Texas Escapes
Online Magazine
Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The Wail of the Wampus Cat

by C. F. Eckhardt

The 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 himself.

The 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.

The nailkeg 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 action.

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.

One 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 it.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
January 3, 2008 column

Related Topics: Columns | People | Texas Towns | Texas |

Books by C. F. Eckhardt
Custom Search

Texas Hill Country | East Texas | Central Texas North | Central Texas South | West Texas | Texas Panhandle | South Texas | Texas Gulf Coast

Texas Attractions
People | Ghosts | Historic Trees | Cemeteries | Small Town Sagas | WWII | History | Texas Centennial | Black History | Art | Music | Animals | Books | Food
COLUMNS : History, Humor, Topical and Opinion

Courthouses | Jails | Churches | Gas Stations | Schoolhouses | Bridges | Theaters | Monuments/Statues | Depots | Water Towers | Post Offices | Grain Elevators | Lodges | Museums | Rooms with a Past | Gargoyles | Cornerstones | Pitted Dates | Stores | Banks | Drive-by Architecture | Signs | Ghost Signs | Old Neon | Murals | Then & Now
Vintage Photos


Privacy Statement | Disclaimer | Contributors | Staff | Contact TE
Website Content Copyright Texas Escapes. All Rights Reserved