The Hodag of Rhinelander, Wisconsin

(Emily Wayland / Singular Fortean Society)

(Emily Wayland / Singular Fortean Society)

In 1893, newspapers reported that a creature, known as the Hodag, with "the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end" had been found in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. The source of these reports can be attributed to lumberman and known hoaxer Eugene Shepard, who actively promoted the existence of the beast to locals. Shepard went so far as to organize a Hodag hunt, the members of which claimed to have used dynamite to kill the creature. He even produced a photograph of the creature's corpse, while at the same time declaring the Hodag to be extinct, "after its main food source, all white bulldogs, became scarce in the area."

Shepard's surprisingly convincing Hodag photograph.

Shepard's surprisingly convincing Hodag photograph.

Later, in 1896, despite earlier reports of its extinction, Shepard claimed to capture a live Hodag specimen, which he displayed at the first Oneida County fair. The display attracted national media attention, as well as thousands of curious fair goers, many of whom were startled to see the Hodag move in its cage. The captive creature was soon discovered to be a hoax manipulated by wire, though, as Shepard quickly admitted his deception when scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. announced that they were organizing an expedition to examine the purportedly living animal.

While Shepard’s Hodag was certainly a hoax, some researchers speculate that he might have borrowed from the Ojibwe to form the Hodag’s distinct appearance. Wisconsin’s population of Ojibwe at that time was centered in the northern part of the state, near the Rhinelander area.

"Many have theorized that Gene Shepard based the Hodag on Mishipeshu, the water panther spirit," researcher Kevin Nelson told the Singular Fortean Society.

This pictograph of Mishipeshu from Agawa Rock in Ontario strongly resembles Shepard’s Hodag.  (Wikimedia)

This pictograph of Mishipeshu from Agawa Rock in Ontario strongly resembles Shepard’s Hodag. (Wikimedia)

Although no direct connection between Shepard and the Ojibwe legend exists, it’s possible he might have encountered it at some point.

“[That's] mostly based on their matching silhouettes," Nelson explained. "It's been speculated that pictographs of Mishipeshu encountered by fur traders were turned into Northwoods legends which were then passed into lumberjack lore. Though to my knowledge, Shepard never made a statement definitively linking the two."

The Hodag remains a popular mascot in the Rhinelander area, and the city itself boasts several Hodag statues, as well as proclaiming itself "The Home of the Hodag."

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Tobias Wayland