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Have You Ever Found Any Hippopotamus Teeth on the Beach?

Have You Ever Found Any Hippopotamus Teeth on the Beach?
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Welcome to the February 2011 edition of
“Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather
curious monthly musings of Judson Hale,
editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine,
published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Have You Ever Found Any Hippopotamus Teeth on the Beach?

Some years ago, one Roy Coombs of Vinalhaven, Maine, did. Really!

Sometimes our New England legends tend to straddle the line between truth and falsehood. The truth means historic facts. The falsehoods are exaggerations, errors, or perfectly honest misinterpretations. But, of course, often just the truth is plenty good enough.

For instance, back around 1900, a certain Roy Coombs of Vinalhaven, Maine, picked up some odd-looking smooth, white “stones,” four or five inches long, that he found lying on the beach one morning. Curious, he wrapped his discoveries in a candy box, which he then mailed to the geology department at Harvard University for identification.
A few weeks later, the package was returned with a letter that said, “The specimens you sent are teeth from a hippopotamus.”

Coombs figured that some wag at the university was playing a joke on him, or that the geology department there was on the decline. At any rate, he kept the things, whatever they were, on display in his living room. He carved the largest one into a knife handle and often amused visitors with the fact that Harvard University had identified some “stones” found along a Vinalhaven beach as hippopotamus teeth.

“Well, they probably are hippopotamus teeth,” one old-timer down at the Vinalhaven town wharf told Coombs some years later. “I found something about a mile from here that turned out to be a bone from an elephant’s leg. I still got it.”

The fact of the matter is that not one but two additional elephant legs were found on Vinalhaven Island sometime in the early 1950s. About 10 years later, I actually saw one of them myself. It was owned by the family of the late Alton H. Blackington, a New England newspaper writer and radio broadcaster, whose widow sold many of his old photographs and radio scripts to my uncle, Robb Sagendorph, founder of Yankee Magazine (in 1935).

I assume that some member of the Blackington family still has the bone that was once within the leg of “Mogul,” an elephant aboard the circus ship Royal Tar, which, back in 1836, burned and went down with all hooves just off Vinalhaven on a voyage from St. John, New Brunswick, to Portland, Maine.

So there. No need to straddle any lines between truth and fiction with that old New England tale.

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Have You Ever Found Any Hippopotamus Teeth on the Beach?

Updated Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

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