In the old western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the tagline was “When a legend becomes reality, print the legend.”
However, Wilmington historian Chris Fonville still wants to explore the facts. In his latest book, Curious Tales from Old Wilmington and the Fear of the Lower Cape, he tries to find out what really happened in regards to some of his favorite local legends.
More: local historyIn a new book, Weird Tales of Old Wilmington, the historian removes the facts from the legend
This volume, a follow-up to Fonvielle’s 2021 book “Curious Tales,” deals with five more domestic stories.
Most locals have heard the story of Nancy Martin (“Nance”), the little girl who died at sea before the Civil War and was buried in Oakdale Cemetery in the barrel of rum in which her body was preserved. There may have been a barrel, notes Fonvili, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. However, newspaper clippings of the period show that Nance died on the beach of “consumption” (the archaic term for tuberculosis) in Cárdenas, Cuba.
In the days before penicillin, tuberculosis patients would often head to warm lands to get relief from their symptoms. (U.S. Senator William Rufus King, who died in 1853 in Matanzas, Cuba, shortly after being sworn in as Vice President of the United States, was another North Carolina member to do so.)
Discover Cape Fear – Discover Fear Cape
Strange Tales also deals with the story of local heroine Mary “Polly” Slocum, who is commemorated with a statue at the Morris Creek National Battlefield in Pender County. In 1776 (the story goes), Polly walked over 60 miles to the Battle of Morse Creek Bridge to tend to a wounded Patriot. She had a premonition that her husband had been shot, though Ezekiel Slocum survived the battle unscathed. However, she worked hard and saved many soldiers’ lives.
It’s a great spinner, but there are just a few problems. No accounts for the period of the Morse Creek Bridge mention Polley being there. There were almost no Patriot casualties, although one wounded militiaman was killed a few days into the battle. And if the dates are on their tombstones, Polly Slocum was only 13 or 14 at the time, and her husband was only 16. And underage boys often lied about their birthdates to take part in the fighting, even as late as World War II. But it is doubtful that any 16-year-old would be a leader, as Ezekiel did.
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Fonvielle traces the anecdote, which did not originate until the 1840s, and suggests a misunderstanding. Late in life, retelling the story, Poley may have confused the Morse Creek Bridge with a 1781 fight between Patriots and Tories. (There were a lot of victims at that time). Otherwise, her children and grandchildren heard the story and the details got mixed up.
Fonvielle also follows the bizarre story of a Confederate flag that flew over Fort Anderson in Brunswick County until the fort and its flag were captured in early 1865. It would be an exaggeration to say that this flag was responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln, as some have claimed.
However, the fact remains that Lincoln abruptly changed his routine to attend a ceremony where the flag of Fort Anderson was presented to the governor of Indiana by members of the Indiana Regiment, who captured it after the Confederates hastily evacuated the fort.
In doing so, the 16th Chief evaded John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kidnap him and drag him to Richmond in an effort to force an end to the war. After this disappointment, Booth changed his plans from kidnapping to assassination.
In other articles, Fonvielle traces the history of the world’s largest live Christmas tree, a Wilmington holiday tradition from the 1920s through 2001. In its heyday, the lighted live oak tree, near Sweeney’s water treatment plant, attracted tens of thousands of visitors from dozens of countries And even some foreign countries. Aging, redrawing of traffic patterns after the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and security concerns after 9/11 ended the Tree Path.
Fonvielle remembers the man who started the tree tradition, former mayor and civic booster JEL “Hi Buddy” Wade. (Wade was still roaming the downtown streets when I first came to Wilmington in the late 1970s, greeting everyone he saw with a “Hi, buddy!”)
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For a treat, Fonvielle recounts his personal ghost story from Thalian Hall, when he encountered a stranger in a dress who immediately disappeared.
Like many historians, Fonvielle can hardly let go of anything. In tracking down Polly Slocum, he tells the full story of the Moore Creek Bridge campaign, later written by romance writer Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander books. With a little “nance,” we get a genealogy of the Martin family, which included a number of ship captains and, later, blockade runners.
However, for local history buffs, a bit of this should be boring.
Copies of More Weird Stories can be ordered through SlapDash Publishing at CarolinaBeach.net.
More quirky tales of old Wilmington and lower head scares
Written by Chris E. Fonville Jr
Wilmington: NC Starburst Press, $24.95 paperback