January 22, 2010

OLD SLIPPERYSKIN: Vermont's First Horror

Vermont town histories are full of run-ins with some very odd critters. The story I’m about to share comes from up around Morgan, Maidstone, Lemington, and Victory -- the Northeast Kingdom before it was called "The Northeast Kingdom". This story begins in the late 1700s and early 1800s. . .

The antagonist is a fearsome animal oddity then known as "Old Slipperyskin." The creature was said to resemble a huge bear, but -- unlike any known bear -- it always walked upright, like a man. It was said to have a mean dis­position, and sometimes sought revenge against individuals who had offended it. For example, it might fill their sap buckets with stones, trip their traps, or jump out and scare their children.

Sometimes, just for fun, it destroyed fences, tore up gardens, frightened livestock, or flattened cornfields.

Then it had a way of disappearing, some guessed by carefully backtracking in its own prints, leaving a trail that ended abruptly and mysteriously.

In her History of Lemington, Vermont, Marion M. Daley writes: "The settlers came to refer to the bear as 'Slippery-skin' for the reason that he managed to elude every trap that was set for him... Before a hunter could lay his gunsights on him, the old bear would vanish into the woods silent and swift as a drift of smoke.... For maliciousness and cunning, it was claimed he could never be compared, except to humans. He seemed to enjoy himself immensely, frightening people and live­stock, kicking over manure piles and throwing stones into machinery left in fields. Where the old bear came from -- and why he eventually disappeared entirely -- is a mystery."

Around 1815, Vermont Governor Jonas Galusha promised to get rid of Old Slipperyskin once and for all. Known as an excellent hunter, the governor entered the Maidstone woods where the beast had last been seen.

Exactly how he had obtained it is a mystery in itself, but the Governor is said to have covered himself with the scent of female bear. Then, rifle in hand, he stalked the pesky critter alone.

Shortly -- with Old Slipperyskin in hot pursuit -- the governor came whooping and bellowing back into camp screaming, "Outta my way boys, I'm bringin' him back alive!"

The hunters scattered and no one thought to shoot.

Some people may think of Governor Galusha as Vermont's very first "Spin Doctor."

Anyway, this story -- hovering between tall tale and historical hyperbole -- has enormous charm, so it's easy to overlook the fact that today we have no idea what Old Slipperyskin actually was.

The core facts seem to be these: it resembled a bear but walked like a man; it was apparently miffed because people were starting to intrude on what for centuries had been its own private domain; it was vindictive, occasionally hostile and -- so it would seem -- highly intelli­gent.

But the real identity of Old Slipperyskin may not be lost in leg­end because... sightings of this hairy enigma continue to this very day. Not long ago people were seeing him as far south as Bennington.

On Friday, September 26, 2003, the Bennington Banner reported that a 45 year old Winooski man named Ray Dufresne dropped his daughter off at Southern Vermont College in Bennington and headed home.

On route 7, in the area near Glastonbury Mountain, he saw a giant, a “big, black thing” walking near the road. He said, "It was hairy from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet."

He said the creature had very long arms covered with long black hair.

His first reaction was that it was a joke – someone dressed in a gorilla suit. But there were no cars or houses in that remote location, and anyone playing such a joke would be taking a big chance: lots of people in that rural area carry guns.

Mr. Dufresne is a life-long hunter and says he knows a black bear or a moose when he sees one. This “creature” – he says -- was something else.

A descendent of Old Slipperyskin, perhaps?

Today we have another name for Old Slipperyskin. We call him Bigfoot. Two other people reported seeing him near the spot where Mr. Dufresne had his sighting.

And over the years this classic “monster” has been seen many times in the woods and wilds of Weird, Vermont .

And this is where I'll stop.

Please keep in mind that just by listening to these stories you are helping to keep them alive. The ones I’ve read you tonight have all become classics. Each is a fragment of Vermont’s ongoing character and spirit.

Should you believe them?

Well, I’d like to close with a quote from Charles Fort, one of the first and most influential collectors of anomalous phenomena. He said, “I cannot say that truth is stranger than fiction because I have never had acquaintance with either.”

So in conclusion, what are we to make of all this? Apparently Old Slipperyskin was either this. . .

...or possibly THIS!
. . .or maybe somehing else. . .

NOTE: The final two illustrations are by Stephen R/Bissette, used with permission. They are from our book, The Vermont Monster Guide.