JANESVILLE, WIS. — The other day I was emailing back and forth with Linda Godfrey — “one of the most respected authorities on anomalous animals and paranormal phenomena in Wisconsin,” according to late-night talk radio — when I noticed something spreading online about an alligator apparently swimming laps in Humboldt Park. We were talking because I wanted to hear about her adventures.
You see this thing about an alligator in Chicago? I asked.
Gators are everywhere, she replied. The email practically yawned.
Then again, if you spent 30 years tracking werewolves, deer women, phantom hounds, puckwudgies, snallygasters, cannibal dwarves, black panthers, Hawaiian dogmen, Maryland goatmen, the Red-Eyed Monster of Rusk County and the mysterious Elf of Victoria, Ontario, you would probably sigh, too. Listen long enough to Godfrey discuss her remarkable job and loose reptiles in large urban centers barely budge an eyebrow.
Godfrey — who is appearing at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square on Thursday, to discuss her 18th volume of unusual investigations, “I Know What I Saw: Modern-Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore” — has spent most of her life in the southeastern Wisconsin near the Illinois border, yet for the past few decades, she has become a noted cryptozoologist. Meaning, she studies the fantastic beasts that people think they have seen, swear they have seen but likely have not seen.
She is one of a handful of people in the country who earns a living doing this. More interestingly, though she admits that the Department of Natural Resources is “skeptical” of her prey, she is one of an even smaller handful of cryptozoologists with some credibility.
“See, in this field, you get your share of true believers who think every cracking branch must be a Bigfoot,” said Loren Coleman, the world’s leading cryptozoologist (and founder of the 16-year old International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine). “And you get debunkers who see everything as impossible and ruin everyone’s fun. Then you have Linda, somewhere in between. She is thoughtful, she didn’t come into this work as a fringe nut. At first, she was seen as this short, quiet woman from a little Midwest town, but then she became the one who asked all the right questions and listened to people.”
Godfrey, the rare female in an overwhelmingly male and undeniably odd profession, has published 18 books in the past 16 years about the improbable creatures and stranger things possibly stalking the Midwest. Some titles include “American Monsters,” “Monsters Among Us,” “Hunting the American Werewolf” and “The Michigan Dogman.” Stranger still, these books are not all minor, niche oddities; the last four came from Random House. And unlike Coleman — a Decatur native who studied anthropology and zoology at Southern Illinois University — she holds no scientific or anthropological background.
She sees herself as a folklorist, navigating legend and fact.
She’s not the person you want to come to your house the next time you see an alligator in your lagoon — unless that gator is also standing on its hind legs and its eyes burn with a ghostly fire. Ask about exotic animal sightings and she rattles off a litany of such happenings, noting particularly the Midwest’s history with (confirmed) escaped kangaroos.
“In cryptozoology circles,” she says, “we call them OOPs — out of place animals.”
She’s more interested if your creature is a rumor, holds a place in local history and remains elusive, perhaps bloodthirsty. If Coleman thinks of the field as “the science of hidden animals,” she sees it more as path into local lore. For instance, the slippery Haunchies, a Midwest species of malevolent Hobbit known to chase away outsiders with clubs. She has traced them to Big Muskego Lake, southwest of Milwaukee. Also, they don’t exist. But she’s gathered the lore of why they might exist, why they hide and who has seen them.
She keeps an open mind, and so, since the early 1990s, from all over the world, she’s received two or three emailed reports a week of cryptids — the cryptozoological term for cagey forest beasts, lake dragons and such. At the moment, she’s hearing about giant cat-dogs in the South and California. (She thinks they’re lynxes. Albeit, walking on their hind legs.) She is a gatherer of insistent myths, but with a difference — you get the benefit of sizable doubts. She will come to your home to decode what is slaughtering your sheep.
“So much of this field has sadly become people sitting at computers doing online research who never actually investigate the legends or talk to the locals or just visit the place of a sighting,” said Chad Lewis, a self-described “researcher of the unusual” from Eau Claire who has worked with Godfrey for 20 years. “But Linda is different, she’s out there, she’s getting strangers to reveal personal things. And nothing is too weird for her.”
I sat in Godfrey’s kitchen the other morning.
She raised a large knife, and brought it down hard.
“You have to try Racine Kringle!” she said, slicing a local delicacy.
For all her evasive elves and snarling dogmen, Godfrey is scarily pleasant, borderline grandmotherly — she is a grandmother. She is 68 and lives in a subdivision, in a “Brady Bunch” split-level. She has a glass yard globe on her lawn. Her husband, Steven, a civil engineer, hovers in their kitchen in his company-issued polo before heading to work. She conveys the softness and firmness of a good kindergarten teacher — indeed, before turning to full-time cryptozoology, she spent years as a public school art teacher.
But look closer.
Folded across a living-room banister is a patchwork quilt sewn by her sister-in-law Nancy showing a line of trees and a Bigfoot. On her desk, a pamphlet for “Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue” and a map to the giant panthers of the Midwest. Glancing at her file cabinet, labels pop: “Bigfoot”… “Black Ops”… Her shelves hold a Ghostbustery electromagnet-field reader, a perfectly round stone supposedly containing the spirit of an ancient sprite and a pair of wooden sculptures, one of Bigfoot, one of an upright canine. Both, in true “Close Encounters” fashion, were whittled by ordinary people who witnessed something extraordinary and, unable to make sense of it, each carved something.
Godfrey’s own career began as an artist and a writer.
For more than a decade, she worked for The Week, a small weekly newspaper outside Lake Geneva, writing human-interest features and drawing the editorial cartoons. Her career as a cryptozoologist began with the dog man. Or as she would know him, the Beast of Bray Road. She began hearing about a werewolf-like canine stalking Elkhorn. “And then one day I was talking to a local animal control officer and said, ‘You hear about this thing people are seeing on Bray Road?’ And he pulls a manilla folder out of his desk. It’s labeled ‘werewolf.‘ I was a novice reporter then but even I knew if a county official is keeping onto a folder on possible werewolves, you probably have a story.”
She had never heard of cryptozoology. She saw “the story mostly in terms of local history. No one was more surprised than me when we began getting a ton of response.”
Though she continued on as a workaday journalist, her story of the Beast of Bray Road nipped at her heels. Not a week went by without a request to investigate some other strange animal. From Ohio: “We have seen lights, something that resembled an orangutan …” From Wales: “I was looking for information on a man who hit a manwolf and used his CB to call it in to the local police and attacked and the car was found smashed up …”
Thirty years later she is still getting notes like that. “Many are not reports of events that happened yesterday,” she said. “They’re from 10, 20 years ago, things people have carried in their heads and needed to tell. They’re often worried they’ll be made fun of, and I understand how they feel, because I know that I am made fun of.” And so, each time, her responses are polite and compassionate, and at times gently provocative without sounding gullible: “Thanks for your comment, Bob,” she wrote to one Beast of Bray Road skeptic. “The interdimensional theory is unproven, but also not disproven.”
She wonders if people are seeing animals with wounded limbs; she wonders if people are witnessing a still-undiscovered sub-species. She doesn’t question the validity of a mysterious deer-woman; she wonders if possibly we see deer so often that perhaps we don’t notice the anomalies enough. The word “possibly” appears frequently in her work.
She is certain on one thing — a good cryptozoologist can be folklorists.
Tom Mould, a professor of folklore at Butler University and board member of the American Folklore Society, based at Indiana University-Bloomington, agrees: “In folklore, the heart of a legend is a story purporting to be true but allowing for doubt. A legend is often told when a person telling it doesn’t know exactly what they are seeing. So a folklorist doesn’t assume the person telling the story is crazy. This is not capital ‘T’ truth. Because the more interesting thing here is why Bob down the block believes in a Bigfoot and what that belief says about him.”
Godfrey doesn’t remove her journalistic hat entirely.
Before investigating anything, she background-checks the sources of the reports. “After interviewing two or three people on every imagine topic as a features reporter — politicians, police, gardeners — you develop a Spidey Sense that never quite fades.” But even after she quit daily journalism to focus on books about 16 years ago, “I wasn’t interested in scary stories so much as, say, the sociological impacts in a town that gets a bunch of monster reports, or the way those reports link these people to their pasts.”
Illinois sightings, for instance, seem generally dubious: She told me reports of centaurs stalking the Illinois-Missouri border — and yes, there are some, with little precedent — carry “somewhat low” credibility. Likewise, she smelled a rat with the 2017 rash of Mothman sightings in Chicago, or at least a dressed-up drone (“Cryptid are seen understandably on margins of places, and this was soaring above the Art Institute”). But, in her latest book, she places a 1994 werewolf sighting by guards at the Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago in the context of a long, widespread history of upright canines on military bases.
Her field work has been conducted mostly in the Midwest. Wisconsin and Michigan are especially ripe. “I don’t strike out into the unknown and hope I run into Bigfoot,” she said. She told me about an Illinois man who contacted her after buying a hayfield in the feeding grounds of the Beast of Bray Road. “He found mutilated animals. I went out. He put a 60-pound deer carcass where the mutilations were, set up a trail camera. He got nothing for a long time — then something traipses into the camera, there’s a mistiness and translucence over the deer, then the mist leaves, the deer is gone. There’s drag marks.”
Coyotes, I said.
“Something dragged that deer over barbed wire fence nearby.”
Yes, but …
“And there were only rear prints found.”
Godfrey leaves room for hope. She keeps an apple in her refrigerator that she says Bigfoot tossed at her. “Over the years Linda has become more of a believer,” said Lewis. “More open to alternatives.” He said that once on a stakeout, “we’re talking theories and Linda brings up the idea there are several portals to other dimensions, where these things come from. It was a thought experiment, but it struck me: She’s not seeing this as nailed down. There’s genuine adventure in her. It’s kept her doing this so long. It’s admirable.”
The job has never paid well. She makes her money on her books, not her investigations. “My husband always made our general living,” she said. “People are disappointed to learn, even with books, my net earnings each year are about one-fourth the earnings of a Walmart greeter. Nothing I’ve ever done (other than selling some original artworks) has ever paid me that well.”
She’s nearing 70. It’s been 13 years since being treated for cancer, and five since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But she can still hike and write. She doesn’t plan to stop.
Her desk looks out into the backyard and a large garden and behind it, a green tree line. When I ask her if she’s ever seen anything strange in this backyard, she takes a breath.
“I have,” she said.
“And I don’t want to say what. I’m still checking it out. But it looked like a mountain lion, and it was at night. Which is not nutty — there have been sightings of them around here. At 10:30 at night the neighbor’s dogs start barking like something is pulling out their intestines and I jumped up and there was not a lot of light and only a little moonlight, but it was a large animal. It sat with its front limbs straight out, like a cat. As soon as the dogs went into the house, whatever it was turned toward where my husband had been grilling. It made low strides and you could see its big shoulders moving. It reached our patio in four strides and walked around the grill, and probably six-feet long.”
As she said this, a brown rabbit sat at the edge of her garden, nibbling plants.
“Wonderful bait,” she said.