By Dana Goolsby
Legends of black cats run deeper than a little superstition in East Texas. Sightings of mysterious black panthers that scream like women in the pine jungles are not at all uncommon in the Pineywoods. Tales of the mysterious screaming beast have been raising hairs on the back of East Texans’ necks for the better part of nearly two centuries.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) black panthers do not exist. TPWD biologist Charlie Muller said it is more likely people are seeing a black hog, or perhaps an otter. Muller even told KLTV, “You’d have better luck finding Bigfoot.”
Regardless of what TPWD says, there are many people who claim to have seen the black beast and when they tell the story of their encounter you can see the fear in their eyes. Others are taken aback by shear amazement at the stealthy beast. TPWD won’t be convincing some East Texas residents that there is no such thing as a black panther prowling about in the Pineywoods.
Anyone who has spent any length of time in East Texas has likely heard the tales of missing livestock or pets that later show up disemboweled or perhaps hanging high in a tree. East Texans who spend time in the woods regularly talk about the cries that pierce the stillness of the Pineywoods, which can only be describes as a sound very similar to a woman’s scream. Area residents say the sound is not one you will quickly forget, and contend it is a sound that lives on in your mind and even in your dreams, or rather nightmares.
Prior to World War II, Texas gulf marshes were huge fields of sea cane. The fields have since disappeared but stories of the panthers that crept beneath the tall sea cane have lived on through folklore spun around campfires and memoirs left by those who saw them for nearly two centuries.
Confederate Army wives and children often told tales of how they barred their shutters at night when all of the men were away during the Civil War in order to keep out panthers. When darkness fell, the big black cats emerged from the sea cane marshes and headed for higher ground in search of prey. Panther prey could be anything from livestock to the occasional human, according to some tales.
During the late 1800s, numerous articles were written about East Texans who were attacked and on some occasions eaten by black cats.
In 1874, the Galveston Weekly news printed a gruesome story about an attack. The article told of the horrible death suffered by a black man who had set out to deliver provisions to a purchaser in a Louisiana parish by wagon.
He had only been gone about 15 minutes when his team of horses came running back without a driver. Others on the scene immediately set out to find him.
According to the article, the body of the man was lying in the road and a huge black panther was standing over it, relentlessly gnawing on one of the shoulders. The search team retreated and returned with a gun. Upon their return, they found the panther still deeply engaged in devouring his victim. They fired their guns but did not manage to kill the man eating beast. They watched him disappear into the Pineywoods.
Another article written in 1881, tells of a panther attack near present-day Lumberton, located in Hardin County. Two black men were returning home to Beaumont from a camp on the East Texas Railroad and were attacked by two fierce panthers.
The article recounts how the two men saved their own lives by clubbing away at the two angry beasts. The fight was said to have lasted over 20 minutes between the hungry cats and the two men who were determined to survive. The cats finally retreated, however, both men were said to have very little clothing left, as the beasts had shredded their clothes right off of them.
One article published in the Galveston Daily News near the turn of the century, describes a moonlight encounter of a young boy and a black cat. A steam boat captain was taking a load of supplies up the Sabine. He ran into low water and was forced to anchor until water levels rose.
The captain had brought his 14-year-old son on this particular trip. One evening while they were anchored the young boy heard his dogs baying. The moon was particularly bright and the boy quickly saw what it was his dogs were barking at. A large black panther was perched in the branches of a cypress tree.
The boy fired a shot and the cat fell to the ground. His dogs immediately rallied around the cat. Unfortunately, the cat was merely stunned. The cat began defending himself with all of his might and every claw and fang he had.
According to the old article, the boy grabbed a pine knot and struck the panther across the head, killing it in a single swipe. The Captain had the panther mounted for his son, which he hung as a trophy in the captain’s pilot house of his steamer.
Over a century and a half later East Texans are still reporting black cat sightings.
One Palestine man will never forget the time he saw a calf carcass hanging in the tops of the pine trees along the trail he was riding. In or about 2009, the man and his family were on a trail ride through a densely forested area. He said the horses became spooked and started dancing around anxiously through the trails. The nervous horses began to lather with sweat in the East Texas heat and humidity.
When he finally calmed his horse, he stopped in the trail to let his horse rest for a moment while the others went ahead. It was at that time he felt something warm and thick dripping on him and his horse. When he looked up he saw the remains of a calf draped across branches at least 20ft in the air. He and his family wasted no time leaving the area.
A woman from Houston County says she saw a black cat during the early 1980s. She lived east of Grapeland on a large hill overlooking a large hay meadow and three ponds. She was a registered nurse and often put in long hours at the doctor’s office where she worked. Most evenings she made it to her home around dusk, just as the sun leaves the sky and sinks into the darkness of the Pineywoods.
One particular evening as she approached her house she noticed something different about an old, dark- green Cadillac that was parked in a grassy area across from her front yard. As she drove along the dirt road approaching the hill she noticed something large on top of the old Cadillac, from about 150 yards. She could not imagine what it was but as she neared the hill, approximately 50 yards closer she noticed something that appeared to be twitching. That twitching motion reminded her of how a cat twitches its tail occasionally as it lounges around.
Her heart began to throb as she realized what was lying on top of the old Cadillac. She slowed her car but continued up the hill. She had never seen a black panther but had heard plenty of stories, which she had always believed were only tall tales told by old men.
As she crept up the hill in her car her heart raced as she realized she might get a close up glance at the legendary East Texas beast. Just as she topped the hill the black beast lifted its head and locked its eyes on her. She stopped her car and stared as the stealthy cat made haste. She drove up to the Cadillac hoping to catch another glimpse of the creature before he disappeared, but it was too late. He had vanished into the thicket without a trace.
During the winter of 1999, a couple was traveling home along a back road in Houston County that passed a goat farm. The goat farm reminded both of them of black cat tales and they began to discuss the illusive black panther. Neither was sure if they believed the black cat banter, as neither of them had ever seen one.
According to the couple, about half a mile past the goat farm entrance something bolted across the red dirt road in front of them. A dark object appeared to practically fly across the road. The woman said she was certain creature did not even touch the road.
The man began to fumble nervously but quickly in the back seat, on the floor of his extended cab Nissan. He kept a spot light in his truck for various reasons, but this was about to be a first. He grabbed the light and shined it into the field just in time to see what appeared to be a black panther running full speed across a field.
The couple estimated the cat to be six feet long, not including his tail. They said he bounded across the meadow and cleared the winding creek bed twice with ease. Both said the cat never stopped and never looked back.
Tales of mysterious creatures are on tap in East Texas. While not everyone has seen evidence that certain creatures, such as black panthers exist, many area residents believe the big cats are still hunting and thriving in the Pineywoods. For those who have heard their cries coming from the forests that is all the evidence they need. For others, the proof lies in the look on the faces of those who claim to have encountered or seen the black beasts.
Dana Goolsby can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and would like to hear your stories about black panther encounters in the Pineywoods of East Texas.