A Gryphon Newsletter

Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 2002

Somewhere along the way I declared I would search for gryphons or things like them in the folklore and legends of North America. I suppose I can start with the amazing tale of:


Michael D. Winkle

What lurks in the fog?

This legendary monster of New Jersey's Pine Barrens has been described as anything from a flying cow, a kangaroo, a "Jabberwock," and a pterodactyl to a Bigfoot-type creature. Many eyewitness descriptions give the monster four limbs and wings. Is it a modern gryphon?

At about 2:00 AM, Sunday, January 17, 1909, John McOwen, of Bristol, Pennsylvania, was awakened by the bawling of his baby daughter. He went to her room and heard strange sounds from outside, near the Delaware Division Canal, which ran behind the house. The noise "sounded like the scratching of a phonograph before the music begins, and yet it also had something of a whistle to it." McOwen later said: "I looked out the window and was astonished to see a large creature standing on the banks of the canal. It looked something like an eagle. . . and it hopped along the tow-path."

Police Officer [later Chief of Police] James Sackville encountered the Devil only minutes later, while patrolling Buckley Street. The neighborhood dogs barked and bayed, and Sackville, who was walking near the canal, turned suddenly to face something out of nightmare. According to The Jersey Devil by James McCloy and Ray Miller, Jr.: "The beast was winged and hopped like a bird, but also had the features of some peculiar animal. Its voice was a horrible scream." (Sounds like a gryphon to me.) The creature "hopped" down the canal tow-path and then took flight. Sackville ran after it, firing his revolver, but it escaped. [1]

Unfortunately, newspaper coverage of the Jersey Devil in this era was quite tongue-in-cheek. Many hoaxes sullied the Devil's name during the following years, and other sightings were blamed on mass hysteria. People still reported the beast, however, as Jim Brandon writes in Weird America: "Five students camping near Lake Atsion on the Mullica [River] (about nine miles northeast of Hammonton) in 1960 were badly scared by shrieking in the night. Earlier that day they had found 11-inch, birdlike tracks near their camp." [2]

According to one of the better Jersey Devil sites on the Internet ("Leut's Jersey Devil Page"), there has been an upsurge in Devil sightings within the last few years. A group calling themselves "The Devil Hunters" has made several short expeditions into the monster's "stomping grounds," and they claim to have encountered strange phenomena -- if not the Jersey Devil itself. Perhaps their activities are attracting the creature. Laura Leuter, creator of the web site, writes that before "Devil Hunt #2," "we had just brought up the idea that, oddly enough, within the past month we have had sightings in the proximity of every Devil Hunter's house." And:

"The night after [the second hunt], Jim was at home around 10 pm, working outside on his truck. Across the street from his house is a block of woods. While sitting out there, he heard similar noises to the night in the Toms River. He went inside his house to change for work, and when he returned he discovered several deep scratches on the body of his truck. One of the sets of scratches was 4 parallel scratches, almost as if they were made by a set of claws. Later on that night, we examined Shawn's car (Wacker One), and found similar scratches."

The Devil Hunters have also heard strange cries, one "a high pitched screeching noise, similar to a woman screaming" and another "like a low grumble -- kind of like someone saying 'errrrrr' in a very low growl, similar to a stomach." [3] Perhaps their interest has actually "activated" the creature, and perhaps even now something like a gryphon is returning to the bogs and pine forests of southern New Jersey.

1. McCloy, James F., and Ray Miller, Jr. Jersey Devil. (Wallingford, PA: Middle Atlantic Press, 1976), pp. 40-41.

2. Brandon, Jim. Weird America. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), p. 142. [McCloy and Miller give the year of the frightened students as 1963.]

3. Leuter, Laura. Quotes come from various "Devil Hunts" and "Read Only If You Believe" from Leut's Jersey Devil Page, which, unfortunately, seems to have dropped from the Web. The best I can do is point to a page of information about Ms. Leuter: Laura Leuter

"Why Did You Say 'Burma'?"

"I Panicked."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe. . . John Vinycomb writes: "In the Illustrated London News of October 21, 1876, is an engraving of two gigantic wingless griffons, and also a description by the traveller who visited that strange place. 'At Thyetmo, 250 miles up the river Irrawaddy from Rangoon in British Burma, are two colossal "chin thay" or figures of sacred griffins, standing at the entrance to one of the great pagodas dedicated to the worship of Gautama Buddha; the outer terraces and steps of these temples are frequently adorned with such mythical monsters. . . It is not known by what nation of old times they were constructed, for Burmese history is apocryphal or at least very obscure.'" [1]

How far east in Asia was the gryphon known? There are the legendary animals that resemble the Phoenix and the Dragon, but gryphons are not something one usually associates with the Orient. However, a Chinese book of the second century AD, the Shan Hai Ching, states:

"The land of the Kuei is to the north of the body of Erh Fu. These people have the faces of men but only one eye. . . The Ch'iung-ch'i is like a tiger with wings. . . To the east of the Ch'iung-ch'i are the giant wasps which look like wasps and the giant ants which look like ants."

Other ancient Chinese texts mention the one-eyed people at least, such as the Hai Wei Pei Ching: "The land of the One-eyed is to the east. The people there have one eye set in the midst of their faces." One can't help but compare these Cyclopean beings to the Arimaspians, and one wonders how close the "tiger with wings" is to a gryphon. [2]


1. I believe I'll give the book's full title: Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. And I believe I'll give the author's full title: "By John Vinycomb, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquiries of Ireland, a Vice-President of the Ex-Libris Society." (London: Chapman and Hall, 1906), pp. 155-156.

2. As quoted in Bolton, J. D. P., Aristeas of Proconnesus, pp. 82-83.

"It's All About as Curious as it Can Be"

Undoubtedly you are familiar with John Tenniel's Gryphon from Alice in Wonderland (who is lying asleep on the Eyrie newsletter's main page). Have you ever noticed that we've been rather short-changed on the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle in the various TV and movie adaptations of Alice?

The most obvious example is the animated Disney Alice in Wonderland (1951), which left the Gryphon and Mock Turtle out entirely. Walt Disney purportedly said that they did not further the plot of the story. Well! And Tweedledum and Tweedledee did? (They actually came from Through the Looking Glass.)

Curiously enough, the Gryphon and Mock Turtle might originally have been scheduled to appear in the Disney film. Back in the 1960s, a slick Disney magazine came out on occasion (for some reason my parents could only get them at certain privileged gas stations). One of these gave us the adventures of Alice Liddell via captioned stills from the animated feature. Oddly enough, the magazine version did have her meet the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle! The Gryphon was a bright yellow critter, one of the less impressive lion-birds I've seen. This might have been so it would not frighten little kids with its fierce raptorial features -- but Disney never refrained from including crocodiles, lions, and other fearsome beasts in his animated features. Perhaps it's just as well this gryphon never made it to the screen. (Update: This Gryphon and Mock Turtle were used on TV in the 1950s -- in a Jell-O commercial, of all things!)

Alice Jell-O

Live-action versions of Alice have mostly given us actors in rather sad gryphon masks and costumes. I swear, though, that about thirty years ago I saw an old black-and-white version of Alice that had a marvelous Gryphon costume. I've looked for it for years, but I don't know which one it was. It was not the 1933 version with Gary Cooper and W. C. Fields.

The NBC-TV (1999) version of Alice starring Tina Majorino and Whoopie Goldberg paired a computer-generated Gryphon with Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle. This Gryphon spent most of his time half-hidden behind a table (presumably so they would not have to waste too much money on CGI animation). The film tried hard to turn Alice's adventures into an endless series of moral lessons; I found it rather unsatisfying.

The best "Alice" Gryphon, in my opinion, was the Muppet version used in Dreamchild (1985), a strange little film which starred Coral Browne as the real Alice Liddell, eighty years old in 1932, who suffers flashbacks to the 1860s and hallucinations of Wonderland. Ian Holm co-starred as Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll. The Gryphon was created by sculptor Ron Mueck


Now that I think of it, even various homages and references to Alice that have appeared in the media skimp on Gryphon-showing. An old Betty Boop cartoon I saw a few months ago had Betty dream of Wonderland. We see Tenniel-style characters throughout the picture, but the Gryphon appears for barely a second. In the first Batman: the Animated Series episode to feature the Mad Hatter, we see plenty of "Alice" references -- there's even a "Wonderland" theme park -- but we barely glimpse the Gryphon as the camera pans across the deserted park. It's a conspiracy, I tell you!

A Missing Chapter from

"Journey to the Center of the Earth"

A strange document coming into my possession has some rather peripheral bearing on the "Alice" discussion above. Click here to read this long-lost excerpt from the famous account by Axel Lidenbrock and Jules Verne.

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