Mafiosos, Murder, and Gay Extortion in Missisippi

On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”

Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.

At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.

“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.

When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.

Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.

Mississippi legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out and/or rebuilt after Katrina. Some say that a shadow of the Dixie Mafia still operates on Mississippi’s coast.

Delta Voodoo

Indianola, Mississippi has the dubious distinction of being the subject of not one but two studies by Northern anthropologists. The more prominent study by John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) comprises a psychological perspective on how race relations in the Deep South were shaped by “caste” and class. While in Indianola, Dollard stayed at the boarding house of the formidable Kathleen Claiborne, who, when her guest complained that she was over-cooking her leaf vegetables, set a plate of chopped fresh turnip greens before the anthropologist and sedately walked away. Her son Craig was to recall this years later when he encountered Dollard in the offices of the New York Times. Dollard graciously asked of Mrs. Claiborne, and hearing of her demise, recounted that she was “a great lady”.

The second, lesser-known study was written by the delightfully-named Hortense Powdermaker, who, fresh from work with a “primitive” people, the Lesu of New Ireland in present-day Papua New Guinea, came to Indianola to study the black community. After Freedom (1939) is the first complete ethnography of an African-American community in the United States. Powdermaker’s goal was to use anthropological methods to give insight into American society. She considered race relations to be one of the most pressing social problems of her day—as indeed it was, and continues to be—and she hoped that her work would prove valuable to those in a position to promote change.

Needless to say, those who could affect a change ignored Hortense’s study, After Freedom presents us with a fascinating look at life in the Mississippi Delta during the Depression. Among the more interesting sections is “Lagging Beliefs” in which Powdermaker documents the folk superstitions then prevalent in the black community. The following is a short excerpt.

A large number of the superstitions practiced in the community today to be concerned with love, or connected in some way with the relations between men and women. Others have to do with luck in general, and still others are designed to bring bad luck to an enemy. Many are concerned with physical health. individuals are not really superstitious give a perfunctory observance to certain superstitions, much as a northern white person may knock on wood without really “believing” in the necessity for the gesture. Others take their superstitions more seriously. These for whom superstitions have most meaning go for assistance to the voodoo doctors who dispense advice, charms, and spells. The types and varieties of superstitious beliefs may be suggested by a small sampling:

Wearing a punctured dime around the ankle will keep trouble away.

Stray cats or kittens who wander into a house and stay there bring good luck.

Dreams foretell events. If a dream is told before sunrise, it is bound to come true.

A woman described a very vivid dream in which her dead father came to take away her mother, who was still alive and apparently well. Next day the mother died.

Throwing salt after an enemy brings him bad luck.

The hair of an enemy can be used to bring him disaster. Usually it is concealed under his doorstep or someplace where he will walk over it. An old woman who is a sharecropper believes this firmly that she never allows anyone to comb her hair or use her comb, and always takes great care to destroy her combings, so as “not to take any chances.”

Certain perfumes will “hold” a man by magic as well as by allure. A woman can hold a man by putting something in his food. No information could be obtained about what was put in, and this belief appears less widespread than those concerning “poison.”

“Poison” put into an enemy’s food will work him harm. One woman told how her husband died because an enemy put poison in his whisky. Snake poison is among the worst; a sloughed snake skin, dried and made into a powder, is sprinkled into the enemy’s food while he is not looking. The powder comes to life in his stomach and gives him fits. The tale is told of one man who had such fits, and finally the snake ran right out of his mouth.

The mother of a young boy who had recently died told that for four years he had been subject to fits, during which he would scream, kick, and twist his head “almost clear around.” The mother had a “friend,” and another woman was jealous of her. The jealous one made some “poison” to put into her food, but nobody would take it to her, and the woman could not come to the house herself. One day, however, when her rival’s little boy was playing near her house, she gave him food containing the poison, Immediately the child began to have fits. His mother took him to doctors, to hospitals, to a voodoo doctor, but nobody could cure him. Finally she carried him to an especially famous voodoo doctor, who gave the boy some medicine, which made the poison come out. It emerged in a terrific bowel movement—a long narrow thing, about five inches in length, which had given him the fits by running around in his stomach. At the same time there came out a lot of little things that looked like maggots. Now the child was cured of fits. But immediately after he grew very sick, first with flu and then pneumonia, and soon he died.

The voodoo doctors employ a variety of cures for an even larger variety of ills; they claim to restorc health, to revive fortunes, to unravel mysteries. Often they give a charm in the form of a “hand,” less commonly called a “toby.” A “hand” is usually a small bag, one to two inches square, made of silk or sometimes of cotton, said to be stuffed with spider webs and horse hair worked into a powder, Sometimes very fine bits of glass are added. The bags should never be opened. They are carried in a pocket or worn next to the body, and are to help the wearer in love, business, or some other venture, One of these bags may be used to hold the hair of an enemy when it is placed under his doorstep to give him bad luck.

Instead of the hand, some voodoo doctors give their clients a small piece of paper with writing on it. This is worn next to the skin, and should not be read. Herbs, roots, small bottles filled with oil or other liquids are also given. On one occasion, a woman was given a small sealed bottle to conceal in her bed as a love charm. Later she went to a voodoo doctor for help in repulsing the attentions of a man she did not want. For this he gave her a piece of paper sealed with wax so that she could not read the inscription. She wore it in her stocking, and after that she was able to rid herself of the undesired attentions.

A hand was considered responsible for the incessant quarreling of a couple. One day the wife saw a small black bag under the front steps. Trembling, she dug it up and found it filled with steel needles and spices. She was sure this had been planted by her enemy and had caused the quarreling. She destroyed it at once; the report did not tell whether the quarreling stopped.

Faulkner and Welty for Children

What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:

          To Victoria

     ‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
     Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

     Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
   Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.

The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought.  The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”

On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.

Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.

The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.

Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.

As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.

Didion in Dixie

What is the South? The answer isn’t easy; hell, getting enough facts in one pile is hard enough, then you have to figure in observer, perspective, and perception. A dedicated minority of natives maintain that the South is a fluid, protean, shattered chimerical idea as well as just a place to hang your hat. This embracing grassroots duality is compounded (likely compromised) not only by Cash, Woodward, Foote, and their myriad lesser ilk, but also those from outside the South–the nation, the continent, even the hemisphere–who come here to write about it. And they are legion.

Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s. The notes for South and West were published almost fifty years later.

Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:

“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”

Some might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:

“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”

Throughout the work, Didion interacts with prominent locals, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast. I find it telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford; perhaps it’s just as telling that she even went looking. In Meridian, Didion describes an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie “as if it were Czechoslovakian; this is quite literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is staring at a screen without comprehension, driving through Dixie in a distracted daze. We should bear ear to her dispassionate observations, if only to see ourselves in her eyes.

Something by Way of a Philosophy

Food is a passionate issue for many people, and some foods are certainly controversial. Barbecue, for instance, is a highly inflammatory subject, but almost any food can become a flash point; I was once involved in a heated discussion about how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich (Do you use mayonnaise? I don’t…).

Arguments over foods range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but unless you’re one of those self-styled and overly-promoted griddle Napoleons or oven Antoinettes you can get your fill of almost everywhere—or just an all-around jerk yourself—talks about foods and cooking tend to be cordial and convivial, albeit with the necessary measure of peppering. People who enjoy food and cooking are gregarious, open, and giving. At any gathering I’ve ever attended, activity revolves around the food. What semblance we have of hearth nowadays lives on in kitchens, and hearth and home are practically inseparable. Most people will agree that the best meals are home-cooked, and home itself must be one of the warmest words in the English language. Home entails more than place; the word implies security, comfort, congeniality and much, much more. Here in the South, the word has become infused with almost mystical implications, evoking a poignancy and mystery peculiar to the region. When we talk about home cooking, we’re talking about foods with a voice in the family and in the community, a cuisine that sings of time and place, a balm for the mind, a madeleine for our memory.

Foods without history and bereft of geography are just plain bad. When I was growing up in the `Sixties, America’s tables reflected the mentality of Levittown, and the only really good cooking was found in rural and ethnic homes, those permeated with a sense of the past, of family, and often of the earth itself. I grew up in north Mississippi, which is home to the cooking of the middle South, of the yeomanry, of the people who were the rule rather than the exception in the rural South of their day. Theirs was not a light cuisine; it sustained people through long days of hard labor. Breakfasts usually featured biscuits made from lard, grits, eggs and pork in some form or the other; other meals were made from fried or stewed meats and vegetables cooked with fatback. My people are descended from small farmers who came into this area from Virginia and the Carolinas, and the way my ancestors cooked still informs the cuisine of the region to this day. They fed themselves and their families on the same basic foods the colonists at Jamestown ate: corn and pork augmented by whatever fruits and vegetables they could get to grow as well as game and fish. Food was important to them because it was their only unadulterated source of pleasure. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Recipes are dead words; it’s up to the cook to breathe life into them. It’s an unwritten law of cookery that the same recipe in the hands of, say, six or seven cooks will produce different (often surprisingly different) results. If you want to learn how to cook, then you must cook yourself. Once you’ve become more secure in your abilities and more confident of your results, then by all means be more creative. One of the glories of cooking as an art is that it lends itself easily to experimentation, but be “original, not outrageous,” as Alice B. Toklas cautions. Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Bear in mind that most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. So if you’re determined to try seasoning a pound cake with cayenne or bake catfish with pickled peaches, don’t be surprised to hear, “Honey, I love you, but . . . “ Those might well be the kindest words you’ll ever hear.

“Young Cook in the Kitchen” Joseph Bail (1893)

 

My Uncle L.

Larry Wayne Thomas breezed into my life on a random wind, and we sailed together happily for many years.

We first met in April, 1976. I was a freshman at Ole Miss, where L.W. was teaching English. My roommate, a dissolute mental lightweight who went on to serve two spectacularly disgraceful terms in the Mississippi legislature, was his student. He paid me to write his term paper for L.W.’s class. Not only did I write it, but I was prevailed upon to deliver it to his teacher’s office at the last minute. L.W., a handsome young man in a tiny office in Bondurant, received the paper and my lame excuse about the roommate being called home due to a family emergency with undisguised ill-humor. The paper got an “A”, the roommate passed the class with a “C” and I walked away with thirty bucks. When I finally got around to telling L.W. this over twenty years later, he said, “I knew that idiot couldn’t have written a paper that good, but I couldn’t prove he didn’t.”

We came to know each other well during the intervening years, seeing one another around town, mostly at watering holes such as the Rose, the Gin or Ireland’s, among many mutual friends such as George Kehoe, Jere and Joe Allen and his future bride, Jean Tatum. L.W. began working at the Warehouse about that time while I bounced from one ill-fated restaurant to another. After the failure of Audie Michael’s, I found myself unemployed. Shortly after that, L.W. came to my apartment and offered me a job at the Warehouse. I don’t know whose idea it was, his, Frank Odom’s or Don Carlisle’s, but of course I took the job and for years he and I worked shoulder to shoulder in Oxford’s best-known and most respected dining establishment.

L.W. was my boss, the primary liaison between the kitchen and the floor, a job that’s bound to make anyone a nervous wreck, and L.W. was no exception; busy nights reduced him to fussing and fretting to no end. My job, as I saw it, was to keep the kitchen working smoothly, which involved a minimum amount of interference from management. L.W. and I had our disagreements (most notably over his insisting on adding bell peppers to a shrimp boil), but after the last tables were served, everything was rosy. Outside the kitchen doors, with his droll wit and unfailing good humor, L.W. was the most congenial, amiable restaurant host possible. He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and (for the most part) their knowledge of one another was infused with warmth and life. L.W. and I usually traveled in different circles, but we would often bend elbows together; he was smart, funny, a joy to be around, and I basked in his company. I began to call him Uncle L., a sobriquet his many friends used. He put up a fuss about that, but anybody’ll tell you it didn’t take much to ruffle his feathers.

The morning after the Warehouse burned, February 16, 1983 we met one another on the northeast corner of the Square and walked east on Jackson Avenue. We barely spoke until we got to the smoking ruins of Country Village. We stood there for a moment, and L.W. gave voice to what was running through both of our minds: “It didn’t start in our kitchen.”

We both moved away after that; me to Florida, L.W. to Colorado. I returned to Oxford after four years and re-entered Ole Miss, but I got L.W.’s address from a mutual friend and wrote to him, saying how much I missed him and half-jokingly urging him to move back. Well, he did, and though I have a feeling that he was just as miserable in Colorado as I was in Florida and my plea was just added incentive, he later told me on more than one occasion that my letter made him so homesick he just had to return.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I moved from Oxford again. To my everlasting regret, I missed his wedding to Jean, and as fate would have it, I never saw my Uncle L. again. How I wish I could write him another letter and tell him to come back to us.

The irascible Howard Bahr with the irrepressible L.W. Thomas

The Beginnings of Doe’s Eat Place

The following is an excerpt from Paul V. Canonici’s The Delta Italians, a two-volume work published by the author in 2013, “a compilation of stories and experiences of early Italian settlers in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. Some of the content is documented history, but most consists of bits and pieces of family stories that have survived the test of time and memory.”

Salvadore Signa said in a 1976 interview that he was born in 1902 in a small shotgun house, St. Michael’s Parish, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville. His father Carmelo Signa worked in the sugar cane fields. When Salvador was still an infant, Carmelo moved his family to Vicksburg and worked in a fruit stand at the corner of Clay and Washington Streets. In 1912, when Salvador was ten years old, Carmelo Signa moved to Greenville and opened a grocery store at the corner of Hinds and Nelson Streets. The Signa family lived in a small house behind the store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

Carmelo Signa and his wife Mattea Maucelli had twelve children: Lena, Carmelo, Jr., Frances, Dominic E., Antonia, Josephine, Sarah, Paule, Rosalie, Frank, Santo and Lucille. Son Salvador had a career with the post office. Dominic work for the Corps of Engineers but on weekends off and off-time he joined his wife Mamie in helping out in his father’s business. “Papa’s Store”, as it was known, thrived in the community until 1927. That year the Great Flood pushed the Mississippi River out of its banks and consumed much of the riverside community that Papa’s Store was located in and depended on. The community around Nelson Street was eventually rebuilt. Carmelo decided to open a honky tonk in the front part of the store. The honky tonk became a popular gathering and entertainment place for the black community surrounding Nelson Street.

In the back of the old store there was a small kitchen where Carmelo’s son, Dominic “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie prepared food such as buffalo fish, catfish and chili for patrons of the honky tonk. On weekends Dominic prepared meals for a group of professionals—doctors and lawyers—who got together and bought him a specially-made grill, and in 1941 someone gave Mamie a partial recipe for traditional Delta-style hot tamales. She improved on the recipe and began selling them at the honky tonk. This was the beginning of Doe’s Eat Place.

Big Doe relied on the help of family and friends to keep up with the demands of his thriving new restaurant. Eventually he closed down the honky tonk to expand and stay focused on the Eat Place. The added space allowed Big Doe and Mamie to prepare a full course meal for their patrons including Mamie’s marinated salad and fresh cut French fries prepared in a cast iron skillet. Despite the added space, the eat Place’s growing popularity never allowed for the dining tables to be removed from the kitchen where several remain to this day. Mamie passed away on November 5, 1955. Dig Doe Signa retired in 1974 and turned the Eat Place over to his sons Charles and Dominic “Little Doe” Signa. Big Doe passed away on April 29, 1987.

Though time has taken its toll on the old building once known as Papa’s Store, the tradition of the family Eat Place hasn’t changed. Today, when you walk in the front door of the former honky tonk on Nelson Street, you’ll be greeted in the front kitchen where Little Doe cooks steaks for the locals, as well as travelers who have gone miles out of their way to make the pilgrimage to this icon of the South. He uses the same grill that was specially made for Big Doe. There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s simply good people carrying on the delicious Delta tradition of mouthwatering steaks and hot tamales.

Ars Voces: Wyatt Waters – Reflections in Another Eye

I started painting when I was 2 years old; my kindergarten teacher taught me to read and to paint the story. She was really interested in art, and when I started school, she taught me private lessons. She’s probably the reason I started painting. My dad fought in WWII, so his values reflected that: had to work, had to study. I can’t do just a little bit of something; I have to do a lot of it. I can’t do it for an hour and a half a day. If I don’t have a good immersion in it, it just isn’t going to happen. I went to Mississippi College, and we didn’t have aesthetics, but we had a creative writing class. It was so fun to be in that class: theme variations, tension, restraint; the big things. That was really my only aesthetics class, that and going to the truck stop to drink coffee after we’d dropped our dates off. You had to get your dates in by 10 p.m. back then.

I’m a dinosaur; I paint outside. I usually start to paint things based on what I call The Great Out Here, the reflected and atmospheric lights that are in the world. The more I paint, the more I look at something, the more it gets on my retina and creates an after-image when I look away from it. You know how a flash bulb goes off and you can still “see” this thing floating in your vision? Well, it’s that sort of thing. It’s why I work on location, because it happens when I’m working on location, and it doesn’t happen for me in the studio, at least not in the same way. I carry a mirror with me. When I don’t know what to do, I look in the mirror, and the mirror tells me what it looks like to other people. It gives me some objectivity on what I’m seeing. And that probably is the trickiest thing that I use. Painting is considered kind of trick, you know, techniques and all that. I used to be pretty technique-y, but that takes the left-hand side of the brain and puts it on the right-hand side. When you’re writing something, and you come back to it the next day, it’s the same effect; you see how other people see it. When you’re close to it, you can’t tell what to do, so I use a mirror progressively as the painting develops. Like penicillin, I use it when I need it.

It’s also tied in to the idea that the real experience is a lost thing. We’re almost a virtual society now, and in a virtual kind of world, it becomes important for me to make a case for the real experience, or at least to be out there saying that here it is. So that’s what I do, paint on location, and let the real experience of being in front of something affect me, to let that to be my influence. Invariably, though, when you’re working outside, all sorts of things are going to happen and you’re going to get into the zone, that hypnotic place, and you begin painting expressively. I try to let that happen; I don’t know how to make it happen, but when I paint, it seems to happen on its own. I’ve always loved how watercolor doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s the only medium I can think of that moves while you’re painting; it drips and runs. It’s like dancing; It isn’t what you make it do, it’s taking advantage of what it’s doing in the first place. It’s like riding a horse. The horse knows something about the field; you don’t drive a horse, you listen to the horse.

I went to Paris, and here I was in one of the great centers of the art world, and I got really homesick. I figured out that the things I want to paint are all here. I didn’t think it would be that way, but all the things I want to do are here.

Anthony DiFatta

Hometown Calhoun

Hometown Mississippi is informative and entertaining book compiled by James F. (Jim) Brieger and published privately in 1980. It’s also an important work, since it includes all of Mississippi’s towns and counties of record, with a short write-up providing significant data. These are the entries for Calhoun County; Pittsboro, as county seat, is first listed, then the others alphabetically.

CALHOUN COUNTY

Organized in 1852, Calhoun County is located in the Sand Clay Hills Soil Area of the state. It was the fifty-ninth county to organize and ranks thirtythird in area. The county was named for John C. Calhoun, Vice-President of the United States, and at the time of formation, Henry s. Foote was Governor of Mississippi, and Millard Fillmore was President of the United States. Calhoun was the home county of Dennis Murphree, twice Governor of Mississippi, 1927-28 and 1943-44.

PITTSBORO

Pittsboro was founded on July 26, 1852 along with Calhoun County. The county seat was temporarily located at Hartfords, four miles east of the present site of Pittsboro, with monthly court being held in a log building which was used as a courthouse, Hartford did not remain for long as the county seat as the geographical center of the county was determined to be within a few hundred yards of Camp Springs,

On July 15, 1852, the Board of Police met at this point to discuss the matter of a permanent county seat, and Ebenezer Gaston, a wealthy local citizen offered 160 acres as a gift to the county for the location of a seat of government. The gift was accepted by the board and the proposed new town was named Orrsville, for J.A. Orr who had been very instrumental in the organization of the county. The name of the town was later changed to Pittsboro, for Pittsboro, North Carolina, which was Mr. Orr’s original home.

The Odom Grocery Store was the first building to be constructed, and in 1853, the Pittsboro Academy was established, being conducted in a two-story log building. In 1886, a frame building was erected to house the Pittsboro Male and Female College, then in 1888, Honorable B.J. Lowery, noted educator and statesman, taught his first school as principal of this college. The red brick courthouse was built the same year as the log jail, in 1856. In this courthouse the Secession Convention was held in 1861, and many other events connected with the war and reconstruction centered around it.

Pittsboro has had its times of prosperity and adversity, but has remained the county seat throughout the years, with many attempts having been made to move it, but all failed. In 1922 the courthouse was destroyed by fire, with the loss of almost all the records.

BANNER

Located eight miles north of Brice, Banner is one of the oldest existing places in the county, being settled by the Finn family from Ireland in 1840. The story is told, that Uncle Mickey Finn gave his reason for coming to America was the fact that land was so high in his native Ireland that he could not afford to buy a burial plot for his family. When he bought his land here and gave it the name, Banner, he immediately built a house, then he marked off a family burying ground,

Several large planters and slave owners were permanently settled here before the Civil War, and the town was known as a social as well as an educational center. A college was established in 1889 which offered commercial and music courses, but with the establishment of public schools the college became extinct. Since the start of the 1900’s, the place has been on the decline because of its remote location,

BENELA

The origin of its name is not known, but Benela was established eight miles southeast of Pittsboro in 1840. There were settlers here in the early 1830’s, but Benela was not founded until 1840 when Hugh Gaston came here with several others to establish business enterprises,

In 1853, Dr. S.T. Buchanan, Captain Enoch, Wiley and Austin Woodward settled here and Benela soon became a thriving trade center. In 1865 the town boasted six stores, two saloons, a large water mill and manufacturing plant. Being located on the Yalobusha River, cotton was transported to Greenwood by keel boat, bringing back supplies on their return trip. Lumber was also shipped down the river in rafts until the railroad was built to Calhoun City in 1905.

The growth of Benela was impeded by the fact that the railroad missed the town, and its rivals, Calhoun City and Derma gained the supremacy in leadership growth, and as trading centers, The Church, mill, and school were finally abandoned and the community became a farming area, using other points as trading centers,

BENTLEY

Bentley, located ten miles southeast of Calhoun City, was established in 1844 by Jesse H. Bently, the first settler, who erected a water mill on nearby Bear Creek. The town was incorporated in 1911.

BIG CREEK

Big Creek was founded eight miles west of Calhoun City in the 1840’s, The first settlers were R. Chruthird and Abram Sellers in the early 1840’s, being joined by other pioneers between 1845 and 1855. At this time Big Creek was located two miles north of its present location and was the distributing point for the sale of whiskey, with a wholesale house having been opened here,

Being so far from the railroad, the growth of the town was slow but with the building of the highway, two miles to the south, Big Creek was moved to its present location near the highway in 1920 with more stores being added and a post office being established.

BOUNDS

About 1824, J.R, Bounds, a cattleman, settled almost midway between the Skuna and Yalobusha Rivers, about eight miles west of present-day Pittsboro. His brother, Henry Bounds, joined him in 1828 and they found an ideal cattle range between the two streams. The two brothers rented this land from an Indian sub-chief named Bob Cole during their first two years of settlement, but later bought the land.

BRUCE

Bruce was founded in 1927 when the E.L. Bruce Lumber Company purchased a vast acreage in this section, four miles north of Pittsboro and established their large mill three miles north of Pittsboro in the Skuna Valley. The company purchased the Thurman Barton farm which became the home of George Rogers, Superintendent of the Bruce interests.

Johnny Main Mountain, six miles east of Brue, is the highest point in the county, covering several acres. Some remarkable rock formations are found on the mountain, and Skuna River flows around the base on the north side. According to legend, this mountain was the home of a prominent Chickasaw Chief named Piomingo at the time the Indians occupied this section. The mountain received its name from Johnny Main, an old Dutchman who hunted and trapped here during the 1860’s.

BUSYTON

Busyton was established about 1865, four miles south of Sarepta, and at one time a post office was located two miles to the southeast, but it was discontinued in 1905. Sometime after 1905, when State Highway 9 was improved, J.T. Ivy built a store on the highway and called it Busyton.

CALHOUN CITY

Federal Land Records show that the site on which Calhoun City stands, ten miles south of Bruce, was conveyed to an Indian named Ish tah hath la, T.P. Gore purchased an entire section of 640 acres from this Indian, supposedly for a handful of bright-colored beads, a few furs, and several quarts of whiskey. Being a large slave owner, Gore cleared a plantation and lived an easy life, in which horse racing and cock fighting figured prominently. Before his death he is thought to have buried a great amount of gold on his plantation, but died without revealing its hiding place. He is buried near Calhoun City in a wooded section of his former plantation,

In 1900 the Gore property passed into the hands of T.L. Beadles and Jeff Boland, being purchased from them in 1904 by Frank Burkett and J.S. Rowe. The place was named Burkett for Frank Bukett, but the name was later changed to Calhoun City for John C, Calhoun. These men learned that the Mobile & Ohio Railroad was planning to build a branch line through this section and made plans for the building of a town. One mile east lived two other landowners who were demanding that the terminal be located on their land. A legal battle was fought, and the court decided in favor of both places, so just one mile east of Calhoun City was established the town of Derma, Because of this matter, hard feelings existed between the towns cor several years.

The present town of Calhoun City was surveyed and laid off in lots in 1905. That same year, a hotel was built and a central parkway was laid out, awaiting the time when Pittsboro would relinquish its claim to the county seat and a courthouse could be erected.

The year of 1906 brought the incorporation of Calhoun City as well as many new families. On the first Sunday in January, 1907, the first passenger train ariived in Calhoun City. This was a great event in the history of the town and people, many of whom had never seen a train, came from miles around to witness the arrival.

DENTONTOWN

Located fourteen miles southwest of Pittsboro.

DERMA

In 1905, upon learning of the railroad to be built from Okalona to Calhoun City, Frank Burkett and J.S. Rowe immediately made plans for the establishment of a town in the vicinity of Calhoun City. Just one mile east lived J.M. Smith and Dr. S.H. Lawrence who also proposed to build a depot and town, Heated controversy resulted in a court decision in favor of both places, and soon there sprang up two rival towns. It is said that in time, Captain Burkett and Dr, Lawrence, both Civil War Veterans, were able to ease the friction between the two towns to a large extent. During the early history of the town, Derma enjoyed gradual growth which continued until the depression of 1929, at which time the town began to decline, The town also suffered several disastrous fires from which it never recovered, but at its peak, Derma boasted two churches, fourteen stores, and an Agricultural High School.

About four miles southeast of Derma is the site of the boyhood home of Fox Conner who was promoted to the rank of Major General by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War I, Fox Conner was General Perishing’s fight hand man, and Perishing once stated that Fox Conner did more to help win the war than any one man he knew.

ELLARD

Located six miles northwest of Pittsboro,

ELZY

Settlers first came to this site, three miles north of Vardaman, in the 1840!s, and called the settlement Cherryhill. The place was later named Elzy, supposedly for B.M. Elzy an early merchant. A post office was established here in the mid 1850’s and was in operation until 1905. The village began its decline when the railroad was built through three miles to the north, and the railroad accommodations attracted most of the residents to Vardaman,

HARDIN TOWN

Hardin Town was established and named by Johnnie Hardin who came to this site, four miles east of Calhoun City, in 1845. The place also seems to have been known as Hopewell, since the post office, which was in operation from 1880 until 1903, and the school was known as Hopewell. Hardin Town was never much more than a one store settlement, and that became extinct during the depression of 1929.

HARTFORD

The extinct town of Hartford is historic in the fact that it was the first county seat of Calhoun County. Established in 1830, Hartford served as the seat of government from January until July of 1852, at which time Pittsboro, four miles to the southwest, was selected as the permanent county seat. Martin Murphree, Grandfather of Dennis Murphree, was one of the first settlers in this section, coming in 1835. A few years later Hartford had become a thriving trade center, with a furniture and jug factory being operated by 0. K. Bennet in the early 1840’s. Soon after the establishment of the county seat at Pittsboro, the town of Hartford began to decline, and by 1886 was an extinct village.

HOLLIS

Prior to 1860, Alexander Hollis and his brother, Marvin V. Hollis settled in this locality, three miles east of Derma and the place was named for these two brothers. Hollis was no more than a rural community until the building of the railroad in 1905, and it became a flag station. At that time a post office was opened and the town became incorporated in 1910. Hollis prospered for a few years but when the post office was discontinued in 1922 it began to decline. The nearby larger towns drew most of the trade and by 1927 the town was almost extinct.

LOYD

Located eight miles east of Pittsboro, the name origin is uncertain, but it is known that the community was settled before 1860. A post office was established at Loyd following the Civil War and in 1900 there were three stores in operation. The post office was discontinued in 1910 and mail was received from Vardaman.

MABRY

Mabry was a railroad switch located a short distance west of the depot at Derma. The switch served a large planing mill operated by G.C. and I. Mabry of Derma. Mabry became extinct with the abolishment of the switch in 1939.

PARTEE

Located seven and one-half miles west of Pittsboro,

PITTMAN

Pittman was established as a flag station on the Mississippi and Skuna Valley Railroad, twelve miles west of Bruce. The station was named for Sam Pittman who owned the land where the station was located before it was sold to the Bruce Lumber Company.

REID

It is thought that Young Phillips, who arrived here about 1850, was the first settler in this section, nine miles north of Vardaman, Other early settlers included the Hardins, Campbells, Morgans, and the Reid family, for whom the town was named. A post office had been in operation for several years when a store was opened by Tom Phillips in 1880. Three other stores were eventually built, and Reid enjoyed good business activity until the building of a railroad to the south in 1904. At that time the population began to shift to the railroad, business started to decline, and in 1910, the post office was discontinued.

RETREAT

About 1890, Stewart Warner opened a merchantile store near his home, ten miles northwest of Calhoun City, and in time, the settlement gained a post office which was named Retreat. Within a few years the post office was discontinued, and at that time the business of Stewart Warner was closed and Warner moved to Big Creek.

SABOUGLA

 

This settlement, located eleven miles southwest of Calhoun City, was first known as Davis Town, for J.W. Davis, who settled near here in the 1830’s. About 1880 when & post office was granted, the community was given the name, Sabougla for the creek on which it is located.

SAREPTA

Located eleven miles northeast of Bruce, it is thought that John Hellum was the first settler, coming in 1836 from Tennessee and acquired land a few miles north of the present site of Sarepta. Dr. Andrew Roane, son of Governor Archibald Roane of Tennessee, settled here in 1840 and at that time there was one store which was operated by a man named McLarty.

There is a story told of a happening in Sarepta, when in the 1880’s the backwoodsmen of the area had the habit of coming to town and taking the law in their own hands. It seems that a government man named Wise came to Mississippi in 1884 in search of a criminal. When he reached Oxford, he was reassigned to locate and arrest two brothers named Dock and Jim Bishop. The two brothers were wanted for the killing of two Harmon boys in a drunken brawl near Sarepta. Jim Bishop was finally located by Wise, who made friends with him, thinking that he could be persuaded to betray his brother. He gave Jim Bishop a bottle of drugged whiskey for his brother, setting a time and place for his capture.

Instead of betraying Dock, Jim betrayed Mr. Wise, and hiding behind a tree they ambushed him, filling him full of buckshot. They then buried him in a shallow grave where he was found a few days later. About three years later Dock Bishop was captured, convicted, and hanged for his crimes. A song, “The Ballad of Dock Bishop,” was then composed by one of the local citizens, and is probably still sung occasionally.

SHEPHERD

Located three and one-half miles northwest of Pittsboro,

SKUNA Located six and one-hal miles west of Pittsboro.

SLATE SPRINGS

Located nine miles south of Calhoun City, the place took its name from the springs located west of town on the Slate Springs-Grenada Road. The exact settlement date is uncertain, but it is thought by local people to be older than Pittsboro. If this is true, then Slate Springs could possibly be the oldest settlement in the county. Slate Springs appears to have been a trading center in the early 1800’s. At that time, in addition to the saloons, there were two stores, the first one probably being operated by a man named Woodward. Between 1880 and 1890, a post office, flour mill, and two churches were added. Also, at this time the Fox College was opened, with Fuller Fox as the first teacher.

TRUSTY

This small community, located twelve miles northwest of Sarepta, falls just within the county line. A store, in which was housed the post office, was given the name Trusty, for a local resident. The store as well as the post office have been discontinued, the Trusty family, along with other residents have moved away, and little now remains to mark the site of the settlement.

VANCE

Now listed as being extinct, Vance was located about two miles east of Slate Springs, being named for William Vance, who in 1837 was the first settler. After building a log cabin in 1837, Vance established a water mill on Shulispear Creek for the purpose of grinding grain. In 1844, Vance cleared a plot of ground about 300 yards from his mill on which to erect a larger home. He died before the home was built, and on being buried in the clearing, the spot came to be known as the Vance Graveyard, being used by the community which later sprang up.

For many years wheat as well as corn was ground at the mill, and during the Civil War and Reconstruction, this old mill provided bread for many people. Shulispear Creek was an ideal fishing spot, and people bringing their grain from many miles away would take advantage of the opportunity to camp for several days at a time, fishing and hunting while their grain was being ground. After William Vance’s death his son operated the mill for a few years, then it was sold and operated under the new owners until it was discontinued in 1914.

VARDAMAN

This settlement, four miles east of Derma, was originally known as Ticky Bin, and several stories have been told as to how the name originated. In those days the cattle grazed in the bottom lands where ticks were found, not only on the cattle but on the grass and trees as well. In 1872 a store was opened by Tom Richardson, but the chief industry in this section, especially from 1895 until 1903. was the stave industry. Handhewn staves were made all up and down the Yalobusha and Skuna Rivers, and at the time of the Paris World’s Fair, several staves were sent to the fair and received first prize.

By 1904 the community of Ticky Bin had increased in population and the need of a post office was realized by the citizens. The long hoped for railroad had. been surveyed so a petition was sent to President Theodore Roosevelt for the establishment of a post office to be named Vardaman, in honor of James K. Vardaman. The office was granted but was named Timberville instead of Vardaman as proposed. As the town grew, business firms, schools, and churches were established. The citizens, never satisfied with the name, Timberville, requested and was granted the name change to Vardaman.

Old Courthouse, Pittsboro

An Ill Wind from Mississippi

In February, 1944, Laura Z. Hobson, a 43-year-old, divorced Jewish mother in Manhattan, read an article in Time magazine that reported Mississippi Rep. John Rankin had called Walter Winchell a “kike.” Hobson was outraged, even more so to read that nobody in Congress protested, particularly during the height of the Holocaust.

Hobson wrote about the Rankin incident in her first draft of Gentleman’s Agreement, the story of a Gentile reporter who pretends to be Jewish to investigate anti-Semitism. That someone as all-American as the reporter, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded with such a masquerade was a twist on the traditional black “passing” story. The novel was serialized by Cosmopolitan in 1946 and published by Simon & Schuster in 1947. In 1948, the movie, produced by Darryl Zanuck, received the Oscar for best picture.