Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Pair of Panther Tales

I won’t pass up a chance to share a good panther story. I’ll even share a mediocre panther story or two. This installment was inspired by an 1845 article, A Foreigner’s First Glimpses of Georgia, written by the French émigré Professor J. H. Guenebault. (Published in Southern and Western Magazine and Review)

This professor is best known for his 1837 book, Natural History of the Negro Race. You can guess the tone of that tome. These two paragraphs are more than enough:

Social equality is but a hollow sound, or rather the echo of the thunder; it is a soft breeze ending amidst the yells of riots and revolutions, a flickering light, hardly perceptible at first, and bursting soon after into a vast conflagration. Let the distinctions of ranks be destroyed, and society can exist no longer—chaos begins, and all is confused; society is but a labyrinth, where law and right, groping their way in the dark, are immediately lost; it is but an absurd community, in which the muscular power ranks superior to intelligence.

In every civilized country, and in all ages, the legislator has marked a period during which man is subject to the authority or guardianship of another. Why is such a power given over him? Why this guardianship? Why that sort of slavery? It is that from his infancy up to his manhood,his intellectual faculties, being not strong enough, or matured by experience, it would be imprudent, immoral, I may say, to abandon to himself, without any control or restraint, a being incapable of governing his passions. Who sees there an injustice?

Later on, the Professor’s own superior intelligence was certainly tested during a trip through the north Georgia mountains. Arriving in Clayton, he engaged the services of a guide to lead him through the mountain wilds:

He was a small man, spare of frame, with the look and manner of an Indian. He came before us with his ponderous rifle, poised like a familiar thing upon one shoulder, his bullet pouch and powder horn depending from the other. Though more than fifty years old, he possessed all the strength and activity of his youth; and rode one of those queer, unpromising little horses, which provoke your laughter, but finally astonish you by their performances.

The name of our guide himself was Beck. Previous to employing him, we received a brief history of him from our landlord, the interest of which was not lessened by his personal appearance. Beck was something of an outlaw. For nearly thirty years he had led the life of an Indian in this wild region. The language of the aborigines had become quite as familiar as his own.

He had learned to admire and to imitate many of their customs; and he might have passed all his days in the bosom of the tribes, but for an event which our landlord described as a '-sort of misonderstand- ing." It was certainly something more, and the result was to restore him to the more civilized world from which he had so long withdrawn himself. In a brawl with some of his red brethren, he had the ill-luck to smite one of them fatally.

Beck, of course, fled to avoid the mandatory revenge that would have cost his life. As the travelers set out on horseback, Guenebault learned more about his guide:

Beck had his practical jokes, which were sometimes disquieting. He probably saw that we had some vague apprehensions of Indian enemies, for, while we were scattered on one occasion, looking for mineral specimens, he amused himself with my terrors in a way I did not find it easy to forgive.

Leisurely jogging along through a defile, and quite alone, I was suddenly paralyzed by the terrible war whoop of the savage, close at my elbow. No words can express my horror. My heart stood still. My limbs refused to fly; and I scarcely recovered my composure, when I discovered that the alarm came from our guide, who starting out of a thicket, suddenly darted with uncouth gestures upon the path. I could have tomahawked the fellow for the scare he gave me.

I had not well recovered my composure, when I heard distinctly the clucking of wild turkies, the plaintive solicitings of the partridge, and the faint bleatings of the young fawn, in a quaint sort of woodland chorus that was perfectly delightful. It was he, in fact, who had so successfully imitated bird and beast, that I could hardly persuade myself of the deception.

His tricks did not stop here, for finally, as I passed beneath one of those monstrous trees that stretch out a thousand gnarled limbs as if in sovereignty over the scene, the rascal cried out to me, in tones of the greatest alarm—"My God! stranger, look! a painter (panther) jest over your head."

The cry of the blood thirsty beast thrilled through me at the same moment, coupled with such a crackling of the branches, that I took for granted the monster was already upon me, and by an involuntary movement of horror, buried the spurs in the shrinking sides of my poney. He, too, quite as much alarmed as his rider, was equally ready for flight, and darted off at a rate which seemed to prove that the panther was already clutching at his rear.

For a mile he went ahead, at full tilt, his nostrils dilating, his breath coming hard, while I, bending, Jockey- like, over his mane, was scarcely satisfied with his rapid movement. The cries and shouts that followed us, with the footfalls sounding behind, increased our terrors and our speed. I felt sure that it was the wild beast, and for a long time remained unassured by the "whoop! whoop!" and the "stop! stop! stranger!" of that wicked wanderer, whose fun was causing all the mischief.

This was but a new trick of that Satan, Beck, proving his-own powers, and my terrors, at the same moment. I was angry enough, as I well might be; but, to remain so, long, was impossible. The fellow had his own ways of pacifying, and his good humor and his resources seemed equally inexhaustible. I soon made up my mind, Frenchman-like, to laugh with him, satisfied that nothing was to be got by quarrelling…

So much for our companion and guide.

And so much for the Professor’s panther sighting in the wilderness of the Georgia mountains.

The engraving at the top of this story first appeared in New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository, April 1795, accompanied by this brief article from Henry Livingston:

The Panther is, in America, what the Lion and Tyger are in Africa and Asia, the tyrant of the wilderness. The carcajou, the bear, and the wolf avoid his haunts; and the bones of the Buffaloe, the Moose and the Elk, lie scattered around his den. When full grown, his weight is generally one hundred and twenty pounds, and his length, from his muzzle to the end of his tail, little short of ten feet. In height is nearly three feet. His heart, compared with his body, is smaller than that of most ferocious animals; but still his mouth is large, and teeth terrible.

Like all other creatures of the feline tribe, his talons are sheathed. His legs are as thick as the fore arm of a man, and his foot much bigger than that of the largest mastiff. he is of a dun lead colour, except his muzzle, which is black. His tail is three fifths of his whole length, is very thick, and trails on the ground when he walks. His whole form indicates a combination of strength and agility.

The individual from which the annexed drawing was taken was catched at the Ohio some months ago, when he was not a fortnight old. By being ever among men, he is become very tame, and suffers himself even to be beaten by his keeper. Nothing appears to rouse him so much as the appearance of a child: whenever that is the case, his chain alone prevents him from rushing upon it in a moment.

At Boston two bull dogs were let loose upon him. He instantly threw himself upon his back, and with his nails immediately killed one of his assailants, and would have destroyed the other, if he had not been torn away by the bystanders.

Notwithstanding the strength, the agility, and the powers for mischief, possessed by this animal, he is not the object of dread to the hunger, or even the benighted bewildered pilgrim: for, except in the case of children, he carefully shuns the face of man. it is a singularity in the history of nature, that while the forests of Europe, Asia and Africa resound with the shrieks of the victims to the Lion, the Tyger, the Leopard, and the Hyena, the sojourner in America, with no other weapon than a staff of reed, may traverse its wilderness in perfect safety, from the unlimited ocean of the west, to the shores of the Atlantic.

That's the first I'd heard of the panther's particular proclivity for children. And while they may have been eyewitnesses to the big cat, very few survived to tell the tale. So, our favorite feline remains a mystery.

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