The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the topic.
Welcome to Freaky Friday. Rather than a paranormal topic, I have a folklore topic. Today’s topic is black panthers–the animal, not the political party.
Why Black Panthers?
I was born and spent the first thirty years of my life in the pineywoods of East Texas. My parents had a home on seven wooded acres. Many varieties of wildlife lived there with us. I saw foxes, rabbits, crows, deer, poisonous snakes, and all kinds of bugs.
The most interesting animal was the one I never saw. It was the one whose cry sounded like a woman screaming. That scream would come in the dark, on those nights when you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you. It was the kind of scream that raised the hair on the back of my neck.
Many East Texans attribute that sound to an animal they call a black panther. When I first began researching this post, I ignorantly believed the Black Panther was unique to East Texas. However, I have seen reports in Kentucky, Alabama, Appalachia, the Ozarks, and Oklahoma.
The problem? Experts claim no such animal exists in those areas of the country–especially not in East Texas. That doesn’t stop people from saying they saw one. And it doesn’t stop me from wondering what really is out there.
Fear and Imagination
If these black panthers don’t exist, could these reports be the result of getting scared in the woods? Maybe the subconscious’s way of warning the conscious brain of danger?
I’ve mentioned before the idea that we all draw our ideas from a common well. I got the concept from Stephen King. He mentions it in his novel Lisey’s Story. It makes sense for people to put their fears into a large black cat — whether it was real or not. Black animals–especially cats–have a long history in folklore.
Animals were used as a didactic tool in old folklore. Their presence as a villain in folktales and fairytales was used to warn children of very real dangers.
Children were told not to go into the woods after dark because some ravenous beast was out there waiting to gobble them up. In the frontier wilderness, the possibility of getting mixed up with a dangerous animal or maybe a dangerous person was very real.
Some explanations of black panther folklore say the animal is a representation of the darker side of femininity. Scott Nicholson explores this aspect of the folklore in his short story, “The Wampus Cat.”
Witches in European folklore are sometimes associated with black cats. One account I read talked about covens of witches worshiping the devil who appeared in the form of a large black cat (and sometimes a goat). The stereotypical familiar of the witch is a black cat — which might be imagined into a black panther on a dark, scary night.
The black panther in Choctaw folklore is a soul-stealer. It takes the souls of those who were unprepared to die. (I was disappointed not to be able to locate more about this one. It sounded very interesting. I was able to find the word nalushashito but don’t even know if that is a direct reference to the black panther.)
Panthers and Early American Settlers
Parts of Appalachia have been settled since the 1700s, possibly earlier. Settlements in the Ozarks date back to the early 1800s, again possibly earlier. Spooky stories about panthers are associated with both places.
In the Foxfire book, which is about residents of Appalachia, one interviewee relates a story about his father hearing an animal making the sound I described — the sound of a woman scream. The man knew it was a panther and was afraid. He left his lamp burning all night to ensure his safety.
An Ozark telling of panther folklore warns that panthers have a great appetite for human infants. The panther is said to locate babies by the smell of the mother’s milk. One account tells of a panther fighting the family dog as it pursued a five-month-old infant. The panther was finally scared away by fire. (Vance Randolph’s book)
I want to note here that the above-mentioned panthers were never classified as black panthers. Maybe that is something that came later.
East Texas Black Panthers
Panthers in East Texas are always black. Residents of the East Texas Big Thicket describe the Black Panther as being “coal black with scarlet mouth and scarlet tongue, and with eyes that shine in the dark.”
One piece of East Texas black panther folklore was associated with death. When a person died and was laid out to await burial, a black panther would come to the gate post and scream. This scream would frighten all the domestic animals into hiding.
A man whose family settled in Hardin County (in East Texas) in the late 1840s claimed these his ancestors killed many black panthers they found skulking around their property. (Abernethy)
My mother’s family settled in Trinity County in the early 1850s. Her many-greats grandfather killed a bear in the woods of Trinity County. Texas was a wilderness back then. The idea of black panthers roaming the woods is not too far-fetched.
The logical conclusion is that the black panthers — if they ever existed — were killed out. But were they? People still say they see them.
Are they Real?
In her article “The Black Beast of the Piney Woods,” Dana Goolsby notes that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not believe black panthers exist. TPWD biologist Charlie Muller claims Bigfoot is more likely to exist.
Many people disagree.
My husband grew up in Cherokee County, Texas. Back then, Cherokee County was heavily forested. My husband liked to hunt those woods.
One evening around dusk, he saw something that looked like a big black cat climb under a fence. It scared him enough to send him home.
Another day, he found a large cat print. The size of it impressed him. Using .22 bullets, he traced the paw’s imprint to get an idea of size. It took over 20 bullets to go all the way around the print. It scared him enough that he can still tell the story in great detail.
My father hunts the woods of Trinity County, Texas (not far from the area my ancestors settled in the 1850s). One of his fellow hunters said she saw a black panther from her deer stand. He believes her.
I don’t know what I believe. I do, however, remember hearing that eerie scream coming from the dark woods when I was a little girl.
This blog post has gotten long, so I’m going to stop. I did do a lot more research, which included speculation of what species animal the black panther could be. Please peruse my sources to learn more.
The Black Beast of The Pineywoods by Dana Goolsby (black panther sightings)
Panthers in Alabama: Fact or Folklore (speculation on what species the black panther might be)
Animals in Folklore, Edited by J.R. Porter and W.M.S Russell
The Foxfire Book, edited by Eliot Wigginton
Tales From the Big Thicket by Dr. Francis E. Abernethy
Ozark Magic and Folklore by Vance Randolph