it came to be there is unclear, but it was thought to have escaped when a truck carrying it as part of a circus or exhibit crashed.  

The 15-18-foot snake was seen slithering around local farms, leaving a trail like a heavy tire track that went in and out of the river, and generally scaring the heck out of anyone who saw it. The Python was never caught, killed or found dead—despite a few hunts by organized posses—it just stopped appearing. One assumes the tropical snake crawled into a hole somewhere and succumbed to the Ohio winter…if it was ever here at all, of course.

The tale  of the python was originally told by Cleveland Press reporter and notorious hoaxer Robert Bordner in a 1945 story in The Atlantic with the perhaps overly-defensive title of “The Peninsula Python: An Absolutely True Story”. which may leave some room to doubt its veracity. 

Illustration by Janie Walland

Meet the Monsters: The Lake Erie Monster

Lake Erie, 1793-Present—Perhaps the most famous Ohio monster is also the one with the longest track record of sightings, going back to at least 1793, when a ship startled a “giant serpent” near the Lake Erie Islands. 

The Lake Erie Monster has been described in a variety of ways, among the wildest of which was in an 1887 report from a pair of brothers who said they found a glowing, 20-30-foot long, fish-like creature with long arms on a beach near Port Clinton and a 1912 report in which the ex-mayor of Milan saw a horned creature with tentacles eat a dog and a groundhog near the banks of the Huron river. 

The more standard picture that emerges of the Lake Erie Monster is something just below the surface and out of sight, something long and snake-like in shape and dark in color, with a head, fins or tail only appearing in the most colorful sightings. This is one reason that skeptics have for believing the monster is really just a series of misidentifications of strange waves or debris floating on or just below the surface of the lake.

The monster has had its champions over the years, however. One of them was the Put-In-Bay Gazette, which ran a joke story about a serpent based on an unusual piece of driftwood and, to their surprise, received dozens of reports from people claiming to have actually seen the monster.

Another big monster booster was the city of Huron, which in September of 1990 took various steps to promote the city by using the monster sightings. This climaxed in a pair of big stories in two quite different publications in the late summer of 1993: A Wall Street Journal cover story about Huron’s efforts to become a monster city, and a Weekly World News cover story, complete with doctored image of a sauropod-like dinosaur attacking a sailboat said to have been taken by a passing airplane pilot, headlined “Lake Erie Monster Sinks Sailboat.”

The monster is sometimes known as Bessie or South Bay Bessie, names that rhyme with “Nessie” being popular for lake monsters, or Lemmy, and extrapolation of the initials for Lake Erie Monster. It’s even been given the scientific name of Obscura eriensis huronii (Roughly, “unknown creature in Lake Erie near Huron”), by Charles

The monster is sometimes known as Bessie or South Bay Bessie, names that rhyme with “Nessie” being popular for lake monsters, or Lemmy, and extrapolation of the initials for Lake Erie Monster. It’s even been given the scientific name of Obscura eriensis huronii (Roughly, “unknown creature in Lake Erie near Huron”), by Charles Herdendorf, a retired Ohio State University biologist enlisted by the city of Huron to give a presentation on the possibility of the creature’s existence.

It should be noted that when Herdendorf assigned the monster its name, he did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek, which is why it’s probably best to keep calling the monster “The Lake Erie Monster”—at least until someone finally catches one, anyway.

Illustration by Janie Walland