Above image by Gustav Carlson, wonderful Ozark artist and monster-drawer extraordinaire.
This is the first post in a series I’d like to present on the old Ozark monsters as recorded by Vance Randolph, Otto Ernest Rayburn, and other folklorists. This first account of the “gowrow” comes from Randolph’s “Fabulous Monsters of the Ozarks”. Many of these tails have much older European origins, others bear striking resemblance to certain monsters talk of by the Osage, Caddo, and Cherokee.
One of these latter is concerned with the gowrow, which terrorized rural Arkansas in the 1880s. Several stories about the gowrow were attributed to Fred W. Allsopp, sometime editor of the Arkansas Gazette, but I have been unable to find them in his published works. I asked Allsopp about this once, but he just laughed and said that all he knew of the gowrow was what he read in the Missouri newspapers. According to the legends, the gowrow was a gigantic lizard, with enormous tusks. There is a persistent report that, gowrows hatched from soft-shelled eggs as big as beer-kegs. Some say that the female carried its newly hatched young in a pouch like that of a possum, but the old-timers do not agree about this. The gowrow spent much of its time in caverns, and under rock ledges. It was carnivorous, devouring great numbers of deer, calves, sheep and goats. Perhaps the creature ate human beings, too.
A traveling salesman named William Miller was credited with killing a gowrow somewhere near Marshall, Arkansas, in 1897, and many wild stories were told about this exploit. When hard pressed, Miller once declared that he had shipped the gowrow’ s skin and skeleton to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D. C. But a newspaperman who queried the officials at the Smithsonian was unable to confirm this claim.
Otto Ernest Rayburn, in his Ozark Guide, summer issue of 1949, reprints an unidentified newspaper account of Miller’s encounter with “a gowrow of the goofus family” in Searcy County, Arkansas. Miller and others had been unable to overtake the animal in the fields, so they lay in wait for it at the entrance of a cavern.
“This cave was evidently the home of the animal,” the newspaper story continues, “as here were found many skeletons, skulls and bones, as well as parts of human flesh of recent victims. Miller and his posse laid in wait, trembling in their shoes. Presently the earth swayed as if another earthquake were taking place, and they realized that the monster was approaching. As it came within range all hands fired, and after several volleys were discharged, succeeded in killing it. But it died hard. A couple of huge trees were lashed down, and one of the assailants was killed. The gowrow was twenty feet in length, and had a ponderous head with two enormous tusks. Its legs were short, terminating in webbed feet similar to but much larger than those of a duck, and each toe had a vicious claw. The body was covered with green scales, and its back bristled with short horns. The tail was thin and long, provided with sharp blade-like formations at the end, which it used as a sickle. The animal was a pachyderm, with long incisors and canine teeth, which apparently showed its relationship with the ceratorhinus, supposed long since to have disappeared from the earth.”
In the same article Rayburn repeats a long tale which he had from Clio Harper, of Little Rock. It seems that there is a deep fissure called the Devil’s Hole, near the Self post office in Boone County, Arkansas, on a farm owned by E. J. Rhodes. In trying to explore this cave Rhodes descended by means of a rope, landing on a ledge 200 feet below the surface, but could go no farther. Later on several men went to the Devil’s Hole with 1000 feet of clothesline. They fastened a heavy flatiron to the end of the line, and let it down into the hole. When the weight reached a depth of 200 feet it struck something, probably the ledge discovered earlier by Rhodes.
“It was at this point,” according to Harper’s story, “that things began to happen. The men heard a vicious hissing sound, as if it were some animal whose den had been rudely intruded. The rope was pulled up and it was found that the handle of the iron was bent. Jim, the guide, swore he could see the marks of teeth upon it. A large stone was then attached as a weight and thrown in. Again the sibilant sound when it struck the ledge, and when the rope was pulled up the stone was gone. The rope had been bitten in two as clean as though it had been cut with a knife. Fastening another stone to the line, we cast again. Again it ran out to the 200-foot ledge, again the hissing sound was heard, and when the rope was drawn up the stone was gone and the rope bitten in two. The marks of sharp teeth were clearly discernable.”
At least one member of the party, according to Rayburn’s account, contended that a gowrow must be responsible. It might well be, he argued, that Miller’s posse had not killed the gowrow. Maybe the great beast had “played possum” and fooled ‘em. Perhaps, after Miller’s departure, the gowrow migrated to Boone County and settled down in the Devil’s Hole, where it may be living to this day.
I have met elderly men in Missouri and Arkansas who publicly declared their belief that a few specimens of the gowrow may have survived into the present century perhaps as late as the 1920’s. But whether these fellows were in earnest, I do not pretend to say.
My old friend Pete Woolsey, who used to run a restaurant in Bentonville, Arkansas, seemed a little hurt when I grinned at his version of the gowrow story. “I don’t see nothin’ so unreasonable about it,” said he. “Them scientists over at Fayetteville are tellin’ people that there used to be wild elephants right here in Arkansas. Elephants, mind you, with red wool on ’em two foot long !”
“That’s different,” I answered. “That was thousands of years ago.”
“Would you rather believe them professors, talkin’ about red elephants in Arkansas before America was discovered even, than my Grandpaw’s story of what happened in his own life-time?”
“Listen, Pete,” I said, “did your grandfather ever actually see a gowrow?”
“No, he didn’t. I never seen a painter (panther), neither. But lots of oldtimers did see painters, an’ killed ’em, right here in this county. I’ve listened at them old hunters a-talkin’, an’ there ain’t no doubt in my mind that there was plenty of painters here in the early days. Well, my Grandpaw heerd about the gowrow, just like I’ve heerd about painters.”
Pete began to look kind of indignant, as if somebody had intimated that maybe his grandfather was a liar. Pete Woolsey was not a man to be pushed too far. So I suggested that we have a drink of Bear Holler sarsaparilla, which we did, and said no more about gowrows.
A gentleman at Mena, Arkansas, told a long story of a Missouri carnival worker who claimed to have captured a gowrow alive. This fellow had somehow induced the animal to eat a wagon-load of dried apples, which swelled its body to such a degree that the beast could not get back into its burrow. He was exhibiting it in a tent, charging twenty- five cents admission. There was a horrible painting of the monster out front, showing it in the act of devouring an entire family of cotton-farmers. When a good crowd was seated, there came a terrible roaring noise backstage, with several shots and a loud clanking of chains. Then the showman staggered out in full view of the audience, his clothes torn to shreds and blood running down his face.
“Run for your lives,” he yelled, “the gowrow has broke loose!” Just then the back part of the tent collapsed, with more thunderous roars and chains rattling and women screaming. The spectators rushed away in panic, without stopping to get their money back. Eleanor Risley, author of The Road to Wildcat, was present when I heard this tale. She told me that a similar yarn had been popular years before in Alabama. The name gowrow was not used in the Alabama version, though; it was some other sort of wild animal that the fellow pretended to have in the tent.