Last week the children at the Ocracoke Youth Center were having “Circus Week.” The director, Karen Lovejoy, asked me to stop by one morning to make balloon animals for the children. I was happy to oblige, but thought I needed some sort of an explanation or introduction. And then it came to me — first I would tell the children about the wreck of the Black Squall.
It was in April of 1861, just days before the Civil War broke out, that the brig, Black Squall, wrecked on Ocracoke beach after several stormy days. According to Ocracoke native, Walter Howard (ca. 1897 – ca. 1967), the Black Squall was carrying a rather exotic cargo…..a circus. The children were thrilled to hear me re-tell Walter’s story of giraffes, hippopotamuses, trained show horses, and hundreds of other wild animals that washed ashore and proceeded to roam about their island home. Visions of lions, tigers, monkeys, and who-knows-what-else danced in their heads as I twisted the balloons into so many different animal shapes. Days later, I understand, they were still telling the story of the Black Squall and its unusual passengers.
I must admit that I made an aside to the other adults. “I don’t know if Walter’s story is true or not,” I whispered.
“I’ve read accounts that say the Black Squall was carrying sugar,” I continued. “But some stories say it was sugar and circus animals. I don’t know what to believe. Maybe Walter just made up the whole thing about the animals. He was a master storyteller. And perhaps other people have just repeated his fanciful tale.”
Well, I’ve done more research. And I believe I’ve learned the truth, or at least enough of the truth to vindicate Walter Howard. I reproduce Walter’s story below for you. Walter probably had no more than a fifth grade education, but he had a marvelous command of the English language (including an extensive vocabulary), as well as familiarity with history and literature. In addition, as a young boy he listened to the stories told by old Arcade (Kade) Williams (ca. 1842- ca. 1920) who frequently visited his family.
At the end of the story I will share the results of my research. In the meanwhile, enjoy the tale.
The Black Squall by Walter Howard, written ca. 1950:
Old Kade sat near the kerosene lamp at the corner of the sitting room where she could see better for the task at hand, which was carding wool for the spinning wheel. Being a cripple, Kade couldn’t operate the wheel. That exacting chore was left to my grandmother. Old Kade was very dexterous and skillful in the art of carding. When she was feeling good she would give the impression that she was beating cymbals or the tambourine.
On this particular night she had been unusually quiet. We could always tell when she was worried. Her lips, naturally thin, were always drawn in a straight line, giving the appearance of a fine pencil mark.
It had been threatening for several days now, and that same evening on her way to our house she had seen the doubleheaders (storm clouds) making up in the Southeast.
At the Life Saving Station the glass (barometer) was going down, indicating an impending storm. But Kade didn’t need a barometer. Her rheumatism never failed her, especially if the weather indicated rain.
“Well, that’s done!” remarked my grandmother, pushing the spinning wheel into the corner of the room. “My eyes are not as good as they used to be.” “ Nor mine” replied Kade. “ Besides, I don’t like to sit near a window during thunder and lightning.”
Both now having tacitly nodded assent to this remark, Kade broke the silence by saying (as she reached for her snuff-box and toothbrush) : “I swear to God above, I do believe I’ve left them durn winders up and forgot to shut ‘em. If I have, cats will get them fish and the rain will ruin everything I’ve got to my name. I’m gittin’ so here lately that I can’t remember a thing. . . . .Younguns, I never seed sich weather as this. Something’s goin’ to happen. You jest mark my words. It’s cuttin’ up jest like it did the night the old Pioneer run ashore. That was in 1889 I think. Or it mout have been 1890. I disremember which now.” Outside the rain was beating against the windows. The wind was coming in flaws (the danger signal along the coast). Every flaw (gust) would get a little harder.
Having now finished her snuff dipping, she raised the hem of her spotless gingham apron and deposited the snuff box in a pocket made expressly for that purpose.
Old Kade liked to rock. So she ambled over to her favorite chair, which was a low seated rocking chair, with short rockers, high back, minus arms.
She comfortably seated herself, tucked her dress around her feet, and with a graceful flourish that would arouse the jealousy of a Russian ballet dancer, gave her apron a flip and watched it slowly settle around her as the air made its tardy exit from underneath this most precious piece-de-resistance of her scant wardrobe.
After the apron had obeyed the law of gravitation, it hid everything except her head and the protruding tips of the two rockers behind the chair. Even her hands were hidden from view, having been placed underneath the aforementioned garment prior to the execution of the flip.
Kade didn’t rock like most of the Islanders (who rock as though they were on a carousel) but she just seemed to nudge. Sometimes the nudging would become almost imperceptible. A sort of slow-motion camera study.
Turning to me, she said : “Walter, why don’t you get that book and read some more for me?”
From Out of the Sea
My great-grandmother found two books washed up in the beach. One of them was Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, the other The Wonderful Story.
The latter book was the Old Testament in story form. The author had omitted all Biblical language and had told in plain everyday English the stories contained in the Bible. It was a most fascinating and interesting book , and I attribute what little I know about the Bible to that magnificent book. The illustrations were by the converted Jew, Dore, an artist of great skill and imaginative power.
Old Kade loved that book and I , being the only one in the family who could read (excepting my father, who was at sea), was the one she often had read the stories for her.
I went upstairs, got the book, dusted it off and turned to the markers where I had finished my last reading.
We were now about to begin the chapter relating to the “Great Flood.”
“Kade!” said I. “I will make a bargain with you. I will read you a story every night if you will tell me one about a shipwreck.” “Well,” she replied, “if I can think of any I’ll certainly tell you about ‘em. But it seems to me that you can read better stories than I can tell. Yet I will live up to my bargain.” She added, “And when you have finished the whole book I am going to tell you about the mystery and wreck of the old Flying Kite, and I am the only living soul around these parts that knows anything about that one.”
“Flying Kite,” thought I. I had never heard her mention that name before, and I must confess that my curiosity was aroused as never before.
The wind had increased to almost storm velocity as I began to read the following narrative: “And the Lord saw that the people would not change their ways of sin, that they were going from bad to worse. So He decided to send a flood and drown them all. There was one good old servant of the Lord named Noah and the Lord revealed to him what He intended to do, and He commanded Noah to build an ark three hundred cubits in length.
“What’s a cubit?” asked Kade. “A cubit,” said I, “is an ancient Jewish measurement from the elbow to the finger tips. Approximately eighteen inches.”
“Then He told Noah to gather two of all the living creatures of the earth, male and female, and put them in the ark.” I showed the picture on the preceding page to Kade. There was the ark resting on the mountain top. Noah (surrounded by his family) was standing at the foot of the gangplank watching the animals as they marched aboard.
The next picture by the great artist showed a tigress sitting on top of a mountain peak holding her young in her mouth while the people were struggling in the water with outstretched arms trying to grasp this last remaining small rock before total submersion. The title of this picture was ”The Great Deluge.”
The Rainbow’s Promise
Being half scared to death over the storm raging outside, Old Kade was fertile ground for the artist’s imagination. Turning to me, the poor old soul said, “Do you think that the Lord will ever drown us all again?” “No, Kade,” said I. “He has promised not to drown us any more. He has said to us, “When you see the rainbow, that is My promise never to drown My children again.”
This enlightening information had little effect, for at that instant we received the discomforting news from a neighbor that the tide was ‘coming up’ (rising).
I had now finished the chapter and put the book on the table. “Kade,” said I, “can you think of a story to tell me tonight?” “Yes,” said she, “providing this storm don’t git any worse. That story you just read to me reminds me of the old Black Squall.” “Black Squall!” said I , “what a foreboding name.” “Do you remember the Black Squall?” directing her remark to my grandmother. “I’ll never forgit it, if I live to be a thousand years old,” said she, “I was 17 years old – it was in 1861, the year the war broke out.”
“The Black Squall,” continued Kade, “was moving a circus from Havana, Cuba, to New York and she struck the beach on jest sich a night as this, and as far as I can remember, all hands were drowned.“
“Two hosses swum ashore. They were the purtiest creeturs I ever seed. They said that they were Arab hosses (Arabian). Somebody had even plaited their tails and tied big, beautiful bows of silk ribbon on ‘em. Their names were Nero and Zero. They roamed about the island here for years. The mare, Zero, was very timid and shy. But that all-fired Nero, the sassy devil, he would walk right into the house, go up to the fireplace and stick his nose in the cook pot.” Kade threw her head back and gave a big laugh at this last remark.
“Many’s the time I’ve run him out of the house with my cane. But the imp would stand out in the yard, cut up his capers and do his circus tricks while the mare looked on.”
Forerunner of Beach Horses
“That was the start of our hosses here on the island. But their offspring don’t look anything like their parents did. Poor devils, they had to dig for a living here and eat this old salt water grass until they finally swiveled up to the knots you see around here now.
“The beach was littered with hundreds of animals from Ocoke, (old pronunciation for Ocracoke),pint o’ beach, chock to Hatteras Inlet.
“Noah couldn’t have had many more than that aboard his ark. There was camels who someone said could go for seven days without water.
“Well, they got enough of it that night to last ‘em for life. That was one time they got their thirst quenched.
“Then thar was one they called the hypowhatamust.”
I reached for the book, and turned to the picture of the ark and pointed out that awe-inspiring amphibious short legged mammal, and pronounced it for her, “Hippopotamus.”
“Well!,” said she, “that hippo-what-you-yist-said (pointing a skeptical finger at me) swum ashore alive and headed straight for our house.
”My God younguns, if I’d met that hippo-whatcha-may-call-it coming up the road I’d a been running just as long as I could find ground to step on.” A smile crept upon her face at the discovery of this new found witticism.
“Any ways, he swum ashore and headed, as I said before, straight for our house. But when he reached midway of the beach, he died. Some said it was salt water that killed him. Others said he was wore out. But whatever it was, if it was lumbago, I am glad of it.”
I started to laugh, as did everyone else, when a hard gust of wind hit the house, followed by a harder clap of thunder that seemed to split the heavens wide open. The kerosene lamp when out, adding to the confusion. After my grandmother had lit the lamp we discovered to our horror that the water had started to seep through the cracks in the floor. Someone advanced the opinion that we would have to scuttle the floor.
(Scuttling the floor was accomplished by cutting holes in several places with an axe, allowing the water to come into the house, thereby relieving the pressure which otherwise might cause the house to be floated from its foundation and washed away.)
Preparing for the Storm
Now we realized that the storm was upon us and so we all started to do the necessary things that have to be done in an emergency like that. We locked and bolted the doors, put the nails over the windows, rushed to the bedrooms and grabbed the quilts, blankets, pillows, etc. and made for the stairway.
When I passed the sitting room door with a feather bed on my back I saw old Kade silhouetted through the window in water knee deep, wading down the lane, waving her cane and shouting, “God help the sailors on a night like this.”
We made improvised beds upstairs on the floor. But we couldn’t sleep as the wind was roaring like thunder outside. My friends, it was blowing, and right here let me stress emphasis on the word “Blowing.” It would have taken three men to have held a sheepskin over a gimlet hole.
In a crisis like that, there are many things to think about. There is your boat, nets, horses, cattle, chickens, garden, and the possibility of the very roof being blown from over your head, or even the house being blown out to sea.
The hands on the clock seem to stick right in one place just for devilment.
You hear faint voices. It’s someone going up the road in a boat to rescue a family whose house stands in a low spot.
You wonder if they will stop by for you.
The night drags on and the storm seems to increase in fury out of pure imagination.
If daylight would only come. “O, Lord, give us light,” seems to be everyone’s cry.
After what has seemed to be an eternity, a faint blue haze of dawn approaches, thereby relieving the strain and tension of the long weary night.
Late that evening I looked up the road and saw old Kade toddling towards our house.
She ‘hove to’ at the door and tracked up to the steps as was her usual custom. She had scarcely entered when we gathered around and begged her to finish the story of the Black Squall which had been so abruptly terminated by the storm on the preceding night.
“Git out o’ here,” she said. “Lemme put this set-fired oar (cane) away and hang this bonnet up.
“I never seed the likes of you younguns since God ever made me. Always under somebody’s feet.
“Younguns, my house is ruined. Everything I’ve got to me name is jest as wet as if somebody had dipped ‘em overboard. My pillar cases and sheets will be all mildewed.
“I’ve often said, ‘What in the name of God did anybody ever want to settle down on this blasted Island for?’ There ain’t nothing here for anybody unless they’ve got webbed feet.
“If I weren’t so durn old I’d move over to Hyde County, Sockum (Wysocking) or some place. I could at least keep dry and wouldn’t be threatened with being washed to the Outer Diamond Shoal three or four times a year.
“The Injuns wouldn’t stay here. They had better sense. At least they had more than I got.
“The men folks down at the Life Saving Station said it blowed some yistiddy.
“That thing thar at Cape Hatteras that they tell how hard it’s blowing by broke right half in two when it got up to a hundred miles an hour. And they said it was anybody’s guess after that jest how hard it did blow.
“Honeys, I know one thing. It done some whistling. We shouldn’t have any more wind for the next hundred years.”
Having now finished this enlightening monologue, she shuffled over to the rocker, pulled the cuspidor up a little closer and reached for the ever-present snuff box.
Her snuff dipping soon over, she began by saying, “Where was I last night when that hard flaw of wind and clap of thunder hit the house?”
“Oh! I know,” said she. “I was going to tell you about that hippoelephants. No, he died, didn’t he? Well the beach was strowed with animals from Lord knows where. Tigers, lions, bears, and there was one there whose neck was longer than his body.”
I reached for the book again and pointed to the giraffe.
“That’s the all-fired helgomizer,” nodding her head in approval. But his neck ain’t half as long as some of ‘em’s tongues around here.
“That was all kinds of things that washed up on the beach. Even to bales of hay and fodder. They had that for the animals, I guess.
“Silks and satins, and costumes by the hundreds. The purtiest you ever seed.
“Tents, I’ll bet there was a thousand of ‘em. The men folks made sails for their boats out of them and one big tent I remember they put that up out on the beach hills and held a camp meeting in it.
“A preacher come here from somewhere and preached a sermon. Took the Black Squall for his text. I remember it just as good as if it were yistiddy. He started from Genesis on ebb tide and went to Revelations, then he turned around on flood tide and preached back to Genesis again.
“Said the Lord had done it as a warning to let his things alone. That they had no business of aggravating and tormenting the animals by trying to learn ‘em to do tricks, and carrying them all over God’s creation for the amusement of a passel of fools and idiots to gape at.”
“I agree with him, Kade,” said I. “I don’t believe in taking the dumb beasts out of their natural habitat.”
“But I’m ahead of my story,” said Kade.
“Thar among all that wreck and wild animals we, my brother, sister, and I, found a drowned couple locked in each other’s arms.
“He was a handsome boy with brown curly hair, and she was jest beautiful as she could be with long golden blonde hair that hung down to here (measuring with her hands).
“They looked just like they were asleep.
“They sewed both of them up in a piece of canvas and buried them on Blackbeard’s Hill, and that hill is known to this day as ‘Lover’s Hill.’
“This bracelet,” she said, glancing down at her wrist, “there is some writing on the inside of it but I don’t know what it is. It has never been off my arm since that day we found ‘em. My brother took it from her arm and put it on mine.”
“Kade,” said I, “according to legend, there was once a beautiful girl. Her name was Theodosia Burr. She was on a voyage to see her father and was lost at sea without a trace. It may have a parallel in this young couple you found. Maybe her name is inside the bracelet.”
With this startling piece of information in her possession she reluctantly placed her thumb and forefinger around the wrist above the bracelet and began the slow process of slipping it over her hand.. “Thar!” said she, passing it to me, “and don’t you drap it.”
I took it over to the lamp and there, engraved on the inside in beautiful old English, were these five words: “Until death do us part.
After I made the balloon animals for the island children I came home and pondered Walter’s story some more. I decided to go to “Mr. Google.”
My first important hit was on http://www.circushistory.org/Olympians/OlympiansN.htm. This is not an Ocracoke or Outer Banks web site, or even a web site about shipwrecks. As its name suggests, it is a site devoted to the history of the circus. It is unlikely that the information posted there owes anything to Walter Howard’s story. Below is what I read:
“NIXON, WILLIAM ….. Protégé of James M. Nixon. Rider, …… Died on returning from Havana with Nixon’s circus when the Black Squall foundered after a stormy 16 days near Cape Hatteras, April 19, 1861.”
It seemed like Walter was right after all. Searching other web sites I discovered that Nixon’s Circus was much about trained horses. Then I thought that perhaps the part about Nero & Zero was accurate, but that Walter had made up the part about the other animals. After all, I wondered, when have I ever heard of hippopotamuses being in a circus?
Then I learned that Nixon’s Circus was sometimes called Nixon’s Royal Circus and Menagerie of Living Animals. Further research validated my suspicion, namely that circuses in the mid-1800s often included an assortment of wild and exotic animals, basically private traveling zoos that accompanied a genuine circus. These were the precursors to the publicly funded zoos that we know today.
I now believe that Walter’s story is basically accurate. Nixon’s Circus, complete with tents, performers, trained horses, and wild animals wrecked here in April of 1861.
What a sight that must have been!