Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Wildcat Goose Chase

On the same page of the Daily Kennebec Journal that contained the story of the last wolf in Maine (see yesterday's post), I found the following short but curious entry:
One of the wildcats at E.D. Brann & Co’s shop in Ellsworth escaped from its cage last Wednesday night. In the morning the cat had possession of the store for a while, until Mr. Brann arrived, and effected a speedy capture.

It was the first arrest by the new city marshal, and probably the first time in the history of Ellsworth that the city marshal has been called upon to capture and lock up a wildcat, although they have had some subjects almost as bad.

The cat during its freedom stalked a stuffed heron and chewed it up. It did no further hunting, and the body of the wild swan which had been left at the shop that day, and which would have made a dainty morsel for the cat, was not touched.

Source: Daily Kennebec Journal, Friday, April 10, 1908
This made me wonder! What was E.D. Brann doing with caged wildcats in his shop? Who was he? What kind of shop was this, that had such remarkable goods in it? …So I started digging.

The first thing I found was a blurb in the “100 Years Ago” section of the Ellsworth American’s website, which mentioned that “City Marshal Brann […] posted notices forbidding sliding on streets and sidewalks within one-half a mile of the Main street bridge.” Did that mean that E. D. Brann was himself the very City Marshal whose first arrest was a wildcat … in his own store?!

I looked further. I found numerous mentions of Eugene D. Brann as a deputy of the state (Report of the Enforcement Commission, Dec. 1910), and as a Licensed State Detective (Maine Register, July 1914).

Then I found another piece of the puzzle, which revealed to me what type of shop Brann owned…

This appeared, in (of all places) a 1910 issue of The Auk, as published by the American Ornithologists’ Union:
Another Swan for Maine

In the Ellsworth ‘American’ for April 1, 1908, appeared the following item: “A handsome bird, rare for this section, was brought to E. D. Brann, taxidermist at Ellsworth today. It is a wild swan, which was shot at Webb’s Pond by Hamlin Kingman of Waltham, Monday. It is a young bird, pure white, except for its black feet and bill and grayish shade on head and neck. . . .”

As the writer had occasion to be in Ellsworth immediately afterward he visited the taxidermist shop of Mr. Brann but found the proprietor was out. The bird could be seen through the store window but was too far away to permit of its specific identification. On other occasions when in Ellsworth I was likewise unable to see the bird at closer quarters.

Recently I asked Miss Cordelia J. Stanwood of Ellsworth if she would not get careful measurements and a description of the bird for me, knowing she was a careful observer and bird student. She very kindly obtained and sent me the following des
following description: “Bill and feet of specimen black; a yellow spot before the eye or on the lores; distance from nostril to the eye much greater than distance from nostril to tip of bill; head somewhat tinged with warm gray or pearl gray; the rest of the bird white. The specimen is in pretty good condition aside from dirt.”

In connection with Miss Stanwood’s description and my own distant view of the bird I have no hesitation in pronouncing it a Whistling Swan, a bird new to Maine. The only other identified species of swan known from Maine is the Whooping Swan, being the specimen formerly in the collection of Clarence H. Clark of Lubec, and now, I have been told, in the Bowdoin College collection.
— Ora Willis Knight, Bangor, Me.
Ora Willis Knight was the author of The Birds of Maine (1908), and must have felt like he was being taunted by the alleged Whistling Swan, which had been eluding his attempts at discovery for years, if one is to go by its entry on the “Hypothetical List” in his book, and the note he made about it: “A specimen is said to have been taken near the mouth of the Kennebec River at Brick Island, November, 1881, by William Williams. This specimen was not preserved and there seems considerable doubt as to the identity, though probably it is as above, but still lack of certainty makes it seem desirable to treat the species as a possibility.” One can imagine Knight inventing excuses to find his way back into downtown Ellsworth to peer hopefully yet again through the dim windows of Brann’s shop at the pale, feathery mystery bird.

But enough about the frustrated Ora Willis Knight! Could this taunting swan specimen have been the very same that Brann had been about to stuff, which barely escaped the predations of the rampaging wildcat? The timing seems close enough to invite this speculation in a highly welcoming manner.

Business must have been lively at E.D. Brann’s, with more that one wildcat prowling caged in the shadows, if we are to believe the phrasing of the article (“One of the wildcats…”).

It is likely that they were bobcats, although controversy raged during this era in Maine about what precisely was meant by the term “wildcat,” especially when it was used in legislative measures. The Daily Kennebec Journal from Saturday, July 8, 1889, reported in its State House column on a debate over the subject in the House, as the question “What is a wildcat?” was raised in connection with the bounties offered for them ($2 was awarded for each skin at this point in time).

Trade in wildcat furs was common, and traffic in live wildcats was not unheard of, as is evident from the nonchalant account of Brann’s penned guests. Only ten years earlier, the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier printed a lively tale which decidedly labels the cat in question...
On the Friday evening train from Princeton arriving here at 5 o’clock there was a live wildcat (bobcat) which was enroute to Warwick. R. I., consigned to Jerry T. Merrill.

The animal was shipped from Grand Lake Stream by W. H. Gollen. The details of his capture have not yet been learned. He was a very savage brute and growled more like a dog than an animal of the feline persuasion. He was about four times the size of a good big house cat.

He was confined in a box with slats across the top, and this legend printed in large letters on a card tacked thereon:


Source: Bangor Daily Whig and Courier, December 30, 1899
You wouldn’t have to tell me twice!

The ferocity of these compact carnivores gave them a serious reputation amongst hunters. On page 1 of the Daily Kennebec Journal, on March 23rd, 1912, the public was informed of a “swarm” of wildcats in the vicinity of Dallas, described as “a wild section of Northern Franklin county.”

This news was brought to people in the Phillips area by William True, a veteran hunter, who had visited the region in question. He barely made it out alive, and bore with him the tale of “a narrow escape from being killed by a giant wildcat which [was] believed to be the leader of the band that infests that section.”

We can imagine that Brann was an adventuresome sort, if he didn’t mind having live examples of these furry hellions rather insecurely caged in his shop space. He also spent much of his time (at least between 1910 and 1911) ranging across several Maine counties as a deputy, as shown in his expense reports to the state. However, he was an exacting man as well (remember the “no sledding” notice?). One wonders what other traces of this man remain in the annals of historical societies and other repositories of Ellsworth ephemera. I’ll keep digging!


Anonymous said...

What a delightful way to start the day and the week!
Great article! Wish I was in Maine.
Our Kentucky wildcats are also fearsome.

MaineBirder said...

What an awesome article!

Did you find this information on line or in the archives at the newspaper?

Michelle said...

Thank you both! :) I had a lot of fun writing it.

Wildcats seem to be fearsome wherever they are!

I found everything online, but a lot of the newspaper material came from, which I finally got myself a subscription to late last year. Great stuff! Just wish they had more Maine papers in their database.