News & Opinion | May 27, 2018 5:00 am

The Saurian ‘Monster’ Hysteria that Terrorized New Zealand in the 1880s

Unexplained livestock deaths prompted tales of a lizard monster stalking the land—it was just a large seal.

In October 1886, workers at the slaughter yards of Frankton Junction in New Zealand found a sheep picked clean to the bones. It appeared that some creature had taken the carcass from the hook where it had been hanging, eaten it and left, leaving only a strange trail of footprints unlike any they had ever seen. The New Zealand Daily Telegraph reported that the footprints were “undoubted traces of a saurian monster.” Saurian means lizard-like, explains Atlas Obscura, and other papers concluded that this monster must be an alligator or crocodile.

For two months, the people of the Waikato region on the North Island kept up a near-constant watch in fear of this new “monster” in their midst. Reports ran wild—farm boys reported seeing it in a river and two cancers claimed that they were almost capsized by it, while indigenous Maori told settlers the creature had been around for some time now. It was described as “of immense size with large jaws showing jagged teeth. The body was covered with long shaggy black hair.”

Atlas Obscura reports that on the coast, the monster was found napping on the beach, captured and shot twice in the head. Initial news reports said that the Saurian beast was “12 feet long, and 6 feet in girth, with two large screw-like propellers in lieu of a tail.” It supposed had the head of a leopard, with two rows of teeth, 12 teeth in each row. But when the beast was finally unmasked on Nov. 26, it was just found to be a large seal.