The story of the man-eating plants of Madagascar is perhaps one of the earliest conspiracy theories ever published. It first appeared in the late 1800s (1874) and lasted well into the next century. It is probably one of the most fantastic stories ever presented and accepted by the general public as ‘fact’. As a horror aficionado, I was fascinated by the idea and, to be perfectly honest, was very disappointed that it was a well-written piece of fiction.
Fact or Fiction…
Incredibly, as early as a year later in 1875, it was announced that the story was a hoax. However, the readers were more willing to believe in the existence of the plant, and Karl Leche, than they were in common sense. It was not until 1955 when Willy Rey published his book, Salamanders and other Wonders, that reality, that common sense finally prevailed. In this publication, Ley declared that the Mkodo tribe, Carl Leche, and the Madagascar man-eating tree were all a fanciful fabrication. Rey wrote, “The facts are pretty clear by now. Of course, the man-eating tree does not exist. There is no such tribe.”
The First Appearance
The legend of a man-eating tree on the island of Madagascar was supposedly first reported by a German explorer named Carl Liche. According to Liche, it was a sacred and much-feared plant used in sacrificial rituals by the native Mkodo tribe. Indeed, the South Australian Register printed Liche’s account of a first-hand encounter with the Mkodo and their fearsome tree:
“From the top of the tree sprout long hairy green tendrils and a set of tentacles, constantly and vigorously in motion, with … a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air. [Presented a woman as an offering], the slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever-tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.”
…or a hoax
The hoax, as indeed, it turned out to be, was still being perpetuated as much as forty years later. An explorer, Chase Osborn, who was a former governor of the state of Michigan, wrote about the tree in his book Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree. In his book he confirmed Liche’s claims, adding that other tribes, as well as missionaries also knew about the tree.
The only problem was the whole thing was a cruel joke. In 1955 a writer by the name of Willy Ley discovered that not only were the tribe and the tree a work of fiction but so was the German explorer who supposedly found them.
So, why were the readers so happy to believe that these plants, and the tribe, actually existed? The fact that people were willing to believe this incredible story for 70 years tells us something about human nature. The sad truth is that some strange part of us wants that man-eating trees actually exist.
Photo credit – Wikipedia –
Interestingly, carnivorous plants do exist in nature and there are numerous examples from the Venus Flytrap to the Pitcher Plant. The fact that we’ve never actually seen one big enough to eat a human doesn’t mean that there isn’t one out there waiting for us to find it, or fall into it…
And then, of course, there is this:
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