Once Upon a Time

A Pirate’s Life for Me    

Aye, me mateys, there be swashbucklers in these parts. Details are sketchy, but the story goes that in 1710 or 1711, a treasure-seeking Jamaican pirate ship invaded Dauphin Island. An alleged solid gold cross mounted upon the island’s Catholic church was their intended booty.

But in the church’s tower was a priest. Realizing the swashbucklers would come for the treasure, the father grabbed it and dived into a nearby well, the gold cross clutched in his arms. Neither was seen again.

“Some say the cross was hand-held size, ” says Dauphin Island historian Jim Hall. “But other accounts claim it being as big as a man. It was also described as jewel-encrusted.”

Did Dauphin Island’s fabled gold cross disappear? Was it even real?  “Children still comb the beach looking for it, ” Hall says. “During beach excavations with plastic shovels and pails, youngsters get excited. They strike water and think it’s the lost well. This is Dauphin Island. You can’t dig two feet without hitting water.” 

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Laugh if you will, but one day, a sand-digging toddler will unearth pirates’ treasure, and his college tuition will be paid.

Not by the Hair of My Chinny-chin-chin  

A Native American legend depicts the tale of a fair maiden who lived in the enchanted land of Bayou La Batre. Centuries-old stories recounted in newspapers claim the beautiful young girl went to fetch her tribe’s water. But these were the days of Spanish settlers, including one whose interest in the lass transcended water. 

He was evil and ugly with a very long beard, and he was very much in love with the girl. One day, the wicked man chased the frightened maiden through the woods. She raced through the forest and climbed trees to escape, with the Spaniard in hot pursuit. In his hurry, his flowing beard caught on a branch, trapping him until his death.

Ancient lore claims his beard was enchanted. After the man died, his mystical whiskers grew, tangled, twisted and weaved through oak trees, woods and forests, entangling in every branch along its path. 

The magical facial hair covering South Alabama woods remains to this day. Native Americans called it the mystical beard. Two centuries later, we call it Spanish moss.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at Fort Morgan

During the Civil War, Lt. Col. Charles Stewart from New York cast his lot with the Confederacy, served at Fort Morgan and was decapitated.  

Through almost two centuries, variations have been told about the noggin-knocking, so this is a heads up — which is more than Stewart has.

The most prevalent tale is that of the bloodstained top step. Some say even after decades of scrubbing, the bloody spot returns. “I’ve also heard the story of Stewart falling in a pool of blood, leaving his thumb print in the stain, ” says Fort Morgan historian Mike Bailey. “Another account notes the soldier’s head rolled down the stairs like a bowling ball.” 

Here is what actually happened: On April 30, 1863, during a routine artillery check, a Fort Morgan cannon exploded, killing five men, including Stewart. His head was blown off.

Indeed, today, there is a reddish spot near the location of the ghastly incident, resembling blood. “However, geologists have examined the spot and emphatically claim it is not, ” adds Bailey. “Blood does not stain finished Vermont granite.” 

But the legend lives on. Stewart’s bloodstain story has been passed down for generations. He is buried in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery — most of him. His dentures are displayed at the Fort Morgan Museum, recovered from the explosion 153 years ago.

Ode to a Beast,  To Say the Least

In olden Mobile, 1938, a monster here lurked, and fear was great.

It ran as a fox, yet slithered like a snake; the creature lurked on the street, in field and lake. 

“Beware!” cried the tabloids, printing ominous threats. “Take heed of the monster; for it eats your pets!”

“To arms!” shouted the mobs, as they tracked the beast, as the fear was one day on them it would feast.

Though cunning this creature was at evading man, in February 1938, it took its last stand.

The monster was slayed in a terrible melee and placed for viewing, on public display. Over 300 people came to see, what they had earlier shunned and gave cause to flee. But the creature was removed and the story lost fodder, when police charged the slayer with shooting an otter.

Puff the Magic Dragon

Actually, this one does more than puff. The 100-foot-long Mardi Gras float  creature shoots 8-foot fire plumes from her mouth and smoke from her nostrils. She is Vernadean, Mobile’s righteous reptile of revelry. 

The green machine debuted in 1949 and hasn’t missed a Mystics of Time parade since, slithering all over Government Street as the band plays on. The name was derived from Verna, wife of an MOT charter member, and Dean, the girlfriend of another early masker. 

“Her sound system broadcasts a growl, ” an MOT spokesman shares (maskers may not reveal their identities), “but nowadays you can’t hear her roar because of huge parade crowds.”

Children have a love-hate relationship with Vernadean. Babies are fascinated; toddlers, terrified. But seeing her means never forgetting her.

Vernadean has a propane rod mounted under her tongue. It ignites, shooting fire when a Mobile City fireman on board presses the trigger. 

Her babies — Verna, the girl, and Dean, the boy — meander on the same World War II surplus Willis Jeeps installed in their 1959 debut. The twins cry “Mama, ” but again, you can’t hear it for the crowd’s noise. 

Take heart children: Though Vernadean appears to be an ominous dragon, she is really just a concerned mother, calling for her children, who cry back for her.   

Relaxing on the Isle of Joy    

The site has zero basis in fact, but its existence is told to the masses during Carnival season, so poetic license is admissible. If you don’t like it, take it up with the previously mentioned dragon and hope she’s not hungry.

The Isle of Joy is where Mardi Gras royalty spends the off-season. King Felix III rules, parades meander the streets, weather forecasts include bead-necklace showers. Madame Butterfly, chosen for good deeds and public service, spreads her massive wings to welcome guests, just as she does during the Order of Butterfly Maidens’ Ball. Every other mythical Mardi Gras icon chills here, too — jesters, skeletons, mermaids, gypsy queens and more Greek legends than we can count. Residents commute not by cars but parade floats, off to work. Wait, what work?  This is Mardi Gras’ Isle of Joy. There is no work, hence the  name “Joy.”    

Also, no one knows the exact location of the Isle of Joy, just as no one knows where Santa Claus summers. But the Isle is out there somewhere, maybe not in this dimension, but we’re fairly certain it exists. 

End of the Rainbow    

And what Mobile fairy tale roundup is complete without our famous leprechaun? Most locals know the story. So does the rest of the world. 

The wee little man who lived in a tree, not to be confused with Zacchaeus, became YouTube’s viral video sensation (with 26 million views and counting).

The story begins in Crichton in March 2006 when residents reported seeing a diminutive figure in a tree. Some say it was a green-clad elf. Others, including Crichton’s leading leprechaun experts, squashed rumors, saying the figure was merely branches, casting shadows. 

Today, the tree is leprechaun-less. But according to the faithful, at the end of every Mobile rainbow is a pot of gold. And on moonless nights, listen carefully. Through the sounds of rustling leaves, one hears the leprechaun’s voice, speaking softly, “Always after me lucky charms.”        

And they lived happily ever after.

text by Emmett Burnett • illustration by Laurie kilpatrick

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