- HISTORY & HAUNTINGS OF ILLINOIS -

PHANTOM PANTHERS & Big Cats OF ILLINOIS
WHAT STRANGE CREATURES LURK IN YOUR AREA?

Despite the fact that panthers, and other big cats, have been extinct in the area of Illinois for many years, this does not stop the reports of the “phantom” animals from appearing from time to time. Many of these reports seem to be centered around both Central and Southern Illinois. In fact, the city of Decatur has become famous over the years, in many paranormal circles, for its large number of black panther sightings and reports. Many of these sightings go back nearly as far as the history of the city, but many are of a more recent vintage. I had a sighting myself while growing up in the Decatur area, so panthers (or some other form of elusive big cats) have not vanished from Illinois entirely. Strangely though, they really never should have been here at all!

The stories of black panthers in the area date back many years with tales of wild cats screaming in the night, mysterious black shapes that suddenly appear in the headlights of a passing automobile and sleek, feline shapes that vanish into open fields. What draws these mysterious beasts to Central Illinois? That remains a mystery although ironically, the name "Decatur", when translated literally means "dweller at the sign of the cat". Is this merely a coincidence or are there other forces at work?

During the 1950's and 1960's, reports of panthers turned up almost monthly. Many of them were reported in local newspapers and many weren't, the witnesses fearing scorn and ridicule. The legends and folklore of the time traced the appearance of the big cats to wrecked circus trains and escapees from local zoos, but these stories could seldom be found to have any basis in truth. What we do know is that the panthers have appeared at regular intervals and then disappeared without a trace. In 1955, a Decatur game warden took a shot at one of the beasts and, like scores of others across the country, was sure that he wounded it. He found neither a body nor a blood trail. Are these panthers real or figments of the imagination?

That is, of course, up to the reader to decide, but consider for a moment a local family that just might believe the stories to be true. In the fall of 1994, a big cat that left some huge tracks behind attacked their dog. The wounds on the dog’s throat and shoulder could not be spanned by the owner's hand. That would take an awfully big jaw to leave a mark like that.

Illinois has not had a species of big cats for many years -- but this does not stop the sightings from taking place. However, the standard response to these sightings seems to be that the mystery cats are domesticated animals that somehow escaped from, or were released by, their owners. Officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources maintain that they have never been able to confirm the existence of panthers and cougars in the area, despite the numerous reports. "If there are cougars in Illinois, they must have been released by someone or escaped from someone," said Tim Schweizer, IDNR spokesman in a newspaper interview. "We know of no instances of wild cougars in Illinois." Although Schweizer said the agency does receive calls from "time to time," the staff has been unable to confirm the reports.

Other researchers do got to the trouble to run down the reports though. As mentioned, mountain lions and pumas are not indigenous to this area, although John Lutz of the Eastern Puma Research Network reports that a number of sightings have occurred in Illinois. These sightings are usually of mountain lions that are tan or chocolate in color. He believes that some reports of black panthers can all be traced to imported animals released by their owners or cats that escaped off of circus trains -- but not all. He recently wrote to me that "state and federal wildlife officials, and a few independent researchers of other groups, claim.. black panthers or leopards have escaped from circus locations ... and they could explain "some" of the big cats but there aren't that many circus trains to have derailed to account for the total number of black panther sightings.". He agreed that the claims of state officials do not answer all of the questions that remain about these mysterious animals and added: "One of our independent researchers in Bethany (Illinois) got a photo of a large black cat walking away from his camera location. So, there is documented evidence of black panthers in Illinois, which contradicts the claims of state officials."

The mystery panthers are normally described as being black in color, but they are reported in other shades as well. Regardless, black panthers don't even belong on the North American continent and cats of other hues have been missing from Illinois for years. So why do they keep showing up here in Illinois? Where do these animals come from?

Author Loren Coleman, an Illinois native who now is at a university in Portland, Maine, offers some interesting theories in his book “Mysterious America”. Coleman is currently a columnist for several international magazines and has been recognized as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cryptozoology (study of mysterious animals), and Fortean phenomena.

Fortean theories can be traced back to a man named Charles Fort, one of the first collectors of accounts of strange phenomena. Fort lived a strange life, spending most of it reading in the New York Public Library and collecting literally thousands of reports and articles about weird events, which he labeled as the "damned". He collected the data into a number of books, all dealing with unusual occurrences like frogs falling from the sky, unexplained disappearances, ghost lights, cattle mutilations and phantom black panthers, among other things. Fort is said to have invented the term "teleportation", which means the transfer of a physical object from one location to another by unexplainable means. Fort suggested that perhaps this was how these mysterious animals ended up in places where they didn't belong like, for instance, Illinois. Coleman further explains, and lends credence to, the theory in his books and his research. It has been widely embraced by many "Forteans" over the years, simply because no other reasonable explanation exists.

One black panther sighting is even part of my family folklore. One night, around 1960, my stepfather's mother sighted a panther crossing the road in front of her car. The sighting took place just east of Moweaqua, Illinois. I have always been interested in the stories of these phantom cats since I saw one of my own in the spring of 1984. I was walking in the woods, near Moweaqua, when I was startled by the sound of something running in the nearby underbrush. I looked up quickly and saw the unmistakable shape of a huge black cat streak through the trees. I chased after it for a short distance, but it was gone.

One of the first recent sightings that I could find a record of took place in September 1955 in Decatur. Several residents on the east side of Lake Decatur, near Rea’s Bridge, reported to authorities that they had seen a black panther. On September 13, a woman claimed to have seen the animal along Sangamon Road and that sighting was followed the next night by two truck drivers. The cat was described as being low-slung and jet-black in color with gleaming eyes.

A little over a month later, near October 26, a Decatur game warden confirmed the fact that the animal was a black panther. He not only saw the beast, but also wounded it, near the Coulter's Mill area of the Sangamon River bottoms.

Warden Paul G. Myers was checking on hunters who were out after ducks and was standing near a thicket when he heard an animal squeal. He walked to the thicket and saw the panther eating a rabbit. He was armed with a service revolver, which he quickly aimed and shot at the animal. The panther jumped and ran into the woods. Myers followed its course using his field glasses but it vanished. He told newspaper reporters that the panther was at least two feet high at the shoulder with a body length of four or five feet. He returned to the area to make an intensive search, but not surprisingly, the animal was never found.

The next encounter took place in June of 1963. A call to police brought a number of officers to the home of George W. Davidson on Summit Avenue in Decatur. Davidson had received minor face wounds when a large cat jumped on him from a tree. He had been awakened at about 3:00 a.m. by barking from a number of dogs in the neighborhood. He left the house with his shotgun and saw a large cat leap over a five-foot fence and disappear into a wooded area near the house. Davidson went into the trees and was attacked. He fired at the animal, which he thought was perhaps three feet in length, and thought that he may have wounded it. No trace of the animal was ever found.

The next encounter took place almost exactly two years later when a woman who lived along Faries Parkway in Decatur reported a panther "as tall as the headlights on a car." She was turning into her driveway when she saw it and it ran away before she stopped the car. Deputies and a state trooper that came to the scene were unable to find any trace of the animal, except for a paw-print that was measured at four inches across.

The local newspaper reported that panther sightings in that area were "not infrequent, although none of the reports have been proved." They also noted that in the years following World War I, the bottoms near Faries Park had been cleared and a tree was found bearing the carved words "I killed a panther 1851".

Three days later, on the south side of Decatur near Greenwood Cemetery, a black panther surprised three children in Lincoln Park. The children took off running and the animal helped itself to their sack lunches.

Sheriff's deputies responded to another call in late June of 1967 when Anthony J. Viccone reported seeing a big cat just south of Decatur. He called after becoming concerned about children playing in the area. Authorities admitted that they had taken many reports of big cats in the area. "We have seen tracks and other evidence," they said, "but have never gotten close enough to the animal to determine what type of cat it is."

In June of 1970, an employee of the Macon Seed Company outside of Decatur saw a large, black cat that he said resembled a cougar. A game warden, and surely not the same one who admitted shooting a panther in 1955, announced two days later that the animal seen near the seed company was a "beaver". One has to wonder what this "beaver" looked like, as the seed company employees reported that it left behind large feline paw prints with claw marks.

Later that same year, in December, the Clarence Runyon family of Decatur reported seeing a large panther and its cub in a field outside of town. They believed the animal might have been the reason that forty chickens had vanished from their farm over the summer months. Several of the Runyon's neighbors had also seen the panthers and heard them screaming. Officials from the Department of Conservation who investigated the case noted that the tracks left behind had definitely been made by a panther. They planned to shoot the animals when they caught them - but the panthers were never found.

In 1976, another black panther was sighted in southern Macon County and a man named Louis Jockisch, from Boody, Illinois, managed to make an audio recording of the cat’s cries. Later that same year, a Macon County Sheriff’s Deputy reported seeing a large cat-like animal just west of Decatur. The cat slipped and fell as it ducked out of the way of the officer’s car. The cat jumped a fence and ran into a corn field. The deputy fired off several shots but didn’t believe that he had hit the cat. That fall, several sightings were reported by residents of the area.

Black panther sightings have become a part of the mysterious folklore (and reality) of Illinois and the sightings still continue today. In September 1998, a cougar was repeatedly sighted near Edwardsville, Illinois. While authorities found no trace of the animal, which was first seen on the playground of the LeClaire School, state wildlife officials admitted that it was the third report of a cougar near the city that year.

Customers and employees of the “New You Salon” on Franklin Avenue also reported the cougar. A total of five people told police that they had seen the animal inside the fence around the Illinois Power natural gas monitoring station, just northeast of the intersection of Franklin and Madison Avenues. One of the hair salon customers, a firefighter, was the first to spot the animal and he called police. A witness stated that the big cat had an extremely long and thick tail and that it was “reddish-brown” in color.

Police officers, while stating that they took the reports seriously, dismissed them as nothing more than reports of a “tom cat” in the neighborhood. Brenda Edgeworth, the owner of the hair salon went on record to say that .... “that was not a cat. I have seen some large house cats before. It was larger than that.”

The other Edwardsville sightings had taken place in the spring of 1998. One had been seen near the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and another near Dunlap Lake. An additional sighting had also taken place near Collinsville. State wildlife officials who investigated the reports and searched the areas stated (predictably) that they had found no evidence of panthers.

And panthers are not the only big cats that have mysteriously appeared in Illinois. I have been surprised to learn that many people will accept the idea that black panthers do occasionally turn up in Illinois, but what about African Lions? According to newspaper and personal accounts from 1917, a lion did turn up and for nearly a month, "Nellie the Lion" was the terror of Central Illinois.

The lion first appeared in July 1917 on the estate of Robert Allerton, located near Monticello. A lion of some sort had been reported on the grounds and had apparently killed several pieces of livestock. One afternoon, the Allerton butler, Thomas Gullett, was out picking flowers when he was attacked by what he referred to as an "African lioness". The butler suffered only some minor cuts and scratches, but the search was soon on for the beast. I had the opportunity to speak with a relative of Mr. Gullett in 1990 and she told me that the attack was not only very real, but the most frightening event her family member had ever experienced. It was spoken of in the family for many years afterward and had since become a part of their lore.

Robert Allerton offered a $250 reward to the hunter that killed the animal and an armed posse of more than 300 men turned up for a search of the large and heavily wooded estate. Allerton’s farm manager bought a quantity of fresh meat and placed it in strategic locations. He hoped to lure the animal into a trap, but had no luck. The lion was seen later that day by two hunters who had given up on the day’s search. Shortly after midnight, Paul and Lee Bear spotted the lion crossing a road in front of their truck. They managed to get off a few shots at it, but the lion jumped a fence and disappeared into corn field.

The search resumed the next day and while hunters were tramping through the woods, the lion appeared again at the Allerton house. Mrs. Shaw, the chief housekeeper, got a good look at it and like Gullett, described it as an "African lioness."

On July 17, tracks were discovered near Decatur that were five inches long and four inches wide. Two boys claimed to see the lion later that same day, prowling along the Sangamon River.

Thanks to newspaper reports and wild rumors, public hysteria mounted in Central Illinois. People mistook dogs for the lion and one farmer became involved a widely reported dispute about whether he had mistaken the headlights of an approaching vehicle for the beast’s shining eyes. He denied it, but couldn’t explain why he had put a bullet into the truck’s radiator!

What may have seemed funny in the newspapers came as no joke to Earl Hill, Chester Osborn and the two men’s wives on July 29. The two couples were motoring west of Decatur on the Springfield Road when the lion pounced on their car and tried to attack them. Hill and Osborn, sitting in the front seat of the vehicle, first saw the animal standing in the weeds on the side of the road. The animal jumped at them and collided with the vehicle, which was traveling at about 20 miles per hour. The couple hurriedly drove back to Decatur and summoned the police, who followed them back to the scene. To their surprise, the lion was still there, although it vanished over a hill when they arrived. The two lone policemen chose not to pursue it without heavier weapons. They returned in the early morning hours with two carloads of other officers. The men were all armed with high-powered rifles. They searched the area for several hours, but finding nothing, they returned to Decatur.

On July 31, a farm hand named James Rutherford spotted the lion near a gravel pit. The animal looked at him without interest and then wandered away. Rutherford gathered a group of hunters and brought them back to the scene. They found nothing save for a number of paw prints and a half-eaten calf, which the owner stated had been missing for four days.

After that, Nellie vanished into oblivion and was never heard from again. Today, the story is only remembered as a legend but newspapers and testimony of the era assures us that the lion really did exist.

So, do black panthers and other big cats still roam the darkest corners of Illinois? It would appear that they still do, but where do these creatures come from and where do they disappear to? And do they walk here alone? Can we explain all of these sightings as merely "displaced animals" that have escaped from zoos and passing circus trains?  You be the judge!

Sources & Bibliography:
Bord, Janet & Colin - Alien Animals (1981)
Clark, Jerome - Unexplained! (1999)
Coleman, Loren - Mysterious America (1983/2000)
Coleman, Loren - Mystery Animals Invade Illinois (Fate Magazine / March 1971)
Decatur Herald & Review Newspapers
Fort, Charles - Complete Books of Charles Fort (1941)
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996)
Neely, Charles - Tales and Songs of Southern Illinois (1938)
Pohlen, Jerome - Oddball Illinois (2000)
Rath, Jay - I-Files (1999)
Taylor, Troy - Haunted Decatur Revisited (2000)
Taylor, Troy - Haunted Illinois (2001)
Personal Interviews Writings & Correspondence

Any materials not listed have been left off unintentionally from the list and may have a bibliographic listing in one of Troy Taylor’s book if the material on the website was excerpted from the book. If you recognize a reference that has not been listed. Please Email us!

(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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