Balladeer’s Blog kicks off a multi-part examination of the neglected 1800s folk figure called the Fool Killer. I will cover the various stories featuring the Fool Killer and the different ways the character was used by the authors. If I ever examine the related character called the Rascal Whaler it will be in a separate series of blog posts.
NOTE: FOOL KILLER LORE IS STRICTLY FOR ADULTS. IT IS NOT FOR FOOLS WHO ARE SIMPLE-MINDEDLY OFFENDED BY ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING.
The Fool Killer stories began in 1850s North Carolina. Charles Napoleon Bonaparte Evans, editor of the newspaper called The Milton Chronicle, introduced the character around 1851 (some sources say as early as the late 1840s). If Evans had been a political cartoonist he might have used the Fool Killer as his mascot, like the figure Punch over in England or Puck here in the U.S.
However, since Evans was all about the written word, he used the Fool Killer as a much more active figure. Evans’ Fool Killer – claiming Jesse Holmes as his real name – roamed North Carolina and Virginia (which at the time still consisted of what would become West Virginia) looking for fools to kill with a club/ walking stick he always carried with him. The character would then send letters to Editor Evans explaining why he had chosen victims, defending his actions with puckish commentary.
I’ve always been struck by the similarity with the way real-life serial killers would correspond with newspapers, explaining and/or defending their deeds. In the case of Charles Evans’ Fool Killer, it was Evans himself writing the letters as if they were pieces of correspondence that “Jesse Holmes” sent to him.
The killings never happened, of course, and were simply Evans’ way of using political commentary in an entertaining way. Instead of high-brow social criticism, the Fool Killer Letters were very dark satire in which the mock author of the letters bashed the life out of corrupt politicians and other malefactors.
Among the malefactors slain by the Fool Killer were slave-owners who abused their slaves and Southerners who agitated for secession from the Union. Like his fellow Southerner Sam Houston, Charles Evans saw secession as a monumental folly sure to bring about death and destruction on a massive scale.
Evans’ Fool Killer often expressed contempt for politicians who wanted to tear the country apart and, given the temper of the times, he shrewdly used the fictional murderer as a way of putting himself once-removed from the sentiments expressed by the club-wielding vigilante. (Though it was no secret that Evans himself was the author of the Fool Killer Letters.)
I will examine each surviving letter in chronological order, but first I want to make it clear where Evans took the character. In the late 1850s the Fool Killer preyed upon his targets and “corresponded” with Evans roughly on a monthly basis.
The fictional figure railed against secession up until the shots were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. Then Charles Evans retired the character with a missive reeking with disgust. The Fool Killer was washing his hands of the fools who wanted war and warned what was to come in a way similar to Houston’s famous “ruins of this Republic” speech at the Civil War’s outset.
Around 1870 Evans revived the character in a way that added significantly to the lore surrounding the vaguely supernatural figure. The Fool Killer resumed his activities, claiming he had been hibernating in a cave since 1861. He had emerged now, clad in up-to-date men’s fashions like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Still wielding his walking stick/ club/ cudgel, combined with the Bowie Knives he added to his arsenal in 1861, the Fool Killer started another fictional killing spree complete with tongue-in-cheek letters to Evans.
(If you’re not getting a handle on the type of dark humor involved in the Fool Killer letters, use the following example. Picture a modern day Fool Killer writing to the news media about his encounter with someone claiming to be the person who talked Justin Bieber into pursuing a singing career. “So, needless to say I bludgeoned him to death and buried him in an unmarked grave” this Fool Killer might write.)
On to the surviving Fool Killer Letters:
FEBRUARY 12th, 1857: From High Rock, NC – The Fool Killer makes reference to past correspondence with Editor Charles Evans, then moves on to recap his recent escapades.
He refers to how extraordinarily cold the winter has been and how the abnormally heavy snowfall has hindered his “operations.” On the bright side it also killed off several fools before he could get to them since some of them drank too much, passed out in the snow on their way home from taverns and froze to death. (I’ll mention again that it is interesting to see such coal-black humor from a time period in which we are led to believe people would have huffed and puffed indignantly at such callous joking about death.)
The Fool Killer says that his previous letter to Evans ended with him boarding the train for Raleigh. He says that when the train arrived in Durham he caught wind of a potential slave rebellion brewing near Red Mountain. Feeling it was probably the same paranoid rumor-mongering that had been afflicting the South ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion our main character decided to investigate and knock off any fools sowing panic.
Jesse Holmes determined it was just more foolishness, all caused by the discovery of an old rusty gun barrel in a kitchen. Especially paranoid types had taken the discovery as a sign that the slaves were secretly compiling arms. And so volunteer “Savage Patrols” had been established to roam the area and make sure any slaves at large had proper permission papers with them and any whites accompanying slaves had proper paperwork to make sure they weren’t Underground Railroad agents.
The gist of Evans’ piece was that these over-anxious patrols needed “more watching than the negroes!” (I told you these letters were not for the simple-mindedly offended.) The Fool Killer, apparently as capable of prodigious leaps as Spring-Heeled Jack, bounded into the treetops to observe some of the patrols at work.
These hyper-paranoid fools proved as destructive as SJW’s, harassing innocent people while pretending they were doing a public service, as well as squabbling violently among themselves. The Fool Killer bided his time and dealt with the remaining “patrollers” who did not destroy each other. No slave rising was in the offing, it was all the work of fools frightened by shadows.
Jesse Holmes then stated that December 29th of 1856 had found him back in Durham. He used his weapon to take out several fools who had gathered to watch Professor Hedrick of the University of North Carolina. It was claimed that Hedrick was going to rise in a hot-air balloon strong enough to lift the Prof, his wagon and the wagon’s team of six horses.
(Hey, if the Fool Killer preyed upon rubes naïve enough to believe that nonsense he’d have a field day with today’s UFO nuts and chem-trail loons.)
“In bobbin’ around” the author claimed to confront a student bad-mouthing former President Millard Fillmore, who had recently been defeated in his new campaign for the presidency. Fillmore had been a Whig, like Charles Evans himself, so Evans seems to have been motivated by that Old Whig loyalty to have the Fool Killer claim he put another notch on his stick by slaying the student.
(The Whigs had formed in opposition to what they saw as Andrew Jackson’s heavy-handed ways back when he was President. Sarcastically calling him “King Andrew the First” they had established their new party, ending the Era of Good Feelings.)
Among the other victims the Fool Killer boasted about slaying this time around:
*** A vain Southern Belle who thought too much of herself
*** The addle-minded young men and horny old widowers who fell victim to her charms
*** In Alamance County, NC a mob of whites trying a Negro for fashioning a dirk knife for himself. The Fool Killer boasted that he slew the judge AND the jury of this lynch mob in the making. (Evans was no anti-slavery man but he does seem to have been highly critical of the treatment of slaves.)
*** A physician slave-owner who had given one of his slaves a Permission Letter so broadly written (in the Fool Killer’s estimation) that it would have given any pack of paranoid Patrollers an excuse to declare it fraudulent and punish the slave. (Bizarrely paternal assumption? Difficult to say but I love written accounts like this that are challenging and puzzling for us modern readers.)
*** Another gang of Patrollers trigger-happily firing off their guns at just about anything that moved.
*** In High Falls, NC a Justice of the Peace who had taken to swearing in people on a copy of the North Carolina Standard newspaper instead of a Bible. Another dark political joke. As Evans’ Milton Chronicle was a paper loyal to the vanishing Whig Party the Standard was loyal to the Democrats. Back then news outlets were at least honest about their partisan affiliation, unlike today.
*** At Morton’s Store in northwest Alamance County a Holy-Roller who bets on elections reading aloud from the Standard. He also beat – non-fatally it seems – the customers listening to the man PLUS the store owner behind the counter for using his business to push Democrat politics to his customers. (Hear that, Jack Dorsey? Or any of the other businesses who peddle political division along with their wares.)
*** An unscrupulous Land Speculator.
The Fool Killer then signed off, warning that he would be targeting Danville next.
FOR PART TWO CLICK HERE
I WILL EXAMINE THE NEXT LETTER SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK FOR UPDATES. EVENTUALLY I’LL REACH THE FOOL KILLER PLAY BY STEPHEN VINCENT BENET PLUS THE HELEN EUSTIS NOVEL AND THE ANTHONY PERKINS MOVIE BASED OFF THAT NOVEL. I’LL EVEN INCLUDE COMIC BOOK VERSIONS OF THE FOOLKILLER.
FOR MY LOOK AT JOE MAGARAC, THE STEEL MILL VERSION OF JOHN HENRY AND PAUL BUNYAN, CLICK HERE
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