Werewolf Wednesday: Elliott O’Donnell Visits Santa Claus (1912)

The sixth chapter of Elliott O’Donnell’s 1912 book Werwolves discusses lycanthropy in the British Isles, and the opening turns out to be unusually well-sourced by the standards of the book. After reminding us that Britain once had a wolf population, O’Donnell cites a medeival manuscript (Ms. Bodl 546, to be precise) quoted by the scholar James Halliwell-Phillipps:

Ther ben somme that eten chyldren and men, and eteth noon other flesh fro that tyme that thei be a-charmed with mannys flesh for rather thei wolde be deed; and thei be cleped werewolfes for men shulde be war of them.

His next source is the thirteenth-century Otia Imperiala:

Vidimus enim frequenter in Anglia per lunationes homines in lupos mutari, quod hominum genus gerulphos Galli nominant, Angli vero were-wulf dicunt.

The English translation, which O’Donnell neglects to include, is as follows:

For we have often in England changed men into wolves by lunations, because the Gauls call the race of men gerulphus, but the English say they were-wulf.

The next excerpt is from Richard Verstegan’s “Restitution of Decayed Intelligence” (1605):

The were-wolves are certain sorcerers who having anointed their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certain enchanted girdle, do not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle; and they do dispose themselves as very wolves in worrying and killing, and eating most of human creatures.

So far, so good — but after this, O’Donnell returns to his own rather dubious line of work, namely “my investigations of haunted houses and my psychical research work generally”. The first anecdote he shares was allegedly given to him by a Miss St. Denis; while visiting a train station in Merionethshire, she allegedly saw a figure that sat on a truck, with “unpleasantly bright eyes” and “something queer about it”. Returning to the farm where she was staying, she found herself pursued by the figure; when she turned to confront it, she met a fearsome sight:

Screwing up courage, she swung round, and, raising herself to her full height, cried: “What do you want? How dare you?”—She got no further, for a sudden spurt of dying sunlight, playing over the figure, showed her it was nothing human, nothing she had ever conceived possible. It was a nude grey thing, not unlike a man in body, but with a wolf’s head. As it sprang forward, its light eyes ablaze with ferocity, she instinctively felt in her pocket, whipped out a pocket flash-light, and pressed the button. The effect was magical; the creature shrank back, and putting two paw-like hands in front of its face to protect its eyes, faded into nothingness.

She subsequently made inquiries, but could learn nothing beyond the fact that, in one of the quarries close to the place where the phantasm had vanished, some curious bones, partly human and partly animal, had been unearthed, and that the locality was always shunned after dusk. Miss St. Denis thought as I did, that what she had seen might very well have been the earth-bound spirit of a werwolf.

The theme of ghostly werewolves turns out to dominate O’Donnell’s coverage of British lycanthropy. The next story is that of Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, who moved to a house in rural Cumberland only to be troubled by nocturnal sounds like the howling and growling of wolves, along with animalistic footsteps going up and down stairs. Meanwhile, Christmas is coming, and the children’s minds are occupied by a very different nighttime visitor – jolly old St. Nick:

“Wait and see!” Mr. Anderson meekly replied. “You mark my words, he will come into your room on Christmas Eve laden with presents.”

“I don’t believe it!” Willie retorted. “You told us that silly tale last year and I never saw any Claus!”

“He came when you were asleep, dearie,” Mrs. Anderson ventured to remark.

“Well! I’ll keep awake this time!” Willie shouted.

“And we’ll take the presents first and pinch [100]old Claus afterwards,” Violet Evelyn, the second child, joined in.

“And I’ll prick his towsers wif pins!” Horace, aged three and a half, echoed. “I don’t care nothink for old Santa Claus!” and he pulled a long nose in the manner his doting father had taught him.

On the night of Christmas Eve, Mr. Anderson dresses up as Santa and prepares a sack of presents. He is disturbed, however, to hear the sound of yelping, followed by “a moaning, snarling, drawn-out cry that ended in a whine so piercing that Mr. Anderson’s knees shook”. The children then receive a visit not only from Santa Claus, but also from a werewolf:

Santa Claus, striving hard to appear jolly and genial, entered the room, and a huge grey, shadowy figure entered with him. A slipper thrown by Willie whizzed through the air, and, narrowly missing Santa Claus, fell to the ground with a clatter. There was then a deathly silence, and Violet and Horace, raising their heads, saw two strange figures standing in the centre of the room staring at one another—the one figure they at once identified by the costume. He was Santa Claus—but not the genial, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus their father had depicted. On the contrary, it was a Santa Claus with a very white face and frightened eyes—a Santa Claus that shook as if the snow and ice had given him the ague. But the other figure—what was it? Something very tall, far taller than their father, nude and grey, something like a man with the head of a wolf—a wolf with white pointed teeth and horrid, light eyes.

The tense moment concludes with the arrival of Mrs. Anderson: “As the light from her candle appeared on the threshold of the room the thing with the wolf’s head vanished.” They subsequently decide to sell the house, which turns out to have a macabre secret:

Before leaving, however, Mr. Anderson made another and more exhaustive search of the grounds, and discovered, in a cave in the hills immediately behind the house, a number of bones. Amongst them was the skull of a wolf, and lying close beside it a human skeleton, with only the skull missing. Mr. Anderson burnt the bones, hoping that by so doing he would rid the house of its unwelcome visitor; and, as his tenants so far have not complained, he believes that the hauntings have actually ceased.

O’Donnell’s next account is very brief:

A lady whom I met at Tavistock some years ago told me that she had seen a phantasm, which she believed to be that of a werwolf, in the Valley of the Doones, Exmoor. She was walking home alone, late one evening, when she saw on the path directly in front of her the tall grey figure of a man with a wolf’s head. Advancing stealthily forward, this creature was preparing to spring on a large rabbit that was crouching on the ground, apparently too terror-stricken to move, when the abrupt appearance of a stag bursting through the bushes in a wild state of stampede caused it to vanish. Prior to this occurrence, my informant had never seen a ghost, nor had she, indeed, believed in them; but now, she assures me, she is quite convinced as to their existence, and is of the opinion that the sub-human phenomenon she had witnessed was the spirit of one of those werwolves referred to by Gervase of Tilbury and Richard Verstegan—werwolves who were still earthbound owing to their incorrigible ferocity.

After this comes a first-person account attributed to one Mr. Warren, who claims to have witnessed another wolf/human skeleton while staying with his grandfather in the Hebrides:

One morning he came home in a great state of excitement, and made me go with him to look at some ancient remains he had found at the bottom of a dried-up tarn. ‘Look!’ he cried, bending down and pointing at them, ‘here is a human skeleton with a wolf’s head. What do you make of it?’ I told him I did not know, but supposed it must be some kind of monstrosity. ‘It’s a werwolf!’ he rejoined, ‘that’s what it is. A werwolf! This island was once overrun with satyrs and werwolves! Help me carry it to the house.’ I did as he bid me, and we placed it on the table in the back kitchen

When alone in the house, young Warren saw a lycanthropic apparition:

I was thus waiting in a listless sort of way, my back bent, my elbows on my knees, looking at the floor and thinking of nothing in particular, when there came a loud rat, tat, tat of knuckles on the window-pane. I immediately turned in the direction of the noise and encountered, to my alarm, a dark face looking in at me. At first dim and indistinct, it became more and more complete, until it developed into a very perfectly defined head of a wolf terminating in the neck of a human being. Though greatly shocked, my first act was to look in every direction for a possible reflection—but in vain. There was no light either without or within, other than that from the setting sun—nothing that could in any way have produced an illusion.

I looked at the face and marked each feature intently. It was unmistakably a wolf’s face, the jaws slightly distended; the lips wreathed in a savage snarl; the teeth sharp and white; the eyes light green; the ears pointed. The expression of the face was diabolically malignant, and as it gazed straight at me my horror was as intense as my wonder. This it [107]seemed to notice, for a look of savage exultation crept into its eyes, and it raised one hand—a slender hand, like that of a woman, though with prodigiously long and curved finger-nails—menacingly, as if about to dash in the window-pane. Remembering what my grandfather had told me about evil spirits, I crossed myself; but as this had no effect, and I really feared the thing would get at me, I ran out of the kitchen and shut and locked the door, remaining in the hall till the family returned. My grandfather was much upset when I told him what  had happened, and attributed my failure to make the spirit depart to my want of faith.

The bones were then re-interred, and the phenomena presumably ceased. O’Donnell’s next account is another brief affair:

In a village at the foot of Ben MacDhui a shepherd of the name of Colin Graeme informed me that he remembered hearing his grandfather, who died at the age of ninety, speak of an old man called Tam McPherson whom he—the grandfather—had known intimately as a boy. This old man, so Colin’s grandfather said, had perfect recollections of a man in the village called Saunderson being suspected of being a werwolf. He used to describe Saunderson as “a mon with evil, leerie eyes, and eyebrows that met in a point over his nose”; and went on to say that Saunderson lived in a cave in the mountains where his forefathers, also suspected of being werwolves, had lived before him, and that when on his—Saunderson’s—death this cave was visited by some of the villagers, a quantity of queer bones—some human and some belonging to wolves—were discovered lying in corners, partially covered with stones and loose earth. I have heard similar stories in Wales, and have been conducted to one or two spots, one near Iremadac and the other on the Epynt Hills, where, local tradition still has it, werwolves once flourished.

Rounding off the chapter, O’Donnell cites the legend that St. Patrick turned the Welsh king Vereticus into a wolf; an unspecified story in which “the werwolf daughter of a Welsh prince was said to have destroyed her father’s enemies during her nocturnal metamorphoses”, and finally, a similarly vague Irish legend alleging that “at least some half-dozen of the old families that at some period—as the result of a curse—each member of the clan was doomed to be a wolf for seven years.”

The allegedly true accounts collated by Elliott O’Donnell are as questionable as ever, but for this chapter, he at least deserves credit for pulling together some citations of actual werewolf folklore.

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