The World's News Wednesday, February 4, 1931
This article is titled: The HUMAN LEOPARDS- The Sinister Secret Society - How Cannibals Kill Victims
By Colonel E. A. Powell
As you Journey west through the Congo you are told strange tales of sorcery and fetishism, of witch-doctors and medicine men. And, keeping on, you hear of cicatrized savages with their teeth filed to points who practice cannibalism. But if you still hold your westward way along the mighty river as it winds about the Equator like the serpent on a caduceus, you will come at last to towns where men speak below their breath of the Human Leopards, that sinister secret society which has cast a spell of terror over the whole of inner Africa.
The leopard society, which is referred to among most tribes as Anioto, is known in the Babali country, where it is particularly active, as Botobamu, or "avengers of men." It is unique in that its members, when engaged on their murderous missions, wrap themselves in leopard-skins, the paws being fashioned into rude gloves fitted with iron claws, several inches long, with which the assassins tear out the throats of their victims. They usually rim in packs of a dozen or more, and, when clad in their spotted pelts, slinking on all fours through the bush in the moonlight, are said to bear a startling resemblance to the treacherous animals from whom they take their name. It would appear that the society is more or less religious in character, the murders committed by its members being for the purpose of obtaining human blood and fait with which to make "big medicine" and to propitiate their unclean gods.
In spite of the fact that cannibalism is practiced by most of the tribes among which the society is active, there is reason to believe that the Human Leopards do not kill merely in order to satisfy a craving for human flesh, as some of them, at least, eat only the heart of the victim. The tales told of the Human Leopards are enough to make the blood run cold, to keep a man awake o' nights. Not withstanding the relentless warfare waged against the order by the Belgian authorities, scarcely a week goes by that reports do not come into the settlements of some chief or witch-doctor who had been found dead at the edge of his village, his body ripped and torn by savage claw-marks and with footprints, half animal, half human, all around.
An American mining engineer whom I met on the Congo told me that on one occasion, while on safari in the Big Bend region, the native sentries guarding his camp were attacked by Human Leopards in the night. One man, though terribly mauled by the iron claws of his skin-clad assailants, lived to tell the tale. His companion was found at the edge of the bush in a pool of blood, his body covered with wounds and his heart torn out.
It is not possible to say with any certainty just what part cannibalism plays in the rites of the Human Leopards. One significant fact has been brought out, however, in all the investigations: the leading spirits in the society are not young and lusty, warriors, but natives of mature age, men well past their prime. These are the grandmasters, the ones who manage the concern, so to speak, and to them are assigned the most coveted portions of the bodies. One is led to the conclusion, therefore, that though the Human Leopards eat the hearts and livers, and probably in many cases the bodies of their victims, it is not. done to satisfy any cannibalistic cravings, nor in connection with any religious rite, but in the conviction that it will increase their virility.
The medicine-man advanced to the center of the circle, with a canons running shamble, a spear in either hand. The activities of the Human Leopards are controlled and directed by the witch doctors, those fantastic medico-politico ecclesiastical figures who - are found in every community in Central Africa. The witch-doctors, who are frequently chiefs, sorcerers, physicians, and high priests in one, exercise enormous power in their respective tribes and villages, and, it might be added, are generally bitterly jealous of each other. They are skilled as the Borgias in concocting and administering secret poisons; by playing on the ignorance, superstition, fears, and credulity of the natives, they usually amass great wealth; they frequently have it in their power to dethrone a chief, to wreck a dynasty, or to precipitate a war; and, being utterly unscrupulous, the Human Leopard Society provides them with a potent weapon with which to. gain their nefarious ends.
During an investigation by a special commission, it was shown that there existed another secret order known as the Human Alligator Society. This appears to have been an offshoot of the Human Leopards, the usual meeting-place of its members being in the vicinity of- rivers where crocodiles—or alligators, as they are called locally—abound. Thereupon, the law was further amended, and it was made a felony for any person to have, in his possession, an alligator-shaped so as to make a person wearing it resembles the animal of that name. Three other articles were later made unlawful: a dress of monkey skins used by an order known as the Human Baboon Society, which had been discovered to exist in one of the northern districts of the colony; a peculiar type of whistle, known as a kukoi, used for calling the members of an unlawful society together; and an iron needle employed for cicatrizing the members of these secret orders.
During the hearings of the commission, reference was constantly made by native witnesses to a mysterious medicine (the term is used in its African sense, meaning philter or charm) known as borfima, which is a contraction of boreh flma "medicine-bag." This "medicine," which is usually contained in a leather package or pouch, contains, among other things, the white of an egg, a few grains of rice, the blood of a cock, and the blood, fat, and portions of the vital organs of a human being.
Each chapter of the Human Leopards has its own borfima, which is an all-powerful instrument in the hands of those who control it. It will make them rich and powerful; it will bring them high tribal honors, and give them victory in battle; it will help them in cases in the white man's courts; and It has the effect of installing in the native mind, profound awe of its owners. But, like the battery of a motor-car, the borfima will run down, become debilitated, unless periodically revitalized. This is effected by anointing it with blood and fat taken from a freshly slaughtered human being, and to obtain this human blood and fat appears to be the primary object of the Human Leopard Society.
Meetings of the society are held only when its leaders consider that the borfima belonging to their particular lodge requires "blooding" or "feeding." If the crops or the fishing have been bad, if the tribe has met with disaster in battle, if there has been an unusual amount of sickness, In short, if anything has gone wrong seriously, that is sufficient proof that, the borflma is hungry, and demands attention. Accordingly, the word is passed around that the members of the lodge will gather at some lonely spot in the forest for the transaction of important business, which consists in the appointment of what might be described as an executive committee. When it has been decided who is to provide the victim, the date and place of the murder are determined upon, and the executive committee is chosen.
On the night of the party—usually a night with a full moon—the members of the chapter assemble at an appointed rendezvous in the bush. The costume worn when engaged on these diabolical missions consists either of a leopard-skin Human Leopards is fitted with iron claws, such as I have previously described, or a robe of bark cloth painted to resemble one. This garment is tied around the loins, and drawn over the head like a monk's cowl, with two holes cut in it for the eyes, the outfit being completed by a leopard's tail attached to the belt and hanging down behind. Those designated to do the killing carry very sharp, short-handled, three-pronged knives, and bottle-shaped sticks, with the large end carved into a rude imitation of a leopard's pad. With these, they stamp counterfeit tracks on the ground about the body of their victim.
On some pretext or other, the unfortunate selected for sacrifice is lured to the spot in the bush, where the murderers are waiting. As, all unsuspecting, he passes with his Judas, the killers steal up on silent feet, and drive their tridents deep into his neck, severing the vertebra, death being, in most cases, practically instantaneous. If, as sometimes happens, it is found impossible to lure the victim into the bush, he is murdered in the village, perhaps in his own hut, and the body is conveyed to the place of assembly, where the borfima is duly "blooded." In some crimes the vital organs are torn out, and the body, mauled by the iron claws almost beyond recognition, is left upon the ground. But, in those tribes where cannibalism, ritualistic, or otherwise, prevails, it is cut up and divided among the Leopards, the flesh either being eaten raw upon the spot, or taken home and cooked. As one of the witnesses who appeared before the Sierra Leone commission, naively put it, "Some like it raw, some roast, some' boiled with rice."