The year was 1904, Teddy Roosevelt was President, Archie Hahn was the world's fastest human, Jim Jeffries was the heavyweight champion, the New York Giants under John McGraw had won the National League pennant, and down in the Texas cattle country Jack Abernathy was catching wolves bare-handed.
Which seems a rather interesting occupation and one not to be taken lightly. There had been nothing in Abernathy's background that gave a hint he would become involved in so risky a pastime. At nine, he was a working cowboy and by 15 he was breaking horses. But for those times and that country this wasn't particularly unusual. The only clue that Abernathy might be subject to aberrant whims came at 17 when he decided to be a musician.
The question that comes to mind is why he wanted to catch a wolf bare-handed or why anyone would want to.
Abernathy caught his first wolf without giving much thought to danger. It was a mistake, done, he said later, in a hasty moment. When he was 15 he was working as a cow-puncher for an outfit near the Oklahoma border. Working cattle one day, two greyhounds of which he was very fond jumped a wolf. After a chase the wolf turned and bayed. By the time Abernathy rode up, one dog had been disemboweled and the other was being chewed. Abernathy had no gun and, without thinking, jumped from his horse and started for the fight. He was a young man noted for his exceptional quickness and agility, but, even so, a big wolf—and this one weighed about 125 pounds, almost as much as Abernathy—has canines an inch long and jaws that can crush bones. Abernathy later wrote that his only concern was getting the wolf off his dog, and that he expected the beast to run away. Instead, the wolf attacked Abernathy, lunging for his throat. Instinctively he threw up a hand, thrusting it sideways into the wolf's mouth. He then grabbed the wolf with his free arm and threw it on its back, and he discovered that as long as he kept the animal's lower jaw open it could not bite him. They struggled, the animal scratching and clawing. Once, Abernathy lost his hold and had to retake it. The scramble ended in a standoff with Abernathy on top of the wolf, holding on to its jaw for dear life, and the animal sulking beneath him. Abernathy was cut and bleeding when his brother, who had missed him, rode up. Abernathy later told his son that his brother said, "Well, what have you got there, Jack?" and he said, "I've got something captured I can't get loose from." His brother wanted to shoot the wolf, but Abernathy decided that since he'd got that far he was going to take the animal back alive. He made a running hitch with cord around the wolf's jaws, jerked his hand out, and with a quick pull tied its mouth shut. Then he slung it over his saddle and took it back to camp.
They say Abernathy caught a few more wolves at this time, but it was more for the sport of the thing and it wasn't until years later that he got serious about wolves. Instead, he decided to become a musician, got married, began selling pianos and raising a family, including two sons. It's important to take note of these two sons because they figure in the story later and they were just a bit unusual, too, maybe even more so than their father.
After Abernathy quit being a musician and piano salesman he returned to cowboying and catching wolves. Only this time he discovered that he had a real knack for wolf catching and he began doing it full time, selling the animals to zoos, circuses and traveling shows for $50 each. His fame spread and Teddy Roosevelt heard about him. Teddy, of course, couldn't let something unusual and outdoorsy go uninvestigated. A month after he was sworn in for his second term as President, Roosevelt arrived in Frederick, Okla. to watch Jack Abernathy catch a live wolf. That made everyone nervous, including the governor of Texas, S.W.T. Lanham, who sent Texas Rangers to provide Roosevelt with added protection. According to newspaper accounts, Roosevelt was immediately taken with Jack Abernathy and with Abernathy's famous wolf-hunting horse, Sam Bass. The President and Abernathy posed for pictures, the two looking bully and the Secret Service men looking apprehensive.
The first morning, Roosevelt joined the 10-mile chase over broken and rocky land. He later wrote: "...just as they crossed the creek the greyhound made a rush, pinned the wolf by the hind leg and threw it. There was a scuffle, then a yell from the greyhound as the wolf bit it. At the bite the hound let go...and at that moment Abernathy, who had ridden his horse right on them as they struggled, leaped off and sprang on top of the wolf. He held the reins of the horse with one hand and thrust the other, with a rapidity and precision even greater than the rapidity of the wolf's snap, into the wolf's mouth, jamming his hand down crosswise between the jaws, seizing the lower jaw and bending it down so the wolf could not bite him...with his knees he kept the wolf from using its forepaws to break the hold until it gave up struggling. When he thus leaped on and captured this coyote it was entirely free, the dogs having let go of it; and he was obliged to keep hold of the reins of the horse with one hand. I was not 20 yards distant at the time.... It was as remarkable a feat of the kind as I have ever seen."
Of course, they had trouble with Roosevelt because he wanted to catch a wolf, too. The Secret Service finally talked him out of that, and he turned his attention to killing rattlesnakes, one as long as five feet, with his riding quirt. When he couldn't be persuaded to stop, and had, in fact, killed several, Ranger Captain Bill McDonald secretly burned the quirt in the campfire.
Roosevelt wasn't the only one of the party who wanted to try catching wolves. It was reported in the
that two others attempted it and had their hands badly mangled. When Roosevelt asked Abernathy about his technique, he said, "Well, Mr. President, you must remember that a wolf never misses its aim when it snaps. When I strike at a wolf with my right hand I know it's going into the wolf's mouth."
During his career Abernathy caught about a thousand wolves. He wrote: "Usually I wore a thin glove, the thinner the better. I wore this glove merely to prevent the sharp canine teeth of the wolf from splitting open the skin of my hand. In thrusting my hand into the mouth of a biting wolf, sometimes the sharp teeth would scratch the skin if I didn't have on a thin glove." In a book he wrote called Catch-'Em-Alive Jack, Abernathy talked about trying to teach others the process. "Nearly all were able to make the catch so far as letting the wolf have their hand. But when the savage animal would clamp down on the hand, the student would become frightened, fearing the hand would be ruined forever. Instead of holding fast to the lower jaw, the student would quit. Consequently the wolf would then almost ruin the hand."