Mankind has always had its strange cults hiding in the shadows on the periphery of society. Some of these may have practices which the mainstream find to be bizarre, alien, or even sickening, yet then there are the ones that go further, creeping from the shadows to bring with them death, at times even blurring the line between reality and the supernatural. One such cult once prowled the night of the African wilderness, at once holding their domain in the grip of terror, capturing the imagination and fear of Western colonialists, and raising the possibility in the minds of those who investigated their phantom-like ability to kill undetected the possibility that they were indeed in possession of strange, ancient powers. Cloaked in darkness, with the purported ability to transform into leopards, the mysterious leopard cult of Africa would spring forth to pounce from the darkness to kill again and again, and remains one of the most bizarre, little understood, and unresolved cases of supernatural cult activity in history. It would seamlessly meld together magic, murder, the supernatural, and all of the mysteries of the then little understood Dark Continent.
Beginning in the 1870s, a curious spate of gruesome killings began to unfold out in the wilds and rural areas of the French colony of Libreville, Gabon, in the badlands of colonial Africa. Bodies began showing up that for all appearances had been ravaged by some fearsome beast, with vicious gashes across the bodies sometimes completely eviscerating the victim, missing limbs, and the corpses sometimes even decapitated. The frightened local populace became increasingly panicked as more brutalized corpses began turning up, and although authorities at first blamed the deaths on such things as animal attacks or disgruntled slaves, it would soon become apparent after consorting with the locals that in fact something far stranger was going on.
It came to the attention of the puzzled authorities that there had long existed in the region a savage cult of mysterious cannibals who were known as the Leopard Men, and which on occasion came out of obscurity to carry out their grim, dark work and spread superstition and terror. The Leopard Men were believed by the superstitious locals to have the power to literally transform themselves into leopards or half-leopard hybrids, as well as to compel wild animals to do their bidding and absorb various supernatural powers through the drinking of an elixir called borfima, which was made by brewing the blood and internal organs of their victims. These were fairly common beliefs throughout Africa at the time, where it was thought that eating the flesh of an enemy could confer their strengths, belief in magic and spirits was commonplace, and where certain people were thought to be shape shifters with the ability to transform into a wide array of formidable beasts, including lions, baboons, leopards or crocodiles. Indeed there were the lesser known Baboon Cults and Crocodile Cults lying in wait out in the wilds, each mimicking the killing style of their chosen animal. The leopard in particular was long considered a powerful animal totem, and was the animal responsible for guiding the dead.
The colonial governments did not believe in these magical abilities, but the truth was almost as bizarre as the myths. Rather than actually and literally transforming into leopards, what would come to be known as the Leopard Society nevertheless were able to perpetuate these legendary tales in the way that they killed. A member of the cult would wear a leopard mask, drape themselves in leopard skins, and set off into the night armed with wicked claws fashioned of sharpened steel, steel-toothed mouthpieces, and sometimes even wearing footwear that was designed to leave leopard-like footprints. When a suitable victim was found, typically a traveler travelling alone at night, the Leopard Man would pounce from the darkness and attack in the manner of a wild beast, viciously biting and slashing in a whirlwind of blood and viscera. When the savaged victim was finally, violently dead, they would be butchered, with organs and blood collected for the purpose of ritual cannibalism to make the potion from which the cult purportedly derived their great strength. A missionary doctor working in Liberia in the 1930s by the name of Dr. Werner Junge described the typical gruesome aftermath of a Leopard Society attack thus:
There, on a mat in a house, I found the horribly mutilated body of a fifteen-year-old girl. The neck was torn to ribbons by the teeth and claws of the animal, the intestines were torn out, the pelvis shattered, and one thigh was missing. A part of the thigh, gnawed to the bone, and a piece of the shin-bone lay near the body. It seemed at first glance that only a beast of prey could have treated the girl’s body in this way, but closer investigation brought certain particularities to light which did not fit in with the picture. I observed, for example, that the skin at the edge of the undamaged part of the chest was torn by strangely regular gashes about an inch long. Also the liver had been removed from the body with a clean cut no beast could make. I was struck, too, by a piece of intestine the ends of which appeared to have been smoothly cut off, and, lastly, there was the fracture of the thigh – a classic example of fracture by bending.
The victims themselves were both men and women of all ages and from all walks of life, killed as sacrifices to appease evil spirits when misfortune came about, such as bad crops, illness, or as vengeance against black magic attacks, oppression, or even merely a perceived slight. Although historically these Leopard Men rarely killed, the killing spree in Gabon marked a dramatic increase in their bloody activities and no one was quite sure why. These bizarre and gory killings would continue in Gabon for almost three years, people ambushed in the black of night by leopard-clad murderers with glinting claws, baffling colonial authorities until they just abruptly stopped. However, it would not be the last anyone would see of the Leopard Society. Indeed, they were just getting started. In the 1890s the mysterious murders resumed, this time in Nigeria, before spreading like wildfire to other nations such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Tanzania, and the terrifying activities of the cult would endure and grow increasingly more brazen well into the 20th century. Although an outbreak of Leopard Society murders shortly after World War I, between 1914 and 1918, ended with a severe, concentrated crackdown on the cult, mass arrests and executions, and its apparent demise, it would soon prove that they had only gone into hiding and were about to come back bigger than ever.
Particularly plagued by the reemergence of the sinister cult were the nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. Indeed, from around the end of World War II, Nigeria was so gripped by relentless killings carried out by the Leopard Society that the country was sometimes referred to by those in the know as “Leopard Land.” During a span of just two years, from 1945 to 1947, Nigeria was the scene of 81 ritual Leopard Man murders, which in most instances were nearly indistinguishable in their barbarity from an actual wild animal attack, except for the telltale distinctive, precise cuts made by the steel claws, and the clean removal of organs. It was around this time that word of this bizarre cult and the mysterious killings in the faraway dark continent of Africa was truly starting to get out to the outside world and spark the public imagination, with stories of the Leopard Society splashed all over major newspapers in Europe, where one reporter described it as “the strangest, biggest murder hunt in the world.” To the public, the idea that a sinister cabal of killers disguised as leopards, possibly with supernatural powers, and surrounded by myth and magic was operating in the already mysterious and little understood continent of Africa was irresistible, as well as a confirmation of an already widespread concept of Africa as a dark, barbaric land. The stories of the Leopard Men would pop up in popular culture all over the place, including books, comics, and famous works such as Tarzan. In the meantime, for the people of Nigeria the threat was very real. The country was becoming a slaughterhouse for the cult, with terror gripping people of all walks of life, sowing chaos and madness. As one colonial official would say of the alarming state of affairs:
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.
The violent, bizarre deaths and sightings of these mysterious Leopard Men would become so widespread in Nigeria that authorities embarked on another relentless campaign to try and eradicate them once and for all. Authorities in the particularly hard hit region of Opobo sent out over 200 heavily armed men with the expressed mission to hunt down the steel-clawed killers. In addition, a strict 4PM curfew was enacted, since the Leopard Men always attacked in darkness. During these dark hours sometimes prowled by real dangerous animals, constant patrols of armed policemen weaved throughout the area and its rural villages. There were even efforts to set up traps for actual leopards, in the event that at least some of the killings had been perpetrated by the real deal. However, even with all of these measures the killings continued, and indeed the Leopard Men seemed to become even bolder than ever before. Patrols would often hear the screams of terrified people from the bush as they were viciously cut up by the cult, sometimes a mere few hundred yards from police, and on several occasions patrolmen themselves became victims of the seemingly spectral killers. The Leopard Men had full confidence in their supernatural abilities, believing themselves to be impervious to bullets, and were able to escape stealthily into the night. Some acts of bloody sacrificial murder carried out by the cult were carried out in truly blatant defiance of the efforts of authorities, with one young woman butchered right within a police compound before the killer vanished into the dark wilds. Additionally, some victims were starting to be targeted in broad daylight, and it got to the point where even the policemen and authorities at large were starting to believe that maybe the Leopard Men perhaps truly were supernatural phantoms with magical powers.
The unnerving ability of the Leopard Men to silently appear from the shadows to kill and then disappear without a trace, as well as their seemingly random selection of victims and the inability of police to gather any clues or useful information as to who they were, what they wanted, or where they would strike, were unsettling and frustrating for police to say the least. There was also the unsettling fact that it was believed that mixed in with the murders were genuine attacks by real leopards, further confounding efforts to keep track of everything. Adding to the challenges facing the investigation was the fact that much evidence was twisted by profound fear and misconception. Locals were unwilling to cooperate or give information on the Leopard Society to authorities, as they truly believed that these were powerful shape shifters and sorcerers who would inexorably come for them if they said anything on the matter. The local populace lived in constant, oppressive fear of what they thought was a society of black magic users that constantly watched them from the night, which was enough to dissuade any sort of cooperation with the police to help track the killers down.
Furthermore, certain pieces of evidence, such as leopard tracks, became automatically assumed to be the work of the cult whether they really were or not. If a brutally savaged body was surrounded by leopard tracks, it was immediately assumed that the culprit had been the Leopard Society, even though real leopard attacks on humans were not unheard of in those days. Since there were several genuine man-eater leopards found in the rural villages of Africa during this time, and due to the fact that the tropical climate led to rapid deterioration of corpses often resulting in uncertainty as to whether wounds had been inflicted by real leopard or Leopard Man, there was sometimes no way to tell which had actually killed a victim. This further muddied the waters of the investigation, and since at least some of the attacks were likely carried out by real leopards, this eagerness to blame everything on the enigmatic cult undoubtedly led to inflated estimates of the number of victims actually killed by the Leopard Society.
Facing an elusive and mysterious enemy, with a lack of any concrete evidence, leads, or solid arrests, as well as the uncertainty of even just how many murders could be directly attributed to the cult to begin with, the desperate police began to resort to making mass arrests of anyone they regarded as even remotely suspicious. Many locals with grudges against their neighbors used this as an excuse to give false leads to police, or plant leopard skins or masks in homes in order to have their enemies arrested as Leopard Men, where they would typically languish in dank prisons without trial. Once arrested, prison was the least of the worries of accused Leopard Men, whether they really were or not. In some instances, mass hangings were organized, with the authorities hoping that the executions would spread the word throughout the rural villages of the region that these Leopard Men were indeed mortal, flesh and blood men who could be killed, as well as send a message to the cult that might serve as a deterrent against any further murders. Unfortunately, this message came at the expense of the lives of many who were almost certainly innocent. The blatant abuse of human rights being demonstrated in this mad dash to capture and punish a seemingly invisible, invincible enemy led a disgusted officer in the Nigerian Colonial Service by the name of Johnnie McCall to lament:
Miscarriages of justice have occurred and innocent men have been hanged. I fear that, with present methods of investigation, miscarriages may continue. 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…
The first true break in the case of the Leopard Society murders occurred when authorities laid a trap for the cult using human bait. One officer was dressed as the son of a village woman and the two walked along a dark rural path at night together in an area that had experienced many attacks, while a group of armed men lay in wait out in the underbrush. At first, nothing happened for quite a while, so it probably shocked the men out of their boredom and woke up any who had dozed off when there was a howling shriek followed by a man clad in leopard robes crashing out of the brush to lunge at the couple while brandishing what appeared to be a club. One of the police officers rushed to the couple’s aid and confronted the attacker with a knife, whereupon the Leopard Man turned on him and proceeded to bash his skull in with the club before running back off into the darkness. Sadly, the officer had been killed by the vicious blow, but it was found that his knife was smeared with blood, meaning that he had also wounded the mysterious assailant.
As the men fanned out to search the area for the mysterious hurt attacker, one of the officers had an idea and decided to wait near the corpse rather than move it. It was surmised that since the cultist had been interrupted he might return to complete the ritual killing if he was at all able. The officer waited in the bushes once again, and sure enough a short while later was met with the ghoulish site of the Leopard Man slinking out of the bushes and towards the body on all fours like an animal. For a moment, the startled officer thought that he had merely attracted a real leopard to feed on the dead body, but soon he could see in the moonlight that it was indeed a man on all fours, cloaked in robes and with long, glinting steel claws. The Leopard Man proceeded to scurry over to the body of the fallen policeman and begin to butcher it with his claws. This was when the officer in hiding came out to confront the killer, who turned on him and reportedly snarled like a wild animal before charging. The officer then drew his pistol and shot the Leopard Man dead.
This was the first known incident of any of the mysterious cultists being killed or even captured, and indeed it was the closest look anyone but the victims had ever gotten of one of the elusive killers. It also proved to be instrumental in the cult’s downfall. With the well-publicized death of the Leopard Man, the local people began to realize that these were not mystical beings that were bullet proof and shrouded with magical powers, and that indeed they could be in fact be killed. As a result, there were more and more people willing to come forward with useful information that would help to bring them down. One such piece of information would lead authorities to a secret shrine hidden deep within the jungle. An expedition sent there would come across the gruesome sight of a huge stone altar dark with bloodstains, as well as a large effigy of a Leopard Man looming over it and numerous human bones and remains strewn about the jungle floor, buried out in the remote wilds. The increased testimony from locals would also lead to the arrests of over 70 cultists, 40 of whom would be publicly executed in order to further spread the word that they were merely bestial, evil humans, and nothing more. Although the Leopard Society would still continue to operate in the region in some capacity, with sporadic killings still occurring from time to time up to as recently as the 1980s, these arrests and executions marked an end to the iron grip of their stubborn reign of terror, robbing them of the power they had long had over West Africa and sending them into hiding.
The mysterious and murderous Leopard Society left a lot of questions in the aftermath of its downfall. Who were they? Why did they do what they did? What had caused them to come out of relative obscurity in the late 1800s to boldly and brashly go on a spectacular, all-out bloody killing spree across West Africa? Why did they kill in one area or country only to stop and then continue in another? It is mostly thought now that the rise of the Leopard Society came about mostly due to the ever expanding drive of European colonization into Africa at the time, and that the disruption of traditional tribal customs and the upheaval of their way of life brought about by European expansion provoked the cult in various ways. With increasing colonialism, the traditional balance of power was tipped on its head, with tribal leaders and social elites squabbling to maintain some semblance of power in the shadow of their new European oppressors. This in turn could have more or less driven the Leopard Society into overdrive, feeding their need to perform human sacrifice in order to keep the growing misfortune at bay, preserve the balance, keep the status quo, and eliminate rivals. There seems to be evidence of this, as the intensity of Leopard Society activity was often in direct relation to the amount of colonial presence in any given area. As the killings continued, this would have further emboldened the cult, and from there the murder spree would have spun out of control, until the killings were being carried out against and in bold defiance of the foreign colonial powers. It is quite possible that the whole problem could have been further compounded with copycat killings and imitators merely using the cult as an excuse to quench their own sadistic bloodlust.
The Leopard Society truly goes down in history as one of the most mysterious, elusive, and bloodthirsty cults that ever was. It seems that there will probably always be such secret societies lurking out on the edges of society somewhere. In some cases, we may come to some understanding of their goals or ways, but in other cases we will likely always be in the dark. These are the ones that may forever elude understanding or closure. In the Leopard Society we seem to have a cult that was never really subdued by the forces that tried to tame or subdue it. They remained in the shadows, waiting, plotting to kill again. Perhaps they still do.