Wildlife biologists insist there has never been a documented case of a panther attack on a human in Florida.
That may be true, but century-old newspapers reveled in reporting such attacks.
In 1897, The New York Times recounted three panther attacks in the Sunshine State. In one account, Ed Jenkins was driving a buggy near Tarpon Springs when he noticed "two baby catamounts by the roadside."
When Jenkins picked up the wild cubs, "the mother catamount sprang on the buggy, seizing Mrs. Jenkins's dress. Jenkins struck the animal with a small club, and she secured a firm hold on his arm. He had his knife out by this time, and a furious fight began, the horse dashing madly along, the panther dragging back of the seat.
"Mrs. Jenkins began striking the beast over the head with the club. It let go its hold on Jenkins, and pulled his wife half out of the vehicle. Jenkins fell out on top of the panther. They fought in the road, the animal drawing the blood at every dig. Finally Jenkins cut its throat."
What became of the baby catamounts? Readers might recall Jody Baxter, the youthful protagonist in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's classic novel The Yearling (1938). Preparing for a climactic hunt, Jody "pilfered a quart of meal from the barrel and hid it, for Flag, in his own new knapsack made of the hides of the panther kittens."
In March 1897, the Times reported another "Florida Incident." U.S. Sen. Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, vacationing in St. Lucie, caught a "fine tarpon after a hard tussle." As the fishing party returned with its catch, "a scream was heard, and a big, dark body dropped from a tree upon the astonished bearers of the fish and began taking huge mouthfuls out of the tarpon, growling angrily all the while."
The senator's hunting guide, Seminole Jim, challenged the panther with a club. The Seminole's blow felled the panther, but the aroused animal was "ready for a fight." Seminole Jim then "inflicted the death blow" with a knife. The hide was shipped to Beaver Falls, Pa.
In April 1916, the Tampa Daily Times reported that a 150-pound panther attacked Walter B. Meiller near Fort Ogden. Meiller, a hiker, "clubbed the animal to death." It was the largest panther ever killed in the area.
Albert DeVane wrote about pioneer life in Florida and reported killing a panther in Lake Placid in 1912 measuring "nine feet from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail."
Elderly readers of The Tampa Tribune in the 1940s, '50s and '60s supplied plenty of panther-attacks-human anecdotes.
In 1948, Leslie S. Bray, "an esteemed old-timer," shared a tale from his boyhood in eastern Orange County. A man who lived near a swamp on the St. Johns River was walking along a road "when a large panther suddenly appeared and boldly blocked the trail."
Bray continued: "Unarmed, the man picked up a light-wood stick just as the panther leaped upon him. Fighting for his life, the man struck again and again, while the beast clawed his clothes to shreds and ripped deep gashes in his flesh. At last, the man was able to land a blow that stunned the animal, after which he killed it. ... This true story was written up in the Orlando Reporter and was said to be the first known record of a Florida panther attacking a man in broad daylight."
In May 1960, 92-year-old D.B. McKay, five-time mayor of Tampa and founder of this Sunday history column, reminisced how discussions of panthers brought "back some of my boyhood memories about this dangerous beast." A reader of the column sparked a debate by writing, "Most people in those days declared the panther would not attack a human unless cornered."
J.H. Smith, a veteran logger on the Ocklawaha River, wrote in with a story about a man who went for a walk between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers. "He cut himself an oak cudgel before starting out. When the man's body was discovered several days later, there lay beside him a dead panther. He had killed the panther and the beast had also killed him."
These stories, half heroic, half tragic, do not resolve the debate as to whether panthers ever attacked humans in Florida. They do add to the colorful history of the state, and an acute sense of loss.