Sunday, November 20, 2004

The Big Muddy MonsterTracks, screams, smells and sightings since 1973

The Southern Illinoisan

Many people think the Big Muddy Monster and the people who claim to see it are the stuff tabloid stories are made of. Sporadic sightings of the creature, described as seven or eight feet tall, chunky, usually standing upright, and covered with light, mud-covered fur, began in 1973 near Riverside Park in Murphysboro and were reported north and west of the town for the next three years.

One more siting would be reported by a group of people in 1988. With the early sightings, mysterious tracks were found. Piercing screeches ran chills up the spines of residents and police. Stinky river slime fell on bushes and swaths were made through woods.

Some say its odor was so bad that it totally overshadowed any fears they had of becoming the monster’s lunch.

“It’s the sort of thing people associate with tabloid weirdness and too much to drink, actually,” said Randy Creath, now a music minister in Fort Wayne, Ind. “it’s just one of those things you say, ‘Oh, should I tell anyone?” And before there was a chance to make that decision, the police were called.”

Twenty-three years  ago Creath sat with his girlfriend Cheryl Ray, both 17, in the breezeway of her parents’ home in Murphysboro’s Westwood Hills subdivision near the Big Muddy River. They heard a rustling noise at the edge of the yard near Ray’s father’s garden.

Thinking it was neighborhood children, they went out to scare them. But after a few steps in that direction, they found themselves frozen in their tracks, staring in awe at a towering creature only 15 feet away.

Their experience came only days after a couple claimed to see a creature similarly described at the Big Muddy boat dock on South 24th Street. Newspaper reports said the creature came lumbering toward a car shortly after midnight. The driver took off, heading for the police department. A young neighbor of the Ray family told his parents he saw a big white ghost in their back yard as he ran around trying to catch fire flies.

The monster craze had begun. Early on, police took these reports seriously, according to newspaper accounts. Murphysboro police and Jackson County sheriff’s deputies checked out the reports trying to find evidence – one way or another – that the creature existed or was a hoax.

A police dog was used after the siting near the boat dock. The dog followed a scent to an outbuilding on a vacant farm, but refused to go in. More than a dozen police officers answered the call for backup but a search of the building turned up nothing.

Bob Scott, a sergeant with the Carbondale Police Department, was a sheriff’s deputy at the time and was involved in the searches. He and another police officer walked into the woods near the boat dock where the couple said the creature was seen. They got as far as 25 yards.

“We heard the largest screech that I’d heard in a long time and it immediately got our attention.” Scott said. “So we decided to come out of the woods and reassess.”

In the back of his mind, he thinks it could have been a hoax because everything they saw and heard could have been produced by humans.

“I do know there was an unusual odor and I still can’t describe what it was” he said. “And there were some strange footprints that weren’t shaped like an animal print or a human print.”

Another siting near McElvain Shcool that summer turned out to be an Angus cow. And in the summer of 1972, a Cairo man said he spotted a hairy, white two-legged creature standing 1o feet tall near the Ohio River levee in Cairo.

The night Creath and Rath had their close encounter, some other teens were having a party across the street. When they heard of the siting, the civic-minded youths, recent graduates of Murphysboro High School, decided to get involved.

“We decided we’d go look for it,” said Debbie Moore, of Carbondale. Moore, the executive director of the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau, grew up a couple blocks from the Big Muddy River. She said she is convinced the people who saw the creature saw something. She just doubts it was a monster.

“That was a period of time when the stories of swamp monsters and all those things were really big across the nation,” she said. “But in my family, people who grew up close to the river and hunted and fished, were were convinced it was a bear that made its way down the river on some logs.”

Her father got some mileage out of the craze. He made some plywood feet and made some Big Muddy Monster prints of his own. Moore said those plywood feet stuck around in her family. Ever her young children played with them.