The spooky scam that haunted southern Delaware

 (Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

(Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

A little dirty journalism helped bring the legend of the Selbyville swamp monster to life decades ago in Sussex County.

Since the early 1900’s, residents near the Great Cypress Swamp in Selbyville have made outlandish claims. They heard screams at night. Some told of being chased by a hairy monster who dwelled in the swamp. The stories were passed down in whispered voices around campfires and the legend grew.

The legend hit its peak in 1964 when Selbyville resident Fred Stevens brought the creature to life. “I was the swamp monster 50 years ago,” Stevens said during an interview near the edge of the swamp.

Having grown up hearing tales of the swamp monster, Stevens, then 21-years-old, decided to cash-in on the local legend. Literally. At the encouragement of his friend, local newspaper employee Ralph Grapperhaus, Stevens created a swamp monster costume using his Aunt Dorothy’s raccoon fur coat. It was all done with newspaper sales in mind.

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At night, Stevens would hide out along a road that cut through the swamp. Dressed in his makeshift monster costume and wielding a bat with a railroad spike sticking out of the end, Stevens pounced. “[I would] jump out on them. Some of them would quit before they got up to me. They’d go back down the road flying,” Stevens said. Grapperhaus would the publish stories of the incidents in the local paper and the legend grew.

Eventually, visiting the swamp monster became a big attraction for local young people, who sometimes brought offerings to appease the beast. “Some people would come back and they’d throw chickens toward me to feed me, I guess,” Stevens said. “There was a whole mess of blood and chickens and it was quite good.” He said some visitors came from as far as Dover and Salisbury, Md.

But no amount of newspaper sales was worth the risk of this unorthodox job.

“We just had to quit because so many people were coming back in pickup trucks and they were all about half drunk and they were shooting their guns,” Stevens said. “Somebody will shoot you and they really didn’t mean it, so we just quit, you know.”

More than 50 years later, Stevens still enjoys the notoriety of his swamp monster days. He’s talked to lots of parents who used the legend of the swamp monster to keep their kids in line. “The chief of police in Selbyville, his dad used to tell him, ‘If you don’t straighten up, we’re going back to the swamp,’” Stevens recalls. “He said, ‘It scared me to death.’”

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