The Hidden Files #1: British Big Cats

This is the first installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

What secrets do the forests, fields and moors of Britain hold? Could the British countryside be home to creatures roaming far beyond their natural habitat?

Since the 1950s, many eyewitnesses have asked themselves these same questions.

You wouldn’t think the quaint countryside of the south of England could shelter such mysterious creatures, but Devon and Cornwall made the Big Cats in Britain list of the top 10 counties with the most sightings. The most famous sightings of British big cats are arguably the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. Sightings of the Beast of Exmoor began to be reported in the 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1983 that the beast achieved a degree of infamy: a farmer, Eric Ley, reported that he had lost over 100 sheep over the course of three months. Each had been mutilated and had had their throats torn out. In 1988, the complaints about the number of livestock deaths prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to send Royal Marines into the area to seek out the Beast of Exmoor. Several men believed they had spotted it, but no conclusive evidence was ever found. Similarly, the Beast of Bodmin made headlines in 1992 as the alleged culprit of livestock mutilations. Both creatures were described as panther-like or puma-like, despite neither of these cats being native to Britain.

article-1109174-02FC9117000005DC-449_468x286

Photograph showing a large cat which is believed to be the Beast of Exmoor

The earliest cases in the 1950s include the Surrey Puma. The Surrey Puma was first seen in 1959 and by the mid-1960s, the police had developed specific records for big cat sightings – a collection which included a plaster cast of a paw print and a photograph of a remarkably long cat taken by Ian Pert, a police photographer. Another interesting case from the 1980s is that of the Fen Tiger, a big cat (unlikely to be an actual tiger!) which had apparently made its home in Cambridgeshire. The first sighting was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that actual evidence was supplied by William Rooker. He had captured two minutes of footage which appeared to show a large feline with black fur and, in his words, “a flat face”.

BBCS WR Fen Tiger 11 MS2

Copyright to British Big Cat Society & William Rooker (1994)

The image above is a still from William Rooker’s original footage. If you scroll down to the end of this article from BBC Cambridgeshire, plenty of people have added their own accounts in the comments section, the most recent comment dating from 2009. Clearly, the Fen Tiger, along with big cat tales nationwide, are still present in the public imagination.

So how might we go about explaining these cats’ peculiar choice of home? The most plausible theory is that the presence of larger cats – especially those which are not native to Britain – is the result of new regulations introduced in 1976 under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Prior to this, it was ostensibly legal to own wild animals in this country without any kind of training or licence. The act declared that owners of certain types of exotic animals, particularly big cats, now required a permit. Perhaps some owners simply released their pets into the wild to avoid having to apply (and pay) for an ownership licence. Alternatively, owners may have released big cats they had been keeping as pets when the animals grew too large for their enclosures or became too difficult to handle.

Near where I live, a local man by the name of Lew Foley was well-known for keeping a pride of lions at his home in Cradley Heath. Last year, his friend Norman Catton claimed in the Birmingham Mail that Foley had released his lions over the Malvern Hills and in addition may have helped other people release their animals – possibly other big cats –  after the 1976 act. I must stress that this story remains unconfirmed, but it’s possible. In 2009, a statement from Big Cats In Britain made it clear that “There’s probably more than one up on the hills.” Without knowing how many other big cats may have been released, the Birmingham Mail suggested at least four or five felines could be prowling in the hills. Either way, I think it’s an interesting piece of local history and I like that it has taken on a “local legend” quality.

These cats are often called “phantom cats” and it’s been noted that these stories descend from the tradition in British folklore of the Black Dog, a ghostly canine who roams the moors and is an omen of ill fortune. Sightings of big cats are not generally considered supernatural in the way that the Black Dogs of the past were – instead, the idea of the cats having escaped from captivity bolsters people’s beliefs.

I think it’s entirely plausible that small numbers of big cats were released in the 1970s and might have survived in the countryside, but it’s also important to note that the big cat craze has resulted in several hoaxes, including a toy tiger being left in a field (prompting panic and a police helicopter search) and a cardboard cut-out of a panther being photographed and presented as evidence.

 

Draw whatever conclusion you like from reading the anecdotes and accounts of sightings, but you might want to take care if you’re walking alone across the moors or the hills of England – just in case. You never know what’s out there.

For more:

Please be aware – both documentaries briefly show images of the mutilated livestock in some “big cat” cases.

Lunar Files #3: La Bête du Gévaudan

This is the third installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Nearly 300 years ago, the mountains of southern France were home to a predator unlike any creature its people had encountered before.

Between 1764 and 1767, the people of the Gévaudan region (now modern Lozere) lived in constant fear of a creature said to be as large as a calf. The Wolf of Chazes, or The Beast of Gévaudan as it later came to be known, claimed the lives of an estimated 113 people – most of them women and children.

The first attack occurred in the summer of 1764. A young woman herding her cattle in the Mercoire Forest in Langogne saw the creature approaching her, but, fortunately, her herd managed to drive it away. Not long after, a second girl was found slaughtered near Langogne; in the town of Les Hubacs, 14-year-old Janne Boulet fell victim to La Bête. The people of the region continued to find the bodies of cattle and their fellow villagers alike, until, unsurprisingly, theories abounded about the creature’s origins. Was it a wolf? A hybrid? Or was it a creature of an altogether different kind – a werewolf? So many brutal maulings were occurring that the people believed there was a pair of beasts, or even that La Bête was hunting with a litter of young.

Gevaudanwolf

18th-century engraving by A.F. of Alençon

It became clear that the beast favoured easy prey – lone men and women tending livestock and children. Its modus operandi was striking too; victims who were not entirely devoured were often found decapitated and the creature was said to unusually aim for the head rather than the legs or throat (which would be expected of a large predator).

In 1765, the king’s personal marksman Antoine de Beauterne was dispatched to the region to deal with the beast. However, his hunt was preceded by a showdown between La Bête and a teenage girl, Marie-Jeanne Valet. Marie-Jeanne was crossing a river in the woods when she spotted the beast approaching her from behind. She plunged a homemade spear into the creature’s chest and it retreated, holding its paw to the wound. The young girl’s bravery made it into Beauterne’s official account of the events. Eventually, in September 1765, Antoine de Beauterne led a group of 40 local men on a hunt for the beast in the woods of Pommier. He successfully shot an enormous wolf measuring six feet long. Following the death of this wolf, the attacks ceased.

Temporarily.

In the spring of 1767, the beast seemed to have risen from the dead and a second hunt which is believed to have culminated in the death of La Bête was funded by a local nobleman Marquis d’Apcher. Jean Chastel, a farmer and inn-keeper, shot the beast at Mont Mouchet on 19th June 1767. Writers of the time later introduced the idea that Chastel’s fatal shot was completed with a silver bullet of his own making, a concept which lent itself well to contemporary portrayals of the beast as a supernatural entity. La Bête was stuffed and embalmed, going on display around the country. When it reached the king, it had begun to decay and reek. What happened to the beast’s remains is unclear – some records state that the body was burned, others maintain it was buried.

811199582001_5300095664001_5300082543001-vs

Memorial to Marie-Jeanne Valet (Philippe Kaeperlin, 1995)

Without the remains, we may never know exactly what slaughtered peasants in Gévaudan in the 18th century, but modern biologists, natural scientists and animal behaviourists have proposed numerous theories. The most common suggestion is a wolf – wolves were certainly common across central Europe at the time – but it’s important to consider the context. These people lived off the land and wolves would have been a regular sight at the foot of the French Alps, so it is unlikely that they would mistake a wolf, even a large one, for some kind of unnatural predator. A popular suspect is the striped hyena, which would explain the markings survivors claimed to see on the beast’s fur. Exotic animals from Africa were a spectacular addition to the menageries of the wealthy, so it is a distinct possibility. Another prime candidate is the lion. Descriptions of the beast – the tuft at the end of its tail, the dark stripe along its back, the reddish fur – would be consistent with a young male lion. Furthermore, lions attack larger prey by jumping on the victim’s back and throttling them (cutting off their oxygen). This might explain details such as the creature’s preference for attacking the head first.

More than 200 years later, La Bête du Gévaudan remains culturally relevant and is a draw for tourists in what is now Lozere (Gevaudan is no longer the name for the region). You can find the monument to Marie-Jeanne Valet in Auvers village, along with Maison de la Bête (House of the Beast), a museum dedicated to artefacts from the case. In Saugues, there is the Musée Fantastique de la Bête du Gévaudan (Fantastical Museum of The Beast of Gevaudan) and you can find another monument dedicated to Jean Chastel in La Besseyre-Saint-Mary. The beast was even the focus of a feature film Le Pacte des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), which portrays the beast as a lion garbed in armour by its human master, and it is depicted as a werewolf in the TV series Teen Wolf.

If you find yourself in the countryside of Lozere one day, remember that, once upon a time, a man-eater stalked its unlucky prey in those beautiful rolling hills. Remember the legacy of La Bête.

For more:

The World of the Werewolf

Shapeshifters are a constant in human culture, especially the belief in humans with the ability to transform into animals. The most popular of these is the werewolf.

But how far back into history does the belief in werewolves go? Where did this idea originate? And what does the idea of the werewolf say about us?

Let’s start with the etymology. Most of the terms we associate with this creature are essentially compound words. The word werewolf is derived from the Old English werwulf, which is in turn related to the Middle High German werewulf. The “were-” prefix simply means “man”; the term can be literally translated as “man-wolf”. This template appears in Old Frankish as wariwulf, in Anglo-Norman as garwulf and in Old Norse as varúlfur. Another commonly-used term follows the same structure. The word lycanthrope comes from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος (lukánthropos), again meaning “wolf-man”. Lycanthropy can refer to the act of transformation or the ability itself.

WeirdTalesv36n2pg038_The_Werewolf_Howls-624x723

“The Werewolf Howls”, Mont Sudbury (published in “Weird Tales”, 1941)

In Histories, the Greek writer Herodotus recorded that a tribe of men with the ability to turn into wolves roamed Scythia, and in Satyricon (a work of prose dating from circa 60AD) by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the character Niceros tells the story of his friend who became a wolf. They were walking in the woods when his friend had the sudden compulsion to remove all his clothes, urinate in a circle around the pile of garments and then flee into the woods in the form of a wolf. However, many early werewolf tales of the Classical world had a recurring theme – the consumption of human flesh and the consequent punishment for such a transgression. In the myth of Lycaon, the king of Arcadia has his own son killed, cooked and served to Zeus, in order to test the god’s omniscience. To punish Lycaon for the crimes of murder and cannibalism, Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf. The Roman author Pliny the Elder also writes of a man who turned into a wolf after tasting the entrails of a child, but returned to human form ten years later.

Perhaps the association between werewolves and great cultural taboos, like cannibalism or infanticide, is what made alleged werewolves such prime victims for early modern moral panics in Europe. Before the fourteenth century, the belief in werewolves was not widespread, but in the wake of the witch trials, so-called “werewolf panic” took root and “werewolfism” became a common accusation in witch trials. Furthermore, werewolves were deeply entrenched in the pagan traditions of Scandinavia and Germany; you might be familiar with the Viking berserkers, warriors who wore animal skins in order to take on the fierce traits of the creature, channeling the animal’s spirit. Early Germanic tribes had their equivalent, the Tierkrieger – literally “animal warriors”. What better way for the church to inspire loyalty in the flock all across Europe than by portraying a physical manifestation of the old pagan ways as the ultimate enemy?

berserker woodcut from 1872

Copy of a woodcut depicting a berserker (1872)

The best known examples of werewolf trials took place in France and Germany during the 16th and 17th centuries. Gilles Garnier was a reclusive hermit living in Dole, France. In his testimony, he said he had recently married and found it difficult to provide for his new wife. While out hunting in the forest, a spectre had materialised and given him an ointment which would turn him into a wolf to make it easier to hunt. At trial, he confessed to having murdered and eaten four children between the ages of 9 and 12. He was arrested after a group of workers witnessed him eating the body of a dead child. Garnier was burned at the stake in 1573, following the testimonies of more than 50 witnesses. A later French example – that of Jean Grenier – took place at the turn of the 17th century. In 1603, 14-year-old Grenier was accused of kidnapping and murdering infants, and claimed to have been initiated into devil worship by his friend. A young woman had been assaulted by a creature in the woods; Grenier claimed to have taken the form of a wolf in order to maul her. Seven years later, he was visited in prison by the demonologist Pierre de Lancre who said Grenier had grown long, sharp teeth, could only howl like a wolf and would eat his own filth.

One of the better documented German werewolf trials was that of Peter Stumpp (or Stumpf), a farmer accused of witchcraft and lycanthropy. Known as the Werewolf of Bedburg, Stumpp stated under torture that he had practised witchcraft since he was twelve and had been given a magic belt as a gift from the Devil. He believed that the belt enabled him to become a wolf. He confessed to killing and eating fourteen children and two pregnant women, as well as the women’s fetuses. One of the children was his own son. In 1589, Stumpp was executed by having all his limbs broken on the wheel and then being beheaded, along with his daughter and his mistress who were both flayed. Stumpp’s story was the inspiration for the song “The Werewolf of Bedburg” by Macabre, and he is referred to in The Exorcist: “Well, there’s William Stumpf, for example. Or Peter. I can’t remember. Anyway, a German in the sixteenth century who thought he was a werewolf”.

werewolf attack woodcut lucas cranach elder 1512

Woodcut of a werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1512)

It makes sense that our ancestors’ fears should manifest as a wolf, as wolves were far more numerous across Europe in the past. The wolves of England were hunted to extinction during the reign of Henry VII, but the last wolf in Scotland is believed to have been killed in 1680. However, the wolf population of mainland Europe continues to grow; excluding Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, there are 12,000 grey wolves across 28 European countries (relevant study here). The difference is that we now understand the behaviour of wolves and modern lifestyles mean we are far less likely to clash with local wolf populations.

The werewolf of today has been relegated to the realm of fiction, but for our ancestors it was believed to pose a very real threat – not just to their physical safety, but their spiritual and moral integrity too.

My sources, where you can find out more:

You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.