Moving on from giant reptiles, we come to the next Ozark monster, the wampus. The wampus is generally considered to be a giant cougar or “painter” (panther) sometimes with other reptile or amphibian qualities. “Painters” figure into a lot of Ozark hunting tales, despite the fact that the existence of the animal in the Ozarks is often debated. Talk to any backwoods person and they’ll tell you there are most certainly “painters” out in the woods, heck I’ve see one run across the road before, and no it wasn’t a coyote or housecat. The Game and Fish Commission will say that there may be “painters” in the Ozarks, but they’re just moving through, and haven’t ever bred here. If that’s the case they’ve been moving through for the past couple hundred years, because there have always been “painter” stories here in the Ozarks.
Vance Randolph classifies two varieties of wampus, the great gally-wampus and the whistling wampus, both considered highly dangerous.
“In central Missouri there are tales of the great gallywampus, described as a kind of amphibious panther, which leaps into the water and swims like a colossal mink. One man told me that his grandfather’s corn-patch near Jefferson City, Missouri, was ruined by a gally-wampus which ‘come down the creek so fast he couldn’t stop at the Big Bend, an’ skidded right on down the valley through the cornfields.’ I said nothing, but evidently looked a bit incredulous, for the old man hastened to explain. ‘Of course it was high water, or maybe a big wind, that flattened the corn thataway. But Grandpap always said it was the gallywampus done it. The gally-wampus was kind of a joke, in them days.’
“A man who worked in the timber near Waldron, Arkansas, told me that the lumbermen down that way were always joking about the whistling wampus, also known as the whistler. This was supposed to be an immense black panther with supernatural intelligence, which lured woodsmen to their doom by whistling at them from dark cedar thickets. When a timber worker was asked where he had been, or required to account for an unexplained absence, he answered that he’d been out hunting the whistler. Another fellow in the same neighborhood said that lumbermen all over America belong to a secret society called Hoo-Hoo, and that the name derives from the beguiling cry of the whistling wampus. The official state guidebook Arkansas affirms that the ‘Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo’ was organized at Gurden, Arkansas, in 1892.”
Interestingly enough there are many schools across the US that have the wampus cat as their mascot. Conway, here in Arkansas, is one of those schools.
The stories of the wampus likely take their origin from the Cherokee monster called the “Ewah” or “E’wah” which is also often called “wampus”. S. E. Schlosser has a story in “Spooky South” that bears a great deal of resemblance to the stories of the Ewah:
“They say that the Wampus cat used to be a beautiful Indian woman. The men of her tribe were always going on hunting trips, but the women had to stay home. The Indian woman secretly followed her husband one day when he went hunting with the other men. She hid herself behind a rock, clutching the hide of a mountain cat around her, and spied on the men as they sat around their campfires telling sacred stories and doing magic.
“According to the laws of the tribe, it was absolutely forbidden for women to hear the sacred stories and see the tribe’s magic. So when the Indian woman was discovered, the medicine man punished her by binding her into the mountain cat skin she wore and then transforming her into a terrible monster – half woman and half mountain cat. Ever after she was doomed to roam the hills, howling desolately because she desires to return to her normal body.
“A man was hunting one night with his dogs when they both whimpered and ran off the path. At that moment, the woods were overpowered with a horrible smell like that of a wet animal that had fallen into a bog after it messed with a skunk. Then something howled on the path behind him and the man whirled around, dropping his rifle. His heart pounding with fear, the man found himself staring into the big, glowing yellow eyes of the Wampus Cat. The creature had huge fangs dripping with salvia. It looked kind of like a mountain lion, but it was walking upright like a man. Then it howled, and the man’s skin nearly turned inside out in horror.
“With a scream of terror, the man leapt backwards and ran as fast as he could through the woods, the Wampus Cat on his heels. He fled to the home of a friend who lived nearby, and burst through the front door only a breath ahead of the creature. His friend slammed the door in the face of the Wampus Cat. Instantly, it started shuddering under the weight of the attacking monster. The man’s friend grabbed his Bible and started reading aloud from the Psalms. Upon hearing the holy words, the Wampus Cat howled in frustration and then slowly abandoned its attack and went back into the woods.
“The man spent the rest of the night at his friend’s place. When he went home at daybreak, he found his dogs huddled in the barn, shaken but still alive. The man never hunted after dark again.”
It’s said that the wampus or ewah can only be killed with the use of the “wampus mask” that’s made from the tanned head of a bobcat. The Cherokee have traditionally used many different masks in their healing practices. See my post on the “Booger Dance” for more information about that.