1874: Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar
In 1874, a letter written by a German traveler named Karl Leche was published in journals, magazines, and newspapers in the United States and Europe in which he described a most unusual plant: a man-eating tree!
According to his letter, Leche was traveling in Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, to find and catalog unusual plants. A local man named Hendrick, whom Leche had a hired as a combination of guide and assistant, advised Leche to visit a secluded section of the island that was rumored to be inhabited by cannibals... Hendrick was friends with the tribe, named the Mkodos, and insisted their reputation was false and that the valley they lived in had many strange plants indeed. Leche, intrigued, agreed to go to the valley with Hendrick. After many days travel to the isolated valley, the Mkodos led Leche and Hendrick deep into a swampy forest in the valley, to a clearing that contained the most unusual tree the botanist had ever seen.
Illustration by Garth Haslam (larger version here)
Leche described the tree as having a trunk like an eight-foot-tall pineapple, colored a dark brown, and as hard as iron. From the top of this trunk hung eight gigantic and stiff leaves, "like doors swung back on their hinges." These were around twelve feet long, closely resembling the leaves of the American agave, or century plant, and were three feet wide at the widest, and two feet thick at their thickest. The upper surface of the leaves were lined with tiny hooks, and these leaves were tipped off by a sharp point like a cow's horn. The top of the tree's trunk, in the area where the eight leaves all met, had a white bowl shape structure that was filled with a sweet smelling liquid. Eight foot long hairy green tendrils stuck out stiffly in all directions from the base of this bowl, and six white tendrils also sprouted from the base of the bowl, and actively waved in the air above it like snakes.
Leche's first observation of the tree was then interrupted by the Mkodos... at spear-point, they forced a young woman to climb up the tree and drink some of the fluid from the bowl. She immediately went into a stupor as the white tendrils grabbed her, and the hairy green tendrils slowly wrapped around her, squeezing the life from the woman. Finally, the great hooked leaves rose up and shut upon her like a vise, and soon both gore and sap was dribbling down the trunk of the tree. At the sight of this, the Mkodos all leaped forward, catching the vile fluid in a variety of containers, or just plain sucking it off the tree directly... soon, they were all in a horrible state of drunken bawdiness, and Leche and Hendrick quickly left the scene.
Over the next ten days, Leche kept checking back on the tree... on the tenth day it had re-opened, and a new white skull lay at its base. Leche then explained that he spent a total of twenty-one days exploring the area, and examined six different specimens of the tree, though none of the others were as large as the one worshipped by the Mkodos. To give an idea of how fast the trees' ability to grab prey was, Leche described how he saw a playful lemur that came too close to a smaller such plant being seized, crushed, and wrapped while it was trying to see what the explorer himself was doing.
The Island is Searched
Leche's 1874 letter was printed in whole or partially in newspapers and magazines all over the world for decades as proof of the existence of the deadly tree. In 1924, Chase Salmon Osborn, a former Governor of the state of Michigan in the United States, published a book entitled Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree. Osborn explored all across the island of Madagascar to find the killer tree. Everywhere he went, local people knew of the plant and told him stories of it; he even ran across some local missionaries that had come to believe the plant must exist... but no one could actually show him one. Nevertheless, Osborn remained convinced of the tree's existence.
But Osborn likely didn't know that the earliest account of the deadly tree was published in the notorious newspaper, the New York World. The World was known for publishing sensational stories that were not always true, simply to attract readers... and the story of the man-eating tree is said to have been written by one of their best authors, Edmund Spencer.
Whether or not Mr. Spencer is the original author of the tale, basic facts dictate the falseness of it. Simply put: there is no evidence that either Carl Leche, or the botanist that he supposedly wrote his letter to (who theoretically passed it on to the press), ever existed. Secondly, no one has ever found a tribe on Madagascar called the Mkodos. Finally, in the hundred plus years since Leche's letter was published, no one has found any proof a man-eating tree is anywhere on the island of Madagascar... so this is one monster that probably never existed.