Thursday, August 26, 2021

Prevaricators In The Old West

As I said in a recent post, yarns and tall tales were a very popular form of storytelling back in the day. Well, here's another story that you might enjoy. It's a story that reminds us that some things haven't changed in the world. 

The U.S.Army was responsible for manning weather stations when they were initially created. One such remote weather station was located in the Rocky Mountains in 1876. Gurnsey's Rocky Mountain U.S. Signal Station and Observatory on Pikes Peak sat at an elevation of 14,336 feet. It opened on November 1st, 1873. During that first winter, the temperature dropped to 26 degrees below zero, the wind was clocked at 85 miles per hour, and they recorded 15 feet of snow. 

The U.S. Signal Service was a part of the U.S. Army. It was later redesignated as the Army Signal Corps. The weather stations were set up throughout the United States all in an effort to gather information. It was one of the early attempts to forecast the weather. As for the people manning the stations, it's very understandable how such duty as manning such a desolate place can be lonesome, boring, and isolated. It's also understandable how one's imagination and creativity can run wild.

The first indication of an imagination running wild took place that first winter. That was when an article on a giant lake creature in Mystic Lake, what is believed to be present-day Lake Moraine, appeared in an issue of the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette on December 6th, 1873. The article reported how a soldier stationed at the Pikes Peak station sighted the giant creature. 

The man making the report was U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Seyboth. He was the first man to pull duty at the station. Seyboth reported that he was riding past Mystic Lake when he heard a loud splashing sound. Upon inspection, he reported that he saw a monster that was at least 100-feet long moving very fast through the water. The creature was pale brown and covered with scales. He went on to say that the monster had a long skinny neck and its head was sort of oblong with small beady eyes. Such a monster living in the lake was big news. In fact, it is said that several newspapers carried the story here and in Europe. 

Was there a rush to see if someone could find the beast? No. Was a scientific search of that ever conducted for the creature? No. Was there ever another sighting? Well, no one knows. 

Why not you ask? Well, tall tales in newspapers and magazines were not out of the ordinary. Some stories were shrugged off as simply being a yarn because they were too unbelievable, while other stories were taken as gospel. Of course, that's how tales of monsters begin. One person laughs it off as just a tall tale, while others will buy it completely -- hook, line, and sinker. Right or wrong, that's how things still are today. It's as if people want to see monsters when there aren't any. 

As for Seyboth's tall tale, while not bad, his story was eclipsed later when his replacement told a bigger whopper. That storyteller was Army Private John Timothy O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe's spectacular tale actually appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain entitled, "Attacked By Rats, Terrible Conflict On The Summit Of Pikes Peak," published on May 25, 1876.

In O'Keeffe's story, he warned visitors of vicious "mountain rats." He talked about how the rats lived in the rocky crevices on the summit of Pikes Peak. He spoke about them being aggressive, dangerous, man-eaters. His story didn't leave anything to the imagination as he described in detail the attacks that he and his family endured on the summit.

According to O'Keeffe, the rats would normally feed on a sweet gum that was a by-product of volcanic action that shook the mountain at irregular intervals. The volcanic action percolated the gum through the pores of the rocks. The gum was freed for the rats for longer than human history ever recorded. When the gum wasn't enough, the rats would seek out food -- including attack those there at the weather station.   
Private John O'Keefe had a vivid imagination. His job was to collect the meteorological information. That must not have kept him busy since he was known to pass the time by sharing tall tales with visitors. Of course, he supposedly had a drinking buddy who was also a newspaper editor. 

As for the rats, O'Keefe said they were nocturnal and dangerous. He supposedly told his wife on several occasions to guard their young daughter since he feared she would be attacked. His warnings were said to be an omen of what took place. 

The story goes that while O'Keefe was busy working on weather reports that needed to be sent off, he heard his wife scream. The rats were attacking and they had gotten into their kitchen. The rats swarmed over an entire side of beef and devoured it in the blink of an eye. It was then that the rats attacked Mrs. O'Keefe and their daughter Erin. 

O'Keefe, acting as the hero in the story, immediately protected his wife by wrapping her in a sheet of plate steel from the stove. He then ripped the stovepipe down and placed the sections over his legs as he fought the rats with a chair leg that he used as a club. It was about that time that Mrs. O'Keefe grabbed a spool of wire and hooked it to a nearby battery to electrocute the rats. The sparks made the rats flee back to the cracks and crevices of Pikes Peak.

Private John O'Keefe found the remains of their infant daughter Erin. She was attacked because the rats climbed into her cradle. Private O'Keefe and his wife buried what was left of their daughter beneath a pile of rocks near the summit of Pike's Peak. He then placed a wooden marker on her grave. 

The marker read: "Erected in Memory of Erin O'Keefe, daughter of John and Nora O'Keefe, who was eaten by mountain rats in the year 1876."

Friends, it didn't matter that volcanic action didn't percolate a gum through the pores of the rocks. It didn't matter that Army Private John Timothy O'Keeffe was not married, there was no Nora O'Keeffe, nor was there ever an infant daughter named Erin. It didn't matter that the whole story was a complete fabrication. 

It's said that O'Keefe's drinking buddy wrote down the story after visiting that gravesite. And after the story was published in a local newspaper, it's said hundreds of visitors made "the pilgrimage" to the weather station at the top of Pikes Peak just to view the infant's grave and pay their respects. 

Was there a grave as shown in photographs? Absolutely yes. There was indeed a grave. Of course, after realizing that his tall tale had gotten out of hand and that he may get in some sort of trouble, he finally admitted that the grave was a hoax. It was in reality the grave of a government mule that had died. The mule was used at the station as a means of transportation when relaying the weather reports. 

Of course, even after Private John Timothy O'Keeffe confessed to making up the hoax, people still believed there are mountain rats on top of Pikes Peak. And yes, there were people who still believed that those very same fictitious mountain rats once ate an infant named Erin O'Keeffe. 

Even when finding out the truth, many refuse to believe it. People are stubborn that way.   

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Ironically, a direct descendant of O'Keefe later became the founder, and Editor in Chief, of CNN.


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