THE BLOG

On Mountain Lions, and the Forgotten Story of the 1909 Church Women Mauled by a Rabid Cougar

03/12/2013 05:33 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

The poor young woman recently killed by a lion in northern California got me thinking about big cat deaths in general.

In the last 110 years, mountain lions have killed about a dozen people in the U.S., including five year old Jake Thomas Gardipee, who was dragged off by a group of mountain lions while playing on his tricycle right outside his western Montana home, and Barbara Barsalou Schoener, who was tackled from behind by a mountain lion while jogging in a canyon outside of Sacramento, California.

But the strangest mountain lion attack story of all is Isola Kennedy. I discuss her and other mountain lion deaths in the most recent entry on my death blog, Digital Dying.

Isola was tackled by a cougar in 1909 while trying to save a group of church children. She was a well-respected woman from a town just south of San Jose, California called Morgan Hill. Isola was engaged to a dentist, frequently attended local parties and was president of the regional Women's Christian Temperance Union. She also taught a Sunday school class and one July day during the summer of 1909 she took five Sunday school kids on a picnic to a popular spot on Coyote Creek. After lunch the boys went to cool off in a nearby stream. A female mountain lion jumped from the bushes and slashed an eight year old child named Earl Wilson. He fell backwards into the creek and the cat pounced on him.

Hearing the children's screams, Isola picked up a stick and rushed at the animal, which turned around and attacked her. The other children got the attention of a man named Jack Conlan, who was doing survey work nearby for the local water company. Jack grabbed a shotgun and raced to the creek, where he found the lion on top of Isola. She was defending herself with a hat pin. "That poor woman was struggling as best she could," remarked Jack. "I finally got a shot at the beast, but it paid no attention."

He fired several warning shots but the cat didn't budge. He tried to butt the cat in the head with his shotgun, but the cat still didn't release its grip on Isola. Shooting the lion at such close range with a shotgun would risk injuring Isola so Jack sprinted back to his camp, and returned with a rifle. Isola was still being clawed apart by the lion. Jack told her to lie still and shot the animal first behind the left shoulder, then pointblank in the mouth. "The lion reared, then sank its teeth and all four claws into Isola and after a few struggles, died," said Jack.

The next day, both young Earl and Isola were examined by physicians. One of her ears had been completely torn off, the other was badly cut. She had a cut above her right eye that went all the way through to the bone and deep gashes up and down her arms, legs and back. Her injuries were not fatal, but unfortunately for both victims the mountain lion had rabies. Isola suffered for many weeks and died that September, just over two months after the attack. She is buried at the Mount Hope Cemetery, in Morgan Hill. Inscribed on her tombstone is a simple but moving epitaph:

"Sacrificed her life battling a lion to save some small boys."

Justin Nobel is the author of "Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle". He pens a blog about death for the funeral resource website, www.funeralwise.com.