Another chapter from this fascinating forgotten work Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (Allan, London 1928) by R.T. Gould. The illustration is from an Edwardian novel (possibly Quiller Couch or Baring Gould.) Info on the polymath Rupert Thomas Gould (1890 – 1948) can be found at the foot of this post..
THE DEVIL'S HOOF-MARKS
A Scottish minister once preached a sermon upon the text "The voice of the turtle is heard in our land".* He was literally-minded, and unaware of the fact that the "turtle" referred to is the turtle-dove, and not that member of the Chelonia which inhabits the ocean and furnishes the raw material of such "tortoise-shell" articles as are not made of celluloid. In consequence, the deductions which he drew from his text were long remembered by such of his hearers as were better-informed.
* Canticles ii. 12.
"We have here", he is reported to have said–"we have here, my brethren, two very remarkable signs and portents distinctly vouchsafed to us. The first shall be, that a creature which (like Leviathan himself) was created to dwell and abide in the sea shall make its way to the land, and be seen in the markets and dwelling-places of men; and the second shall be, that a creature hitherto denied the gift of speech shall lift up its voice in the praise of its Maker."
A visitation of a somewhat similar and hardly less startling kind occurred in Devonshire on February 8, 1855. The following account of it was published in The Times of February 16th.
"Considerable sensation has been evoked in the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in the south of Devon,† in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.
† See Fig. 1.
"It appears that on Thursday night last there was a very heavy fall of snow in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the south of Devon. On the following morning, the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the tracks of some strange and mysterious animal, endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the foot-prints were to be seen in all kinds of inaccessible places–on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open fields. There was hardly a garden in Lympstone where the foot-prints were not observed.
"The track appeared more like that of a biped than a quadruped, and the steps were generally eight inches in advance of each other. The impressions of the feet closely resembled that of a donkey's shoe, and measured from an inch and a half to (in some instances) two and a half inches across. Here and there it appeared as if cloven, but in the generality of the steps the shoe was continuous, and, from the snow in the centre remaining entire, merely showing the outer crest of the foot, it must have been convex.*
* Read "concave". On the facts stated, the centre of the foot making the impression must have been farther from the ground than the outer parts of the foot."The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated, but no one has been able to discover the standing or resting point of this mysterious visitor. On Sunday last the Rev. Mr. Musgrave alluded to the subject in his sermon, and suggested the possibility of the foot-prints being those of a kangaroo; but this could scarcely have been the case, as they were found on both sides of the estuary of the Exe.
"At present it remains a mystery, and many superstitious people in the above towns are actually afraid to go outside their doors after night."
So far–and, unfortunately, no further–The Times. The Illustrated London News, however, took up the question, and opened its columns to what proved to be quite an extensive correspondence, which I have used as the source of most of the information here given. In the West Country the affair gradually blew over–although I believe that it is still well remembered. There was no repetition of the occurrence, but it took a long time for the "excitement" and "superstitious folly" to die down. One correspondent† speaks of
". . . labourers, their wives and children, and old crones, and trembling old men, dreading to stir out after sunset, or to go half a mile into lanes or byways on a call or message, under the conviction that this was the Devil's walk, and no other, and that it was wicked to trifle with such a manifest proof of the Great Enemy's immediate presence ...."
† He signed himself "G. M. M." (Illustrated London News, 3.3.1855.)
An eye-witness, signing himself "South Devon",‡ sent in an able account, from which the following extract is taken.
‡ Illustrated London News, 24.2.1855.
"Now when we consider the distance that must have been gone over to have left these marks–I may say in almost every garden, on door-steps, through extensive woods of Luscombe, upon commons, in enclosures and farms–the actual progress must have exceeded a hundred miles. It is very easy for people to laugh at these appearances and account for them in an idle way. At present no satisfactory solution has been given. No known animal could have traversed this extent of country in one night, besides having to cross an estuary of the sea two miles broad. Neither does any known animal walk in a line of single foot-steps, not even man.
"Birds could not have left these marks, as no bird's foot leaves the impression of a hoof, or, even were there a bird capable of doing so, could it proceed in the direct manner above stated-nor would birds, even had they donkey's feet, confine themselves to one direct line, but hop here and there; but the nature of the mark at once sets aside its being the track of a bird.
"The effect of the atmosphere upon these marks is given by many as a solution; but how could it be possible for the atmosphere to affect one impression and not another? On the morning that the above were observed the snow bore the fresh marks of cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, and men clearly defined. Why, then, should a continuous track, far more clearly defined–so clearly, even, that the raising in the centre of the frog of each foot could be plainly seen–why then should this particular mark be the only one which was affected by the atmosphere, and all the others left as they were?
"Besides, the most singular circumstance connected with it was that this particular mark removed the snow, wherever it appeared, clear, as if cut with a diamond, or branded with a hot iron; of course, I am not alluding to its appearance after having been trampled on, or meddled with by the curious in and about the thoroughfares of the towns. In one instance this track entered a covered shed, and passed through it out of a broken part of the wall at the other end, where the atmosphere could not affect it.
"The writer of the above has passed a five months' winter in the backwoods of Canada, and has had much experience in tracking wild animals and birds upon the snow, and can safely say he has never seen a more clearly-defined track,* or one that appeared to be less affected by the atmosphere. . . ."
* See Fig. 2, which is taken from a drawing accompanying his letter.
Another correspondent, signing himself "G. M. M."†, also afforded a good deal of supplementary information, as the following extracts will show.
† Rev. G. M. Musgrave.
". . . As an amateur accustomed to make most accurate drawings from nature, I set to work soon after these marks appeared, and completed the accompanying exact facsimile‡ of those that were visible on the lawn of our clergyman's garden in this parish. He and I traced them through a low privet hedge, by a circular opening of 1 foot diameter. On applying a rule, the interval between each impression was found to be undeviatingly 8½ inches. This, in my opinion, is one of the most remarkable and confounding circumstances we have to deal with....
‡ See Fig. 3.
"It was quite inexplicable that the animal, considering the scale of the foot, should leave, in single file, one print only, and as has already been observed', with intervals as exactly preserved as if the prints had been made by a drill or any other mechanical frame. No animal with cushion paw, such as the feline tribe–diminutive or large (cat or tiger)–exhibit, could have made these marks; for the feet of most quadrupeds tread in parallel lines, some widely divaricated, others approximating very closely. The ass, especially, among the animals daily seen, approaches the single line. The fox leaves round dots in a single line; the stoat two and one alternately. Moreover the feline tribe leave concave prints; whereas, in each of these mystic prints, the space enclosed by the bounding line was convex,§ as in the print of a patten.
§ He was correct in caning the hoof-marks, themselves, convex–The Times was wrong in applying this term to the foot which made them.
"A scientific acquaintance informed me of his having traced the same prints across a field up to a hay-stack. The surface of the stack was wholly free from marks of any kind, but on the opposite side of the stack, in a direction exactly corresponding with the tracks thus traced,'the prints began again! The same fact has been ascertained in respect of a wall intervening.... Two other gentlemen, resident in the same parish, pursued a line of prints during three hours and a half, marking their progress under gooseberry-bushes and espalier fruit-trees; and then missing them, regained sight of the impression on the roofs of some houses to which their march of investigation brought them.... "I have addressed communications to the British Museum, to the Zoological Society, to the keepers of birds and beasts in the Regent's Park menagerie, and the universal reply is, they are utterly unable to form any conjecture on the subject, however correctly the impressions had been copied.
"I am emboldened to address you with more than the ordinary confidence of a correspondent 'well up in his facts', inasmuch as I am living in the centre of the district where the alarm, so to speak, was first given. Sir L. Newman's park, at Mamhead, is exactly opposite my own residence. Starcross Tower is an object of the picturesque, and beautiful to gaze upon from my study window: and Powderharn Castle gleams in the sunshine half a mile further up. These are on the other side (west) of the River Exe, two miles in its breadth; and the marks were as abundant throughout the places just specified, and their neighbourhood–Kenton, Dawlish, Newton, etc.–as here at Exmouth, Withecombe Ralegh, Lympstone, Woodbury, Topsham, and the vicinity of Bicton and Budleigh...."
In view of the very remarkable facts detailed in these letters, it will be admitted that the Devonshire rustics had every excuse for indulging in what their betters were pleased to term "superstitious folly". A natural explanation of the facts seemed impossible to find, and difficult even to suggest; while any explanation certainly postulated the visit of something very uncanny–something which walked upon small hooved feet with a very short, mincing stride, which sought darkness and solitude, which had never rested, which had crossed a river two miles wide, which had hung round human habitations without daring to enter them, and which had on some occasions walked up walls and along roofs, while at other times it had passed through such obstructions as if they did not exist. Assuredly the peasants were not to be blamed if their minds went back to such grim texts as Isaiah xxxiv. 14:
"The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow."
Of course, many naturalistic explanations were offered, but none can be regarded as satisfactory. In the words of Maginn's Aunciente Waggonere,
The theory that a bird made the marks is obviously untenable, as "South Devon" pointed out. But an anonymous writer, one "W. W.",* made a pathetic attempt to evade the various fatal objections. By his account, five days after the appearance of the Devonshire hoof-marks a swan turned up, alive but exhausted, at St. Denis in France, wearing a silver collar "with an inscription engraved on it, stating that the bird belonged to the domain of Prince Hohenlohe, in Germany". "W.W." maintained that this bird, whose feet had probably been "padded in the shape of a donkey's hoof or shoe" by its owner, to prevent damage to the garden in which it was normally kept, had no doubt made the mysterious marks!
* His letter to the I.L.N. on the subject was considered (3.III.1855) but not printed. So he published a small pamphlet–The Swan with the Silver Collar (Wells, Journal Office, 1855, price 2d.)–of which I possess a copy.
Here is his letter.*
* Illustrated London News, 3.3.1855.
"To the Editor of the Illustrated London News.
"An esteemed zoological friend has submitted to me a carefully-executed drawing of one of the more perfect impressions left in the snow at Luscombe, South Devon, on or about the 8th of last month. It was of the hind-foot of a badger. This is almost the only plantigrade† quadruped we have in this island, and leaves a foot-print larger than would be supposed from its size.
† I.e. flatfooted–walking with the whole sole of the foot applied to the ground.
"The sketch, of which you have given a cut in p. 187‡ (February 24.th), gives a correct general idea of the shape and proportion of these footprints, but without the indications of the pads on the sole, and the five small claws, which the drawing sent to me exhibited. Such perfect footprints were rare, because those of the fore- and hind-foot are commonly more or less blended together, producing the appearance of a line of single foot-steps; which appearance, if a bear had been abroad in the five winter months spent by your correspondent in Canada, would have shown him was not peculiar to the foot-steps of man, but characteristic of other plantigrade mammals, though they may be quadrupedal. The badger sleeps a good deal in his Winter retreat, but does not hibernate so regularly and completely as the bear does in the severer climate of Canada. The badger is nocturnal, and comes abroad occasionally in the late winter, when hard-pressed by cold and hunger; it is a stealthy prowler, and most active and enduring in its quest of food.
‡ Fig. 2.
"That one and the same animal should have gone over a hundred miles of a most devious and irregular route in one night is as improbable as that one badger only should have been awake and hungry out of the number concealed in the hundred miles of rocky and bosky Devonshire which has been startled by the impressions revealed by the rarely spread carpet of snow in that beautiful county.
"The onus of the proof that one creature made them in one night rests with the assertor, who ought to have gone over the same ground, with a 'power of acute and unbiased observation, which seems not to have been exercised by him who failed to distinguish the truly single from the blended foot-prints in question.
"Nothing seems more difficult than to see a thing as it really is, unless it be the right interpretation of observed phenomena.
In the mid-Victorian era, that "period of digestion", the authority of an established name counted, in scientific as in other matters, for more than it does now. Probably all but a very few, such as the unfortunate observers who saw something different from what Owen so clearly tells them they ought to have seen, regarded this letter as absolutely decisive.
Nowadays, we know a little more about scientific dogmatism–and we also know a good deal more about Owen himself. He was, undoubtedly, a very able man; but on several important occasions he showed himself capable of making dogmatic assertions, in defiance of fact, which proved him to be possessed of a singular and not entirely "scientific" type of mind.
A good example of this tendency is his controversy with Huxley, in 1857, over the hippocampus major. Owen, coming forward "on the side of the angels" as the great scientific gun of the anti-Darwinians, committed himself to the dogmatic assertion that there were certain anatomical features–such as the above singularly-named structure–which were peculiar to the brain of man, and afforded ample ground for classifying him as a genus apart from all other mammals. Actually, as Huxley soon afterwards showed, such structures are common both to man and to all the higher apes, as well as many of the lower ones.
Proxime accesserunt may be placed Owen's exploded theory that the adult skull is a modified vertebral joint–a theory originally suggested by Oken–and his utterly childish "explanation" of the "sea-serpent" seen by H.M.S. Dædalus in 1848: an explanation flatly contradicting the observed facts, and postulating that the naval officers who observed them were, one and all, half-witted.
His explanation of the Devonshire hoof-prints is more plausible; but it does not fit the facts–nor is he fair to "your correspondent". "South Devon" nowhere stated, as Owen asserts, that man is the only creature which makes single foot-prints in snow–he said that no creature, not even man, makes a single line of prints: and this is generally true.* It is quite possible that the prints of a badger's hind-foot might be superimposed on the last impression but one made by the fore-foot on the same side of the body, and so produce an apparently single foot-print. But such prints would undoubtedly be "staggered", for the badger has quite a wide "tread", and the result would then be a double line of imprints, not a single one. Badgers, also, are not commonly credited with the ability to scale walls and walk along roofs. As between the claims of the badger and the otter, the latter certainly seem better founded.
* Mr. Musgrave's letter, already quoted, indicates one or two exceptions. He might also have instanced the camel.
In Figures 5 and 6 I have drawn foot-prints of a badger and an otter for comparison with the Devonshire hoof-marks. It will be admitted that the resemblance is not striking. It is only fair, however, to say that one or two of the writers to the Illustrated London News stated that faint traces of claws had, as Owen remarks, been seen, or imagined, at the edges of the hoof-marks.†
† E.g. "Ornither" and an anonymous correspondent, both of whose letters appeared on March 3, 1855. The correspondence terminated on March 17th.
‡ I am indebted to Mr. H. V. Garner for drawing my attention to this point.
Another naturalist, Frank Buckland, in spite of being one of Owen's disciples and admirers, rejected his "badger" theory–going further and faring worse. Writing long after the event he gravely asserted (in his Log-Book of a Naturalist) that the hoof-marks had been proved to be the track of a racoon! He must have been grossly misinformed. Besides possessing all the physical handicaps which put Owen's badgers out of court, the racoon adds one of its own–it is not a native of this country. In effect, Buckland was informing his readers that a pack of escaped racoons, arriving and departing with utter secrecy, had wandered singly, for one night only, over a large area of Devonshire–acquiring, during their excursion, the difficult and previously-unsuspected accomplishment .of walking up vertical walls and through haystacks.
But, putting aside the reported facts which are inexplicable on any naturalistic theory (such as the unobstructed passage of the tracks through walls, etc.), there is a crucial objection which appears to me to dispose of the claims not only of the badger and the otter, but of all the birds and animals supposed, by someone or other, to have made the mysterious marks. I except the kangaroo–that theory does not require serious discussion. It was only mooted, originally, because the private menagerie of a Mr. Fishe, at Sidmouth, contained a couple of these animals.
The objection is this. We can be quite certain, from the alarm the hoofmarks occasioned among the rustics, that they were most unusual–that nothing like them had ever been seen within living memory. It is therefore indisputable that they were not made by any common, well-known, creatures. If such had been the case–if, for example, they had been the foot-prints of badgers or otters–they would have been seen in Devonshire every winter. Instead of being a nine days' wonder, and scaring the feebler brethren into fits, they would have been looked upon as a perfectly familiar sight, not worth a second glance.* Yet, with one exception, there is no record of such marks having been seen on any other occasion before or since.
* But for this, and the fact that the hoof-marks were seen on walls and roofs, a candidate whose qualifications were not put forward at the time–the common rabbit–would seem to have as good a claim as any. In snow of a certain depth, a leaping rabbit does leave a track not unlike a series of hoof-marks. But it is clear, from "South Devon's" letter, that he saw, and examined, rabbit-tracks made at the same time as the hoof-marks, and did not associate the two.
The following is an extract from Ross's Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, vol. i. p. 87. His ships, the Erebus and Terror, were then at Kerguelen Island, a large subantarctic island in the Southern Indian Ocean. The date is May 1840.
"Of land animals we saw none; and the only traces we could discover of there being any on this island were the singular foot-steps of a pony or ass, found by the party detached for surveying purposes, under the command of Lieutenant Bird, and described by Dr. Robertson as 'being 3 inches in length and 2½ in breadth, having a small and deeper depression on each side, and shaped like a horseshoe.'
"It is by no means improbable that the animal has been cast on shore from some wrecked vessel. They traced its footsteps for some distance in the recently fallen snow, in hopes of getting a sight of it, but lost the tracks on reaching a large space of rocky ground which was free from snow."
One wonders, if they had "got a sight of it", what they would have seen.*
* Dr. R. M'Cormick, R.N., who was supposed to be the official zoologist (and geologist) of Ross's expedition, does not refer to these marks in the account of the voyage given in his Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, and Round the World (London, 1884). It is probable, however, that he never saw them himself (his journal at Kerguelen is mostly devoted to a trivial and querulous account of his teal-shooting expeditions): and he was not the man to give prominence to the work of others. His book, also, was published forty years after the voyage.
It is scarcely a far-fetched conjecture to suppose that the creature which made the "singular foot-steps" seen by Ross was akin to those whose tracks were observed in Devonshire. If we accept this, one or two conclusions seem to follow.
The Kerguelen creature was not a denizen of Kerguelen itself–at least, what we now know of the fauna of that island makes this exceedingly improbable. Presumably, then, it made its arrival from seaward. Either, as Ross suggests, it was a survivor from some wrecked vessel, or it was a sea-creature which, for some reason, had made an excursion on land. As to what manner of sea-creature it may have been, if it was one, I offer no opinion. The available selection is wider than might be at first supposed–it may be recalled that some years ago a seal was found halfway up a Scottish mountain, and miles from the sea. The locale of the Devonshire hoof-marks points to a similar conclusion. All the places mentioned by name lie, as will be seen from Fig. 1, close to the sea-coast or to the estuary of the Exe.
On the other hand, it is possible that in both cases the agents were land-animals–presumably tropical land-animals.† The appearance of their foot-prints in snow would normally be a matter of inference, rather than observation, while they would never, except by a rare accident, be observed in either of the temperate zones. Land-animals swimming ashore from a ship would naturally seek for food–and, if timid, might easily cover a very considerable distance in a single night, and hang round buildings without daring to enter them.
On either supposition, it is possible that there is some quite simple solution of the Devonshire hoof-marks to be found) if one knew where to look for it. But there is a caveat to be entered. If land-animals made the marks, the available data are probably sufficient to enable a competent zoologist, with an unbiased mind, to make a reasonable suggestion as to their identity. But no authority on earth–not even the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries–can set limits to the number and variety of the creatures which, even though unknown to science, may yet live and move and have their being in the sea.
*** Rupert Thomas Gould (1890 – 1948), was a lieutenant Commander in the British Royal Navy noted for his contributions to horology. While in the navy in WW1 he suffered a nervous breakdown. During long recuperation, he was stationed at the Hydrographer's Department at the Admiralty, where he became an expert on various aspects of naval history, cartography, and expeditions of the polar regions. He gained permission in 1920 to restore the marine chronometers of John Harrison, and this work was completed in 1933. Jeremy Irons played him in Longitude, a dramatisation of Dava Sobel's book about John Harrison Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, which recounted in part Gould's work in restoring the chronometers.
Something of a polymath, he wrote an eclectic series of books on topics ranging from horology to the Loch Ness Monster. He was a member of the Sette of Odd Volumes (Brother Hydrographer) and the book Oddities is dedicated to the club. He was a science educator, giving a series of talks for the BBC's Children's Hour starting in January 1934 under the name "The Stargazer", and these collected talks were later published. He was a member of the BBC radio panel Brains Trust. He umpired tennis matches on the Centre Court at Wimbledon on many occasions during the 1930s.