Myths, lies, and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor, or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1911, a 120-person Russian bridal party was traveling from Obstipoff to Tashkend to celebrate the marriage of a young couple. As the fleet neared the bride’s home for a post-wedding banquet, a “black cloud” of wolves moved across the snowfield and impeded their path.
“Panic seized the party, and those in the van whipped up the horses and made desperate attempts to escape, regardless of their companions, but the terrified horses seemed almost incapable of movement,” according to a 1911 New York Times article. “A scene frightful almost beyond description was now enacted. Men, women and children, shrieking with fear, defended themselves with whatever weapons they could, but to no avail, and one after another fell amidst the snarling beasts.”
The pack methodically moved through the caravan until just one sledge of attendants remained: the bride, groom, and two groomsmen.
“The two men accompanying the bridal couple demanded that the bride should be sacrificed, but the bridegroom indignantly rejected the cowardly proposition, whereupon the men seized and overpowered the pair and threw them out to a horrible fate,” the article reads.
The distraction worked. As the pack tore the newlyweds limb from limb, the groomsmen roused their horses to ride back to safety in Tashken. They were the only survivors.
This story first appeared in the Otago Daily Times on March 2, 1911. The single-sentence writeup was a truncated version of the New York Times article, which was published two weeks later on March 19, 1911. The Otago Daily Times cites Der Zeit, a now defunct tabloid out of Austria, as their source. The New York Times doesn’t list a source, but does say the story is out of St. Petersburg, which is 4,000 miles from Tashkend.
This tale has been good fodder for social media and forums over the last decade. Joe Rogan retweeted a discussion about the incident in 2016, as he did with a claim that wolves caused a ceasefire during WWI.
Paul Schach, a professor of Germanic languages at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, published an academic paper in 1983 dedicated to wolves in Russian folktales. In it, Schach talked about an observation he made while studying the dialect of German immigrants in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
“Among the folktales that these Germans brought to the Great Plains are wolf stories, dozens of which Buchheit and I have recorded in recent years,” Schach wrote. “They fall into two distinct groups: folktales with happy, often humorous, endings and those that end tragically as packs of famished wolves ferociously attack and devour human beings.”
One informant from Nebraska told him of a story where a schoolboy catches a wolf by its front paws and carries it home to show his dad. A North Dakotan tells of a couple and young child driving a sleigh that gets attacked by wolves—the couple saves themselves by throwing the kid to the pack. A South Dakotan talked about an old fable where a bridal party traveling to a celebration is attacked. In that version, the bride and groom are sacrificed to the wolves, but everyone dies anyway.
The most detailed fable came from another Nebraskan, who heard it from his grandparents that migrated to the U.S. in 1880 (31 years before the New York Times article). In that wedding-wolf encounter, the traveling attendants had been drinking heavily when they saw “the snow turn black with wolves.” In a familiar turn of events, the sleigh-driver pushes the bride and groom off the sledge. Although the man lives, he is no longer tolerated by the village and becomes unemployable. The storyteller said her grandparents were unsure of what ever happened to the sleigh driver.
The 1918 novel “My Ántonia” by Willa Cather offers a more satisfying conclusion. In the historical fiction, Peter and Pavel are two Russian farmers that live near the main characters’ ranch. When Pavel is on his deathbed, he confesses that he and Peter threw a bride and groom to wolves when a pack attacked their bridal party caravan. The duo moves to Nebraska in an effort to leave their past transgressions behind.
“Pavel’s own mother would not look at him,” Cather wrote. “They went away to strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves. Wherever they went, the story followed them.”
This New York Times article is the epitome of yellow journalism—sensational, crude, and exaggerated press coverage that was most prevalent from the late 1800s to early 1900s. It was clearly born out of a regurgitated mix of old Russian-German folklore, even if the Times piece tries its damndest to throw off readers at the end of its first sentence:
“Tragic details of the fate of a wedding party attacked by wolves in Asiatic Russia while driving on sledges to the bride’s house, where a banquet was to have taken place, are now at hand, and in their ghastly reality surpass anything ever imagined by a fiction writer.”
Well, not quite.
Feature image is photo that’s typically attached to this story.