The ‘Horned Giants’ of Pennsylvania

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!

Workers at the Murray Farm excavation. Photograph taken by Rev. George Donehoo, 1916.

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.

Workers at the Murray Farm excavation, along with visitors who came to see the exciting finds. Photograph by Rev. George Donehoo, 1916.

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.

Warren K. Moorehead (far right) and others in the Susquehanna Valley. Photograph taken by George Donehoo, 1916.

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!

“…and his spirit still lives”

Contributed by Marla Taylor

October is one of my favorite times of the year.  I love the changing leaves here in New England, the crisp air, and seeing all the creative Halloween costumes that people come up with.  This is also a time for sharing spooky stories and strange experiences…

Have you ever noticed this plaque at the Peabody?

This plaque is next to the front door of the Peabody Institute

Warren K. Moorehead (1866-1939) was the first curator and second director of the Peabody Institute (then known as the Department of Archaeology).  If you don’t know anything about him and his relationship with the Peabody, just try searching ‘Moorehead’ on our blog.  I’ll wait. 

Moorehead was definitely a strong personality.  And I, personally, think some part of his spirit does still live at the Peabody. 

Several years ago, there were a series of strange disturbances that were happening at the Peabody.  I don’t have the space to tell you everything, but here are a couple that I personally experienced:

One morning, Lindsay and I were the first staff in the building and let ourselves into the basement office space.  Sprawled across the floor by our kitchen area were paper plates, a glass shelf (an extra for the fridge), and various other little things that had been on top of the microwave.  These things could NOT have fallen like this on their own – it looked like something had swiped its arm and pushed everything onto the floor.  Lindsay and I had been the last ones out and were now the first ones in.  We immediately photographed what we saw (I am so sorry that I can’t find that photo!) and did some follow-up.  No motion alarm had gone off all night and our pest management company found no evidence of an animal.

Another time, a couple years ago, I was talking to work duty students and explaining that Moorehead used to exchange or give away artifacts that I really wish had stayed in our collection.  Just as I was mid-sentence in a rebuke of his cavalier behavior, a photographic portrait of him fell from the wall and smashed its frame.  This portrait had been hanging in the same spot for my entire tenure at the Peabody (at that point, about 10 years) and had never fallen before.  The students and I exchanged shocked looks and I quickly apologized to Moorehead for bad-mouthing him.

Moorehead (he is the one standing) now rests on the floor. Although this was printed for an old exhibition, I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of the photo.

Shortly after these incidents, Ryan wrote a note to Moorehead explaining that we were taking care of the building and the collections and that we respected and appreciated him.  Ryan slid the note behind the plaque by the front door and the strange occurrences stopped.

I am not big believer in the supernatural, but I do think Moorehead’s spirit does reside in the Peabody in some form.  In my opinion, he is a pretty benign ghost who just wants to ensure that the collection and the building are getting their proper respect and care – I strive to meet his standards.

What’s Behind the Mask? Exploring the Many Faces of the Peabody’s Mask Collection

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

As Halloween draws near and the October chill finally takes hold, I enjoy getting into the Halloween spirit with either a frightening book or movie. Recently, I have taken an interest in a Netflix show called, The Haunting of Bly Manor. It is the follow-up series to The Haunting of Hill House and the second entry in The Haunting series. This series is loosely based on Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw (for any avid readers out there.)

As I watch each episode of Bly Manor (no spoilers here!), a “hidden” ghost has captured my attention. A figure with a beaked mask lurks in the shadows in the background of several scenes, most of the time not moving, but watching and hiding. Something so obscure has had such a profound impact that I find myself continuing to search the background of every scene in each episode I watch. A significant part of this obscurity is the ghost’s mask. The mask itself disguises the true identity of the character, but its design reveals a significant clue – the ghost was a plague doctor.

Suddenly, I had so many questions – Who is behind the mask? What is their story? What role will this “ghost” play as we unravel the terrifying history of Bly Manor? So many questions and predictions I began to make, yet, one thing became clear – I was going to write a Peabody blog on masks! 😃

The history of the mask is extensive and has changed across time and space. The Halloween tradition began as an old Celtic, pagan celebration (known as Samhain) marking the end of summer and the coming of winter. It was believed on this night that the veil between the world of the living and the dead diminished enough to allow ghosts to cross over and wreak havoc on the living world. To avoid and drive away these spirits, it was custom to wear masks and costumes. People would wear masks before leaving their homes at night so that ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Other masks were designed to scare away spirits and protect people’s homes and identities.

During the Renaissance, the Halloween mask became popular in masquerade balls. They were not scary, but beautiful and extravagant. However, instead of scaring away spirits, these masks disguised the identities of the upper class giving them the ability to take part in activities society typically frowned upon.

Today, for many Halloween-goers, masks and costumes take on various designs that are scary or inspired by characters, historic figures, or pop culture. No longer a means to ward off unwanted hauntings from ghosts, Halloween masks are still used as a disguise and give trick-or-treaters a new identity for one night each year.

For more history on Halloween and Halloween masks click here and here!

There are so many “faces” in our world’s mask history. There are “death” or “funeral” masks like those used in Ancient Egypt. Masks to show expression for plays in Ancient Greece. Some masks were designed for war, celebrations, and dances. We also now, more than ever, see the presence of masks in our world today. There are masks used in rituals and ceremonies by many cultures around the world. In pop culture, there are masked characters in movies such as Darth Vadar, Zorro, and Scream. There are masks in music such as Daft Punk, Kiss, and celebrity talent shows like The Masked Singer. There are functional masks used for work (welding masks) or protection (sport masks.) And most popular of all, we see face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we have come to realize, masks cannot be easily defined to one category or function, but they all have a purpose and cultural meaning behind them.

Click here for an interesting infographic and cultural guide to the history of masks.

The Peabody has a fascinating collection of masks and I would like to share some with you! These masks are primarily from Mexico and Guatemala. All the masks are hand-painted with some masks including other materials such as fabric, mirrors, glass, horse hair, and animal teeth. Some of these masks were created to specifically scare evil spirits in cultural rituals, so some of these masks may appear scary or have an eerie appearance to them, which is their intended purpose.

Deer mask from Guatemala

The first mask is from Guatemala and depicts a deer with silver painted antlers and a fabric headdress with attached mirrors. If you look closely you can see bottle caps strung between the deer’s antlers.

Wood and polychrome paint, shaman’s mask

This wood mask is a shaman’s mask from Mexico, carved and painted with polychrome paint. The upper half of the mask depicts a human face with the lower half of the mask depicting the face of a jaguar. The use of two faces may symbolize the duality of life. The jaguar is a popular symbol used in Maya and Aztec mythology. Some cultures had a jaguar god, while others believed in a “were-jaguar,” a human-jaguar hybrid similar to what we know as a werewolf in various folklore. It is unlikely that the mask was worn by anyone, as there are no eyeholes.

Green ghoul festival mask
Carved and painted festival mask

These next two masks from Mexico are festival masks representing a green ghoul and red face with yellow slanted eyes. Although there is little known about these designs, the green ghoul mask has similar features to masks used in the Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) ceremony, while the red face mask has similar design features to Pastorelas (plays performed around Christmas) masks that depict the devil. These masks would have been used in holiday festival ceremonies or dances.

Wooden black devil masks

Next are two painted, wood masks depicting the Devil. This design features a black face and horns with red eyes and mouth. The teeth of these masks are traditionally real animal teeth. The expressions of the devil masks vary between angry and laughing. The fangs and color schemes are carried on from depictions of ancient Aztec gods, as the devil is a post-Hispanic idea in Central America. Before Spanish Conquest, Mexican cultures had no equivalent to the Devil. Masks like these would have been used in ritual dances such as Los Tecuanes (re-enacts a jaguar hunt) and Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), where the devil was associated with death. The masks would have also been used in ceremonies during festivals such as Carnival and Holy Week.

Purepecha Devil Mask

This mask is a devil mask from Michoacan, Mexico and is most likely from the village of Angahuan belonging to the Purepecha indigenous group. The mask is made of painted, carved wood with dark hair decoration and pigs’ teeth. The bottom jaw was moveable in performances and the seven small devils on the forehead represent the seven deadly sins. This mask would have been used during Christmas Pastorelas when many devils are humorously trying to prevent the shepherds and hermits from getting to Bethlehem to pay homage to the new born baby Jesus.

Purepecha Old Man Mask

This mask is a very old mask from Charo, Michoacan, Mexico. The mask is from the Purepecha indigenous group, which is now today described as the Mestizo, as most inhabitants no longer speak Purepecha. The mask itself represents an old man and was used in La Danza del Toro y Los Viejitos (The Dance of the Bull and the Old Men) during Carnival celebrations. An example of the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men) can be found here.

Many of these masks were researched by past Phillips Academy work duty students who helped provide further information on mask designs and depictions that were not originally known or available.

The Purepecha devil mask and old man mask were identified by Bill LeVasseur, an American collector of Mexican ceremonial masks from San Miguel de Allende. Bill owns and operates a gallery of over 500 Mexican masks called, Another Face of Mexico. Explore the gallery here!