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The Madagascar Tree
The Madagascar tree
Artist's rendering of The Madagascar Tree
Madagascarmap2
Map of Madagascar
Background
Type Carnivorous Tree
First Sighting October 27, 1874
Last Sighting 1933
Country Madagascar
Habitat Jungles of Madagascar
Possible Population Unknown

The earliest well known tale of a Man-Eating Tree originated as a report by Edmund Spencer for the New York World. Spencer's article first appeared in the daily edition of the New York World on 26 April 1874, and appeared again in the weekly edition of the newspaper two days later. In the article, a letter was published by a purported German explorer named "Karl Liche" (also spelled as Carl Liche in later accounts), who provided a report of encountering a sacrifice performed by the "Mkodo tribe" of Madagascar: This story was picked up by many other newspapers of the day, including the South Australian Register of 27 October 1874, where it gained even greater notoriety. Describing the tree, the account related:

"The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey."

The tree was given further publicity by Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree, a book by Chase Osborn, who had been a Governor of Michigan. Osborn claimed that both the tribes and missionaries on Madagascar knew about the hideous tree, and also repeated the above Liche account.

Detailed Account

The NY World claimed to have obtained its information about the man-eating tree from "the last number of Graefe and Walther's Magazine, published at Carlsruhe," in which there was a letter from the discoverer, the "eminent botanist" Karl Leche, to a colleague, Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky. Most of the NY World article consisted of the text of Leche's letter.

In the letter, Leche described how while traveling through Madagascar he came into a region of the country occupied by the Mkodos, "a tribe of inhospitable savages of whom little was known."

As Leche and his party walked along, they noticed that members of the Mkodos tribe were silently emerging from the jungle and following behind them. They came to a spot where a stream wound through the forest, and here they encountered "the most singular of trees." Leche provided a detailed description of it:

If you can imagine a pineapple eight feet high and thick in proportion resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the trunk of the tree, which, however, was not the color of an anana, but a dark, dingy brown, and apparently hard as iron. From the apex of this truncated cone (at least two feet in diameter) eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges. These leaves, which were joined to the top of the tree at regular intervals, were about eleven or twelve feet long and shaped very much like the leaves of the American aguave, or century plant. They were two feet through in their thickest part and three feet wide, tapering to a sharp point that looked like a cow's horn, very convex on the outer (but now under) surface, and on the inner (now upper) surface slightly concave. This concave face was thickly set with very strong thorny hooks, like those upon the head of the teazle. These leaves, hanging thus limp and lifeless, dead green in color, had in appearance the massive strength of oak fibre.

1874nyworld

1874 Article

The apex of the cone was a round, white, concave figure, like a smaller plate set within a larger one. This was not a flower but a receptacle, and there exuded into it a clear, treacly liquid, honeysweet, and possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific properties. From underneath the rim (so to speak) of the undermost plate a series of long, hairy green tendrils stretched out in every direction towards the horizon. These were seven or eight feet long each, and tapered from four inches to a half an inch in diameter, yet they stretched out stiffly as iron rods. Above these (from between the upper and under cup) six white, almost transparent palpi reared themselves towards the sky, twirling and twisting with a marvelous incessant motion, yet constantly reaching upwards. Thin as reeds, and frail as quills apparently, they were yet five or six feet tall, and were so constantly and vigorously in motion, with such a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air, that they made me shudder in spite of myself with their suggestion of serpent flayed, yet dancing on their tails.

The Mkodos, when they saw the tree, began shouting, "Tepe! Tepe!" Then they surrounded one of their women and forced her, at javelin point, to climb the tree until she reached the apex of the cone that contained the treacly fluid. "Tsik! tsik!" the Mkodos men cried, which meant "drink! drink!"

Obediently, she drank, and then, almost instantly, the slender palpi of the tree came alive, quivered, and seized her around her neck and arms. She screamed, but the tendrils gripped her tighter, strangling her, until her cries became a gurgled moan. The contraction of the tendrils caused the fluid of the tree to stream down its trunk, mingling with the "blood and oozing viscera of the victim."

The Mkodos rushed forward to drink this mixture of blood and tree fluid. Then ensued "a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgie."

Leche concluded his letter by explaining that he studied the carnivorous tree for three more weeks, during which time he found several other, smaller specimens of it in the forest. He saw one of the trees eat a lemur.

He named the species Crinoida Dajeeana, because "when its leaves are in action it bears a striking resemblance to that well-known fossil the crinoid lilystone, or St. Cuthbert's beads." Dajeeana referred to Dr. Bhawoo Dajee, a "liberal-minded, intelligent Parsee physician of Bombay."

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