One day in early 1833, a native chief approached two Western missionaries working on the Indonesian island of Sumatra to relate a bizarre experience. The chief, Tam Basar by name, swore that he and a companion had seen a snake flying through the air. Fearing that it was dangerous, they killed it when it landed near them. When the missionaries expressed incredulity, the chief insisted that he was telling the truth. He added that the snake, 4ft (1.2m) long, had no wings, which to the listeners only made the story more far-fetched.
A year later, in January 1834, one of those missionaries, NM Ward, happened to be walking through a forest near the Pedang-Bessie River, a mile or so (1.6km) from the location where the flying snake had allegedly appeared. He and a companion stopped to study a particularly tall tree. Looking up, they were stunned to see a flying snake, exactly as described by the native informant. Four feet long and wingless, it was moving rapidly through the air from the tree they were standing under to another about 240ft (73m) away.
“Thus,” Ward wrote in the Missionary Herald of March 1841, “was I convinced of the existence of flying serpents; and, on inquiry, I found some of the natives, accustomed to the forest, aware of the fact.”
Ward went on to write that Dutch naturalists working in the area didn’t believe him, any more than he had believed Tam Basar. The sceptics, however, were wrong. There are five species of “flying” snakes in South and Southeastern Asia; flying is in quotes because the creatures are actually gliding or parachuting. Herpetologists do not dispute their existence, and many photographs, films, and videos exist, as do collected specimens. What Ward saw, in other words, was nothing otherworldly.
But what about this?
In June 1873, a farmer identified as Mr Hardin, who lived a few miles east of Bonham, Texas, observed, along with workers in nearby fields, an “enormous serpent… as large and long as a telegraph pole… of a yellow striped colour”, in the words of the Bonham Enterprise. That would have been remarkable enough, except that this was floating in a cloud heading in an easterly direction. The witnesses “could see it coil itself up, turn over, and thrust forward its huge head as if striking at something, displaying the manœuvres of a genuine snake”.
At Fort Scott, Kansas, not long afterwards, at mid-morning on the 26th of the same month, two persons, unnamed but described as “reliable parties” willing to swear to it by affidavit, reported seeing a “huge serpent, apparently perfect in form” encircle the Sun. It was clearly visible for a short time, then vanished from sight.
The New York Times took note of the two stories in successive editions on 6 and 7 July. It called the Bonham sighting “the very worst case of delirium tremens on record”. In the following edition, noting the Kansas report in the wake of the equally implausible one from Texas, an editorial writer sputtered: “It will soon be time for a national prohibitory liquor law, if this sort of thing is to continue.”
In late July or early August 1887, near Bedford, some kind of flying creature appeared in the Iowa sky. Only one of the supposed witnesses – Lee Corder – is mentioned by name. When Corder noticed it, he first took it to be a buzzard, but as it descended, he grew less confident in the identification, and in due course he became certain that it was nothing he had ever seen before. When it finally got close enough that he could study the details, the contours of a great writhing serpent, as much as 1ft (30cm) wide, with glistening scales and a forked tongue filled his vision. When it landed with a thud in a cornfield, nobody was inclined to take a closer look. Apparently, it slithered off via a more conventional mode of locomotion, since the Bedford Times-Independent account mentions nothing about the snake’s ascension.
The late historian Mari Sandoz wrote in her Love Song to the Plains (1966): “Back in the hard times of 1857–58 there were stories of a flying serpent that hovered over a Missouri River steamboat slowing for a landing. It was like a great undulating serpent, in and out of the lowering clouds, breathing fire, it seemed, with lighted streaks around the sides.” She quotes a period ballad:
“’Twas a dark night in Sixty-six
When we was layin’ steel
We seen a flyin’ engine come
Without no wing or wheel.
“It came a-roarin’ in the sky,
With lights along the side…
And scales like a serpent’s hide.”
A word of caution: Over the years, I have sought independent verification for these claims, both the flying-serpent sightings and the folk song they are said to have inspired. I have had no success. Even the deeply informed Nebraska historian and folklorist Roger Welsch has never heard of either. I am willing to believe that Sandoz, who was a respected writer in her time (best known for Cheyenne Autumn, on which John Ford’s 1964 film of the same name was based), did not make this up, but unhelpfully, she provides no source citations. Perhaps they will show up one day in the fragile, yellowed pages of a mid-19th-century frontier newspaper.
There’s no question that sky serpents, if not as ubiquitous as sea serpents, were present – in print anyway – in the America of the 1800s, and not just in America. In earlier centuries, these things were called dragons, the subject of a body of international folklore, mythology, and even (sometimes) sighting reports. Another surviving remnant of the dragon tradition can be found in a long-forgotten genre once called the “snake story”. “Snake stories” were a kind of shorthand for “preposterous tall tales from a rural district”.
To understand how improbable snake stories were, consider that the largest documented snakes are reticulated pythons, which make their home in Southeast Asian jungles. The longest measure 30ft (9m). Possibly, very rare and undocumented specimens may grow a little longer than that, but probably not by much. And if so, they live in places human beings rarely enter.
Any account of an American snake alleged to be more than 6–7ft (1.8–2.1m) long is suspect. Yet old newspapers are crowded with accounts that strain belief. Some random examples:
- A serpent estimated by some to be 100ft (30m) in length frightened people in the Upper Sandusky, Ohio, from the 1850s into the 1890s.
- A 28ft (8.5m) snake made appearances through the 1870s into the early 1880s near Milk Creek, Maryland.
- The trail of an immense, unseen serpent, discovered by fishermen in Maine’s Chain of Lakes in 1882, indicated that the creature was 90ft (27m) long and weighed 30 tons.
- A snake 40ft (12m) long was observed near Muncie, Indiana, as it crashed through fence rails one day in August 1895.
Another modern dragon was the water monster (reports continue, of course, but in significantly reduced numbers and places). One celebrated variety was the sea serpent, reports of which thrilled and intrigued newspaper readers and sparked furious debates among scientists. If you were to credit the papers of the time, you’d have to accept that a significant percentage of North America’s lakes and rivers housed giant serpent-like reptiles. It is curious, however, that lake monster stories were so recurrent that, far from always being treated as sensational news, they were just as often mentioned with disarming casualness, sometimes merely as a passing sentence or two in a local-items column. Some of the tales, on the other hand, are so outlandish that it’s doubtful they were ever meant to be believed.
SERPENTS IN THE SKY
But let us return to the more or less classic dragons of 19th-century America: the ones that flew, with or without wings. In honour of their marine counterparts, we’ll call them sky serpents, though not all of them were serpents. Consider this tale, credited to lumberjacks Thomas Camp and Joseph Howard. The two were cutting wood five miles (8km) northeast of Hurleton, California, at 4 pm on 10 March 1882, when events took a decidedly odd turn. The Gridley Herald quotes their testimony from a letter they wrote to the newspaper:
“We were startled by the sound of many wings flapping in the air. Looking up, we perceived passing over our head, not more than 40ft [12m] above the tree tops, a creature that looked something like a crocodile. It was, to the best of our judgment, not less than 18ft [5.5m] in length, and would measure 2ft [61cm] across the body from the head to the tail, a distance of probably 12ft [3.6m]. The tail was about 4ft [1.2m] long, and tapered from the body to a point probably 8in [20cm] wide. The head was in the neighbourhood of 2ft in length and the jaws (for its mouth was open) could not have been less than 16in [41cm] long. On each side of the body, between the head and the tail were six wings, each projecting between 18in [46cm] or 2ft [61cm] from the body. As near as we could see, these wings were about 15in [38cm] broad and appeared
to be formed similar to a duck’s foot. On the other part of the body we counted 12 feet, six on a side.”
When Howard fired a shotgun round, the pellets rattled as if they had struck sheet iron. The creature itself uttered a “cry similar to that of a calf and bear combined but gave no sign of being inconvenienced or injured”. A “number of Chinamen” also allegedly saw the thing. The Herald concluded the account with a statement affirming that Campbell and Howard were “reliable men” who should be taken at their word.
Another story from 1882 California, however, reduces the flying crocodile to no more than a modestly curious diversion from the usual. In early February, the Los Angeles Times related “one of the most startling snake stories… told in these parts for some time”, crediting it to “the engineer and fireman who came in last night on the Southern Pacific express”. Their testimony was “corroborated by the passengers”. That testimony recounts something like a scene from a 1950s monster movie.
As the train passed Dos Palms (now a nature preserve in the Mojave Desert in extreme south-central California), the driver’s gaze turned to the east. There, what appeared to be a column of sand blowing in the wind was heading slowly westward, not far from the railroad track. It was clear that it and the train would soon cross paths. As they got closer to each other, the cause proved to be nothing as prosaic as a dust devil. It was a huge serpent, positioned vertically with its tail dragging the ground. “Propelled by two large wings near the head,” the Times said, the creature “seemed to be about 30ft [9m] long and 12in [30cm] in diameter.”
Somehow, the train accidentally clipped off part of the tail. Angered, the serpent rapidly turned and gave chase. It dived down and smashed several windows, roaring all the while and frightening the passengers. The pistol-packing among them fired repeatedly, but if any of the bullets found their target, there was no evidence of it. The creature flew off and was lost to view.
“This is vouched for by everyone who was on the train,” according to the Times, “and is given for what it is worth.” There was no follow-up, nor was there a single named witness. Good story, though.
It’s uncertain whether the improbably monikered Jefferson Rawbone, “a well-to-do farmer living near St. Louis”, really did claim (in April 1890) to have seen a host of “white snakes with pink eyes and yellow wings”, or whether this was some correspondent’s idea of a joke about the effects of excessive alcohol consumption. The newspaper account is short and devoted as much to ridicule as to specifics.
Three years earlier, the Pittsburgh Chronicle gave straightforward treatment to a sighting said to have been made by workers at a pipe mill in Etna, an industrial settlement across the river from that Pennsylvania city, in mid-September 1887. As a number of men loitered outside the factory, welder William Stewart happened to glance up into the sky, where a strange sight at (so he estimated) 2,000ft (610m) altitude caught his attention. It looked like a snake – perhaps, he guessed, 5ft (1.5m) long. Understandably, he had a hard time crediting his senses, so he said nothing. But when it came closer, he alerted his companions to its presence. At this point, it was only about 500ft (150m) away, and at this distance it proved to be at least 25ft (7.6m) in length. According to the Chronicle:
“It was jet black and in thickness looked like an ordinary keg. The ponderous jaws of the reptile were frequently seen to open, from which emerged a large tongue. It sailed in a regular course, but when the jaws opened it then took a downward course and seemed as though it would fall to the ground below. On the descent the mouth remained open, and after a fall of about 100ft [30m], the jaws would close and the snake would raise its head and slowly wend it way up to its former height.
“The course of the monster air snake was in a northwesterly direction. During its stay of about an hour it seemed to long for a visit to every part of Etna. From the mill it moved like a snake on land westward about a mile [1.6km] to a point on the Allegheny river, from where it took a back course to the place where it was first seen by the naked eye. From there it took an upward direction and it was watched until it disappeared behind the mill, sailing somewhat toward the southeast.”
SERPENTS OVER THE CAROLINAS
Several reports appear in newspapers in the Carolinas over a span of two and a half decades, from 1880 to 1904. The first I have found, if relevant only in a broad way, appears in a North Carolina account, published in the 3 December 1880 issue of the Statesville Landmark under the bland heading “Meteoritic Displays”. Though it is merely unusual, not anomalous, it seems curiously prescient, given the odd phenomena that would in time make themselves known in Statesville and environs:
“A meteor of surpassing brilliance was seen about midnight [on 1 December]… almost eight miles [13km] east of Statesville. It made everything very light about the presence of the observer. It had the shape of a huge spotted serpent, 75 yards [70m] long, as large as a pine tree, with eyes very distinct and mouth open toward the north pole. About 10ft [3m] back from the head it seemed to rest on the sky and the head part to be elevated, then a little further back it was raised in a kind of loop, and the tail reached down toward the tops of the trees. It was seen by the man and his family about a half hour, and then it gradually passed away. The observer thought that it portended some terrible calamity, and was very much frightened”.
It was, however, the New York Times on which we must depend for the first published account – at least the first one so far unearthed – of a Carolinas-based sky serpent in the classic sense (though the story was widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the country in the following days.) A short article from 27 May 1888 tells the story of three Darlington County, South Carolina, sisters who, while walking in the woods, spotted a hissing 15ft (4.6m) serpent sailing above the treetops. The creature was moving at the speed of a hawk or buzzard. The Times noted that other residents of the area had reported the same phenomenon earlier in the day, though it provided no details.
In isolation, this story doesn’t mean much, though it should be stated that even in those days the Times was a more sober and reliable newspaper than many of its contemporaries. In other words, it did not knowingly print outright fiction masquerading as fact. Not that – however you look at it – sky serpents make much sense from any point of view.
In any event, such phenomena continued to be seen, or at least reported. Continued digging through newspaper archives will eventually recover the other accounts that undoubtedly exist. In July 1897, the Charleston News and Courier mentioned the most recent sighting of “the flying snake” – not, note, “a flying snake”. It was sighted twice on 11 July near Newman Swamp, 10 miles (16km) south of Hartsville, at six and seven o’clock, though the newspaper writer neglects to inform us if that’s supposed to be am or pm.
The second witness, identified as Henry Polson, is quoted: “The monster was low down, just above the tree tops, had its head thrown back in a position to strike and was just floating through the atmosphere lengthwise.” It could have been anywhere from 25 to 40ft (7.6–12m) in length. Allegedly, the creature was also observed, in the News and Courier’s words, “near Chesterfield court house and also in several towns in North Carolina”.
The skies of mid-1897 America were crowded with still-unexplained mystery airships, but apparently there was also room for a sky serpent or two. One was recalled 64 years letter in a letter composed by lifelong Detroit resident John B Rosa (eight at the time of the sighting) and published in the Detroit News for 15 July 1961:
“Going down Grand River for my papers, about 4 in the morning… the policeman I was with and I saw an object that looked to be about 3ft [90cm] in diameter. It was about 1,000ft [300m] in the air and was heading east. It was a silvery colour and had a tail about three blocks long. It travelled like those big sea serpents you read about skipping over the top of the water. It made a low hissing noise that we could just hear. My dad, who was leaving our home for work, also saw it as it seemed to pass right over our house…”
In any event, the next Carolina sighting is only briefly detailed, sadly, since it sounds even more interesting than most. On the afternoon of 16 September 1904, in the countryside near Troutman, North Carolina, Mrs John B Lippard and her children saw “30 or more large snakes sailing through the air” over their farm. Each was about 5ft (1.5m) long and 4–5in (10–13cm) wide. “They watched the snakes sail around and alight in a piece of thickety pine woods… Most assuredly these people saw something.” (Statesville Landmark,
Presumably the good, sober Mormon folk did not invite a serpent into Eden, Utah, but on 20 July 1894, one flew over their town. It was around sundown when an immense flying object – some 60ft (18m) from head to tail, 18in (46cm) in diameter – sailed from the mountains to the north over the town. It did not wriggle but floated tranquilly through the sky, at a speed estimated to be around 40mph (64km/h).
After descending to 20–30ft (6–9m) above ground near a store on the edge of a park, it swerved left and “disappeared up over the mountains in the direction of Middle Fork canyon. The movement of the monster was like a snake in water and it seemed to acquire speed without any effort whatever. Its skin seemed to be formed of scales like an alligator,” as the Ogden Standard related in its 23 July edition. It went on to assert that the account was “vouched for by a number of Eden’s reliable men who saw the grim specimen. It was seen by half the inhabitants and created great excitement.”
THE DRAGONS OF FRESNO COUNTRY
For some reason, the wildest sky-serpent tales come out of California. In 1895, the St Louis Republic opened a long dispatch with these alarming words:
“A number of persons living in the vicinity of Reedley, Fresno County, Cal., all reputable citizens, too, swear that they have seen and hunted two dragons with wings 15ft [4.6m] long, bodies without covering of hair or feathers, head broad, bills long and wide, eyes not less than 4in [10cm] in diameter, and with feet like those of an alligator somewhat, though more circular in form. They have five toes on each foot, with a strong claw on each, and its tracks are 11in [28cm] wide and 10in [25cm] long.”
At least the writer doesn’t feel the need to employ euphemisms. He calls them what they were: good old-fashioned dragons. In any event, so goes the story (involving monsters slightly reminiscent of the one in the 1882 California tall tale already recited), the creatures were spotted first southeast of Selma early on the evening of 11 July. Their “peculiar cries and the rushing of their mammoth wings” continued to be heard even after they were no longer visible.
On 13 July, the creatures feasted on farmer AX Simmons’s chickens. Well, maybe, maybe not. The account is vague on whether they were actually seen doing so; possibly more to the point, the account says that on examination the teeth marks on the victims “resemble those made by a very large dog”; the logical inference being that they were made by a very large dog. Anyway, on the evening of the 19th, picnickers in a buggy saw the dragons pass overhead, visible in the moonlight and generating serious unease with their eerie wails and snapping jaws. Two hog farmers near Selma saw the creatures under a bridge. The dragons rose out of the water and flew so low over the men (said to be Major Henry Haight and Harvey Lemon) that they keenly felt the backwash from the wings.
Soon a six-man party commenced a night-long vigil, hoping to capture or kill the monsters, but the hours passed uneventfully. Then in the morning one Emanuel Jacobs came into town to report his discovery of dead ducks, apparently slaughtered by the dragons, at High Valley, in the mountains four miles (6.4km) away. Two of the party, JD Daniels and a Mr Templeton, returned and hid themselves in holes they’d dug near a pond where the ducks had been killed. What happened next is attributed to Daniels:
“About 11 o’clock the cries were heard in the direction of King’s River, seeming two or three miles [3.2–4.8km] away. The ominous yells drew nearer, and in a few moments we heard the rush and roar of wings, so hideous that our hair almost stood on end. The two dragons came swooping down and circled round and round the pond in rapid whirls, screaming hideously all the while. We had a good view of them while [they were] flying.
“They passed within a few yards of us and their eyes were plainly visible. We could also see that instead of bills like birds, they had snouts resembling that of the alligator, and their teeth could be seen as they snapped their jaws while passing… They were probably examining [the pond to determine] if any food was to be had, such as ducks, mud hens and fish. At length they came down with a fearful plunge into the pond, and the mud and water flew as though a tree had fallen into it. They dived around in the water, and as nearly as we could judge at the distance of 30 yards [27m], they were something over 6ft [1.8m] long, and while wading through the water they looked not unlike gigantic frogs. Their wings were folded and appeared like large knobs on their backs. Their eyes were the most visible parts and seemed all the time wide open and staring. They were very active and darted out among the tulles and rushes catching mud hens…
“As soon as we saw a good opportunity, we levelled our guns at the one nearest us and fired. One rose in the air, yelled and flew away. Every stroke of the wing showed great strength. The other floundered about in the water until it reached the end of the pond, when it crawled out, dragging along its wounded wing after it, and started across the plain. We loaded our guns and gave chase. We soon lost sight of it, for it went much faster than we could. However, we were able to follow by its dismal cries in the distance. We followed it half a mile [800m], when it passed out of our hearing. The next day a company went in pursuit and trailed it by the blood in the grass. It was followed three miles [4.8km] to Jumper slough, which was entered, and all trace of it was lost. When it passed down the bank it left several well-formed tracks in the mud. One of the best was cut out with a spade, and after drying was taken to Selma, where it is in the possession of Mr Snodgrass.”
Ah, yes – Mr Snodgrass, who hereafter vanishes into the mists of history. Old newspapers are full of Mr Snodgrass and his kind, last seen in possession of Earth-shattering revelations and secrets…
As remarked at the outset of this excursion into the deeply improbable, sky serpents neither began nor (entirely) ended in 19th-century America. Even then, reports wriggled or slithered or floated in from elsewhere – Australia and India, for example – and others, I have no doubt, wait to be uncovered from yet more locations foreign and domestic.
Some things resist explanation, even theory. Some of the stories are flat-out fabrications, clearly, while others… well, who knows? There are no serpents in the sky, of course, in any herpetological sense – fortunately for us confirmed herpetophobes – any more than there are other impossible creatures which nonetheless apparently sane, honest souls perversely insist on reporting.
About such things perhaps all we can say is that – in some paradoxical fashion – the certainty of their nonexistence can provide us with no assurance that they cannot be experienced. Those of us who quail at an encounter with a harmless garter snake may not want to dwell on that prospect.