"Lycanthropy: Transformation of witch into wolf; form of madness in which patient imagines himself some beast & exhibits depraved appetites, change of voice etc." - The Concise Oxford Dictionary.
Intense fear of the occult can cloud the truth. Take the case against Billy Eshiet. "...[a] mother reported that her child had been seized and taken away by a leopard. About four weeks later, she made a further statement that it was not a leopard but a man who had seized her child, but she could not recognise his face as it was covered by a cloth. Then, at the Preliminary Enquiry before the Magistrate, she said that it was Billy Eshiet who had run into her compound and seized the child; she saw it was Billy Eshiet clearly because he had no cover over his face. Billy Eshiet was subsequently condemned to death."
Apart from Billy Eshiet, ninety-five people were condemned to hang for the so-called 'leopard murders' in Opobo District, Eastern Nigeria. Only sixteen were reprieved. It was probably the most puzzling and distressing predicament faced by any administrative officer in British Colonial history. Johnny McCall, District Officer, Opobo and his Assistant District Officer, Wing Commander Gibbs, questioned conclusions reached by the Police and stood up for the condemned men. The Government was far from grateful and McCall was hustled out of the district under a cloud of secrecy in something akin to disgrace.
All over Africa people believed that certain of their number could turn themselves into lions, baboons, leopards or crocodiles and attack their enemies, dragging them into the bush and mauling them to death. One can see how such beliefs could arise. An old animal whose teeth and claws were almost useless would become a man-eater and attack a villager - usually a child or a woman . A member of the clan, or perhaps a group of people, would seize the opportunity to plant the idea that the attacker was him in the guise of the man-eater. Or sometimes it was the other way around and the villagers, wishing to get rid of someone, would accuse him of turning himself into an animal, while still others became convinced of their own powers to implant only their spirit into an animal.
In Sierra Leone Pat O'Dwyer came across this phenomenon at Makeni:
"I had not been alone in charge of the station for long before a dead body was brought in from the country very much disintegrating. You can imagine that a dead body would not last long in the tropics. The chief's messenger, who brought it, said that the chief's view was that the man had been the victim of a secret society and that it was murder. The body had obviously been clawed about and the first thing for me to find out was what the doctor thought about the body's injuries. The corpse was taken, therefore, to the doctor who said that it was so decomposed that he could not really tell. However, the claw marks could be those of a leopard, or they could be imposed by metal claws and inflicted by man. I held an enquiry and the most feasible thing seemed to me was to return a verdict of accidental death. I concluded that the man, who was a farmer living far out in the bush in a hut on the edge of the forest, had been the victim of a real leopard's attack and had thus met his death.
"After the verdict I heard murmurings by the Court Messengers to the effect that really he had been murdered by a secret society. Well, this is where the African's mind becomes very confused. There is no doubt that secret societies did exist, which were really murder societies:...the Leopard Society, the Alligator Society and the Baboon Society. The allegations were that members of each of these societies took very secret and binding vows and associating themselves with these animals, simulated their methods of killing their selected victims. Thus, the Leopard Society would dress themselves in leopard skins and attach to their hands and feet metal claws. They would then lay in wait for their victim and pounce on him, clawing him to death. The Alligator Society would similarly attire themselves and wait by the water side and drown their victims and the Baboon Society would batter their victims to death.
"It was well known that these animals would also attack human beings and kill them, particularly children, out in the bush.
"A further possibility which the Africans believed in was that a member of these societies had the power to direct his soul into the body of a leopard, alligator or baboon and conduct that animal to attack the victim of his choice...
"A little while after this time there was trouble in the Kenema district where members of the baboon society were put on trial for murder. The evidence against them was very strong, and the accused themselves added evidence to prove their own guilt, [by believing in their ability to put their spirits into baboons]. They were found guilty and sentenced to death for murder and the sentence was carried out."
It was only later, too late, that it was decided that these poor men were not guilty but only believed that they were.
Back in Opobo, Johnnie McCall was learning his way around his new district in June 1947. He was a gentle, sensitive and intelligent member of the Nigerian Colonial Service. Photographs of him in his khaki shorts, show a man a little under six foot, with glasses and a friendly smile. During the course of the hand-over from Colonel Schofield they visited the prison where several remand prisoners approached them. These men were awaiting trial as "man leopard" murderers and they told the two officers that "they were all innocent and that they were there in Prison, charged with murder, only due to the malice of their enemies." McCall came away from the prison deeply disturbed by the incident.
"I have been an Administrative Officer in Nigeria for eleven years," he later wrote to the Resident in Calabar, "and most of this time has been spent in the bush. It would be strange, considering one spends most of one's time trying to discover it; if one did not acquire some ability to distinguish between truth and untruth in the spoken word. I felt that these men were speaking the truth."
During the two years prior to McCall's arrival, the mysterious killings that were taking place were initially assumed to be the work of a wild leopard. However, the District Officer at the time became convinced that a 'man leopard' society was operating in his division, a view which the Governor accepted and a force of 200 police was sent to Opobo.
As the killings increased and the terror gained in momentum, the "Leopard man" problem reached the ears of the English press. "This is the strangest, biggest murder hunt in the world." wrote Graham Stanford in the Daily Mail on June 30, 1947 writing from "Leopard Land," Nigeria.
"In the grim words of a hard-bitten senior English police official, 'The stage has now been reached when every single male adult is a potential leopard murderer'...Real leopards prowl through the thick, 6ft high bush which fringes the twisting dusty tracks. But 'man leopards' with a blind belief in their primitive cult, are now taking human lives at the rate of more than one a week in this blood-stained patch of Africa.
Since the hunt began nearly two years ago 81 proved leopard murders have taken place.
Every afternoon at four o'clock there is a curfew in 'Leopard Land'. In almost every case the leopard-men strike at dusk. But still, about once every week - often more - people huddled in villages hear screams from the bush.
By the clawed, mutilated body of the victim will be the pad marks of a leopard. And only the distinctive claw marks on the face and body tell the killing was done by man and not the beast.'
Today three European officers and nearly 200 armed African policemen patrol 'Leopard land' by day and night.
Camps stud the country and mobile patrols roam the bush during the three murder hours between four o'clock and seven in the evening.
The police sleep in different villages every night in order to hear the hushed gossip of the bazaars and markets. But still the leopard-men strike - sometimes within a few hundred yards of the police patrols. For these killers believe so strongly in their powers that they are not frightened of the men who hunt them.
The police go after the leopard-men fully armed since the day one of their men was murdered by this nightmare method.
When the hunt first started in 1945 Senior Assistant Superintendent Fountain was sent by the Government to make a complete enquiry.
Fountain, an expert on the life and customs of the country, investigated scores of cases, visited every village in 'Leopard Land'.
At first he worked on the theory that the killings must be the work of a murder society, since the killings were all so similar. After long enquiries that theory was discarded, and in a factual report of several thousand words which he made last year he stated:
'We are fighting nothing so tangible as an organisation but rather an attitude of mind. Purely preventive measures haven't succeeded. They have not disturbed the leopard-men'.
...Patrols have been strengthened, curfew imposed, wholesale arrests have been made, and some forms of ju-ju have been banned. But the Leopard men still lurk in the bush and the cult has grown so strong that the police believe the word of no man. Every man in the Ibibio and Annang tribes of 'Leopard land' is suspect."
In italics Stamford then chilled his readers:
"The method is first to stun with a heavy stick and then to jab a yam-spike or needle-like knife into the neck and upper part of the body. Mutilation then takes place, to give the impression that the victim has been mauled by a leopard."
With the luxury of hindsight, 'attitudes of mind' may well have been profilerating in that overheated atmosphere. Did the police really not explore sufficiently the possibility that man-eating leopards could be at large? That would-be murderers, doubtless aware of the numbers of police in the area, would be less likely to attack near them than a leopard who only knew he was hungry? Or that the wounds on the cadavers made from "needle-like" instruments could have been made by animal claws or canines, the normal imprint of which might have been altered by broken teeth or damaged pads?
After he had taken charge of the division, Johnnie McCall and his ADO, Wing Commander Gibbs, discovered some significant facts. One was that the leopard killings did not occur north of the Qua Ibo river, "a deep, wide, fast flowing river with only one bridge across it". Not much of an obstacle for humans but a difficult river for animals to cross and recross. Why then, were people in peril south of the river but perfectly safe on the northern bank? He said that Police convictions showed that in practically every proved case there was a motive. "Marriage customs, child betrothal, adultery and so on have been listed as the main reasons for 'man leopard' murders. Yet north of the Qua Ibo River not a single person has been killed for one of these reasons.
Further, the availability or otherwise of normal leopard prey had a direct correlation to the numbers of human deaths. In the southern part of the division where game such as deer and monkey was plentiful, people were able to go about their business outside their villages in safety but in the areas where the least amount of game existed the most "murders" occurred. Mr Gibbs wrote:
"The depredations of leopards in the area are not, I think, generally realised. Not many weeks ago I found out by dint of travelling through the affected areas that two cows, two pigs, one duck, one sheep and twenty one goats had been killed by leopards in the space of nine days. The fact of the matter is that in the 'Man-Leopard' area the natural food of leopards has been trapped and shot out of existence; a few herds of pigs which are not easily attacked by leopards, the odd duiker and antelope alone remain."
A further clue emerged bearing out Gibbs' belief that there might be too many leopard hunting too little game. In the area where the most people were being attacked it was found that the villagers had not shot many leopard in recent times due to the difficulty of obtaining arms and suitable ammunition during the war years.
In the tangled webb of tension and anxiety McCall and Gibbs began to conclude that at least some of the killings that were causing so much terror and police activity had been perpetrated by the genuine article: man-eating leopard. McCall reported his findings to the Governor and his Council who listened but did not agree with him. They did, however, make some funds available to help in a leopard-trapping operation.
A serious difference of opinion developed between the two district officers on the one hand and the police on the other. McCall and Gibbs, responsible for the well-being of the people they administered, were concerned to ensure that all the facts were uncovered, unclouded by fear and preconceptions. The police, for their part, no doubt aided by their informers, dismissed the man-eater theory, despite the fact that the villagers said that "when the leopard-men kill they roar like wild- animals." No, Fountain and his men, according to Stamford of the Daily Mail, "the best brains in the police service" firmly believed that if a few murderers were hanged, the others would be frightened into ceasing their activities.
Moreover, their convinced belief in hysterical murder seemed to affect the collection of evidence. But the study of hard facts in many cases was cursory and conclusions were muddled. Some of the sites of the kills were not visited and in others vital clues, such as excreta containing bone, were ignored. In one case, though, the police did send the pathologist some excreta found near the body of a victim. It contained a piece of bone on which he had found human African hair and leopard hair. The Pathologist's rather odd conclusion was that the bone was not human because he believed that it was too large to pass through a leopard and it would seem unlikely that a leopard would pass a fragment of non-human bone, human hair and its own hair all at the same time. The Police rather airily decided that the excreta was not from a leopard anyway. This irritated Gibbs, who was convinced that its description tallied exactly with the excreta his own leopard cub produced, and he pointed out that the policeman concerned "would be the first to agree that his knowledge of leopard excreta is meagre."
The police stuck to the lycanthropy theory and went so far as to say that the villagers in one part of the division did not approve of the leopard trappings initiated by McCall and Gibbs. Mr Gibbs was indignant: "This is exactly the reverse [of the truth]... there is much rivalry as to who is to set traps; the killing of a leopard is a red-letter day in the life of an Annang or Ibibio village and the hunter is bedecked with Mkpat leaves, while the leopard is taken round the town. The affair is accompanied by much drinking and eventually the meat is apportioned out. A hunter who kills a leopard receives special honours at his funeral."
During the process of trapping, one particular kill gave McCall and Gibbs further reason to believe that it was man-eaters, not man-leopards that were attacking the people.
"Just a fortnight ago" McCall wrote, "two persons were killed [at Ikot Odoro]. The day before they were killed, two large leopards were seen in that particular bush. I instructed Mr. Gibbs to send a trapper there. Close to the place where the two persons were killed, the trap was set. On the very first night, this large male leopard was killed. It was very old, and of its four fangs, two were broken down to half their size. One of its paws was mutilated, one pad being missing. This mutilation had clearly happened long ago."
It is, of course, well known that the large predator cats can become man- eaters due to old age or injury. "This leopard was suffering from both."
After he had been dispatched, the killings in the area stopped. However, to McCall's intense frustration men were continuing to be condemned to death. He and Gibbs appeared to be helpless to defend the people they were dedicated to protect both from attack and miscarriages of justice. And he was unable to convince either his superiors - far away from the district - or the police on the spot of what seemed to him to be worthy of serious investigation. Tension rose between the two administrative officers and the police.
His report was quite properly addressed to the Resident in Calabar but he requested that it "should be brought to the notice of His Excellency, the Governor. In doing so I am deeply conscious of my junior status in the Colonial Administrative Service. I would therefore emphasise at once that I write with the greatest respect. As the subject matter of the Report however concerns government policy and action of the most fundamental importance, a degree of frankness of writing may be inevitable."
He stated that the evidence simply did not add up and his report catalogued each case and the questions that the evidence posed. "From the study of dozens of cases, I must affirm what I firmly believe that I place no reliance whatever on the 'eye witness' accounts of 'man leopard' attacks. I have yet to read one which I believe. Judges Pollard and Ademele have evidently shared this disbelief in many cases."
McCall's report makes grisly reading. He described the nature of the wounds found on the necks of the victims, the cleaning out of the victims skulls and whether or not the private parts were interfered with. It was all written carefully and clearly. He concluded:
"Miscarriages of justice have occurred and innocent men have been hanged. I fear that, with present methods of investigation, miscarriages may continue." And he added "Despite the meticulous care with which Justice Ademele has heard recent cases, I heard condemned to death the other morning a man who I believe is innocent...
I have come to my conclusions in this terribly serious matter unwillingly.... Mr Gibbs, Assistant District Officer, has come to the same conclusions equally unwillingly. We both wish most sincerely that we could agree with the other point of view. We have no desire to stir up a scandal. But we are the men on the spot and I am myself an Administrative Officer of eleven years experience of the Eastern Provinces of Nigeria. Possibly the West African climate has affected my reasoning powers and led me to the wrong conclusions in this matter. The same cannot be said of Mr. Gibbs, whose distinguished war service as one of the youngest Wing Commanders in the Royal Air force and a D.S.O. to boot do not suggest a man of a completely irresponsible type and outlook. Yet of different character, temperament, training and ability, we have formed the same opinions and reached the same conclusions. We are the only Administrative Officers who have travelled extensively in the 'leopard' area. The opinions and conclusions of this report therefore are the opinions and conclusions of the men on the spot, and as such I think that they deserve at least the consideration of the highest authority in Nigeria, and if considered necessary of the highest authority in the Empire.
"It has been said that attention in this matter need not be paid to the past. But the Warrants of Execution of twenty persons odd have already been signed. In the light of consideration of the facts, opinions and conclusions recorded above, Government must decide whether to go on with these hangings....
"I consider that, to say the least, the gravest doubt exists as to whether there have been many or any 'leopard type' murders. In existence of this grave doubt, which may soon be resolved one way or the other by the killing of wild leopards, I most respectfully recommend that all death sentences be commuted to terms of life imprisonment. If killings cease with the killing of the wild leopards, consideration in the future might then be given to the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Reprieve by His Excellency. I would observe that the great majority of those convicted have already been awaiting execution for five or six months, and any further delay in their execution, pending the resolving of this grave doubt, would appear to be contrary to justice."
The killings did cease with the trapping of wild leopards but Mr McCall was given twenty four hours to leave his division with orders to proceed to Calabar and not to give anyone the impression that he was being transferred.
On 29 December 1947 the chiefs and representatives of the people of Ikot Akan, Opobo addressed the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Downing Street, London, and His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government, Government House, Lagos. They were writing in a foreign language; nevertheless, this remarkable and powerful document is a credit to the intelligence and confidence of the signatories as well as a testimony to McCall's loyalty to the people he served and his determination to defend their interests.
"We the undersigned are directed by all inhabitants (men and women) of the Ibibio (Opobo) Division, which comprises Ikpa, Ibekwe, Ete-Okon, Nung Assang, Minya, Nung Asetang, Ibeku, Ikono, Abak-Idim and Ibesit/Nung Ikot Native Authorities and by the Central Executive of the Division to bring to the notice of the Government with a view to allaying the justifiable anxiety of the Division and particularly of the members of the community immediately affected, the universal dissatisfaction and disappointment caused by abrupt transfer of the District Officer in charge of the District in the person of Mr. J.A.G. McCall which transfer has incontrovertibly been engineered by the inconclusive evidence collected by the Police despite our protest through the Resident, Calabar, to the Government.
The petitioners are of the opinion that the Government has in recent times been endeavouring hard to extirpate the existing terrible depredations of the leopard society, having apparently overlooked the acknowledged facts that real ravenous beasts themselves as its accompaniament have been jeopardising both lives of poor members of the community and those of domestic animals during the past few years; that the most successful officer in extirpation is necessarily the most efficient and intelligent one who by his regular interference enlists whole-hearted cooperation of the affected area to detect the difference between man leopard and bush leopard; that close contact with the people and study of the difficulties confronting them with a view to ameliorating the conditions militating against their progress is the point to aim at for achievement of the true goal and that highhandedness, robbery, indiscriminate arrest and destruction of properties methods of which have been employed by the police force with intent to extort confessions played but little part in achievements.
The proofs that exclusiveness and aloofness have been the stumbling-block of many really clever officers who could have marketed their ability had they gone about it the right way and that most of the deaths attributed to man leopard have been caused by ravenous animals lie in the fact that reasonable percentage of unfortunate victims are children of tender age and women and that ever since trapping and hunting of the beasts in the area through brilliant effort of the District Officer and suit death rate has been remarkably small. The proposed transfer from his appointment of District Officer on the grounds of injudiciousness of his reports in man leopard investigation, in our opinion, is in the nature of punishment either to the area or the District Officer and such an action is liable to incite repercussions. If investigating Officers or District Officers are punishable by the Government when they give reports which though correct in fairness and equity, are displeasing to police or not in consonance with police instructions, to burke* the fact the petitioners are left in the conviction that the Government will oblige every District Officer in the area to consult police authority before his conscience, practice of which will weaken popular faith in the continued existence of great qualities of high reputation of British Justice, fairness and equity and cause most of the British ideals to lose their original fervour today on account of their exponents being unable to soar above petty inclinations. And may we add without offence that if it is intention of the Government to penalise the area and burke* sole origin of prolongation of the menace, we prefer posting of police force in the area for massacre.
"Whatever happens we require back our District Officer, Mr MacCall [sic] in whom our conplete confidence has been vested and demand that in future District Officers with sympathetic heart be posted to the area.
"We have the honour to be, Right Honourable,
Your obedient servants
1. Chief Ntuen Ibok His mark
*Burke - to stifle the truth
The Governor at the time of the leopard killings was Sir John Macpherson. It is known that the leopard killings worried him deeply and his friendliness and support to John McCall after he had left Opobo District indicate that a, perhaps, troubled soul thought that McCall may have been right.
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