While modern-day Texans may get their fill of aliens, mysteries and weird happenings from television, a century ago they could, reportedly, just step into their backyard.
“Hidden Headlines of Texas: Strange, Unusual and Bizarre Newspaper Stories 1860-1910,” a new book from The Unexplained, brings accounts of the strange, mysterious and shocking to light from nearly 100 cities, including some in Ellis County.
From wild men to UFOs to hypnotists to monsters, author Chad Lewis of EauClaire, Wis., said the research for the book was full of surprises.
“I would find a story, and I would say to myself, ‘That’s it, that’s the most bizarre.’ And then, two minutes later, I’d find a story that’s even more bizarre,” he said.
Waxahachie and Ennis boast a few strange tales between them. One of Lewis’ favorite entries from the area is titled “A Human Deformity,” a story that ran in the Galveston Daily News in 1880 about a part man, part serpent arriving in Waxahachie, apparently to purchase corn on business.
“It was talking of a man from Johnson County who came to town and he’d been walking the streets for about a week and they thought he was part serpent,” Lewis said. “This guy caused quite a bit of excitement in town and people were actually afraid of him.”
Witnesses described the man as have a tongue that “protruded in frequent, quick motions,” and said that all the joints in his body seemed to move at once, like a snake.
However, the paper did pay the man a kind of compliment, Lewis said, in noting that the stranger never haggled with the store owners but always paid their full price.
In another Waxahachie tale from 1902 that ran in the Dallas Morning News, the Ellis County commissioners received an unusual, and ominous, package with no return address containing a “pauper’s coffin.”
“It just came to the county as an empty coffin,” Lewis said. “The county was wondering if it was some type of threat, or if it was a mistake. They tried to figure out where it came from and who it was supposed to go to, but they never did.”
In 1894, the Dallas Morning News carried a story entitled “Communication from Heavens” on an Ennis man, previewing a lecture he planned to give on divine knowledge and revelations he had received. He called the lecture “Man: Where did he come from and where is he going?”
“He did present this, but what’s fascinating about a lot of these is you never hear from them again,” Lewis said, noting many of the mysteries or strange stories he found in his research were mentioned only once and never followed up on.
According to the article, the Ennis man’s talk was postponed due to a lack of interest and audience.
Other stories from the Ellis County area in the book include an old metallic coffin of unknown origin found in a blacksmith’s shop and a meteor seen in the skies over Ennis.
Lewis said he would also often find stories in large papers reported to have occurred in small towns, but that the smaller papers nearest the tales would print no mention of them.
“Sometimes I wonder if cities were trying to one-up one another,” he said.
His favorite tale out of Texas, he said, is a story about a “human fish.”
“It said there was a child born that the lower limbs were perfectly natural, but the upper body was that of a lobster,” he said. “There are no photographs, so it makes you wonder if these stories are true or made-up — they’re certainly embellished quite a bit.”
Lewis, a native of Wisconsin, said he originally came across the idea for a book on unusual headlines while conducting research in old newspapers of his home state for another project.
“I just kept running across these bizarre stories,” he said. “I printed them out, just for my own amusement really.”
He put together a book on bizarre news stories for Wisconsin, but found himself running across many strange tales from the Lone Star state that had made their way north.
“It was so strange, because even in Wisconsin they covered the Texas stories,” he said.
Lewis spent three years periodically reading through old newspapers all over Texas, starting with the largest publications. He limited himself to stories between 1860 and 1910, as older papers became much more difficult to decipher and newer papers began running fewer strange tales after a rash of weird occurrences a decade before.
“1900 was the height of the spiritual movement in the United States and the turn of the century, and a lot of strange things were going on,” he said.
Reading through thousands of pages of old publications was a fascinating experience, Lewis said.
“You really get a feel for what life was like in this time period by reading the paper,” he said, and he skimmed through gossip, store openings and closings and other local happenings in his quest for the strange stories.
In keeping with the time periods of the articles, Lewis didn’t re-write or change the accounts, simply typing and compiling the stories into categories including bizarre deaths, ghosts, medical anomalies, peculiar people and others, and peppering the book with brief explanations on terms, towns and culture.
“Leaving it in its original form I think helps draw people into that time period and really brings them back to that time,” he said. “They feel it’s like a time portal back to that time. … It is a crazy world out there, but I think this book shows a glimpse that it was crazy in the old days too, just a different type of crazy.”
He found a wealth of material for his book and cut many stories that weren’t quite as strange or that were similar to each other, leaving plenty more for the curious to discover.
“These stories are really just the tip of the iceberg. You could look through any paper in Texas and find bizarre stories, probably enough for your own book on that county,” he said.
Some readers of Lewis’ “Hidden Headlines” books have been surprised to find mention of their family members in the wild stories and Lewis said he’s looking for any additional information that would help expand and update the tales.
Lewis can be contacted through his Web site at www.unexplainedresearch.com, and more information on “Hidden Headlines of Texas” and other publications from Lewis is available there.
E-mail Kelsie at email@example.com