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October 05, 2015

The Beast of White River

The Beast of White River

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Every community seems to have its share of legendary monsters, particularly to attract tourists.  Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster, the state of Washington has Bigfoot, and even Lake Manitou near Rochester, Indiana, has a giant serpent.  What about Hamilton County?  Interestingly, we have more sightings than we have legends. Our “monster” doesn’t have a proper name, but the mysterious cat that is supposed to roam the banks of the White River has been a part of the local consciousness since the middle of the twentieth century.

As near as anyone can tell, the first time an unusual sighting was reported was in January of 1951 when a “black panther” was reported along the river.  State police officers investigated and found nothing except vague animal tracks and some fur.  However, this didn’t prevent carloads of hunters, (mostly non-residents of the county), from arming themselves to the teeth and searching the underbrush.  The greatest danger to any human was from getting shot by a trigger-happy hunter, but fortunately, no one was injured.  Eventually, the hullabaloo faded.[i]

Cougar In October of 1965, a “dark colored” and “cat-like” animal was seen to leap over the fence of the Home for Friendless Animals at Horseshoe Prairie, kill and eat a small dog, and then leap back out.  This occurred at least seven other times. There were also reports of livestock attacks in the area.  However, once again, nothing definite was found.[ii]

The beast made several appearances in the mid-1970’s.  County residents who lived along the river heard its screaming cry and saw what they thought were paw prints.  A security guard at Conner Prairie claimed that he spotted a large cat prowling around the grounds of the museum.  A local cattle breeder saw his herd of cows running in panic around their pasture.  Some black, brown and white fur was found in places where the animal had been sighted.  The naturalists who investigated the sightings felt fairly sure the animal was a large, stray dog.  The witnesses felt otherwise.[iii]

Noblesville had two mountain lion sightings in June of 1997.  One animal was seen behind the Kroger store on Logan Street and the other was seen on a farm at 206th Street.  Investigators said they found nothing at the store and felt the animal at 206th Street was probably a coyote.  The farmer disagreed and acrimonious letters were exchanged in the newspapers.[iv]

The beast made big headlines in 2001.  A horse was injured in late September on a farm near Lebanon in Boone County.  A large paw print was found nearby.  Sightings increased after this, but they may have been in reaction to the newspaper stories.  There was debate between the witnesses and naturalists about the creature, as well as debate between the naturalists and other naturalists.  In the end, almost everyone agreed that there was some animal, but no one was sure exactly what it was.[v]

So, is there a real beast out there?  If there is, it’s not the wild animal that scientists call Puma concolor, and that the rest of us call puma, cougar, catamount, or mountain lion.  The primary reason is that the mountain lion has been presumed to be extinct in Indiana for over a century.  The last lion in central Indiana was killed around 1851.  The last lion in the state was thought to have been killed in 1868, although Benton County reported a “beast” killing cattle in 1874 and Spencer County had problems with a “lioness” in 1881.[vi]

Could a family of lions have somehow survived to the present day?  The biological facts won’t support this idea.  A mountain lion could be described as a 150-pound killing machine that needs constant fresh meat.  It would be impossible in an area as heavily populated as Hamilton County for this activity to go unnoticed.

So what is it people have been seeing in Hamilton County for the last 50 years?  Well, there is another kind of cat that definitely has lived in Hamilton County in the past and has had a much better chance of surviving. That is Lynx rufus, or the common bobcat, also known as the wildcat.  An actual wildcat was caught in November of 1927 near Cicero.  It was a female with six kittens and she was three feet, nine inches long, twenty-one inches tall, and weighed 27 ½ pounds.[vii]  This is somewhat larger than the average bobcat.

It’s understandable how a bobcat might be confused with a larger animal.  They are twice as large as the average domestic cat, and a person’s mind can play tricks on them when confronted with an animal of that size.  Although the coats are spotted, their fur can range in color from tawny to very dark.  While their tail is very short, it does exist.  However, spotting a bobcat is very difficult, since it avoid humans as much as possible.  Bobcats are much happier hunting birds and rodents in the deep forests.

Many naturalists refer to odd animal sightings as “UFO’s” or Unidentified Furry Objects.  They wouldn’t deny that a person saw something; they just want more proof before they decide what it is.  So keep your eyes open as you travel through the Hamilton County forests.  You might see a rare bit of Indiana fauna run by.  But, if there is some other animal on the banks of White River that the biologists don’t know about – a Felis Rufus Hoosierensus – watch out!  The Beast of White River might be on the prowl.

[i] Noblesville Ledger, January 15, 1951, p. 1.
[ii] Noblesville Daily Ledger, October 8, 1965, p. 1.
[iii] Kevin Hardie, “The Creature of Horseshoe Bend” Hamiltonian magazine, January 1977, p. 26-29.
[iv] Ledger, June 11, 1997, p; A2; Star, June 11, 1997, p. N1; Ledger, June 12, 1997, p. A1; Ledger, June 18, 1997, p A5.
[v] Star, October 18, 2001, p. N1, Star, October 25, 2001, p. N1; Ledger, November 11, 2001; Star November 11, 2001; Ledger, November 15, 2001; Star, November 15, 2001, p. N1; Star, December 13, 2001, p. B1; Star, January 5, 2002, p. A12.
[vi] Marcus Ward Lyon, Mammals of Indiana (Notre Dame, Ind., The University Press, 1936), p.  158-161; Hamilton County Ledger, December 4, 1874. p. 4; Noblesville Republican-Ledger, September 2, 1881, p. 3.
[vii] Ledger, November 3, 1927, p. 1.