Marietta – By day, Dr. Luke Bowsermann cleans teeth.
At night, preferably around a campfire on a crisp October evening, the Southeast Ohio native tells stories.
And at this time of year, he called Ozermann – who hosts a YouTube channel American mythologydedicated to “Folklore, History, and the Stories We Tell” – loves to share about Tailypo, a unique tale of Appalachian folklore.
The legend of the creature with sparkling red eyes, glossy black fur and short-haired tail has captured Bowserman’s attention for decades and has haunted the hearts and minds of Appalachian children for generations.
The legend of Tailypo
Bowserman first heard the Tailypo (pronounced TAIL-E-POE) story at Adamsville Elementary School outside Zanesville, in 1999 when he was in the fourth grade.
A substitute teacher recalls that Bowserman’s class promised them a story if they finished their studies.
“It was one of those great days where a divers come in and we don’t have to do a lot of work,” he said. “I can’t, all my life, remember what his name was, but (the sub) had white hair and a long beard and sat down to tell us about Tailypo.”
The folk tale features some notable main characters: Old Man Fletcher, a hermit who lives deep in the hills of West Virginia; Three dogs. And of course Tailypo.
As the legend says: Old Fletcher is hungry, and with a handful of beans to his name, he dreams of a more delicious meal while boiling the beans over the fire.
Suddenly, a black claw scratched through the floorboards. The creature emerges through a hole in the ground with a head as large as a fist, a long body like a weasel and a tail – thick and fleshy. Upon seeing the old man Fletcher, the creature whistles and shows a row of sharp white teeth.
Old man Fletcher quickly drops his axe onto the creature’s tail as it dives back into the hole. The hungry man decides to cook the tail in the pot of beans, but it isn’t long before the creepy creature returns, demanding revenge.
“Tailypo! Tailypo! Where’s my Tailypo?” Creature cries.
Before long, there wasn’t much left of Old Fletcher or his dogs.
Effects on the origins of Tailypo
Bowserman explained that the story is a cautionary tale that serves as a warning to children not to abuse animals or take something that is not theirs.
The oldest written version dates back to A 1918 story written by Uncle Remus Bowserman (also known as the nineteenth-century American writer Joel Chandler Harris) explained that it shows a ferret, a deceitful rabbit whose origin is from African folklore.
It also bears some resemblance, he said, to the famous 1902 horror short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which features a mummified paw and three wishes with consequences for hell.
“Tailypo is just a great example of how melting American culture is,” Bowserman said. “It has something to do with the ‘golden arm’ as well. And in that, someone with a golden arm dies, a thief or a loved one steals the arm and brings the corpse back to life to steal it again.”
Bowserman said the origins of this story go back at least 200 years, but that it was told orally much longer.
He added that “Mark Twain was even known for telling ‘The Golden Arm’.”
Bauserman credits the survival of Tailypo to its unique name and the power of the spoken word.
“It just contains some of the essential components of human storytelling,” he said. “It builds, it repeats itself, and when you track it down, you see hidden themes in the human psyche, like, don’t take things that don’t belong to you.”
Preserving the folklore of the Appalachians for the masses
Inside his Washington County home, the 33-year-old dentist owns a lounge-turned-studio where he records videos for his YouTube channel.
A 1932 United States wall map—rescued from sale at the University of Pennsylvania—adorns one side of the room while the other contains a bookshelf housing first-edition copies of the oldest American stories. In the center is a painting of an Appalachian sheikh inside a hollowed-out tree over a metal-built fireplace from Bowserman’s great-grandfather’s house.
“It’s genealogy meets Indiana Jones,” he said with a laugh.
Bozerman, the eldest of 10 children from Zanesville, has been surrounded by stories for as long as he can remember them, and believes in their importance.
“We celebrate where we come from, and keep the traditions alive,” he said. “Storytelling is part of what it means to be human and to share deeper truths about the human condition.”
Pride in Folklore: What Does Storytelling Mean for the Appalachians?
In Appalachia, history is not written but told, according to Trevor McKenzie, director of Appalachian Studies Center at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
“It’s all part of the idea of making the place and arranging the place,” he said.
Longtime archivist, Appalachian native and historian by trade, McKenzie explained that oral storytelling traditions give people a sense of pride—not always inherent in an area that has historically been exploited and portrayed by outsiders.
“In a story like Tailypo, these very complex stories require a lot of creativity and the ability to get them to work in an instant,” he said. “There’s a kind of literacy in telling (that story) in our dialect and celebrating the way people here speak – I think that’s something commendable.”
McKenzie said Tailypo really resonates this time of year. It’s one of the many scary Appalachian references (also known as haunts) that always attracts curiosity – from Tailypo to Sasquatch to snaily-ghaster, a snail-like creature that prowls the river.
“Academics usually go out to kill the magic and challenge things,” MacKenzie said. “But when it comes to Appalachia, to me,[stories]heighten the perception of the place and struggle the other area as an area full of dispensable people.”
That magic is alive and well in Bauserman, who told his three children about Tailypo earlier this month—leading his daughter to lament, “I’ll never be able to sleep again!”
Just a few days later, inside his studio, Bowserman fixed his gaze on the camera before he began retelling Tailypo.
Old man Fletcher lived way back in the mountains of West Virginia. He lived in a pit so deep that they said he had to pump in the sun…and he had no one there to keep them with except for his three dogs: I know, you know, and Calico ….”
Céilí Doyle is a report on a member of the Legion of America and Covers rural issues In Ohio Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA scholarship helps her keep writing stories like this. Please consider giving a tax-free gift at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.
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