“In the spiritual beliefs of many African tribes,” said the late Brad Steiger, “the leopard is a totem animal that guides the spirits of the dead to rest. For many centuries there has existed a leopard cult in West Africa, particularly in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, whose members kill as does the leopard, by slashing, gashing, and mauling their human prey with steel claws and knives. Once a victim has been chosen and the date and time of the killing agreed upon, the executioner, known as the Bati Yeli, is selected. The Bati Yeli wears the ritual leopard mask and a leopardskin robe. Preferably, the human sacrifice is performed at one of the leopard cult’s jungle shrines. After the cult has killed their victim, they drink the blood and eat the flesh. The cultists believe that a magical elixir known as borfima, which they brew from their victim’s intestines, grants them superhuman powers and enables them to transform into leopards.”
A man named Pat O’Dwyer stumbled upon such a secret cult of the killing kind – in the 1930s – in Makeni, Sierra Leone. O’Dwyer, the Assistant District Commissioner at Port Loko, said: “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. They were found guilty and sentenced to death for murder and the sentence was carried out.”
A particularly harrowing story came from Dr. Werner Junge, a German who, in 1930, traveled to Liberia and ended up staying for approximately ten years. He said of his discovery of someone who had fallen victim to the Leopard Society: “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.”