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Reptile Dysfunction: I Tried to Find South Carolina's Famed Lizard Man

According to Christopher Davis, the Lizard Man was "green, wet-like, about seven feet tall, and had three fingers, red eyes, skin like a lizard, and snakelike scales."
August 25, 2015, 5:20pm

All photos by the author

The modern legend of the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp begins in 1988 with Christopher Davis, an African American teenager, who pulled over in the middle of nowhere, South Carolina to change a tire on his way home from a late shift at McDonald's. "It was green, wet-like, about seven feet tall, and had three fingers, red eyes, skin like a lizard, and snakelike scales," he told a local paper at the time. According to Christopher's account something had damaged both the door of his car as well as the roof.

Arriving home in hysterics, his father made him report the incident to the local sheriff. He would later take a polygraph test and pass.

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In 2007, the South Carolina Education Lottery used Lizard Man as a promotional tool to move lottery tickets. With heightened interest in the legend, new Lizard Man incidents began rolling in. Suddenly, dead cows and coyotes were attributed to the Lizard Man. In 2011, a mauled car caused a local news report to ask, "Is the Lizard Man back in Lee County?"



I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and first heard about the Lizard Man at the age of ten while at a basketball camp. The kid who introduced me to the legend was from Sumter, South Carolina, and sported a rat tail and a twang in his voice that put my mild Southern accent to shame. That kid painted a tale of violence and horror—a red-eyed, seven-foot-tall reptilian beast sporting three claws on a constant search to maul people, cars, and tires near the outskirts of the swamp.

"Never go out alone at night. That's when he'll git ya."

I had nightmares starring the Lizard Man. But, like with most things in my teens not called "masturbation," I grew out of it.

Earlier this month, Lizard Man made national news by being photographed and filmed strolling through the woods. Other than a set of footprints found outside a butterbean shed in 1988, there has been very little physical evidence of the Lizard Man's existence. In the most recent photo the Lizard Man is ridiculously buff and appears to be strutting like Ric Flair, but he does possess all the key features—the three claws, the red eyes, some feet that could make some footprints.

The butterbean shed where the Lizard Man's footprints were allegedly found

Along with the renewed interest came the news stories, tweets, and posts, most of which offered an air of superiority from larger outlets. I saw the teasing; I saw the memes. Mocking cryptids is low-hanging fruit, but mocking the Southerners who report these sightings is like kicking the fruit you already knocked on the ground. This legend permeates my state, and is indelibly linked to Lee County. Lizard Man is much more than a punchline to a joke. Even if this photo looks to be a bored herpetophiliac adept at sewing, how can anyone say with certainty that Lizard Man does or does not exist? What's scarier: what we don't know or what we think we do?

I wanted to know more about Him. I wanted to find Lizard Man.

From Cox's collection

When I arrived in Bishopville, the small town where the legend began, my first stop was to see Janson Cox, head curator of the South Carolina Cotton Museum and a local Lizard Man historian. Cox is a classic Southern gentleman: measured, gregarious, and armed with a wit that let's you know he's smarter than you think he is. He is capable of making you feel like an outsider and like family. During our time together he made sure I felt like both.

Cox is rightfully objective, and protective, of Lizard Man. He won't outright admit that He definitely exists ("we're here to supply the fantasy"), but then again his role isn't to speculate. It's to document. Every newspaper clipping involving the Lizard Man has been compiled into a plastic-ring binder. There is an "exhibit"—a few pieces of paper explaining historical context, a collection of vintage t-shirts, and a plaster mold of Lizard Man's huge footprints in a glass case scattered with dried butterbeans.

"Much of the attention about the Lizard Man centers around the 1988 attack… but the legends of the Lizard Man go back, talked about for centuries." Cox explains.

Published in 1520, "The Testimony of Francisco de Chicora" contains some of the first eyewitness accounts of Southeastern Native Americans, and within those stories they tell of "men with tails a metre long and as thick as a man's arm" who "ate nothing but raw fish." Even the nomenclature of the area helps legitimize the myth. Locals posit that "Scape 'Ore" refers to a British phonetic bastardization of Sceloporae—plural of Sceloporus—which is the scientific genus of the abundant eastern fence lizards that inhabit the area.

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In March of this year, paleontologists found skull and bone fragments in North Carolina, which led to the discovery of Carnufex Carolinensis ("Carolina Butcher"), a land-dwelling crocodylomorph. Carnufex is a crocodile-like creature that walked on its hind legs and lived in the Carolina swamps around 230 million years ago. Even if our friend the Carolina Butcher didn't directly evolve into a man that was also a lizard that ate cars, the image of Lizard Man has, in a very direct and obvious way, been embedded in the very soil of the Carolinas.

In order to fully understand the Lizard Man incident of 1988, it's important to remember the context surrounding life in the South. This is, after all, South Carolina—a state that until this summer, still flew the Confederate flag over its capital. Everything has a racial undertone, especially an attack on a young black man. Cox says, "You had blacks feeling like Davis was being exploited, and whites felt like their sheriff, Liston Truesdale, was being made a fool by the media."

Which is to say: Davis had clearly been made a target of something. "Whatever it was put the fear in him," Truesdale later said.

At the time, the Lizard Man caused a media frenzy. In an interview with a local newspaper, the Sheriff seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the attention, recalling that a radio DJ called him, on air, at six in the morning.

Truesdale never quite figured out what it was that terrorized Davis on that night. In 2001, he said of the Lizard Man, "I can't prove it's real, and I can't prove it's not real." The Huffington Post reported that in 2009, the now-deceased Truesdale was called in to help investigate a car mauling similar to the 1988 attack on Davis.

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I left the museum with a map and excitement. Remembering that the Lizard Man had attacked Davis as he'd been changing a tire, I assumed the guy might have had a fetish for rubber. I wanted to entice him with something tasty, so I stopped at a gas station that still offered a full-service pump, a relic of the past I had always heard about but never seen. I chatted up a man whose name tag identified him as "Spyder" and then asked if he had a cheap tire I could buy to use as an offering to the Lizard Man. "Ah, man. You can have one for free," Spyder said.

Spyder guided me around back to an elephant graveyard of tires where rubber silos of various sizes, treads, and conditions had been waiting patiently for me.

The author and his tire

After picking out the largest one of the bunch I drove around to investigate where every sighting or incident happened. I drove to where Christopher Davis was attacked. I drove to the butterbean shed where the creature's footprint was taken. I drove to Scape Ore Bridge, where it's said Lizard Man gets in and out of the swamp.

I planned to actually traverse back into the swamp and see if I could catch Lizard Man in a moment of vulnerability. I pulled up my waders and ventured underneath the bridge. I noticed a number of tires already resting in the creek. None of them appeared to have any attack marks, but perhaps these were not up to Lizard Man's discerning palate.

After following the creek back into the swamp for about an hour, I stopped. I hoped Lizard Man would be nice enough to show himself or answer my calls of "Hey, Lizard Man. It me." He did not oblige. Scape Ore Swamp is not a place you go to do some recreational kayaking. It is a hostile place, and what struck me most is how heavily wooded it is. There are no real clearings, or apparent designations of old growth and new growth. It's all old growth. There are an infinite amount of places for a creature to lie in wait or obscure itself. It's easy for your eyes to play tricks on you. Still, I never saw the Lizard Man. I never even thought I saw him.

With several hours still until nightfall I sat in my car parked downtown. I watched as a man in front of me set up and scaled a ladder underneath a building's marquee. The inside of that building itself was vacant. He swapped the letters, climbed down and did the same to the other side. He folded up his ladder and walked off. I got out of my car to read what he'd put up:

Was this a reminder or a warning?

Equally parts creeped out and bored, I killed some time in an abandoned carport until the sun set.

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It was after midnight when I revisited the area where Christopher Davis was attacked. Although I had been there hours ago, I didn't recognize shit. With my headlights on, I couldn't see more than 20 feet in front of me. With my headlights off, I couldn't see anything.

I cut my headlights, exited the car, and crept forward through the void. I felt like something was watching me, so I turned on my flashlight. In the distance, two yellow orbs reflected back. All of the Lizard Man sightings have been made by people who were alone at the time. And I was all alone right then, in more or less the same spot Christopher Davis was when he first encountered the Lizard Man. It's in moments like this—in the moments of silence between the cricket chirps, frog croaks and rustling leaves that make up the white noise of rural America—when you can feel totally alone and yet surrounded by terrifying monsters of your own design. It's in moments like this that the Lizard Man feels real.

I adjusted my flashlight, and the body attached to the pair of eyes came into view.

Damn. It was just a cat.

I returned to my car embarrassed and exhausted, thinking back to a small interaction I had earlier in the day. On my way out of the South Carolina Cotton Museum, I crossed paths with a man walking in. With a chuckle bubbling beneath his drawl he said, "You find Lizard Man for us, you hear."

I was just another out-of-towner who visited, and most importantly spent money in, their city. They won.

Sheriff Truesdale understood the nation was looking at little old Bishopville, and most were doing so with derision. But he was smart enough to know the small town was winning nevertheless: in an interview with a local newspaper, he once said, "One person from out of town said that a lot of people are laughing at us, but we should be laughing at all of them. They are the ones who are coming as far away as the West Coast."

I may have thought I was trying to be some defender of my state, but they didn't need my help. Bishopville doesn't have much to offer but the town saw an opportunity and seized it, found a way to exploit the interest and gullibility of others for attention and money, which isn't much different than many of the Vine stars and internet celebrities we have today. Lizard Man is much more than a punchline to a joke. He is a token, and a key to an entire local economy. Shirts, butterbeans, sandwiches, lottery tickets. He shills it all. The town depicts Lizard Man as a bloodthirsty monster or benign vegetarian depending on the need.

We may never get definitive proof of Lizard Man's existence, and maybe that's exactly the way Bishopville wants it.

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