For the purposes of commentary and scholarly discussion....
July 1, 2001
SECTION: No. 4, Vol. 25; Pg. 15 ; ISSN: 0194-6730
LENGTH: 3206 words
HEADLINE: Tracking the Swamp Monsters.
BYLINE: NICKELL, JOE
Do mysterious and presumably endangered manlike creatures inhabit swamplands
of the southern United States? If not, how do we explain the sightings and
even track impressions of creatures that thus far have eluded mainstream
science? Do they represent additional evidence of the legendary Bigfoot or
something else entirely? What would an investigation reveal?
The outside world learned about Louisiana's Honey Island Swamp Monster in
1974 when two hunters emerged from a remote area of backwater sloughs with
plaster casts of "unusual tracks." The men claimed they discovered the
footprints near a wild boar that lay with its throat gashed. They also
stated that over a decade earlier, in 1963, they had seen similar tracks
after encountering an awesome creature. They described it as standing seven
feet tall, being covered with grayish hair, and having large amber-colored
eyes. However, the monster had promptly run away and an afternoon rainstorm
had obliterated its tracks, the men said.
The hunters were Harlan E. Ford and his friend Billy Mills, both of whom
worked as air-traffic controllers. Ford told his story on an episode of the
1970s television series In Search of ... According to his granddaughter,
Dana Holyfield (1999a, 11):
When the documentary was first televised, it was monster mania around here.
People called from everywhere ... The legend of the Honey Island Swamp
Monster escalated across Southern Louisiana and quickly made its way our of
state after the documentary aired nationwide.
Harlan Ford continued to search for the monster until his death in 1980.
Dana recalls how he once rook a goat into the swamp to use as bait, hoping
to lure the creature to a tree blind where Ford waited--uneventfully, as it
happened--with gun and camera. He did supposedly find several,
different-sized tracks on one hunting trip. He also claimed to have seen the
monster on one other occasion, during a fishing trip with Mills and some of
their friends from work. One of the men reportedly then went searching for
the creature with a rifle and fired two shots at it before returning to tell
his story to the others around the campfire (Holyfield 1999a, 10-15).
Searching for Evidence
Intrigued by the monster reports, which I pursued on a trip to New Orleans
(speaking to local skeptics at the planetarium in Kenner), I determined to
visit the alleged creature's habitat. The Honey Island Swamp (figure 1)
comprises nearly 70,000 acres between the East Pearl and West Pearl rivers.
I signed on with Honey Island Swamp Tours, which is operated out of Slidell,
Louisiana, by wetlands ecologist Paul Wagner and his wife, Sue Their "small,
personalized nature tours" live up to their billing as explorations of "the
deeper, harder-to-reach small bayous and sloughs" of "one of the wildest and
most pristine river swamps in America" ("Dr. Wagner's" n.d.).
The Wagners are ambivalent about the supposed swamp monsters existence. They
have seen alligators, deer, otters, bobcats, and numerous other species but
not a trace of the legendary creature (Wagner 2000). The same is true of the
Wagners' Cajun guide, Captain Robbie Charbonnet. Beginning at age eight, he
has had forty-five years' experience, eighteen as a guide, in the Honey
Island Swamp. He told me he had never seen or heard" something he could not
identify, certainly nothing that could be attributed to a monster
Suiting action to words throughout our tour, Charbonnet repeatedly
identified species after species in the remote swampland as he skillfully
threaded his boat through the cypresses and tupelos hung with Spanish moss.
Although the cool weather had pushed 'gators to the depths, he heralded
turtles, great blue herons, and other wildlife. From only a glimpse of its
silhouetted form he spotted a barred owl, then carefully maneuvered for a
closer view. He called attention to the singing of robins, who were
gathering there for the winter, and pointed to signs of other creatures,
including freshly cut branches produced by beavers and, in the mud, tracks
left by a wild boar. But there was not a trace of the swamp monster. (The
closest I came was passing an idle boat at Indian Village Landing emblazoned
"Swamp Monster Tours.")
Another who is skeptical of monster claims is naturalist John V. Dennis. In
his comprehensive book The Great Cypress Swamps (1988), he writes:
"Honey Island has achieved fame of sorts because of the real or imagined
presence of a creature that fits the description of the Big Foot of movie
renown. Known as the Thing, the creature is sometimes seen by fishermen."
However, he says, "For my part, let me say that in my many years of visiting
swamps, many of them as wild or wilder than Honey Island, I have never
obtained a glimpse of anything vaguely resembling Big Foot, nor have I ever
seen suspicious-looking footprints." He concludes, "Honey Island, in my
experience, does not live up to its reputation as a scary place."
In contrast to the lack of monster experiences from swamp experts are the
encounters reported by Harlan Ford and Billy Mills. Those alleged
eyewitnesses are, in investigators' parlance, "repeaters"--people who claim
unusual experiences on multiple occasions. (Take Bigfoot hunter Roger
Patterson for example. Before shooting his controversial film sequence of a
hairy man-beast in 1967, Patterson was a longtime Bigfoot buff who had
"discovered" the alleged creature's tracks on several occasions [Bord and
Bord 1982, 80].) Ford's and Mills's multiple sightings and discoveries seem
suspiciously lucky, and suspicions are increased by other evidence,
including the tracks.
>From Dana Holyfield I obtained a plaster copy of one of the several track
casts made by her grandfather (figure 2). It is clearly not the track of a
stereotypical Bigfoot (or sasquatch) whose footprints are "roughly human in
design," according to anthropologist and pro-Bigfoot theorist Grover Krantz
(1992, 17). Instead, Ford's monster tracks are webbed-toe imprints that
appear to be "a cross between a primate and a large alligator" (Holyfield
1999a, 9). The track is also surprisingly small: only about nine and
three-fourths inches long compared to Bigfoot tracks which average about
fourteen to sixteen inches (Coleman and Clark 1999, 14), with tracks of
twenty inches and more reported (Coleman and Huyghe 1999). 
Clearly, the Honey Island Swamp Monster is not a Bigfoot, a fact that robs
Ford's and Mills's story of any credibility it might have had from that
association. Monster popularizers instead equate the Honey Island reports
with other "North American 'Creatures of the Black Lagoon' cases," purported
evidence of cryptozoological entities dubbed "freshwater Merbeings" (Coleman
and Huyghe 1999, 39, 62).
These are supposedly linked by tracks with three toes, although Ford's casts
actually exhibit four (again see figure 2). In short, the alleged monster is
unique, rare even among creatures whose existence is unproven and unlikely.
Footprints and other specific details aside, the Honey Island Swamp Monster
seems part of a genre of mythic swamp-dwelling "beastmen" or "manimals."
They include the smelly Skunk Ape and the hybrid Gatorman of the Florida
Everglades and other southern swamps; the Scape Ore Swamp Lizardman of South
Carolina; Momo, the Missouri Monster; and, among others, the Fouke Monster,
which peeked in the window of a home in Fouke, Arkansas, one night in 1971
and set off a rash of monster sightings (Blackman 1998, 23-25, 30-33,
166-168; Bord and Bord 1982, 104-105; Coleman and Clark 1999, 224-226;
Coleman and Huyghe 1999, 39, 56).
Considering this genre, we must ask: Why swamps and why monsters? Swamps
represent remote, unexplored regions, which have traditionally been the
domain of legendary creatures. As the noted Smithsonian Institution
biologist John Napier (1973, 23) sagely observed, monsters "hail from
uncharted territory: inaccessible mountains, impenetrable forests, remote
Pacific islands, the depths of loch or ocean.... The essential element of
the monster myth is remoteness."
Echoing Napier in discussing one reported Honey Island Swamp encounter, John
V. Dennis (1988) states: "In many cases, sightings such as this one are
inspired by traditions that go back as far as Indian days. If a region is
wild and inaccessible and has a history of encounters with strange forms of
life, chances are that similar encounters will occur again--or at least be
reported." And while the major purported domain of Bigfoot is the Pacific
northwest, Krantz (1992, 199) observes: "Many of the more persistent eastern
reports come from low-lying and/or swampy lands of the lower Mississippi and
other major river basins."
But why does belief in monsters persist? According to one source, monsters
appear in every culture and are "born out of the unknown and nurtured by the
unexplained" (Guenette and Guenette 1975). Many alleged paranormal entities
appear to stem either from mankind's hopes or fears--thus are envisioned
angels and demons--and some entities may evoke a range of responses.
Monsters, for example, may intrigue us with their unknown aspect as well as
provoke terror. We may be especially interested in man-beasts, given what
psychologist Robert A. Baker (1995) observes is our strong tendency to endow
things with human characteristics. Hence, angels are basically our better
selves with wings; extraterrestrials are humanoids from futuristic worlds;
and Bigfoot and his ilk seem linked to our evolutionary past.
Monsters may play various roles in our lives. My Cajun guide, Robbie
Charbonnet, offered some interesting ideas about the Honey Island Swamp
Monster and similar entities. He thought that frightening stories might have
been concocted on occasion to keep outsiders away--perhaps to protect prime
hunting areas or even help safeguard moonshine stills. He also theorized
that such tales might have served in a sort of bogeyman fashion to frighten
children from wandering into remote, dangerous areas. (Indeed he mentioned
how when he was a youngster in the 1950s an uncle would tell him about a
frightening figure--a sort of horror-movie type with one leg, a mutilated
face, etc.--that would "get" him if he strayed into the swampy wilderness.)
Like any such bogeyman, the Honey Island Swamp Monster is also good for
gratuitous campfire chills. "A group of men were sitting around the campfire
along the edge of the Pearl River," begins one narrative, "telling stories
about that thing in the swamp . . ." (Holyfield 1999b). A song, "The Honey
Island Swamp Monster" (written by Perry Ford, n.d.), is in a similar vein:
"Late at night by a dim fire light, / You people best beware. / He's
standing in the shadows, / Lurking around out there..." The monster has even
been referred to specifically as "The boogie man" and "that booger"
(Holyfield 1992a, 14). "Booger" is a dialect form of bogey, and deliberately
scary stories are sometimes known as "booger' tales" (Cassidy 1985).
Suitable subjects for booger tales are numerous Louisiana swamp and bayou
terrors, many of them the products of Cajun folklore. One is the Letiche, a
ghoulish creature that was supposedly an abandoned, illegitimate child who
was reared by alligators, and now has scaly skin, webbed hands and feet, and
luminous green eyes. Then there is Jack O'Lantern, a malevolent spirit who
lures humans into dangerous swampland with his mesmerizing lantern, as well
as the Loup Garou (a werewolf) and the zombies (not the relatively harmless
"Voodoo Zombies" but the horrific "Flesh Eaters") (Blackman 1998, 171-209).
By extension, swamp creatures are also ideal subjects for horror fiction.
The Fouke monster sightings, for example, inspired the horror movie The
Legend of Boggy Creek. That 1972 thriller became a box-office hit, spawning
a sequel and many imitations. About the same time (1972) there emerged a
popular comic book series titled Swamp Thing, featuring a metamorphosing
man-monster from a Louisiana swamp. Interestingly, these popularized
monsters predated the 1974 claims of Ford and Mills. (Recall that their
alleged earlier encounter of 1963 had not been reported.)
The Track Makers
While swamp monsters and other manbeasts are not proven to exist, hoaxers
certainly are. Take, for example, Bigfoot tracks reported by berry pickers
near Mount St. Helens, Washington, in 1930. Nearly half a century later, a
retired logger came forward to pose with a set of "bigfeet" that he had
carved and that a friend had worn to produce the fake monster tracks
(Dennett 1982). Among many similar hoaxes were at least seven perpetrated in
the early 1970s by one Ray Pickens of Chehalis, Washington. He carved
primitive seven-by-eighteen-inch feet and attached them to hiking boots.
Pickens (1975) said he was motivated "not to fool the scientists, but to
fool the monster-hunters" who he felt regarded people like him as "hicks."
Other motivation, according to monster hunter Peter Byrne (1975), stems from
the "extraordinary psychology of people wanting to get their names in the
paper, people wanting a little publicity, wanting to be noticed."
Were Harlan Ford's and Billy Mills's monster claims similarly motivated?
Dana Holyfield (1999a, 5-6) says of her grandfather: "Harlan wasn't a man to
make up something like that. He was down to earth and honest and told it the
way it was and didn't care if people believed him or not." But even a
basically honest person, who would not do something overtly dastardly or
criminal, might engage in something that he considered relatively harmless
and that would add zest to life. I believe the evidence strongly indicates
that Ford and Mills did just that. To sum up, there are the men's
suspiciously repeated sighting reports and alleged track discoveries,
together with the incongruent mixing of a Bigfoot-type creature with most
un-Bigfootlike feet, plus the fact that the proffered evidence is not only
of a type that could easily be faked but often has been. In addition, the
men's claims exist in a context of swampmanimal mythology that has numerous
antecedent elements in folklore and fiction. Taken together, the evi dence
suggests a common hoax.
Certainly, in the wake of the monster mania Ford helped inspire, much
hoaxing resulted. States Holyfield (1999a, 11): "Then there were the monster
impersonators who made fake bigfoot shoes and tromped through the swamp.
This went on for years. Harlan didn't worry about the jokers because he knew
the difference." Be that as it may, swamp-monster hoaxes---and apparent
A few months before I arrived in Louisiana, two loggers, Earl Whitstine and
Carl Dubois, reported sighting a hairy man-beast in a cypress swamp called
Boggy Bayou in the central part of the state. Giant four-toed tracks and
hair samples were discovered at the site, and soon others came forward to
say they too had seen a similar creature. However, there were grounds for
suspicion: twenty-five years earlier (i.e., not long after the 1974 Honey
Island Swamp Monster reports), Whitstine's father and some friends had sawed
giant foot shapes from plywood and produced fake monster tracks in the woods
of a nearby parish.
On September 13, 2000, laboratory tests of the hair from the Boggy Bayou
creature revealed that it was not Gigantopithecus blacki (a scientific name
for sasquatch proposed by Krantz [1992, 193]), but much closer to Booger
louisiani (my term for the legendary swamp bogeyman). It proved actually to
be from Equus caballus (a horse), whereupon the local sheriff's department
promptly ended its investigation (Blanchard 2000; Burdeau 2000).
Reportedly, Harlan Ford believed the swamp monsters "were probably on the
verge of extinction" (Holyfield 1999a, 10). Certainly he did much to further
their cause. It seems likely that--as long as there are suitably remote
habitats and other essentials (such as campfires around which to tell tales,
and good ol' boys looking for their fifteen-minutes of fame)--the legendary
creatures will continue to proliferate.
In addition to those mentioned in the text, I am grateful to several people
for their assistance: From Louisiana, William Sierichs Jr., James F. Cherry
M.D., and Kenner Planetarium Director Michael Sandras; and from the Center
for Inquiry, Director of Libraries Tim Binga, SKEPTICAl INQUIRER Managing
Editor Ben Radford, and--for conceiving of and arranging the multi-state
"southern tour" lecture series that took me to Louisiana--CSICOP Executive
Director Barry Karr. Thanks again also to Ranjit Sandhu for manuscript
(1.) Although Harlan Ford obtained tracks of various sizes, a photo of his
mounted casts (Holyfield 1999a, 10) makes it possible to compare them with
his open hand which touches the display and thus gives an approximate scale.
This shows all are relatively small. The one I obtained from Holyfield is
consistent with the larger ones.
Baker, Robert A. 1995. Afterword to Nickell 1995, 275-285.
Blackman, W. Haden. 1998. The Field Guide to North American Monsters. New
York: Three Rivers Press.
Blanchard, Kevin. 2000. Bigfoot sighting in La.? Baton Rouge, La., The
Advocate, August 29.
Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. 1982. The Bigfoot Casebook. Harrisburg, Pa.:
Burdeau, Cain. 2000. Many in central La. fear Bigfoot. Baton Rouge, La., The
Advocate, September 15.
Byrne, Peter. 1975. Quoted in Guenette and Guenette 1975, 81.
Cassidy, Frederick G., ed. 1985. Dictionary of American Regional English.
Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1: 333-334.
Charbonnet, Robbie. 2000. Interview by Joe Nickell, December 4.
Coleman, Loren, and Jerome Clark. 1999. Cryptozoology A to Z New York:
Fireside (Simon & Schuster).
Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. 1999. The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti,
and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Avon, 14-19.
Dennett, Michael. 1982. Bigfoot jokester reveals punchline--finally.
SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 7.1 (Fall): 8-9.
Dennis, John V. 1988. The Great Cypress Swamps. Baron Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 27, 108-109.
"Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tours, Inc." N.d. Advertising flier,
Ford, Perry. N.d. "The Honey Island Swamp Monster." Song text in Holyfield
Guenette, Robert, and Frances Guenette, 1975. The Mysterious Monsters. Los
Angeles, Calif.: Sun Classic Pictures.
Holyfield, Dana. 1999a. Encounters with the Honey Island Swamp Monster.
Pearl River, La.: Honey Island Swamp Books.
----, 1999b. More Swamp Cookin' with the River People. Pearl River, La.:
Honey Island Swamp Books.
Krantz, Grover. 1992. Big Footprints: A Scientific Inquiry into the Reality
of Sasquatch. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books.
Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien
Beings. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.
Pickens, Ray. 1975. Quoted in Guenette and Guenette 1975, 80.
Wagner, Sue. 2000. Interview by Joe Nickell, December 4.
Joe Nickell is CSICOP's Senior Research Fellow and author of numerous
Forwarded from the Bigfoot list with credit and permission
by poster who wishes to remain nameless, henceforth.
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