Nestled in the mountains of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, just east of Mount Carbon, is the Tumbling Run Reservoir, created by the construction of two dams on in 1836. This artificial lake was the site of an amusement park and marina from 1890 to 1914. The park was plagued by all sorts of misfortune and scandal almost from its inception. Fires broke out among the boathouses and forests near the lake, apparent murders took place at the resort on several occasions, the park was apparently the lair of gangs of robbers, and in 1894 a young girl named Martha Luckenbill was found in one of the boathouses. She had “led a depraved life” and was found apparently with some sort of infection which affected her vision and breathing. There were dozens of drownings.
There were also things which would be of interest to Forteans: a giant water snake was seen swimming across the lake in 1879, and “wild men” were accosted on several occasions. Don’t get your hopes up, though, with visions of Bigfoot: most of these seemed to be of a more mundane nature, most likely being vagrants or recluses.
It was while the park was in operation that other misfortunes began to afflict the Thomas farm in the valley. The farm was home to Howell Thomas, his brother William, and Howell’s daughter Mary. At some point in the summer of 1911, the Thomases began to be convinced they were under a hex or curse. A local fortune teller (likely a braucher, or pow-wower, followers of a faith healing tradition existing among the Pennsylvania Dutch) told them that they had been cursed by a family from Orwigsburg, who desired the Thomas’ money and land. A black cat would be sent to the farm to implement the final stages of the curse.
And, as prophesized, a black cat indeed appeared at the farm. Mary fired at the cat, but the bullet either did not hit or had no effect. No, not none: the cat grew to nearly four feet in length. Cows began dying on the farm, pistols the Thomases had bought refused to fire, and a few days later came the culmination: Howell Thomas died. Medical professionals who examined the body said he had died of a stroke, but William said that “some people claimed it was [a stroke] but he knew better.” He claimed the hex cat (which he called a demon) was out to get the remainder of the family. He recounted a number of times that a sulfurous smell had appeared in the home and prostrated either himself or Mary.
Mary herself accused her sister, a resident of Orwigsburg, of having laid the hex. At the funeral, held at Howell’s former home in Pottsville, Mary caused a scene when she refused to allow her into the house. When others at last pulled Mary upstairs and the sister entered, she again ran downstairs and ordered her sister to leave.
The Thomas farm began to become the destination of Edwardian “legend trippers,” and a Mr. Kelliher at a furniture store in Pottsville claimed to have the hex cat in captivity. One of his employees, Charles Lawless, was horseback riding through the valley when he herd a moan coming from a hollow tree and looked in to see two shining eyes. Lawless captured the beast and they put it in a box. When Kelliher took a Pottsville Republican reporter to see the animal, it had escaped the box and bitten another employee. The cat described was every bit a normal black cat, however, albeit with large paws.
Other mishaps in Schuylkill County were blamed on the hex cat. On one occasion, all the lights in Cressona were extinguished – a common blackout. But it was deemed to be related to the hex cat. A man claimed that his carriage overturned on the road from Mount Carbon to Tumbling Run when some black object ran across the road. Members of a band from Pottsville travelled to Lehighton and said that folk of that town refused to even talk to them when informed the hex cat was still at large. A man bought a horse which bolted from him near the hotel at Tumbling Run. As discussed earlier, all manner of drownings and accidents occurred at Tumbling Run and I’m sure many of these were laid at the paws of the demonic cat.
Back at the Thomas farm, Mary had been told that the only way to kill the hex cat was with a golden bullet. The Thomases laid in wait for weeks to no avail. They carried about a number of crucifixes and religious items, as well as a protective talisman sent to them by a “witch doctor” from California. But they never managed to kill the hex cat.
The hex on the farm, though, apparently continued, because the event is still referred to the next year. At this time, it was revealed that a man in Schuylkill Haven had a black cat which was what was referred to as a “hexahemeron” – that is, it was from a litter of six kittens born on the sixth day of the sixth month of 1906. It was reputed to be a “witchcat eating cat” and the brauchers of the area said that its presence would dispel the hex cat. And there the story ends. This part, anyway.
In 1916, William was arrested in Pottsville for a particularly dramatic arson – having set fire to the Thomas home at 301 North Third Street, he nearly burnt an entire city block (some sources say this was all properties owned by William). He was sentenced to only three months in prison for this! Two years later, William was found frozen to death in a shack in the Tumbling Run valley. The newspapers said that he had been a hermit since the hex cat episode and that “[h]is place of residence was … populated with dogs and cats and his peculiar manner of living brought him before the authorities on several occasions.” Interestingly, the papers also refer to him as “the originator of the famous ‘Hex Cat’ episode.”
Cats are an animal peculiarly associated with the supernatural. In the immediate area, in 1932 a man named Albert Yashinsky was convicted of the murder of a braucher named Susan Mummey in Ringgold after he claimed that she had afflicted him with a tormenting feline. But throughout history, the cat has been seen as supernatural – from the deific status granted to them by the Egyptians, to more demonic identities such as “Big Ears” (a feline demon summoned by the Scottish taghairm, a grim ritual requiring the burning alive of cats), to the medieval fire-demon Flauros (who may be derived from the taghairm?), to famous ghost cases such as the Black Cat of Kilakee.
Was the saga of the hex cat a tale of hysteria, as seems likely, a hoax orchestrated by William as implied by the newspapers of the day, or a true tale of curse-laying and magic? At this point, we may never know. The Thomas farm has long since decayed, and its location is now unknown.
- “After a Witchcat,” Indiana (PA) Weekly Messenger (May 22, 1912).
- “Alleged Hex Cat Captured,” Pottsville Republican (September 30, 1911).
- “Another Runaway Attributed to Hex,” Pottsville Republican (October 3, 1911).
- “Death By ‘Hex,’ Many Other Calamities,” Pottsville Republican (September 22, 1911).
- “‘Hex’ Victim is Buried, Spirits After Daughter,” Pottsville Republican (September 26, 1911).
- “Hex Cat Dodges Bullet of Gold,” Gettysburg Times (September 28, 1911).
- “Hex Cat Man Frozen to Death,” Pottsville Republican (January 7, 1918).
- “Lays Trouble to Witch,” Elyria (OH) Evening Telegram (September 28, 1911).
- “Many Want to Capture Hex Cat,” Pottsville Republican (September 29, 1911).