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Monster Tales

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Eugene Richardson knew that dubbing the singularly weird Tullimonstrum gregarium a "monster" was a good public relations move, and the creature took on a second life outside academia. In 1966 he and a colleague published an article on the Tully Monster in Science, and the details were reported in the popular press all over the world. Soon he got a mysterious letter postmarked Kenya, written by a "Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) G.L. Cloudesely of the Kenya African Rifles." Cloudesely related stories he'd heard from local tribesmen of a swamp-dwelling, milk-drinking, dancing worm that looked rather like the Tully Monster in Science. Over the next few months several more letters from unrelated correspondents arrived from Kenya describing living Tullies, including a scribbled note from a schoolboy named Akai. "Today techer show us paper and ther is anmal my pepels knows," he wrote. "I not know name tuly moster but call ekurut loedonkakini...very dangery anmal. Bite, man die."

At first Richardson was intrigued and answered his correspondents, only to discover they'd vanished without leaving forwarding addresses. He talked of mounting an expedition to find the creature, then started getting suspicious. When he finally learned that he'd been snookered by a former Field Museum vertebrate-fossil curator, Bryan Patterson, he was thoroughly amused.

That same year a British ufologist and cryptozoologist named F.W. Holiday began writing to Richardson arguing that the Tully Monster was an ancestor of the Loch Ness monster. Richardson gamely agreed to write an appendix to Holiday's 1968 book The Great Orm of Loch Ness, explaining why the Tully couldn't yet be related to any creature, let alone one whose very existence was in doubt. A year later he and a colleague published "The Morphology and Affinities of Tullimonstrum" and pointed out that "tull" happens to be Norwegian for "nonsense."

In 1987, four years after Richardson's death, Field collection manager Mary Carman was among a trio of geologists who mounted a campaign to have the Illinois legislature declare the Tully the official state fossil. Helen Satterthwaite, a Democratic state representative from Champaign-Urbana, sponsored a bill to put a referendum on the question to the state's elementary school students.

Francis Tully, who was still alive, was thrilled. But one week after he died--he had his ashes scattered over Pit 11 spoil piles--governor James Thompson vetoed the bill, declaring that the proposed referendum's yes or no vote was "un-American" and would set a poor example for the state's schoolchildren: "That's how they run elections in Russia." Two years later a bill that disenfranchised the schoolchildren and simply bestowed the honor on the creature was passed. Thompson signed off on it, and the Tully was official.

In 1997 the state fossil's profile got a big boost when U-Haul slapped the image of a large, squirming purple Tully on 900 rental trucks. "I saw it in New York," says paleontologist Gordon Baird. "I looked up and I left my jaw on the pavement."

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