The Ghost, the Darkness and John Henry Patterson

18 June 1947, the Anglo-Irish soldier, hunter and author John Henry Patterson, best known for his Tsavo adventures involving two man-eating lions dubbed the Ghost and the Darkness in Kenya in 1898, died at the age of 79 in his sleep in La Jolla, California.

“The instant the lion rose, all the men fled as if the Evil One himself were after them, and made for the nearest trees—with one exception, for as I took a step backwards, keeping my eye on the infuriated animal, I almost trod on Roshan Khan, who had still remained close behind me. Fortunately for me, I had approached the lion's head with my rifle ready, and as I stepped back I fired. The impact of the .303 bullet threw him back on his haunches just as he was in the act of springing, but in an instant he was up again and coming for me so quickly that I had not even time to raise my rifle to my shoulder, but fired point blank at him from my hip, delaying him for a second or so as before. He was up again like lightning, and again at the muzzle of my rifle; and this time I thought that nothing on earth could save me, as I was almost within his clutches. Help came from an unexpected and unconscious quarter, for just at this critical moment Roshan Khan seemed all at once to realise the danger of the situation, and suddenly fled for his life, screaming and shrieking with all his might. Beyond all question this movement saved me, for the sight of something darting away from him diverted the lion's attention from me, and following his natural instinct, he gave chase instead to the yelling fugitive.” (J.H. Patterson, “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, and Other East African Adventures”)

A photograph from Patterson’s book “The Man-Eaters of Tsavo” (1907), showing the first of the Tsavo man-eaters, shot in December 1898 

Attacks of big cats on people are rare but not unheard of. But if they happen, there are cases that usually develop along the lines of serial killing and among the four large species of cats, only jaguars have no track record as serial man-eaters. Most of the recorded cases took place in India during mid-19th and early 20th century, with about 500 people killed each year by tigers in the 1850s and individual tigers killing between 400 and 500 on their own over a couple of years until brought to bay. Fatal Leopard attacks, with the victims being at least partially eaten, are less frequent, however, 12.000 were recorded in India between 1875 – 1912. African leopards had been a bit less busy, killing 200 people during roughly the same period, about 100 of them were caused by a single specimen in British Somaliland around 1890. Lion attacks in Africa number in the thousands and in contrast to tigers and leopards, lions have the habit of entering villages and camps in search for prey once they have grown to like human flesh. Quite like the Ghost and the Darkness did  in 1898, two male Tsvao lions that haunted the construction site of a bridge for the Kenya-Uganda Railway over the Tsavo river, half way between Mombasa and Nairobi.

Lt Col Patterson in Great War era uniform,
looking not even remotely like Val Kilmer in “The Ghost and the Darkness”

Male Tsavo lions are maneless as a rule, larger than other African lions, considered more agrressive and participate far more active in hunting than the rest of their cousins. Several theories exist, why the pair had left their pride and turned man-eater near the construction site. A cattle plague had reduced the wildlife stock in the region and they had to look for other prey on their own, the place where the bridge was built used to be a river crossing over the Tsavo of traditional route for slave caravans bound for Zanzibar before Kenya became finally a part of British East Africa Protectorate in 1895 and the lions might have found drowned victims there and finally, the newly introduced custom of Indian railway workers who cremated their dead in the open sometimes had parts of the deceased’s bodies left unburned in the savanna, to be devoured by the lions. On top of it, the Darkness probably had bad teeth and might have preferred softer meat than that of the local wildlife. Whatever was the crucial factor in turning the two lions into man-eaters, almost instantly after the arrival of the 30 years-old Irishman and then captain in the British Army, John Henry Patterson, on site to supervise the construction of the bridge, the killings began.

The Tsavo Man-Eaters on display in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois

With some experience in tiger hunting, Patterson got down to work to kill the two lions after they had dragged workers from their huts and neither large fires nor the traditional boma, thorn fences, would keep the man-eaters away. Not that Patterson had much of a choice. Terrified workers fled the camp in large numbers and the completion of the railway line was in serious danger. It took him nine months until the first of the pair was bagged with a heart shot using a .303 (7.7mm) MK II service cartridge, the second one fell to nine bullets from various rifles around Christmas three weeks later. Allegedly, the “Ghost” and the “Darkness”, believed by the locals to be possessed by the spirits of dead witch doctors, had killed over 100 people and ended up as floor rugs chez Patterson’s  until he sold them  to the Chicago Field Museum for $ 5,000 in 1924. The pair was taxidermied there and put on permanent display to this day. Recent research has shown that the two lions ate only about 30 people, but since they had a reputation to kill for sport, Patterson’s original estimations of more than 100 victims might, be in fact, correct. Patterson himself lived to a ripe old age, served in the Boer War and the Great War, received a DSO and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, caused a bit of a hushed-up affair in Africa involving a dead corporal and his wife, a story that inspired Hemingway to his short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and was later filmed as “Macomber Affair” and finally Patterson made a name for himself as an active supporter of Zionism and worked toward the establishment of a Jewish state until his death.

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