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9 Legendary Monsters of North America: Part Three

This is the third installment of legendary monsters of North America, as everyone has their local favorite -or has even seen one of these creatures! Previous posts have legends of other parts of the world, too. Here are more monsters from the stories told around the campfires -and on the internet- in North America.

1. Lee County Lizardman

In 1988, 17-year-old Christopher Davis reported the first sighting of the Lee County Lizard Man. Davis was driving home from work, and had to stop about 2AM near Scape Ore Swamp in South Carolina to change a flat tire. As he was leaving, a 7-foot-tall bipedal creature ran up and jumped on his car! Davis said it had glowing red eyes, green skin, and three clawed fingers on each hand. Davis swerved to throw the monster off, and later found scratch marks on his car. After his tale was told, others came forward with accounts of the creature, and some had auto damage as well. Footprints were found, but were never sent for analysis. Davis took a lie detector test (arranged by his publicity agents), but the results were not released. Stories went nationwide, and tourists came to look for the Lizard Man, but the hubbub died down by the end of the summer of 1988. There are occasional sightings to this day.

2. Tahoe Tessie

Lake Tahoe is an extremely deep lake in the mountains along the border of California and Nevada. Every year there are several sightings of a monster known as Tahoe Tessie. Reports of the monster go back to Washoe and Paiute legends before the West was settled. Tessie is described as serpentine, which puts her in the same class as Champ in Lake Champlain, Mussie in Muskrat Lake, Chessie in Chesapeake Bay, and other lake monsters. Photograph by Wikipedia user Sierranevadaart.

3. Beavershark

The Beavershark (Maximus bitemus) lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Or Pine Mountain, Georgia. Or Maryland. Or South Carolina, depending on where you happen to visit. This creature is three to four feet long, and comes in two varieties: one has the head of a shark and the body of a beaver, the other has the head of a beaver and the body of a shark. You can guess that the former is the more dangerous subspecies. The beaver shark's preferred environments are youth summer camps, especially those with boating classes. However, they also live near tourist destinations and are sometimes found in gift shops.

4. The Beast of Busco

This is a Snapping Turtle

The town of Churubusco, Indiana, is called Turtletown due to the obsession with a snapping turtle called the Beast of Busco, which locals just call Oscar. The first reported sighting of the giant turtle was in 1898, by farmer Oscar Fulk. No one else saw the turtle then, but Oscar owes his name to the farmer. Then in 1948, the turtle was seen again, in Fulk Lake. One of several people who reported the giant turtle was the owner of Fulk Lake, Gale Harris, who vowed to find the monster. Witnesses said the shell was as big as the roof of a car! Newspapers picked up the story nationwide, and Churubusco found itself on the map. People came from all over, and on one day alone, 3,000 tourists joined in the search on Harris' farm. No giant turtle was found, but the turtle the newspapers called Oscar is credited with boosting the town's economy, and you'll find artful turtles decorating Churubusco to this day. Churubusco has an annual festival called Turtle Days. Photograph by Flickr user Andy Simonds.

5. Tree Octopus

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) is an amphibious creature native to the Olympic National Forest in Washington State. They are very elusive and difficult to catch, but predatory birds eat them and have greatly diminished their numbers. The octopus is an endangered species, with an organization devoted to its survival. The site has been used in studies to determine how easily people believe what they see on the internet.

6. The Fouke Monster

The Fouke Monster is named after the town of Fouke, Arkansas. Sightings have been reported since the 1940s, with a whole slew of sightings between 1970 and 1974. The Fouke Monster is a 7 to 10 foot tall ape-man with long shaggy hair and bright red eyes. It also has a foul odor. An attack on Bobby and Elizabeth Ford in 1971 sparked a frenzy of monster hunting. Three-toed footprints were found around the area, but later exposed as a hoax. The attack by an unknown animal on the Ford family inspired a movie entitled The Legend of Boggy Creek. The 1972 movie is available at YouTube.

7. Piasa Bird

In 1673, a giant pictograph was spotted on the cliffs near Alton, Illinois. The Native American painting depicted a creature described as a dragon bird. If locals were asked about the picture, their answers were not recorded. The bird became known as the Piasa Bird, after a nearby place by that name was documented on a 1797 French map. Other sightings were described, but the image itself was destroyed in the 1870s when lime was quarried there. The story behind the creature is unknown, but there is speculation that it may have been painted by Cahokians, a society that flourished along the Mississippi River, peaking around 1200 CE. An account was publish in 1836 by John Russell that wove a story about the bird that lived on the cliffs and ate people, but most historians presume that he made the tale up. We don't even know for sure what the pictogram looked like, as no photographs are known to exist, and contemporary sketches have been lost -but not before they were copied by hand. These copies were used to recreate the painting on a cliff not far from the original site. Photograph by Wikipedia user Burfalcy.

8. The Melon Heads of Kirtland

Kirtland, Ohio, is a suburb of Cleveland. The story of the Melon Heads has been told for generations. A doctor named Crowe ran a facility in the 1800s (as the story goes) where he kept 1. hydrocephalic children, or 2. unwanted children used as experimental subjects, in which he injected them with a substance that made their heads swell. In some versions of the story, the government funded these experiments. In any case, Dr. Crowe either died or was killed when his charges rebelled against him, and they ran out into the woods, where they still live today (or they are the ghosts of children killed when the orphanage burned). The Melon Heads are short and have big round heads. Sometimes the story is set in more recent times, with the addition of "someone who knew Dr. Crowe." The Melon Heads stay near the wooded area of Wisner Road, where teenagers often go to look for them on dark nights, possibly as an excuse to wrap their arms around each other in fear. There are similar legends of Melon Heads in several other states.

9. Fur-bearing Trout

Fur-bearing trout are native to Montana and surrounding states, and in some regions of Canada. They developed fur to keep their bodies warm in the cold northern streams where they live. However, another theory exists that the fur is the result of "four jugs of hair tonic" that were accidentally spilled into the Arkansas River in the 1870s. A third explanation comes from 17th-century Scottish settlers:

One settler wrote home remarking about the abundance of "furried animals and fish" in the new land. Asked to provide more information about the furried fish, he duly sent home a specimen.

Fur-bearing trout pose no danger, and in fact have been overfished and are near extinction, although they can be seen in taxidermy shops on occasion. The same species is also sometimes called beaver trout.

Previously: Legendary monsters of Asia, Europe, Australasia, Africa, North America, and South America.

Read the entire series on Legendary Monsters.

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Food
8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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