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Has anyone ever heard folklore about an unusual critter called a Swift Peter? The lore likely originated in the Mississippi Delta, and I learned about it during a visit last week with Herald subscriber Monnie Eubank.
The Swift Peter stories may be linked to panthers, and I have always been fascinated with stories about big black cats and night-time, blood-curling screams that sound like a woman. I believe this is also lore, but I will tread lightly here, because I have had friends who are very adamant about black panthers in our state. Plenty of folks claim to have seen them, and the sightings always seem to describe a large cat with a long tail. And they are usually jet black!
I had a do a little googling to get my facts in order, but the only black cat found in North American is the jaguar, which is sometimes misidentified as a black panther. Most jaguars have a yellow and tan coat, but they can range from reddish brown to black. The black coloration is a rare variant within the jaguar species, and it estimated that only 11 percent of jaguars have this dark color. Jaguars have almost completely been eliminated in the U.S., and it is believed that only one wild jaguar remains in the U.S.
Their native range initially included from central Argentina all the way up to southwestern United States. Mississippi has never been included in their range.
The only wild cat remaining in our state is the bobcat, but at one time we also had cougars, also known as mountain lions, pumas or panthers. The subspecies of cougars that once roamed our state were Florida panthers described as large, tan cats. Their bodies are mainly covered in tawny-beige fur, with black markings on the tip of the tail, ears and around the snout. The Florida panthers are about six to seven feet long, and they only remain in the southwestern tip of Florida.
That’s the big black cat background, so what about the frequent big cat sightings in Mississippi. A story in an edition of the Brookhaven Daily Leader last week reported a Bogue Chitto resident saw a black panther on his property. Before that, there was a reported panther sighting just north of Natchez in 2019. But with each sighting, there is no real proof. The articles about the sightings typically include input from biologists with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks noting there has never been a documented sighting of a large black cat in Mississippi.
If you are still not convinced, think about all the trail cameras used by hunters across the state. Trail cameras are typically strapped to trees and triggered by motion and there are thousands and thousands placed in remote areas across the state. There has never been one credible picture of a large black cat with a long tail on a trail camera.
Back to my conversation with Ms. Eubank, I thought I was familiar with most of the stories associated with panthers, but the Swift Peter was new to me. Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, she remembered hearings stories about them killing dogs, cattle and other animals.
Curious, we did a little internet research and found a few references to this critter. We found a reference on a Memphis website about a scare in Midtown Memphis for a few weeks in 1927. According to varied newspaper accounts, there was a bindle-colored beast of unclear dimensions killing dogs in that area in early February. By some reckonings, the beast was six feet long and two feet high, but the accounts were varied about whether it had short front legs or taller in the back. The only thing everyone agreed on was its coloring.
The description sounded familiar to what Ms. Eubank recalled.
Now for the origin of the Swift Peter lore. Again information is limited, but in 1928 Ole Miss English professor Arthur Palmer Hudson included Swift Peter in his “Specimens of Mississippi Folklore Collected with the Assistance of Students and Citizens of Mississippi.”
Clark wrote, “The earliest form of the legend of the Swift Peter is those tales of a stray bear or panther which used to sweep over rural communities, and which still occasionally spring up here and there… Possibly Swift Peter is an evolution from those stories. The most succinct description of him is that of a “big white something that tears up cats and dogs and children.”
One historian noted that there were frequent racial overtones associated with the tales about the Swift Peter. The stories were used the frighten people for various reasons.
The woods are full weird sounds and one of theories about tales of hearing panthers scream in the night years ago may have been linked to moonshining. If you had a still deep in the woods, what better way to keep folks away than a blood-curling scream in the night?
Thanks Ms. Eubank, for the visit and the information. And for full disclosure, I can say without a doubt that I have seen a Florida panther. That’s right, there is one in the New Orleans zoo and… he is tawny-colored.
We appreciate all of the input from our subscribers. Bill Baddley reached out a few months ago, sharing an article about his retirement that was published in another publication. He got permission from the publication for the article to run in the Herald (see page 12). A Water Valley native, he has been gone for many decades but still enjoys the Herald each week.
Ironically his brother, Jim Baddley reached out to me a few weeks ago. Another longtime subscriber, Jim Baddley said he would enjoy seeing articles in the Herald about people who grew up in Water Valley and had been successful in their ventures.
I told Bill Baddley that the article in this week’s edition is what your brother said he would like to see, but he may already be familiar with your story!
Another subscriber called me after last week’s paper hit the streets to make sure we were still publishing obituaries. Two weeks had passed without an obituary in the
Herald. I explained that thankfully, there just had been none to publish.
“Well, that’s good thing,” she replied.