No. 43 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
“Like any normal 5th-grader, I preferred my villains to be evil and stay that way, to act like Dracula rather than Frankenstein’s monster, who ruined everything by handing that peasant girl a flower. He sort of made up for it by drowning her a few minutes later, but, still, you couldn’t look at him the same way again.”
— David Sedaris
What on earth is it with newspaper readers? They complain about the media, but salivate at the macabre, from bite-size morsels to entire carcasses. Readers — especially the subscription holders — love the supernatural, the horrific.
They won’t read a water agency meeting story past the third paragraph, but offer a story of a local vampire or werewolf sighting and they — pardon the play on words — howl for more.
Halloween’s less than a week away. The timing seems fitting. In its 100-year history, The Mighty Signal has opened the creaking casket of weird, blood-curdling and horrifying tales — and we’re not just talking about politics here.
One of the more twisted Signal stories I came across was from pre-Halloween, 1929. I don’t know if the parents were sick with grief or had a dark sense of Halloween humor. A tombstone was spotted up in Mint Canyon. The inscription read: “Died, male; aged three months; unmarried.”
Things that fall from the sky
The Lake Elizabeth Devil Bird is one of the SCV’s strangest tales. From a series of Signal stories in 1920, Addi Lyon, son of pioneer businessman Sanford Lyon (Sanford’s twin, Cyrus, was the famous gunfighter) reportedly saw something that looked like a pterodactyl just north of the SCV proper in the late 1880s. From Lyon’s description, it was: “…big as a horse, had wings like an oversize bat, big bulgy eyes the size of mushrooms that glowed like Southern Pacific headlights, and a long, wooly tail.” From an L.A. Times story, other witnesses claimed the beast would hover over the lake with a loud hissing sound, raising huge waves that threatened onlookers on the shore. Early ranchers claimed the creature killed and ate dozens of head of livestock over the years. One Basque rancher, Miguel Leonis, reported shooting the monster, THEN beating it with his rifle after he ran out of ammo. Leonis claimed to have bashed the creature’s eye out. The monster reportedly outlived Leonis, who died in 1889, under mysterious circumstances.
The Signal noted in 1925 that we drew national attention and a story in The Saturday Evening Post. It came from a small story that appeared on our page A1. A strange outer space rock hit in Mint Canyon, leaving a good-sized crater. The orb was the size of an egg, yet, so heavy, several men couldn’t lift it. The mysterious rock reportedly burned in a truck fire near present-day Sierra Highway.
Same neck of the woods, nearly a decade later, another extraterrestrial object was found by rancher Joe Rudell. The “rock” was about 4 by 6 inches, very dark and reportedly five times heavier than any stone of the same size. It also was not affected by a variety of acids poured onto it.
The Signal reported in July 1945, a UFO sighting. Up San Francisquito Canyon, W.R. Haynie reported an object hurtling through the post-midnight skies. Haynie suspected it was either ball lightning or possibly a meteor. The thing landed in the lonely canyon with a huge explosion.
For those of you into one-upsmanship and Signal trivia, the first-ever reported UFO sighting in the SCV was on July 8, 1947, by North Hollywood minister Clayton C. Root, who lived in Newhall. He told The Signal it came from the northeast and had a halo around it.
Certainly the strangest Signal UFO story I’ve come across happened in here in 1952. I was friends with the daughter of the witnesses, who went on record stating that what they had watched for nearly two hours was the gospel truth.
The Fortenberry family of Newhall reported seeing a flying saucer starting at 7 a.m. the morning of Sept. 19, 1952. They thought at first it was a morning star, then realized it was too bright for this classification. The Fortenberrys said at times the saucer stood perfectly still, then moved at seeming hypersonic speeds across the sky, leaving a vapor trail. I’m not sure Mr. Fortenberry himself wouldn’t lie. He was the local Lutheran minister.
We had yet another UFO sighting, except it was more of an USO — Unidentified Sitting Object. In October 1962, The Signal noted locals reported seeing an alien space craft, complete with exhaust ports. Turns out they were plexiglass domes used in the filming of the movie, “Underwater City” at the Juniper Tree Rifle Range.
Ghosts, ghouls, tricksters and werewolves
For decades, people have been reporting ghost stories in the San Francisquito Canyon area, the 1928 epicenter of one of the greatest tragedies in American history — The St. Francis Dam Disaster. Some 500-plus people were killed when the 186-foot-high dam burst.
To this day, people in the canyon report seeing spirits wandering across the road. One of the most popular and recurring sightings is of a Spanish-looking pale woman, with beautiful, long black hair in a white or light blue dress.
Our own Signal columnist and SCV historian, Jerry Reynolds, reported on a strange occurrence at the old Chinese graveyard in San Francisquito Canyon (an unusual name; no one Chinese is buried there and no one knows where the name comes from).
In February 1986, Reynolds was videotaping. His friend came out of the wash with a mysterious acid burn on his arm. When the pair got back to civilization, Jerry found his videotape was completely blank, even though frequent inspections during taping showed the video was good. Jerry went back for a second shoot. The camera caught on fire in an odd case of spontaneous combustion. Property owners of the unofficial cemetery weren’t surprised. They mentioned that a half-ton watering trough had been mysteriously moved in the middle of the night — with no tracks. Another time, a solitary man was painting his barn. When he looked up, there was a wet palm print of a child. No children were in the area.
Way up Sierra Highway used to sit the home of the Canyon Theatre Guild. Before that, it was Callahan’s Indian Village Theater, later called Callahan’s Old West. Named after a Hollywood impresario of the 1940s, Callahan’s was an eclectic Wild West museum and live theater. Callahan died and thespians over the years reported dozens of eerie happenings, from sudden cold shifts in temperature to hearing moaning to doors opening and closing.
It gets darn cold and then some here in January.
In 1961, The Signal reported that Deputy Dallas Basey answered a radio call that you could describe as being rather: A) Old Testament; B) UFO; C) Blair Witch Project; or, D) Other. Driving past the Eternal Valley graveyard, Basey spotted a small campfire up in the hills. Hiking through the graveyard, he spotted a small cross hanging from a tree. In front of the fire and cross was a large, elderly man. He had a red beard down to his stomach and long matching hair. After several, “excuse me’s” from Basey, the gentleman finally rose from his knees. He was wearing a long, thin white robe, white crucifix on a silver chain hanging from his neck and a rhinestone purse attached to his waist. The prophet-like fellow informed Basey he was practicing a spiritual ritual. Basey informed him he was on private property with an illegal fire. The prophet said there was no such thing as private property on God’s earth. The pair struck a compromise. Basey would let him spend the night if he’d put out the fire. The deputy checked on the elderly man a few times during the night to see if he was OK. Next morning, he was gone.
Actor Chuck Connors was famous for starring in the hit TV series, “The Rifleman.” He had four sons. I can’t remember which one, but one of Connors’ offspring lived in Castaic. He reported the first and only werewolf encounter in SCV history.
Sheriff’s deputies responded to the lycanthrope encounter and Connors’ son answered the door, covered in wounds and scratches. He told deputies he had heard baying and had gone out to investigate. Armed, the younger Connors climbed atop his wall and claimed he had been pulled off the wall by a pair of giant, hairy hands. He fought with the wolfman for several minutes before extricating himself and climbing back over to the safety of his home.
Upon further investigation, deputies believed the werewolf in question was the neighbor’s burro, upon which Connors had fallen. The Signal noted from the report that Connors had been heavily drinking and, in the dark, may have mistaken the docile pack animal for the legendary human flesh-eating monster.
Santa Clarita gigantipithicus stinkyicus
The earliest known Bigfoot sighting here in the SCV took place in the 1940s. Giant footprints were found up Towsley Canyon. A father-and-son hunting team (dad was a sheriff’s deputy) told The Signal they had entered a cloud of horrific-smelling odor. There were no birds chirping. The father, who was armed, recalled how all the body hair on both of them bristled and they both felt a silent, overpowering fear. Both men did an about-face and high-tailed it out of the canyon.
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, Sasquatch returned. We used to run front-page artist drawings of the Sasquatch in The Signal, along with dozens of reported sightings.
In 1974, an expedition of well-armed hunters, paranormal experts and bigfoot experts showed up, looking like a band of mercenaries from “The A-Team.” They set up a safari in the sagebrush, looking for ‘squatch signs. One hunter was partially disarmed by local sheriff’s deputies. Seems he had a .50-caliber machine gun. For days, they combed the rugged terrain and came back with bupkis. Even Channel 4 News anchor Jess Marlow joined them.
While several expeditions didn’t even roust a hair sample, locals were still claiming to have seen the legendary 9-foot-tall, half-ton hairy humanoid.
Saugus rancher Bob Curasi made a plaster-of-paris mold of several footprints on his property and claimed to have seen the creature step over a 5-foot-high fence.
Two teen lovers were nearly scared to death up Plum Canyon. They were parked and making out. The girl reported opening her eyes and seeing a giant, hairy creature “with a bullet-head,” bending over the car and peering in at them through the windshield.
Local deputies investigated in the pre-dawn hours. They didn’t find the Bigfoot, The Signal noted, but they did bump into a man hauling trash from the farm and questioned him. The man quipped he hadn’t spotted anyone 9 feet tall — hairy or not — lately. The trash hauler asked the lawmen that if they did bump into someone matching the description, to please send him back because he could sure use the help loading his truck.
Two other teens reported seeing the creature up Lost Canyon, at their hog ranch. Of course, the story lost a little credibility when they added that the hominid was wearing “…a blue bell around its neck.”
A long-extinct creature
One of our cool Halloween stories took place back in 1925. It involves a creature that may live on only in storybooks. They call the beast, “The Adult.”
There were only a few hundred souls in Downtown Newhall and everybody pretty much knew everybody. Seems a bunch of wandering rowdies on horseback were setting trash fires on people’s lawns. The local constable was called. It was about 2 in the morning and the lawman paid a visit to each of the homes of the sleeping vandals. With the parents’ blessings, The Adult with the badge hauled four teens from slumber, drove them back to the scenes of their “Tricks” and made them completely clean up the messes they made. Got them home long after sun-up…
The grossest, most disgusting story The Signal has EVER covered
Around Halloween of 1941, the two young sons of Helsie Melter got a whipping for their unbelievable evil. Mrs. Melter’s sons had been warned about chewing gum and getting it stuck on things. So, Mrs. M cut off their supply. The owner of a local Canyon Country cafe called the Sand Canyon mother and tattled that he had captured the lads in the act of stealing gum and chewing it — from the bottom of the coffee shop stools.
No horror movie was ever as gross.
Fred, the maker of monsters
Thursday is Halloween. At The Signal, we’ve covered 99 of them so far.
Long about this time of year, all over the world, people will celebrate the work of Newhall resident Fred Hagemann. He is best known as inventing the rubber latex Halloween mask. He retired here in the early 1950s after selling all his patents and his factory in Connecticut. Prior to the mid-1940s, the trick or treat disguise of choice was the paper mask.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 44 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.