IN SEARCH OF THE LEOPARD MEN
John "Bridge" Martin
Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the May 1990 edition of "Edgar Rice Burroughs News Dateline," issue No. 38. The article has been updated by the author, July, 2018.
An Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure is characterized by a masterful blend of fact and fiction.
Fictictious people, such as Tarzan of the Apes, roaming a factual Africa, fighting villains who are sometimes factual (invading Germans, marauding Arabs) and at times imaginary (beast-men of Opar, Ant Men or Leopard Men.)
But where does fact end and fiction begin? What weird worlds and creatures actually came wholly from ERB's vivid imagination, and which were based (to a greater or lesser degree) on fact?
Take those "Leopard Men," for instance. When I first read the ERB story, "Tarzan and the Leopard Men," back in the 60s, I thought ERB had just invented them and I had no idea there might actually be real Leopard Men roaming the jungles.
But in that same Tarzan book we find an encounter with a tribe of pygmies. Now, we know for sure that there are pygmies. And if there are pygmies maybe there are Leopard Men, too.
Alpheus Hyatt Verrill
23 JUL 1871 — 14 NOV 1954
American zoologist, explorer, inventor, illustrator and author.
Verrill also wrote science-fiction. Many of his SF novels were serialized in the same pulp magazine where Edgar Rice Burroughs appeared: Amazing Stories. Verrill's first was 1926. His last for Amazing was in 1962, eight years after his death.
As a contemporay of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) this suggests it is quite logical both men followed the same news reports and discoveries in far off lands.
Unlike Burroughs; however, Verrill was an actual explorer of distant continents.
My quest "in search of" the Leopard Men began accidentally at a garage sale where a man was trying to get rid of books at seven for a dollar. One I plucked from the boxes in his driveway was "Strange Customs, Manners and Beliefs" by A. Hyatt Verrill, L.C. Page & Co., Inc., Boston, 1946.
My book was the "fourth impression" dated 1956, so apparently the book was creditable enough to earn several reprints. In addition, the author appeared to be a man of some knowledge of this world, with other volumes by him listed as "My Jungle Trails," "Food America Gave the World" and "Strange Sea Shells."
What soon caught my eye was an entry on the book's Table of Contents:
"VI. Leopard Men and Blood Avengers...97"
I turned there and read an account of real Leopard Men that dovetailed remarkably well with the evil group described in ERB's novel.
However, Verrill's book cannot be considered a source for ERB, since it was originally published 11 years after "Tarzan and the Leopard Men."
In fact, groups in Africa which played the deadly game of the leopard go back to at least the 1700s, so undoubtedly ERB learned of such in some of his earlier research.
But some of Verrill's descriptions of Leopard Men are pretty close to what ERB wrote. He told of "...the strange cult of Africa designated as that of the Leopard Men. Mysterious, almost uncanny, these human leopards have been a terrible menace in Liberia and several other parts of Africa, assuming all the savage ferocity of the spotted beasts for whom they are named, these men prowl through the forest, imitating the actions and cries of leopards and wearing leopard skins. On hands and feet they wear false feet with leopard claws or huge claws of iron. They stalk and kill their human victims by pouncing upon them and severing the carotid arteries with their teeth, exactly as do leopards with their prey."
Compare that account with the following from the end of Chapter One of "Tarzan and the Leopard Men":
Nyamwegi "...was siezed from behind. He felt sharp talons sink into his flesh. With a scream of pain and terror he wheeled to extricate himself from the clutches of the thing that had seized him, the terrifying, voiceless thing that made no sound. For an instant, he succeeded in breaking the hold upon his shoulders, and as he turned, reaching for his knife, the lightning flashed, revealing to his horrified eyes a hideous human face surmounted by the head of a leopard. Nyamwegi struck out blindly with his knife in the ensuing darkness, and simultaneously he was seized again from behind by rending talons that sank into his chest and abdomen as the creature encircled him with hairy arms...He abandoned hope as he recognized his assailants, from their leopard skins and masks, as members of the feared secret order of Leopard Men."
Verrill's description also states that the Leopard Men often used claws made of steel instead of natural leopard claws.
"...the methods of the Leopard Men prescribed the use of their improved steel claws as weapons in preference to spears or arrows, which they resorted to only in extremities or when faced by superior numbers." (Chapter Three)
Both ERB and Verrill agree that Leopard Men come from a variety of tribes and that the cult itself is a secret organization.
"The order of the Leopard Men is a secret order. There are few villages and no entire tribes composed wholly of Leopard Men, who are looked upon with disgust and horror by all who are not members of the feared order. Their rites and practices are viewed with contempt by even the most degraded of tribes, and to be proved a Leopard Man is equivalent to the passing of a sentence of exile or death in practically any community.(Chapter Thirteen).
"Just what the ultimate purpose of the band may be, or what its basic idea, no white man knows. It is a secret cult. No member will reveal his own part in it, or the names of others.
"In some African communities, the natives live in deadly superstitious terror of the leopard men, and the toll of deaths at their hands is considerable. In many districts, no one dares to venture forth after nightfall for fear of falling victim to a leopard man.
"No one knows how many of these fearsome Leopard Men there are. No one know who they are. An apparently harmless native may become transformed into a Leopard Man by partaking of the 'medicine' of the cult."
Verrill says that the Leopard Men play mind games. They convince a "candidate" that he has drank a potion that will turn him into a Leopard Man. His own superstitious mind does the rest. ERB also talked about mind games. His Leopard Men believed that by eating the flesh of a white man "The white man's weapons can no longer harm you." (Chapter Twelve)
ERB's Leopard Men were cannibals. In Chapter Ten, captive Kali Bwana is a witness to their gruesome ceremony.
"She had seen the meat brought to the cooking pots but had only vaguely guessed the nature of it until a human hand had fallen from its wrappings of plantain leaves. The significance of the grisly object terrified and sickened her."
Verrill didn't say his Leopard Men were full-fledged cannibals, but he did credit them with cannibalistic traits:
"Using a human skull as a container, the leaders of the band prepare a potion composed of the blood of one of their victims. They administer it secretly to some man whom they have chosen to become a member of the cult."
The idea of Leopard Men as adversaries for Tarzan has also found life on film. "Tarzan and the Leopard Woman" was a 1946 film in which Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan was pitted against the woman cult leader played by Acquanetta. And Leopard Men were also a plot device in the 1967 Ron Ely Tarzan episode, "Man Killer," as well as the 1996 "Tarzan and the Leopard Queen" episode of Joe Lara's "Tarzan: The Epic Adventure" series.*
*Disney's "Legend of Tarzan" featured an episode wherein La of Opar used magic to transform leopards into bipedal Leopardmen. —Editor
After reading Verrill's book, I went to my library and scanned the shelves of the books on Africa to see if I could find any other sources for the kind of Leopard Men he described, I couldn't find anything else as he described back then, but my library can't carry all the African books in the world and perhaps there are others in other libraries.
But nowadays we have the internet and references to the Leopard Men and Leopard Society CAN be found there.
The Mystery of the Murderous Leopard Cult, Brent Swancer, Mysterious Universe, 2016
The Leopard Men, Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained
ERB's story cited:
Leopard-men of the Congo in literature and popular imagination, Vicky van Buckhoven, Sci-Flo
Leopard Society - Wikipedia
RELATED ARTICLE AT ERBMANIA!
The Real Leopard Men of the Congo, David "Nkima" Adams, NKIMA SPEAKS, ERBmania!, 2002.
Who's Who in the Leopard Men Saga?, John Martin, EDGARDEMAIN, ERBmania!, ERB-apa #16