Feature: The Man with the Magic Camera

On the northern shore of the Ohio River a mile upstream from the mouth of Little Rindle Creek, near Castor, Pennsylvania, is an area once known as “Indian Rocks.” Carved into the flat bedrock bordering the river were hundreds of petroglyphs, or rock carvings, made by ancient Indians. The carvings, numbering nearly 100, were probably created over many centuries. Because of their quality and density, prominent authorities have studied the petroglyphs, many of whom published their conclusions. Unfortunately, one day an engineer looked at the naturally shallow water of the Ohio River and said, “Dam it.” As a result, the water level has risen to the extent that the carvings are now submerged. While we will never again see the prehistoric art that was once a minor tourist attraction, we may be thankful that several people were foresighted enough to take photographs and record the dimensions of these remarkable ancient artifacts, thereby preserving the art for future scholars.1 It is not my intention to dwell on the prehistoric people who wasted their days chiseling rocks, or to make unfounded assumptions as to why they felt compelled to do so. Several publications have done that admirably and are readily available for those who suffer from insomnia. I would like to explore another area of study, one that has largely been ignored. What do the petroglyphs tell us of the wildlife living in the area at the time of their creation, circa 1200-1700 AD? Could there be previously unknown animals depicted on the rocks, awaiting discovery? Is it possible that hitherto undiscovered species were still alive many years after the last carving was finished?

The Columbian Rail, Raphus ludificabilis, undated, circa 1890. Inset: photo of corresponding petroglyph, 1928. Doyle writes that this flightless member of the rail family avoided the marshes usually favored by its kind, preferring to live near primary streams in the woods. He wrote extensively of its call, which he said was “sublime beyond compare.” From a letter Doyle wrote to Finch three weeks before his death in 1905: “When I die, dear Finch, leave me in the deepest forest. Let my bier be a moss-covered rock in the shade of the harbinger trees and implore that noble bird [columbian rail] to sing my requiem.” It is possible that this elusive bird survives, awaiting rediscovery. Collection of C. Pershing Dowd.
The Columbian Rail, Raphus ludificabilis, undated, circa 1890. Inset: photo of corresponding petroglyph, 1928. Doyle writes that this flightless member of the rail family avoided the marshes usually favored by its kind, preferring to live near primary streams in the woods. He wrote extensively of its call, which he said was “sublime beyond compare.” From a letter Doyle wrote to Finch three weeks before his death in 1905: “When I die, dear Finch, leave me in the deepest forest. Let my bier be a moss-covered rock in the shade of the harbinger trees and implore that noble bird [columbian rail] to sing my requiem.” It is possible that this elusive bird survives, awaiting rediscovery. Collection of C. Pershing Dowd.
From the first recorded mention of the Castor petroglyphs by a Frenchman in 1739, it has been assumed, naturally enough, that the animals carved onto the rocks were intended by the natives to represent the common wildlife of the area, however inexact those representations might be. I have often thought it odd that no alternative explanation has been suggested. My research, combined with a serendipitous discovery of great importance, will show that the petroglyphs were not abstract carvings made by primitive artisans. I will prove that despite their simplicity, the petroglyphs were undeniably realistic. With this discovery, made by chance, I will shine the light of factual truth on the murky interpretation of the petroglyphs and in the process, change our view of the history of the fauna of the Ohio Valley forever. It is my sincere hope that professors, intellectuals, and preachers everywhere will read the following account with open minds and consider the evidence I will shortly present. To those readers unfettered by the chains of education and religion, I will trust to your good sense.

How often are discoveries made when you least expect it! It was at the garage sale of my former friend,2 Ossifer “Ossie” Finch, of Castor, that I found, in a box of odds and ends, several doilies, which my wife collects. (Our furniture looks like it’s wearing lingerie.) I handed my friend a dollar and returned home to examine my purchase.

Peale's Gallosaur, Gallus amplus, 1889. “I observed this creature at dawn grazing near [illegible] to get an exposure before it fled into the woods. The creature resembles the common chicken in its habits, despite its lack of feathers and ruditary [rudimentary?] wings. It is said by the natives of the area that the creatures were once common. According to a Kishwaukee elder, the Great Tsataga, for that's what they call the thing, would lay eggs of enourmous [sic] size. Their rites of passage, the Indians I mean, used to include stealing an egg from the nest, something that usually resulted in the young warriors being killed, which may explain the lack of Kishwaukee Indians in the area. At one traditional nesting site near Walker's farm I saw the bones of several Indian men protruding from the ground.” Doyle Journal, collection of C. Pershing Dowd.
Peale’s Gallosaur, Gallus amplus, 1889. “I observed this creature at dawn grazing near [illegible] to get an exposure before it fled into the woods. The creature resembles the common chicken in its habits, despite its lack of feathers and ruditary [rudimentary?] wings. It is said by the natives of the area that the creatures were once common. According to a Kishwaukee elder, the Great Tsataga, for that’s what they call the thing, would lay eggs of enourmous [sic] size. Their rites of passage, the Indians I mean, used to include stealing an egg from the nest, something that usually resulted in the young warriors being killed, which may explain the lack of Kishwaukee Indians in the area. At one traditional nesting site near Walker’s farm I saw the bones of several Indian men protruding from the ground.” Doyle Journal, collection of C. Pershing Dowd.
After presenting the doilies to my wife, I was surprised to find a very old and rather large unopened envelope, addressed but never sent to William Benwood, professor of biology, Castoreum College, Castor. You cannot imagine my surprise when I opened the unsent package and the contents were revealed. Although it would take some time before I would realize its importance, it was obvious that I had stumbled upon something of great scientific value. The envelope contained two leather-bound journals filled with writing, a bundle of letters, and a group of seventeen photographs. It was the photos that arrested my attention. Taken in the late nineteenth century by a man whom the papers would later reveal as George Edward Doyle, the photos revealed species of animals previously unknown to science. Even more remarkable is the fact that each of the animals in the photographs was carved–realistically–on the rocks at Smith’s Ferry many centuries ago.

An examination of Doyle’s papers in the days that followed added details to the find that strained even my credulity. Despite the convincing manner in which Doyle’s discoveries were related in his journals and letters, had it not been for the proof of the photos I would have dismissed my find as a hoax, something of far more rarity than is commonly believed. Soon after, I resolved to learn everything I could about the mysterious man with the magic camera. My research is ongoing but I am able to present the basic outline of his life.

Glabrous Licorne, physiologus licornus, 1901. On several occasions Doyle observed this hairless mammal eating leaves, leading him to classify it as a herbivore. I believe the placement of the animal's eyes on the front of the head show indicate that it was omnivorous. This animal is presumed to be extinct. From the journal: “What a strange thing for God to create! I have seen it on several occasions running as fast as its legs would allow, its head lowered, and butting its horn into a nearby tree, for no presumed purpose than amusement. It is a ritual these creatures seem to enjoy and one that sometimes results in their death.” Collection of C. Pershing Dowd.
Glabrous Licorne, physiologus licornus, 1901. On several occasions Doyle observed this hairless mammal eating leaves, leading him to classify it as a herbivore. I believe the placement of the animal’s eyes on the front of the head show indicate that it was omnivorous. This animal is presumed to be extinct. From the journal: “What a strange thing for God to create! I have seen it on several occasions running as fast as its legs would allow, its head lowered, and butting its horn into a nearby tree, for no presumed purpose than amusement. It is a ritual these creatures seem to enjoy and one that sometimes results in their death.” Collection of C. Pershing Dowd.

George Edward Doyle was born in Beecher Falls, Essex County, VT in 1843. Little is known of his life until 1861 when he enlisted in the 3rd Vermont Infantry, Company K, along with his best friend, Groton native William Scott. At the battle of Lee’s Mills in 1862, Scott was penetrated by several projectiles, rendering him unable to continue active participation in their friendship. Soon after, Doyle formed an acquaintance with Castor native Oliver Finch (1840-1938).3 Realizing that they shared a common temperament, purpose, and outlook, they became inseparable friends and Scott was forgotten. Following their discharge in July 1865, Doyle followed Finch to western Pennsylvania, where he purchased a house in Greene Township, Castor County, seven miles from Finch’s home in Castor.4

Doyle and Finch were dedicated outdoorsmen, devoted to hunting, fishing, trapping, and pursuing the study of nature, particularly the wildlife of the valley of Little Rindle Creek, where they maintained a hunting cabin.5 Because my examination of the journals and letters is ongoing, the date of their first important discovery remains unknown. It is certain that they knew of the Columbian rail by late 1881 when Doyle wrote a recipe for “Christmas stew” featuring the bird as the main ingredient.6 It is assumed that they continued to discover new species at regular intervals through the next two decades. The last extant photograph from the collection, dated 1901, shows a pair of glabrous licornes, so it is reasonably certain that they discovered no new species after that date. Four years later, Doyle contracted the “fever.” He died several weeks later on February 16, 1905, and was buried at Old Mill Creek Cemetery, Hookstown, Pennsylvania. George Edward Doyle, a decorated Civil War veteran, a talented author and a scientist who made extraordinary discoveries, lies in an unmarked grave. His memory has been too long neglected.

Although Doyle died in 1905, Oliver Finch lived until 1938 and is remembered by Miss Helen Fetters of Sycamore Shadows, who grew up next door to Finch’s home in Castor. According to Miss Fetters, who was thirteen at the time of his death at age 98, Finch was a “kind, grizzled, bearded man” who would tell the children “stories of strange creatures and wild adventures in the company of his beloved friend, Eddie,” now known to be Doyle. Miss Fetters says that the “wild tales of Mr. Finch” caused so many nightmares that his company was forbidden by her parents, though she admits that the restriction “had the opposite effect.” Miss Fetters has also corroborated several of the stories in Doyle’s journal, saying that they were “in every essential point, identical to those as told by Mr. Finch.”7 I ask the reader, does it seem likely that Finch would be able to repeat stories from Doyle’s journals if they had not really happened?

Unfortunately, space does not permit a more detailed exposition of the treasure in my possession. I must trust to the images themselves to convince the public of their truth. Ours is a world of more complexity and mystery than we realize. Each year new truths are uncovered and accepted facts are proven false. True knowledge is unattainable. It is ever-changing and mutable. Therefore, I challenge anyone to disprove a single fact that I have presented.

Unknown creature, 1900. I can find no reference to this small biped in the journals and the photo is unmarked except for the date. Using the grave marker as a clue, I was able to identify the location of this photo as Old Mill Creek Cemetery, Hookstown, PA. Doyle would be buried at this same cemetery just a few years after this photograph was taken.
Unknown creature, 1900. I can find no reference to this small biped in the journals and the photo is unmarked except for the date. Using the grave marker as a clue, I was able to identify the location of this photo as Old Mill Creek Cemetery, Hookstown, PA. Doyle would be buried at this same cemetery just a few years after this photograph was taken.

The author would be pleased to receive comments if you would write to curlydowd@gmail.com.

1 Although I make my living as a plumber, strange and fantastic creatures are my passion.
2 If you don’t want people owning your precious family heirlooms, it’s best to know what you’re selling in a garage sale, Ossie.
3 Oliver Finch was the older brother of Daniel Tecumseh Finch, great-great-grandfather of Ossifer Finch.
4 Doyle and Finch’s letters are filled with references to women, many of which are unprintable. Both of them seem to have been roués who delighted in bawdy banter, though they would remain bachelors throughout their lives.
5 Comments in the journals suggest that their cabin was located near Island Run, a small stream that enters the Little Rindle in Pennsylvania, southwest of Castor and several miles north of the river. I have been unable to find any remains of the structure.
6 Although modern sensibilities are shocked at the thought of consuming endangered species, in the 19th century it was not uncommon to breakfast on passenger pigeons, lunch on Carolina parakeets, eat ivory-bills for dinner, and then snack on a heath hen.
7 Interview with Miss Helen Fetters, Sycamore Shadows, Ohio, conducted on October 4, 2015.

The Man with a Magic Camera: a refutation

Craig Wetzel

Since I have written several historical articles for the Review and have made the history of lower Little Rindle Creek my specific area of study, I have been permitted to present my thoughts on George Edward Doyle: the man with the magic camera, by Mr. Pershing Dowd. Due to space restraints I will ignore the author’s penchant for word-hogging redundancies such as “plant-eating herbivore,” however amusing they may be, and concentrate my remarks on the validity of his discovery. I do not wish it thought, however, that I question Mr. Dowd’s sincerity. I have known him for many years and although we are in continuous disagreement, he is incapable of dishonesty.

Mr. Dowd has generously permitted me to read the journals and letters of Doyle and I have studied the photographs. It is my conclusion that Doyle, if that was his name,8 was an accomplished writer and that the petroglyphs were simply the catalyst for an entertaining series of stories. It may be supposed that while observing the petroglyphs (they were, after all, just across the river from his home), Doyle was struck with how unlikely such creatures would appear in real life. From that thought, following the usual progression of imaginative pursuits, he would create the images and stories in question.

Mr. Dowd’s erroneous conclusion as to the truth of the material, however, does nothing to temper the delight of his discovery. Our disagreement is with its classification; we are in accord as to its importance. Mr. Dowd considers the papers of Doyle to be of scientific value; I believe their value is literary, and to a lesser extent, artistic. Written in a casual, conversational style, the journals and letters are always interesting, sometimes poignant, and unfailingly humorous. Doyle delights in the metaphor and scatters similes like a schoolboy spilling a barrel of marbles. It is my hope that Mr. Dowd will present the journals and letters to the public for what they are, loosely connected stories of literary merit.

Considering the technology of the time, the photographs of Doyle are laudable achievements. To create such images with modern technology would require considerable skill; to have achieved such verisimilitude more than a century ago is remarkable. I can almost understand Mr. Dowd’s belief in their authenticity, but since he has presented the photographs as the final “proof” of his discovery, I will forgo lengthy criticism of the pen of Doyle and direct my remarks toward his camera, specifically, the image of the “live” columbian rail.

I ask the reader to observe the photo of the rail carefully. Was there ever a living creature that looked so utterly ridiculous? He stands above a stream, wings outstretched (if one can call such absurd-looking appendages by that name), knees bent in a direction no bird knee has ever bent, with no observable tail, a body shaped like a feather-covered paper-towel tube, and all of it topped with a spheric head featuring two eyes of different size, a bill that looks like it was borrowed from a duck with a birth defect, and an oversized feather.9 No reader could believe in such a creature because no one stupid enough to believe it would be able to read, Mr. Dowd excepted. And if one did accept that such a living animal was possible, they would still need to explain how Doyle was able to convince the bird to pose for the photo, for there is no other reasonable explanation for its position. It is unnecessary to comment any further on the existence of such a bird. It is a delightful impossibility, based on a real petroglyph, created in the mind of Doyle and skillfully fashioned with his hands and camera.

Doyle’s journals, it must be admitted, show a penchant for both detail and consistency, and the letters corroborate the facts of the journals without obvious error.10 Doyle (and perhaps Finch as well, for I am uncertain as to the extent of their collaboration) was obviously a man who knew the importance of detail in making the extraordinary believable. Indeed, it would take months of research, a task I am not willing to undertake, to systematically investigate the papers of Doyle for whatever inconsistencies they must contain.

Towards the end of his remarks, Mr. Dowd asks, “does it seem likely that Finch would be able to repeat stories from Doyle’s journals if they had not really happened?” It is indicative of his naiveté that he would offer such an absurd statement as proof. By his own admission, the papers of Doyle were found in the possession of a descendant of Oliver Finch. The obvious conclusion, though not the only possibility, is that Doyle gave Finch his papers before his death or that Finch obtained them afterward. In the end, any further refutation on my part would only reaffirm what I already know, and what I trust the reader knows as well, that the “scientific” discovery of Mr. Dowd is a literary accomplishment worthy of recognition and worthy of study, but unworthy of belief.

Truth is neither ever-changing or mutable, Mr. Dowd. It is constant and it is attainable. Perhaps if you will dedicate yourself to its pursuit and forgo spending your days in search of imaginary specters, Bigfoot, mermaids, and the creatures of George Edward Doyle, you may one day, in your own blundering way, find it.

8 Neither the 1880 or 1900 Beaver County census lists a George Doyle. It would be interesting to see if there is confirmation of his existence in Beaver County land and Orphan’s Court records.

9 Perhaps the lone feather indicates it was in breeding plumage at the time of the photo?

10 All of the extant letters are from Doyle to Finch. It is likely Finch saved them and added them to the collection at some time.

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