I am obliged to report that which is reported, but not to believe it.
—Herodotus, The History, VII, 152
My research involves collecting reports about hybrids, especially hybrids involving mammals or birds, and making them available as part of a compendium of information that I have long been gathering on the topic of hybridization. Over the years, I have found some very strange hybrids seriously reported in the news.
This page collects some of the most way-out reports I've run across. It quotes from old newspapers certain bizarre reports about alleged very, very strange hybrids. Though the tone of these reports is that of nonfiction, the mere fact of their publication should not in any way be taken as a guarantee that the creatures they describe ever actually existed. These tales appear here merely as a matter of record, for the sake of completeness. For, as John Amos Comenius once said, “A diligent scholar is like a bee who takes honey from many different flowers and stores it in his hive.” I’m gathering the literature on hybridization, and the accounts quoted below are part of the literature. Personally, in the case of such bizarre hybrids, I begin to believe in their existence only when I see that there are multiple cases of the same type of hybrid attested by independent witnesses.
In the opening paragraph of his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, the historian Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) explains to his friend, the Roman politician Quintus Sosius Senecio, that his task in attempting to give an account of long-dead or even mythical individuals, was much like that of the mapmakers of his day: “As geographers, Sosius, edge their maps with regions unknown,” he writes, “and add marginal notes to inform us that naught lies beyond but
And Plutarch, who clearly does consider Romulus mythical, goes on to give a detailed account of his life.
During the course of my research into hybrids, I, too, encounter elements of both history and myth, for the student of hybridization today is placed in much the same position as Plutarch and his geographers. Reports of hybrids range from the well-documented and mundane, to the poorly documented but plausible, to the hearsay and improbable, to the seemingly impossible and mythical. However, at exactly what point along this spectrum it might be that reality and feasibility pass over into imagination and impossibility is unclear. We are faced with Plutarch’s boundary problem. No one knows just how different two animals can be if they are to produce hybrid offspring together. And reports of hybrids sometimes do pass well “beyond the earliest times that reason can reach and real history embrace.” But even untrustworthy accounts of extreme antiquity can be of interest. After all, some crosses are very hard to obtain, and the only report of a very rare type of hybrid might well date back hundreds of years, and we might have to wait centuries more to see one again. To hear of such organisms, we would of course have to look back into the early literature, in the same way that astronomers do to learn of a supernova or some comet observed in times gone by. Such reports can be bizarre, but for some crosses it may well be that there really is no other source of information.
But now, to the reports.
The following news story, which seems to have passed over the threshold into the realm of myth, appeared on page 9 (columns 1 and 2) of the April 2, 1887 issue of the newspaper Znaimer Wochenblatt, which was published in Znojmo (Znaim), a town in what is now the Czech Republic:
A Horrific Monster. From Stockerau: Last Saturday in Niederfellabrunn, a 32 year-old unmarried maidservant Franziska H. gave birth a hideous monster alive. The child was like a human being with respect to its torso, that is, its shoulders, chest and upper abdomen. But the head and the lower belly were those of a large — toad. In addition the hands on its little arms exactly resembled the feet of the animal just named. The mother, who already had one normally developed child, attributed the present monstrosity to an accident that had happened to her the previous summer while she was out picking flowers. She had received a huge shock, she said, when a toad suddenly sprang out at her. The mother was so horrified by this monstrous creature that she trampled it to death at once after birth. The authorities were notified of the case by Dr. Jakob, who stated that the child’s face was not that of a human being, so no charges were brought. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
The town of Stockerau and the village of Niederfellabrunn lie just north of Vienna across the Danube.
The following is the most detailed report about a supposed amphibian-human hybrid that extensive search has yet revealed. It, too, though presented as non-fiction, has a certain mythic quality. It appeared on the front page (columns 5 and 6) of the June 5, 1886 issue of the St. Paul Daily Globe, a newspaper published in St. Paul, Minnesota (source). This same story appeared in many other newspapers around the U.S. that year.
And a third, much briefer notice about an amphibian-human hybrid exists as well. It appeared on page 3 (column 4) of the November 12, 1885 issue of the Western sentinel, a newspaper published in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (source).
In a side show at the Goldsboro fair grounds was a real monstrosity in the way of little Matthew, a colored boy 16 years of age, half frog and half human. He was born in Kershaw county, South Carolina.
The following news story, which smacks heavily of myth, appeared on page 23 (columns 1 and 2) of the May 27, 1909 issue of the Viennese newspaper Deutsches Volksblatt:
From Toplița in Hungary: While out on a walk in the Romanian village of Palota near Toplița, two women found on the street a bundled infant, which was shrieking at the top of its lungs. They picked it up and carried it to the notary, by whom it was unwrapped in the presence of the local doctor Michael Frisch. Those present were seized with a terrible horror, for a hideous freak, a middle thing between human and fish, came to light. Its upper body was that of a human infant, but from the waist down the body was completely that of a fish and, instead of feet, it had the complete tail of a fish, which the foundling wagged merrily to and fro. This hideous monstrosity was swaddled in linen and had around its neck a small purse containing five Austrian hundred crown bills and a piece of paper with the words in Romanian: “Tomme vereste!” (God keep thee!). Marie Roznan, a Romanian peasant, took the creature, which incidentally wept like an ordinary human infant, to nurse it. But it bit her breast with such force that it could not, with any amount of tugging, be removed. After much delay, she went to Dr. Frisch, but the resulting wound had already become gangrenous, and she had to undergo a serious operation. The monster had to be sent to the hospital in Budapest.
[Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
A fishy story indeed! A probable case of sirenomelia?
Another tale of a piscine human appeared on the front page (column 6) of the April 5, 1894 issue of The Austin Weekly Statesman, a newspaper published in Austin, Texas: (source)
Special to The Statesman.
Brenham, Tex., April 3.—A negro woman near Burton has given birth to a monstrosity. The trunk and head are fishlike even to the gills, and there are fins instead of arms, but the legs are natural and well formed. The negroes are much excited and claim that the woman was conjured. The monster was stillborn.
A report of what, if real, would be a pair of extremely odd hybrids, recalls tales of the Egyptian gods. It appeared on the front page (column 1) of the August 30, 1864 issue of the Cleveland Morning Leader, a newspaper published in Cleveland, Ohio (source):
Wonders never cease! and the greatest ever heard of in these modern times has just come to our knowledge from entirely reliable authority. It fully disproves the wisdom of Solomon when he proclaimed that "there is nothing new under the sun." The facts related to us are:
About two weeks ago the wife of a market gardener, residing at Eagle Point, in this city, gave birth to twins which, instead of being provided with the head and features of the "human form divine" had each the head and neck of a snake! Besides the head and shoulders the children were of natural and comely form—from the shoulders up they presented the horrible shape and characteristics of the serpent! Immediately after the birth a consultation of physicians was held, at which it was very properly decided to bleed the monsters to death, which was, accordingly done. What disposition was made of the bodies we have not yet learned.
The cause assigned for the lusus naturae is that several months ago, shortly after the woman became enciente, her husband playfully threw a snake’s head into her face, which so frightened her that the foetus assumed the horrible shape into which they were brought into the world.
A separate account of an alleged snake child appeared on the front page (columns 3 and 4) of the July 11, 1871 issue of the Public Ledger, a newspaper published in St. John’s, Newfoundland: (source)
During a recent visit to Cape Cod, the writer was made acquainted with a remarkable freak of nature, one illustrating the results of certain influences exerted before birth, in the person of a male child, known as the “snake child.” This is the son of Mr.___, of Harwick, a little more than three months old, and regarded as “more snake than human.” During the term of pregnancy, which was attended with various peculiar sensations, the mother was in an unusual frame of mind, and gratified a kind of monomania for killing snakes, never allowing an opportunity for an encounter with them to pass unimproved. On one occasion she fought two and a half hours with three adders in an arbor, at last conquering and killing them. On another occasion she came suddenly upon a large black snake, the ‘size of her wrist,’ which raised his head very high and ‘showed fight.’ True to her strange impulse, she commenced the attack and was the conqueror, instead of screaming, like most females, and leaving the spot in haste, though his snakeship presented a formidable, if not a frightful, appearance. This monstrosity, which weighed 13 lbs. at birth has the more general appearance of a human being in the outlines of the body, than in the head and limbs, though the shoulder blade is wanting, or very unlike the natural one. The head is very large having, at birth, the appearance, with the general expression of the face, especially the upper part, of a child at the age of two years. It rises high, the line of the front and back being nearly parallel, though inclining upward and forward with an arched appearance. The forehead is high, and projects considerably over the eyes. The ears, which are large, are located very far forward, and about one inch lower than usual, or about on a direct line with the chin. The eyes are large, snakish, elongated, protruding, and much in motion. The lower jaw has an unusual appearance, appearing as if double, while the roof of the mouth is narrow and deep. The mouth is open, save when nursing the bottle. The tongue as thick as some two or three ordinary ones, and is very smooth. The lips remain in one position, about a half inch in a straight line, above and below, with a gradual curve toward the angles. The nose is rounded at the the tip, much depressed at the base, and the nostrils much distended, the whole looking snakish. Instead of the usual soft place in the top of the skull, there are two, one in the forehead, and the other far back, the skull between these more nearly resembling the back of a turtle than a child’s head. There are two bony projections in the forehead, over the eyes, like prospective horns, while between these and the eyes are deep cavities. The face, which is long and large, with the exception of the mouth and chin.—is proportionately small—has a mature expression, rather snakish, the chin being usually pointed. The feet and hands are the most remarkable, evidently presenting the deformity in its worst aspects. Both are unusually arched, and in other respects peculiar. The large toe is short, like a thumb, inclining downward and toward the hollow of the foot, with the small one also. The remaining ones, which are destitute of the usual joints, are enclosed in a kind of sheath, a thick skin and some flesh, all terminating at the ends in one broad and large n ail, inclining downward like a half tube. This nail, and indeed those of both the hands and feet, have a decidedly snakish look. The hands are still more peculiar, rather more arched than the feet. The bones of the hand are more distant, relatively, than those of the feet, with a deep cavity between, rather irregular. One of the toe bones is disconnected with those of the foot, passing instead, downward toward the hollow of the foot, there floating with no attachment. Others seem to be deficient in the usual connection in this respect. The palm is very deep, corresponding with the unusual arch both of the hand and finger sheath. The thumb and the small finger incline toward the palm, and are rather short, resembling the general construction of the corresponding members of the foot, though the small finger is more connected with the others by an arrangement resembling that of the web foot. The remaining three are almost in a form of a triangle, joining at the ends in one general broad and large nail. Extending down the sides of the fingers, almost enclosing them. I could detect no joints in these fingers, only the one joining them to the hand. The little fellow seemed unwilling to have his hand held long enough to have them carefully examined, making one feel that he was handling a snake. The general appearance of the hand, the form of enclosed fingers, the form of the nails, etc., are wonderfully suggestive of the snake. Indeed, one can scarcely look at this unique creature, observe the almost constant motion of the hands, feet, tongue, the turning of the head from side to side, and see the snakish aspect, without feeling a kind of shuddering, a wish to withdraw from his presence, so snakish is he in his appearance and movements.
J. H. Hanford, M. D., Reading Mass.
A third case of reported snake-baby appeared on page 2 (column 3) of the May 8, 1867 issue of the Public Ledger, a newspaper published in Memphis, Tennessee (source):
[From the Nashville Banner.]
We learned yesterday from a gentleman of undoubted veracity, and who is acquainted with the facts we are about to relate, of one of the most wonderful freaks of nature on record, which occurred in West Tennessee.
The incident happened in one of the most respectable families in that section, and its features are so revolting that very few would readily believe that such a thing could possibly occur. Strange as it may seem, however, we are assured of its authenticity, and lay it before the public as it came to us.
A lady living near Trenton was, a few nights since, delivered of a child, the head of which, and the body from the abdomen up, were those of a living rattlesnake, while the lower limbs were those of a human being. The strange object has all the characteristics and appearances of a snake, is still alive, and will probably live and grow to its natural size. The lady is rapidly recovering her health.
This startling lusus naturae is accounted for by the fact that the mother sometime previous to her confinement, narrowly escaped the fangs of a huge rattlesnake, and was so terrified by the occurrence that she became subject to fits.
We are not permitted to mention any names in connection with this remarkable occurrence, the delicacy of the subject warranting us in omitting them.
The next report describes a pair of alligator-human hybrids residing in the swamps of south Georgia (U.S.). It appeared on page 3 (column 3) of the November 12, 1896 issue of the The Hocking Sentinel, a newspaper published in Logan, Ohio (source):
Down in a far away southern portion of Georgia is an extensive swamp called Grand Bay. It is a branch of the great Okefenokee Swamp. On the borders of this swamp live a pair of freaks the like of which are not to be found elsewhere. They are known as the "alligator children," and are the offspring of a man and a woman of the poorest class of piney woods "crackers." [Cracker is a name often used to refer to rural Georgians.]
The eldest of the "alligators" is now twenty-three years of age, and in the best of health, except for her deformity. Shortly before the birth of this child the mother, Mrs. James Dawdy, was frightened by suddenly coming upon a huge alligator. The little girl shortly thereafter born to her was in appearance half human and half reptile.
Her head and face was elongated, her jaws protruded. There was only a very scant growth of hair on her head, and down her back extended a row of dark callousities like the scales on an alligator's back. She had a well defined tail several inches long, and her fingers and toes bore an unmistakable resemblance to an alligator's claws.
About a year later a second child was born, a boy, and he showed the same peculiar markings, only they were not so strongly defined as those of the girl.
Both children were mutes, and all efforts of the parents to teach them to utter intelligible words were unavailing. The girl made her wants known by a sort of whining sound, and when angry would snarl like an alligator. She was very unruly. The boy was more tractable, but both he and his sister displayed all the characteristics of the alligator.
The girl would be now about five feet high if she could stand upright, but the same number of feet long would be the more appropriate way to describe her longitudinal dimensions. The jaws bear a strong resemblance to those of an alligator, and curving claws, calloused by long use in creeping about the floor, disfigure her hands and feet.
The boy is more docile and exhibits a higher degree of intelligence, and will accept sweetmeats, holding them in his jaws as he crouches in the corner, munching them with evident satisfaction. He, too, creeps on all fours about the house.
The other children of the family are of average intelligence, and show no kinship with their less fortunate brother and sister.
[The article above appeared in various newspapers around the U.S. (for example also here).]
The following is perhaps the strangest account among those collected on this website. It appeared on the front page (column 1) of the April 26, 1884 issue of the The Pioche Weekly Record, a newspaper published in Pioche, Nevada (source).
An attaché of the Maverick, while wandering around town the other evening in quest of something which might satiate the cravings of the reading world, overheard a conversation which opened up the avenue to a startling item and, with the object of getting at the details, he approached one of the party, who is a physician, and made inquiries as to the conversation overheard a few moments previous, but was met with a blunt but polite refusal to be let any farther into the secret; but after a dogged persistence on the part of the Maverick representative, the gentleman approached agreed to conduct him to the seclusion of the monstrosity, he first agreeing to give neither name nor locality. Accordingly, in company with the attending physician, he visited the house, where was found, to his utter astonishment, a human deformity, the like of which the mind is scarcely capable of conceiving. This curiosity is three days old, weighs two and a half pounds, has a well-developed head, but no sign of hair, and when viewing it in a dark room with a lighted lamp is seen to be perfectly transparent, an object on the opposite side of the head being easily distinguished, and what appeared to be the brain is constantly moving, not even ceasing when the child (if such it can be called) appears to be sleeping. The body as low down as the hips is well developed and symmetrically formed, but the legs, feet, arms and hands are the exact counterparts of the centipede, the fingers and toes resembling the claws of one of these reptiles [sic], and are of a fleshy substance, but have been growing harder ever since birth [as does the chitinous, translucent exoskeleton of an arthropod]. The toes and fingers are also transparent, being of a light reddish color [matching the color of S. heros] and are ever and anon on the move. Should this nondescript live it will prove to be the greatest curiosity ever known to anatomy.
The mother, who is of more than ordinary intelligence, expresses great sorrow at this phenomenal deformity of her offspring, and appears to have all that maternal love and care that is bestowed upon those more fortunate, and desires that it live, but says that in the case it does not she would prefer that the world remain in ignorance of its maternity.
Should this freak of nature show evidences of living, we will be permitted to write more fully of it at another time, but by request we will say no more for the present.
Texas would, of course, insist on having the biggest, strangest hybrid!
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
Human Origins: Are we hybrids?
On the Origins of New Forms of Life
Cat-rabbit Hybrids: Fact or fiction?
Georges Cuvier: A Biography
Prothero: A Rebuttal
Branches of Biology