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Illinois lore has mythological beasts, muddy monster

A friend of mine was a new owner many years ago when Halloween snuck up on him.

When costumed children arrived on his front porch, he was totally unprepared and “didn’t even have a can of pop to give them,” as he says.

Always resourceful, he grabbed packets of ketchup from the leftovers of a recent fast-food dinner and stuffed them deep into cheaters’ bags. He acted quickly, hoping they wouldn’t get a good look at the “treats” in a bid to avoid later “tricks” from disgruntled young lawyers.

It worked. The kids left, and no recriminations of egg, toilet paper, or shaving cream followed.

Another friend called the act monstrous, in keeping with the Halloween theme.

The ketchup packet dispenser disagreed.

“Hey, those packages were sealed,” he said.

This is one of my favorite early adult Halloween stories. And my friend was right, replacing the ketchup with candy wasn’t exactly monstrous, although the mustard packets might have brought it a little closer.

This Halloween, we don’t have to look far for the real monstrosity, from daily reports of gun violence to slanderous political ads making even commercial breaks impossible to watch during the evening local news broadcast.

It’s no wonder unreal monsters occupy such a prominent pedestal in our collective imagination as early fall transitions into late fall and brisk breezes become more and more icy winds.

Unlike the little monsters that go door-to-door on Halloween, accompanied by superheroes, princesses and other pop culture characters, other monsters have gained worldwide notoriety because their origins are not tied to published works of fiction.

On the contrary, these monsters haunt the periphery of reality. Their existence is just plausible enough to offer a treat of dread, while logic and probability, along with geographic distance, point to a lack of danger from creatures such as the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot.

Nessie may live in Scotland and Bigfoot is said to inhabit mountainous regions. Witches have a historic home in old New England, but some creepy creatures also live in more local lore.

I took a family road trip last week in southern Illinois, an area full of legends and mysteries. Along the Mississippi River just upriver from Cahokia, where archaeologists believe a great city was abruptly and mysteriously abandoned in the 1300s, a great beast dwells near a large cave carved into the rocky cliff at the edge from the river.

The large winged creature carved into the rock is a recreation of an image first reported by 17th century explorers. Its first entry in the historical record was a report by the famous French missionary Jacques Marquette in 1673. The giant petroglyph was mentioned in the accounts of other European explorers until 1699, when “no other mention had been found of it until ‘over a hundred years had passed’, according to John W. Allen, author ofLegends and Traditions of Southern Illinois», published in 1963.

Allen, for 16 years, historical director of the University Museum at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said the current depiction is a “faithful reproduction of the original made by the Indians and carefully sketched by an artist” in 1826. original, he wrote, “remained well preserved until the winter of 1846–1847, when the rock was excavated.”

Piasa, according to Allen, translates to “Bird of Evil Spirit”, while the tourist office based near Alton states in a pamphlet praising the cliff painting that the name means “bird that devours men”.

The pamphlet cites Marquette’s diary stating that there were two Piasa paintings on the cliff.

“They have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like that of a tiger, scales and a tail so long that it wraps around the body”, reads the description from the 1600s.

Marquette, of course, is the Jesuit priest who accompanied Louis Joliet on these early explorations of what Europeans then considered New France, including much of the Chicago area, before traveling down the Illinois River and to cross the Piasa.

A historical marker tells the story of the Piasa at Piasa Park near Alton, Illinois, where a contemporary depiction of a legendary monster is painted on the rocky side of a cliff.

The legend of the beast, conveyed without a specific quote, indicates that the Piasa was initially no big deal, feeding mainly on “snakes” and minding its own business until a great battle took place. nearby, after which he acquired a taste for humans. flesh and subsequently terrorized the inhabitants of the region.

Determined to stop the monster from eating his friends, a local chief offered to be bait while warriors lurked nearby waiting to shoot the beast with arrows when it came to prevail. The ploy thankfully worked, and the creature’s likeness was carved into the cliff to commemorate the victory.

It is more likely, Allen wrote, that the Piasa was a representation of the thunderbird, which figures prominently in Native American mythology. The modern caption affixed to the ancient effigy has a nice combination of anti-violence messages and a self-sacrificing leader story, but a more entertaining Piasa Halloween caption, attributed solely to my imagination, might link the evil beast, blinking flashes of his eyes, at the mysterious abandonment of the ancient city of Cahokia.

Large caves adjacent to the Piasa painting near Alton, Illinois recall the legend that states the monster lived in caves atop cliffs along the Mississippi River.  The caves adjacent to Piasa Park are fenced and are probably the result of former quarrying in the area.

Another monster in the area isn’t inscribed on a cliff wall and isn’t as old as the Piasa, but it still found its way into Illinois legend.

The Big Muddy Monster was first sighted in 1973 in Murphysboro, a small town near the Shawnee National Forest in the hills of Little Egypt. According to a city police report, some residents reported seeing a 7 to 8 foot tall, 300 to 350 pound, “dirty white or cream colored” creature that walked on two feet. It also had “a musky odor,” the report said.

Dogs were brought in to follow the creature but lost its scent in an area “too thick and bushy to cross”. Other area residents reported a “big ghost in their backyard” around the same time.

A few days later, police received a report from a person parked at a boat launch along a wooded area of ​​the Big Muddy River in Murphysboro who said a large creature “with fair hair tangled in mud” “screamed, changed her tone and headed for the car.”

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“The complainant then left the area” and went to the police department, a police report said, telling police “no human could scream or make a noise as loud as he has. understood”.

Investigating police found footprints in the mud at the scene approximately 10 to 12 inches long and 3 inches wide leading down to the river, then heard screams coming from the wooded area and ‘s’ is removed from the wooded area”.

In 1976, the Big Muddy Monster began appearing by name in Murphysboro Police Reports and his legend only grew in the years that followed.

There’s a good chance the Murphysboro Monster was a hoax, though we’ll probably never know for sure. And it’s more likely that we’ll never know the real reason the Piasa beasts were encased in rock along the Mississippi River near Alton.

But it’s fun to explore these Illinois legends. And with Halloween upon us, maybe it’s time for some more.

Have you heard of the rocky beast discovered in Thornton Quarry?

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on Southland. He can be reached at [email protected].