On April 28, 1874, the New York World
ran an article announcing the discovery in Madagascar of a remarkable new species of plant: a man-eating tree. The article included a gruesome description of a woman fed to the plant by members of the Mkodos tribe. Numerous newspapers and magazines reprinted the article, but 14 years later the journal Current Literature
revealed the story to be a work of fiction written by NY World
reporter Edmund Spencer.
Depiction of the man-eating tree,
from the front cover of Madagascar: Land of the Man-Eating Tree
But despite having been debunked, the story of the man-eating tree refused to die. In fact, it became one of the most enduring hoaxes of the 19th Century, continuing to circulate as fact for decades afterwards. During the 20th Century, several explorers even searched for the man-eating tree in Madagascar. Meanwhile, the identity of the author of the story was completely forgotten and was only recovered when the Current Literature
journal was scanned and made available online during the 21st Century.
The NY World
claimed to have obtained its information about the man-eating tree from "the last number of Graefe and Walther's Magazine
, published at Carlsruhe," in which there was a letter from the discoverer, the "eminent botanist" Karl Leche, to a colleague, Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky. Most of the NY World
article consisted of the text of Leche's letter.
The beginning of the NY World article
In the letter, Leche described how while traveling through Madagascar he came into a region of the country occupied by the Mkodos, "a tribe of inhospitable savages of whom little was known."
As Leche and his party walked along, they noticed that members of the Mkodos tribe were silently emerging from the jungle and following behind them. They came to a spot where a stream wound through the forest, and here they encountered "the most singular of trees." Leche provided a detailed description of it:
If you can imagine a pineapple eight feet high and thick in proportion resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the trunk of the tree, which, however, was not the color of an anana, but a dark, dingy brown, and apparently hard as iron. From the apex of this truncated cone (at least two feet in diameter) eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges. These leaves, which were joined to the top of the tree at regular intervals, were about eleven or twelve feet long and shaped very much like the leaves of the American aguave, or century plant. They were two feet through in their thickest part and three feet wide, tapering to a sharp point that looked like a cow's horn, very convex on the outer (but now under) surface, and on the inner (now upper) surface slightly concave. This concave face was thickly set with very strong thorny hooks, like those upon the head of the teazle. These leaves, hanging thus limp and lifeless, dead green in color, had in appearance the massive strength of oak fibre.
The apex of the cone was a round, white, concave figure, like a smaller plate set within a larger one. This was not a flower but a receptacle, and there exuded into it a clear, treacly liquid, honeysweet, and possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific properties. From underneath the rim (so to speak) of the undermost plate a series of long, hairy green tendrils stretched out in every direction towards the horizon. These were seven or eight feet long each, and tapered from four inches to a half an inch in diameter, yet they stretched out stiffly as iron rods. Above these (from between the upper and under cup) six white, almost transparent palpi reared themselves towards the sky, twirling and twisting with a marvelous incessant motion, yet constantly reaching upwards. Thin as reeds, and frail as quills apparently, they were yet five or six feet tall, and were so constantly and vigorously in motion, with such a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air, that they made me shudder in spite of myself with their suggestion of serpent flayed, yet dancing on their tails.
The Mkodos, when they saw the tree, began shouting, "Tepe! Tepe!" Then they surrounded one of their women and forced her, at javelin point, to climb the tree until she reached the apex of the cone that contained the treacly fluid. "Tsik! tsik!" the Mkodos men cried, which meant "drink! drink!"
Obediently, she drank, and then, almost instantly, the slender palpi of the tree came alive, quivered, and seized her around her neck and arms. She screamed, but the tendrils gripped her tighter, strangling her, until her cries became a gurgled moan. The contraction of the tendrils caused the fluid of the tree to stream down its trunk, mingling with the "blood and oozing viscera of the victim."
The Mkodos rushed forward to drink this mixture of blood and tree fluid. Then ensued "a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgie."
Leche concluded his letter by explaining that he studied the carnivorous tree for three more weeks, during which time he found several other, smaller specimens of it in the forest. He saw one of the trees eat a lemur.
He named the species Crinoida Dajeeana, because "when its leaves are in action it bears a striking resemblance to that well-known fossil the crinoid lilystone, or St. Cuthbert's beads." Dajeeana referred to Dr. Bhawoo Dajee, a "liberal-minded, intelligent Parsee physician of Bombay."
An ancient map of Madagascar, from Madagascar: Land of the Man-Eating Tree
What Was True, What Was False
Karl Ferdinand von Graefe
Almost every detail in the story was fictitious. None of the people who were mentioned in it existed — not Karl Leche, Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky, or Dr. Bhawoo Dajee. Nor were the Mkodos a real tribe. The tree itself, most significantly, was pure fantasy — a gothic horror of the colonial era.
However, the source to which the story was credited — "Graefe and Walther's Magazine
, published at Carlsruhe" — was a real publication. Or, at least, there was a scientific journal founded by two prestigious German surgeons, Karl Ferdinand von Graefe
and Philipp Franz von Walther
, titled Journal der Chirurgie und Augenheilkunde
(The Surgical and Ophthalmic Journal).
However, this journal was published in Berlin, not Carlsruhe. Also, it began publication in 1820 and ended in 1850, following the death of Walther. So by 1874, there hadn't been a new issue of the journal for 24 years. In other words, this journal was NOT the original source of the man-eating tree story.
Initial Reception and Exposure
Upon its publication, the man-eating tree story immediately attracted attention, and many other newspapers reprinted it for the benefit of their readers. The June 1874 issue of The Garden magazine
noted, "There is a harrowing description of a man-eating plant going the rounds of the papers."
Unlike most media hoaxes of the 19th Century, which attracted attention for a few weeks and then were forgotten, interest in the man-eating tree endured. Several years later, reprints of the story were still appearing in magazines such as Frank Leslie's Pleasant Hours
and The Farmer's Magazine
There were notes of skepticism. For instance, in February 1875 the Christian Union
noted, "The World published a very clever hoax about the 'Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar.' No doubt many a credulous reader was taken in thereby."
But it wasn't until 1888 that the story was fully exposed as a hoax, and its author identified. In 1888, Frederick Maxwell Somers had launched a new magazine, Current Literature
, and in the second issue he reprinted the story
of the man-eating tree and provided information about its origin:
It was written years ago by Mr. Edmund Spencer for the N.Y. World. While Mr. Spencer was connected with that paper he wrote a number of stories, all being remarkable for their appearance of truth, the extraordinary imagination displayed, and for their somber tone. Mr. Spencer was a master of the horrible, some of his stories approaching closely to those of Poe in this regard. Like many clever men his best work is hidden in the files of the daily press. This particular story of the Crinoida Dajeeana, the Devil Tree of Madagascar, was copied far and wide, and caused many a hunt for the words of Dr. Friedlowsky. It was written as the result of a talk with some friends, during which Mr. Spencer maintained that all that was necessary to produce a sensation of horror in the reader was to greatly exaggerate some well-known and perhaps beautiful thing. He then stated that he would show what could be done with the sensitive plant when this method of treatment was applied to it. The devil-tree is, after all, only a monstrous variety of the 'Venus fly trap' so common in North Carolina. Mr. Spencer died about two years ago in Baltimore, Md.
No other record has ever been found of the existence of Mr. Edmund Spencer of the N.Y. World. However, Somers was highly knowledgeable about the New York literary scene, so there's no reason his information shouldn't be accepted as credible.
However, Somers' revelation went entirely unnoticed. Throughout the 1890s, the man-eating tree story continued to appear in magazines, but none mentioned that Spencer was the author. By the 20th Century, the NY World wasn't even being identified as the original publisher of the tale. This caused enormous confusion to researchers throughout the 20th Century who came across the story and tried to track down its source.
It wasn't until the 21st Century, when issues of Current Literature
became searchable via Google Books, that Somers' information about the identity of the hoax's author reemerged.
In Search of the Man-Eating Tree
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of explorers searched for the man-eating tree in Madagascar, not realizing that the story was a NY World hoax.
The first man-eating-tree searcher was the American travel writer Frank Vincent, author of Actual Africa
. He traveled throughout Madagascar during the early 1890s, and while he wasn't there specifically to search for the man-eating tree, he later told reporters that he did ask around about it "for his own personal satisfaction". However, he couldn't find it and concluded that accounts of it were "the purest Munchausenism
Chase Salmon Osborn:
Osborn, who served as Governor of Michigan from 1911 to 1913, conducted the most extensive search for the man-eating tree. His travels through Madagascar resulted in his 1924 book, Madagascar: Land of the Man-Eating Tree
. However, he never found the tree. He wrote in the book's introduction:
In travelling from one end of Madagascar to the other a thousand miles and across the great island, many times traversing the nearly four hundred miles of breadth, I did not see a man-eating tree. But from all the peoples I met, including Hovas, Sakalavas, Sihanakas, Betsileos and others, I heard stories and myths about it. To be sure the missionaries say it does not exist, but they are not united in this opinion, despite the fact that it is properly their affair and responsibility to discredit and destroy anything and everything that fosters demonism and idolatry. No missionary told me that he had seen the devil tree, but several told me that they could not understand how all the tribes could believe so earnestly in it, and over hundreds of miles where intercourse has been both difficult and dangerous, unless there were some foundation for the belief.
However, Osborn also admitted that his primary purpose in titling his book after the tree was simply to capture the attention of readers. The majority of his book did not deal with the tree:
I do not know whether this tigerish tree really exists or whether the bloodcurdling stories about it are pure myth. It is enough for my purpose if its story focuses your interest upon one of the least known spots of the world.
The anthropologist Ralph Linton
spent several years in Madagascar during the 1920s. While he also wasn't there specifically to look for the tree, he apparently did ask around about it. Newspapers reported that, "He encountered several persons who believed that such a thing existed, but the tree was always in some other part of the country, and he arrived at the conclusion that the story was a myth." He was also quoted as saying that the story was "ridiculous and always was," but that, based on his experience in Madagascar, he would be willing to believe the island was home to man-eating fleas.
Capt. V. de la Motte Hurst:
In August 1932, a United Press
wire story reported that Capt. V. de la Motte Hurst, who was said to be a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, was going to lead an expedition to Madagascar specifically to hunt for the man-eating tree, which he referred to as the "sacrifice tree." De la Motte Hurst was quoted as saying, "I have been told about the tree by many chiefs of the island and I have no doubt of its existence. It eats human beings, but since the natives worship it they are reluctant to reveal its location." He also planned to take along a movie camera to film the tree sacrifice. However, it's not clear if de la Motte Hurst's expedition ever left. At least, no more was ever heard of it.
Article in the Washington Reporter
, Aug 18, 1932
During the 1950s, science writer Willy Ley
came across the story of the man-eating tree, and while he didn't travel to Madagascar to search for the tree, he did conduct an extensive bibliographic search to hunt down the origin of the story. He realized that the story had to be a hoax. However, he arrived at some erroneous conclusions about the history of the story.
Ley knew that the story had once appeared in the NY World, but he didn't know that the story had originated there, so he didn't focus his search on that publication, noting that, "copies of newspapers three-quarters of a century old are hard to come by." Instead, he tried to discover the origin of the story by tracking down clues within the text itself. For instance, he conducted an extensive search for references to Karl Leche and Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky, eventually concluding that neither man existed.
Next, Ley focused on trying to track down "the elusive Carlsruhe Scientific Journal." This journal actually did once exist (see above), but Ley couldn't find any record of it in the Library of Congress, so he concluded that it too was fictitious.
Ley carefully searched through 17th and 18th Century reference works about Madagascar to see if any of them mentioned a man-eating tree, but he found nothing.
Finally, Ley discovered that the story of the man-eating tree had been published in the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine for the Year 1881
, and he mistakenly concluded that this was the original source of the story. He hypothesized:
"Of course the man-eating tree does not exist. There is no such tribe. The actual natives of Madagascar do not have such a legend. But at one time somebody made up the hoax, which was put into the only existing local magazine, possibly as a joke of some kind for the amusement of the readers who knew better. But it then got out of hand and the perpetrators thought it best to keep quiet."
Other Man-Eating Plants
The popularity of the man-eating plant of Madagascar led to reports of other carnivorous plants. For instance, in October 1891, London newspapers reported that a British naturalist, Mr. Dunstan, had encountered a "vampire vine"
while in Nicaragua:
It appears that a Mr. Dunstan, a naturalist, has lately returned from Central America, where he spent two years in the study of the plants and animals of those regions. In one of the swamps which surround the great Nicaragua Lake, he discovered the singular growth of which we are writing. 'He was engaged in hunting for botanical and entomological specimens, when he hears his dog cry out, as if in agony, from a distance. Running to the spot whence the animal's cries came, Mr. Dunstan found him enveloped in a perfect network of what seemed to be a fine, rope-like tissue of roots and fibres. The plant or vine seemed composed entirely of bare, interlacing stems, resembling, more than anything else, the branches of the weeping-willow denuded of its foliage, but of a dark, nearly black hue, and covered with a thick, viscid gum that exuded from the pores.' Drawing his knife, Mr. Dunstan attempted to cut the poor beast free; but it was with the very greatest difficulty that he managed to sever the fleshy muscular fibres of the plant. When the dog was extricated from the coils of the plant, Mr. Dunstan saw, to his horror and amazement, that the dog's body was bloodstained, 'while the skin appeared to have been actually sucked or puckered in spots,' and the animal staggered as if from exhaustion. 'In cutting the vine, the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers about Mr. Dunstan's hand, and it required no slight force to free the member from its clinging grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered.
And in Sea and Land
(1887), J.W. Buel included a description and image of a Ya-Te-Veo tree, that was said to grow in South America. It supposedly caught and consumed humans by means of its long tendrils.
Ron Sullivan and Jon Eaton, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle
in 2007, noted that the man-eating tree of Madagascar served as the "progenitor of a whole literary dynasty of sinister plants." These included: "H.G. Wells' Strange Orchid (it stupefied its victims with perfume and sucked their blood with its tendrils); John Wyndham's peripatetic Triffids; the Widow's Weed in Gus Arriola's 'Gordo' comic strip; and, not least, Audrey II of 'Little Shop of Horrors.'"
Links and References
- Arment, Chad (2010). Botanica Delira: More Stories of Strange, Undiscovered, and Murderous Vegetation. Coachwhip Publications.
- "Crinoida Dajeeana" (Apr 28, 1874). The New York World: 7.
- "Explorers soon to visit isle where tree eats humans" (Aug 18, 1932). The Washington Post: 5.
- "General Gossip of Authors and Writers" (Aug 1888). Current Literature 1(2): 108-111.
- Grahame, A. (Aug 1926). "Plants that almost think" Popular Science Monthly: 32-33.
- "Lancet Gallery of Medical Portraits: Baron Graefe," (Mar 22, 1834). The Lancet. Vol 1.: 969-974.
- Ley, Willy (1955). Salamanders and Other Wonders. The Viking Press: New York.
- Osborn, C.S. (1924). Madagascar: Land of the Man-Eating Tree. Republic Publishing Company: New York.