An article from FATE Magazine.

The Santer: North Carolina’s Own Mystery Cat?
Angelo Capparella III


During the 1890’s, two newspapers in the western piedmont of North Carolina,
“The Chronicle” (Wilkesboro weekly) and “The Statesville Landmark” (Statesville
weekly), every so often wrote that a creature called the Santer was “terrorizing” one
of the nearby communities. Little in the way of detail is ever given other than the
statement that the Santer is in such and such a place “carrying on its work of
devastation.” However, when described it is usually said to have the appearance of
a large cat and to have a particular fondness for cat and dog meat. Was this Santer a
forerunner of today’s mystery cats? *
According to a staff member of the present-day Statesville Landmark, the Santer
first appeared in the August 28, 1890 issue of that paper (though this source does not
state if its name was coined then). Apparently this was just a brief mention, but the
next issue, September 4, 1890, is full of detail and even includes a drawing of the
Santer (whose name was in use by then). Though this writer has been unable to
examine this issue or obtain copy of same, the September 11, 1890 issue of “The
Carolina Watchman” (Salisbury weekly) summarizes it as follows:
“The Landmark last week presented to its readers a likeness of the
physical contour of the most remarkable beast, said to be at large in the
country adjacent to Statesville.” (Note: Iredell county.) “Even its likeness is
dreadful to behold. The brute is described as having abnormal capacity
for food, and has a weakness for pigs, cow, sheep and negro children.”
(Note: In the Chronicle its weakness for cats and dogs is usually emphasized.)
“This strange animal is called locally by several names, none of which,
perhaps excepting ‘Santer’, conveys much meaning to the earnest reader.
‘Santer’ has a mysterious meandering indefinite significance which is quite
appalling....”
The Watchman appears to treat the Landmark’s article in a tongue-in-cheek
fashion—their own article continues with a rather absurd theory of its origin. The
Watchman apparently recognizes the Landmark’s article to be a gag and is going
along with it. Commenting on the Landmark’s article the staff member mentioned
above states that “the Santer was obviously a brain-child of J.P. Caldwell” who was
editor at the time. There are two traditions as to why Caldwell invented the Santer.
One is that the news was dull and the other is that the local blacks were spending too
much time at the saloon and needed to be taught a lesson by scaring them. Whatever
the reason, it seems that the name Santer was invented to describe a creature made
up by Mr. Caldwell, though perhaps based on genuine reports of some strange animal.
If the Santer had only been mentioned a few times after this in obviously tongue-
in-cheek fashion then there would be no doubt that it was all a journalistic hoax. But
it so happens that the Santer appears in the Landmark and Chronicle throughout the
1890's, sometimes in a joking manner but more often (in the Chronicle’ at least) in a
largely serious manner. For this reason we should not be too hasty in relegating all
Santer reports to fabrication.
Supporting our theory that the Santer as it appeared in the September 4 issue of
the Landmark was a hoax, but that later sightings of unusual creatures were often
called by the name Santer, is the following article which appeared in the October 9,
1890 issue of the Watchman. Here a clear distinction is made between the Landmark’s
Santer and a strange creature which was apparently causing the people of the area
some consternation. Note the portion we have underlined.
“What is it?”
“Possum hunters are scarce in the Second Creek neighborhood just now
and the cause of the scarcity is a ‘varmint’ of some kind loose in the woods.
“Now this varmint is not a fake like the Santer of the Statesville
Landmark, but a regular terrorizing beast; with a chain around its neck,
and which has been seen a number of times, by the good people of that
neighborhood, and which has a failing for cattle of the bull yearling
variety and like the Santer occasionally takes a negro baby between meals.
“The first time this animal was heard of in this county was about two
weeks ago. Parties who were obliged to keep late hours... reported that
they heard unearthly noises which they could not describe but which were
enough to keep them in the house nights after they had once heard it.
“About ten days ago while out possum hunting Abe Harbin (colonel)
heard it ahead of him aways and his dogs came running back with their
tails between their legs. Abe... treed it in a big poplar and ‘shun’ its eyes,
which were nearly two feet apart... hearing it growl, he left with his dogs
a hundred yards ahead of him.
“...On last Friday Mr. Adam Lentz saw it but ‘it was only a glimpse
like’...but the glimpse was enough to satisfy him that it was not quite as
big as a cow.
“On Monday night it visited the houses of two widow ladies. At one of
them, Mrs. Cozarts, it reared up against the door and growled. Mrs. Cozart
screamed loud enough to wake up the wife of a neighbor who lived close
by who went to the door to see what was the matter, as she opened the
door the varmint sprang at her but failed to get its claws in her, the
husband jumped up and got his pistol but when he got to the door the
animal was out of sight, but he says he heard the chains.
“Opinions differ as to what it looks like... No one has missed any cattle yet...”
Unfortunately, no further mention is made of this creature in the following week’s
issue; perhaps it just left the area as mysteriously as it arrived. In any event, the
sightings of the creature are treated in all seriousness by the Watchman.
Additional evidence that Santer reports were not hoaxes are the reports themselves.
Consider the following from the Chronicle:
May 5, 1897
“The Santer Still Eating Cats”
“The Santer, or whatever it is, is still making inroads upon the cat
population about Roaring River. We give an account of its ravages some
time ago. It seems to live on cats, and there is no cat in that section that
can feel safe unless well housed up. We are informed that last year when
the circus exhibited at Elkin a Lynx escaped, and it is supposed that the
cat-eating Santer is that Lynx. A Lynx is akin to the wild cat and loves cat meat.”
June 9, 1897
“The Santer Caught”
“Elkin Times—The strange varmint which has been terrorizing the
people of ‘Big Elkin’ was captured last week under a house on Dr. Tyre York’s
place above Traphill. No one seems to know what it is. It resembled a
large shepard dog. It feasted on cats and dogs while it was in this life and
it is a pity it was killed as it might have rid the county of several worthless
dogs. But rumor says there is another one loose in the same section.”
October 20, 1897
Under column “Piney Grove Items”
“The Santer, cat catcher, cat eater, or grave robber or whatever you wish
to call it has been seen and heard by several people in this community
recently. Charlie Smoot saw it the other night near Johnson Caudill’s.
He said it was striped from the end of its nose to the end of its tail. It was
sitting near the side of the road but did not show any harm.
May 31, 1899
Under column “Local Matters”
“The Santer has made its appearance again. It went to Mr. Smoak’s
Saturday night and destroyed twelve nice chickens. Mrs. Smoak got a
glimpse of it as the dog ran it away, and it had a grey appearance and
was between the size of a cat and a dog. It tears chickens all to pieces
and don’t take much time to do it, either.”
As can be seen from the above reports details are lacking, but even so it seems
obvious that some strange creature was being seen in the area. Just what it was is
another question which will be considered shortly.
In gathering reports of the Santer this writer has primarily relied on the Wilkesboro
“Chronicle.” It is the only newspaper in Wilkes county which still has issues available for
the 1890s and fortunately carried Santer reports which some semblance of regularity.
Most of the reports occurred in 1897, followed by 1899. The rest of the 1890s had
from three to no reports for each year.
The only other newspaper which appears to have carried somewhat regular
reports was the “Statesville Landmark” which covers Iredell county. The only copies
in existence are found at the Landmark’s office which has remained inaccessible to
this writer. However, the Landmark staff member mentioned earlier states that the
most reports occurred in the early 1890s and then gradually petered out though there
was a revival of interest in 1896.
At first sight it would appear that Iredell and Wilkes county were the hangout of
the Santer, judging from the reports in the Chronicle and Landmark. This, however,
may well be a false impression. It should be remembered that many papers of
these two counties and surrounding counties have little or no issues still in existence.
Therefore, any Santer report from out of Wilkes and Iredell may have been lost to the
past. But until contrary information is uncovered, we can consider Wilkes and Iredell
to be the Santer’s main haunt.
Having examined some of the Santer reports it is now time to ask just what was
the Santer? Five possible explanations are suggested:
1) The Santer reports (including those reports in which the creature is just referred to
as a “varmint”) are simply a journalistic hoax.
2) The Santer reports are simply misidentifications of familiar animals such as wild
dogs, wildcats, bears, etc.
3) The Santer reports are actually reports of cougars (also called panthers, catamounts, etc).
4) The Santer reports are some mixture of 1, 2, and 3
5) The Santer reports are reports of a genuine “mystery cat,” i.e. a creature resembling
a cat which is not an animal in the conventional sense.
It is very unlikely that all Santer reports are purely fabrications for reasons discussed
earlier. The very nature of the reports (they are presented in a serious manner) as well
as their persistence over many years does not support the fabrication explanation.
As to the reports being misidentifications of known animals, it is indeed possible
that a few are but doubtful that all are. For one thing, whenever a bear or mad dog,
for example, does “terrorize” a community it is designated as such. No aura of
mystery surrounds these animals. Also, from the descriptions we have of the
appearance and behavior of the Santer it seems most unlikely that some known
animal could have been the culprit.
Explanation 3 is perhaps the most difficult to evaluate. It is almost impossible to
know when the panther became extinct in N.C., assuming it ever did. Certainly by
this time the panther was rare, having been pushed back into less populated areas.
The average resident of Wilkes and Iredell county were probably unfamiliar with the
creature; even in known cougar country sightings of the elusive cat are rare. Perhaps
a few panthers remained in the area and, as the local residents were unfamiliar with
them, any sighting was interpreted as being the Santer which had so conveniently
been invented by J.P. Caldwell earlier. Evidence against this explanation consists
primarily of the fact that the Santer behaved much differently from panthers. Where
the cougar (panther) is a shy, elusive beast who has learned to steer clear of man,
the Santer displays the opposite behavior and seems to have little fear of man.
Consider the following report from the Chronicle.
March 17, 1897
“The ‘Santer’ at Roaring River”
“The ‘Santer’ has made its appearance at Roaring River. It has assumed
the character of a ‘cat eater.’ It has the appearance of a cat, but is larger.
For the last two weeks it has been feasting upon cats about Roaring River.
It came into Esq. Reeves’ porch about dusk a few evenings ago and
carried away a fine cat. They saw it, but it did its work so quick that they
could not prevent it. Another evening it went to Lee Pardue’s where the
children were playing on the porch and carried off another fine cat. All
the cats in that neighborhood are passing away...”
As for the claim that the locals did not know the difference between a cougar and
the Santer consider this report from the Chronicle.
February 2, 1893
Under column “Notes From Summit”
“John and H.L. Beshears caught the largest catamount the 14th ever
seen in this section in 25 years. It killed a sheep at F.M. Bakers on Thursday
night, and had killed several pigs, lambs and sheep before that. He is 4
feet and 6 inches long and about the size of a large hound dog....”
Here the catamount (panther) is identified as such and there is no attempt to draft
it as the explanation for prior Santer reports. Though it would be premature to rule
out explanation 3 as likely, it would also be hasty to accept it as valid.
Explanation 4 is likely only so long as there are no Santer reports which cannot be
satisfactorily explained by either 1, 2, or 3. However, this writer contends this to
be the case, that most of the Santer reports cannot be explained by any of these
explanations for reasons discussed earlier throughout this article.
If explanations 1 through 4 are not satisfactory then we seem to be left with an
explanation which is not really an explanation but a recognition that the Santer
reports represent a mystery, i.e. that the Santer is a mystery cat. There are similarities
between Santer reports and more recent mystery cat reports (see references cited
below), those similarities being in appearance (a large cat) and behavior (terrorizes
communities, identity unknown). Whether in fact the Santer can be placed in the
category of mystery cats awaits more evidence as we cannot at present confidently
state that explanations 2 and 3 are very unlikely, only that they are unsatisfactory.
In closing, it is fitting to include a report indicating that the Santer was not a
creature destined for oblivion before the beginning of the 20th century. For in 1934
the Santer, or its offspring, once again made its appearance according to the “Statesville
Landmark” of May 28, 1934.
“From Mooresville news: ‘There is considerable excitement around
here about the ferocious wild animal roaming around Shinnsville and
other places in South Iredell. Most people who lived here about 40 or
more years ago are satisfied that this is none other but an offspring of
that same old Iredell County Santer that terrorised the natives around
Statesville and Amity Hill, devouring chickens, pigs, calves and carrying
off a few colored children that never were found.’”
* An excellent source of mystery cat reports is: “On the Trail of Pumas, Panthers and ULAs”
(parts 1 and 2) by Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, FATE magazine, June 1972 and July 1972.
An excellent work on the panther, which discusses sightings of this creature in eastern
Canada and eastern U.S., is: The Eastern Panther by Bruce S. Wright, Clarke, Irwin & Company
Ltd, Toronto, Canada, 1972.
 

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