‘The Thing’ (A Fish Story)

One of the families I’ve been researching as part of my big book project is that of Col. Thomas Smith Dabney, a Virginian who moved to Hinds County, Miss., in 1835. He was a plantation owner, slave owner, and father to 16 children with his wife, Sophia.

Col. Dabney lived in a house called Burleigh, which was located about 10 miles from Raymond, Miss. My friend, Paula, and I went to Raymond during our research trip to Mississippi this past spring.

Burleigh was torn down many years ago, and despite our best efforts, we could only get the most approximate idea of where it was located.

Col. Dabney bought Henry, one of William Macon Waller’s slaves. To give you a quick recap, Waller and his slaves traveled through Hinds County in the winter of 1848. They were on the way to Natchez, Miss., where Waller planned to sell about 20 of his slaves to cover some debts.

Along the way in Raymond, Waller sold several slaves, including Henry, to Dabney and his neighbors. That would be the main reason I’m researching the Dabneys: to try to find out what ultimately happened to Henry.

I’ve also been reading, “Memorials of a Southern Planter,” written by Col. Dabney’s daughter, Susan Dabney Smedes. She wrote the book in the 1880s, after her father’s death. Knowing history would not be kind to slave owners and thinking highly of her father, she wanted to tell the story of his life and put him in the best light possible for posterity’s sake.

The other day, my research of the Dabneys took me to the University of Virginia, more specifically, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. There are Dabney family papers there, many related to Richard Heath Dabney, a grandson of Col. Dabney’s and a former professor and dean at U.Va.

In one box of Dabney family papers, I found a journal, written by Virginius Dabney, the colonel’s son and Richard’s father. It told stories of his life at Burleigh and summers at Pass Christian, Miss., where the Dabneys had a vacation home.

This particular story — a fish story — was from Virginius’ childhood, and probably occurred sometime in the early to mid-1840s. He wrote the story down in 1890, when he was in his mid-50s.

While fishing on the Gulf of Mexico with his father and a third, unnamed person, what Virginius describes as a “mysterious object” breaks their fishing line over and over again. It happens every day for a week to 10 days, and eventually earns the creature a nickname: “The Thing.”

I’ll let Virginius take over from here:

We called the mysterious object that robbed us of our hooks daily “The Thing,” and every morning as we rowed out we were filled with intense excitement in the expectation and hope of discovering what it was. My father was in constant hope that this mysterious monster would tackle his man-eater hook, and at last he did so.

He had given me previous instructions [of] exactly what I was to do when he called out “The Thing!” One morning, seizing the line which was slowly gliding beneath him he cried out, “I’ve got him! Untie the boat!” I fell over the thwarts (seats) in my haste to seize the rope, draw up the boat, and untie the rope, but before I could do so my father gave an exclamation of disgust as he found that his line had parted.

This carried our excitement to the highest possible pitch. Next morning we lost all interest in our ordinary fishing and thought only of The Thing, for whose benefit my father had provided a new hook. We continued to lose our small hooks for a week longer, but at last my father gave me the welcome order to untie.

Then began one of the strangest struggles between man and unknown monster that I have ever witnessed.

Whatever it was, he could not break the line, for not only did my father play him but as he moved hither and thither the boat danced lightly over the water and made it impossible for the creature to break the line.

This struggle lasted for perhaps half an hour without our being able to form the least idea of what we had hooked. Backwards and forwards, against the tide and with it, we were dragged on the surface of the water which at last began to grow very muddy. The water where we fished was not more than 12 or 14 feet deep.

Sometimes, the creature would stand perfectly still and with the boat just above him my father would pull steady without moving whatever it was in the least. But at the close of half an hour he said that he thought it was rising, and soon we saw that this was true. Slowly at a half inch at a time the line was pulled in, then stood still, then moved another half inch, the mud meantime boiling up around the boat in torrents.

“Get the harpoon ready” cried my father.

I did so, and stood leaning over the gunwale of the boat with uplifted arm ready to strike. No three fishermen were ever more profoundly excited than we were as we awaited the slow approach of this mysterious denizen of the deep.

At last something shadowy and dark became … visible and shortly after we found that we had caught an immense sting-ray — one of the most terrible fish of those waters. This particular specimen was about five feet in diameter with a tail which resembled in shape a cow-hide several feet in length, armed with that terrible jagged and poisonous dagger which renders them so terrible.

As soon as he came within a foot of the surface I plunged the harpoon through his body. In his rage, he began to ply upon it with his terrific tail which he waved above his back, cutting great plys [sic] out of the hard wood with every stroke.

We could not take him in the boat, but rowed ashore towing him by line and harpoon. It was the most toilsome row that I ever had — so great was the resistance of his disc-shaped body. But we were determined to bring him to the shore to show to my mother and sisters, who had also been wrought up to the highest state of excitement by our accounts of our previous adventures with The Thing.

It will be remembered that Capt. John Smith was near death at the mouth of the James river by being stung by one of these terrible fish.

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Thoughts on Yellow Fever

A few days ago, husband John and I were on our way somewhere, probably out to eat, when I noticed, flitting around the car’s dashboard, a mosquito.

Normally, a mosquito wouldn’t cause me great amounts of alarm. After all, it’s July, I live in the South, and it was hot and humid. It’s expected, once in a while, to see and even be bitten by a mosquito.

But instead of my usual annoyance at having a mosquito in the car, I had a moment of abject terror. Why? Because at the time I was reading a book about the yellow fever.

In case you’re not familiar with yellow fever, which arrived in the United States from Africa, thanks to the slave trade, it sounds terrible.

Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti variety, to be exact. The symptoms include headache, fever, delirium, vomiting black stuff and literally turning yellow. If death comes, and it often does, it’s swift.

Yellow Jack Monster
This drawing, “Yellow Jack Monster,” by Matthew Somerville Morgan, 1839-1890, depicts “Yellow Jack,” another name for yellow fever, attacking a woman. Library of Congress.

In 1878, a particularly awful yellow fever epidemic hit the Mississippi River valley. According to some reports, it infected about 120,000 people, killing somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000. People were hysterical and everyone was worried about where “Yellow Jack” might strike next.

On this website, you can read more about the 1878 epidemic and look at drawings and other documents related to it.

One of the places yellow fever hit in 1878 was Hinds County, Miss. For those who read this blog regularly, Hinds County is one of the places I’m researching for a book I’m writing about a particular story from the overland slave trade.

Without going into lots of details, a few months ago, I was trying to find one of the “characters” in my book, a man named Beverly Mitchell. And by “find” I mean I was trying to find evidence of him, somewhere in the public record, after 1849. After much searching, I was having no luck.

After reading about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, however, I had a thought: “Maybe I can’t find Beverly Mitchell because he’s dead.” So, I tracked down a list of people who died of the yellow fever in Hinds County in 1878.

Sorry, Beverly, but I sincerely hoped you had died of yellow fever so I could move on to something else, but after scouring the list, I was disappointed — again, sorry, I’m a terrible person — not to find Beverly Mitchell among the dead.

In looking over the section on Dry Grove, one of the communities in Hinds County, I noticed lots of people with the same last names: five members of the Caston family, four Flewellens, five Stewarts and as many Williamses.

The same was true for other areas of the county. I can only imagine how terrified people were.

So, think about that the next time you see a mosquito fluttering around your car! You’re welcome!