DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

January 31, 2013

Column: Derry plays host to ‘When Animals Attack’

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — I suppose most people have heard about that cat attack this month (Jan. 7) in Brookfield, Mass. A man discovered a bobcat in his garage and before he could flee he was badly mauled by the animal. The man managed to escape into his house but moments later a teenage boy was set-upon by the same infuriated feline. The homeowner managed later to kill the animal and upon testing it was found the bobcat had rabies. So far I’ve found only two cat attacks have been recorded in the long history of old Nutfield.

One night in September 1798, the residents of Derry Village were awaken from their sleep by a “frightful noise.” Some locals reported seeing their house cats fleeing from a large unidentified fast-moving animal. Recently there had been a large forest fire in the west side of the town and many suspected that the mysterious animal had been driven here from its deep-woods home by the conflagration.

The home of Major Joseph and Suzanne Gregg was on a rise of land just outside of Derry Village on the road to East Derry. The residence was the oldest in the village having been built in 1723 as a garrison to be used in case of Indian attack. A little to the west was the family’s grist mill. The Gregg garrison was torn down in 1810 and replaced by the stately federal-style home at 24 Thornton St.

In early October 1798, one of the Gregg daughters went out into the yard to pick some cucumbers for dinner. There she saw a strange-looking, cat-like animal “eagerly watching a hen.” Immediately, the Gregg girl yelled for her brother to come out and see the visitor.

Suddenly and without warning, the beast sprang towards her. The terrified young girl ran in a panic toward the house. As Miss Gregg fled to safety, she had to pause to open the garden gate. This hesitation gave the animal just enough time to catch up to her. The cat sprang at the young girl and dug its claws into her body. The Gregg girl’s clothes were ripped and the frightened youngster was left bleeding from wounds on her side and hand.

Her brother, hearing the screams, came running out of the house. Seeing his bleeding, helpless sister, Gregg used his bare hands to drive off the furious animal. With angry shrieks the cat ran into the nearby corn field. Within seconds, however, the animal changed direction and headed straight toward the Gregg house.

The animal entered the home and immediately confronted Mrs. Suzanne Gregg and chased the woman through her home. Despite her terror, the mother managed to outrun the intruder. She quickly gathered her daughters and together they fled from the house. Fearing for their lives, they sought sanctuary by locking themselves in a tool shed. All this commotion alerted the neighborhood that something was very, very wrong. Captain Daniel Danforth soon came a-running to their rescue. There in the house the local militia officer managed to corner and kill the beast.

The animal turned out to be a “wild cat of uncommon size” It was described as being very thin and “very much emaciated with hunger.” Its skin just hung over its ribs like a cloth draped over a wagon. When they opened the animal up, they found its stomach was completely empty, indicating it had gone without food for quite a while. Its weight was only about 20 pounds. It was likely a sick animal suffering from some wasting disease — likely rabies — and had been made mad by starvation.

The beast because of its size can probably be identified as a either a bobcat (Lynx rufus) or a mountain lion (Puma concolor). The latter is an animal which by then was nearly extinct in New Hampshire. They were so rare, that in 1793 a showman brought one to Portsmouth and could charge admission (4 1/2 cents adults; 2 1/4 cents children) to see the live “catamount.” The promoter claimed the mountain lion measured 8 feet from its nose to the tip of tail. It was advertised as being kept in a secure cage so “ladies and gentlemen can safely bring their children.”

In 1905, Derry, Windham and Londonderry were all upset by tales of a huge cat roaming the woods. It was described as being the size of a large dog and had a long tail. There was a rumor (false) that a bounty of $1,000 was to be paid to the killer of the great beastie. Suddenly our woods and fields were filled with hunters from all over New England determined to win the money. After a few months, the sighting of the cat stopped and he or she was never seen locally again. That animal was in all likelihood a mountain lion — a feline that has long been considered extinct in southern New Hampshire but maybe making a comeback in Coos County.

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Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.