Born and based in Memphis, Tennessee, Haint Blues is a bi-weekly podcast from veteran journalist Toby Sells. The show marries two of his lifelong loves, strange stories and the American South.

Old-Timey Bigfoot

Bigfoot may now be a lovable beef jerky salesman, but terrifying wild man stories from Southern pioneers and Civil War soldiers go way past Harry and the Hendersons.


It was November but by god was it hot.

The man and his friend were slashing and hacking their way through tangles of scrub and underbrush in this untamed land. Rivers of sweat seem to run like creeks down his back and down his arms as he brought his blade up over his head and back down again at some vine or bush as he pushed forward.

The going was slow to be sure. And it gave the man a lot of time to think. He was between two worlds.

He was a living legend in the world he was leaving behind. Revered in his own time for his accomplishments. Loved by all as a living folk hero who loomed large in the national imagination for taming the wilds around him with superhuman abilities, a fair mind, and his trademark grin.

But he felt rejected by that world. And he still felt the sting of it all every time he slashed, cracking the trail before him bit by bit.

The fight on that trail was worth it, he thought. Because at the end of it, lay a land of opportunity. Unspoiled lands just waited for claim and their wildness just called out for someone just like him to tame them. He’d left his family behind but he planned to call for them when he settled in and staked his claim in that new world he was so wiling to fight for.

He doubted he could go back to his old life even if he wanted to. He’d burnt that bridge in Memphis. He’d been madder’n wet hornet. But as he hacked he might of thought, lordy, did I really say that…out loud to a room full important people. But then again maybe not. Uncertainty and self doubt weren’t really in this man’s bailiwick.

But the man was also happy. He was out of doors again, cutting through rough territory that had been largely unexplored. It was the same kind of work on the same kind of adventure that had brought him that national recognition. And he was back at it. Away from the cultured crowds of Nashville and Washington. The sun was on his face again.

But the mental and physical strain — and that dad gum heat — finally settled on the man. And he stopped for a rest.

But almost as soon as he sat down, he got a dire warning. Turn around. Go back home. Peril and death lay before you. And, if you believe a letter this revered statesman and folk hero wrote his brother in law during that trip, that warning came from a tall, hairy beast standing on two legs at about 7 or 8 feet tall.

—————

It seems most folks believe Bigfoot was “discovered” or “invented” (depending on your beliefs I guess) in America around the late 1950s.

We have newspaper reporter Andrew Genzoli to thank for that. In 1958 he wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Humboldt Times in California about a crew of loggers working close to Bluff Creek. After a weekend away from the job site, the loggers came back to find sets of large footprints — three different sizes — around their machines.

In a personal column, Genzoli wrote “maybe we have a cousin of the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas” there in Humboldt County. Surely the story sold some papers. But — to history — the most important part of Genzoli’s reporting came in what he called the creatures, what the loggers had called the creatures. Big Foot.

Ah, Bigfoot. In its complexity of description, the name is on par with walkie talkie or woodpecker. Obvious.

Now, “Sasquatch” sounds older, more believable somehow. That’s probably because it creator wasn’t a newspaper man but a Canadian First Nations tribe in the Pacific Northwest. The coastal Salish people called the creature “Sasq’ets,” (if I’m pronouncing that right). The Huppah tribe of northern California call them oh-mah-ah, or omah for short. But all the names really come down to “hairy men” or “wild men” of the woods.

Maybe the first wild man to ever be recorded was the hair-covered Enkidu in the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Legends of the Woodwose, wild, hair-covered men have been passed down for centuries in England.

One of the earliest recorded Bigfoot reports in North America goes back to 1811. Canadian trader named David Thompson said he discovered huge tracks in the Rockies near Jasper, Alberta. They were 14 inches long and 8 inches wide. Logger Albert Ostman said he was kidnapped in British Columbia by a Sasquatch family in 1924 and held for six days.

But the name Bigfoot did more to capture the American public’s attention on the creature than the centuries of sightings and folklore ever did.

Somethings big, hairy, and unknown were out in the woods. Now the boogeymen had a lovable name — a banner — that the public could all gather beneath. And, maybe more than anything, Genzoli’s stories (and there were several) ignited a fire about Bigfoot in America.

It was thanks to those Bigfoot stories that Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin went searching for the creature around Willow Creek. And they captured the still-undisputed, and best piece of Bigfoot evidence ever — The Patterson Gimlin Film. You know the film, even if you don’t know it’s name. Brown and grainy with a dark human like figure walking away and giving a heart-stopping look back at the camera in mid-stride.

And Bigfoot’s flame hasn’t dimmed here. If anything, Bigfoot is bigger than ever.

But these creatures in America didn’t start with Genzoli and Bluff Creek or even Willow Creek.

Dig around newspaper archives for the terms “wild man” or “hairy man” in the United States, and you’ll find a treasure trove of amazing stories. And these stories ain’t Hairy and the Hendersons.

The stories are of a wild man — or a wood devil — terrorizing Union encampments during the Civil War. Or, of a rash of sightings so terrifying that they sparked maybe the first organized Bigfoot hunt in America. And then there’s that story of that famous pioneer. who failed to heed that ominous warning from that strange creature in the woods of what would become Texas.

I’m Toby Sells. Let’s load up and head out back to days before Bigfoot was a lovable beef jerky salesman. Back to a time when locals searched the woods to root out a terrible “devil man” to end his reign of terror, not for an entertaining cable show. Let’s mount our horses and you’d best grab a rifle. We’re hunting old timey Bigfoot today on Haint Blues.

________

It was a massive collection, a seeming mountain of autographs and old letters. They’d been lovingly collected but it was time for them go.

The appraisers arrived days before the estate sale and began their work. They combed through that mountain of old papers, sorting them and authenticating them they best they could.

This was 1999 in Hartford, Connecticut. But a found letter from Private James Moore of the Pennsylvania 67th Infantry Regiment, Company K soon transported the whole scene back to 1863 on a cold February night in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

“…Ramsey and myself were charged to guard Company accoutrements along the railway. Very cold still night...

“…the boys started raising a ruckus from the garrison. Some were yelling aloud, that a man-beast was on foot. There was rifle fire towards the river. We continued our duty as the yelling and shots continued...

...the Corporal queried the witnesses from the Company. I was told that the devil raided the food stores after climbing the wall...

...it was covered in thick layers of dark hair...

...maybe 8 foot from head to toe.”

___________

This next story came from a fan writing to a YouTuber called Blue Ridge Bigfoot.

In a discovery similar to the letter of Private Moore, a man was helping his grandmother sort through her attic. There, they found the diary of his great-great grandfather, MW Cooper.

Bivouacked there on the bank of the Hiwassee River near Chattanooga, the other men in camp wanted to hear fiddle tunes. Begged Cooper to play them.

But he was a gifted musician, classically trained on the violin — not the fiddle — at Oberlin College. Conscripted to fight in the Union army, Cooper insisted he take his beloved violin along with him.

In his leisure time, Cooper played. But he wanted to play Bach and Mozart. The other men in camp wanted to hear what Cooper called ”garish folk music.”

The August sun “scorches my back and the air is so heavy and wet. The uniform that looks so grand in parades has become a burden for me too great to bare.” Yet he did bare it. Bared it to play his beloved music on his own there on the bank of the Hiwassee.

Cooper tracked the river about a half mile away from camp. He sat down, watching the water slide by and he began to play. It was the Violin Sonata in G Minor by Giuseppe Tartini, better know as the the Devil’s Trill Sonata.

“As I was playing a large, dark shape appeared on the bank of the other side of the river, just visible through the brush.

I stopped playing for a moment, thinking it was a bear. I questioned myself whether or not a bear could be that big.

Shortly after the music stopped, the beast —whatever is was — retreated back into the woods. There was a river between us and it was a clear day. I began to play again.

No sooner did I start than the creature reappeared. This time, I could see that it was not a bear and it walked on two legs like a man. Yet, this creature was far larger than any man.

For some reason I was not afraid. The creature stood at the bank and made a movement in my direction.

I did notice an unusual behavior as we locked eyes. The creature seemed to sway from side to side. I would have sworn it was listening ot my sonata. When I finished the monster swiftly disappeared back into the wood.”

That night, Cooper was awakened by a long and mournful howl that seemed to get longer and louder. The camp outside was eerily silent.

He rolled to his side and could see that all the men around him were awake, too.

“One soldier whispered to us about the legend of a wild man that walked the Hiwassee River. It was twice the size of any man, fearless and would give chase to anyone on foot or on horse. He described some gruesome scenes and suggested we not leave the tent.”

No one did.

“I laid awake for hours thinking how close I could’ve been to my own death. How foolish had I become? My beautiful rendition of the Devil’s Trill Sonata may have attracted a beast to our camp.

“As we broke camp the next day, no one mentioned the eerie howl but I know they heard it, too.”

Private Moore was killed just a few weeks after that strange encounter n the banks of the Hiwassee. In a small skirmish with Confederates, he was shot in the chest.

_________

Before even before the Civil War, Southern pioneers recorded numerous sightings of “wild men.” Traces of some of those encounters can still be found in newspapers from all over the country dating way back.

In 1829 the Milledgeville Statesman, a newspaper in Georgia, carried a story about a man and boy. They’d both heard Creek Nation tales of an enchanted island deep in the Okefenokee Swamp. There lived “mortals of super-human dimensions and incomparable beauty” as the Native Americans told it.

It’d been a dry spell that summer of 1829 and the man and the boy new they could push deep into the swamp and, perhaps, find that mysterious island. The progress of two weeks brought them to a “print of a foot-step so unearthly in its dimensions, so ominous of power, and terrible in form.”

The print was eighteen inches long and nine inches across, the stride of this beast was over six feet. Their curiosity satisfied, the man and the boy made a hasty retreat out of the swamp. Back home, they quickly spread the tale of the “Man Mountain.”

On the Florida side of the Okefenokee, hunters heard the tale and scoffed. They’d find this island and this Man Mountain. What they’d do when they found them, who knows?

But they quickly set out into wet, dense heat of the Okefenokee. Within days, they were onto a set of tracks unlike anything they’d ever seen before.

They camped up on a ridge and things happened quickly. Two shots rang out as members of the party fired upon a “ferocious wild beast” charging at them. Wild in its terror and anger, the beast unleashed a scream that shook the swamp and most certainly laid fear into the hearts of those hunters.

The band of men gathered up closely, shouldering their rifles, leveling them right at the chest of the massive, hairy, heaving beast before them.

And, folks, it gets a bit rough right here. So, if you don’t like violence, skip ahead 20 seconds or so.

But those rifles did not scare the animal. It lunged undaunted into the scrum of men. And for it, the beast was shot seven times. For a moment, they weren’t sure the shots fazed the thing. In its vengeful wrath, he pulled down five men, wringing their heads off their bodies, as the story goes.

But it didn’t last long. That wild, unbelievable monster began to slow, its arms getting heavier with each dangerous swing. Its piercing howl softened to a low growl. It hit the ground with a thud and wallowed, gave one last long roar, rolled, and finally stopped breathing.

The four surviving hunters edged in toward the body for a closer look. Their hearts were still pounding but they’d risked much and traveled a long way. An unquenchable fascination to see this thing was on them. But then fear was quickly back on the boys. What if this beast wasn’t the only one. What if its friends or family heard the commotion?

They gathered their gear and headed quickly out of the Okefenokee Swamp. Back home they said the wild, hairy beast was 13 feet tall.

______________________

Crowley’s Ridge is a topographical oddity. It rises 250 to 500 feet above the pancake-flat plan of the Arkansas delta. Just west of Memphis, it stretches 150 miles from Helena, Arkansas all the way north across the Missouri bootheel. It’s a bit like The Wall in Game of Thrones but, y’know, natural and in Arkansas.

Crowley’s Ridge was no doubt wild and unsettled in the 1830s and 1840s. That’s about the time the strangeness began. And that strangeness would turn to fear. That fear would turn to desperation, anger and, finally, into action.

“His track measures 22 inches, his toes are as long as a common man’s fingers,” reported the Baltimore Sun in March 1846, “and in height and make, he is double the usual size.”

Reports of a “wild man” in the area preceded that newspaper story by some years, some as early as 1834. Reports were focused around St. Francis, Greene, and Poinsett Counties, just a stone’s throw, really, from Memphis, right across the Mississippi River.

It’s unclear what was seen or what happened in the area after that story ran in the Baltimore Sun. But something clearly was seen and something clearly did happen.

Because by 1851, The Patriot and State Gazette of New Hampshire newspaper said an expedition was forming to find this “wild man.” And a posse led by well-respected men of the community reportedly left Memphis on horseback that year in what might have been the first organized Bigfoot hunt in American history.

The Arkansas wild man was “of gigantic size and covered with hair” and it had been seen by hunters and farmers. Once the Wild Man had been seen chasing a herd of cattle, running away from two men and leaping some 12 to 14 feet at a time.

Four years later, the Pittsfield Sun reported “a wild man, seven feet high, is stated to be roaming through the great Mississippi bottom in Arkansas. Numerous travelers and hunters have asserted that they have seen him, but none have been able to get near enough to give particulars concerning the strange being.”

That same year, the Wisconsin Patriot said the Wild Man was seen breaking the ice of a frozen lake. He was “covered with hair of a brownish cast” and “well muscled.”

After that, another expedition left this time from Louisiana to try and capture the beast and prove his existence. One man, according to reports, rode ahead of the posse, hoping to take the creature (and maybe the glory) on his own.

And, folks, it gets a bit rough right here. So, if you don’t like violence, skip ahead 20 seconds or so.

“The wild man saw the horse and rider, and he rushed frantically toward them, and in an instant dragged the hunter to the ground and tore him in a most dreadful manner, scratching out one of his eyes and injuring the other so much that his friends despaired over of the recovery of his sight, and it bit large pieces out of his shoulder and various parts of his body.

“The hunter’s friends and a party of Choctaw hunters set off in pursuit of the creature. They chased it up into the Ouachita Mountains, which were then covered in snow from an unusually brutal winter. Conditions slowed down the hunters and the Wild Man slipped away from them.”

______________

This all brings us back to that legendary pioneer hacking his way through the untamed wilds of Texas.

If anybody ever called him Davy, it’s hard to know. At least one historian said that — if they did call him that — David Crockett didn’t like it. I’ve always believed David Crockett was a pioneer and statesman from Tennessee. Davy Crockett was a Disney character. But a Tennessee state office building bears his name. And if you’re looking for the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, you’ll find it at the DAVY Crockett Tower in Downtown Nashville.

Historians will say that Davy Crockett — King of the Wild Frontier — wrestled bears and rode alligators. David Crockett opposed Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act as a U.S. Congressman from Tennessee.

On that day he was hacking through Texas scrub land, Crockett was fresh off an 1835 campaign to re-claim his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost, losing to a one-legged man Adam Hunstman.

And after that stinging defeat, Crockett decided he’d leave behind his family in Tennessee, and take up with some fellows headed for new fortunes in Texas, or what was then the Mexican state of Tejas.

Before he left, though, he told famously told his constituents to kiss his…foot.

“Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas,” Crockett said at a party in Memphis. If he ever did regret burning that bridge, it didn’t show.

He’d been talking up Texas independence, even during the election. If Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren was elected, Crockett said he would head south and join the fight. He did.

In January 1836, Crockett arrived in Nacogdoches, Texas and signed an oath as a volunteer to the Provisional Government of Texas. Each volunteer was promised around 4,600 acres of land as payment.

After that, the men were hacking their way toward San Antonio in that dreadful Texas heat. Crockett looked at the sun high in the sky and decided it was a good time for a break. He told the rest to his brother-in law, Abner Burgin, in a letter. It’s so crazy, that I’m going to just read the letter in full:

“William and I were pushing through some thicket, clearing the way, when I sat down to mop my brow. I sat for a spell, watching as William make his good and fine progress. I removed my boots and sat with my rations, thinking the afternoon a fine time to lunch. As the birds whistled and chirped, and I ate my small and meager ration, I tapped my axe upon the opposite end of the felled tree I rested upon.

“Whether it was the axe’s disturbance or possibly the heat of the sun which caused an apparition to slowly form in front of my eyes, I know not. As a Christian man, I swear to you, Abe, that what spirit came upon me was the shape and shade of a large ape man, the likes we might expect among the more bellicose and hostile Indian tribes in the Territories. The shade formed into the most deformed and ugly countenance. Covered in wild hair, with small and needling eyes, large broken rows of teeth, and the height of three foundlings, I spit upon the ground the bread I was eating.

“The monster then addressed a warning to me. Abner, it told me to return from Texas, to flee this Fort and to abandon this lost cause. When I began to question this, the creature spread upon the wind like the morning steam swirls off a frog pond. I swear to you, Abner, that whatever meat or sausage disagreed with me that afternoon, I swore off all beef and hog for a day or so afterward.”

Less than six months after he wrote that letter, Crockett gave his life defending The Alamo.

_____

Bigfoot was my paranormal gateway drug. That drug was delivered in a 1972 docudrama called “The Legend of Boggy Creek.”

I was in the third grade and stayed the night with a friend who lived way out in the sticks. We watched the film and those long, weird shots of the Arkansas creeks and swamps, freaked me out almost as much as that big, old Bigfoot arm reaching through the window to get at poor Bobby sitting on the toilet.

Then, my friend told me he wanted to show me something outside. Like every third grader everywhere, I listened and I followed him into the pitch-black darkness, surrounded only by the woods and whatever lurked there. When I got outside, my friend rushed quickly back inside and slammed the door, leaving me alone with my brand new fear of Bigfoot and “Hey Travis Crabtree” ringing in my ears.

I was out there for maybe five minutes but it felt like hours. Just me and that eerie calm and an imagination running wild. That imagination has fueled a lifetime love of the paranormal for me. That love is why I wanted to do this show in the first place.

While I can plow through show, books, magazines, podcasts, or any media at all that deals with the paranormal, I always go back to Boggy Creek.

The Fouke Monster is creepy to be sure. But what still gets me about the film is the simple Southerness of the thing. Bigfoot tales hit home through the authentic twangs and drawls of the Crabtrees, Fords, the Whites, and all the rest.

This put Bigfoot close to home for me as a kid. I didn’t know a Bigfoot lived around my parts. Turned out Bigfoot wasn’t just local to the Pacific Northwest and that thrilled me and scared me, too.

It still does and I’ve never come out of that Bigfoot rabbit hole. For proof, I point to the Memphis Bigfoot Festival, which I started two years ago. I cordially invite you to come this year in late October.

My name’s Toby Sells. Thank y’all for loading up and heading out with me today. Holler back at me here soon for more Haint Blues.

The President & The Honeymooner

Haint Blue