Have you seen a yahoo?

Have you seen a yahoo?
The story of the strange creature that lurked in the Australian bush
6 March 2015

The collections in Trove tell the stories of Australians both famous and unknown. There are also numerous nooks and crannies where one can bump into gloriously eccentric and fanciful figures deeply submerged in our cultural past. In a series of articles from the 1870s and the 1880s, predominantly from country newspapers, I found such a figure. These articles detailed the extraordinary, sensational encounters with a curious ape-like species. It was called a yahoo.

Australian bush  c. 1850 trove.nla.gov.au/work/26132424

The trail begins with a young girl in 1871 in Manaro, near Jingera. She showed ‘remarkable earnestness’ in maintaining that her sighting of a furtive old man with a bent back, a thick coat of hair and ‘nails of tremendous length’ was a sighting of a yahoo. Local lore had it that yahoos were usually seen in the area when the weather was stormy.  She received little support for her assertion, however in 1882, the ‘bush naturalist’  Henry James McCooey wrote to The Australian Town and Country Journal to reprimand journalists and naturalists for dismissing the idea that ‘strange animals of the monkey tribe’ exist in the colony. McCooey himself professed to have seen such a creature being attacked by birds ‘in an unfrequented locality on the coast between Bateman’s Bay and Ulladulla’.  It was, he wrote, ‘a most uncouth and repulsive looking creature…possessed of a prodigious strength’, long arms out of all proportion to its body and small, ‘restless’ eyes.  Although McCooey couldn't claim to be the first to have seen such a creature in the Batemans Bay area, he took a certain pride in being the first to freely admit to it in a newspaper, and in pointing readers to a cave near Batemans Bay where a skeleton of the yahoo could supposedly be seen.

McCooey hinted more strongly at the yahoo's existence when he wrote to the same paper late in 1883. A yahoo was reportedly terrorising residents in a small community between Orange and Bathurst. Disbelief in the yahoo’s existence was expressed by eminent figures such as Mr Ramsay, the Curator of the Australian Museum. McCooey saw that scepticism as a measure of the divide between town and country and the patronising attitude of the former towards the latter. He was confident he could meet a challenge laid down by Mr Ramsay by bringing him a living or dead yahoo and claiming his 100 pound reward.

A similar ambition was harboured by the citizens of Bredbo and Jingera who, after a member of their community managed to successfully interview the yahoo, met in a hotel in Little Plain to organise ammunition and a hunting party. Their plan was to display the yahoo at the Centennial Exhibition.

Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne,  1888 trove.nla.gov.au/work/16944497

The tide of newspaper scorn at ‘men of bush occupations’ and their peculiar experiences turned briefly in 1887 when, after ‘Another Yahoo’ appeared at Braidwood, The Goulburn Evening Penny Post paused to remember Hamlet’s ‘wise injunction’ that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in its philosophy. The scorn returned unabated however, when a yahoo spotted by the mayor of Wellington and his companion in the evening near Bushranger’s Creek suddenly hopped away, revealing itself to be a kangaroo with an unusually bear-like head. 

The poet and grazier Sydney Jephcott, who, as he reminded The Sydney Morning Herald, was listed in Notable Australians and Who’s Who in Australia, emerged to lend credibility to the cause, so that sightings might be discussed freely and ‘without fear of ridicule’. He sent plaster castings of yahoo tracks to Professor David at the University of Sydney, along with a minute and particular account of how he came by these artefacts. Unsurprisingly, David’s response was inconclusive and non-commital.

Picture of Sydney Wheeler Jephcott

Unidentified Sydney Wheeler Jephcott, author. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. trove.nla.gov.au/work/153913184

The next time you're out in the bush on a stormy night, keep a look out. You never know what you'll see.

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