Pennsylvania is the locale for oodles of strange stories, from the ghosts of Gettysburg to Thunderbirds of the northern forests, from the Jersey Devil sightings along the Delaware to UFOs in Kecksburg (and all across the state). A 135-page book by Patty A. Wilson chronicles, specifically, Monsters in Pennsylvania: Mysterious Creatures in the Keystone State. As a monster fan myself (I hold a PhD in Cryptozoology from Thunderwood College [wink, wink], I was eager to check out the tales of local monsters.
The first half of the book is a chronicle of ape-like or humanoid reports of all shapes, sizes and colors. The author attempts to separate the conventional Bigfoot stories (Bigfoot raiding the trash bin, for example) from the supernatural-themed ones (monster at the back door disappears like a popped balloon when shot). These two sections have overlap. Some of the “bizarre” Bigfoot stories are rather conventional reports and the “classic” ones can be a bit unconventional.
Paranormal-tinged Bigfoot stories are often connected to UFO sightings. A new book by Pennsylvania MUFON investigator Stan Gordon is devoted to this topic. (I haven’t read it yet but I bet it is highly intriguing.) Stan is mentioned in this book several times.
The last section deals with a man-like creature, the dog man or werewolf. The core of these American werewolf stories have been centered in Michigan and Wisconsin and have increased in popularity over the past few years. It can be difficult to distinguish dog-man stories from Bigfoot stories so there is some confusion about how to categorize them. The accounts in Wilson’s book are more true to werewolf form but, like the rest, are developed into dramatic narratives that perhaps may distort facts and leave readers with an impression of more than what really happened. We can’t know.
The middle of the book contains a chapter on what I opine is the most likely of crypto-critters to be in PA – big cats. A native popularion is denied by the PA Game Commission because there has yet to be any solid evidence come to light. It is not implausble for mountain lions or escaped wild cats to be scratching out a living in the PA forests.
There is a very short chapter on serpents of land and water. PA is so short on lake monsters that tourist boards have had to work to bring them attention. (*cough* Raystown *cough*)
My favorite story was on the Tommyknockers, the gnomes of the underground coal mines. I had not heard this story before but this bit of mining folklore was charming.
My favorite chapter is on flying creatures such as the Jersey Devil and thunderbirds. I admit I keep my eyes on the skies while traveling through Tioga county and through the New Jersey pine barrens. I want these monsters to reveal themselves to me. But, alas, the evidence is only just stories such as those collected in this book.
Therein lies the problem. Just stories. That is not enough. Short, eyewitness accounts are entertaining but regrettably unfulfilling to those who are really curious. They may be a starting point but as far as scientific value, there’s little use. I can’t say much to a person who relates such a story. I usually respond with “Hmm. Interesting,” and that’s all because I don’t know enough about the situation to make a conclusion. People exaggerate and fib to me every day. Just watch TV or talk to your family. It’s inherent in the way we communicate which is fine as long as you know how far to take it.
I appreciated the engaging narratives written by Ms. Wilson, and that there were not too many typos that are typical of locally published books of this sort. I found one really glaring example of the town Kingston spelled wrong. That’s kind of an important thing to mess up. Irrespective of that minor point, I have a serious grievance that about the book – the scholarship of the stories. The author does not account for how each story was obtained. There is a bibliography at the end but the individual accounts are not notated. If I wish to go back and check any stories for more details (because much is left out or dramatized), I can’t. Very frustrating. Rule No. 1: Cite your sources.
Important points were left unresolved. On page 107, I got excited to see noted that a body of a possible Jersey Devil was once found. It ends there. What were the results? No reference! An inquiring mind is not only frustrated but pretty perturbed about that loose end left hanging.
There are annoying inconsistencies. On page 1, it is stated that the PA Bigfoot (shall we call her “Penny”, after “Patty” of the famous film?) we know of “eats berries and bugs, etc.” only to be followed with stories about livestock, pets and deer killed or presumed eaten. Many encounters are not sightings but feelings or sounds. This made me think that the stories of monsters in Pennsylvania may be pretty weak overall. This is a small book that contains only 57 tales. As usually happens with local books such as this, others with similar tales may contact the author to the point where another volume can be produced. There is already an assortment of “spooky Pennsylvania” texts available. This was the first that I’ve come across to focus exclusively on monsters of Pennsylvania. Kids will love it!
It is obvious that the author assumes (at least many) of the monsters described are real. Ms. Wilson did not commit to the sort of tales she wants to deliver. In some places this a book of PA folklore. In others, the source of the stories are portrayed as credible eyewitnesses seeing a real animal. No analysis or cohesive conclusion is made about the types of creatures in these stories. It is collection of tales, similar to many others, that go around and round but really take us no where closer to the answers. So, in my opinion, it is a curious collection of Pennsylvania legends to sit alongside the volumes of ghost stories and tall tales.
For more on Pennsylvania cryptids, see these stories: