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The iconic photograph of A.L. Butts holding up a supposed giant grasshopper that he had allegedly shot dead in his apple orchard during 1937 (public domain)
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I purchased a trio of fascinating books that totally captivated me, reading them from cover to cover and then re-reading them numerous times thereafter. Indeed, even today I still return to them periodically and dip inside their fact-filled pages. Presented by The People’s Almanac, these international bestsellers were: The Book of Lists (1977), The Book of Lists 2 (1980), and The Book of Lists 3 (1983). They were written by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace, and, as their titles suggest, they were packed throughout with annotated lists on every conceivable subject, and included many specialist ones that were compiled by a lengthy series of credited contributors with extensive knowledge on those particular s objects.
One of my favourite lists appeared in the third book of this series. Entitled ‘8 Worst Monster Hoaxes’, the list had been compiled by none other than cryptozoology’s very own Loren Coleman, and included concise accounts of such famous crypto-frauds as Phineas Barnum’s Feejee mermaid, the giant model used in the notorious Silver Lake monster hoax, the supposed living Jersey devil put on show that proved to be a kangaroo painted with green stripes and with fake wings attached (click here to read my ShukerNature account of this faux monster), the controversial photo of de Loys’s supposed South American ape, and – a case that I’d not encountered until reading this book – the giant grasshoppers that allegedly invaded the apple orchard of farmer A.L. Butts from Wisconsin. Here, quoting from his list, is what Loren wrote concerning this extraordinary episode:
GIANT GRASSHOPPERS OF BUTTS ORCHARD
On Sept. 9, 1937, the following headline appeared on the front page of the Tomah (Wis.) Monitor-Herald: “Giant Grasshoppers Invade Butts Orchard East of City.” The accompanying story gave details of the invasion. Apparently, after eating some special plant food that farmer A. L. Butts had sowed on his apple orchard, the grasshoppers grew to an astounding 3 ft. in length—large enough to snap off tree limbs as they leaped about the orchard. Along with the article, there were photographs of the mutant insects being hunted with shotguns. Because the story was continued on page four, many readers never got to the final paragraph, which suggested that it was all a put-on: “If there are those who doubt our story it will not be a new experience, inasmuch as most newspaper writers are thought to be the darndest liars in the world.” The elaborate hoax was concocted by Mr. Butts and the Monitor-Herald publisher, B. J. Fuller.
My greatly-treasured copy of The Book of Lists 3 (© David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace / Corgi Books – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
Accompanying Loren’s account was the eyecatching photograph that opens this present ShukerNature blog article of mine, except that in Loren’s account the photo was reproduced by the book’s publisher in mirror-image format, the only instance that I’m aware of in which it has appeared in this orientation. It was one of the pictures that had been included in the above-noted Tomah Monitor-Herald newspaper’s hoax report.
Not surprisingly, with the coming of the internet such a striking image as this one was not going to go unnoticed and uncommented-upon online, and indeed, it currently appears on countless websites. Yet although on the vast majority of these sites it is readily denounced as a hoax, there is rarely if ever any provision of details supporting such a claim, and on some sites there is even earnest discussion as to whether it actually is a hoax or whether the giant grasshopper portrayed in it is real!
In both situations, therefore, it would appear that all such sites are blissfully unaware of Loren’s above-quoted account, and also of the more recent version by Leland Gregory – a concise coverage of this phoney incident appearing in Gregory’s wonderfully-entitled book Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages (2007). It includes the following specific details concerning the photographs contained in the hoax newspaper report: “Accompanying the article were photographs of shotgun-toting hunters tracking down the mutant insects as well as a picture of Farmer Butts holding up a dead grasshopper like a prize fish” – the latter being an excellent description of the famous image opening my own article here. But that is not all.
Picture postcards from 1937 featuring this iconic giant grasshopper image but giving different claimed locations for it; note also that in the middle postcard the grasshopper seems to be held at a slightly different angle, and with both antennae hanging down, indicating that this is a second, hitherto-unrecognised photo – see below for more details (public domain)
In many online sites containing this photograph, it takes the form of a vintage-looking picture postcard, inasmuch as beneath the main portion of the image (containing Butts holding the grasshopper) but superimposed upon the lowermost portion of the image itself (a section of ground present below Butts’s feet and rifle end that was not present in the version of this picture accompanying Loren’s account, which was therefore cropped as well as mirror-image-reversed) is white handwriting in the style that was frequently seen in such picture postcards dating back to the first half of the 20th Century. This handwriting provides the location where the photograph was supposedly taken, plus the photo’s copyright owner and year.
In most examples that I have seen, the information given is: ‘GRASSHOPPER SHOT NEAR MILES CITY MONT. © 1937 COLES STUDIO GLASGOW MONT‘. However, I have also seen versions in which the location is variously given as ‘NEAR MANDAN NORTH DAKOTA’, and ‘NEAR MEDORA NORTH DAKOTA‘ (and in this latter version, the adjective ‘GIANT’ is applied to the grasshopper). The year and copyright details, conversely, are the same as those given in the Miles City Montana version.
Of particular interest, moreover, is that in one such version (pictured above), labelled as ‘NEAR MANDAN NORTH DAKOTA’, the angle at which the grasshopper is being held by Butts is slightly different from in all other versions seen by me, and with both of its antennae (not just one) hanging downwards, as well as more of its feet emerging from out of Butts’s fist. In other words, this is apparently a second, hitherto-unrecognised photograph of Butts and the giant grasshopper, yet clearly produced during the same session as the famous one, because Butts’s pose is identical in both, whereas the grasshopper’s is very similar – but not identical – in both.
There are also various additional versions online that may be of more recent date, as the locations given are simply added in typescript within a separate block beneath the entire image, rather than as handwriting superimposed upon the lowermost portion of the image. One such example gives the supposed location of where the ‘giant grasshopper’ was shot as ‘Near C.P.R. Station Moose Jaw, Sask.’, with ‘Sask.’ being an abbreviation for the state of Saskatchewan in Canada. (There are also all manner of modern-day parodies, spoofs, and pastiches of this now-classic image online, featuring characters from famous television shows, computer/video games, and much more besides.)
Two spoofs of the Butts giant grasshopper photograph: the left-hand-one provides a humorous twist to its content; the right-hand-one features Butch DeLoria, leader of the Tunnel Snakes gang in Fallout 3, an action role-playing open world video game that includes giant cockroach-like insects called radroaches (© owner unknown to me / © Fallout Wiki)
Bearing in mind that the hoax was set in Wisconsin, USA, all of the above-noted claimed locations for the grasshopper shooting given on the various picture postcards are themselves fake. But once again, that is not all. What is particularly odd, and therefore very intriguing, is that I have yet to find a single picture postcard of this image online that actually gives anywhere in Wisconsin as the claimed location!
Moreover, the very fact that there are in existence picture postcards depicting this image that date back to 1937, the exact same year in which the hoax report was published by the Tomah Monitor-Heraldnewspaper, makes me wonder which came first – the picture postcards or the newspaper hoax? If the hoax came first, then the postcards were made as a spin-off using the image from the report and with the writing giving supposed location and copyright details being subsequently added. But if the postcards came first, complete with the writing present, then the writing would need to be removed from them before the image could be included in the report. The easiest way to do this would be simply to crop the photo to just below Butts’s feet (exactly as was done in The Book of Lists 3), thereby deleting the lowermost portion of the image containing the writing. But if the latter is true, does this mean that the hoax newspaper report was actually inspired by (and thus made direct use of) a pre-existing picture postcard that occurred with different claimed locations written upon it, but set its fictitious incident in a location (Wisconsin) separate from any of those claimed on the postcard versions?
An answer to this key question may well be forthcoming if we knew what format the giant grasshopper photograph takes in the newspaper report? Is the full image present, including the lowermost portion of ground beneath Butts’s feet and rifle end but with no writing superimposed, thus confirming that the newspaper report came first? Or is the image cropped to just below Butts’s feet, thereby strongly suggesting (albeit not confirming) that there may have been writing on the deleted lowermost portion?
That is definitely the all-important question here, one that might shed major new light upon the origin of this iconic photograph. Yet, maddeningly, it is also one that I am presently unable to answer – for the simple yet highly frustrating reason that so far I have been unable to set eyes upon a copy of the two-page hoax report from the Tomah Monitor-Heraldnewspaper of 9 September 1937. I have managed to locate a version of this story that appeared in the Juneau County Chronicle (of Mauston, Wisconsin) on 16 September 1937, but this is a much shorter version, and only includes a single photograph (and which, unfortunately, is not the one under consideration here), one that is again an evident but much less professionally-produced hoax image.
Section of the front page of the Juneau County Chronicle for 16 September 1937 containing the giant grasshopper story (public domain)
That same photograph, incidentally, depicting Butts and someone else shooting a giant grasshopper in Butts’s orchard, is also apparently the opening photo in the original Tomah Monitor-Herald report, and I have been kindly informed by Facebook friend and correspondent Bob Deis that the other person in the photo is none other than B.J. Fuller from the Tomah Monitor-Herald, who, as noted earlier, co-engineered the hoax with Butts.
Bob has given me a cutting from the Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids) newspaper of 14 September 1937 that confirms this, Fuller openly admitting the hoax with Butts (variously spelt ‘Butz’ and ‘Buts’ here). Confusingly, this cutting initially names Fuller as merely a reporter for the Tomah Monitor-Herald, not as its editor (naming L.W. Kenny as editor instead), thereby seemingly contradicting Loren’s afore-quoted account, but a few paragraphs later it then does name Fuller as editor! It also identifies the person who took that particular photograph of the two men shooting the giant grasshopper as one Reverend H.S. Schaller. I wonder if Schaller also took the famous photo of Butts holding up the giant grasshopper under consideration here? Thanks very much Bob for providing me with this informative cutting! And here it is:
Cutting from the Daily Tribune(Wisconsin Rapids), 14 September 1937, confirming that the Wisconsin giant grasshopper hunt was indeed a hoax concocted by Butts and Fuller (public domain)
Needless to say, moreover, if anyone reading this ShukerNature article can provide me with a copy of the elusive Tomah Monitor-Herald report (or even any details concerning the appearance of the photograph in question here), I would very much appreciate it!
Well worth pointing out here is that picture postcards may well be linked to this hoax newspaper report in more ways than one, because it just so happens that in 1935, i.e. at least two years beforethis report was published, a picture postcard photographer/publisher named Frank D. Conard from Garden City, Kansas, had begun issuing what would become a very lengthy series of popular postcards depicting humorous illustrations featuring giant grasshoppers and spanning three decades.
Long before Photoshop was ever thought of, and eschewing even the popular optical illusion of forced perspective, Conard created his delightful pictures by simply but very effectively inserting enlarged images of grasshoppers into all manner of everyday scenes (a selection of which can be seen below). He also produced similar montage-based pictures featuring other enlarged images of animals, including jackrabbits and fishes. Picture postcards in this highly-collectible genre are known as exaggeration postcards.
A selection of Frank D. Conard’s giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards – click to enlarge (public domain)
Conard in turn had been inspired to produce his giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards by a real-life grasshopper-featuring event that had taken place in Garden City, Kansas, during 1935. Namely, a major a plague of grasshoppers (albeit of normal size, happily!), which had attracted considerable media attention elsewhere across the USA, as other prairie states were also suffering from similar scourges at that time. In a December 2004 article concerning exaggeration picture postcards that was published on the Kansas Historical Society’s website, Conard is quoted as having once said:
The idea [for producing his famous giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards] came to me after a flight of grasshoppers swarmed into Garden City attracted by the lights, and it was impossible to fill an automobile gasoline tank at filling stations that night. I went home to sleep, but awoke at 3:00 a.m. and all I could think about was grasshoppers. By morning I had the idea of having fun with the grasshoppers, and took my pictures and superimposed the hoppers with humans. I didn’t do it for adverse impressions of Kansas, but as an exaggerated joke.
Taking all of this into account, could it be that Coles Studio of Glasgow, Montana, the publisher of the picture postcards featuring Butts and the giant grasshopper and labelled with a variety of different claimed locations, was inspired by those of Conard, and/or by the real events that in turn had inspired Conard, to create some grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards of its own? Indeed, can we even be absolutely certain that the person in this image actually is Butts? After all, if the postcards came first, before the hoax newspaper report, with one such postcard merely being the inspiration for the report and then simply included within it when it was finally published, who can say for certain who the person is in the image? It could be anyone. Butts might simply have lent his name to the hoax newspaper report, with the photo featuring whoever it was who had posed for it as a Coles Studio picture postcard long before the hoax newspaper story had ever been conceived.
A second selection of Frank D. Conard’s giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcards – click to enlarge (public domain)
I’ve spent a fair amount of time online seeking any details or publication lists appertaining to the output of Coles during the 1930s, in the hope of pinning down specifically when in 1937 the grasshopper postcards depicting Butts (or whoever it is) holding the giant grasshopper were first issued, but, sadly, all to no avail.
As for the giant grasshopper itself: one further intrigue awaits consideration. Does the picture postcard depicting it simply consist of an enlarged photo of a normal grasshopper that has been carefully inserted into a photo of Butts(?) in the normal montage-style manner of creating exaggeration picture postcards (but in at least two slightly different poses, as revealed earlier)? Or could the grasshopper have possibly been an actual full-sized giant grasshopper model?
The reason that I ask this is twofold. Firstly, on some websites I have seen claims, albeit unsubstantiated by any supporting evidence, alleging this to be the case. Secondly, although it seems an unlikely prospect there is in fact a notable fully-confirmed precedent – one that involves the following ‘giant grasshopper’ photograph, which again appears on numerous websites:
Holding down a giant grasshopper – actually a model (public domain)
As with the Butts photo, there are all kinds of claims circulating online regarding it being a hoax image, alongside other claims questioning whether the grasshopper is actually a bona fide living giant grasshopper. In fact, it is neither – as revealed on 8 October 2012 by Maureen A. Taylor in her Photo Detective column within Family Tree Magazine (and viewable online here). Following an investigation of this tantalising image, Maureen discovered that the giant grasshopper was an iron sculpture that had been created by Thomas Talcott Hersey of Mitchell, South Dakota, during the late 1930s, yet again as a result of being inspired by the real-life grasshopper plagues of that period, one of which had killed his own crops in his home state. Moreover, Hersey’s giant grasshopper sculpture, which he had dubbed Galloping Gertie, attracted considerable interest and attention. Indeed, as Maureen noted:
When he displayed his invention at Corn Palace Week in Mitchell and charged a nickel to view it, he earned enough to support his family for a winter. Hersey ended up with a commission from a man who hired him to make a housefly, a flea, a black widow spider and a monarch butterfly to show at county fairs.
Hersey even produced a picture postcard of Galloping Gertie (the image included by me above), in which he is shown pretending to hold it down, assisted by his nephew Harry (Bart) Hersey and David John Hersey, and which also bears the caption ‘Capturing “Whopper Hopper” near Mitchell, S.D. The largest grasshopper in existence 54 inches long weight 73 pounds‘. And it is this picture, often reproduced sans caption, which is the one doing the rounds online. So, yes, models of giant grasshoppers are not beyond the realms of possibility at all.
As for real-life giant grasshoppers, conversely, that of course is a very different matter. For fundamental anatomical and physiological regions, especially ones relating to respiration, no species of insect living today could attain the stature of those included in any of the images presented above in this present article. Having said that, and albeit on a much more modest scale, there are some undeniably impressive species of grasshopper native to various parts of North America, but none more so, surely, than the eastern lubber grasshopper Romalea microptera (=guttata).
An eastern lubber grasshopper (public domain)
Common throughout Florida, but up to 4 inches long, and brightly coloured in garish yellow, orange, and red with black stripes to warn would-be predators of its toxic nature, it came as something of a shock to me when I first encountered this monstrous entity while visiting the Everglades back in 1981. Aslow-moving species not given to energetic hopping and generally too heavy to fly via its undersized wings, there seemed to be lubbers crawling underfoot everywhere, emitting loud hisses and secreting foul-smelling foamy exudations, until I was more than happy to step onto one of the boats to take me away from these hexapodal horrors and on through what seemed by comparison to be the relative tranquillity of the alligator-infested swamps!
Meanwhile, my search here and online continues apace for the final piece of the long-incomplete jigsaw constituting the mystery of the Butts giant grasshopper phoney photograph – that evanescent newspaper report from the Tomah Monitor-Herald of 9 September 1937. Once – if ever – I have that to hand, I may finally be able to determine in best chicken and egg tradition which came first, the Coles Studio picture postcards of this memorable image or its appearance in the newspaper report.
So, once again, if there is anyone out there reading this ShukerNature article who can offer any information (including a specific first publication date for the picture postcards), or, best of all, an image of the two-page newspaper report, I would be very happy to hear from you!
Two enthralling Weekly World Newsstories featuring the Butts giant grasshopper photograph (© Weekly World News – included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
Finally: how could any photograph featuring a man holding a 3-ft-long grasshopper fail to attract the attention of the wonderful Weekly World News? Sure enough, this inestimable publication has featured the Butts photo in not one but two WWN stories. In the first, published on 9 April 1991, it was used as the basis of a highly entertaining report concerning a New Zealand farmer named Barry Gissler who had shot a 23-lb giant grasshopper less than a month earlier, on 15 March. And in the second, published just over a year later on 16 June 1992, the unfortunate Mr Gissler had alas been found dead with a broken neck and strange bite marks on his body. Had New Zealand‘s mega-hoppers taken revenge upon the murderer of one of their burly six-legged brethren? Only the WWN can answer that question – and who knows, perhaps one day, in a third fascinating instalment of this gripping grasshopper yarn, it will do!
Incidentally, just in case you were wondering: The world’s largest known true grasshopper (as opposed to the highly-specialised wetas of New Zealand) is a currently-unidentified species documented from the border of Malaysia and Thailand that measures 10 in long and is capable of leaping up to 15 ft. So perhaps giant grasshoppers are not such a figment of fantasy after all!
NB – As far as I am aware, all of the illustrations included here are in the public domain unless stated otherwise. In any case, however, they are all included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only, exclusively for educational, review purposes.
A vintage giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration postcard in colour (© currently unknown to me despite having made considerable searches for information – any available details will be gratefully received)
UPDATE – 26 February 2017-02-26
Re-reading the Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Springs) article kindly supplied to me earlier today by Bob Deis, I am struck by the fact that it repeatedly refers to only “a picture”, “one picture”, etc, with the picture in question being the one of Butts and Fuller shooting a giant grasshopper in Butts’s orchard – the same picture that is the only one in the Juneau County Chronicle report of this incident too. Conversely, no mention is made or even alluded to of there being any additional ones, including the famous one that is the subject of this current ShukerNature blog article of mine, even though the latter photo has always been directly associated with this hoax incident. Coupling this odd situation with the extensively-discussed fact here that the latter photo is known to have existed as a Coles Studio picture postcard in 1937 anyway, a very intriguing and quite dramatic thought has just entered my head.
Is it possible that this entire, ostensibly long-accepted association of phoney photo with hoax incident is fallacious, i.e. that the famous photo discussed here by me really was nothing more than a Coles Studio exaggeration picture postcard that simply happened to be in existence at the same time as the hoax incident was reported by the Tomah Monitor-Herald(just like several giant grasshopper-themed exaggeration picture postcards by Frank D. Conard also happened to be in existence at this same time), and that in fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with that incident, but has somehow been erroneously linked to (and ultimately directly incorporated into) the story of that hoax?
In other words, could it be that for many decades and right up into the present day, the Coles Studio exaggeration photograph has been wrongly assumed to be a photograph produced for the hoax incident and portraying Butts, when in reality it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this at all, and therefore does not portray Butts? As can be seen from my article’s discussion, the very fact that it had handwriting superimposed upon it in the same style as exaggeration photographs from that period in time, and dating it to 1937, had already alerted me to the possibility that it had already been released by Coles Studio as an exaggeration postcard before the hoax newspaper report had ever been published.
Clearly, therefore, more than ever now I would like to see the original Tomah Monitor-Herald report of 9 September 1937 – because if this famous phoney photograph, so long directly associated with this hoax incident, is not contained in that report, it means that its entire public history for decades has been a lie, with everyone who has ever written about it claiming that it shows Butts with one of the supposed giant grasshoppers from his orchard having been mistaken. And that is something that needs to be determined one way or another, and documented accordingly, as soon as possible.