Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tom Roan's 1936 "Loot Island"

Although he wrote novels and other types of stories, Tom Roan is best known as the author of hundreds of stories published in the western pulp magazines from the late 1920's until the early 1950's. He's also one of those authors whose life is more unbelievable than most of his fiction.

Roan was born in Snead on Sand Mountain in December 1892. His poor family moved frequently as the men sought jobs. At one point the family lived in Cardiff near Birmingham where his father William worked in a coal mine. Roan left Alabama on a freight train when he was fifteen and headed west.

He ended up in San Francisco, but that was only one of many stops during the next two decades. He served in the U.S. Army from 1913 until 1917, much of the time in Hawaii. Around that period Roan fought for Pancho Villa in Mexico, and worked in a circus, as a private detective and a marshal in various western towns. He was said to have killed five bad men during those days.

Roan returned to Alabama in 1930 with his first wife Marjorie. Soon they were living in Collinsville in DeKalb County. The following year Roan shot Dr. William Preston Hicks several times during a drunken brawl at Roan's home. Three trials later, in 1933, he was finally acquitted. During his time in jail he requested a typewriter so he could keep writing stories. Dr. Hicks, born in 1889, was a 1913 graduate of the Birmingham Medical College.

Marjorie and their daughter left Alabama during the trials, and she divorced Roan. The daughter was later killed in a car wreck in California. Roan would marry again, but they had no children. He died on July 1, 1958, in Sea Bright, New Jersey. He is buried in Fair View Cemetery in Middletown, New Jersey. 

Two early novels are autobiographical portraits of Roan's young days in Alabama. Stormy Road was published in 1934 and set in Attalla where Tom spent part of his youth. Black Earth came out the following year and is set in the coal mines around Birmingham. 

The story under discussion here, "Loot Island," is a real potboiler and set in Alabama. Two federal agents, G-men McGee and Lumbard, have arrived on an island in Lonesome Swamp pounded by "sheets of Alabama rain." They are following Crash Finnegan and his gang of thieving murderers who have hidden out in the "Treacherous Alabama Swamplands." Their loot consists of jewelry and almost three hundred thousand dollars. Their speed boat is ready to take them away if they need to say "good-by Alabama, hello, South America or some other safe places...[if] Washington got too nosey."

The local prison warden is skeptical of the need to search for the gang. "When a prisoner gets away and gets into it [the swamp], we usually let him go. If he's too bad, we watch the rims of the swamp. It's the hell-hole of Alabama." Nevertheless, he loans the agents a trusted prisoner named Rip, "a fearless Negro serving life imprisonment for the murder of one of his kind" who had "the highest recommendation his big, fat-jowled warden could possibly give him." Rip brought along two hound dogs to help in the hunt.

During that first night Rip and the dogs are murdered, and the convoluted chases back and forth over the island begin. Things are complicated by the "Swamp Rabbits", families who live on the island and don't seem to have much to do but visit each other and make "the traditional corn whiskey of Alabama." One of these denizens is the lovely girl Ann Crow, who can shoot as well as the rest of them and who quickly develops a thing for Lumbard. The feeling is mutual, of course.

At first the Swamp Rabbits are as suspicious of the federal men as they are of the recently arrived crooks, but soon the two groups work together. Chases, gun battles, fires, journeys through underground passageways and I don't remember what else ensue. We do get some lectures on how these people ended up in the swamp--escaping "damned Yankee carpet-baggers an' their kind what come down outa Yankeeland to take over the state" of course.  

Naturally this tale has a happy ending The crooks are vanquished and there is hope for the young lovers to get together in the future. "I reckon I'm not your kind," lovely Ann Crow tells Lumbard. "You see, I've never been about much, but I'm thanking you for coming. You have done us a good turn. The Swamp Rabbits never forget. But--but come back if you really do feel like coming back, I--I reckon I'll be here sorter just a-waitin'."

Who could refuse that invitation??

You can find Roan's story here. It was originally published in the September 19, 1936, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. The table of contents for the issue can be found below. Roan shared space with at least two other prolific authors, Norman A. Daniel and Judson P. Philips. That magazine's history is about as convoluted as Roan's plot in this story. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Quick Visit to Hartselle

Each year my brother Richard and I take a trip together primarily to explore Alabama and family history. Our trip this past July ended in Hartselle, and this post examines a few things we found there. Comments on other stops: Bessemer & Jasper, Posey's Hardware in Jasper, Bug Tussle, and Colony

Hartselle had about 14,000 people in the 2010 U.S. Census. The town has a nice historic downtown area which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Notable natives include author William Bradford Huie, politician John Sparkman and various sports stars. 

Incorporated in 1875, the town has some interesting history. The downtown area has rebounded from two major fires in 1901 and 1916. A Rosenwald school for black residents, built in the early 20th century, closed in 1969 and had to be demolished in 2000. Hartselle High School celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2009. 

In March 1926, more than a dozen men stormed the bank, held hostages for four hours and then made off with $15,000 worth of cash, gold and silver. They used six sticks of dynamite to blow the bank's safe. The robbers were never identified; today the building is the home of a boutique. 

In the late 1980's Hartselle was home to the "Tomb of Mystery Museum" operated by magician John Reed. The collection consisted of his personal magic materials and historical acquisitions over the years. I wonder whatever happened to those items. 

We had a specific goal in mind for this Hartselle visit, but we also managed to see a few other things. All will be revealed in the comments below. 

Back in June I posted an item about James Copeland, a Confederate veteran who once vowed never to cut his beard if the South lost. He kept his word, and his beard was said to be nearly seven feet long when he died. According to my research, he is buried in the cemetery adjacent to this Methodist church outside Hartselle.  

Richard and I spent a half hour roaming around the cemetery in the July heat hoping to find Mr. Copeland's grave. We didn't, but there are many unmarked graves here. As the marker below notes, the cemetery has graves going back to 1804, so it's worth visiting as historic itself. 

Like Birmingham, Hartselle has its iconic Iron Man. We found him on our way to the Methodist church. He's on Iron Man Road. At the Iron Man Grocery. In the Iron Man community, with an Iron Man Barber, too. The fellow has been around for a century or so and has survived various attacks of vandalism.

Iron Man was originally an advertisement for VegaCalBessemer pharmacist W.D. Taylor developed the liver tonic, and the iron man advertised his product. "VegaCal Gets the Bile" according to the slogan on his chest. Apparently several of these iron advertisements were made in Birmingham and scattered in the area. I wonder if any others have survived.

There is a Civil War site of significance in the area.

Richard and I had lunch at Cahoot's Cafe in downtown Hartselle, where I had a great Reuben sandwich. As you can see from the photo below, the place is packed with all sorts of neat historical stuff. 

A few years ago the Hartselle Public Library was named after one of the city's most famous natives, William Bradford Huie. The journalist and novelist was a  very controversial figure during his lifetime, but returned to live in Hartselle in the mid-1950's. He is buried in the city cemetery. 

This building seems to have been a bank at one time; that book drop area sure looks like a former drive through for one.  


Black group unable to save landmark building [Morgan County Training School]. Associated Press 2000 September 25

Keith, Susan. Welcome to John Reed's World of Magic. Kudzu Magazine/Birmingham Post-Herald 1988 October 28, pp 4-6

Kennedy, James H. Iron Man pride of community named for him. Birmingham News 1991 March 11

Mcdaniel, DeAngelo. From the ashes: Downtown Hartselle survived 2 major fire. Decatur Daily 

McDaniel, DeAngelo. Memorabilia captures century of Hartselle High. Decatur Daily 2009 September 18

Shocking, unsolved 1926 bank robbery still provokes interest. Birmingham New 2000 March 28, p 2B

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Alabama Book Covers (15): Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon grew up in East Lake and graduated from Banks High School. After his first novel Baal appeared in 1978, he became one of the most successful writers of horror fiction as that genre boomed from the 1970's into the 1990's. In 1992, after publishing thirteen novels, he tired of the horror writer pigeonhole and took a ten-year break. In 2002 he returned to publishing his fiction with Speaks the Nightbird. He has published ten more books since then. Thus the covers below are only a small sample of his output. 

You can learn more about McCammon, his reading schedule and books on his website. He continues to live in the Birmingham area, one of the rare very successful Alabama authors who has remained in the state his entire career. 

I must admit I've only read one McCammon novel so far, They Thirst, and I highly recommend it. The book is both juicy horror and well-written. I have several other McCammon titles on my shelves and fully intend to read those too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Birmingham Photos of the Day (50): Airport Terminal Views in 1947

In August I posted an item in this series that discussed a photograph of the original terminal at the Birmingham airport. Since then I've found some more photographs, including several taken inside the terminal. All were taken by Charles Preston in 1946 and 1947, according to the entries on the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections site. These pictures seem to be something out of a neat old movie, maybe just after Bogie and Bacall have boarded their plane. As always, I have comments on some  of them. 

As you'll note from the dates noted below, something does not jive. I suspect one or more dates are incorrect. Or the old Birmingham airport terminal was a way station in the Twilight Zone. 

Many other photographs by Preston related to the Birmingham area can be found on the Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections site

Entrance to the Birmingham Airport taken by Preston in February 1947. 

This interior shot shows the Eastern Airlines ticket counter and the coffee shop entrance. The clock tells us it's 10:25 am on that February 5, 1947. I wonder if the next flight is running late?

This Preston photograph is dated June 1946 and also shows the Eastern Airlines ticket counter. What happened? Not sure how this more modern looking counter became the counter above.  

This Preston photograph was also supposedly taken in February 1947. Delta was founded in 1924 as a crop-dusting operation; the airline's headquarters moved to Atlanta in 1941. Note the lone women sitting in a chair; she seems to appear in the next two photographs as well.  

Another February 1947 photo that features the PCA International ticket counter. I'm not sure what "PCA" stood for, and the airline must not have been around long. I couldn't find it on either Wikipedia or a general Google search. And what happened to that coffee shop sign??

A final February 1947 shot features some of the terminal's windows.

Another undated photograph by Preston shows passengers boarding an Eastern Airlines plane.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Quick Visit to Colony

On our recent trip taking us from Bessemer to Jasper and Hartselle, my brother Richard and I made a drive through the town of Colony in the southwestern corner of Cullman County. Parts of this trip from Bessemer and around Jasper have already been described here, here and here.

I've noticed the I-65 exit for Colony many times, and after reading a bit about the history we decided to see it. The town's origins lie in the land claims in the area by two former slaves, and brothers, Major Reid and Enoch Montgomery. Other former slaves also filed claims, and a community slowly grew. Reid died in 1893 and his brother the following year; both are buried in the cemetery of the Methodist church in Colony.

During these early decades a cotton gin and various mills opened. A general store, Colony Mercantile, found success serving both blacks and whites in the area. A school started up in 1927 and offered instruction through seventh and then through the high school grades. Colony School merged with Hanceville in 1965 so that students were attending an accredited school. The town incorporated in 1981. Colony's population in the 2010 U.S. Census was 268. 

Oddly, Virginia Foscue's Place Names in Alabama does not have an entry for Colony. My brother and I saw no historical marker in town, and I did not find one listed on the inventory of the Alabama Historical Association. 

Further Reading

Kent Faulk, "Colony: Pop. 412. Numbers add up to hope for Cullman community. Birmingham News 18 February 2005, 1C, 6C

Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Ex-slaves Colony on the map now. Atlanta Journal-Constitution 1 February 1995, D1

The branch library is part of the Cullman County Public Library System. 

The library is housed in the Tom Bevill Educational Complex. A recent article discusses efforts to increase community use of the complex. 

Signs of past structures can be spotted in Colony. 

In addition to the town hall, built in 1986, and senior citizen center, Colony also has a very nice 13 acre park.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

Alabama Book Covers (14): Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles

Have you been wondering about a book cover that combines Alabama, author Ray Bradbury and Mars? Well, so have I and here it is below. 

This post is another in a series that highlights tenuous connections to our state. You can see two others here and here. There are and will be more; they're fun to do.

In his long and prolific career Bradbury wrote such classic novels as Farenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He also wrote numerous short stories that have filled many collections. Bradbury died in 2012, and one of his many honors occurred that year. NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, and the site was named Bradbury Landing.

Bradbury's first novel The Martian Chronicles appeared in 1950 and consisted of short stories published in the late 1940's that he wove together with new material. Earth has become so troubled that colonization of Mars has begun. Conflict develops between the human arrivals and the indigenous Martian population. Sound familiar?

Among other adaptations, the book has appeared on radio and the opera stage. In January 1980 a television adaptation with Rock Hudson and other stars appeared on NBC over three nights. Bradbury called it "just boring". I remember enjoying it, but haven't seen it in a long time.  

The Bantam paperback edition below is the first one issued by that publisher; others would follow until at least 1980. And there's "Alabama", sandwiched between Ohio and California.....

New York: Bantam, 1951 

Source: Wikipedia 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dr. Justina Ford at Alabama A&M and Beyond

Ford, Justina Laurena Carter (22 Jan. 1871-14 Oct. 1952), physician, was born in Knoxville, Illinois, and grew up in Galesburg in the west central part of the state. She was the seventh child in the family, and her mother is reputed to have been a nurse. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, her father was born in Kentucky and her mother in Tennessee

In a profile published in Negro Digest two years before her death, Ford declared a very early interest in medicine. “I wouldn’t play with others unless we played hospital, and I wouldn’t play even that unless they let me be the doctor. I didn’t know the names of any medicines…” (quoted in Harris, 42) She also remembered liking to prepare chickens for meals in order to see their insides and visiting sick neighbors to help them. Ford grew up to pursue that childhood interest in medicine and became the second African-American female physician in Alabama and the first in Colorado.

            Little else is known of Ford’s early life. Ford attended Hering Medical College in Chicago, one of several schools in the U.S. (others are known in St. Louis, Missouri, and Fort Wayne, Indiana) named after the German immigrant Constantine Hering (1800-1880), who is often called the “father of American homeopathy.”  She graduated in 1899. 

By that time about twenty percent of physicians in the United States were graduates of homeopathic schools. Almost 1600 black physicians were practicing in the U.S. at the time; fewer than 200 were women. The first female African American physician in the U.S., Rebecca Lee Crumpler, had graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864.

            In Ford’s 1900 U.S. Census record, enumerated on June 7, she is listed in Chicago’s 4th Ward as one of six residents of a boarding house.  Also listed is John E. Ford, 39, a clergyman born in Kentucky, as were both his parents. This man is presumably Ford’s first husband; how they met and what eventually happened to him is currently unknown. 

Sometime later that year Ford traveled south to Alabama to take the state’s medical certification exam. Why she picked such a distant southern state to begin her practice remains a mystery, although the presence of Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute may have been factors. Washington had recruited Dr. Cornelius N. Dorsette to set up practice in the state capitol of Montgomery in 1884 as one of Alabama’s earliest black physicians. In 1891 Washington persuaded Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon to come to the state and serve as the resident physician for Tuskegee Institute’s faculty and students; she remained in that post until 1894. When she passed her grueling medical certification exam in August, 1891, she became the first female physician of any race to be certified in Alabama.

            Instead of Tuskegee, Ford settled in Normal, just outside the city of Huntsville in north Alabama. Normal was the site of the State Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, a land-grant school founded in 1875. She was certified to practice medicine after passing the test administered by the Madison County Board of Medical Examiners sometime after the census count in Chicago in June, 1900, and before March 31, 1901; she is listed in the 1901 Transactions of the state medical society as a successful candidate. Joining some 55 black physicians in Alabama, she apparently became the college’s resident physician. The archives at what is now known as Alabama A&M University seems to have only one item related to Ford, a “sick list” dated December 30 and 31, 1902, giving the names of people she vaccinated.

            About this time Ford decided to move her practice elsewhere and chose Denver, Colorado. She may have hoped a black female physician would have better opportunities in the West rather than the Jim Crow South, where even male black physicians could have difficulties developing a practice.

            Ford’s decision proved to be the right one for her. In a career that lasted more than four decades, she built a formidable reputation for her skills in obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics. Ford remained a distinct minority, however. In 1950, two years before her death, only seven black doctors were active in Colorado; she was the only woman among them. She still had to overcome discrimination; for most of her years in practice black physicians and patients were not allowed at Denver General Hospital. Toward the end of her career she did receive admitting privileges at the hospital and membership in the Denver and Colorado medical societies.

            As Ford’s practice in Denver began, she traveled to patients’ homes by horse and buggy and then bicycle. Later she bought a car and hired a driver; Ford herself never learned to drive an automobile. She also used taxis to reach her patients, who lived both in the city and in often difficult to reach rural areas. In addition to fellow blacks, Ford treated poor whites, Mexicans, Greeks, Koreans, Hindus, Japanese and any others who sought care from her in that diverse western town. She accepted whatever patients could pay in cash or goods and claimed to have delivered 7000 babies (only 15% black!) in her long career.

            Whether Ford’s first husband accompanied her to Alabama and Colorado is currently unknown. She is known to have married Alfred Allen after her arrival in Denver, but she retained the name by which she was so well-known. Her religious home in Denver was the Zion Baptist Church. Early in her career Ford bought a nine-room house at 2335 Arapahoe Street, where she lived until her death. Although in later years she began to lose her sight, Ford treated patients until just weeks before she died. She was survived by her husband; the pair had no children.

            Shortly before her death, Ford was given the Human Relations Award by the Cosmopolitan Club of Denver. That award, plus her admission to the Denver and Colorado medical societies in 1950 meant that Ford received some recognition in her lifetime for her long career of patient care and self-sacrifice.

            Other recognitions have come since her death. In 1975 the Warren Library, an east Denver branch of the city’s public library system, was re-named the Ford-Warren Library. In February, 1984, the house on Arapahoe Street was moved to 3091 California Street to avoid demolition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the home is now the location of the Black America West Museum and Heritage Center. Her first floor office and waiting room remain as she used them. The Dr. Justina Ford Medical Society was formed in 1987 to support black physicians training in Denver. The Colorado Medical Society, which for so many years rejected Ford as a member, passed a resolution in 1989 declaring her a “Medical Pioneer of Colorado.”

            Ford’s long career exemplifies the status of both female and African American physicians in America in the first half of the twentieth century. As Ford began her practice in 1900, there were about 7000 female physicians in the United States, or nearly five percent of all doctors. That percentage remained steady until the 1970's when it began the rise that continues today. In 1920, almost midway through her career, she was one of only 65 African American female physicians in the United States. The U.S. Census that year counted almost 3900 black male doctors. By 1930 the total number of black physicians had fallen to 3805.

            Justina Ford had to overcome both race and gender prejudice to carve out a successful practice. Black male and white female physicians had their own problems with obtaining an education, developing a practice, and relating to a white male medical establishment that mostly ostracized them. Ford, like other black female doctors, had a double set of problems to face. Perhaps both her personal drive and the fact that she settled in Denver, with its multi-racial population, made her remarkable career possible.


 “Dr. Justina Ford: Honored as First black Female Physician in Colorado.” Colorado Medicine 86(4): 60, February 15, 1989

Harris, Mark. “The Forty Years of Justina Ford.” Negro Digest 8:42-45, March 1950

Johnson, Connie. “Dr. Justina Ford: Preserving the Legacy.” Odyssey West 7(2):4-5, March-April 1988

Lohse, Joyce B. Justina Ford, Medical Pioneer (2004)

Riley, Marilyn Griggs. “Denver’s Pioneering Physician and ‘Baby Doctor”: Justina L. Ford, M.D., 1871-1952” in Marilyn Griggs Riley, High Altitude Attitudes: Six Savy Colorado Women (2006)

Smith, Jessie Carney. “Justina L. Ford (1871-1952) Physician, humanitarian” in Jessie Carney Smith, ed. Notable Black American Women Book II (1996)

Tollette, Wallace Yvonne. Justina Lorena Ford, M.D.: Colorado’s First Black Woman Doctor (2005)

Tollette, Wallace Yvonne. Justina’s Dream (2005)