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Dr. Crow and the Melon Heads

Donate Some say creepy children with huge balloon heads stalk the woods at night, waiting to attack you.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Paranormal, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #930
April 2, 2024
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Dr. Crow and the Melon Heads

Today we're going to dissect the urban legend of the melon heads, children with great big balloon-like heads, chasing people through the forests at night, appearing by the side of the road to frighten motorists, and striking fear into the hearts of those unlucky enough to encounter them. There are no photographs or videos of the melon heads, and no empirical evidence of any kind for us to examine; so we're going to have to go by the anecdotal accounts alone. Where will they lead us?

Now, it should come as no surprise to most Skeptoid listeners that there aren't really monsters running around in the woods with big heads. However, it still makes sense to do this episode, not only because certain versions of the story have sufficient cultural currency that some people do believe it has its roots in historical fact, but also for a much more important reason. The standard explanation given for most melon head stories — as these legends are found in several US states — is that the melon heads are children with hydrocephalus. In previous eras, more people accepted the stigmatization of people with physical disfigurements; today, I would hope, most of us would rather teach our younger generation to have compassion and acceptance for such people, rather than to vilify them as monsters for our late night fiction. But that's exactly what has been done in the melon head stories.

So we'll begin with a few words about hydrocephalus. It's what happens in some infants who, for whatever reason, have an excess of cerebro-spinal fluid in the brain. Ventricles, the spaces deep inside the brain that are normally filled with this fluid, fill with far too much of it. This puts dangerous pressure on the brain and on the inside of the skull. In children young enough that their skull bones haven't fused yet, the skull literally expands, sometimes to a frightening size. The standard treatment is to surgically implant a shunt to drain the excess fluid. This procedure is often completely successful, but some people will require the shunt for their entire lives, in which cases it's often internal and drains into another body cavity.

A critical flaw of this exploitation of hydrocephalus is that when it's present in older children, teens, or adults (people can get hydrocephalus at any age), there is no enlargement of the head, as the cranial bones are fused. The fluid builds up inside the brain, creating pressure on the brain, and often producing a number of debilitating symptoms which aren't outwardly visible. That's why we don't see people with huge hydrocephalic heads walking around in daily life. Only in infants and younger toddlers is there any enlargement of the head, so the condition was a terrible choice for whoever started the urban legend.

When talking about urban legends that cast children with hydrocephalus as monsters — medically implausible or not — we should be acutely aware that a lot of parents, some listening right now, have had distressing and traumatic struggles trying to save the lives of children born with a condition that includes hydrocephalus. So as we continue, it will be with the goal of showing that stories of monstrous big-headed children in the woods are not the result of factual events, but the result of superstition, ignorance, and dehumanizing stigmas that we're all better than.

One of the best known melon head stories comes from Michigan, where there was said to be the Junction Insane Asylum that treated children with hydrocephalus. It was in the region of Saugatuck State Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the town of Holland. Supposedly the children suffered emotional and physical abuse at the hospital; in some versions, the children revolted and killed the doctor and cut his body up into little pieces. The asylum, or hospital, was said to have been forced to close; upon which the children were simply released into the wild to fend for themselves. Ever since, groups of melon heads are said to have been spotted in the woods, particularly in those around the historic Felt Mansion which is next to the State Park. Rumor has it they live in underground tunnels.

The only thing that this story has going for it is that the State Park and the Felt Mansion are real places. The rest doesn't hold up. There never was a hospital or asylum anywhere in the vicinity, and even if there had been, such facilities were not in the habit of turning their patients loose to fend for themselves in the wild. Nor are there any unusual underground tunnels in the area. One wonders how such a story got started, and there's actually a story for that as well. The Felt Mansion was once owned by the St. Augustine Seminary, a Catholic school, so some people have suggested that the students there must have been really smart and so may have been derisively referred to as melon heads. Take that explanation with as large a grain of salt as you wish.

One interesting variation relies on the fact that during World War II, there was a POW camp for German soldiers located there, called Camp Allegan. In this version, the Americans did medical experiments on the German prisoners, causing huge swollen heads. They escaped and hid in the forest, running around screaming at night.

Connecticut has a very different version of the melon heads. In that story, the melon heads are the result of inbreeding, and they live in the woods in seclusion on the edge of society. They live off of Velvet Street in Trumbull, which is a very creepy single-lane road winding through the trees, and which locals are said to call Dracula Drive. The inbred population is said to descend from mental patients who escaped from an asylum, or from people who were exiled for witchcraft back in the day.

But the most famous and complete melon head story comes from Kirtland, Ohio. You will find various permutations of it in print, but the basic plot is that around the year 1900 a Dr. Crow and his wife, who may have lived on Wisner Road, cared for a number of children with hydrocephalus at their home. In some versions, the doctor would perform experiments on the children, and his wife was always trying to protect them from him. One night the doctor and his wife got into a fight during which Mrs. Crow accidentally fell and struck her head, and was killed. The children thought the doctor had killed her, so they rose up and attacked and murdered him. They then set the house on fire and escaped into the woods, where ever since they lived off the land, sometimes appearing and frightening humans.

The story is without any evidence; any number of researchers have tried to track down records or news articles mentioning such a doctor, using various spellings of Crow. But it's also medically implausible. If the children's heads were visibly enlarged, it would mean they were very young, probably less than two, and prior to the 1940s it was unlikely they would have survived at all, as the shunt treatment had not yet been developed. If the children were old enough to have been able to attack the doctor, they were much too old to have enlarged heads, so it wouldn't even have been a melon head story.

In the 2004 book Weird U.S.: Your Travel Guide to America's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, a story is included from someone who claims to have figured out the actual factual event that the Dr. Crow story is based on. It goes:

In the late '50s and early '60s a few children with hydrocephalus lived in northeast Ohio. One of them lived on Wisner Road and was enrolled in the Kirtland school district. The boy and his "normal" friends, who were all preteens, would creep up on parked cars and scare away the older kids. The frightened students would tell their peers at school that they had been "chased by the Melon Heads!" Children afflicted with hydrocephalus do not live very long, so the original Melon Head died of natural causes.

Again, this version is just as medically implausible as the Dr. Crow version. Children young enough to have heads enlarged by hydrocephalus are not nearly old enough to be enrolled in school or running around scaring people in parking lots. And so we find ourselves with the same conclusion as in all the other stories. The melon head stories — all of them — simply aren't possible... unless something other than hydrocephalus is the explanation.

There are other medical conditions that can produce a swollen head in older children and adults, but none are very good matches for the stories. Allergic reactions and other temporary conditions like heat edema can do it, but wouldn't typically produce huge swelling and wouldn't last very long. There is acromegaly, but it presents very differently from anything you might call a melon head. There are quite a few conditions that are extremely rare and that can result in gross deformities of the head; but these also don't match the stories. I've found none that produce a big round head, and none are hereditary in such a way that you'd have a family or community of affected people. These conditions also tend to be comorbid with serious health problems, so that such individuals generally require a high level of medical care. They couldn't survive out in the woods for years unassisted. And really, that's the biggest nail in the coffin of this particular urban legend. If it were possible for there to be some population of people living in the woods, running around with some condition giving them a giant round head but in apparent good health, then we'd also occasionally see such people in public and their condition would be known to medical science.

I appreciate a good horror story or monster tale as much as anyone, and I love that we have them. We've probably talked about dozens of them right here on Skeptoid — and if you don't remember them, the goat man is going to get you. Where those differ from the melon heads is that they're all non-human creatures that don't stigmatize or exploit people who are sick or different. I call on the next person to write a book about America's monsters or whatever, do your fellow humans a solid and drop some chapters — like the melon heads — that don't meet reasonable standards for where a good monster story should live.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Dr. Crow and the Melon Heads." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 2 Apr 2024. Web. 23 Jun 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4930>

 

References & Further Reading

Editors. "The Eerie Legends of the Melon Heads of Kirtland, Ohio." Famous People & Places. Architectural Afterlife, 28 Feb. 2024. Web. 20 Mar. 2024. <https://architecturalafterlife.com/2024/02/the-melon-heads-of-kirtland-ohio/>

Godfrey, L., Sceurman, M., Moran, M. Weird Michigan. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.: New York, 2006. 16-17.

Guarnieri, C. "Twisted History: The Melonheads." The Register Citizen. Heart Media Services Connecticut, LLC, 23 May 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2024. <https://www.registercitizen.com/news/article/TWISTED-HISTORY-The-Melonheads-12083951.php>

Hammond, A. Ghosts and Legends of Michigan's West Coast. Charleston, SC: Haunted America, 2009.

Moran, M., Sceurman, M. Weird U.S.: Your Travel Guide to America's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.: New York, 2005. 60-63.

Wellons, J., Nilsson, D. "Neurodevelopment of Children and Teens with Hydrocephalus." What Is Hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus Association, 6 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2024. <https://www.hydroassoc.org/neurodevelopment-of-children-and-teens-with-hydrocephalus-2/>

 

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