LOUISIANA, Mo. — Late afternoon on July 12, 1972, at the foot of Star Hill in the Mississippi River town of Louisiana, children’s screams pierced the hot summer air.
Terry Harrison, 8, his brother Wally Harrison, 5, and their dog, Chubby, were outside playing when Terry spotted a hairy creature standing at the edge of the woods.
Their sister Doris, 15, who stood cleaning a bathroom sink, looked outside.
“It was right by the tree, 6 or 7 feet tall, black and hairy,” Doris told the Post-Dispatch at the time. “It stood like a man, but it didn’t look like one to me.”
Redheaded Terry went so pale that his freckles disappeared by the time he ran to the house. A crying Doris ran to the phone to call her mother, and both parents rushed home.
Mo Mo, short for the Missouri Monster, had arrived.
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And 50 years later, he hasn’t quite left.
The sighting sparked a frenzy that brought search parties and investigators to Star Hill. Next were documentaries, blog posts, a Mo Mo ride at Six Flags St. Louis that looked more like a black octopus, and, most recently, a July 1 concert in Louisiana by country musician and former Pike County resident Bill Whyte. He composed a sleeper hit back then, “Mo Mo the Missouri Monster,” that still gets airplay on local radio.
“Some said it was a monster; some said it was a bear,” he sang to a cheering crowd at the Louisiana Elks Lodge, “but most of us could tell by the horrible smell that Mo Mo had just been there.” About 3,300 people live in Louisiana, founded in 1816. It’s about 90 miles north of St. Louis along Highway 79, also known as the Little Dixie Highway of the Great River Road. It boasts the most intact Victorian streetscape in Missouri, evoking its heyday as a river shipping point for lumber and tobacco. Tourists gather here every winter to spot eagles. There are empty storefronts and run-down frame homes and trailers, but there are also grandiose homes and buildings, some with QR codes on placards that lead to more historical information.
The phrase “once a Piker, always a Piker” refers to the adventurous spirit of someone who once set foot in Pike County and then went west, looking for adventure. The area was a stepping-off point for the unknown.
“I guess it just showcases how extensive our history is,” said Brent Engel, 59, a local author and co-president of the Louisiana Area Historical Museum. “It’s not just Mo Mo.”
Searching for Mo Mo
The Harrison children weren’t the first to spot something mysterious. The year before, two women stopped for a picnic off Highway 79 north of Louisiana, where they said they saw and smelled a half-ape, half-man emerging from the weeds. It gurgled and disappeared into the woods, but not before grabbing and wolfing down a peanut butter sandwich.
After the Harrisons reported the monster sighting, search parties scoured the thickly wooded Star Hill.
Tom Ward, now 69, was among them. He’s the new superintendent of the Louisiana RII School District (home of the Bulldogs, not the Mo Mos), and his father, Shelby Ward, was the Louisiana city marshal at the time.
Ward was a college student, and the family had a direct line from the police station to their house. For days, the younger Ward took calls from all across the country and around the world.
He was also among a group who made a concentrated sweep of Star Hill.
They found nothing.
“The biggest thing is when I walked up over a pond bank, and there was a big, black angus cow looking at me,” Ward said. “It kind of startled me.”
Rumors swirled of other sightings. The monster supposedly left behind three-toed footprints and tufts of hair on tree bark. Some said it had red eyes. Some said it had green eyes. Some swore it was a teenage prank. One man said the monster left paw prints on the hood of his station wagon, and he painted around the prints, showing them off to a Post-Dispatch reporter.
“It kind of got out of hand at times,” Ward said.
The searches went on for about 12 days, and it was nerve-wracking, especially for Marshal Ward. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt or shot.
“He was no-nonsense,” Ward said of his father. “He didn’t make jokes about it. He was a public servant; he cared. But it was more the caring of the safety and security of individuals.”
His dad believed the sighting was a prank. “I don’t think it was anything,” Tom Ward said. “I always believe that there’s something out there. Your mind kind of plays tricks on you, if you believe something.”
The study of Mo Mo
Loren Coleman is the founder and director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. The museum, which explores hidden or unknown animals, has its own exhibit on Mo Mo, complete with statues and casts of three-toed footprints. Coleman, who studied zoology at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, has written several articles about Mo Mo and mentions the monster in some of his more than 40 books. “I think I’m the only one who writes down ‘cryptozoology’ for the IRS,” he quipped.
A similar creature was reported in Michigan about a decade before Mo Mo, he pointed out. Other reports came from Illinois and Michigan. In 1972, he investigated the Mo Mo case and interviewed witnesses on the phone; he traveled there in later years to reinvestigate.
The story was credible, he said. “It had a core of children who were the first eyewitnesses. Children tend to be the best witnesses in terms of credibility. They had nothing to gain from it. If you think of it on the surface, it was a very scary incident.”
People wouldn’t have learned of other reports from local newspapers, because news didn’t travel as fast back then, he pointed out. People had no real incentive to copycat or seek fame.
“These people were just trying to figure out what the heck was going on,” Coleman said. “That was the common thread.”
The Harrisons, who still live in the area, declined to comment for this story. Doris Harrison, now known as Doris Bliss, spoke to the Quincy Herald-Whig in 2012.
“I used to hate talking about it, because people made fun of me and stuff, but now, and you can pardon my French, they can kiss my ass. I saw what I saw, and I heard what I heard.”
Embracing Mo Mo
Fifty years later, Judy Schmidt sits on a folding chair inside the Louisiana Area Historical Museum, folding commemorative Mo Mo T-shirts.
Among the displays are ads from Stark Bro’s Nursery, which developed red and golden delicious apples; a model of the Hercules Chemical Plant, which produced fuel and ammonia for the World War II effort; and a portrait of Louisiana native and U.S. Sen. John Brooks Henderson, a co-author of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
There’s one informational placard about Mo Mo.
Occasionally, Judy’s husband, Carl, dresses up as Mo Mo — in a shaggy ghillie suit usually used for hunting, which he got as a retirement gift from the women at the community bank — and appears at children’s programs and community events. For a while, the suit stood in the front window of the museum, its eyes wired with red lights.
“Our impression is Mo Mo has gotten a little bit of gray hair, and this is close,” said Judy Schmidt, laughing.
The couple, now in their 70s, lived in Quincy at the time of the sightings. But everybody knew about it. Judy Schmidt worried about the Boy Scouts searching the hill and thought she’d never send her own children up there.
“The idea that everybody was interested worldwide in what was going on right here in Louisiana, Missouri, was pretty exciting,” she said. “There was skepticism, but there just might be something.”
The museum sold $5 tickets (“1972 pricing!”) for the Bill Whyte concert, and fans stood in line at the museum door the first day of sales. The town embraces Mo Mo with good humor — you can occasionally see a plywood or metal Mo Mo silhouette gracing a front yard or field — but some don’t want to talk about it, for fear others will talk about them.
Engel, the historical society co-president, was 9 years old in July 1972 and lived just across the river in Augusta, Illinois. He and his younger brother Bruce begged their parents to let them hunt for Mo Mo. They said no.
“We did come back a few years later on a vacation trip back from the Ozarks,” Engel said. “I remember very vividly my father saying, ‘Let’s look out for Mo Mo!’”
It was the perfect incident to capture the imaginations of preteen boys, Engel said. “It’s like cowboy movies. Every young man wants to be a cowboy. Well, every young man wants to hunt for Mo Mo. We would have been scared out of our wits had we seen anything, but we would have at least had the bragging rights to say, look, we were there.”
Museum treasurer Linda Beer, 74, grew up on Star Hill. She had moved to Quincy by the time of the sightings but remembers the frenzy and news reports.
More so, she remembers roaming Star Hill as a kid, making mud pies and gathering sticks to build little villages. “There was a big rock up there, and I’m sure it’s still there. And that was always the goal — to walk up there and sit on that rock and look over Louisiana. It was a good way to grow up.”
The wooded hill, formally called Marzolf Hill, is partially owned by the city. The eastern section shows up on maps as a park, but it’s more or less abandoned, the home to a city brush pile.
Not far from where the Harrisons’ house once stood, a gravel path littered with trash leads up and into the woods.
People call it Star Hill for the 40-foot star the town installs there during the holidays. The star is a favorite tradition, going back at least 90 years.
On a dark night, people from miles around can see the star at the summit. They gaze up and beyond Louisiana, and wonder.