1874: Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar

Man-Eating Tree!
[Larger version here]

In 1874, a letter written by a German traveler named Karl Leche was published in journals, magazines, and newspapers across the United States and Europe in which Leche 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.

        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 shaped 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 the tree 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 poor 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... and 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 be 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 and in part 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. 

        Osborn likely didn't know that Karl Leche's letter was first published in the newspaper called the New York World, which claimed to be reprinting the letter from "the last number of Graefe and Walther's Magazine, published at Carlsruhe." According to the World, the letter was said to have been sent to the magazine by a Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky, "whose deep research in vegetable physiology has had so many important results", and who had originally received the letter from Leche. Friedlowsky, presumably, was so excited by the discovery that he asked the magazine to publish the letter in full.

        But the reference made to 'Graefe and Walther's Magazine' by the World would seem to indicate that the origin of the letter was the German publication Graefe und Walther's Journal der Chirurgie und Augenheilkunde... "Graefe and Walther's Journal of Surgery and Ophthalmology," a very strange place for two botanists to share news of a new plant discovery! Exhaustive searches have been done over the years by many interested parties, but there is simply no evidence that Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky or Karl Leche ever existed. Nor was there ever a tribe on the island of Madagascar called the Mkodos.

        The New York World was known to publish sensational stories that were not always true, simply to attract readers... and the story of the man-eating tree was written by one of their best (and most creative) authors, Edmund Spencer. In 1888, two years after Spencer's death, he and his creation were described thus in the magazine Current Literature:

"While Mr. Spencer was connected with that paper [the New York World] he wrote a number of stories, all being remarkable for their appearance of truth, the extraordinary imagination displayed, and for their somber tone. Mr. Spencer was a master of the horrible, some of his stories approaching closely to those of Poe in this regard. Like many clever men his best work is hidden in the files of the daily press. This particular story of the Crinoida Dajeeana, the Devil Tree of Madagascar, was copied far and wide, and caused many a hunt for the works of Dr. Friedlowsky. It was written as the result of a talk with some friends, during which Mr. Spencer maintained that all that was necessary to produce a sensation of horror in the reader was to greatly exaggerate some well-known and perhaps beautiful thing. He then stated that he would show what could be done with the sensitive plant when this method of treatment was applied to it. The devil-tree is, after all, only a monstrous variety of the 'Venus fly trap,' so common in North Carolina."

Despite this rather public denoucement of the origin of the Man-Eating Tree, general public belief in the story continued on... as shown by Chase Salmon Osborn's attempt to find a specimen of the deadly plant thirty-six years after the above paragraph was published!