The Devil came to Lawrence County
We see this in the 1638 case of the thunderstorm at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in Dartmoor, England. What may be one of the first documented instances of ball lightning, a rare meteorological phenomenon that results in the formation of plasma orbs that can move through walls or windows and last for several seconds before sometimes dissipating with explosive results, occurred at the church of St Pancras on Sunday, October 21 of that year, resulting in the death of four and the injury of up to 60 parishioners. It was, of course, attributed to the Devil. In two different versions of the story, both obvious morality tales, individuals were punished for the sin of gambling. In one version a perennial gambler, either Jan Reynolds or Bobby Read depending on the account, had made a deal with the devil that involved sacrificing his soul if he were ever to fall asleep in church. As Reynolds (or Read) dozed off that day, his deck of cards in hand, the Devil came to collect his due. In another version of the story four individuals were busy playing cards during the sermon, resulting in the Devil coming to collect their souls. No matter who he came for, or why, the sulfur and ozone smell of the dissipating orb left little doubt to its origin in the minds of those present. We even see a little throwback to the pre-Christian and faery lore in the story of a landlady at an inn where the devil was purported to stop on his way to Widecombe. The patroness claimed that he stopped at the Tavistock Inn, in Poundgate, for a drink and directions along the way. In addition to his clearly visible cloven hooves and the sound of sizzling as he gulped his ale, the money he left on the counter as payment turned to dried leaves once he was gone. This transmogrification of wealth to litter is a common feature of faery lore, such as the leprechaun legends where folks given gold coins or jewels return home to find their pockets full of nothing but leaves. It even finds its way back into pop culture, in reverse, in the popular Brothers Grimm story of Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold.
Even as late as 1855, well into the Industrial Revolution and with the advances of the Enlightenment era firmly embedded in European culture and society, one could not escape the influence of the Devil when it came to addressing the odd and unexplained. When what appeared to be a series of bipedal (two-legged), cloven hoofed tracks were reported in freshly fallen snow across Devonshire – looking to witnesses as if they continued through garden walls, across the tops of houses, and along thin walls – you can guess who was blamed. The tracks, which turned up overnight on the evening of February 8th or early morning of February 9th, may in fact represent a case of hysteria, fueled by speculation and the appearance of various, unrelated animal tracks. But to the locals there was only one possible explanation. The Devil.
It’s hardly surprising then that, when an unknown and intimidating creature began terrorizing residents of Lawrence County in February of 1875, the locals associated it with the Devil. The February 27, 1875 edition of the Ironton Register relayed the story of “Mr. C.”, a local man of “reliable” character who claimed that a few nights before he had encountered a “hairy monster” standing on its hind legs and viewing him “with an eye of scrutiny” near Buckhorn Furnace. Though there was nothing otherwise sinister or supernatural about the creature, Mr. C. “supposed (it) to be the Devil.” Following the sighting by Mr. C., another local man, this one unnamed in the article, claimed that he encountered the Devil a couple of days later as he rode his ass toward his job at the Mt. Vernon Furnace. Although startling, and this time leaping about on all fours rather than standing upright, once again the “devil” failed to do anything more intimidating than stare at the rider. However, this time the witness raised an alarm, calling out to locals over the hill to gather a group of men to come help him hunt the beast. Although several men and their dogs joined the hunt “scouring the hills and ravines between Buckhorn and Vernon Furnace”, after three hours the only thing seen was a fox, which a young boy described seeing run past him as the dogs gave chase. Though this might have put the story to rest, “those who trampled the bushes and green briers down in hot pursuit” would not accept that the creature they had tracked was not “that thing.”
Two weeks later, it was back again. This time viewed by a “Long Creek gentleman” as he was riding home from work in the evening. As he neared Vesuvius Furnace it appeared from the bushes alongside the road, according to the March 11 edition of the paper, “but disappeared so suddenly that our informant did not sufficiently recover from his consternation to get a good look at it.” What he did see he described as “(a) thin body, low squatty legs, and a long black tail” and “altogether unlike any animal he ever saw before.”
Another local legend states that the creature was confronted by a preacher near Vesuvius following encounters by employees of the furnace operations there. The preacher was supposed to have asked the Devil what he wanted with the workers. No one ever recorded exactly what words were spoken by the minister to the beast, however, nor any reply from the Devil to the question. Likewise, though newspaper reports exist to tell us of these other sightings near Buckhorn and Vernon, and the hysteria they created amongst a community intent on finding “the Devil”, the Vesuvius accounts seem to be legend only, with no supporting documentation available. (The story also shares elements with other legendary banishment tales, such as St. Columba's banishment of the Loch Ness Monster or St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland.)
So, what was going on in the woods of Lawrence County 145 years ago? Was it some mundane animal, or different animals, misidentified in the midst of hysteria and fear? Some uncommon, but flesh and blood, animal or early example of an escaped exotic animal (the old, “wrecked circus train” explanation)? Was the hairy, manlike monster some early report of Bigfoot type creatures, from the era before that name had been coined and disseminated through the media? Or, was the Devil himself walking the woods of southern Ohio that winter, scaring ironworkers and whipping the communities into a state of panic and fear? The truth will never be known, completely. But as long as there are dark woods to stir the imagination, unknown growls and noises to intimidate the timid, and folks eager for a startle or a scare, the Devil will be there. Just outside of view. Waiting for someone to spook.
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(A previous version of this story ran in The Scioto Voice newspaper as part of the River Valley Myths & Legends series.)