It was early in the morning that the townspeople saw mysterious footprints in the snow. The tracks weren’t human, and they didn’t look like they belonged to any known animal. Disturbed locals whispered about something sinister stalking their community and desperately tried to understand what beast might have left prints in the snow. Years later, the experts still aren’t sure they have the story right.
In England, the winter of 1855 was a particularly bitter one. Freezing temperatures plagued the Exe Estuary area in Devon county, and snow fell with no end in sight. It was the perfect cloak for all the beasts of the night.
Thanks to the constant frigid weather, the snow didn’t melt. New layers were added to the previous coating. Those that lived in Exe Estuary had to be careful to not trap themselves in the white terrain when they went out — if they went out at all.
Little House on the Prairie
On the night of February 8th, the residents did their best to keep warm, locking themselves inside for the night. Meanwhile, outside, something quietly stalked its way through the town.
Once daylight came, residents found hoof prints in the snow. In local news reports, it was noted that the marks remained mostly the same size with the same length of each step. As word spread, locals found out it wasn’t just their own town seeing these tracks.
Over 30 different parts of Devon county, in both the South and East, had reports of the same, weird tracks. It seemed the “creature” had traveled between 40 to 100 miles, over all kinds of terrain.
Hoof prints were discovered across frozen rivers, haystacks, inside drain pipes, and snow-covered house tops. Something had traveled far on that cold, dark night. Soon, locals were suspecting the worst. Was this some kind of monster?
News reports varied in how far and wide the mysterious prints appeared. What was certain was that people were afraid. They already were struggling to survive a near-inhospitable winter; now something else had been added to their worries. Only a few people had any guesses to what that could be.
Library of Congress
Though firsthand recordings of the event are rare, they do exist. An account of that strange day was made by a Reverend Ellacombe. He sent a letter to The Illustrated London News and specifically marked it “not for publication.”
In making connections to the hoof’s prints and that of a donkey, Ellacombe wrote,”But instead of progressing as that animal would have done — feet right and left, it appeared that foot had followed foot, in a single line.” This observation led to wild conclusions.
Not long after, the hoof prints became referred to as the tracks of Satan. The prints’ shape resembled that of a goat’s cloven hoof, an animal infamously believed to be a favorite form of the Bible’s hellish monster.
The residents of Devon took extra measures to avoid the Devil they feared had visited that February night. Traveling in the dark was deemed detrimental to one’s safety. When the sun went down, residents locked themselves up within their houses.
Over 150 years have passed since the incident, and everyone from historians to conspiracy theorists have offered their thoughts on what visited England that brutally winter night.
Welsh historian Mike Dash posited the theory that wood mice could have been hopping around, leaving prints that looked similar to hoofs. Could the 1855 residents really have been so fearful over something so small? British writer Geoffrey Household had a different idea.
The mid-20th century writer believed an “experimental balloon” had made the tracks with dangling shackles. This little mishap, he surmised, might have been hushed up after causing damage to town property.
People have put forward a ton of additional theories, even estimating that a kangaroo caused the mischief after escaping from a private exhibit. Badgers have also been accused due to the large prints they make. Some historians are looking even further into the past for answers.
After diving into primary documents and various 19th-century news reports, researchers discovered that 15 years prior to the tracks appearing in Exe Estuary, something similar happened not too far away in Scotland.
Various accounts claimed that the home of the Loch Ness Monster, Scotland, was home to an additional creature. During several snowy winters, the tracks of an unknown animal were spotted. No resident saw what could have made them, but they all agreed: the tracks were huge.
Although people of this time believed in the supernatural, some also suspected the whole thing was a hoax. Historian Mike Dash believed if the tracks had not been made by a animal, then they could have been a human prank.
Maybe the footprints in Devon weren’t real, but the fear they caused that winter very much was. These poor people couldn’t catch a break because, a few decades later, another mystery caused a panic in the region.
This mystery started in the middle of World War I. Ten-year-old Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie Wright were in need of an uplifting project. Frances had come from South Africa to stay with the Wright family while her father was fighting in the war.
Arthur Conan Doyle
The Wrights lived in Cottingley, England, in a lovely cottage with a wooded backyard that led down to a stream. Frances and Elsie, who was 16 and very artistic, spent many of that summer’s mornings playing by the water, escaping the stressful world around them.
Arthur Conan Doyle
However, as youngsters do, they often got into trouble. They returned daily from the stream with shoes and clothes soaked with water, and Elsie’s mother Polly was tired of it. When, one day, she’d had enough, they had an excuse ready.
Arthur Conan Doyle
“We’re only going down there to see the fairies,” they told her, and said they could prove it. Elsie asked her father, who was a hobbyist photographer, if the girls could borrow his camera to provide photographic evidence.
He chuckled at the idea, but obliged, thinking there wasn’t any harm in letting the youths have a little fun. Frances and Elsie trooped out to the stream, camera in tow.
Arthur Conan Doyle
When they came back a half an hour later, they returned the camera to Mr. Wright with the triumphant declaration that they’d gotten a photo of the fairies. He was intrigued — what on earth could the photograph possibly look like?
Elsie Wright & Frances Griffiths
After dinner, he took the photographic plate into his darkroom to develop it. Lo and behold, there was Frances, gazing into the lens, and in front of her danced several fairy-looking creatures.
Arthur Wright was not easily fooled. He knew Elsie was a skilled artist, and that she’d worked in a photography studio for a bit. “These are paper cutouts you’ve photographed,” he decreed, putting the developed plate away.
A few months later, the girls asked to borrow the camera again, and again produced a photographic plate to Elsie’s father to develop, this time of Elsie reaching her hand out to a gnome.
Exasperated at what he deemed a foolish prank, Mr. Wright told them to knock it off. He worried they’d been messing with his camera and wouldn’t let them borrow it any more. But when Polly saw the photos, she was fascinated.
She was a member of the local Theosophical Society, a religious study organization that entertained the idea of the occult as a part of normal life, and she believed the girls had captured supernatural evidence in these mysterious photos. So, at the society’s next meeting, she brought along the plates.
Frances and Elsie didn’t think much of letting her show the photos around, but then the story began to snowball. Polly’s Theosophy peers were also convinced the images were real, and they asked to display them at the society’s annual conference.
Arthur Conan Doyle
By the time the images had reached Edward Gardner, one of the Theosophical Society’s leading members, it was too late for Frances and Elise to stop their spread.
Arthur Conan Doyla
The camera companies Kodak and Ilford were both called upon to verify whether or not the images were fake, and produced inconclusive results. Meanwhile, Elsie and Frances were being asked to speak and appear onstage at bigger and bigger Theosophical Society events.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Even famed writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — yes, the one who created the world’s most logical character, Sherlock Holmes — sent the cousins two cameras and asked for more photos. Pressured to oblige, they took three more.
When Doyle saw the photos, he was ecstatic, believing unequivocally that the cousins had proved beyond doubt that fairies were real. He wrote articles in the press about it, and the story really picked up traction.
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By this point, the cousins were worried. There was no way the truth could be revealed now; they’d be in huge trouble. So they waited, and over the years, they maintained that the photos were real.
But by 1983, when Elsie was 82, they figured it was safe to come clean. In an article published in the magazine The Unexplained, Elsie told how she’d drawn the fairies on paper, carefully cut them out, and attached them with long hatpins to their surroundings.
She even admitted that she’d used a book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, as reference for the fairies, copying Claude Arthur Shepperson’s drawings of dancing girls from its pages and adding wings to them. Finally, the mystery was solved.
Frances said, “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun…[the adults] wanted to be [fooled].” The two girls knew this wasn’t the first time adults were confused by a fantasy.
Arthur Conan Doyle
A few centuries prior, the farmers of Woolpit were harvesting their crops when they noticed movement nearby. Out of one of the ditches crawled two small children, a boy and a girl. But the villagers were shocked; the children’s skin was bright green.
Not only was their skin green, but they were speaking an unknown language no one could recognize. The villagers brought the children back to Woolpit to decide what to do with them.
They took the children to the home of a wealthy man named Sir Richard de Calne. The kids looked starving, so Richard offered them an array of foods to eat. But the young boy and girl refused all of them — except for one thing.
The only thing the children would eat were beanstalks — and they refused to eat anything else for weeks. The young siblings also tried to make their way back home but got lost and decided to stay in Woolpit.
It took awhile for the children to get used to their new surroundings; reports say they were overwhelmed by the sunlight in the village. Eventually, as the months went by, the girl learned to speak a little English and finally shared their story.
The girl explained that she and her brother had lived in a place they called “St. Martin’s Land.” No one in the village had ever heard of such a place, and the girl’s description left them with questions.
According to the girl, St. Martin’s Land was entirely green, just like the children. Not only that, but the entire place was covered in a misty green fog. But what the girl shared next was even stranger.
Village Green Recordings
She told the villagers that, across from a sprawling river, the children could see a bright light calling out to them. The villagers were stumped; none of them had ever heard of a place quite like that.
The girl claimed she and her brother were following their sheep when they got lost in a cavern. Before they knew it, they had ended up in Woolpit. Oddly, many historians think her strange story might actually have some truth to it.
The seemingly mystical description of “St. Martin’s Land” has fueled countless theories about where the children actually came from. Some of the theories are a bit more… wild than others.
William Guy Wall
People back in the 12th century probably believed in mythical beings like fairies, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the villagers exaggerated some of their stories about the children. One scholar had another idea entirely, though.
Based on the strange circumstances of their arrival, some scholars believe the children were aliens. As far back as 1621, academics posed the theory that the children came from another planet. But one modern researcher doesn’t buy either theory.
The Daily Beast
Paul Harris suggested in 1998 that the children might have grown up in a nearby town called Fornham St. Martin, which is where they got the name “St. Martin’s Land.” There’s one other similarity, too, that’s difficult to overlook.
Fornham St. Martin is separated from Woolpit by a river, just like their story. Even though it’s small and easily crossable, the young children might have seen the river as “sprawling.” But if the siblings were from a nearby town, why was their skin green?
One theory suggests the children suffered from hypochromic anemia, which leaves people with green-tinged skin. If the villagers had never seen it before, it’s understandable they would be a little freaked out. One key piece of evidence supports that theory.
Hypochromic anemia is caused by a poor diet. Several reports about the children suggest they were near starvation by the time they were found, which would line up with the disease’s symptoms. But why were they running away in the first place?
Harris noted that there was a battle at Fornham St. Martin in 1173, around the time the children arrived in Woolpit. Several Flemish immigrants were killed, which might have included the siblings’ parents, leaving them to fend for themselves.
If the children were in fact Flemish, it could be the reason none of the villagers recognized the language they were speaking. The accounts of the children’s later lives differ, but they all agree on a few key details.
Most agree that the boy died not long after arriving in Woolpit, but that his sister lived to adulthood. Some records even indicate that she lived a long and healthy life — and maybe even got married!
We might never know the true story of the green children in Woolpit, but researchers can all agree on one thing: humans have been inexplicably spotting “green” people for centuries.