Ask McGehee Over the Years

Take a look at some of the more interesting stories historian Tom McGehee has dug up through the years.

Mobile. Port City. The Azalea City. The City of Six Flags. Mob-Town. Whatever you choose to call the centuries-old burg, just don’t call it boring — its history is as varied as its nicknames. As we give pause to celebrate Mobile Bay’s golden anniversary, we look back at all the things that make us, us, both as a publication and a city. After all, it’s easier to get where you’re going when you know where you’ve been.

In 2004, MB launched a new column called Ask Crawford, written by and named after Crawford Binion, and by 2005, it had morphed into Ask McGehee. While MB had certainly covered history before, this column ushered in the era (that lasts to this day) of ongoing and consistent emphasis on local history with stories ranging from crime to pandemics, from headline-making news to lore. The following is a mere sampling of these columns, all condensed and retold, all equally enthralling.

Quarantine structures near Choctaw Point. Photo courtesy Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Bring Out Your Dead | originally appeared in February 2008

For nearly 200 years, yellow fever ransacked Mobile. Despite people relying on homemade prophylactic regimens, such as sucking on lemons or drinking whiskey-laced coffee, the disease’s quickly rising death toll led to the city’s eventual quarantine. Yellow flags attached to houses signaled sufferers’ homes. In the streets, masked and gloved undertakers driving black-draped carts chanted, “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead.” In some unfortunate cases, the dead would already be outside, stacked three-deep, awaiting transport to the cemetery. In 1897, the cause of yellow fever was finally settled on (mosquitoes), stagnant ponds were drained, and window screens became the norm, thereby ending the pandemic. 

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Red Light District | originally appeared in January 2015

The “Tenderloin District,” Mobile’s equivalent of New Orleans’ Storyville (the area designated by municipal ordinance to regulate prostitution), flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. City leaders, aware of the sordid activity, justified the “workspace” by saying it was better to keep the women in one place than have them traipse about the city, which would be bad for tourism and real estate. In 1913, faculty and students of the nearby Medical College of Alabama started complaining about the women, whose ages typically ranged from 15 to 28 years. The city did not abolish the district, however, until 1918, upon finding out the government refused to put its troops in an area with a red-light district. 

Island Life | originally appeared in January 2015

In 1882, a quarantine station, designed to protect the United States from the invasion of tropical diseases, was established on Dauphin Island. Ships entering the Bay required inspection of its passengers and crew. Anyone who exhibited signs of cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, plague, typhus or leprosy was removed from the ship and held at the station. If needed, ships were fumigated with smoldering sulfur. In 1927, a new quarantine facility was erected on a 50-acre site near Choctaw Point, colloquially known as “Sand Island.” After World War II, and with the advancement of medicine and sanitation, the 10-building facility became obsolete. It was demolished in 1996, and nothing remains on the now-named McDuffie Island.

Mary Eilands, circa mid-1920s. Photo courtesy of Jack F. Ross III, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

Love Lost | originally appeared in December 2004

As she wandered the streets from home, to mass, along the waterfront and back home again, she appeared to float. Her long, black silk skirts gave the appearance she was gliding along the ground. Perhaps that’s how she garnered the nickname “Floating Island,” either that or her hair that floated about her shoulders. Or maybe it’s because Eilands was Mary’s last name. As a young woman, she accepted a marriage proposal from a Confederate veteran. They were to wed upon his return from his fortune-finding voyage. But the wedding never came. Until she died in 1937, at the age of 83, Eilands made a daily pilgrimage to the riverfront docks, waiting for the man who was never to return.   

Deadly Affair | originally appeared in June 2011

“She shot me for nothing” were the words local defense attorney Foster Kirksey Hale Jr., uttered with his final breath in June 1931. Hale was at his office that day, then-located at 66 1/2 Michael Street, when his mistress, Willie Mae Hancock, burst in with a loaded .38-caliber revolver. The couple’s story began around 1910, however, when a 13-year-old Hancock caught the attention of a much older Hale. The lawyer told Hancock that when she turned 16, he would divorce his wife and marry her. But he never did. Two decades later and driven mad, the disgruntled lover stormed Hale’s office and unloaded two bullets. “He wrecked my life and got what he deserved,” Hancock proclaimed. She stood trial in 1932 and was convicted of second-degree manslaughter. She served a year-long sentence.

Disasters in the Air | originally appeared in February 2017

Mobile has borne witness to two air disasters, both of which happened during Carnival season. On February 28, 1946, a Navy training plane hit the south tower of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and then crashed on South Lawrence Street, killing its pilot. Worse, however, was the crash that happened on February 14, 1953, just south of Fort Morgan. Mobile Register’s February 15 headline decried, “Airliner Vanishes with 49 Persons,” only 17 of whom were ever recovered. After a 43-hour search, the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn returned to port with the passengers’ mangled remains. The vessel docked shortly after King Felix made his official arrival by boat. 

Two young workers at the Barker Cotton Mill, 1914. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Local Textiles | originally appeared in September 2017

In 1899, Alabama ranked ninth among cotton manufacturing states. Around that time, Mobile had two cotton mills poised to open, which brought the state’s total to 18 mills. The first, Mobile Cotton Mills, was located about a mile north of Spring Hill Avenue on a property once known as Camp Coppinger, which had operated as a training camp for soldiers during the Spanish-American War. The second, Barker Cotton Mill, was located in now-named Prichard. Both locations set up villages, so to speak, that included a general merchandise store, worker housing and a school for workers and their children. Mill Street in Crichton serves as a reminder of our city’s textile history.  

Shoppers’ Paradise | originally appeared in August 2015

British-born Charles John Gayfer arrived in Mobile in 1869, and by 1890, the eponymous, C.J. Gayer & Co., was Mobile’s leading department store, appealing to a prosperous middle class. Its original location was the first floor of the Pincus Building, on the corner of Conception and Dauphin streets. Advertised as “Mobile’s Finest Department Store,” the business grew rapidly, soon moving to a four-story building that boasted plate glass show windows and a marble-framed entrance. By the 1950s, the store had moved again, this time to a three-story space that included a beauty parlor and three-dozen ladies’ fitting rooms. In 1960, a second Gayfer’s was opened, this time in Springdale Plaza, considered to be at the western edge of town. The once-Downtown shopping escape closed in the late 1980s, and the Springdale location was sold to Dillard’s in 1998.

Heinous Crime | originally appeared in April 2016

In the early morning of January 23, 1909, Richard Roberson was taken by mob from the Mobile County Jail and hanged on the corner of then-intersecting Church and St. Emanuel streets, in front of an Episcopal church. Roberson was being held for the murder of Phillip Fatch, a young deputy sheriff who was sent to arrest Roberson on assault and battery charges. Rumors bubbled of an impending lynching, but despite being allegedly warned of a potential mob, then-Sheriff Frank Cazalas Sr. did not add additional guards. Mobilians were horrified at such an easy breach of their new jail’s security. But that was not the case — the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the jail was appropriately built and able to withstand a mob. They also ruled that the sheriff had been willfully negligent, and he was subsequently  removed from office. 

Banned Footwear | originally appeared in May 2019

Tired of being sued over high-heeled wearers’ twisted ankles and broken bones, Mobile enacted a city ordinance in October 1959, prohibiting women from donning shoes with heels higher than an inch and a half and less than an inch in diameter. This unusual move drew national — and international — attention. U.S. servicemen in Korea wrote city officials asking them not to add form-fitting sweaters to the list of banned fashion. In a move to protect itself, the city required anyone who insisted on the sky-high footwear to sign a permit, indemnifying the city of injuries. High-heeled wearers should still avoid sidewalk grates, however, because Mobile is still protected from lawsuit.

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