Ask McGehee

Who was the mysterious Mobilian known as “Floating Island?”

The only known image of “Floating Island” is this snapshot of her walking east on Government Street, circa mid-1920s. Photo courtesy of Jack F. Ross III, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Back in the 1920s, as women’s dresses and hair got progressively shorter, one Mobilian stood out. As she walked the city streets, her billowing black silk skirt and long, waist-length hair floated behind her. A small hat was always perched on her head, held in place by a ribbon tied under her chin.

Her quick, short steps and long dress gave an illusion that she was “floating” along the sidewalk. Her daily strolls to the Cathedral for mass were usually followed by a walk to the riverfront where, rumor had it, she awaited a lover who had sailed away before their marriage.

The romanticized tale of “Floating Island” became so popular that it caught the attention of South Carolina writer Julia Peterkin, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. A year later, she arrived in the Port City to uncover the story behind this legendary character and sought the help of Mobile Press-Register reporter Frances Durham.

The Mystery Unfolds

Durham explained that the woman’s name was Mary Eoline Eilands and that her last name could explain, in part, her nickname among the locals. Somehow, Durham convinced Eilands to accept an interview with the famed author. The three met at Eilands’ home, which stood on St. Emanuel Street in what is today an industrial area south of Downtown.

- Sponsors -

The house was in such a dilapidated state that the two women got no further than the front porch, where the interview was conducted. From within came the sounds of a menagerie of stray dogs and cats that served as Eilands’ companions.

The homeowner would disappear inside and then return. She explained that she refused to cut her hair because neither “her Savior nor his holy mother” had cut theirs. She spoke of her faith, and she gave Peterkin a prayer book inscribed by Father Abram Ryan, insisting she take it as a gift.

The two women departed, and an article about the visit appeared in the Press soon after. Described as “one of the most picturesque figures” in town, the article proceeded to illustrate her home as “gradually falling apart with sagging sills and rain pouring through the roof.” The article made no mention of Eilands ever explaining why she stood at the river’s edge each day, or much else about her history for that matter.

It may have been the article’s description of “a little old wrinkled woman” that set Eilands off in a rage. Perhaps in her mind she was still a young woman waiting for her missing fiance. In any event, she marched into the Press offices on St. Michael Street, screaming language far more appropriate for the riverfront than a workplace, and began slamming her parasol on the counter, demanding to see Durham. The staff was so concerned with her behavior that Durham was escorted out a second story window and across a roof to the safety of another building.

A Symbol of Faithfulness

On Sept. 24, 1937, the Mobile Press-Register reported, “A unique figure that attracted the interest of Mobilians for two generations will no longer be seen around the city. Known to thousands as ‘Floating Island,’ she has died at her home.” She was 84 years old, and the article termed her a “symbol of faithfulness.”

But her death was not the only news to report. Sadly, a subsequent issue of the paper noted that there had been a call to get four dogs, “pets of the late Miss Eilands who once owned as many as 24.” Their fate is unknown. As for Eilands, she rests beside her parents in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!