Contributed by Emily Hurley
One day while I was working in the basement of the Peabody, plugging away at inventorying drawers, I was listening to a podcast called Astonishing Legends. It was an episode titled “The Tall Ones” exploring the legends and lore surrounding giants around the world. It came as a surprise when I heard the hosts say the name W.K. Moorehead! My ears instantly pricked up.
The podcast hosts went on to cite a New York Times article written on July 14, 1916 under the headline “Find Horned Men’s Skulls: Remarkable Discovery by Archaeologists in the Susquehanna Valley”. The short article stated that Professor A.B. Skinner of the American Indian Museum, Rev. George Donehoo, Pennsylvania State Historian, and Professor W.K. Moorehead of the Phillips Andover Academy uncovered a burial mound at the Murray Farm site while conducting research at Tioga Point in the Susquehanna Valley. In the mound, they uncovered the remains of sixty-eight men, believed to have been buried around the year 1200 AD. According to the article, the average height of these men was seven feet, with many being even taller. Also found with the remains were very large stone celts and axes, further evidence of the men’s gigantic size. Perhaps most interesting of all, some of the skulls had two inch bone protuberances on their foreheads. Well, this was something to explore!
Looking through historical texts and documents, it is clear that giants have been a topic of interest for centuries. Not only are they mentioned in the Biblical story of David and Goliath, but in fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, and the legend of Paul Bunyan. One pervasive theory about giants is that they are actually Nephilim (also from the Bible), the offspring of an angel and a human. Even some historical figures such as Gilgamesh are thought by some to have been giants.
Many newspaper articles from across the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claim to have found giant skeletons. Some accounts even call them a lost race of giant people, but many others hypothesize that they were giant Native Americans. An eight foot tall Native American skeleton was said to be found in Towanda, Pennsylvania in 1822. A headline from The World newspaper on October 6, 1895, read “Biggest Giant Ever Known-Nine Feet High and Probably a Prehistoric California Indian.” Some, like the Cardiff Giant, which was actually a buried stone statue, were proven to be hoaxes. Yet the stories still remain popular. Even Captain John Smith, in his account of meeting the Susquehanncocks in 1608, described them as giant-like. But were there really giants roaming this land before us? Or horned giants for that matter?
After some further digging, it was discovered that the “horned giants” found by Moorehead and others at Murray Farm were not horned at all, nor were they giants. Professor Skinner wrote a corrected article for the New York Times but it was not as publicized as the original, so it is harder to find. Apparently while excavating the site, a workman shouted out “There are horns over his head!”, after discovering a bundle burial which had been covered with deer antlers. An excited visitor or reporter at the site heard this and asked another workman, who decided to play a joke and claim that the skeletons had horns growing out of their heads. Another version says that a disgruntled camp cook made up the story.
This explains the story about the horns, but what about the supposed enormous height of these individuals and the other accounts of giants found nearby? It is thought that these skeletons, as well as accounts of living “giant” Susquehannocks, were not giant at all, but just taller than average. At the time, the average height of most Europeans was about five feet six inches tall, whereas Native Americans were thought to average about six feet tall. While six inches is not that big of a difference, anyone taller than six feet may seem like a giant to the generally shorter Europeans.
Another reason for the discovery of “giant” skeletons is that these bones were often misidentified as human when they actually belonged to extinct animal species. It may seem far-fetched that anyone could misidentify a mammoth bone as that of a human, but other than the skull, human bones actually look very much like animal bones. So to someone not trained in osteology, a very large rib bone may seem like it is from a human skeleton. Many skeletal remains have been innocently misidentified this way, not only as giants, but as monsters or “Titans” as well.
Over time it seems that this giant narrative of Native Americans by Europeans was exaggerated and, coupled with misidentified animal bones, resulted in the discovery of “giant skeletons.” However, these so-called giant skeletons always seem to mysteriously disappear after being excavated, leading many to believe that they either never existed, were misidentified animal bones, or it was actually just a taller than average person.
After hearing the podcast, I did some digging of my own through Moorehead’s records, just in case I could find anything related to the “horned giants”. I found many documents related to the Susquehanna Valley expedition as well as correspondences between Moorehead, Skinner, and Donehoo. None of these documents ever mentioned the “horned giants” or the article written in the New York Times. I did find a picture of Professor Skinner holding a perfectly normal looking skull with no protuberances while at Murray Farm. Moorehead also wrote a short report of the excavation, and again, no mention of giants was found.
Even though the horned giants of Pennsylvania turned out to be nothing more than a tall tale (pun intended), it was fun to hear a story about Moorehead on one of my new favorite podcasts! I wonder what interesting stories I’ll uncover next!
P.S. For further reading on giants and other archaeological myths, check out Kenneth Feder’s book titled Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries!