Eyewitness Accounts of the Berrien Tiger

The legendary Berrien Tiger was a large panther that mauled two Wiregrass victims in 1849 (before Berrien county was actually created). The first victim was Jim Hightower (aka James Stewart), step-son of  Thomas B. Stewart.  One of the eyewitnesses who saw the carcass of the Berrien Tiger was Martha Newbern Guthrie,  who was mother to generations of Berrien County residents, and who spent time in her final years living with her son Arrin’s family at Ray City, GA.  Her husband and brother-in-law were among the men who hunted down and killed the beast, after it attacked a young boy. Other stories of the Berrien Tiger (Early Account of the Berrien Tiger, 1849,  1849 Adventures With A Panther in Berrien County, GA) were posted over the past week. The account below, originally published in 1923 nearly 75 years after the event, provides additional details (or embellishments?) not included in early versions of the tale.

[When the Wiregrass Pioneers] were begining to realize a sense of relief from Indian depredations but not from the depredations of wild beasts, there occurred a thrilling encounter between a magnificent specimen of that species of felines known as a tiger and a party of men which encount- —– does when trying to decide whe- ——— only encounter of its kind in all this section originally known as Irwin County.

Setting in Mud Creek

It was back somewhere about the year 1848 and the scene of the episode was in what is now Clinch County but at that time Lowndes near the Alapaha River at what is known locally as the Mud Creek bridge, or “Indian Ford” as it was then known.

In that neighborhood lived Samuel and Hamp Guthrie, Alfred Herring, Jesse Vickery and a man by the name of Stewart (Editor’s note This man was Thomas B. Stewart, born 1798 in Virginia and a blacksmith by trade, and he  lived neighbor to Hamp Guthrie) and also Green Akins and others of the hardy pioneers who were in — swamp, immediately striking wind  —try from the wild man and the wild animals and making it a fit dwelling place to live. Stewart had a step-son named Jim Hightower. This boy was about 14 years old. He had had the misfortune to get his right hand mangled while feeding an old-fashioned wooden roller cane-mill by feeding his hand into the mill along with the cane when a very small boy, and when it healed up so far as I can learn, was the — of distorted and crumpled up stub of bones, consequently he had very little use of that member in any of the tasks he had to perform. The accident occurred at the home of Green Akins and Mrs. Akins who were the parents of Mrs. Jerry May who is now living about five miles east of Nashville. Mrs. Akins released the little fellow from his awful position by first stopping the horse, loosing him from the lever, backing the mill off the boy’s hand and releasing it.  It was impossible to obtain the service of a physician in that section and with the very best skill which Mrs. Akins could master she dressed the boy’s hand in her own way.

Hunts Hog, Flushes Tiger

This boy, Jim Hightower, in company with a little half brother was sent out one morning early to look for some hogs down by the river swamp. Their faithful dog accompanied them. Hunting along beside the swamp they were startled by the strange acts of the dog which had been running about, sometimes in the bushes, sometimes outside when suddenly like something half-dead with fright the dog came tearing out of the bushes and cowered down at the feet of his young masters and no persuasion of any sort could avail to get that dog to return to the swamp. The boys knew not what to think except that they surmised the dog was overcome with cowardice and only needed to have his masters near to encourage him in the face of supposed danger; and with this thought in mind no doubt, the boys proceeded on down nearer the swamp at the place where the dog emerged, at the same time setting the dog on and encouraging him in every way they could to go on in. But nothing they could do could avail to get that dog into the swamp ahead of them.

 While they were thus engaged and while they were pushing their way a little further on into the low bushes, the elder boy being somewhat ahead, they were struck with terror to see a great tawny red body rise out of the bushes with a sudden bound, alighting on Jim’s shoulders and bearing him to the ground. The small boy immediately took to his heels accompanied by his dog, leaving Jim to the fate to which the tiger would subject him.

 Alarm Given

Going by a neighboring house which was nearer than his home the small boy gave the alarm, the family being seated at breakfast. Quickly the man of the house ran to Stewart’s and told the family that a tiger had killed Jim. The news was spread from house to house as fast as possible and the dogs were on their way down to the swamp to make a search, expecting to find the boy Jim torn to pieces or probably eaten. Their guns consisted of the old-fashioned muzzle-loading shot gun, some of which had flint-locks, but in addition each man was armed with Bowie knives with which to fight if it should come to a hand-to-hand struggle.

When they arrived at the place where the small boy said the attack was made, there was the blood, the signs of the struggle, the leaves and straw where the victim had evidently been covered up but no trace of the boy or his clothing, except his little cap, could be found and except the blood.

Dogs Encounter Tiger

The dogs were set off into the swamp, immediately striking wind of the game and began raising a mighty din of yelps and the party knew that they were right on the animal. Immediately, however, the anticipatory sounds of the baying changed to death howls, and the party knew that their faithful dogs were being killed.

Three of the men, Hamp Guthrie, Alf Herring, and Jess Vickery, agreed to stand by each other until death and go into the swamp to the relief of their dogs. Armed with their guns and Bowie Knives they pushed their way as fast as they could through the swamp to where the battle between beast and dogs was raging, and were horrified to see that one or two of the dogs had already been killed and others were being mangled as fast as they came in reach of the in position in the center of the pack of dogs and in such close proximity that a shot could not be made without danger of wounding or killing a dog. Hamp Guthrie, being of a daring and intrepid character, somewhat braver than the other men, decided to get into the fight and tackle the beast with his knife but he made the others promise to stand by him and help him out of the danger to the last. The animal didn’t wait however for Guthrie to reach it. Releasing its hold on the dogs it leaped with a mighty bound upon the shoulders of Guthrie and bore him to the ground. There, in a perfect pandemonium of shrieks, growls, and yelps it held him while it proceeded to tear his flesh with teeth and claws until Jess Vickery ran up an holding the muzzle of his gun to its side, caught a moment when he could discharge his gun without danger to Guthrie, and drove the whole load from his gun through its body. The shot however, failed to make the animal release its hold. He then clubbed his gun and broke it over the animal’s body, still the beast did not let go. He then grabbed up Guthrie’s gun which had been dropped when he was attacked, and broke it over the animal. By this time , Alf Herring had run up with his Bowie knife and together with Vickery they succeeded in stabbing and cutting the beast until it fell over dead.

Guthrie had been terribly lacerated and bitten on the neck, shoulders and head, and his clothing were torn to shreds. He was weak from loss of blood and from the terrible encounter but was able to walk home.

Hightower Turns Up.

By this time, others of the neighborhood had arrived on the scene and brought to the hunters the news that Jim was not dead but horribly wounded and mangled by the tiger, his back, neck, and face and head being terribly torn, two of his jaw teeth broken out by the biting of the animal and clothing literally torn off of him.

The story of the attack as related by Jim, was to the effect when the tiger bore him down he fell on his face and having presence of mind, he would not cry out from the pain but would remain perfectly still like as if dead and worthy of his foe,  hold his breath when the animal would cease his biting and apparently listen, precisely as a cat does when trying to decide whether she has succeeded in extinguishing the life in the rat she has caught.  This was continued no doubt to what seemed an age to the suffering and bleeding boy, until finally the animal decided that it was safe to leave him and pursue the other and smaller boy.  Jim said he watched from one side as he lay on his face , the maneuvers of the tiger as he would lift his head and look in the direction in which the small boy left.  Finally, he said, the great cat began hastily to rake up leaves and straw over Jim’s body and when he had covered him he bounded off Jim knew not where.  When all was quiet and Jim could hear nothing more, he cautiously raised his bleeding head and looked around and listened again to see if he could hear anything of his foe.  Not hearing anything, and thinking it would be safe to try and reach home, he arose ans as fast as he could in his terrible condition, struck out towards home.  He had proceeded only a few hundred yards before coming to a little branch over which he had to pass in order to reach  home by the nearest route and by which route his little brother had gone. When he came in sight of that little branch, imagine his fright if you can, to see that tiger standing there in the path and lapping water.  Fortunately the animal didn’t see him and Jim turned and made his way home by a different route and so escaped a second attack.

Carcass Displayed

The men tied the tiger together, swung it upon a pole and carried it out to the home of Green (W.G.) Akins, placing it in the yard where it lay for a day, a sight to the numbers of people having heard of the great tiger fight, had come for miles to see.

It was a male tiger, a magnificent specimen, and from the description given by those who saw it, must have weighed as much as 250 pounds and as much as four feet in length. It was a solid tawny red in color and about 30 to 36 inches in height.

Jim Hightower, by reason of the many adventures he experienced, may be said to have possessed a charmed life.  He not only had a hand ruined in a cane mill and miraculously escaped death from a tiger, but was struck by lightning and stunned and was weeks in recovering; and he was bitten by a small rattlesnake and suffered greatly from that. Then later on in life he got into difficulty with a man named Wheeler, killing him and for which crime he served a penitentiary sentence of thirty years.

Story Said True

The above story is true and is given substantially as related to me by two persons who were living in the vicinity at that time.  One of them, Mrs Martha Guthrie, widow of Samuel Guthrie, the latter was in the hunt and was a brother of Hamp Guthrie. She and her husband were living at the Joe Stevens place on the Berrien County side of the river at the time, and she had been married two or three years.  She is still living at the home of her son S. F. Guthrie, in the Upper Tenth District of Berrien within four miles of where the hunt took place.  She is 87 years old, totally blind, but otherwise in possession of her faculties. Her mind is bright for one of her age and she talks intelligently about many things that happened in pioneer days.

Witnesses Named

The other living witness who can talk intelligently about frontier life is Mrs. Annie May, wife of Mr. Jerry May, who lives five miles east of Nashville, out on the Milltown Road.  She will be 87 years old on the 26th day of May, 1923, and is well-preserved for a woman of her age. She has spent a lifetime of hard work and still keeps house with her husband who will be 89 years old on next Sept 2nd.  She does her own cooking and housework feeding the chickens and pigs. She is the mother of seven children, all grown and married; and the youngest son Sirmans G. May lives near his aged parents and has grandchildren of his own. Mrs. May was a daughter of Green Akins, in whose front yard the slain animal was viewed by her as a little girl and by the hundreds who came to see it.

By all accounts, the Berrien Tiger  was certainly a large panther specimen. If it was as large as indicated in the account above – 250 pounds – then it was larger than the current record specimen, killed in Colorado in 2001.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill Outlaw said,

    February 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    E.C. May (son of Jerry May, above) describes this “tiger” kill also, perhaps more graphically with respect to Jim’s wounds as I recall. What a story!


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