Pennsylvania Jack

PHANTOM PANTHER OF PENN'S CREEK

a central Pennsylvania legend

Attributed to Henry W. Shoemaker

A central Pennsylvania legend, this tale was collected by one of our Commonwealth's earliest folklorists, Henry W. Shoemaker, and appears in collections of his writings, as well as in the book "Pennsylvania Songs and Legends," edited by George Korson, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1949, which is where I found it. Shoemaker attributes the tale to oldtimer Henry Rau, who lived along Mahantango Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna on the east side of that great river. According to Rau, who is the narrator of the story that follows, the area around Penn's Creek, Union County, is the scene.

A panther is harder to kill than a snake. A snake will die when the sun goes down, but not so with the panther. There are certain moonlit nights when he'll always come to life again. We old settlers thought we'd never rid this country of panthers; after we tracked and killed them, they always insisted on coming back in the form of ghosts. The ghosts were harder to get rid of than the live ones. From Joe Knepp, Jonas Barnet, Johnny Swartzell, and other old hunters, I hear tell of panthers being seen in these mountains at the present time, but I think they are only the ghosts of the varmints we killed fifty years ago. Here is the story of the spook panther.

Old Jake Sansom killed him the year I came back from the war, in '64 [1864]: he caught him in the act of entering his chicken house and shot him through the hindquarters. The animal backed out as best he could, and then young Dave Sansom shot him in the head. Old Jake was an antic sort of chap; he liked fun and nonsense. He took the hide, which was a very fine one and very dark in color, and stuffed it with straw and leaves. We did not know of taxidermists or glass eyes in those days, so the completed job looked rather uncanny with the great empty eye sockets. It measured a good nine feet from nose to tip of tail, and you can picture a pretty good size brute from that. After stuffing the hide, the old man set it up on the ridgepole of his woodhouse, which fronted on the public road leading to Centerville. You can be sure it was the nine days wonder of the neighborhood. With the jaws propped open to show the enormous teeth, for it was a male, and with the tail high in the air, it looked almost as natural as life, and a damn sight more ugly.

Horses and even mules shied at it as they were driven past. Dogs barked at it and tried to climb up on the shed. Children on their way to school would not go by it unless accompanied by grown persons. But one unfortunate feature of the case was that the dead panther had a mate. These animals are very devoted to one another, and if one is killed the survivor hardly ever mates again. In this instance, the female kept coming to the edge of the dense brush at the rear of old Jakeís garden, and howling pitifully on moonlit nights at the immovable carcass on the ridgepole. Some of the more timid neighbors urged him to take the carcass down. "It keeps the mate in the neighborhood, and our women and children can't have any peace at nights," they said. But Jake would only shake his hairy head and grin. "I'm going to get that mate some day. I'm waiting for her to get real bold and show herself. Then there will be two stuffed panthers on the roof of my woodshed."

Jake had killed the male panther about the first week in April, but summer was now on the wane and he hadn't yet got a shot at the mate. A number of the boys on the adjoining farms were hoping she would continue to elude him, as they wanted to mount a panther hunt with their dogs when the harvest was over. As it was, when ever any dogs were loose, Jake's or anyone elses, they would take up the scent of the stuffed panther or its mate and make the nights horrible with their yelping. They too urged old Jake to get rid of the one on his woodshed, but the old man was stubborn.

About the end of August there was a camp meeting in Emerick's Woods over near New Berlin, and the number of rigs and wagons and travelers on horseback that passed by Jake's farm and the stuffed panther was well up into the hundreds. All stopped to look and gawk at it, for many of the younger folk had never seen one before; they were getting scarce outside of the Seven Mountains. The second Sunday of the "camp", old Jake and his boys went off in the carryall. His daughter was feeling poorly so she and her mother stayed behind to mind the house. Not that Jake's wife was afraid of anything. She said she could shoot straighter than her husband any time. As it got dark it was a weird sort of night. The clouds flying by the face of the full moon looked like panthers with long tails. "It is the kind of night we always saw the ghost of the Indian chief at the spring, when I was a girl," the mother told her daughter.

"Don't tell me that, Mother, it frightens me," said the daughter, pulling a patchwork quilt up around her head. "I donít like to hear about ghosts. I've felt uneasy ever since Daddy set that ugly stuffed panther up on the woodhouse." "Donít be foolish. Ghosts are as much a part of this life as our daily breath," said her mother. "We cannot reckon without them."

About then the patter of dogs' feet was heard on the kitchen porch. Opening the door, Jake's wife saw six huge hounds running about, yipping and wagging their heavy tails. Two were Jake's, which he had turned loose before leaving for the camp meeting. The other four were strangers. "Shoo, there," she shouted at them, striking at them with her broom. The six hounds ran off the porch and bounded across the yard where they began barking at the panther on the ridgepole of the woodshed.

As she went back into the house, the dogs were leaping against the side of the shed, trying to get up onto the roof. She took a look at the beast and she recoiled in horror. Her daughter noticed. "What ails you, Mother. I thought you never got afraid," she asked sarcastically. "I never do, but I didn't like the way that panther looked. The queer moonlight we have tonight was shining in his eye sockets. He had an expression that would scare the devil himself."

The dogs were barking and yelping more furiously than ever. It seemed they would demolish the woodshed in their fury. "No wonder the neighbors complain they can't sleep at night, " said the daughter. "Between the she-panther in the brush and infernal carrying-on of the hounds, they might as well cut up their beds for kindling."

"I guess if we can sleep through it, we can too," said the old woman, sinking down into her rocking chair by the window. She watched the frantic, howling dogs for a few moments without saying a word. Then as the noise increased, she looked to see what was happening, then screamed and ran to the door and turned the key in the lock. She called to her daughter, "The hounds are up on the roof. They are pulling down the panther." The daughter ran to the window too, just in time to see hounds and panther come rolling down off the roof into the yard. In a moment the angry brutes were on top of it, intent on tearing it to pieces.

In the midst of their fury, something that seemed like a shadow cast by one of the long panther like clouds swept across the smooth-kept yard from the garden fence. It was no shadow - it was the drab form of the stuffed panther's mate. Taking the hounds completely off their guard, she plunged in amongst them, throwing them right and left. Yells of anger were followed by miserable caterwauls of pain. Torn, bleeding, and helpless, the dogs lay about like sheep at a barbeque. When the last enemy was dispatched, the pantheress sprang lightly to the side of the stuffed carcass of her mate. Pausing, she turned her uplifted head and ground her teeth in defiance to the terror-stricken women in the cottage window. A narrow streak of moonlight fell on the animal at that moment, setting out in bold relief the slim lithe lines of her form. She rolled it over from side to side, licking the eyeless sockets of the carcass. Then she stood it on four feet, where it looked ready to take on life and speed with her into the forest. Giving out a savage growl, she fixed her fangs tightly into the nape of the neck of her stuffed mate and dragged it across the yard. With great difficulty she managed to drag and lift it over the fence, and the two of them disappeared quickly into the pines.

Why mother and daughter stood at that window all this time they could not tell themselves ever after. It was a sight that try as they might, they were never able to forget. It was just after the devoted pantheress, with her ghastly burden, had disappeared over the garden fence that, rifle in hand, I appeared on the scene. At that time, I lived about a quarter of a mile up the road from the Sansom farm, nearer to Centerville. I hadn't gone to the camp meeting that night and had gone to bed early, but soon the hellish yelping of the hounds at Jake's place had me awake. It was so loud and kept up so long, I thought for sure the mate of Jake's stuffed panther must surely be about. As I came down the road, I heard the she panther let out a horrifying yell and I hurried all the faster, but I arrived too late. Pushing through the gate, I saw the ground littered with dying dogs. Mammy Sansom saw me and rushed out of the house to tell me what had happened. Together we checked on the dogs. Some died while we were examining them, the rest I put out of their misery with the butt of my rifle. Turning to Mammy Sansom, I told her, "I think I can get that pantheress tonight."

I had purposely left my dogs at home. They were only little rabbit hounds, and I didn't want them to get mixed up in any mess. But now they would be useful to track the panthers. As I was going out the front gate to go home and get them, I heard the sound of a wagon down the road. It was Jake and his boys coming back from the camp meeting. I explained to them what had happened as quickly as I could. As they ran into the yard to see what was left of the dogs, I jumped into their carryall and drove up the road. I leashed up my little dogs and put them in the wagon. Returning to Sansom's house, I found the old man and the boys waiting with their rifles. I put the dogs on the scent, and soon there was a lively tonguing.

The trail led us through the garden, across a pasture lot, and into the brushwood that stretched for half a mile to the beginnings of the big pine forest that covered the slopes of Jack's Mountain. Near the edge of the pines was a spring. For some reason it had always been called Panther Spring; now it was to become doubly entitled to the name. The moon, which had been blackened out for a few minutes by long, slim, panther-like clouds, suddenly shed its rays upon the spring. What had seemed to us like a couple of old rotting moss-covered logs turned out to be two huge crouching panthers, drinking from the spring. The smaller of the two raised its head at our approach, looked around and ground its teeth at us. Then it quickly caught the other animal by the nape of the neck. When the larger brute wheeled, we noticed it had very imperfect eyes, and we recognized it as the animated form of the stuffed carcass that for six months had been fastened to the ridgepole of old Jakeís woodshed.

I have heard of buck fever hundreds of times, but I never experienced it myself until I saw those two devilish panthers. I could not raise my rifle to my shoulder. My dogs, usually eager to attack anything big or little, cowered at my feet, shivering and shaking. Jake and his boys were stiff with fright. We stood there in the moonlight as if hexed. I who had faced death at Malvern Hill and Chancellorsville allowed the two brutes to get away from me, without turning a finger to prevent it. The weak-eyed panther moved more slowly than its mate, for he was evidently being reanimated gradually. With any amount of sense, we could have shot them both, but it wasnít to be. When they were safely out of reach we woke up.

All of us started swearing at ourselves. Once I thought I'd whip my dogs, but I figured if a thinking, reasoning human being like myself hadn't the backbone enough to shoot, how could a pair of little rabbit hounds be expected to begin an attack. Sheepishly we all turned around and returned to our homes. It was the most unsatisfactory, cowardly night of our lives.

The story of the panther being torn off of Jake's shed roof and the mate coming to the rescue and killing the hounds quickly became widespread, but our part of the adventure we kept dark. Many of the neighbors began to complain about two panthers being heard in the brush at night, when the moon was full, for it was then that they always wailed most mournfully. "That cursed panther of Jake Sansom's has brought two more around to avenge it, instead of one," was their common talk. But Jake, his boys, and I knew that the second panther was none other than the stuffed carcass from the woodshed brought back to life.

With that, Henry Rau, the old hunter, concluded, "Yep, it sure is hard to kill a panther."