Crinoida Dajeeana, the Devil Tree of Madagascar

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"Sacrificed to a Man-Eating Plant," a 1920 newspaper illustration depicting a young woman in the grips of the Crinoida Dajeeana.

Crinoida Dajeeana, also known as the Devil Tree of Madagascar or Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar, is the appellation for a cryptobotanical carnivorous plant with supposed origins in Madagascar. The man-eating tree was the subject of press attention during the late nineteenth century (and again in the early twentieth), originating from a report in the New York World of 26 April 1874; the authorship of the fantastical story would later be attributed to one Edmund Spencer by Frederick Maxwell Somers in the August 1888 issue of his magazine Current Literature.[1]

Dramatis Personae

  • Karl Leche (or Carle Liche), an "eminent botanist", described in later reports as "the noted German explorer and scientist".
  • Omelius Friedlowsky, a researcher of vegetable physiology, recipient of Leche's reports.
  • Edmund Spencer, credited as the author of the work by Frederick Maxwell Somers; in our view, more likely this was Edward Spencer (1834-1883), a notable Baltimore author, poet, and journalist, who wrote for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York World, and was an editor for various newspapers in Baltimore.
  • Dr. B. H. Williams, "the Distinguished American Botanist," to whom the 1920 re-writing of Leche's (or Spencer's) story is attributed.
  • V. de la Motte Hurst, a former British army captain, who mounted a 1932 expedition to Madagascar in search of the tree.

The Article

(As reprinted in the August 1888 issue of Current Literature under the title "WONDERFUL STORIES — THE MAN EATING TREE")

In the last number of Graefe and Walther's Magazine published at Carlsruhe, there is a letter in regard to the newly-discovered Crinoida Dajeeana, from the discoverer, Karl Leche, the eminent botanist, prefaced by some notes from Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky, whose deep research in vegetable physiology has had so many important results. Leche's letter, it appears, was originally addressed to Friedlowsky, and they seem to have been pursuing a subject of novel and startling interest, which is likely to give remarkable discoveries to science. Dr Friedlowsky says:
My special and only motive for publishing prematurely the history of my friend Leche's half-developed discovery is similar to that which influenced Darwin to bring out his book on the origin of species. His theory was not near developed but his title to priority in discovery was imperiled by the announcement of Mr. Wallace's researches in the Malayan Archipelago. Darwin himself, as well as some American botanists, have lately come so perilously near to the discovery of the problem Leche set himself to investigate, in their studies of drosera and sarracenia, that I think it is due to my friend's credit to make some preliminary announcement of the great progress he has already made towards establishing a point of contact of our organic systems with those of the universe at large through analysis of the constitution of some abnormal plants which have always hitherto puzzled the botanists. The point to which Karl Leche, at my suggestion, has been giving his attention latterly is briefly this: Certain plants such as drosera (with its outlying species dionea muscicapa), sarracenia, and some others, departing from the general law, instead of supplying food to animals turn the tables, capture them, and are themselves carnivorous. It has often occurred to me in connection with these insectivorous plants, so abnormal in their constitution, that they might have a widely different origin (or at least an origin widely different in point of time) from the common orders of plants inhabiting our globe, and that if I could establish the nature of this different origin upon reasonable grounds, I might at the same time afford a reasonable explanation at once of the origin and the primordial variations of life. When Leche went to Bombay in response to the call extended to him by the Medical College of that city, he went full of my ideas upon this vastly important subject, and prepared, as I advised him, to make special investigations into the habitats of all such abnormal plants as seem to depart from the characteristic traits of the flora of their respective countries. This I state here, because, while the theory is by no means far advanced, it was while in search of facts to countenance this theory that Leche discovered the remarkable and terrible Crinoida Dajeeana, of which his letter gives such a graphic and forcible description. After quite a long sojourn in India, Leche was induced to go to Madagascar by Dr. Bhawoo Dajee, the liberal-minded, intelligent Parsee physician of Bombay, who, indeed, supplied the means for the expedition, and made so many thoughtful provisions for my colleague's comfort as to win his gratitude and love. Dr. Dajee, it seems, represented to Leche that it was impossible to glean much in a field so carefully worked over by many botanists, and indeed almost exhausted by Hooker. When quite a young man Dr. Dajee had made a voyage to Madagascar in one of Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy's trading ships, and had been deeply impressed with the remarkably various and beautiful flora of that almost untraveled region. An excellent opportunity offered for going out in one of Cursetjee Jeejeebhoy's traders, which was to stop at Tamatave on her way to the Cape; so Leche embarked, attended by a Madagasy sailor for servant, Dr. Dajee having hired the fellow thinking he would be useful to Leche as guide and interpreter. That was more than two years ago. Since then I have received three letters from Leche — two by way of Bombay, one by way of the Cape — and now last week a fourth, which he had the luck to send by an Arabian trader to Zanzibar, whence it reached me via Aden. After writing of many other things Leche proceeded to say:
But I do not know how soon Seid ben Yalhamah may take a notion to sail, and I want to tell you about the remarkable tree which I have discovered, and which I have named in honor of my benefactor, Crinoida Dajeeana. About two weeks after my last letter to you I went from Tananarivo to a point in the mountains over against Mananzari, to visit a Christianized chief there who had sent me a great many messages. On the way thither my Madagasy servant deserted me, saying he did not want to be killed and eaten by Mkodos, a tribe of inhospitable savages of whom little was known, but who were supposed to dwell in the mountains further to the south, and to be cannibals. In Telliyimat's place I hired (when I reached the chieftain's village) a perfect treasure, in the shape of a Namaqua Caffre, named Henrick, who had fled Graham Town on account of some scrape, and after many wanderings found himself in the chief's retinue. Henrick — he is with me now — is a fearless and intelligent fellow, full of enterprise and spirit, a good hunter, and a most devoted, untiring, and unquestioning follower. I had taken him with me on several botanizing excursions when he asked me why I did not go to visit the land of the Mkodos, where I would find a great number of curious plants, such as he had never seen elsewhere. I answered that they had the reputation of being inhospitable, cannibals, and all that, but he pooh-poohed the idea. He had been among them twice, he said, and had been well received, and he would guarantee me kind treatment among them. They got their bad name from being continually at war with the other tribes, and from successfully barring their country against all invaders. He then gave me an account of the country and particularly of the strange plant I have spoken of above, and so excited my curiosity that I resolved to go thither at once, and accordingly, as we were tolerably well equipped, we set out over the mountains without returning to take leave of the chief, my entertainer. The country of Mkodos began about five days' journey from the point whence we started, and was a long valley sloping and descending towards the east and ingirt on three sides by rough inaccessible mountains; on the fourth separated from the coast by jungles and morass. The approach to it was most arduous over the crests of several sharp mountain ridges frowning with basaltic precipices. No sooner had we come into the valley, however, than I felt the warm breath of the Indian Ocean and saw its influence in the vegetation, which grew rapidly more and more tropical, majestic, and colossal as we descended. The valley had an average breadth of about thirty miles, and was about 175 miles long, in the course of which it descended over 3,000 feet. The Mkodos are a very primitive race, going entirely naked, having only faint vestiges of tribal relations, and no religion beyond that of the awful reverence which they pay to the sacred tree. They carry a javelin about six feet long, with which they conquer the chetah and do not hesitate to encounter the formidable buffalo (bos caffer) that ranges the woody slopes and savannahs of their country. They are also armed with a short bow and a quiver of poisoned arrows. They dwell entirely in caves hollowed out of the limestone rocks in their hills, and are one of the smallest of races, the men seldom exceeding fifty six inches in height. Their country must be a very productive one, if I may judge from the abundance of animal and vegetable life it contains. At different elevations in the valley during my short sojourn in it, I noticed droves of antelopes (the klip dos of the Cape), the chetah (felis jubata), hyrax, manis pentadactyla, histrix cristala, and many other animals, while the lower forests were full of a new species of gigantic pteropi, which at night flew about as if the land belonged to them. The variety and richness of the flora of this valley (the Mkodos have no name for their country, calling it simply Mzemb, the land) may be inferred when I tell you that I saw and examined species of all the palms (including umbraculifera, or tallipot, and sagus rhumphil), and that among the plants growing commonly I found acaciae, numerous equisetaceae, mimosae, goseypia, areca, ricinus, rhamnus lotus, and nymphaea coerulea, eupatoriae, diosmata, salices, cassiae, juncus, solandra, aloes, spicata, balsamodendum, myrrha, croton tiglii, cucumis colocynthis, etc., etc. I attribute this richness and variety to several causes — the latitude, half-tropical, half-temperate, the variety of altitude, and the warm, sultry, vapor-laden winds from the Indian Ocean, which cause a vast rainfall. At the bottom of the valley (I had no barometer, but should think it not over 400 feet above the level of the sea), and near its eastern extremity, we came to a deep tarn-like lake, about a mile in diameter, the sluggish oily waters of which overflowed into a tortuous reedy canal, that went unwillingly into the recesses of a black forest, jungle below, palm above. This lake was filled with alligators, and its jungled borders were the home of the chetah and a variety of venomous serpents. Great ferns bent over its margin, and its surface was spotted with leaves and flowers of the lotus. A path, diverging from its southern side, struck boldly for the heart of the forbidding and seemingly impenetrable forest. Henrick led the way along this path, I following closely, and behind me a curious rabble of Mkodos, men, women, and children. After we were fairly in the forest, the shade overhead was so dense that the jungle and undergrowth almost disappeared, and instead there was a damp, boggy turf, cold, spongy, and yielding to the tread. The stalks of the tall trees rose like columns, the vines hanging down from them in festoons, and their roots running over the ground in every direction, making walking difficult. Suddenly all the natives began to cry, "Tepe! Tepe!" and Henrick, stopping short, said "Look!" The slugglish canal-like stream here wound slowly by, and in a bare spot near its bend was the most singular of trees. I have called it crinoida, because when its leaves are in action it bears a striking resemblance to that well-known fossil the crinoid lilystone, or St. Cuthbert's beads. It was now at rest, however, and I will try to describe it to you. If you can imagine a pineapple eight feet high, and thick in proportion, resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the trunk of the tree, which, however was not the color of an anana, but a dark, dingy brown, and apparently hard as iron. From the apex of this truncated cone (at least two feet in diameter) eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges. These leaves, which were joined to the top of the tree at regular intervals, were about eleven or twelve feet long and shaped very much like the leaves of the American agave, or century plant. They were two feet through in their thickest part and three feet wide, tapering to a sharp point that looked like a cow's horn, very convex on the outer (but now under) surface, and on the inner (now upper) surface slightly concave. This concave face was thickly set with very strong thorny hooks, like those upon the head of the teazle. These leaves, hanging thus limp and lifeless, dead green in color, had in appearance the massive strength of oak fiber. The apex of the cone was a round, white, concave figure, like a smaller plate set within a larger one. This was not a flower but a receptacle, and there exuded into it a clear, treacly liquid, honey sweet, and possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific properties. From underneath the rim (so to speak) of the undermost plate a series of long, hairy, green tendrils stretched out in every direction towards the horizon. These were seven or eight feet long each, and tapered from four inches to a half an inch in diameter, yet they stretched out stiffly as iron rods. Above these (from between the upper and under cup) six white, almost transparent, palpi reared themselves towards the sky, twirling and twisting with a marvelous incessant motion, yet constantly reaching upwards. Thin as reeds, and frail as quills, apparently they were yet five or six feet tall, and were so constantly and vigorously in motion, with such a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air, that they made me shudder in spite of myself with their suggestion of serpents flayed, yet dancing on their tails. Here were not corolla, pistil, stamens, a flower, mind you, nor anything like it. For Crinoida unknown, new species as it is, is nighest akin to the cycadaceae, and perhaps its exact prototype may be found among the fossil cycadae, though I confess I do not remember any one that presents all its peculiar features. The description I am giving you now is partly made up from a subsequent careful inspection of the plant. My observations on this occasion were suddenly interrupted by the natives, who had been shrieking around the tree in their shrill voices, and chanting what Henrick told me were propitiatory hymns to the great tree devil. With still wilder shrieks and chants they now surrounded one of the women, and urged her with the points of their javelins until slowly, and with despairing face, she climbed up the rough stalk of the tree and stood on the summit of the cone, the palpi twirling all about her. "Tsik! tsik!" (drink! drink!) cried the men, and, stooping, she drank of the viscid fluid in the cup, rising instantly again with wild frenzy in her face and convulsive chorea in her limbs. But she did not jump down, as she seemed to intend to do. Oh no! The atrocious cannibal tree that had been so inert and dead came to sudden, savage life. 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 wilder to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgled 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 the cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey. It was the barbarity of the Laocoon without its beauty — this strange, horrible murder. And now the great leaves rose slowly and stiffly, like the arms of a derrick, erected themselves in the air, approached one another, and closed about the dead and hampered victim with the silent force of a hydraulic press, and the ruthless purpose of a thumbscrew. A moment more, and, while I could see the base of these great levers pressing more tightly towards each other, from their interstices there trickled down the stalk of the tree great steams of the viscid, honey-like fluid, mingled horridly with the blood and oozing viscera of the victim. At sight of this the savage hordes around me, yelling madly, bounded forward, crowded to the tree, clasped it, and with cups, leaves, hands, and tongues, got each enough of the liquor to send him mad and frantic. Then ensued a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgie, from which even while its convulsive madness was turning rapidly into delirium and insensibility, Henrick dragged me hurriedly away into the recesses of the forest, hiding me from the dangerous brutes and the brutes from me. May I never see such a sight again! Seid ben Yalhamah says he will go aboard his ship in half an hour and sail, so I must be brief. In the course of my stay in the valley of twenty-one days, I saw six other specimens of the Crinoida Dajeeana, but none so large as this which the Mkodos worshipped. I discovered that they are unquestionably carnivorous, in the same sense that dionea and drosera are insectivorous. The retracted leaves of the great tree kept their upright position during ten days, then, when I came again one morning, they were prone again, the tendrils stretched, the palpi floating, and nothing but a white skull at the foot of the tree to remind me of the sacrifice that had taken place there. I climbed into a neighboring tree and saw that all trace of the victim had disappeared, and the cup was again supplied with the viscid fluid. The indescribable rapidity and energy of its movements may be inferred from the fact that I saw a smaller one seize, capture, and destroy an active little lemur, which, dropping by accident upon it while watching and grinning at me, in vain endeavored to escape from the fatal toils. With Henrick's assistance and the consent of some of the head men of the Mkodos (who, however, did not dare to stay to witness the act of sacrilege), I cut down one of the minor trees and dissected it carefully. Seid, however, is waiting for me, and I must defer to my next the details of this most interesting examination.

Karl Leche.  


In this tantalizing fashion, after some private matters and messages, does Leche's letter end. I have been expecting his next with the utmost impatience, and will communicate its contents to you as soon as received.

Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky.  

Reprints and Rewrites

Contemporary Reprints (1874)

Truncated versions of the story circulated almost immediately after the story first appeared, generally with a short preface text — "The New York World publishes the following unique production, said to have been condensed from a Carlsrhue magazine. The extract purports to be from a letter written by one Karl Leche, a traveler in Madagascar. The writer says:" — before leaping straight into the deep forest and the sacrifice to the Crinoida Dajeeana, skipping the introductory matter.

Second Wind (1875)

A year after the first cycle of the story, it again appeared, this time credited to Dr. Jay of the South Australian Register.

News Rewrites (1890)

Fifteen years later, in a piece attributed to the Brooklyn Eagle, the story of "The Man Eating Tree" again re-appeared, this time rewritten almost completely, transforming the story into the style of a more conventional news article, and adding a minor salve to the conclusion: a new witness, unnamed, that reported the natives burnt the tree after the woman had been trapped in it.

Modern Science Explains (1920)

Thirty years pass after the Brooklyn Eagle reprint, and the story again reappears, this time under the byline of a Dr. B. H. William, The Distinguished American Botanist, the title "The Remarkable Experiences of a Distinguished Scientist in Madagascar and How Science Explains the Existence of the Monstrous Growths Upon Which He Has Made Official Report."

In Search of Crinoida Dajeenana

Osborn's Expedition (1913)

Although he did not find a man-eating tree, Chase Salmon Osborn (former governor of Michigan) reported, of his 1913 trip, that he had made inquiries after it, and was told that belief in the tree was widespread among the native population of Madagascar; and, padding out the introductory chapter of his book, quoted at length the report of Dr. Carle Liche, whose story Osborn cited as having been first published in the New York World during 1880, and later the South Australian Register.

Capt. V. de la Motte Hurst's Expedition (1932)

In 1932, it was reported that "a band of British explorers, including one woman, will land on the island of Sinbad the Sailor in a few weeks to search for the mysterious Madagascar 'sacrifice tree,' which devours human beings," an expedition which was to be led by one Captain V. de la Motte Hurst, "a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society," and had hopes of capturing motion picture recordings of the tree.[2]

Ivan Mackerle refers in his article Man-Eater or Only Killer?, https://www.en.mackerle.cz/man-eater-or-only-killer  to an "L. Hearst" who mounted a four-month expedition of 1935 and his subsequent disappearance on a return expedition to Madagascar in search of further evidence; this is likely a reference to the earlier Hurst reports.

Further Reading

References

  1. Somers, F. M., ed. (August 1888), "General Gossip of Authors and Writers", Current Literature (New York: Current Literature Publishing Co.) 1 (2): 109, https://books.google.com/books?id=T_ZYAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA154 
  2. "SEEK SACRIFICIAL TREE. Scientist Search for Tree That Devours Human Beings.", Tipton Daily Tribune (Tipton, Ind.): 4, 1932-08-19, https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/1811319/