Returning home and in a hurry to get to dinner, they tossed their hapless jack rabbit kill into the taxidermy shop.

The carcass slid right up to a pair of deer antlers, and Douglas Herrick’s eyes suddenly lighted up.

"Let’s mount it the way it is!" he said, and a legend was born — or at least given form.

The two engaged in some creative taxidermy, and their creation, the jackalope, went on to enjoy more commercial success than any ersatz monster since the Feejee Mermaid.

The American West is a little smaller today. Douglas Herricks is dead (link via Boing Boing). Herricks, whose name I did not know until today, was a young man in Douglas, Wyoming, when he and his brother returned from a hunting trip with an oversized jackrabbit:

Returning home and in a hurry to get to dinner, they tossed their hapless jack rabbit kill into the taxidermy shop.

The carcass slid right up to a pair of deer antlers, and Douglas Herrick’s eyes suddenly lighted up.

"Let’s mount it the way it is!" he said, and a legend was born — or at least given form.

The two engaged in some creative taxidermy, and their creation, the jackalope, went on to enjoy more commercial success than any ersatz monster since the Feejee Mermaid. Their hometown of Douglas, Wyoming, seized on the creature as a masterful tourist attraction. Douglas devoted itself to hawking jackalope souveniers, including bodies (some manufactured by the Herricks brothers), hunting licenses, and "canned jackalope milk." The town erected an eight-foot tall statue in the nonexistent beast’s honor, although Wyoming HB0101-2001, the act to make the jackalope the state’s official mythical creature apparently did not pass. Still, there was money to be made in the jackalope trade; although this obituary cites the jackapanda of Colorado and the flying jackalope of South Dakota, they couldn’t compete in the popular imagination with the wily and elusive jackalope that roamed the prairie, singing in harmony with lonesome cowpokes. A genuine Wyoming jackalope can be yours for only $83.95.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has noted the historical antecedents for the jackalope — a picture in Joris Hoefnagel’s Animalia Quadrupedia et Reptilia, the frontispiece to the Physica Curiosa — but I think Great Plains tourists may rest assured that they are safe from jackalope attack (although the beasts are notoriously ornery). Naturally occuring horned rabbits suffer from papillomatosis, a disease which causes horn-like growths. Cottontails are particularly succeptable. I suspect that the success of the jackalope owes less to lingering memories of papillomatosis-inflicted hornéd bunnies than an innate desire to do zany things to stuffed animals. Victorians loved looking at anthropomorphic stuffed animals, boxing squirrels or schoolhouse kittens, and the like (links via the Zymoglyphic Museum). If Walter Potter could invent a small mammal wedding, why not go ahead and invent an entire species.

James Cook’s The Arts of Deception argues that citizens of nineteenth century America loved trying to discern the boundaries of truth and invention. This, he argues, was the root of Barnum’s success with the Feejee Mermaid and all his other spectacles. It’s probably true that people love to argue about whether the hand is quicker than the eye, but surely everyone also loves an outright fraud? The jackalope, like its cousin the Montana beaver trout, was a way to pull the leg of greenhorns and tourists. I myself believed in jackalopes until I was ten or so, simply because my grandfather knew the secret of tall tales was to keep a straight face. It’s a good thing he was from sweet, jackalope-laden Colorado and not Bavaria; otherwise, I might have learned about wolvertinger and had nightmares for years.