Monsters in Nature: Frightful Tales from the 19th Century

Today’s book is truly filled with Page Frights! Sea and Land: An Illustrated History of the Wonderful and Curious Things of Nature Existing Before and Since the Deluge, by James W. Buel (1849-1920), highlights some truly horrific creatures and plants, with colorful tales and an abundance of amazing illustrations.  You can read about, and see images of, giant prehistoric and contemporary land, air and sea creatures, sometimes in battle with one another and sometimes battling humans–including early man.

Some of the creatures covered and treated with illustrations read like a carnival of monstrosities: Animals not destructible by fire!  The monster sea-elephant!  The terrible water-spout!  The sea-serpent of ancient legend!  There are many gruesome tales, fables, and even ghost tales!  We will highlight a few of Buel’s tales of monsters in nature, in his own words, with accompanying illustrations.

It is important to remember that this book is a reflection of the culture of its time, and scientific inquiry has yielded much more information about these species and helped demystify many of the myths and legends that are sensationalized in the book.  Bearing that in mind, get ready for some fantastic and frightful tales and images!

The Tale of a Kraken Attacking a Ship!

Adventures with the Frightful Squid [Kraken]. Account below from Buel’s Sea and Land:

“In olden times sailors were harassed by many groundless fears, superstitions being abundant and ignorance general.  The early Spanish poetic chroniclers, who delighted in telling the story of Columbus’ voyages, invariably disfigured their narratives with miracles and wonders.  In those days Jack, looking over the side of his vessel, was prepared to see anything, and to this willing disposition may be attributed the creation of mermaids, sea-serpents, grinning or winking monsters, and leviathans big enough to swallow a ship.  There was the squid which, as the sepia octopus, we know in these days to be an extremely large and most diabolically unpleasant beast; but in the olden times this animal was reckoned to be larger than a cathedral, in proof of which the following story is recited:

“A big ship was on the West African Coast; the men were getting the anchor, when a squid arose and wreathed its fearful snake-like limbs around the vessel’s spars.  The tips of these limbs soared quaveringly high above the mastheads, and the weight of the cuttle drove the ship down on to her beam ends.  Here now was a lively situation.  The crew plied axes and knives, but in vain, whereupon they invoked the aid of their patron saint, Thomas.  Eventually the wounded monster grew alarmed and sank, and the crew afterward, to commemorate their deliverance, marched in a body to the Church of St. Thomas, where subsequently there was hung up a painting, representing the unparalleled conflict. […]

“Pliny, the ancient, relates the history of an enormous cuttle-fish that haunted the coast of Spain and destroyed fishing ground.  He asserts that this creature was finally captured, and weighed seven hundred pounds, and that its arms were thirty feet in length.  As the cuttle-fish was esteemed by the ancients a most savory dish, the head of this formidable monster was given to Lucullas to whom it belonged rightfully by reason of his exalted rank” (Buel, 1887, pp. 75-77).

A Giant, Man-Attacking Crab!

Monster Sea-Spiders. Account below from Buel’s Sea and Land:

“From an article in a recent number of St. Nicholas, I condense the following interesting information about crabs:

“Among the most remarkable, and the largest of crabs, is the Japanese sea-spider, highly esteemed in the Orient as an excellent article of food.  Its principal claws are each five feet in length, measuring from ten to twelve feet between the tips of the nippers, and presenting an astonishing spectacle when entangled in the nets and hauled aboard the boats.  With their slow, measured movements and the powerful weapons of defense, these crabs are the giants of the spiders of the sea.  Professor Ward, who has collected them in Japan, states that they have a remarkable habit of leaving the water at night and crawling up the banks presumably to feed, and that there they are sought by the crab-hunters.  A story is told of a party of fishermen who had camped out on a river bank, and one of whom aroused the others in the night by yells and screams.  Running to the spot they found that one of these monster crabs, in wandering over the flats, had accidentally crawled over him with his great claws, frightening him almost to death” (Buel, 1887, pp. 64-65).

“The robber-crab, peculiar to the Samoan Islands. . .lives principally in the branches of the cocoanut tree.  It exercises no little intelligence in getting at the fruit, which it accomplishes by carrying the nut to the very top of the tree, and then dashing it down with force enough to break the shell.  A gentleman relates that upon an occasion, while he was walking in a Samoan forest, he saw a robber-brab reach down its claws from a thick palm branch and seize a goat by the ears that was passing underneath.  So powerful was the crab that it lifted the goat almost clear from the ground” (Buel, 1887, pp. 65, 67).

A Horrifying Man-Eating Tree!

A Man-Eating Plant. Account below from Buel’s Sea and Land:

“Travelers have told us of a plant, which they assert grows in Central Africa and also in South America, that is not contented with the myriad of large insects which it catches and consumes, but its voracity extends to making even humans its prey.  This marvelous vegetable Minotauris represented as having a short, thick trunk, from the top of which radiate giant spines, narrow and flexible, but of extraordinary tenaciousness, the edges of which are armed with barbs, or dagger-like teeth.  Instead of growing upright, or at an inclined angle from the trunk, these spines lay their outer ends upon the ground, and so gracefully are they distributed that the trunk resembles an easy couch with the green drapery around it.  The unfortunate traveler, ignorant of the monstrous creation which lies in his way, and curious to examine the strange plant, or to rest himself upon its inviting stalk approaches without a suspicion of his certain doom.  The moment his feet are set within the circle of the horrid spines, they rise up, like gigantic serpents, and entwine themselves about him until he is drawn upon the stump, when they speedily drive their daggers into his body and thus complete the massacre.  The body is crushed until every drop of blood is squeezed out of it and becomes absorbed by the gore-loving plant, then the dry carcass is thrown out and the horrid trap set again.

“A gentleman of my acquaintance, who, for a long time, resided in Central America,, affirms the existence of such a plant as I have here briefly described, except that instead of the filaments, or spines, resting on the ground he says they move themselves constantly in the air, like so many huge serpents in an angry discussion, occasionally darting from side to side as if striking at an imaginary foe.  When their prey comes within reach the spines reach out with wonderful sagacity (if I may be allowed to apply the expression to a vegetable creature), and grasp it in an unyielding embrace, from whence it issues only when all the substance of its body is yielded up.  In its action of exerting pressure upon its prey, this dreadful plant resembles the instrument used in the dark ages for inflicting a torturous death.  It was made of two long iron cylinders, on the inside of which were sharp, projecting pikes.  The victim was placed inside, and the two cylinders then brought forcibly together, thus driving a hundred or more of the pointed pikes into all parts of his body and producing a frightful death.  Generally this inquisitorial instrument was made, somewhat crudely, to represent a woman, hence the name applied to it was “The Maiden,” by which it is still known.

“Dr. Antonio Jose Marquez, a distinguished gentleman of the city of Barranguilla, in the United States of Colombia, in describing this wonderful plant to the author, affirms that when excited it violently agitates its long, tentacle-like stems, the edges of which, rasping upon each other, produce a hissing noise which resembles the Spanish expression, ya-te-veo, the literal translation of which is “I see you.”  The plant is therefore known, in South America, by the name Yataveo” (Buel, 1887, pp. 475-477).

Click here to read the book, and more of its frightful tales!  Here are some wickedly monstrous illustrations to lure you to this special collection of Page Frights!

What is your favorite image or story from today’s #PageFrights book?

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Laurel Byrnes is a Virtual Marketing Volunteer for the Biodiversity Heritage Library at Smithsonian Libraries.