Serious sighting or silly story?


On June 16, 1910, a strange article appeared in the local newspaper, the News Herald. The headline on the story was: Whatchumacalit Killed.

And the story went like this: “The elusive wild animal which led the people of Hamer and Salem townships on such a merry chase this past winter, and which was called a wolf, hyena, dog, catamount, zebra and indeed every wild animal in captivity, except an elephant and a digdig by its pursuers, finally gave up its weary life last week on the farm of C.C. Sanders in Salem Township. A load of shot from the gun of that good marksmen, Olney Pence, bringing it low.

“Soon after its death a large crowd collected and reviewed its remains, but were unable to agree as to the class of the animal kingdom in which it belonged, but the consensus of opinion seems to be that it is a Whatumacalit, although it may possibly be a wildebeste. The early reports that it killed cows, calves, sheep, hogs, and horses, are now discredited.”

When I first encountered this article, I was inclined to believe it. I was immediately captivated by the story. Although I am a skeptic by nature, I was fascinated by the idea of a rowdy posse of farmers and townspeople, joined together in the search for a mysterious beast throughout the sprawling woods of Highland County. The only way to know if this was a true encounter with a strange beast is to dive straight into the facts.

The newspaper is a primary source, a reliable window into the past. There didn’t seem to be any question that a local newspaper devoted to delivering information could be putting out false events that did not really happen.I was on the fence about what I believed, so for the sake of my own curiosity, I had to get a second opinion.

A couple weeks after discovering the story of the Whatchamacallit, I contacted the Ohio-based author and writer of many articles relating to strange animals, Chris Woodyard. She is the author of the “Haunted Ohio” series, and writes on her website about the state’s creatures, strange happenings, and otherwise unexplained occurrences. I reached out to her to gain her insight about the authenticity of the article. After reviewing the story, the cryptozoologist (a specialist in mythological and supernatural creatures) told us that she suspected this may be a “silly season” story.

A silly season story is fake news from the past, usually specific to the summer months of June and July when news was slow and journalists were bored. The June date on the issue would match this description. One thing Woodyard mentioned is of possible involvement of the circus that was supposed to visit the area soon. Since the story mentioned many exotic animals, it could be an attempt to put an image of strange, new animals into the subconscious of the public, thus raising their interests when the show rolled into town.

An article directly above the passage advertising “Robinson’s Shows” announced “Among the other features the trained wild animals are worthy of special comment, the Robinson show carrying more of the trained wild beasts than all others combined. Performing lions, leopards, pumas, tigers, bears, goats, dogs, ponies, monkeys, jaguars and elephants, featuring the only bare back lion riding in the world today.” These articles appearing so closely together seemed like too much of a coincidence. Could this have been a deliberately placed story, designed to draw customers to the Robinson show?

Although this story is seeming less and less credible as I explore further, there are some facts that do hold up. Olney Pence was the name of the “excellent marksmen” who shot the beast. After researching the genealogy and history of this man, it’s clear he did exist, and he lived in Hamer Township in 1910. Born in June 8, 1879 to P.F. Pence and Rosannah Kessler, Olney Elmer Pence married a woman named Clara Shaffer and had at least one son, before his death in 1964. The Rev. Paul Pence, Olney’s son, just recently passed away. C.C. Sanders, owner of the farm where neighbors supposedly gathered to review the remains of the Whatchamacallit, was much harder to trace due to only having the last name. From what information we could gather, there was a Sanders farm in the area during the early 1900s, meaning it is possible that this farm is the one mentioned.

We have no evidence that any of these theories are definitely true, or if the mysterious, unidentifiable Whatchamacallit existed. We know that the people and the places were real. We know that the newspaper published an article that was preserved and resurfaced so many years later. If this is a true “Silly Season” story, we know that the fake news we hear about so often today is something that has been a part of society for a long time, and gives us a unique look at the humor of local news media during the silly season.

On the other hand, who knows? There may have been a ragtag pack of hunters assembled that winter in 1909, determined to protect the Highland County countryside from a wild, mysterious creature.

Isabella Warner is a freshman at Fairfield High School.

Isabella Warner Warner

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