words ‘wampus cat’ usually denote a mythical bugbear or bugaboo
used to scare small children and the incredibly credulous. However,
for a period of about forty years—the 1920s through the mid-1950s—at
least in certain parts of Texas, a ‘wampus cat’ was something very
real. It wasn’t an animal, monstrous or otherwise, but a device.
It was Satan’s own personal plaything, specifically designed and
operated to scare folks out of their underwear.
The story must
begin with an ancient Hallowe’en prank called ‘tick-tacking.’ To
tick-tack required a large brass straight pin or a piece of thin
iron wire, a length of cotton cord of the sort used to make trotlines,
sail lines, or jug lines for catfish; a cake of beeswax, and—if
possible—a fiddle bow. In the absence of a proper fiddle bow a bow
could be constructed from a green stick and a tightly-stretched
piece of waxed string, or even a thumbnail could be used, but a
waxed fiddle bow was best.
Late in the night or in the wee hours of he morning the victim’s
house was approached stealthily. The pin or wire, the waxed cord
firmly attached, was hooked into a tightly-stretched, latched window
screen. Then the string was pulled tight and tick-tacking began.
The fiddle bow was drawn back and forth across the waxed string
and promptly all sorts things began to happen.
The tight screen acted as a sounding board, amplifying the sounds
of the bow being dragged across the waxed cord. Some of the most
unearthly screeches, howls, and moans ever heard by mankind began
to echo through the house. Since, if the tick-tack was properly
done, it was very difficult to pinpoint the exact source of the
sounds, the idea that the place was haunted by a very noisy ghost
took on a small step of imagination. Tick-tacking continued for
several nights in a row, or only on some nights of the week, or
at unpredictable intervals at unpredictable times, reinforced the
idea of a haunting. Unless, of course, someone came into the house
and heard the sounds, and that someone had once tick-tacked a window
wampus cat worked on the same principle as tick-tacking, but it
was more complicated and much noisier. The basis for a wampus cat
was an empty wooden nailkeg and a piece of rawhide.
was first soaked and then carefully nailed to insure it was sturdy.
At the same time the rawhide was boiled to soften it and render
it stretchable. Once the hide was soft it was stretched as tightly
as possible across the open end of the keg, then tacked and wired
in place. The device was then set aside so the rawhide could dry,
tighten, and get hard. In effect the keg had become a drum—in fact,
not at all a bad drum. A drum, though, wasn’t what was intended.
In the meantime
a length of the same sort of cotton trotline twine used for tick-tacking
was acquired—a good six to eight feet of it. A 4d or 6d finishing
nail was tied to one end of he twine, the twine in the middle of
the nail. The twine was heavily waxed.
Once the keg and hide were dry a small hole was bored in the center
of the hide. The finishing nail was threaded through it, then pulled
tight to secure the cord to the hide. The wampus cat was ready for
When the string was pulled tight and stroked with a fiddle bow—or
even scraped with a fingernail—the keg, which acted as a sounding
chamber, gave off an unearthly moaning roar like nothing since,
perhaps, the cries of dinosaurs—the wail of the wampus cat. Putting
the keg in an area that would cause the roar to be amplified and
echo, like in a narrow canyon, the outlet of which was in the vicinity
of the camp of a group of greenhorn hunters or dudes, has been known
to cause grown men to rise a foot or more off camp chairs purely
from involuntary muscle contraction.
Depending on circumstances, a wampus cat could be downright unhealthy
for the user. Setting up a wampus cat and making it howl near a
camp of greenhorn hunters could—and did, on occasion—bring a regular
fusillade from the camp in the general direction of the noises.
Most of the shots, of course, were wild, but a high-velocity .270
or .30-06 expanding slug will tear a fair-sized branch off a tree.
Getting beaned by a falling limb can be painful.
The wail of
the wampus cat had its purposes at youth camps. Following a campfire
session of ghostly tales ending with one about a mysterious, roaring
monster, a couple of pulls of the bow across a wampus cat’s string
absolutely insured that nobody would venture outside a tent or hutment
until well after dawn. A couple of young men with a wampus cat once
caused the all-but-total abandonment of a Central Texas Girl Scout
camp. A co-ed youth camp that had problems with quiet nocturnal
visits between girls’ tents and boys’ tents put a permanent end
to the trouble with a night of wampus-cat wails.
of the most common places for a wampus cat to wail, at least in
the late 1940s and early 1950s, was at a dude ranch. Generally on
Saturday nights dude ranches held long hayrides, barbecues, songfests,
and story-telling sessions—ghost stories, as a rule. One or two
of the wranglers would slip away from the gathering, wait until
the ghost-story session was well under way, and then bow the string
of the previously-positioned wampus cat.
The reaction around the campfire—except among the dude wranglers,
where were in on the gag—was pandemonium. There were screams and
shrieks—mostly female—and female dudes promptly wound up in the
laps of the closest available males—who, if they weren’t in on the
gag, were usually just as scared as the ladies. For some reason
nobody ever bothered to look at the hayride mules. Had there been
a monster of any sort around they would have been in a state of
panic. Since the wampus cat was a Saturday-night fixture, they were
used to it and went on cropping all available grass.
The wampus cat would wail and howl for a while, reducing everyone—except
the brave dude wranglers—to a state akin to that of Jell-o on a
vibrating platform. The brave wranglers would eventually produce
sixshooters—loaded, of course, with Remington 5-in-1 blanks—move
to the edge of the firelight, and ‘drive the monster away’ with
a few well-placed shots. Then, the storytelling session effectively
ended, the wranglers would load up the wagons with the week’s crop
of dudes and begin the long, romantic, moonlit ride back to the
cabins. Unattached female dudes would usually seek out a wrangler
for protection and companionship on the ride—and often afterwards
as well—which was, of course, the idea behind setting up the wampus
cat in the first place.
Wooden nailkegs are kinda rare these days. Rawhide isn’t easily
come by. The proper string is hard to find. Not many sewing stores
stock cakes of beeswax any more. Secondhand stores will no longer
sell a fiddle bow with most of the hair intact for 50¢ or a dollar.
I haven’t heard the wail of a wampus cat in years. I sorta miss
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
3, 2008 column
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