Does a huge, catlike creature stalk the Altamaha River swamplands in southeast Georgia?
For years, outdoorsmen and residents of the region have reported hearing strange, high-pitched screams late at night. A few claimed to have seen a shaggy, man-like "cat creature" loping through the woods.
"There's something out there, all right," said former Appling County Sheriff Red Carter. "And, from what we've been able to put together, it ain't exactly human, either."
Sheriff Carter, who retired in the mid-1960s, said his office received dozens of calls from frightened hunters and fishermen while he was in office. On several occasions he sent deputies to the swamp to investigate.
"We never found anything, but that doesn't mean it's not there," the sheriff said. "That's a mighty big swamp, with sloughs and lagoons running for miles in all directions."
The Altamaha, the largest river in the state and the largest river basin east of the Mississippi River, is a sprawling wilderness teeming with exotic plant and animal life, including bears, alligators and giant cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. Until the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, the swamp was also home to giant buffalo and elk.
Early pioneers pushing inland from Darien and Savannah told of harrowing encounters with giant reptiles and bears. But the story that captured most attention dealt with a strange beast called the "wampus cat."
Half-man and half-wildcat, the wampus cat was said to be a nocturnal creature that attacked women and children who strayed too far from home.
"Nobody in his right mind went outside the house at night," said Henry Tillman, a retired Methodist preacher from Appling County. "Everybody knew the wampus cat was out there waiting for them."
In 1957, a group of Boy Scouts camping along the river swore they saw a "huge, cat-like creature" running through the woods. They thought it was a wampus cat. According to an article in the
the creature's screams kept the boys awake all night.
Benny Coursey, a retired fisherman who lived in the swamp until his death in the early 1990s, said he saw a wampus cat several times.
"It's the ugliest thing you ever laid eyes on," Mr. Coursey said in an interview shortly before his death. "It's got a big, shaggy head and red, glowing eyes and can run faster than any wildcat I've ever seen."
He said the creature chased him up a tree once when he was a boy. "I reckon I'd be a goner if my brother hadn't showed up with a shotgun and scared it off," he said.
Oscar Tippins, who farms near the swamp, said several men working turpentine boxes for him once saw a creature that resembled a wampus cat. It spooked them so bad, he said, they refused to go back into the swamp.
Some researchers suspect the wampus cat story might have had its origins in an old Indian myth about a legendary cat-creature that terrorized the swamps. European settlers heard the story and probably passed it down for generations.
Wampus cat mania peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with dozens of sightings and "attacks" reported in local and state newspapers. As electricity and roads made their way into the swamp in the 1930s and 1940s, the old legends were all but forgotten.
Syndicated writer E. Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.