Lion, tiger, polecat, leopard. panther - or whale?!?!? Something was terrorizing Somerville's East-Enders in the summer of 1921, though no one was quite sure what it could be. When the beast began showing itself in the evenings in the vicinity of Peter's Brook, townsfolk who were caught unawares fled in panic at the sight, later recalling that a few months previous a Barnum & Bailey animal trainer had been scouring the wooded areas about the town on a mission for which he would not answer. Now it was supposed that a lion had escaped from a passing circus train, and had not been retrieved.
|New York Evening Telegram, Saturday, July 30, 1921|
Here's what Mrs. Henry Stenger told the New York Evening Telegram about the encounter she and her four-year-old daughter had with the animal:
"Beatrice and I were walking by the bridge [over Peter's Brook]. The trees along the water's edge form a rather thick screen, but the clear water, reflecting the moonlight, makes it fairly easy to distinguish objects. As I was glancing casually along the bridge. I saw a large animal bound out of the darkness, jump over a hedge at least three and a half feet high, and disappear in the shrubbery by the brook. Beatrice screamed when she saw it, and no ordinary dog would have caused her to do so. The animal, I feel confident, was not a dog. It resembles a lion, for its head seemed large for its body and it had a bushy tail."Despite the fact that she did not hear it roar, Mrs. Stenger vowed to not let her child out after dark until the beast was caught.
|Postcard circa 1906|
Mr. Stenger quickly roused the Cline brothers, Sam Hall, the Hoffman brothers, and others into a sort of posse, but came up empty. "We found nothing", he said, "but naturally such a creature would not wait around to be hunted."
Sightings continued for the next two weeks. Edward Fialka who lived on Davenport St. saw the lion on his way home from work one evening, and his two young daughters also reported seeing "a big animal." Even the Brokaws, who were said to have "an excellent reputation for conservatism and common sense" were confident that they had seen something.
|New York Evening Telegram, Sunday, July 31, 1921|
The most famous eyewitness was none other than millionaire entrepreneur James B. Duke, who just missed bagging the trophy as he had to dash back to the house for his rifle. How the lion was able to cross the Raritan unobserved, either by water or one of the few bridges, remains a mystery.
In any case, Somerville police chief Lewis Bellis was not buying any of it. "These persons, I have no doubt, are sincere, but they are impressionable. At night almost any animal appearing suddenly may frighten one - even your own pet cat."
The chief's theory was that the "lion" was in actuality a giant mastiff named Nero - well known to the East End neighborhoods, but perhaps a bit scarier after dark.
It can be supposed that Chief Bellis was attempting to create an impression of his own - and since the newspapers appear to be silent on the subject after his pronouncements, we can assume that this did the trick, and everyone soon had a good laugh about the weeks they were terrorized by the lion, polecat, leopard, panther, and whale!