Elliott O’Donnell claimed to have personally encountered a multitude of bizarre entities. But was the being he saw in an Oregon forest a genuine Bigfoot, asks guest writer ROB MILNE
Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965) was arguably Britain’s first independent Ghost Hunter, an accolade won during the course of a writing career that produced dozens of books as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.
While august bodies like the Society for Psychical Research examined alleged hauntings through the lens of scientific research, he blazed his own trail, categorising such phenomena like a lepidopterist naming new species of butterflies, and treating his readers to a veritable menagerie of psychic grotesques which would have been at home in the pages of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.
As a young man, he claimed to have had an encountered such an aberration in the deep Oregon forests, an encounter which has eerie parallels with many documented ‘Bigfoot’ encounters over the last Century.
In 1894, a young naive O’Donnell, his star not yet risen, sailed from England to America, ostensibly to become a peach farmer in Oregon’s Jackson County.
From the start, the enterprise was doomed to failure. A national rail-strike, affecting the whole of the United States, kicked off while he was still at sea, and apparently unaware of the unfolding situation, despite the rapid spread of news allowed by the new Transatlantic Telegraph cable.
Weeks of disaster
After disembarking in New York, O’Donnell found himself stranded for days before a train was available due to the strike.
What should have been a straightforward, albeit arduous, journey to Oregon became a picaresque odyssey where he was robbed, shot at, suffered debilitating illness and was stranded for what seemed an eternity while the strike raged on. Commentators have stated that O’Donnell worked as a strike-breaker in Chicago at the time.
But, given the brevity of his stay in America and the timescale of the strike, this must be dismissed as being highly unlikely.
Similar canards have been perpetuated over the years, such as him working as a cowboy or a Pinkerton agent, and are equally ridiculous.
At last, after weeks of disaster and the brutal suppression of the strike O’Donnell arrived at Storey’s Ranch in Jackson County, Oregon, close to the Rogue River where, until recently, the indigenous tribes had been locked in bloody warfare with incoming settlers.
Despite the area’s reputation for bountiful harvests, there were no peaches to be gathered on his arrival, possibly he had come too late. He was obliged to take employment as a bunkhouse cook though he struggled at the simplest tasks, unable to even boil potatoes.
Neither was he an accomplished rider although he was sent out on horseback on numerous errands, becoming lost in the surrounding forests on more than one occasion. It was during one such mishap that the event in question occurred.
The face of a devil
For some unspecified purpose, O’Donnell was riding through the vast Autumnal wilderness of trees around Storey’s and struggling to remain mounted.
As he approached a massive dead tree, his horse began to shy and refused to proceed.
O’Donnell saw something among the tangled roots which he assumed was another stump until it began stir, something which he later described as part-human and part-animal.
The ‘thing’ was huge and hairy, it had the face of a devil and its gaze revealed the “most intense animosity”.
As it rose to its full height of over seven feet, O’Donnell’s horse bolted in terror. Equally terrified and barely able to stay in the saddle, he did nothing to impede his mount’s hasty departure.
Daring a backward glance, he could see the thing’s continuing hostile regard until he rode out of its sight. He would later confess that he had been “considerably shaken” but was convinced that the being was some kind of ghost, rather than a thing of flesh and blood.
O’Donnell is generally regarded as being far from reluctant when it came to embellishing his adventures but the tale has curious echoes with many classic Bigfoot/Sasquatch encounters as described by hundreds of alleged witnesses to this day.
Interestingly, that part of Oregon was, and still is, regarded as a ‘hotspot’ for Bigfoot sightings. A bigfoot trap, constructed in 1970, still stands among the trees not too far from where O’Donnell had his scare.
Rampage of destruction
Even more curiously, a newspaper report from the same locality in 1894, a few months before O’Donnell’s arrival, relates how a group of miners suffered from the unwanted attentions of a similar beast.
The Lane County Leader of 17 April tells us that “many of the miners avow that the Wildman is a reality. They say he is something of a fashion after a gorilla and unlike anything else in appearance or action. He is about seven feet high, has broad hands and feet, and his body is covered by a prolific growth of hair. In short, he looks like the very devil”.
The ‘wildman’ had treated the frightened miners, not generally known for timidity, to a rampage of attrition, terror and destruction for several weeks before disappearing as quickly as it came.
Other newspaper articles of the day repeated similar encounters in the trackless forests and many of the indigenous people claimed that the hirsute giant had a fondness for human flesh.
Did O’Donnell have access to these accounts and merely add them to his burgeoning catalogue of horrors, or was this a genuine experience? If the latter, he may well have had a lucky escape.
Not long after this, he was forced to return, almost destitute, to England, claiming that the trip was “the most unhappy and calamitous experience of my whole career”.
Perhaps he should have consoled himself with the fact that he had not provided an impromptu snack for some cannibalistic troglodyte and the possibility of better days to come.
ROB MILNE is a Masters Graduate. When not teaching Creative Writing or researching historical and contemporary occultism and the supernatural, he can be found in the company of trees, bees and cats. He lives in the North-East of Scotland.