Anyway, they told me there was one thing somewhat associated with Fort Negley that might not be supernatural, but was pretty odd. The Willapus Wallapus had been sighted near the Fort back when it was terrorizing Nashville. Did I know about that?
I did not, but I have since learned and Nashville, it's wild. But I think it was a real thing and I think, from the clues, someone could figure out what it was.
Okay, so, before we get started, here's a few things you need to know. The willapus wallapus, lower case, was the nickname for a huge machine that cities used to flatten out roads. It either was like a steamroller or it was a steamroller. I couldn't really tell from the descriptions, but it served that same purpose. That willapus wallapus is of no importance to this story.
Willapus Wallapus was also a kind of nonsense phrase for an unknown, perhaps supernatural, perhaps fanciful creature of indeterminate type. Like, say you went out in your backyard and something had gotten to your chickens but you couldn't tell if it was a coyote or a raccoon. You might just attribute the attack to a Willapus Wallapus, but, in that case, you would know it wasn't real. Or you might have frightened children by telling them if they didn't behave, the Willapus Wallapus would get them. Obviously, this fanciful term does have some relevance to us.
Then there was the thing that terrorized Nashville, which, by all accounts was a real thing that people really interacted with, but, as you might expect when your childhood boogeyman comes to life, they seemed to imbue with fanciful attributes it most likely did not actually have.
So, the first mention I could find was in The Tennessean in a story titled "The Mysterious Monster: It Visits the Stable of an Edgefield Resident — Organizing for a Hunt," from Saturday, March 8, 1884. The day before, A.H. Lawrence had gone out to his carriage house to find something had dug a large hole under the door. He found some white hairs stuck to the bottom of the door. The hairs, which Lawrence's business partner showed the Tennessean reporter, were soft, white, and about three-and-a-half inches long. When Lawrence entered the carriage house, he found it trashed.
The story then references a "Mr. Moses R. Priest, the lawyer who so successfully chased this 'Willipus-Wallapus' [sic] out of the Eighteenth district several nights ago." Priest and his buddies had been hunting the thing and they'd set out a trap for it, which they believed it had gotten caught in, but managed to escape from. Priest provides a description of the animal's footprint, "the animal has toes like a baby's and a square foot about three and a half inches long and three inches wide." The story notes that Doc Ambrose, one of Priest's buddies, is determined to scalp the creature.
We find out how that went in a story titled "The Mysterious Monster: Edgefield Infested by the Willipus-Wallapus [sic]: Mr. Chadwell Does Battle with the Beast and Doc Ambrose Cuts off His Tail," which ran Friday, March 21, 1884. God bless old-timey headlines, because that really gives you the story there. But here's the opening bit anyway:
Right on the top of the information that the Willapus wallapus bit off a dog's nose in Edgefield, on Monday night, comes the information, from Mr. Melville Chadwell, who keeps books for Messrs. John Gilgan & Co., and resides in Edgefield, to the effect that he actually met and repulsed the mysterious monster in Edgefield on Lindsley avenue, on Tuesday night.The dog later died, so the Willapus Wallapus is the greatest villain in this story. (Clarksville is the second greatest villain, but, spoiler alert, Clarksville pays.)
Chadwell gives a description of the beast, "As near as I could make him out in the fog, he was between the size of a bear and a bull, and had no tail to speak of." Chadwell shot it in the face and was surprised the animal shook it off. It ran off into Spring Park.
Doc Ambrose was not surprised to hear that it had no tail because Ambrose and his buddies had hunted the animal to a hole on the banks of the Stones River. They thought they'd badly wounded it and, in an ensuing physical scuffle, Ambrose cut off the thing's tail. It was long and black. Ambrose "suspended it from the wall of his saloon with pink ribbons and placed a placard upon it, which reads, the Willapus-wallapus tail." I kind of love Ambrose.
So at this point, it's clearly a real animal, I think. But by Sunday, March 30, it was starting to acquire some fanciful traits. When William O'Rourke saw it by Vanderbilt, he said, "Not a leaf stirred as I passed a vacant lot to my left, when to my utter astonishment there appeared just a few paces before me a writhing object, all aglow like fox-fire with a sulphurous smell that almost strangled me." He tried to shoot it, because, why not? But he tripped and fell into a barbed wire fence. He picked up a pick-ax and hit the beast with it and, "it divided itself into myriads of sparkling lights and danced in mid air, turning darkness into day, and with one prolonged howl and unearthly scream, rolled like an open umbrella down Broad Street." And yes, I want to see this in the movie version, should one happen. No, I don't think we had some monster that could explode into light and scream down the street, but I wish.
This was too much temptation for our archvillain, Clarksville. By June, they were making merciless fun of us. The Tennessean reporter who had been hunting the Willapus Wallapus reported that a man from Clarksville told him he had seen the beast.
Why I've seen the Willipus Wallapus. Saw it cross a pond on Friday night and walk on the top of the water. It jumped over the ground, quick as a kangaroo, leaping twenty or thirty feet in the air with every bound. ... Well, I can't tell you whether it was man or the devil, beast, fish, flesh, or reptile. It could double over into a ball, and go rolling up the hill like a wheel. It seemed to be about the size of a big wolf, but didn't look as big when he would double over and take his tail in his mouth and roll over and over like a wheel rolling up a hill. If I were not a scientific man and considerable of an amateur astronomer I would not know how to account for this animal, but fortunately, I am considerable of both and I think I can give the only reasonable explanation of its existence among us.Y'all, this dude is such a dick, and I know his language is a little stilted and old-timey here, but just take a minute to appreciate his bullshit. Don't just appreciate it. Think on how familiar it sounds. Sure, this is a man from 1884, but this line of clap-trap is a line of clap-trap anyone with access to the History Channel hears all the time. Hell, "I'm not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens" is a funny joke now.
And here's this dick stringing the Tennessean reporter along (though, I also think the Tennessean reporter knew he was probably being strung along) so that he can deliver that very same punchline, "Well, it is an animal from another world."
Okay, thanks, Mr. Clarksville Man. Very funny. We'll certainly ask Clarksville for help and sympathy the next time we're being attacked by a monster.
But word of the Willapus Wallapus had gotten out. In September of 1884, there was a strange animal bothering Milan, Tennessee, north of Jackson, and the local paper wondered if "the Nashville Willapus Wallapus has come down here."
Clarksville, being a city made of jerks piled high to resemble a giant bag of dicks, continued to insist our monster was fake. In October of 1887, the Clarksville Chronicle reported that the Memphis Appeal was reporting, "a hideous animal (of the Willapus Wallapus species) is roaming around Fort Negley." After joking about how obviously made up this story was, Clarksville suggested someone contact Nashville and tell us "of the monster in their city."
And then it was 1890, wasn't it, Clarksville? October 27th, to be exact, and there's the Daily Tobacco Leaf-Chronicle story, "A Ferocious Animal: Ingram's Willapus Wallapus in the Ross View Neighborhood." And there's the gruesome story of a bunch of dead dogs and mules all killed by some mysterious animal and Clarksville doesn't know what it is.
You might be tempted to feel a tiny bit sorry for Clarksville, but here's their plan for hunting the monster, "The program is to send the dogs in front and after it has devoured half a dozen dogs we will venture in shooting distance." Why not just wait for it to be eating another mule? Why send dogs to their deaths? What is wrong with you, Clarksville?
I couldn't find word of how the hunt went, so let's presume those dogs lived to bite the guy who came up with that plan.
In 1892, Clarksville thought it had a bear terrorizing the town. Okay, let's be fair. They did also wonder if it might be a willapus wallapus. Serves them right.
It does sound scary. In February, the Daily Tobacco Leaf-Chronicle, reported that the bear "or willapus wallapus" as the case may be, was trailing a chain behind it and coming up onto people's porches, making a huge, ungodly racket, and then roaring at them.
In a bit of cracker-jack reporting, the Daily Tobacco Leaf-Chronicle went to interview "Uncle George," a local conjureman. George, according to the paper, had performed a spell and gotten into contact with the spirit of the animal and discovered that it wasn't a bear, but was for sure a Willapus Wallapus coming into town on the Port Royal Road. (The story as the reporter recounts it is, as you might imagine, really racist, but George also comes off really funny and an excellent storyteller, so if you can stomach the racism, George is worth reading.) This would seem like just a good storyteller bullshitting another good storyteller, except the reporter notes that weird tracks have been seen in Coopertown and reported in the Springfield paper. Those tracks "were 4 ½ x 5 inches in diameter, having the general appearance of a dog's tracks with four toes all located side by side in front of the step. He stepped from 22 to 59 inches apart in his travels; seems predisposed to travel the public roads and and prowl around yards and houses...We do not say what has made the track we described but it is not a common one."
In July, people visiting Idaho Springs near Dunbar Cave reported that their dogs had been disturbed by the Willapus Wallapus. Clarksville residents and visitors, in another shameful incident of dog mistreatment, threw things at the dogs to try to drive them away from the cabins where they were trying to hide and back toward the monster. Then the male guests at the spring got on bicycles in their pajamas and rode off into the dark to try to find whatever it was. They had no luck.
But that was not the end of the Willapus Wallapus legend. In February of 1911, a mysterious animal briefly terrorized Paris, Tennessee, and the Tennessean was pretty sure it was either a gorilla or a Willipus-Wallapus. Um, Tennessean, a gorilla? Really? That seemed like a likely identity for our monster? We have a lot of wild gorillas in Tennessee? Or even a population of feral ones?
And then in 1919, the Chattanooga News reported that Knoxville was being "excited by strange beast." The animal was killing dogs and drinking their blood. God, dogs have a hard time of it in this story, don't they? The paper speculated that it was a Willapus-Wallapus, but a local Knoxville hunter was fairly certain it was a panther.
Then, the trail runs dry. Whatever Moses Priest and Doc Ambrose fought, we don't know what it is or whether it was the same thing that rightfully terrorized Clarksville. But it does seem like we have a few real clues — something that would fight a dog and tear up a garage, that had soft white fur and a black tail, that dug holes and lived in them. I think we can rule out aliens or supernatural exploding wheel creatures of any sort. But a lot of the men who went after the Wallapus Willapus were avid hunters. What could they have been seeing that they didn't recognize?
I had wondered if the Willapus Wallapus could be a coyote, but everything I could find says that coyotes didn't come to Tennessee until the rise of the interstate system gave them easy ways out of the southwest. But what about a Red Wolf? From the pictures I've seen, they can have dark tails and they certainly have some light fur. If one or more was on the outskirts of town, it seems like they might have come in to make easy meals of dogs.
I don't know. But it's fascinating to stumble across this thing that was a known and important legend for thirty-five years, but which is now utterly forgotten.