Posted by: Loren Coleman on September 1st, 2006
The following is a guest article by Jefferson Weaver, former reporter at the Bladen Journal of Bladen, North Carolina.
Coverage of "beast" became real monster for Bladenboro By Jefferson Weaver Staff Writer
Whether or not a hungry monster really stalked Bladenboro in December of 1953 and January of 1954, there was a Beast in Bladenboro bigger than anything on four feet.
"Bladenboro has received a lot of front page publicity in the state press," one newspaper writer reported when the "crisis" was over.
Writing in the Bladen Journal, publisher Norman McCullough joked that if the beast were ever actually found, a sign would be discovered attached to its side: "This cat sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce."
Whether good or bad, real or imagined, the Beast of Bladenboro thrust the town into the national spotlight.
Something in the woods
Oddly enough, the first reported attacks by the beast didn’t occur in Bladenboro, but near Clarkton.
A resident reported a large animal attacked one of his dogs on the night of Dec. 29, 1953. News accounts differ on the fate of the pet.
When Johnny Vause’s two dogs were found killed New Year’s Eve, 1953, the Beast had arrived in Bladenboro. The following day, two dogs were attacked at the farm of Woodie Storms.
The Wilmington Morning Star reported the dogs were mauled and "sort of eaten up."
While no killings were reported Jan. 2, two more dogs were reported dead a day later.
And Bladenboro resident Malcolm Frank told law officers and reporters that he had seen the beast.
Frank told the Star that he saw an animal "like a bear or panther," over four feet long, with a "round face, shiny eyes and large teeth."
James Pittman told authorities (and another newspaper) that he saw a similar animal, grabbed his gun, and tracked it for over a mile, never getting a clean shot.
Mayor W.G. Fussell, who also owned the town’s theatre, considered the event interesting enough to warrant a few calls to area newspapers.
"A little publicity never hurts a small town," he told John Corey of The Carolina Farmer magazine in 1958.
But Fussell-one of Bladenboro’s most beloved mayors-never realized how much publicity the phenomenon of the cat would bring to Bladenboro.
The timing of the story-just after Christmas, when newspaper traditionally have to struggle for news-guaranteed that it would be picked up by wire services and larger newspapers.
"It really put Bladenboro on the map for a while," said Sam Pait, a resident of Bladenboro and member of the Bladenboro Historical Society.
Pait volunteers at the Farm-Life School Museum in Bladenboro, and said people still ask about the beast, almost a half-century later.
"Vampire Beast with Bloodlust At Large"
As the press coverage-and the hysteria-grew, reporters and hunters descended on the town.
News reports from the time show a town bordering on hysteria, pumped by graphic reports of injuries (some real, some probably imagined) to domestic animals.
Most of the attacks occurred in or around the mill village, most of which is now gone.
Reporters called the animal the "Beast of Bladenboro," and the name caught on quickly.
Professional hunters-and some not so professional-from as far away as Tennessee showed up with hounds trained to track bobcats, cougars, and bears.
Others read Associated Press reports published as far away as Arizona, and wrote Mayor Fussell to offer help.
Radio and television news reports from as far away as Washington, D.C. and New York gave updates on the hunt for the beast.
Local hunters began scouring the woods, killing every bobcat they found.
Men and women walked the streets of Bladenboro armed, and avoided country roads at night.
Present Mayor Livingston Lewis was a young teenager at the time, and he said the thing that stuck out most in his mind was the chaos in town.
"There was a whole lot of confusion in Bladenboro," he said. "There were people everywhere."
Drivers brought roadkilled animals into town to present to Police Chief Roy Fores and Mayor Fussell, hoping to collect any reward that might be offered.
Fussell told John Corey, a reporter with The Carolina Farmer, that he considered the beast a hoax from almost the beginning, and never said otherwise.
"The animal was about 90 percent imagination, ten percent truth," he told Corey.
Fussell never denied helping build up the story, and never said he regretted using the Beast to help publicize Bladenboro.
Fussell, who was known for his love for the town, was even accused of helping create the uproar in an indirect way. He owned the town theatre which featured a suspense film about a giant cat run amok in the English countryside during the crisis.
Reporters called in stories every day, each more imaginative than the next.
While reporters were calling the alleged animal a "vampire," locals who believed the stories were banking on a big cat.
Bobcat, ocelot, or panther?
It’s a wonder the common bobcat survived as a species in the Bladenboro area, thanks to the Beast scare.
Hunters and trappers scoured the woods and swamps for the cats, who were present locally in sizeable numbers. By 1940, much of the local market for bobcats had dried up, and few people trapped or hunted the animals commercially for their fur.
Bobcats are about the size of a medium-size dog, have short tails and large, tufted ears, and eat mostly small wildlife and occasionally, a chicken.
Shy and elusive, he cats can become dangerous if cornered and have been known to attack domestic animals if no wild game was available.
When Mayor Fussell speculated that the Beast might be a large, rabid bobcat, hunters began killing every one they found.
One Bladenboro resident who refused to be named said he showed the same large female bobcat to three different reporters, and saw three different accounts of the animal published.
Two of the accounts even appeared in the same newspaper, in the same day.
"I had a ball with that," he said. "I was just a kid, and it was fun to pull a prank like that."
Willis Nance ran a drive-in restaurant at the time. The busiest time of the year was when beachbound travelers driving down N.C. 211 stopped for barbecue dinners on their way to and from the shore.
Winter was typically a slow time.
But when reporters and the curious invaded the town, "business was booming almost like it was summer," Nance said.
"We had to cook some extra barbecue before it was over with," he said. "People would be out all day or night hunting in the woods, and when they came back in, they came to us."
"There were license tags from all over everywhere," he said.
"They wanted to find that beast."
Mayor Fussell finally called off the hunts when the woods around town became too dangerous.
When people refused to let the story rest, he took an oversized bobcat killed by Berry Lewis and raised it on a flagpole near Tater Shaw’s store. The mayor then sent photographs to state newspapers with the caption, "THIS IS THE BEAST OF BLADENBORO."
Slowly, the town returned to normal, but some people still thought there was something in the woods and swamps around town.
If there was a wild animal lurking around Bladenboro’s mill village that winter, any one of several species could be blamed.
Real and self-proclaimed experts theorized that the beast was a wild dog or dogs, a coyote, any of several species of wild cats, or even a wolverine, an aggressive predatory cousin to bear
s, but unknown south of the Great Lakes area.
Reporters contacted state zoologist F.B. Meacham, who tried to ease fears that the beast, if there was one, wasn’t likely to be a cougar, panther, catamount or puma, as the large cats are often called.
He told a reporter for the Bladen Journal that if there was a critter loose in the woods of Bladenboro, it was most likely a large coyote, or possibly a cat escaped from a circus or carnival.
While there are numerous homespun references to a circus losing several animals near Lumberton a year or so before, no first hand reports of such an escape have been located.
The discovery near Big Swamp of an ocelot-a type of wild cat native to Mexico-seemed to solve the mystery.
A motorist discovered the ocelot dead on N.C. 41.
An ocelot was one of the animals lost when a traveling zoo at Myrtle Beach caught fire in 1951, according to a newspaper report from the time.
According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ocelots weigh between 40 and 70 pounds, have dark spots on orange fur, and resemble an oversize housecat. The dark patterns on the cats’ fur makes the animal appear almost black.
During the 1930s and 1940s, ocelots were popular as exotic pets. They adapt very well to living in Southern swamps and forests.
Ocelots are also capable of killing dogs and even small pigs, although they generally prefer smaller game, since a 50-pound ocelot can’t easily carry an 80-pound dog.
Ocelots also generally return to a kill, rather than carry it away like a panther or cougar.
Besides that, there were still documented killings after the ocelot met its fate under the wheels of a speeding car. A hog was found partially eaten, and a goat died after its nose was bitten off.
"I don’t know what it was that killed that goat," said present Mayor Livingston Lewis, who saw the dead goat, "but something took its nose right off."
The so-called Carolina Panther-an animal once thought extinct, but recorded as still existing in small numbers across the state in 1996-was the most popular suspect.
Panthers were common in southeastern North Carolina throughout the early 1800′s. A subspecies of the Florida Panther, which is also endangered, Carolina Panthers were thought to be wiped out by around 1905 in North Carolina.
Scattered reports through the 20th century were usually considered mistaken sightings of other animals or hoaxes.
Most sightings around the state occurred near heavily forested areas like Lake Mattamuskeet, the Dismal Swamp, and the Green Swamp.
Charles Humphreys of Wilmington, an amateur biologist and panther fanatic, published a book in 1996 documenting dozens of panther incidents throughout southeastern North Carolina.
"Panthers of the Coastal Plain" has been criticized by professional biologists for Humphreys’ lack of academic credentials in the study of big cats.
"I think it could have started when a big wild dog killed a smaller dog," Willis Nance said. "But a lot of it was pure made up."
Pranksters and witnesses
While hunters were bringing in every bobcat that could be trapped or shot in the area, Willis Nance and his friends were scheming.
They found a large dog with big paws ("He was like a greyhound," Nance said), took the animal to a nearby creek, and tied a bag of dried peas to the dog’s tail.
The animal jumped and tried to run away from the peas, Nance said, leaving a scattering of large tracks in the soft mud.
"He would jump from here to there," Nance said, motioning to a spot several yards away. "Jumpingest dog I’ve ever seen."
The men then showed reporters and others the dog’s tracks.
"One of the professional hunters was out here with a truckload of specially trained hounds," Nance said. "He turned’em out right on the tracks, but they never found anything."
Other Bladenboro residents took the beast much more seriously.
Mitchell Hughes was on several of the massive hunting expeditions for the creature, as well as smaller hunts with friends and relatives.
"We were out there for a long time," he said, "but we never saw any tracks, or any animal-but we were looking for him."
Hughes was one of those who responded when Mrs. C.A. Kinlaw said she spotted a large animal on her porch, and is quoted as saying it pursued her into her house.
"There were hundreds of people in the mill village," he said. "Seemed like every one of them had a gun. We found a lot of tracks that night, but no animal."
Hughes said the hunters were almost as scared of each other as they were the beast.
"If somebody had jumped out of the bushes," he said, "they’d have gotten shot, I promise you."
"There were people everywhere," he said. "We had people from all over the place, with all kinds of specially trained dogs that could track anything. Every time you turned around, there was another rumor, but nobody saw anything for sure."
When reporters and hunters stopped at Julian "Tater" Shaw’s service station and store, Shaw-a well-known Bladenboro raconteur-would sometimes spin a new tale about the huge cat.
"They never knew when he was pulling their leg," Nance said. "They’d take everything he said for gospel, even when he was joking."
"It’s wonder nobody got hurt," Lewis said. "The whole thing just got blown out of proportion."
Did the "monster" disappear?
While all those interviewed about the beast said the original incident was blown out of proportion, some say there were and are big cats in the Bladenboro area even today.
Panthers follow deer herds, and are not usually seen outside of heavily forested areas.
Some have speculated that the reemergence of the deer herds in North Carolina, combined with the clear cutting of several large swampy wilderness areas, could have driven the cats out into view.
At one point, modern reports became so common among Bladenboro Police that Chief Danny Russ joked he threatened to have the officers tested for drugs.
Russ’ family is from Bladenboro, and the excitement happened before he was born, but he is familiar with the stories.
"All my life I’ve heard about the Beast of Bladenboro," he said, "but I’ve never seen anything, myself."
Russ said several officers have reported seeing panther-like animals throughout town, especially late at night or in the early morning hours.
Lt. Matt Hester said he has seen a panther-like creature while on night patrol at least once.
"That thing (I saw) was a panther," Hester said. "No doubt in my mind."
C.A. Ludlum, Bladenboro’s animal control officer, was a small child when the Beast of Bladenboro became national news, but he is convinced panthers do exist in the wilds of Bladen County.
He has received numerous reports through the years of big cats with long tails, and has seen "wild cats" himself.
"I’m not talking about a bobcat," he said. "These things are big, with tails two- or three-feet long.
"When the Big Swamp flooded several years after Hurricane Hazel, Ludlum and several cousins spent nights near a relative’s hogpen, keeping a bonfire blazing and standing guard with a rifle.
Each night, he said, they could hear a large animal breathing heavily and occasionally screaming in the woods near the hogpen.
"They don’t like fire," he said. "We never saw one, but we sure heard him enough."
The cat made a sound like a baby crying, and occasionally screamed "like a hurt woman," Ludlum said.
"Once you’ve heard one," he said, "you don’t mistake it for anything else."
Later on, Ludlum said, he used to regularly spot at least one large cat near the Crawley Swamp, along N.C. 410.
"They stand about two or three foot tall," Ludlum said, "and have shoulders like a bulldog, with a long tail. They could clear the road in just one or two jumps. Their fur is kind of brownish."
He said he hasn’t seen one for years.
Ludlum said he thinks the cats usually live in the deep swamps of southwestern Bladen, and move around when high water or logging operations disturb them.
"People started saying they were seeing wild cats when the Red Hill Swamp (near Clarkton) was timbered," he said. "I don’t know."
In recent years, he has investigated reports of large cats near the primary school, the Bladenboro airport, and off of Butler Mill Road at the edge of town.
Some of the reports have turned out to be bobcats, he said, but other times, the animals couldn’t be explained.
"I’m satisfied there’s something like a cougar or a panther out there," Ludlum said. "I know there’s been a lot of jokes and pranks about it, but there’s a lot more that hasn’t been explained away."
While a Wildlife Resources commission biologist told town and county officials that panthers no longer exist around here, he had a warning for them, too.
"They aren’t around here," Ludlum said, "but there’s a $4,000 fine if you kill one. You figure that one out."
"Where the Beast is"
For years, people all over the country-and even the world-remembered Bladenboro as the home of the Beast.
The story of the Beast was published and republished, and was featured in several state and national folklore publications.
When Mayor Lewis was stationed in Germany in 1958, he said, a group of people in a restaurant were talking about their hometowns.
When he mentioned he was from Bladenboro, he said, several immediately recalled the mythical monster.
"They knew right off the bat about the Beast," he said.
Ludlum said that into the 1960′s, when his family vacationed in the mountains, "People would find out where we were from, and ask about the Beast."
Whenever the Beast is mentioned in Bladenboro today, people have mixed feelings and theories about whether or not a large predator stalked the town in late 1953 and early 1954.
Efforts to capitalize on the Beast with a festival several years ago were quickly put down by the town council. Even today, residents are sometimes reluctant to discuss the monster that thrust Bladenboro into the national spotlight.
Some are embarrassed by the hoopla, others are amused.
Lewis agreed with his predecessor about one thing.
"There is such a thing as too much publicity for a small town," he said.
(Used with the permission of Jeff Weaver and the Bladen Journal, based on his August 26, 2003 column.)