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General

Oct 29 2015
Boyington Oak

Boyington Oak

Categories: General | Posted by: Sean Herman

 

 

This is the third blog from the series I have been writing for my project, The Serpents of Bienville .  The blog is based around the illustration I drew for the story of “Boyington Oak”.  You can learn more about the story, or how to purchase a print here.  Hope you enjoy!  


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“He prophesied that his innocence would be proven, for after his death, a strong oak tree would grow from his grave, and everyone would know that when they saw this tree he spoke the truth, and they would have to live with the knowledge that they killed an innocent man.”


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Illustration entitled “Boyington Oak” 11″x17″ Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

As the rope was put around Charles Boyington’s neck, he proclaimed his innocence to the thousands watching, all awaiting in anticipation of his gruesome execution.  As the mob screamed for his sentence to be fulfilled, he made the people a promise.  He foretold that his innocence would be shown, for after his death, a powerful oak tree would grow from his heart, buried deep in the grave. Everyone would know that when they saw this tree he had spoken the truth, and they would have to live with the knowledge that they put to death an innocent man.  Travel to downtown Mobile, behind a stone wall dating to the 1830’s, and you will witness the most peculiar sight.  Vines run up wrought iron fences that surround crypts carved out of stone, standing silently under the live oaks, stretching upward to the heavens, like the hands of deceased pulling themselves out of their graves.  Just outside the stone wall that surrounds this cemetery, which has been closed since 1898,  grows a huge live oak, reaching its arms upward in attempts at freedom.  This oak grows out of a lone grave site, the cemetery plot of Charles R.S. Boyington.


boyingtonoakuse15Charles R.S. Boyington arrived in Mobile from Connecticut in 1833 at the age of 23.  With the rapid growth in Mobile, young working class men like Boyington were arriving in large numbers in Mobile, causing the cost of living to sky rocket and crime to run rampant.  Prior to a central penitentiary being built in 1834, and the first police chief being appointed in the 1820’s, Mobile had been policed only by volunteer patrols.  A full time citizen watch was established in 1821, and all free male citizens 16 and older were responsible for duty.  Crime began to revolve around houses of prostitution, with murder, burglaries and assaults being painfully common.(1) Large amounts of Mobile’s new population were living in boarding houses, including Boyington.  Gambling was widespread, and said to be one of things that attracted Boyington to the area.  His roommate was Nathanial Frost, a thin and sickly man, but for good reason.  He suffered from tuberculosis, a disease ravaging through the population at the time.  Both Boyington and Frost were printers, which didn’t provide the pay that would have allowed them to mix with Mobile’s upper class.  Stories say that Boyington tried to blend in by going to dances and events.  At one he met a woman named Rose, and somehow he won her attention. In an almost storybook way, Boyington and Rose fell in love.  With the aid of one of her father’s staff, Lydia, they communicated via notes she would quietly pass between them.  Rose’s father didn’t approve of Boyington, primarily because he felt that his income was not enough to properly provide for Rose.  So, just as the movies go, her father forbade them from seeing each other.

Boyington’s love became an infatuation that consumed him, to the point that he stopped attending social events to write poetry for Rose. Before long, his hopeless romantic daydreaming cost him his printing job.  With a new reputation for poor work and musing, Boyington found himself unable to find another job, and with no income, having no chance to ever receive approval from Rose’s father.  His lofty dreams of marriage to Rose were slipping through his fingers.  He became a broken, desperate man.

Present day Church Street Cemetery, Mobile, Alabama

Present day Church Street Cemetery, Mobile, Alabama

Seeing Boyington broke and pained, Frost felt sympathy for his friend.  Thinking he could help, he offered to pay for Boyington’s room and board until his could get back on his feet.  Boyington’s pride was hurt, and as a result, he lashed out at Frost.  After calming Boyington down, Frost knew he had to change directions to help his friend.  He had to try to build up his pride, to help his look good to his beloved.  Frost went into detail about his ability to carve beautiful pieces of art out of wood, which inspired Boyington to learn from Frost how to carve a heart of  wood for his last chance to ultimately win her father over and be with Rose. Frost agreed to meet Boyington in their usually haunt, The Church Street Graveyard (founded in 1819 at the height of yellow fever epidemics), to teach Boyington about carving.  Boyington did learn two things that day, his friend’s ability to whittle beautiful images out of wood, and the stash of money and valuables Frost had hidden in a trunk in their room.  Frost, sickly and thin, was hiding everything Boyington would need to win Rose.  Could Boyington have viewed Frost as expendable to obtain his dreams?  Could they have ever dreamed that they would soon be resting in the same cemetery?

Boyington returned to the boarding house that night under peculiar circumstances: he was alone. Frost was no where in sight, but according to his landlord, he reassured them that Frost just wanted to spend some time alone in the cemetery.  According to the landlord, Boyington handed her a package to be given to Rose, and proceeded to buy a ticket for the James Monroe which was leaving the port at Mobile that night for Montgomery.  He was going to find work in Montgomery, and win back the hand of his prized love.

Close up of illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" by Sean Herman

Close up of illustration entitled “Boyington Oak” by Sean Herman

By the next morning Frost had still not returned to the boarding house, and the landlord grew suspicious. She contacted the Sheriff, expressing her distrust of Boyington.  Nathaniel Frost’s body was discovered later that day, in the friends old haunt, The Church Street Cemetery.  Frost had been stabbed multiple times, suspected to be by his own carving knife, which was no where to be found.  Frost body was discovered May 11, 1834. His pocket watch and money had been stolen.  Authorities decided there were no other leads, so they concluded that it was obvious only one person could have committed such a crime, Charles Boyington. 

A few years earlier Mobile had changed from a citizen watch to having a sheriff and police force.  The new police force operated on it’s own terms.  In one instance, the force was accused of claiming a need for “a little lynch discipline” to being used when four free black men came through the area, causing a fear of abolitionists to spread like wildfire.  Mob mentalities became completely commonplace.  This was the backdrop Charles Boyington was up against. On May 12, 1834, the town paper printed an article, written by Mayor John Stocking Jr., claiming that Boyington was suspected of murdering Nathaniel Frost, and offering a $250 award for his capture. Local news reports also declared that Boyington had “cultivated” Frost with “acts of kindness and attention” eventually killing him “for the sake of plunder.”  The race was on to find Boyington.

boyingtonoak16By Thursday May 15th, Charles Boyington had been apprehended while aboard the James Monroe.  He was taken away in shackles, and brought back to a Mobile jail, declaring his innocence until the last day he lived.  Boyington was greeted by huge crowds, screaming at the man they believed committed the most “diabolical act of atrocity.”  Even Rev. William Hamilton, who visited Boyington in an attempt at death bed conversion, called him “the archest hypocrite, the vilest villain for hardihood, the sun ever shone upon.”(2)  He had a very short trial in November of 1834, with the jury only deliberating for an hour and 15 minutes, which delivered to him quickly a gruesome fate.  Charles was to be hung in February of 1835. 

boyingtonoakuse17Days passed quickly, and Boyington spent them proclaiming his innocence, never changing his story. He even went so far as appealing to the Alabama Supreme Court, on the grounds that one juror was British, having foreign citizenship, and another saying that they would hang Boyington himself if given the opportunity.  The high court ruled against him, stating that he waited too long to appeal.  Interestingly enough, two years later the court reversed the precedent on a similar issue.  Some say that Rose visited him in jail, wearing the carved heart he had made for her around her neck.  Rose never believed that her Charles would commit such a murder, and continued seeing him all she could.  Once her father found out, he kept her under 24-hour surveillance, forbidding her visits.  Boyington wrote to her, sending her poetry and songs, but she was allowed no contact.  In a way, she was imprisoned alongside her love.  Boyington never cracked on his claims, nor would he cease, creating a dramatic scheme that would prove to the world his innocence. 


Close up of illustration entitled "Boyington Oak" by Sean Herman

Close up of illustration entitled “Boyington Oak” by Sean Herman

Could Charles Boyington have been telling the truth?  Was an innocent man convicted  and put to death? Is the story of Charles Boyington just one in an unfortunately long line of narratives about unjust convictions?  As far back as 1863, almost 30 years after Boyington was trying to appeal his case, there was the case of Chipita Rodriguez.  Rodriquez was convicted of murdering a horse trader, and promptly executed in San Patricio County, Texas.  Texas Legislature passed a resolution 122 years later exonerating her.(5)  Case after case can be found, even popular culture has been inspired time and time again by these scenes. Everyone can think of a song or film dealing with the matter.  Dr. Richard Kimble anyone?

Movie poster for "The Fugitive", 1993

Movie poster for “The Fugitive”, 1993

We all remember the classic 1993 film “The Fugitive”, with Harrison Ford spending 90 minutes yelling “I didn’t kill my wife!” while fleeing Tommy Lee Jones.  The true story of the film is about Dr. Sam Sheppard, with whom the character of Richard Kimble was based on. Sheppard was convicted in 1954 of the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, and was found guilty despite evidence proving he didn’t commit the crime. According to reports, very much like the movie and television series, the investigating police completely overlooked obvious evidence, primarily because they believed Sheppard was the killer—and they needed a conviction. Blood was also found in the home which did not match that of Sheppard, his wife, or their kids. Sheppard was eventually exonerated in 1966, but the case had taken an colossal toll on him and he was to meet his end four years later of liver disease, almost completely ruined both financially and emotionally.

Rubin Carter and Bob Dylan

Rubin Carter and Bob Dylan

On June 17th, 1966, police arrested Rubin Carter, a professional boxer and his friend John Artis for a triple-homicide committed in the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey. Police stopped Carter’s car and brought him and Artis, also in the car, to the scene of the crime. Upon searching the car, the police found ammunition that fit the weapons used in the murder. Police took no fingerprints at the crime scene and lacked the facilities to conduct proper tests on the gunshot residue. Carter and Artis were tried and convicted twice (1967 and 1976) for the murders, but after the second conviction was overturned in 1985, prosecutors chose not to pursue the case for a third time. Carter served as the inspiration for the 1975 Bob Dylan song “Hurricane”, one that garnered major popularity and attention to Carter’s cause.(7)

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For something that he never done

Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world. “

“Hurricane” Bob Dylan

Mumia Abu Jamal

Mumia Abu Jamal

Most prisoners that appeal a wrongful conviction will not be as fortunate as Carter to live to see their exoneration. Many of these prisoners are arrested because of political motives, accused of crimes many believe they didn’t commit, in order to further a political agenda.  Mumia Abu Jamal is the most prominent political prisoner in the US. In 1981, in a Cointelpro style investigation, he was arrested and sentenced to death in an what many believe was an unjust trial for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. Mumia was an organizer and campaigner against police abuses in the African-American community, and was the President of the Association of Black Journalists. After his conviction and sub sequential imprisonment, he continued writing and has published several books and other commentaries. Mumia’s writing is dealing in the topics of wrongful convictions, and other human rights mistreatments.  most notable is his book Live From Death Row, which was released in 1995.  Mumia has many incredibly vocal supporters.  The front man of the popular musical activist group, Rage Against the Machine, Zack De Le Rocha, has spoken to Congress, condemning the U.S. government’s treatment of him. To see for yourself and to learn more visit freemumia.org.

The West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin photographed after their arrest in June 1993 by the West Memphis Police Department

The West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin photographed after their arrest in June 1993 by the West Memphis Police Department

Thankfully some exonerations do come in the innocent detainee’s lifetime, but not always in the form deserved. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were convicted in 1994 for the deaths of three local boys. The prosecution alleged it was part of a satanic ritual. This was part of a string of cases that had been known as “The Satanic Panic,” for which many people were later exonerated, like the employees at the Fells Acres Day School, on the basis of groundless and untrue accusations.  A mass hysteria swept the country, creating a cloud of accusations of “satanic ritual abuse” and murders.(8) Unfortunately, the West Memphis Three, which Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were known as, got swept into this hysteria.  The case was documented in the film “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hills”, as well as two sequels which garnered the accused a large following, including many celebrities, who believed in the innocence of the defendants. In 2011, they entered Alford pleas in exchange for having their sentences reduced to time served. While their convictions stand legally, they are widely considered to have been wrongfully convicted.  Justice for the three is still sought to this day, along with an attempt to find the real murderer.7  Learn more about this case at www.wm3.org.

These are just a few examples of the victims of unjust imprisonments, you can find a list of exonerated death row inmates here.


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Charles Boyington stood looking out at the thousands gathered to watch him die.  In the his last minutes of his short life, as he stood with a noose around his neck,  Boyington made a declaration. From his now damned and condemned mouth spilled forth a prophecy that could only become mythical lore.  He proclaimed that a great oak tree would grow from his innocent heart, buried deep in the grave, pushing and breaking out, reaching to the heavens.  With every inch the tree grows, those who convicted him would be forced to remember their anger that killed an innocent young man.  Their guilt will also grow, until they are consumed by the arms of the oak.

The present day "Boyington Oak"

The present day “Boyington Oak”

Months after Charles Boyington’s execution, the city of Mobile had begun to forget all about Boyington and his murdered friend Nathaniel Frost.  Stories say that Rose even met a suitor her father approved of, eventually packing her carved heart away into a box, so she could be free to love again.  One day a peculiar thing was spotted in the cemetery.  A small sprout had began to grow from a grave in Potter’s Field (where the poor or unknown were buried), only sixty yards from where Nathaniel Frost’s body was found.  From the grave of Charles Boyington, that sprout grew into a powerful oak tree.  Boyington Oak now stands tall, outside the walls of the Church Street Graveyard, on the edge of a parking lot, near a playground, declaring his innocence.  With the tree being enough of a grave marker and reminder now, his actual gravestone has long since been removed.  The branches now outstretched, the tree takes on the appearance of a person, pulling itself out of the deep catacombs.  It’s said that on those dark nights, when the warm southern wind howls in the branches, you can hear Charles Boyington’s voice, proclaiming his innocence, reminding a world quick to judgement that an innocent man died that day. 

boyingtonoak20In an article written in 1847 in the Albany (New York) Evening Journal entitled, “The Wrong Man Hung”, Boyington’s innocence was proclaimed by its authors, who had researched the evidence from the aging case.  The journal purported a death bed confession, one from their landlord. The landlord knew about Frost’s hidden valuables, and was the one to report Frost missing.  Boyington had now become an example of the perils of capital punishment.  Walt Whitman even refers to the cases as “the story of the Boyington mistake” in his essay “What the Defenders of the Gallows Say and an Answer Thereto”.(9)  Whether or not his innocence was a definitive reality, obvious questions now exist in Boyington’s case, along with thousands of other cases, and now the American Justice System as a whole.  In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. American prisons are filling up, huge percentages of the country are under the poverty line, and our country has more money than any other country on earth dedicated to it’s military (at $619 billion a year).(10)  What do these statistics reflect in our society, in us as a people?


The late comedian/educator Bill Hicks

The late comedian/educator Bill Hicks

The late comedian/educator Bill Hicks said,

“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people.

“Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”


boyingtonoakfullThe Southern Alabama Gulf Coast has an environment that eventually dwells deep within every living being that inhabits this swamp.  The air is thick and dense, as fog rolls over our feet, we lie in the cradle created by the gigantic aging oaks that surround us.  One of these trees lies in a plot of land dedicated to the souls that roamed before us.  This oak, The Boyington Oak, grows from the heart of innocence, growing outward, to be hidden no longer.  As we look on at the massive tree, we are reminded of the lives lost because of an unjust system, one that we are responsible to transform.  As we look at the large, outstretched branches, we realize that we could be the crowded masses, the ones who condemned Boyington, and living through the eyes of fear drove us to it.  No longer can our lives be dictated by the visions that hold us hostage.  Our time exonerate is now.  For we are the serpents of Bienville.


.

1. “Down the Years”, Paul M. Pruitt Jr, and Robert Bond Higgins

2. Hamilton, William T., and Ala Mobile. The Last Hours of Charles R.S. Boyington,: Who Was Executed at Mobile, Alabama, for the Murder of Nathaniel Frost. Perpetrated May 10, 1834. Mobile [Ala.]:: Printed at the Commercial Register Office., 1835. Print.

3. Bingham, Joan, and Dolores Riccio. More Haunted Houses. New York: Pocket, 1991. Print.

4. Pruitt, Paul M.; Higgins, Robert Bond (1963). “Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Mobile: The Long Story of Charles R. S. Boyington”. Gulf Coast Historical Review 11 (Spring 1996): 6–40.

5. “Wrongful Execution.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

6.”10 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of Heinous Crimes – Listverse.” Listverse. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

7.”10 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of Heinous Crimes – Listverse.” Listverse. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

8.”Fell Acres Day Care Center Preschool Trial.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

9.Whitman, Walt, and Cleveland Rodgers. The Gathering of the Forces,. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920. Print.

10.”United States Incarceration Rate.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

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Massacre Island, or Isle of Bones…

Categories: General | Posted by: Sean Herman

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“Early French explorers originally dubbed it Massacre Island for the mounds of sun-bleached bones that they found there. What they didn’t realize was that they had disturbed a sacred Native American burial ground that is rumored to be watched over by supernatural specters at night…”


Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Illustration entitled “Massacre Island” 11″x17″ Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Sea travel had it’s way with these explorers, the salt of the water drying out their skin like a tanned hide.  Their lips had become arid deserts, cracking as they tried to speak to one another, but at this length in their travels, there was nothing left to say.  They sat in silence, fighting the pains of being dehydrated and yet the salty sea seemed to permeate through every inch of clothing at the same time.  Would they finally reach a destination today, finally leave this cursed water?

From a distance the weary explorers saw huge, white hills—hills that grew to look like small mountains floating on the sea.  Was this the oasis they longed for? Had the months of travel caused these explorers to see things that were not there? Their imaginations raced as they envisioned what great things could be found on these ivory mountains.  What was the environment like there? What beasts and creatures wander these isles, these summits floating on the sea?  Most importantly, what souls lived there? What did these people engage in, and what did their culture believe?  Most importantly, they asked themselves, what could France gain from them?  The thoughts began to fill the explorers’ heads, overflowing out of there jaws, to become ideas shared with one another.  This was the first conversation in months. Finally, there was hope.

With the islands now coming much more clearly into sight through their salt crusted eyes, the explorers now waited in anticipation to see the new land they were going to be making their Canaan.  As they finally grew close enough to see the summits, they were taken aback in horror.  Their aspirations and towering ideas were destroyed, and nothing but mortal fear lie in the ashes.  As the ships floated closer, the explorers now wished they could get as far from these morbid islands as they could, but the current from the water drew them closer to the island, closer to their fears. The nearer they became, their fears became much more of their reality.  Now insight, the mountains appearance changed into something grotesque and macabre.  As the ships dropped anchor, the men boarded their exploration vessels, as if they were headed on their death march.  The boats glided onto the wet sand, stopping suddenly with a loud thud on the shore.  As they looked up, trembling in fear, they could see what was, from a distance, once alluring peaks of a promised land, now the substance of nightmares.  In front of the explorers, piling higher than they could see, were bones, skulls, staring back at them, bleached by the sun, reaching all the way to the heavens.  The weary explorers had finally reached their port of call, the isle of bones: Massacre Island.

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The le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville

The le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville

In 1699 the le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, sailed into Mobile Bay.  The brothers would go on to be the founders of many of the cities that lie on the Gulf Coast, Bienville being the heavily tattooed founder of Mobile, but that’s another story. (Entitled “Bienville’s Sacred Oath”, which can be found as an earlier blog on our site). After dropping anchor because of a passing storm, the group came upon the ghastily sight, piles of human bones found all throughout the island.

A journal belonging to Andre Penicaut, a carpenter, was found that gave an even closer description of the travels with the brothers.  Penicaut sailed with Iberville to the French province of Louisiana in 1699, not returning to France until 1721. In those twenty-two years he saw and documented the trails that were left.  He began his writing in Louisiana and finished upon his return to France.  As a ship carpenter, Penicaut was chosen as a member of several key expeditions, giving his first hand accounts of these explorations, in a very objective way. Penicaut helped to build the first post in Louisiana, at Old Biloxi, and the second post on the Mobile River.  Here we have Penicaut’s account of the first site of the “Isle of Bones”: 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“When we disembarked, we became terrified upon finding such a prodigious number of human skeletons that they formed a mountain, there were so many of them.  We learned afterwards that this was a numerous nation who, being pursued and having withdrawn to this region, had almost all died here of sickness; and as the manner of savages is to gather together all the bones of the dead, they had carried them into this spot.  This nation was called Mobila, and a small number of them survive…  M. de Bienville, the brother of M. d’Hyberville, who commanded us, named it Isle Massacre on account of all these bones.”1

Stories grew from these accounts and continued to spread until a pile of bones became a tremendous mountain.  The final resting place for the remains of all those people, however, was not meant to be seen, but respected under the sand. In all truth, “the mountain of bones was just a burial mound that had broken open during a hurricane, but it horrified the crew so much that they set sail up the Mobile River and entered the Mississippi/Alabama/Louisiana Delta Gulf Coast Region.”2

Illustration of the Leonid meteors in 1833.  The event inspired the title for "Stars Fell on Alabama"

Illustration of the Leonid meteors in 1833. The event inspired the title for “Stars Fell on Alabama”

The stories and lore surrounding the island only grew, even with knowledge of the truth being quite common. A majority of these stories became based around the island, or at least one suffering from bad luck.  Carl Carmer wrote his famous book “Stars Fell on Alabama” about his experiences living in Alabama in the 1920’s and about the stories he heard from the local people.  In all the beautiful Southern detail, locals of Dauphin Island were jumping at the chance to give their story about the things that happened on their fair island, and what might continue to haunt them to that day.  Here’s an exert from two of those stories.

“’They built a beautiful church here.  They called it Fort Belle Eglise.  It had a high tower on it and at the top of that was a big gold cross.  Fishermen could see it when they were a good many miles out.  One day a British pirate ship from Jamaica saw it and piled into the harbor here with the black flag flying.  The people were scared and ran away and hid-all except the priest-Father Hivre his name was.  He ran to his church and up the steps into the tower-then he climbed the rest of the way up to the cross and managed to get it loose.  By that time the pirates were already in the town.  There was a big wide well beside the church and Father Hivre jumped from the top of the tower carrying the gold cross with him right into it.  Nobody has ever seen anything of either of them since.  When pirates couldn’t find the cross they were so mad they burned the church, and the place where it stood has never been found.  But we all look for it sometimes.  Every boy on the island thinks he’ll find that well…”

massacreisland7“‘Captain Kidd used to bury his treasure on this island,” said Veronica imperturbably, “and back in nineteen sixteen Jimmie Mellon found it.  A storm washed away half the shell bank and uncovered a brick cistern underneath a lot of Indian stuff.  Jimmie opened the cistern and there was a clay pot with the cover sealed up.  Mr. Dewberry was in charge of the island then-he and some rich folks were planning to develop it-so Jimmie closed up the cistern and sent for him.  As soon as he came they both ran over to the spot and opened the cistern but the pot was gone. There was one old Spanish gold-piece at the bottom of the cistern.  Nobody had left the island and nobody could leave for a while without bein’ searched.  But they never found anything.  Jimmie says he bets the Mermaid took it.’

‘Why did all these people give up and go back to the mainland?’ I asked.

‘Bad luck,’ said John.  ‘It all started, they say, ‘round the year seventeen-forty.  This harbor was better than the one at Pensacola then, and all the big boats used to make it.  Then one day the big sailing vessel Bellona was standing off waiting to take the governor, Bienville, to France.  The weather was just as calm and clear as it is now.  All of a sudden she sank-with out any warning-sank and drowned half her crew.  They say she just slipped straight down.  A couple of weeks later come a twelve-day blow that just wiped out the harbor-took one arm right away.  Nobody would stay here after that.  The rich families all left and the houses and orchards rotted away.  Spain didn’t get much when she bought us from France.  But if we could get some salvagers after the Bellona and bring her up, we’d get flush times again.  Her sinking’ was what started it all.’”3


A photo of modern day Dauphin Island

A photo of modern day Dauphin Island

With the importance of this beautiful island being so evident, the fight against the tide continues to this day. Five years after an oil spill, ten years after the island was violently split in two, and forty seven years after it’s hay day, the juggle of sand continues.  Trucks carry mountains of beach, moving shifting sands, desperately trying to keep the island that is so loved, the idea that is so adored by it’s people, together.  When looking at the stories and folklore of the little “Isle Dauphine”, it seems to be one shrouded in myth, destruction and rebirth.  Time and time again, this island has been rebuilt on shifting sands, fighting tooth and nail to keep it together.  Could this all be the effect of a mythical curse for disrupting a sacred burial ground in 1699?

A map of the early settlements on Mobile Bay.  The arrow points to Dauphin Island.

A map of the early settlements on Mobile Bay. The arrow points to Dauphin Island.

The reality of the origin of “Massacre Island” might answer this question. The “Isle of Bones” is what is classified as a barrier island.  These islands are long, narrow, offshore deposits of sand or sediment that run parallel to the coastline, serving as protection for the shore from hurricanes.  They are separated from the main land by a shallow sound, bay, or lagoon, protecting vital wetlands.  Barrier islands also operate as a type of dune system, yet dunes that were recorded to be massive in the times of Bienville are now in modern days falling into small hills.  Some beliefs are that these islands migrate, depending on storms and environmental conditions.  What effect might years of habitation on this island produced?  Daniel Cusick says in his series as an E&E Reporter:

“Coastal erosion, storm surge and sea-level rise are all conspiring to wash the island away, or at least dismember it to such a degree that it no longer functions as a hurricane buffer, wildlife sanctuary, historic site or prime vacation spot.”  

He continues: 

“The breakup of Dauphin Island would also be one of the only known cases of a U.S. municipality giving up substantial parts of its landmass to the sea and put the state in the untenable position of seeing nearly half of its seashore lost or reconfigured, with huge implications for tourism, fisheries, transportation, commerce and hurricane resilience.” 

A close up of Illustration entitled "Massacre Island"

A close up of Illustration entitled “Massacre Island”

Dunes, as seen from a distance by French explorers covered in bones, are the heart of keeping this island together.  These mountains of bones were created from sacred burial grounds, being ripped open by a hurricane, exposing what lay beneath, for the explorers attempting to colonize an unknown land to witness.  Bleached white bones, thrown about like pillaged relics, from the heart of the island, from a sacred reverence that the explorers would never fathom.  That which wasn’t understood became unholy, the unknown became savage, and thus was the creation of “Massacre Island”.  Colonizing those “savages” and as a result, creating a civilization that is now what they know and understand.  They were ultimately doing away with all footprints left by the natives.  In a short time, this new civilization erased what the migrating natives believed and practiced, and created settlements that were permanent in their eyes. In the creation of permanent living spaces on the shifting sands of an unknown barrier island, was our society essentially established by trying to take control of that which can’t be tamed, that which will not be controlled?  

“Civilization comes with greater control of impulses. We control violence, the state is there to control ourselves and control others. We also have something called self-control. Inner directed self-control, whereby we know there are certain things we don’t do anymore. You could argue that civilization is increasing control over human nature.” -Louise Fresco

Myths, stories, and legends are our attempts to explain the unexplainable.  We tell stories around a fire, around the table, in a place of worship, trying to define that which shouldn’t have to be put into words.  Once we name something, we limit what it can be.  Humanity has a longing to search for explanation, and ultimately, create permanence in impermanence, to control our circumstances and environment.  Could that idea be, at our core, what is fighting to keep this beautiful island community alive? The fight for control, is that the island’s curse?  Or more importantly, is that our curse?  Could the true Massacre that took place on this island be that of the creation of modern civilization itself? 

A close up of Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

A close up of Illustration entitled “Massacre Island” 11″x17″ Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Looking back at the story we began with, we may see something with new eyes. In front of the explorers, piling higher than they could see, were bones, skulls, staring back at them, bleached by the sun, reaching all the way to the heavens.

Could the skulls staring back at the fearful explorers actually be the ghosts of our futures past?  Are these haints showing to us our fears of the loss of control, the unknown, which would ultimately be the end of our existence?  Death is humanity’s number one fear.  In death, we give up all control.

The beauty of a barrier island is that, left uncontrolled, it will protect the ecosystem and mainland it guards.  Control is not part of nature’s plan.  Eventually though, the island will change shape, and its life will end.  Nothing is permanent, not even something as mythological as humanity’s “Massacre Island”.

  1. “Fleur de Lys and Calumet” by Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, Original
    1723 French text translated/published 1953 ppgs 9-11
  2. Alabama Footprints Exploration Lost and Forgotten stories, Donna R. Causey pg 23 
  3. “Stars Fell On Alabama”  Excerpts from the 1934 book telling of visit to Dauphin Island by Arthur Carl Carmer ppgs 249-251
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The Harbinger of Death

Categories: Featured Blogs, General | Posted by: Sean Herman

This is the second installment in a month long series I am doing for the Halloween season.  Each piece is the story behind one of the illustrations I drew for The Serpents of Bienville Collection.  I hope you enjoy!  If you like the story, and the illustration, you can purchase it over at serpentsofbienville.com .  Thanks!

“For the Choctaw, the black panther steals souls, particularly the souls of those unprepared to die…Whether a harbinger of death…or as a symbol of the dark side of feminine nature, the black panther is both a symbol of death and rebirth…the nalushashito or soul-eater.”1

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Illustration entitled "The Harbinger of Death" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman
Illustration entitled “The Harbinger of Death” 11″x17″ Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

The dense Alabama wilderness has a way of becoming a black cloak at night fall.  The veil falls over your eyes, guiding you into a void of towering pines like smoke stacks, a thick fog floating at your feet.  These are the nights that any slight sound becomes a ghost, whispering in your ear.  The earth at your feet opens wide, swallowing you into your grave, as a shrill scream echoes in the distance, ringing in your head as you plunge to your inevitable end.  All that can be heard is the deafening shriek, echoing through your mind as the ground closes up around you.  The pine needles are teeth in a closing mouth.  The last bits of dirt are thrown over the hole by large black paws, her mouth still billowing the cry that has sealed your fate: the cry of the Wampus Cat—the “Harbinger of Death”.

Southern Alabama is not typically where one would find black panthers, which is why special significance and lore have been placed on this beast that roams the woods.  For the Choctaw, the black panther was the stealer of souls that were not prepared to die.  This cat signifies the dark side of feminine nature, a harbinger of death, representing both death and rebirth, or simply the nalushashito, the soul-eater.1  

harbingerbloguse4The Wampus Cat lore is derived from a commonly heard story about a beautiful Indian woman, hiding in the words, watching her husband and the men of her tribe practicing magic.  The belief was that it was forbidden for women to be present during these rituals.  So she watched in secret, clutching the hide of a mountain cat around her body for disguise and protection, watching their sacred ceremony take place.  Unbeknownst to the woman, she had been discovered.  As she watched, the medicine man turned and stared deep into the trees she thought were her cover, as if to be looking right into her eyes, seeing her through all darkness.  In this long silence, she became frozen.  Words slowly began to fall out of the medicine man’s mouth and the woman could feel the hide she was hiding in, to keep warm and protected from the night, begin to squeeze around her, as if it was breathing life, fusing with the woman’s flesh.  The skin of the cat became her flesh, overtaking her body, turning her into a hideous monster.  The woman fell to her knees, seemingly breathing her last breath, the sound abruptly rising into a howl, a deafening scream.  Her head lurched back, arms outstretched as she morned her now damned existence.  The myth follows, stating that if you are the one to hear that shrill cry, death is right around the corner, for she is now the “Harbinger of Death”.

Story telling and myths have a way of showing the deeper truth and belief that lie within a culture.  The ugly, the unjust, the damned will be created and turned into the recipients of the pack mentality hatred that is boiling over.  One recipient of this, time and time again, is feminine nature.  Stories from that of Eve and the Apple, Pandora’s Box, and the Salem Witch Trials seem to contain the underlying distrust of the feminine, of the woman herself.  Since the times of early story telling, duality myths always abound.  One would read these and believe that we have grown as a civilization, and we no longer hold onto these ideals, but is that really true?  Could this still be taking place today?

Leo Igwe, of The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, documented these events that sound like they were taken out of a page of history from hundreds of years past, but were unfortunately products of the 21st century. 

markedharbingbloguse3Igwe states:

“In patriarchal societies, women often are found at the lower ranks of the society. Hence they have the label of witchcraft applied to them. This explains why women are often the victims of accusation. But it is not all women who are accused. It is mainly elderly women- widows, childless women who are often targeted. Here are a few cases from Northern Ghana to illustrate my point. 

“Melatu was accused by the daughter of being responsible for her illness. She was taken to a local shrine where she was confirmed a witch. The daughter later died. She was attacked, beaten and banished from her community. Melatu is currently living in a witch camp in Ghana. 

“In 2012, I met another woman at the Kukuo witch camp. She was banished from her community for engaging in witchcraft. She could not walk. She crawled to attend to her daily chores but when I returned in February 2014, they said she had died. What happened? She was bitten by an insect one evening, she cried out for help but before they could attend to her, she passed away. 

“But another alleged witch, Bibat, could not make it to the camp. In 2010, the step son confirmed from a local diviner that she was bewitching him. And one evening, the step son confronted her in an open field and stabbed her to death. 

“Not all who are banished because of witchcraft flee to the camps. An 80 year old woman, Sinat was accused of being responsible for the death of a neighbour’s wife. She was seen in the dream by another girl in her compound. Sinat was accused of witchcraft and was banished from her community. One of her relatives accommodated her in Tamale where I met with her. 

“Her relations took her case to court with the help of the state human rights agency. While the case was in court, the chief of her village asked her to return to the community.  

“But another woman, Mega, was not as lucky. I met her in February 2014 at the witch camp in Gnani. She was banished after being accused of sorcery. I met the chief and other elders of her village and persuaded them to allow her to return to the community without success. But with the grant from Foundation Beyond Belief, she was able to leave the camp and is now trying to start a small business. 

“Vulnerable members of the population are not necessarily female. They can be male, young or old, poor or ‘rich’ people. It is not all elderly women or men, not all boys or girls that a branded witches. Witches are those with weak social political base; those unable to successfully contest accusations made against them. The tragedy is that witchcraft remains a powerful narrative in diagnosing social problems and challenges that people face…”2

Illustration by Sean Herman, "Harbinger of Death"  11"x17" on Illustration board
Illustration by Sean Herman, “Harbinger of Death” 11″x17″ on Illustration board

One can’t help but imagine a beautiful Choctaw woman, from the original “Wampus Cat” myth, cast out from her community, and forced to wander the night alone, labeled an outcast, unclean and never to return to her former home.  These modern stories, these current events, make this myth now so vivid, so uncomfortably real.  We want to imagine that this is only a legend, something to tell around a late night campfire to cause you to look twice in the vast darkness of wilderness that surrounds us, hoping the monster is not a few steps behind you.  Perhaps we are the monster, as a culture, as a civilization.  The beast is no longer the woman, but our modern civilization, the human conditions and beliefs that created this creature, this story.  Perhaps the cry we should really be hearing is that of change, and of coming back from a damned existence of judgement.

A light of hope can be found in a piece written by David Titterington,

“The above/below duality that all upright bodies experience correlates with male/female archetypes not only due to historically situated cultural constructions, or to intentional, patriarchal agendas, but also to material, bodily conditions. Rather than reifying modern sex-roles and gender differences, this realization uncovers what we can call ‘gender-landscape reciprocity’ and helps us to understand how truly gendered phenomena are before they even reach consciousness. By keeping an eye on how these subtle structures of association color our experience, we can transcend them, reducing misogyny and homophobia within ourselves. ‘Realization and liberation are simultaneous.’”3

Realization becomes liberation.  Then, “It is possible that people never understand each other, yet they always agree. each interprets the other’s words in his own way, and they live in perfect harmony, the perfect solidarity of perfect mutual misunderstanding.” 4

Maybe, if we take one more look, we can find something that was there all along, that the black panther is both a symbol of death and rebirth.  Could a true rebirth in modern civilization lie in an acceptance and understanding that we are one?  Can we ever truly be complete, or will we remain roaming into the void of wilderness, bringing death with our words, crying out for something we never will have?

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1.  https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~rnelson/asail/SAIL2/141.pdf

Owens, Louis. Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. American Indian Lit. and Critical Studies Series 26. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1998. —. “Re: Article.” E-mail sent to author. 13 Nov. 2000. —. The Sharpest Sight. American Indian Lit. and Critical Studies Series 1. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

2.  http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/igwe20140825

3.http://solpurpose.com/2013/05/22/gender-landscape-myth/

4. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1984.

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Bienville’s Sacred Oath

Categories: Featured Blogs, General | Posted by: Sean Herman

This is the first blog that I am doing in a special Halloween series for serpentsofbienville.com,  our new project site.  I will be doing one post a week, with the last blog being on Friday November 13th.  Each blog will be based around one of the illustrations I drew for The Serpents of Bienville Collection, telling the story behind the illustration, and including some ideas to ponder on.  I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.

“Alabama has many ghosts.  Stop in almost any town in the state and if you inquire around, the chances are that you will find a ghost story.  Old residents will point out a dilapidated structure known locally as a haunted house or will give you directions to a run-down decaying mansion or to the overgrown site where once stood ‘the grandest plantation house in the county’-a real haunted house.”

Kathryn Tucker Windham, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey

Illustration entitled "The Serpents of Bienville" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Illustration entitled “The Serpents of Bienville” 11″x17″ Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman


Sweat glistened from the explorers’ brows.  The heavy salts were constantly dripping into their eyes, and with the intense glare coming off the glassy waters from which their canoes were floating, their vision was completely obscured.  They would have no time to prepare for the force that was approaching.  As they would row, wiping their salt crusted brows to gain back perception, the travelers detected a dark and distinct movement in the distance.   A mass of ghosts were coming directly toward them.  It seemed the haints were slowly gliding their way, but almost as if they were going to go through, and past them. Suddenly, all movement ceases.  The men are haunted by complete stillness, complete silence.  Both parties are frozen—the explorers watching in fear, the ghosts staring emotionless.  From the clear reflection of the bay, one canoe glides to the front of the idle fleet.  A man in uniform rode forward, his canoe parting the waters.  As he glided across, his uniform fell off his skin and shattered the glass of the bay.  What arose from his flesh was a body of serpents, intertwined and becoming one.  The explorer was covered, from head to toe, in the marks of serpents, tattoos wrapping around his body, down his arms, guiding this canoe, guiding him toward the native ghosts that lie in the distance.  The explorer made the choice to become one with the ghosts, become lost in the mist, to disappear forever.  Bienville and his serpents sealed their fate with the sacred oath forged in flesh, ink and blood.  From the initial prick of his skin, he swore to share their future, to have their remains forever lost and deprived honor and recognition, to fall and disappear into obscurity in flames and ashes.  These were the Serpents of Bienville.

 


 

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Illustration of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville

The le Moyne brothers were of French Canadian descent with the elder, Iberville, already earning a name as a sea-fighter in the French wars with England.  His younger brother Bienville, a boy of twelve years, had been officer of a battery on board the ship which Iberville commanded.  Once the wars ended, the brothers were sent into the gulf of the Americas to continue further conquest for France.  Bienville was just sixteen years old when he saw the ominous mountain of bones, glistening on the slick, misty water, that would be darkly dubbed “Massacre Island”, present day Dauphin Island.

After exploring and founding settlements all along the Gulf Coast, Bienville eventually decided to stay in the New World to handle the affairs of the fledgeling areas for France, and his brother Iberville returned to Paris as a voice for the colony.  This now left Bienville as the leading Le Moyne in the colonizing of French Louisiana, having already founded Mobile in 1702 and continuing expansion to establish New Orleans in 1718.

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Close up of Illustration by Sean Herman

 

In becoming the founder of Mobile, New Orleans, and other surrounding cities, Bienville became an icon in history.  He became the subject of hero mythology and folklore, though some truth definitely could be found in these stories.  “Bienville had the reputation of knowing the Indians well. Mastering the lingua franca of the lower Mississippi, called mobilien, he was without doubt the only governor of a colony in New France to speak to the Indians without an interpreter. He pushed indianization so far as to tattoo himself with a serpent, which wrapped around his body.”1

The explorer Bertet de la Clue noted how the southern Amerindians “have their skins covered with figures of snakes which they make with the point of a needle.  Mr. de Bienville who is the general of the country has all of his body covered in this way and when he is obliged to march to war with them he makes himself nude like them.  They like him very much but they also fear him.”2

According to several historic sources, Bienville had gotten heavily tattooed by a local tribe.  Some believe it to be the legendary lost Mauville Indians, in order to become closer with the Indian population and earn their valuable trust.   Fellow explorer Henri de Tonti went so far as to say, “An officer (Bienville), a man of breeding whose name you would recognize, who, as well as an image of the Virgin and the baby Jesus, a large cross on his stomach with the miraculous words which appeared to Constantine and an endless number of marks in the savage style, had a snake which passed around his body and whose tongue pointed toward an extremity which I will leave you to guess.”3

Henri de Tonti went on to give descriptions of these tattooing practices.

“These ornaments or marks of honor are not printed without pain; for a start they draw the pattern on the skin; then, with a needle or a small well-sharpened bone, they prick to blood, following the pattern; after which, they rub on the pricked place with a powder of the color asked by the one who gets that mark.” 4

Bienville's disc tattoo is seen in Julian Rayford's 1974 sculpture which hangs on the entrance to the George Wallace tunnel

Bienville’s disc tattoo is seen in Julian Rayford’s 1974 sculpture which hangs on the entrance to the George Wallace tunnel

Captain Bossu wrote of his experience as an explorer getting tattooed around the same time as Bienville, offering some insight to the experience Bienville may have had.  Captain Bossu recounted,

“I sat on a wildcat skin while an Indian burned some straw.  He put the ashes in water and used this simple mixture to draw the deer.  He then traced the drawing with big needles, pricking me until I bled.  The blood mixed with the ashes of the straw formed a tattoo which can never be removed.  After that I smoked a pipe and walked on white skins which were spread under my feet.  They danced for me and shouted with joy.  They then told me that if I traveled among the tribes allied to them, all that I had to do to receive a warm welcome was to smoke a peace pipe and show my tattoo.  They also said that I was their brother and that if I were killed they would avenge my death. . . . I cannot tell you how much I suffered and how great an effort I made to remain impassive.  I even joked with the Arkansas women who were present.  The spectators, surprised by my stoicism, cried out with joy, danced, and told me that I was a real man. I was truly in great pain and ran a fever for almost a week.  You would never believe how attached to me these people have become since then.” 5

Years passed, colonies were established, and alliances were made.  Bienville and his armies fought in war after war, allying with native tribes against the English.  The English made alliances with other native tribes as well, causing a warring between natives that had never happened in such a way before, permanently mutating that native landscape.  When the warring subsided, Bienville was left tired, worn, and alone.

A statue of Bienville showing an example of some of his tattoos on display at Fort Conde museum.

A statue of Bienville showing an example of some of his tattoos on display at Fort Conde museum.

Going back to 1702, England and France were at war, the War of Spanish Succession.  Some say that D’Iberville had contracted malaria while on the Gulf coast, others say it was yellow fever, and both his health and judgment were deteriorating quickly.  Early in 1706, he left France in command of twelve vessels that then devastated the island of Nevis, taking the entire island population prisoner.  He was working Havana, where he was planning to halt English colony settlement in Carolina, when he died suddenly in July of 1706.  Most claim he passed due to yellow fever.  After his death, questions began to arise about his estate, many rumoring D’Iberville had acquired a large fortune by uncertain means.  The accounts of the West Indian expedition were hopelessly disorganized, furthered by accusations of embezzlement.  His widow, Marie Thérèse Pollet was forced to pay back a large portion of his estate bestowed to her upon his passing.  Due to these claims an actions, France had lost trust in the younger LeMoyne brother.  Bienville was broken and forlorn.  By 1740, Bienville’s health declined, and he begged his ministers for leave to France, which was granted in 1742.  Bienville had made political enemies with other administrators in Mobile, creating animosity amongst the Louisiana colonies.  Years of unreliable troops, faulty timing, and mishaps in planning had taken it’s toll over the past four decades on Bienville.  When looking back on his life, Bienville exhaustedly reflected, “a sort of fatality [has been] set for sometime upon wrecking most of my best-planned projects.”6  Bienville never became the head of a new nation, the trophy he always craved.  He lived to see his Louisiana pass under Spanish rule in 1766 despite petitions to Versailles by its French inhabitants.

Bienville died in 1767 in Paris, at the age of 88.  Records of his funeral and burial were lost through pillage and fire, thus depriving his mortal remains of honoured recognition to this day.

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We are brought back to the bay, back to the standoff between the men he arrived with and the spirits with whom he is bound to return.  A lonely, isolated explorer, gliding across the glassy waters of the bay, heads towards the ghosts that forged sacred marks on his flesh, scars that would connect him to them, by promise or by curse.  The damned explorer proceeds with haste, consigned to his fate.  In his sight are roaring flames, growing and engulfing the ghosts that the men so feared, until finally our explorer too disappears, immersed in a blinding blaze.  This fate is shared by an entire nation native to that beautiful land, to fall and fadeaway in the inferno, with nothing but embers left where a strong people once lie.

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1.”France in America: Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienvillehttp://international.loc.gov/intldl/fiahtml/fiatheme2c4.html
2.Jean-François Bertet de la Clue Sabran, A Voyage to Dauphin Island in 1720: The Journal of Bertet de la Clue, trans. and ed. Francis Escoffier and Jay Higginbotham (Mobile, AL: Museum of the City of Mobile, 1974), 63–64.
3.https://virtudesigns.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/louisiana-history-portrait-1-jean-baptiste-lemoyne-sieur-de-bienville/
4.Balvay Tattooing essay, [Henri de Tonti], “Relation de la Louisianne ou Mississipi Ecrite à une Dame par un Officier de Marine,” in Jean-Frédéric Bernard, Recueil des voyages au Nord contenant divers mémoires très utiles au commerce et à la navigation, tome
5, Relation de la Louisiane et du Mississippi (Amsterdam, 1724), 12.5.Balvay tattooing essay, Bossu, Nouveaux voyages aux Indes, 122–224.
6.http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/le_moyne_de_bienville_jean_baptiste_3E.html
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The Serpents of Bienville

Categories: Featured Blogs, General, News | Posted by: Sean Herman

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        I love where I live, where I have grown up.  Huge live oaks, with arms outstretched, spinning to the ground, with moss hanging town, creating canopies, shading all  from the harsh summer sun.  There are sunsets on the bay that you can never explain to people, you have to see it, the colors fading down to nothing.  Natives considered this land sacred land, and I can see why, with the bay giving up jubilees that to this day cause families to gather early in the morning and scoop up all different kinds of sea life that wash ashore.   We are one of only two places in the world that this happens.  It took me 33 years to finally understand that though you may disagree with a history, with actions, with wars and conquests, you can still love the place you live, love the community you walk with, and learn from all of these things to create something new and sacred again.

          I started The Serpents of Bienville project in January of 2015, but it is really something that I have been thinking about for a long time.  Growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast, I would hear little stories here or there revolving around long gone eras in this area.  After moving away at 17, and coming back at 26, I began to really have an appreciation for the history and folklore that resides here.  In May of 2014, we opened a new shop and were trying to decided on a name, which is never an easy task.  This is where my research into the folklore of the area really started.  One of the things I found that fascinated me was the story of the founder of Mobile, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville.  The story revolved around Bienville getting tattooed by local native tribes in order to gain their trust.  I was amazed that this story was in my area and I never really knew about it.  I became obsessed with the idea of tattooing being a sacred oath that Bienville took with this native tribe.  I began to research deeper into the topic, and found out that this oath may have been more real that I ever could have thought, with both participants stories ending in the same dark way.

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           I continued researching and reading, and finding more stories that tied to other stories, that tied to other people, that tied to other myths.  Some of these myths and stories had elements that I was proud of and some had elements that I was completely opposed to.  Growing up in a DIY Punk Rock community, I spent so much time focusing on all of the things I was against, all of the people that I thought were doing wrongs.  Protests, boycotts, rallies, all fighting a clear enemy, something that is very black and white.  The older I have gotten I have learned that grey is thrown in there, and things may be more complicated than I had previously thought.  This doesn’t mean to give up like we hear about movements time and time again, but to research more, and to learn from the things that cause anger in our hearts.  Researching these myths and stories showed me that more and more, also that I have a lot to learn.  There was more grey, more questions, more varying answers.  In taking on the things that turned me off so badly at the beginning, and continuing my research, I began to find lessons in these stories that I had never seen before, lessons I would have missed at a younger age because of wanting to throw away everything that was ugly to me.  No longer looking at people as good or evil, and their actions not being for a greater cause, I began to find the humanity in all of these stories.  Humanity can be beautiful, but sometimes it is the ugliness in humanity that we can truly learn from. Finally, at the age of 33 I am starting to accept my ignorance and my need to learn, and these stories have been a door way for me to do that.

serpentsad1          The Serpents of Bienville has become a labor of love, reflecting that fondness for where I grew up, along with the hard lessons learned.  Now, the final vision of the project has come into focus, and the first phase is starting.  I am taking thirteen myths, stories, or folklore, and breaking them down.  I create a representation of each story on 11”x17” boards.  Each piece corresponds with a story, with each story having an essay explaining it in a historical context, and then taking a sociological look at how it applies to present day lives.  Thirteen stories will be presented, eventually leading up to a book containing all of the prints and essays collected in one place.  Starting July 7th, and then every following quarter a new set of three limited edition prints will be released (along with shirts, buttons, stickers, and more), leading up to the final release of the book in 2016.  I am only releasing 30 packages on this first run.  Prints, apparel, and more can be purchased at www.thebellrosetattoo.com/sean-merch.  Portions of the essays will be published here at www.seanherman.com.  Each print will include a short exert about the the piece, with the final full essay being available in the final book release.  I hope you enjoy learning about these stories, and the lessons learned from them as much as I have.  This project is one that will continue growing, and I will probably be working on for the rest of my life.  Keep checking back for more releases and essays to be published.

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