Gauley Marsh Mystery Solved?
I came across the following cryptid report while wrapping up my latest installment of the Strange Monsters series for Schiffer Books, due out early next year. The book covers reports of strange creatures in West Virginia, and this one certainly fits the bill. I'm pleased to offer a possible solution to the mystery, 132 years after the fact, and leave it open for debate.
In 1882, first a dog, then a horse, were found dead on the fringes of Gauley Marsh, in Pocahontas County. In each case, the victims were unmarked beyond a pair of wounds resembling widely spaced fang marks, thus ruling out attack by known carnivorous mammals. At the same time, the space between punctures—three and one-quarter inches—eliminated West Virginia's only venomous snakes, the timber rattler and the northern copperhead, as potential culprits. Hunters brought a hound to track the killer, and while the dog appeared to catch a scent, it refused to give chase.
Gauley Marsh Today
Frustrated on that front, locals focused their suspicion next on newcomer James Brooden, who had settled in the swamp. He had examined the dead horse's wounds and suggested it was bitten by some deadly unknown snake. The horse's owner, Jonas Heeb, suspected Brooden of involvement in that case—and when Heeb died in turn near the marsh, with identical puncture wounds on his wrist or throat (reports differ), Brooden was charged with his murder.
The "evidence" against him was an arrowhead, one of many he possessed, that seemed to match Heeb's wounds. Brooden claimed he used the arrowheads for hunting, shunning firearms, and while no trace of any poison was discovered at his camp which might have caused Heeb's death, the murder trial proceeded, climaxed by a field trip to the site where Brooden and Heeb were last seen quarreling. There, near a wall at one edge of the swamp, the judge, jurors and lawyers found a hired man burning logs and trash, oblivious to their proceedings.
While the prosecution and defense were bent on scoring points, a "low humming wail" distracted them, coming from the far side of the wall. Suddenly, a beast appeared, described as having "a club-like body four feet long. It possessed a large heart-shaped head, broader than a hand. It was colored as to disguise its presence in nature."
Brooden sprang into action, grabbing the hired man's pitchfork to skewer the creature and fling it onto the nearby fire, where it wriggled and died. Pulled from the flames when it was clearly dead, the creature was examined cautiously. Those present peered into its mouth and "teeth were found that matched the known wounds. Poison sacs were seen there also containing a straw-colored venom."
Brooden's murder charge was dismissed on the spot, and he wisely left the county. Folklorist G. D. McNeil, writing in 1940, summarized local opinions of the creature.
Some explained that the Marsh was but a remnant of a greater marsh which in another age had harbored many monsters now extinct; and, it was argued, the peculiar snake-like thing was the lone survivor of a dread species that had infested the big marsh thousands of years ago. Others maintained that the creature was no more than a monstrous deformity born from a mating of rattlesnakes.
We are hampered, in attempting to identify the creature, by a dearth of physical description. Did the beast have legs? Did it have scales? There is no reason to believe a "lone survivor" of some ancient species, so aggressive in its final days, went undiscovered from the county's settlement, in the 1750s, until 1882. A "monstrous mutation" is always possible, but there may be another explanation, as well.
Our brief description of the Gauley Marsh creature—snake-like, with a "club-like" body, broad "heart-shaped" (i.e., triangular) head with fangs and venom sacs, camouflage coloration—matches in all respects a stout-bodied viper, though not one of a domestic breed. Two species that immediately match the general description are the puff adder (Bitis arietans) and Gabon viper (B. gabonica), both native to Africa, with the puff adder's range including the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Puff adders kill more humans each year than any other venomous snake in Africa. The largest specimen on record measured six feet three inches long, with a girth of sixteen inches, "club-like" enough with the body extended. Its color pattern varies geographically, with the ground-color ranging from straw yellow to reddish brown, overlaid with a pattern of dark brown to black bands extending from the neck to the tail.
A puff adder strikes
Gabon vipers, native to eighteen countries in Central and West Africa, are the continent's heaviest venomous snakes, holding a record confirmed weight of twenty-five pounds with an empty stomach. That specimen, caught in 1973, measured five feet nine inches in length. Girths of 14.65 inches are confirmed, and Gabon vipers pack the longest fangs of any known venomous snake, measuring up to 2.2 inches. The standard color pattern consists of pale sub-rectangular blotches running down the center of the back, interspersed with dark, yellow-edged hourglass markings. Rhomboidal shapes mark the flanks, ranging from tan to brown, the overall pattern providing excellent forest floor camouflage.
A Gabon viper displays its forest camouflage
Neither viper can produce a "low humming wail"—nor can any other snake, since they lack vocal cords—but puff adders derive their name from the loud hissing sounds they emit when disturbed. As to how either species might have made the trip from Africa to West Virginia in the 19th century, we may only speculate. A long shot solution perhaps, but still more logical than a lone prehistoric survivor inhabiting Gauley Marsh for generations, unnoticed.
In October 2012, the Pocahontas County Opera House presented a play based on the Brooden murder trial, performed outdoors on the boardwalk of the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. Director Emily Newton fairly summarized the history of Gauley Marsh, telling reporters, "We live in a pretty mystical place. You don't actually know what is around every corner of every trail."