A strange report of a man-eating tree was published in the New York World in 1874. The article caused a stir, and was subsequently published in various other magazines for several years. Even as late as 1888, the ‘magazine of record and review’ Current Literature was running the story of Karl Leche, ‘the eminent botanist’, and his description of a deadly tree:
After we were fairly in the forest, the shade overhead was so dense that the jungle and undergrowth almost disappeared, and instead there was a damp, boggy turf, cold, spongy, and yielding to the tread. The stalks of the tall trees rose like columns, the vines hanging down from them in festoons, and their roots running over the ground in every direction, making walking difficult. Suddenly all the natives began to cry, “Tepe! Tepe!” and Henrick, stopping short, said, “Look!” The slugglish canal-like stream here wound slowly by, and in a bare spot near its bend was the most singular of trees. I have called it crinoida, because when its leaves are in action it bears a striking resemblance to that well-known fossil the crinoid lilystone, or St. Cuthbert’s beads. It was now at rest, however, and I will try to describe it to you. If you can imagine a pineapple eight feet high, and thick in proportion, resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the trunk of the tree, which, however, was not the color of an anana, but a dark, dingy brown, and apparently hard as iron. From the apex of this truncated cone (at least two feet in diameter) eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges. These leaves, which were joined to the top of the tree at regular intervals, were about eleven or twelve feet long and shaped very much like the leaves of the American agave, or century plant. They were two feet through in their thickest part and three feet wide, tapering to a sharp point that looked like a cow’s horn, very convex on the outer (but now under) surface, and on the inner (now upper) surface slightly concave. This concave face was thickly set with very strong thorny hooks, like those upon the head of the teazle. These leaves, hanging thus limp and lifeless, dead green in color, had in appearance the massive strength of oak fiber. The apex of the cone was a round, white, concave figure, like a smaller plate set within a larger one. This was not a flower but a receptacle, and there exuded into it a clear treacly liquid, honey sweet, and possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific properties. From underneath the rim (so to speak) of the undermost plate a scries of long, hairy, green tendrils stretched out in every direction towards the horizon. These were seven or eight feet long each, and tapered from four inches to a half an inch in diameter, yet they stretched out stiffly as iron rods. Above these (from between the upper and under cup) six white, almost transparent palpi reared themselves towards the sky, twirling and twisting with a marvelous incessant motion, yet constantly reaching upwards. Thin as reeds, and frail as quills apparently, they were yet five or six feet tall, and were so constantly and vigorously in motion, with such a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air, that they made me shudder in spite of myself with their suggestion of serpents flayed, yet dancing on their tails. Here were not corolla, pistil, stamens, a flower, mind you, nor anything like it. For Crinoida, unknown, new species as it is, is nighest akin to the cycadaceae, and perhaps its exact prototype may be found among the fossil cycadae, though I confess I do not remember any one that presents all its peculiar features. The description I am giving you now is partly made up from a subsequent careful inspection of the plant. My observations on this occasion were suddenly interrupted by the natives, who had been shrieking around the tree in their shrill voices, and chanting what Henrick told me were propitiatory hymns to the great tree devil. With still wilder shrieks and chants they now surrounded one of the women, and urged her with the points of their javelins until slowly, and with despairing face, she climbed up the rough stalk of the tree and stood on the summit of the cone, the palpi twirling all about her. “Tsik! tsik!” (drink! drink!) cried the men, and, stooping, she drank of the viscid fluid in the cup, rising instantly again with wild frenzy in her face and convulsive chorea in her limbs. But she did not jump down, as she seemed to intend to do. Oh no! The atrocious cannibal tree that had been so inert and dead came to sudden, savage life. The slender, delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then, as if instinct with demoniac intelligence, fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then, while her awful screams, and yet more awful laughter, rose wilder to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgled moan, the tendrils, one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening, with the cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey. It was the barbarity of the Laocoon without its beauty — this strange, horrible murder. And now the great leaves rose slowly and stiffly, like the arms of a derrick, erected themselves in the air, approached one another, and closed about the dead and hampered victim with the silent force of a hydraulic press, and the ruthless purpose of a thumbscrew.
The article is now thought to have been a complete invention, and even the name Karl Leche is likely to be a pen name for some unknown hoaxter. However, the whole affair remains largely a mystery.
In the lead-up to Halloween, I am presenting a ‘Creepy History’ series. Normal service (journals and snippets) will be resumed in November. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen.