Unmasking the Old Stinker: The Hull Werewolf
It was 2016, and newspapers in the United Kingdom lit up with the news that a legendary medieval werewolf named Old Stinker had made a reappearance, and was currently terrorizing the residents of Kingston upon Hull, a port city in eastern England. Intelligent 21st century adults were seeing inexplicable beastly creatures tearing about, and so far as the newspapers could ascertain, the best explanation was that this ancient monster was back. Old Stinker had been a classic werewolf, well known even all these centuries later, and notorious for its distinctively bad breath which inspired its name. The notion that some kind of supernatural being might actually be among us today, and might have survived for centuries in order to do so, is compelling indeed. So we're going to point our skeptical eye straight at this claim, and see if we can find some possible explanation that does not require us to concede the reality of the supernatural.
May 15th, 2016 was one of those colorful days when all the newspapers went nuts with some of those stories guaranteed to raise eyebrows and sell papers. From The Express:
And from The Daily Mail on the same day:
Local folklorist and author Mike Covell collected at least eleven such stories, some from people he'd known personally for years. They were mainly of this same basic pattern, a being that sometimes ran like a tall man, sometimes ran on all fours, sometimes reported as furry, able to jump and climb great distances, and sometimes eating roadkill or some animal. A few accounts described it as a dog with a human face, and a few described it as a human with a dog's face. Lots of newspapers reported the stories for a few weeks, and then like all such stories, it eventually faded out of the news. Nothing ever came of it. No strange animal was ever caught, no schizophrenic person was ever found, and the sightings stopped coming in.
Covell listed what he thought were the possible identifications of what he called the Beast of Barmston Drain. One was, of course, a person. There are any number of reasons a person might do most of the things reported by witnesses, no paranormal influence needed. Another nomination was a big cat, as we discussed recently in episode #798 on the big cats of Britain — possibly an escaped or abandoned large exotic predatory cat like those known to occasionally turn up in the region. Another was a deer, of which there are many in the area; particularly the red deer which can be quite large and can move and jump with dramatic power and speed. Now a deer doesn't have a human face and won't jump over a wall carrying a large dead dog in its jaws, but it's possible — even probable, perhaps — that a deer explains one or more of the various sightings. What's almost certain is that no one culprit explains all of them; to whatever degree the number of sightings in 2016 was larger than normal, there were quite probably more than one person or animal responsible. It's even possible that every sighting was of something different.
Covell's last nomination was of a big dog — just a regular large domestic dog, which I'd bet anything was responsible for at least some of the sightings. But he also mentioned the type of quasi-supernatural big dog that permeates so much of English folklore. If you're not British you may have only heard of the Hound of the Baskervilles, but English folklore is bursting at the seams with dozens and dozens of famous canine beasts. It's not necessary to suggest that the Beast of Barmston Drain was a supernatural dog thing to acknowledge that with such a rich history filled with them, it's not improbable that a Hull local, walking home alone at night and seeing something large rush through the bushes, would immediately think of such legends. And these legends are separated by only the blurriest of lines from werewolves, going all the way back through the centuries when people learned to be terrified of actual wolves.
The history of wolves in Britain is a gory one. Wolves would sometimes opportunistically attack and kill people. They would habitually kill livestock. They would sometimes horrifically dig up and devour the bodies of the dead. In response to this, kings usually had bounty programs and hunts organized several times a year. Wolves were shot, clubbed, and trapped. They are believed to have been hunted to extinction in England by the 15th century, and finally in parts of Scotland by the 17th century. Ever since then, there have been no wolves in Britain, and it's purely the result of hunting by humans.
Folklorists have noted that with the disappearance of actual wolves, popular stories about werewolves correspondingly faded away. What remained in English folklore were the hounds: the Black Shuck, Barghest, the Gurt Dog, the Grim, Padfoot, the list goes on. More than one of them were said to often walk on their hind legs, upright, like some grotesque giant man-beast.
So, with such a folkloric past, we can charitably forgive anyone who sprang for a supernatural explanation for the Beast of Barmston Drain. The sightings totaled scarcely more than you can count on your fingers anyway, and in all probability, they were of different things. We can't know what they were, but we've scant reason to suspect they were anything terribly extraordinary. The big mystery here is not what the people in Hull saw at night in 2016, but rather, it's the identification given to it by the press: Old Stinker. One of the first things I did when researching this episode was to look up the legendary Old Stinker, to see what and where it was, what it did, and how long ago it blew its frightful breath into the faces of the local populace. I started by going to the experts who have spent the most time with this.
Besides Mike Covell, there are at least three other authors who have written somewhat extensively on the Hull sightings from 2016, and of that four I was able to speak with three of them, who were all generous with their time and knowledge: Deborah Hyde, Mike Covell, and Charles Christian. Yet not one was able to provide even a single print reference indicating the existence of an Old Stinker legend prior to 2015; their only printed citations were the tabloid articles from 2016, and the books and articles written by each other since those events.
So I went thermonuclear on my search. A friend who is a university librarian, and has helped me dig up some of the most obscure manuscripts ever mentioned on the show, used his vast resources to check every searchable index of every book, article, and magazine, from all dates prior to 2015, from every country, and found exactly zero documents containing both the word werewolf and the phrase old stinker. I don't deny that there is such a print reference out there somewhere — in fact, I fully expect some listener will turn one up and let me know, and if they do I'll include it in a future followup episode — but right now, lacking that, the absence of evidence points to any Old Stinker legend not having existed prior to 2015. The fact is, as every documentary researcher knows, that there is essentially no such thing as a legend that has endured for centuries without any person ever having once mentioned it in print. Are there purely oral histories of legends? Of course there are, but name one, from any language that's both written and spoken, that is centuries old and yet nobody has ever written about it. You can't, because there's no such thing.
Therefore, I am hereby making a bold claim: There never was a werewolf known as Old Stinker in England, before it was made up and first written about circa 2015. And I also reiterate that I will take pleasure in walking this back should a satisfactory, verified reference be produced. If it is, then the only remaining mystery will be why none of the modern authors elected to cite it.
So all of this raises a question: Can we find the moment of genesis? Can we find the origin of the Old Stinker? This time we have a good answer, and it's yes.
One of my four authors, Charles Christian, published a book in 2015 titled Yorkshire's Weird Wolds: The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle. In a later edition of that same book, Christian described what happened:
And it is indeed the original 2015 edition of Christian's book that contains the first actual mention in print of a werewolf named Old Stinker, a mere four mentions. Christian wrote:
Whatever Christian remembered from his youth had never, it appears, been documented by any folklorist or historian, in any book or article, from any era. And so the legend of Old Stinker dates not from medieval times, but from 2015. Naturally I would never impugn the tabloid reporters of doing any fraction less than the most exhaustive research to certify the contents of their articles, so it seems that this time must have been an aberration. Because they jumped the shark on this one. And so does anyone who attaches the name of an illustrious legendary creature — real or imaginary — to lend credibility to a modern invention. And pitfalls like this are just one more of many reasons why we should always remain vigilant, and always be skeptical.
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