For this week’s dose of folklore, let’s venture to the forests of North Carolina and explore a particularly bizarre tale of gore and mayhem. Now you might be thinking that all tales of cryptozoology or the paranormal at large can prove rather strange. True, but some stories are so peculiar that just trying to cobble together the disparate elements into a cohesive yarn makes you feel like you’re performing cryptid acrobatics. So goes the Beast of Bladenboro, a lore that involves a charlatan mayor, a P.T. Barnum, a disabled carnie, scores of gung-ho hunters, and one dead bobcat up a flagpole. Oh, and an ocelot. You can’t forget the ocelot.
Things started getting weird in Bladenboro, North Carolina toward the end of 1953. Eyewitnesses reported a hideous creature that preyed on the likes of the friendly family canine. Unlike a usual coyote or bobcat attack, the creature crushed its prey, practically turning the bones to dust. Since the animal cadavers also appeared drained of blood, people jumped to the logical conclusion that the creature descended from Dracula’s ancestry, thus dubbing it the Vampire Beast.
In no time, virtually everyone in the greater North Carolina area—and beyond—knew all about the Vampire Beast’s gory hijinks. When you consider the staid climate of mid-twentieth century America, most news tended to spread via newspaper, radio, and busybody gossips. It’s not like today when the Beast of Bladenboro would have the option to tweet or update his Facebook status or take snarling selfies. Back then, even television wasn’t all that ubiquitous, especially in areas as rural as Mayberry, USA. To get this kind of promotion, the cryptid must have secretly hired the execs from Mad Men to market him. Or you know, maybe he just networked with the local mayor.
Back in the mid-fifties, Bladenboro was run by the poor man’s P.T. Barnum known to his constituents as Mayor W. G. Fussell. Fussell loved promoting his town. He’d do anything to get the word out about the flea speck on the map in southern North Carolina. And exploiting the deaths of small animals seemed like an opportunity rife with selling potential. The local tourism bureau had to be brimming with pride over this scheme. Fussell made sure every newspaper outlet in the region knew about the bloodshed and terror happening right in his very own town, and his promotion worked like a macabre charm. Clearly, though, this attempt was altruistic in nature. He simply wanted to draw people into Bladenboro to help downtown businesses like the local cinema he himself owned. And guess what was playing at the time? A movie about a monster that stalks people in the woods.
Nowadays, anyone can buy into tales about corrupt elected officials, even if a cryptid angle rarely gets thrown into the official apologies over extramarital affairs (though government would be a lot more interesting provided every scandal ended with the words, “And the Loch Ness Monster is sorry that he broke up the family”). So you might be thinking, just declare the mayor another shady politician and wrap this story up, right? Not so fast. Others talk about a carnie named Dick Hilburn. Like any good elusive figure, little is known about him, but you can read some of his story here. The gist goes that Hilburn was born without most of his limbs but made the most of his disability by starting a sideshow, the only outlet society provided so-called freaks in 1950s America. As soon as the creature sightings started, Hilburn had merchandise ready to peddle that promoted the Vampire Beast. Clever businessman or opportunistic charlatan? Nobody knows for sure.
However the story originated, when members of the general public heard about the beast, they followed the old tried and true American tradition: they loaded their guns and went out on a hunt. But this wasn’t just a local thing. Somewhere in the neighborhood of one-thousand citizens from all over the country ventured from their homes to take a crack at the creature. Hitchhikers probably fashioned “Bladenboro or Bust” signs as they waited for a charitable pickup truck to carry them from farflung southern and Midwestern locales to the heart of the beast-plagued North Carolina county. Keep in mind that the entire town’s population clocked in around a thousand, which means that during this flap of sightings, the area practically doubled in size. That’s what the prospect of being the first to mount a new species on the wall does to you.
So what was this beastly species anyhow? Theories abounded. Some argued it was a large bobcat. Mayor Fussell supposedly stoked the fires of public panic by claiming that the menace was not just a run-of-the-mill bobcat but a rabid bobcat. Because you know what’s scarier than a giant, bloodthirsty cat? A giant, bloodthirsty cat with rabies, that’s what.
One unusual possibility presented at the time was the beast might be an ocelot, that inimitable creature that Salvador Dali kept as a pet and Cheryl on the spy cartoon, Archer, inveterately neglects. But why an ocelot? Seems kind of random. The story goes that the exotic spotted cat escaped from—wait for it—a circus fire. That’s right, 1950s reporters tried to use the oldest cryptid-origin trick in the book, right up there with flushing baby alligators down the toilet in the Big Apple. Now granted, the escaped circus animal-turned-public menace wasn’t a major trope back then, so they probably thought they were being original. Even so, the Beast of Bladenboro managed to work in practically every aspect that defines cryptozoology during only a month or so of sightings. Pretty impressive, maybe-ocelot-maybe-not.
But of course, there’s more. On one of Bladenboro’s major highways, a motorist did indeed report that an ocelot was struck and killed. Thus, whether the cat did flee a cruel circus life or escaped the collection of an exotic animal lover, the end result is a sad little wannabe Babou as road kill. The Archers and Salvador Dalis of the world mourn in retrospect.
So with a deceased ocelot in the county morgue, everything’s all wrapped then, right? Nope. The ravaging continued. No small animal was safe from the menace in Bladen County.
If that’s not enough, locals speculated that a cougar or a Carolina panther could also have been masquerading by night as the The Beast of Bladenboro. That brings the suspect list up to at least six candidates: four varieties of giant cats and two (possibly) unscrupulous humans. And no matter what explanation seems most plausible, these were not simply rumors or misattribution. Dogs and other small animals in Bladenboro continued to die in horrendous ways. Something—or someone—was killing them.
Eventually, the mayor decided that he’d exploited all the fun out of the whole Vampire Beast shenanigans and decided to call it quits. But not before one last—and especially brutal—publicity stunt. Fussell selected a random bobcat body off the heap of dead animals people had shot and killed under the guise of it being the beast. The honorable mayor then raised the carcass up a downtown flagpole and declared the mystery solved. He even mugged for newspaper cameras as though posing with the carnage somehow confirmed his account. Remember this story anytime you think the 1950s were the good old days. Chances are none of your area politicians have recently removed the stars and stripes and replaced them with a mound of rotting meat. Again, chances are.
However, even though the bobcat-cum-American flag was in no way the culprit, the sightings and death toll slowed shortly thereafter and eventually ceased sometime before spring 1954. Disappointed hunters returned home, and the population of dogs and innocent bobcats that had been hunted with gusto breathed a collective sigh of relief.
With most of these stories, a specific theory presents itself as the best possible candidate. But this one just leaves far more questions than answers. If the Beast was one of the large cats that was shot and killed by the hordes of hunters, then why didn’t the killings stop until the mayor strung up a random one? If the culprit was instead a person—of a political or vaudevillian persuasion—then why did he seem to grow tired of the ruse when he could have still milked the idea for cash? And let’s just assume if it was a hoax, then the animals that died were killed by a normal bobcat or coyote rather than at the hands of a person.
And what’s the story with that ocelot? Even today, when an exotic animal is hit on the side of a bucolic highway, that’s the kind of stuff that makes national news. How did it happen to coincide in an area already plagued with bucketfuls of the weird?
The cryptozoologists among us may never know. But for those intrepid souls who want to explore Bladenboro and try to reopen this cold case, consider visiting in November. That’s when the town celebrates its bloodthirsty past with the annual Beast Fest.
And if you’re still looking to meet the creature itself, fear not. Sightings have occurred as recently as 2007. There’s something out there. And it’s probably still hungry.