Indiana’s August 1948 Varmints

Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 9th, 2006


The fossil jaw of Panthera atrox can be seen in the left hand of the Joseph Leidy statue that stands in front of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

All this month, the newspaper of Richmond, Indiana, the Palladium-Item has been re-posting archival articles from 60 years ago about the sightings of “Varmints” there. Contemporary readers seem to have at first thought the reporters back then were talking about Bigfoot, but, of course, it was mystery cats that were being remembered. It is these same Varmints that cryptozoologists such as myself and Minnesota researcher Mark A. Hall had written about thirty years ago. In fact, I first detailed the Varmints in the pages of Creatures of the Outer Edge in 1978.

These accounts capture the essence of the theory that Hall and I have promoted, namely that Panthera atrox, the Pleistocene American lion – a giant cat found in the La Brea Tar Pits and at other fossil sites – may have survived into modern times. The Toney and Turner boys sightings give a good example of the giant melanistic and brown felid cryptids that still walk among us. “Black panthers,” greatly accepted in America, have not been scientifically confirmed.

The following are edited extracts of how I have noted these example cases in the midst of a 60 page-section on mystery cats in Mysterious America (which comes back into print in the spring of 2007) and Creatures of the Outer Edge .

In 1948, thanks to the tedious newspaper archive research of Mark A. Hall, a fully maned lion reportedly was scurrying about. In the midst of a mystery cat flap (termed a “varmint scare” at the time) in which black panthers and tawny cats were being seen, a giant animal rushed a fishing party of four adults and two children in the Elkhorn Falls, Indiana region. The incident occurred in the early evening hours of the 5th of August, 1948.

According to Ivan Toney, who lived nearby: “About 7:30 p.m. a man came to the house and wanted to use the phone to call the sheriff. He said he and another man, along with their wives and two children, were fishing along the banks of the pool at the foot of the Elkhorn Falls. Their car was parked on the road near the gate leading to the falls. He said the animal came up the stream from the south. When they sighted it, they started running for the car. They reached it but the animal lunged at the car, then plowed through the fence into the sandy bar along the stream’s edge.”

The creature “looked like a lion with a long tail,” the witnesses asserted, with bushy hair around the neck—the well known trait of the male of the African lion, of course. Deputy Sheriff Jack Witherby examined the tracks and said they were like “nothing I have ever seen before.” Witherby, after completing his investigations of the incident, issued a warning to persons in the area who fish along streams at night.

Two days after the Elkhorn Falls incident, the confusion in the reports was clarified somewhat. Two animals were being seen sometimes together.

On August 7, two teenage farm boys, Arthur and Howard Turner, saw a strange beast near a plum tree not far from the gate leading into their Richmond, Indiana, barnyard. On a rise of ground to their right, another animal stood 200 feet away. Arthur raised his rifle to his shoulder and blasted away. The animals wheeled around, jumped a gate, and disappeared down a lane.

The Turner boys described one of the animals as “having the appearance of a lion.” It was large-headed, shaggy, and brown in color. The other looked like a black panther. Tracks were found, but their dog “Shep” refused to help the Turners and the authorities search for the mystery cats.

The following afternoon, farmers northwest of Abington, Indiana, watched two animals identical to those the Turner boys had seen. And the next morning, the two beasts were sighted by others in Wayne County. Later the cats were seen further to the east and north into Ohio in Drake County. Later still, in early September, 1948, unusual tracks were found to the south near Morning Sun, Ohio. Mark A. Hall comments: “The reports suggest the movement of the pair from the south around the Ohio River to the north along the Whitewater River. Their path was a U-shaped journey, returning them southward toward the Ohio River.”

For more on the reports of maned mystery cats and black panthers in North America, see Mysterious America.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

17 Responses to “Indiana’s August 1948 Varmints”

  1. harleyb responds:

    Cool information, I can’t wait to actually collect all your books, as I will have to save some money and order online. Awesome facts most people have no knowledge of, amazing.

  2. One Eyed Cat responds:

    This is reminding me of a family story of a ‘Black Panther’ shot near Tampa Florida — my birthplace — about 1927- 1930.
    I understand there is a picture on the internet supposedly of that, but I haven’t found it yet. I would love to show it to my 86 yr old Aunt that I live with to see if she recognonizes anyone in it. A great-uncle of mine was in on the hunt.

  3. Harpo responds:

    Interesting given all the supposed “lion” sightings in central Ohio over the last couple years.

  4. Mysteriousness responds:

    Much like the investigation of the Beast of Gevaudan, it would be interesting to look into carnival/circus/animal import records of the time. Although it is intriguing that a Pleistocenian predator survived into modern times, it is probably more likely that what these people experienced was an escaped African lion, jaguar, or even the less likely idea of the 2 big cats hunting together.

    Let us also take into account the disconnect between the rural communities and the rest of the country, even in the 1940s and so the information could have either been altered as it passed through different sources or the people who had the experience were not familiar with the physiology of big cats (see “it was like a lion with a long tail”).

    Just my 2 cents!

  5. aaha responds:

    Fr what it’s worth, some major circus train wrecks to be aware of:

    On June 22, 1918, a 26-car circus train was heading from Illinois into Hammond, Indiana, with 400 performers and animals. It collided with another train and burst into flames.

    The “Circus Train Wreck” occurred on August 16, 1905 in Franklin County, IN.

    On March 22nd, 1889 a grand wreck took place in Potsdam, NY.

    In Durand, MI on August 6, 1903 there was also a devastating wreck.

  6. Delawhere responds:

    We’ve been experiencing anomalous big cats here in Delaware the past several years. Most likely a wandering cougar but everytime someone sees “it,” a big hoopla is made about it.

  7. twblack responds:

    I am from IND. I always wondered if these sightings were escaped lions. And the owners did not want anyone to know they had escaped. Interesting to say the least.

  8. Sky King responds:

    Good to know about the circus train wrecks (good band name, no?), but it would be SO much more useful to know if any animals escaped, and if so, what kind.

  9. Sky King responds:

    Thank you for posting the dates of those circus train wrecks (great band name, eh?). Any information if any animals escaped, and, if so, what kind?

    The “circus train wreck” archetypal “one size fits all” excuse has been used literally EVERY TIME a cryptoid is seen, but those who use it can never point to the train wreck, or if any animals escaped.

    Good to see two actual accounts, albeit from a century ago…

  10. Micahn responds:

    This story reminds me of what I was told as a kid in Greene county Indiana.

    I was told that up the hill some behind my one uncles house was a cave. It was said that years before a lion lived in that cave and was killed by a local farmer after killing a cow.

    This was said to have happened a couple of years after WWII and that the loin had escaped from Crane Navel ammunition depot that is not far from where I am from. It was said that crane turned some loose to keep people from sneaking into the place during the war. I guess if the story is true then this story could account for where one of the others went when they escaped. It would be a long way for them to go (around 100 miles or so) but who knows I guess.

  11. shumway10973 responds:

    actually, Micahn, it is not uncommon for lions to roam that distance. Probably for them it was a search for food and to be left alone. I think it would be great for some of these to have survived.

  12. Mnynames responds:

    A year or so ago, I returned to college in order to finish my degree and took a class about the Pleistocene…well, at least it was supposed to be about that. The instructor started with basic explanations of the big bang and moved on from there. We ended with standard geological terms, never having really discussed the time period in question. His information on dinosaurs consisted mostly of outdated theories such as sauropods having to live in water to support their weight, and the possibility of pterosaurs being swimming animals rather than flying (disproved prior to the 20th century).

    Anyway, our final presentations were supposed to have something to do with the Pleistocene in some way, but seeing as some people did theirs on life on Mars or recycling, I figured I had some leeway. I did mine on the possibility of some “extinct” Pleistocene animals having survived into modern times, including Panthera atrox (I believe I mentioned these sightings, among others).

    Well, when I got to talking about their possible melanism, the instructor interrupted me. Seems that when he was on a geological expedition in Nevada, he and his fellow grad students saw a very large black cat wandering the desert hills nearby. He described no mane, but said otherwise it could easily have been a lion.

    I’ve also mentioned in other posts how cougars are often sighted in NJ, but remain unrecognized by science or NJ Fish and Wildlife Service (at least officially). There was even one on the outskirts of Philadelphia not too long ago.

  13. cor2879 responds:

    I was talking with my father, about Cryptomundo as a matter of fact, just the other day and mentioned all the Mountain Lion sightings that had been taking place in recent months. He just mentioned back that he has been out hunting before here in the NC woods and has seen cougar tracks.

  14. Dark-Obsessor responds:

    There would have to be several prehistoric animals living together for them to breed in order for them to survive up to the present day.

    That, I find, unbelievable.

  15. purrlcat responds:

    Speaking of southern Ohio, I had an experience, years ago, I thought might be ‘big cat’ related. I lived in the country just south of Dayton back then. This must have been in the late 60s or very early 70s when I still lived at home. This happened at night, probably around midnight. We were all awakened by a scream. It sounded just like a woman screaming. There were at least 2 screams. My mom and sister and I bumped into each other rushing into the hallway. My dad was sleeping on his ‘good ear’ and didn’t hear it.) As we were running about looking out windows, my other sister drives into the driveway, coming home from her 2nd shift job! We frantically held the door open for her and told her to get out and run for the door. We were really scared. There was open land all around us and a creek (Hole’s Creek) and trees at the back of our property. We eventually called the police (we thought someone might be getting murdered). They wanted to know if they were supposed to stop in or just drive by. We said just drive by and of course they didn’t show up for at least half an hour. Later, we asked our neighbors down the street if they heard anything and they said no. Never heard anything like that again.

    Also, in the last paragraph of the above story about the 1948 incidents, the Ohio county mentioned as Drake should be DARKE county. There is no Drake county in Ohio and if the cats were travelling in the direction mentioned, it would lead into DARKE county.

  16. hammerhead responds:

    What I think is amazing is that what the locals have known about for years, is made out by the ruling “experts” to be mis-information, hysteria, or folklore. A lion is a lion. How do thousands of people mistake farmer Brown’s golden retriever for african lions over and over again.

    And for the circus trains, this is a reoccurring theme. If indeed so many hundreds of circus trains have wrecked and de-railed over the years, this in and of itself would constitute a phenomana that needs to be explored.

    In southern Indiana where I’m from, big cats and black “panthers” weren’t a phenomena, they were a fact of life here that every mother’s son understood perfectly. Don’t go into the woods at night or the panthers will get you.

    When a friend’s parents here called the DNR to please come out and do something about the panther sunning itself in their driveway, they were laughed at and hung up on. This is the mindset of the educated experts, these ignorant country people don’t know the difference between a panther and a coon dog.,

    The Indians knew about them, the settlers knew about them, and the locals still do. So why cant science accept that? It’s not the cats that are the mystery, it’s why “big brother” wants you to think that you’re stupid for seeing what’s always been here.

    That’s the BIG mystery to me.

  17. kittenz responds:

    Here in the south-central Appalachian Mountains it is commonly accepted as a fact of life that there are “panthers” back in the hills. These old mountains are perfect puma territory (we call them panthers). All of the old people will tell you anecdotal accounts of panthers. Some of the stories are first-hand accounts; even more are stories that have been kept alive in the family long after the person who experienced the panther encounter has passed away.

    My own grandmother, who is 92, tells of panthers that were hunted by her father, brothers, and other family members. She said that for years there was one that roamed the ridgetops, occasionally coming into the head of the our hollow. Sometimes at night they would hear it scream.

    Panthers were considered very dangerous. Fifty or seventy-five years ago, most people in these parts were subsistence farmers, who raised vegetables, fruit, and livestock. The area was very isolated from the outside world, and people grew or raised just about everything their families needed. They kept the mountains clear of brush and undergrowth, almost all the way up to the bald rocks and laurel groves at the mountaintops, and panthers became very scarce. My grandma told me that “they were almost killed off”, leaving only the isolated animal here and there, back in the hollows that were too steep and rocky for farming and livestock. But since then, subsistence farming has declined. Most people do not grow their own food, and the hills have been allowed to become reforested. Most of the area is again heavily forested, with underbrush growing right down to the highway right-of-ways. Deer have returned in staggering numbers. Elk have been reintroduced. Black bears, which had been hunted almost to extermination in this area, have made a big comeback. If bears can make a comeback, why not panthers?

    There are wild, rocky canyons here and there is lots of cover and game. Because of the (despicable) practice of mountaintop removal strip mining, areas that were wild and unfrequented by humans now see intensive human activity. I personally know two reliable people who have seen a panther on a mining road or a strip mine site (on different occasions and in different locations). Both of them say that they want to keep the location secret, because there are hunters here who would tear their toenails off getting to the woods to hunt the panthers down. There are many other people who SAY they have seen panthers, whose stories I take with a grain of salt. That doesn’t mean that those stories are necessarily false.

    As for they many stories of “black panthers”, I think that most of those stories are inaccurate, even the handful that are true sightings. Forest animals tend to be darker than desert animals, and the eastern puma is known to range in color from tawny golden brown through reddish brown to grayish brown or gray. To my knowledge there is not a black color phase today. However, consider the case of the red wolf. Its latin name is now Canis rufus, but they used to be called Canis niger (meaning black wolf). There was a black color phase which was a very black animal, very unlike black timber wolves, which have a lot of gray tones in their coats. Although the black- and red-phased wolves were the same species, and sometimes both phases occured in the same litter, the reddish animals were more common in coastal area, and the black phase was the most common color in the deep forests and swamps. Well, the red wolves were hunted and trapped to virtual extinction. Their population was reduced to less than one hundred animals, most of which were taken into captivity in a last-ditch effort to preserve the species through captive breeding and protection. All of the surviving wolves are red-phase. No black-phase animals are left, and the black color phase of the red wolf is considered extinct.

    What has that to do with pumas or “black panthers”? I once met a captive puma, which was tawny, but its undercoat was a very dark grayish color. In dim light, or in the dark, a puma’s dense, unmarked brown coat could be mistaken for black. When a person glimpses a puma the glimpse is usually very brief, and it is such a surprise that the person is shocked. If the person’s brain says “black panther”, then the person will remember that fleeting glimpse as a black panther. But perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps there was a black, or at least a very dark, color phase of the eastern puma. And perhaps that black-phase puma went the way of the black-phase red wolf: the population reduced to just a few dozen animals, none of which carried the genes for the dark phase.

    As far as lion sightings, etc., well, there has been a thriving business in breeding big cats, and not all breeders are honest people. If their animals escape from captivity, and they are unable to recapture them, some people would just keep the escape quiet, rather than incur possible criminal charges and monetary losses for damages caused by their escapees. I think that that probably happens more often than we’d like to think. Experts estimate that there are more tigers, for instance, in Texas alone than there are wild tigers in the whole world. And that’s just in Texas. There are dozens of “breeders” of exotic cats in the United States, from smallish cats like servals bobcats all the way through the range of species to to lions and tigers. Many of these people abandon their animals when their money runs out or the novelty wears off. I think that most of the big cats sightings, of maned lions, for instance, can be attributed to escaped captives or their descendants.

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