Son of old Leaksville keeps tale of Wampus Cat alive

By Dennis Rogers

Greenville--The Dan River near Eden is dark and rusty, just the sort of place you'd find the Wampus Cat.

A Rockingham County man known as Old Man Morehead is closely associated with the legend of the monster catfish said to live in the dark depths of the Dan, according to John Marshall Carter, an East Carolina University history professor.

"Old Man Morehead used to go fishing in the Dan River every night," Carter said.  "During the Depression years about the only way he could feed his family was to fish.

"They ate well, for he was a crafty fisherman-- bullheads, channel cats, blue cats, carps, eels, chubs, perch, bluegills and an occasional bass when the water was especially clear.  He used only cane poles, sometimes three or four of them.

"One evening about 7:30, he saw a V-shape coming through the red-brown water heading toward his floats.  All at once the swirling stopped.  He paid it little mind.  Suddenly there was a 'Whoomp!' and a 'Whoosh!' and all four floats disappeared.  Then the poles followed, one, two, three, four!

"Old Man Morehead salvaged the last pole just as it was about to be swallowed by the Dan River.  He jerked and felt the weight of a telephone pole on the other end.  He was determined to have his prize.

"His arms ached. He then noticed that the bank was caving in. The old man was up to his knees in water and sand.  The relentless tug continued.  He kept after his prey."

Old Man Morehead was never seen again.  The Wampus Cat had claimed another victim.

Carter grew up in Leaksville before the communities of Leaksville, Spray and Draper were combined to form the town of Eden on the banks of the Dan River.

"The story of the Wampus Cat was part of our lives," he said.  "Young boys going fishing knew the story.  My father knew it and my grandfather knew it.  They'd say, 'Don't swim in the river or the Wampus Cat will get you.'  We knew there was something in there."

The Wampus Cat of the Dan River played the role of the boogey­man, that unspecified evil that awaits youngsters who rnisbehave.

"To me, it was a huge catfish that had a body 33 feet long," Carter said. "I hesitated to ask exactly what it was. You were just supposed to know. It has powers, beyond any mortal catfish."

The Wampus Cat, like other childish things, stayed behind when Carter left home to seek his fortune. In 1967, Carter went back to Eden. 

"I found the town had changed," he said. "The physical things were changing. I didn't see the people I used to see. And it seemed like the folklore was going down the tubes. So I decided to conjure up those things again. To me, the Wampus Cat became the symbol to save."  

Carter found that people still remembered the Wampus Cat, so he used the name and the spirit in  a book of poetry he wrote called, Wampus Cats and Dan River Rimes. He also calls his rock 'n' roll band, another Leaksville resurrection, the Wampus Cats.

"Hanging on to the Wampus Cat is part of all our desires to be part of the past," he said.  . "In an age of rationalization, we like to keep so  mysterious, something we don't understand.  It is kind of a revolt against technology. We like to cling to irrational things from the past.  A lot of people smile when they hear the name of the band. They know about the Wampus Cat."

Being an academic, Carter sought the Wampus Cat in other areas and found it, including Illinois and the North Carolina mountains.  

"I was a little disappointed at first," he said. "I thought the Wampus Cat belonged to just my past. "It is usually an aquatic creature, because the water is a mystery to us. You can't see under there. It is another universe arid there could be there could be anything under there". 

The spirit of the Wampus Cat could he called Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, or the sea serpents of Jules Verne, or the gigantic albino alligators in the sewers of New York City. The mountain version is the Abominable Snowman. And in Eastern North Carolina we've got our own Beast of Bladen. 

"The Wampus Cat still lives," Carter said. "Barefoot boys in blue jeans with cane poles still fish in the Dan, and they've heard the story even now. Somehow, it has been passed on."

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