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 very strange 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 there is really no other source of information. And some readers may choose to believe them.
But now, to the reports.
The following news story, which seems to have passed over the threshold into the realm of myth, appears 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.]
Stockerau is a town and Niederfellabrunn, a village just north of Vienna across the Danube. They lie in the district of Korneuburg in the Korneuburg District of the Austrian state of Lower Austria.
The following news story, which smacks heavily of myth, appears 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?
A report of what, if real, would be a pair of extremely odd hybrids, recalls tales of the Egyptian gods. It appears on the front page (column 1) of the August 30, 1864 issue of the Cleveland Morning Leader, a newspaper published in Cleveland, Ohio: (Access 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 appears 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: (Access 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 outh 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, thre 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.
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