So what was the Beast of Bladenboro?
There was certainly something that killed some dogs in the woods of Bladen County in the early days of 1954. But what exactly that something was and whether it warranted the hype that went around it remains unknown.
And there was a lot of hype. But hype was something that Bladenboro knew well. For a small North Carolina town, Bladenboro was home to an unusually high number of showmen in prominent positions. Among these was the mayor, Woodrow "Bob" Fussell, who also happened to be the owner of the local movie theater.
It was Mayor Fussell who first called the newspapers and organized the party of professional hunters to come in from Wilmington. It was also Fussell who booked a horror movie called "The Big Cat" into his theater at the peak of the excitement, advertising "Now you can see the Cat! We've got him on our screen! And in Technicolor!"
Mayor and movie theater owned Bob Fussell booked The Bg Cat at the peak of the excitment.
The early 1950s were the height of the craze for gimmicks promoting films, with producers like William Castle installing buzzers in the seats of movie houses and having ambulances waiting outside in case anyone was overcome with terror during a show. Fussell can't be blamed for knowing a good gimmick when he saw one.
The was also another Bladenboro resident, Dick "The Half-Man" Hilburn, who, despite being born with no legs and only one arm, had a genuinely remarkable career. Hilburn had traveled with the circus for some years, working as a tattoo artist and running a sideshow with his partner Carl "The Frog Boy" Norwood. Hilburn had returned to his hometown of Bladenboro after tiring of constantly traveling with the sideshow. Hilburn was a much-loved member of the Bladenboro community. This remarkable man was known for endlessly entertaining children, doing tricks on a skateboard, and causing people to marvel at the seemingly endless number of feats he could accomplish despite his disability.
Dick Hilburn cashed in on the excitement by making Beast of Bladenboro souveneirs
In addition to his many other skills, Hilburn was a talented artist who had set up shop as a sign painter when he returned home. When the monster madness began going around, Hilburn saw opportunity. He began to produce license plates and other memorabilia with the vampire beast painted on it. He had no trouble selling them to the scores of hunters who had descend on the town.
Describing the incident years later, Mayor Fussell confessed "A Little publicity never hurt a small town," and stated that the beast was "10% real, 90% imagination."
Fussell definitely had a hand in stoking that imagination, but he never anticipated how out of control the situation would get. The story had hit the papers in an otherwise slow news week, getting a great deal more attention and trouble than expected. The only other big item of regional interest that week was a local-boy-makes-good story about a little-known comedian named Andy Griffith making his first appearance on The Tonight Show.
National news was slow that week as well, and newspapers from across the nation picked up the sensational story. As a result, far more people than could be managed by Bladen County's very small police force flocked into the town. With that much overexcitement and that many guns, Chief Fores was afraid that there could be consequences. The decision to call an end to the hunt came about because of the very real danger that an overanxious hunter would shoot someone thinking he was killing the beast.
The article from the Raleigh News and Observer on the killing of the bobcat. The poor quality of the photograph is an unfortunate result of microfilm photography.
What was the beast? What exactly it was that killed those dogs will never be known. But dogs disappearing or being killed in a rural community isn't all that rare of an occurrence. A fabulous story about a vampire killing dogs that thousands of people across the nation become engrossed with definitely happens much less often.
But the excitement that started the whole affair may have been helped along from within the town.
To some people, seeing a bunch of fools chase through the woods looking for an imaginary monster can be a good for a laugh. There have been persistent rumors that a group of men in Bladenboro fanned the flames of the story, spreading more and more exaggerated tales of the beast to the news media, just to see who would believe them. The Beast of Bladenboro incident mat have been the largest snipe hunt in history.
Today, the fuss in 1954 is a source of pride for Bladenboro and the town even hosts a yearly Beast Fest to commemorate the event.