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The Serpents of Bienville is an artist collective started in Southern Alabama by Amanda and Sean Herman. The project has grown from a study of southern mythology and folklore to include art, books, and merchandise available for purchase. The Serpents of Bienville is a celebration of the Southern Arts community and the people that carry on the tradition of creativity. Subscribe to our blog to hear about Alabama's history, oddities, lore and hidden treasures. Follow us on social media to stay up to date with new artists and projects in our community!

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Filtering by Tag: Massacre Island

Alabama Oddities Weekly Rundown October 19th-October 24th

Amanda Herman

We here at Serpents of Bienville have a lot of different projects currently running.  One project that we are particularly excited about is the Alabama Oddities pieces that Amanda is writing for our social media sites.  She is doing daily updates, bringing you a new story every morning, of something strange and odd from our Southern home.  Not everyone has social media, so we will be doing weekly rundown's of her stories, which we will be publishing every Sunday.  We hope you guys enjoy, and remember to follow us on our social media sites to get daily Alabama Oddities stories.  Enjoy!

Photograph of Old Fort Gaines

Photograph of Old Fort Gaines

Ancient Guard of Fort Gaines - Monday October 19th

Fort Gaines is said to have a native protector, a motherly defender, an ancient guard, that came from the spirit haven that is Massacre Island. An old native American woman has been seen roaming the outer halls of Fort Gaines, keeping a watchful eye and protecting her sacred ground from disrespectful intruders. She has disdain for the settlers that took her people’s land and is known to be incredibly angered by those who do not hold her home to the regard that she has. This woman is said to be clothed in the skins and furs of the indigenous animals and her face is heavily aged by weather and worry. Is she one of the reasons that Massacre Island is so cursed, because she believes, along with the spirits of her people still present on the ancient burial mounds, that people have not treated the land and each other with the respect that is deserved?

 

Illustration from JJ Abram's "Fringe"

Illustration from JJ Abram's "Fringe"

Hueytown Hum - Wednesday October 21st

The year was 1991. A quiet, peaceful day in a suburb in Birmingham Alabama… suddenly became… slightly annoying? Some described it as the buzzing right before a fluorescent light burns out. Some said it sounded like vent fans. One woman felt that she needed to keep in rhythm with it, letting its pulse control her breathing pattern.  Some people didn't hear it at all, but dogs unanimously revolted against it by barking incessantly and even going on hunger strike. People had their guesses at what the noise was, but no definitive conclusion was ever reached. The noise just stopped one day, and never returned. This may not seem must of an eerie oddity, unless you are a sci-fi fiend like myself. There was this one episode of JJ Abrams’ Fringe, if you recall, where there was a sound known as the “Edina Hum” that was radiating from nearby turbines. The sound was actually keeping the real identities of the townsfolk hidden from outsiders as well as each other. I’m not saying the people of Hueytown have anything to hide… Of course not… Then again… No, never mind, it’s probably nothing…

 

Horrifying Hoop Snakes - Thursday October 22nd

Today's oddity is the legendary creature from the dense Alabama backwoods known as the hoop snake, as if snakes weren't shocking enough. This terrifying serpent can chase its prey, moving even faster than its humdrum belly scooting brethren, my clutching his tail in his jaw and rolling like a wheel downhill. The detail that makes this cold-blooded creep even more chilling is that her tail is chocked full of poison. So when this reptile has his prey close enough to catch, it stiffens up into a spear position, piercing the victim with instantaneous death. The only way to dodge the hoop snake is to duck behind a tree or jump a fence, so either the tree soaks up the fatal poison or the snake has to uncoil to get through the chain link. That's it, folks, those are the only ways to survive the hoop snake. The ONLY ways.

 

"The Storyteller" by Frank Fleming, located in Birmingham, Alabama

"The Storyteller" by Frank Fleming, located in Birmingham, Alabama

The Storyteller of Five Points - Friday October 23rd

The Storyteller is a beautifully detailed fountain in the hub of Birmingham’s Five Points South. The artist, Frank Fleming, was commissioned by the Birmingham Art Association. Fleming is an amazing sculptor, and I believe he fully succeeded in conveying the idea of childlike innocence and creativity, with the Goat Man reading from an open book to his amphibian listeners in their imaginary kingdom, and holding his owl staff, representing the importance of southern traditional storytelling. However, there is another view of the Goat Man by the fine god fearing folk of the south. The sculpture is said by some to be completely satanic in nature, even stretching the symbolism by some to say that the frogs aren't just listeners, but worshipers set up to mark the five points of a pentagram (even though the location is named Five Points). However you interpret this work of art, you cannot deny its beauty. Frank, you done good, sir.

 

Photograph of Josephene Myrtle Corbin of Blount County, Alabama

Photograph of Josephene Myrtle Corbin of Blount County, Alabama

Come One!  Come All!  The Amazing Myrtle! - Saturday October 24th

Josephene Myrtle Corbin, from Blount County, Alabama, was born a conjoined twin. From the waist down, she was two separate people, having two pelvises, two complete reproductive systems, and four legs. She birthed five children with her husband, and rumors speculate which system incubated each child. She was alive during the dawn of medical journals' utter fascination with the obscure. Her mother started charging to see her "freak" daughter when she was just five months old, and Myrtle stuck with the career throughout her life. She appeared in P.T. Barnum's Traveling Show and Ringling Brothers Circus, and later held shows at Coney Island. She had a cheerful disposition and a great sense of humor, plus they paid her mega bucks, so she embraced her difference and always played the crowd. Good on you, Myrtle! Freaks unite!

The Fortunes of Rena Teel - Sunday October 25th

Rena was born in Millerville with a “veil” over her eyes, now known as having her amniotic sac intact. In those days, though, the child born this way was said to have the sixth sense, the sorcery of seeing the future. As a child, she would tell people their futures without knowing that this talent was not normal. She told her mother one day that her newborn brother was going to die. Three days later, the perfectly healthy boy did just that. When she became a mother herself, she dreamed that she told her mother she had no child. Nine days later, her healthy son passed, the same as her brother. She caught wind of a man that was to be hung for the rape of a woman, and Rena swore that he was innocent. She just knew it. her friend told her not to get involved, since Rena had worked very hard to stay out of the limelight and keep her talent hidden so that she would not be exploited and feared. She promised to stay out of it, but promised that the guilty would confess in two years. Two years after the innocent man was hung, the hanged man's uncle confessed to the rape on his deathbed. She ultimately decided to use her gift to help people for the rest of her days back in Millerville, and folks came from all over to see the amazing fortune telling Mrs. Rena. 

Massacre Island

Sean Herman

“Early French explorers originally dubbed it Massacre Island for the mounds of sun-bleached bones that they found there. What they didn’t realize was that they had disturbed a sacred Native American burial ground that is rumored to be watched over by supernatural specters at night…”

Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Sea travel had it’s way with these explorers, the salt of the water drying out their skin like a tanned hide.  Their lips had become arid deserts, cracking as they tried to speak to one another, but at this length in their travels, there was nothing left to say.  They sat in silence, fighting the pains of being dehydrated and yet the salty sea seemed to permeate through every inch of clothing at the same time.  Would they finally reach a destination today, finally leave this cursed water?

From a distance the weary explorers saw huge, white hills—hills that grew to look like small mountains floating on the sea.  Was this the oasis they longed for? Had the months of travel caused these explorers to see things that were not there? Their imaginations raced as they envisioned what great things could be found on these ivory mountains.  What was the environment like there? What beasts and creatures wander these isles, these summits floating on the sea?  Most importantly, what souls lived there? What did these people engage in, and what did their culture believe?  Most importantly, they asked themselves, what could France gain from them?  The thoughts began to fill the explorers’ heads, overflowing out of there jaws, to become ideas shared with one another.  This was the first conversation in months. Finally, there was hope.

With the islands now coming much more clearly into sight through their salt crusted eyes, the explorers now waited in anticipation to see the new land they were going to be making their Canaan.  As they finally grew close enough to see the summits, they were taken aback in horror.  Their aspirations and towering ideas were destroyed, and nothing but mortal fear lie in the ashes.  As the ships floated closer, the explorers now wished they could get as far from these morbid islands as they could, but the current from the water drew them closer to the island, closer to their fears. The nearer they became, their fears became much more of their reality.  Now insight, the mountains appearance changed into something grotesque and macabre.  As the ships dropped anchor, the men boarded their exploration vessels, as if they were headed on their death march.  The boats glided onto the wet sand, stopping suddenly with a loud thud on the shore.  As they looked up, trembling in fear, they could see what was, from a distance, once alluring peaks of a promised land, now the substance of nightmares.  In front of the explorers, piling higher than they could see, were bones, skulls, staring back at them, bleached by the sun, reaching all the way to the heavens.  The weary explorers had finally reached their port of call, the isle of bones: Massacre Island.


            The le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville

            The le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville

In 1699 the le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, sailed into Mobile Bay.  The brothers would go on to be the founders of many of the cities that lie on the Gulf Coast, Bienville being the heavily tattooed founder of Mobile, but that’s another story. (Entitled “Bienville’s Sacred Oath”). After dropping anchor because of a passing storm, the group came upon the ghastily sight, piles of human bones found all throughout the island.

A journal belonging to Andre Penicaut, a carpenter, was found that gave an even closer description of the travels with the brothers.  Penicaut sailed with Iberville to the French province of Louisiana in 1699, not returning to France until 1721. In those twenty-two years he saw and documented the trails that were left.  He began his writing in Louisiana and finished upon his return to France.  As a ship carpenter, Penicaut was chosen as a member of several key expeditions, giving his first hand accounts of these explorations, in a very objective way. Penicaut helped to build the first post in Louisiana, at Old Biloxi, and the second post on the Mobile River. 

Here we have Penicaut’s account of the first site of the “Isle of Bones”: 

“When we disembarked, we became terrified upon finding such a prodigious number of human skeletons that they formed a mountain, there were so many of them.  We learned afterwards that this was a numerous nation who, being pursued and having withdrawn to this region, had almost all died here of sickness; and as the manner of savages is to gather together all the bones of the dead, they had carried them into this spot.  This nation was called Mobila, and a small number of them survive…  M. de Bienville, the brother of M. d’Hyberville, who commanded us, named it Isle Massacre on account of all these bones.”1

 

Stories grew from these accounts and continued to spread until a pile of bones became a tremendous mountain.  The final resting place for the remains of all those people, however, was not meant to be seen, but respected under the sand. In all truth, “the mountain of bones was just a burial mound that had broken open during a hurricane, but it horrified the crew so much that they set sail up the Mobile River and entered the Mississippi/Alabama/Louisiana Delta Gulf Coast Region.”2

Illustration of the Leonid meteors in 1833.  The event inspired the title for "Stars Fell on Alabama"

Illustration of the Leonid meteors in 1833.  The event inspired the title for "Stars Fell on Alabama"

The stories and lore surrounding the island only grew, even with knowledge of the truth being quite common. A majority of these stories became based around the ill fame of the isle, or at the very least, the bad luck surrounding it.  Carl Carmer's famous book “Stars Fell on Alabama” was published in 1934, and was about his experiences living in Alabama. Much of the book focused on the stories he had gathered from the local people.  In all the beautiful Southern detail, locals of Dauphin Island were jumping at the chance to give their story about the things that happened on their fair island, and what might continue to haunt them to that day. 

Here’s an exert from two of those stories.

“’They built a beautiful church here.  They called it Fort Belle Eglise.  It had a high tower on it and at the top of that was a big gold cross.  Fishermen could see it when they were a good many miles out.  One day a British pirate ship from Jamaica saw it and piled into the harbor here with the black flag flying.  The people were scared and ran away and hid-all except the priest-Father Hivre his name was.  He ran to his church and up the steps into the tower-then he climbed the rest of the way up to the cross and managed to get it loose.  By that time the pirates were already in the town.  There was a big wide well beside the church and Father Hivre jumped from the top of the tower carrying the gold cross with him right into it.  Nobody has ever seen anything of either of them since.  When pirates couldn’t find the cross they were so mad they burned the church, and the place where it stood has never been found.  But we all look for it sometimes.  Every boy on the island thinks he’ll find that well…”
“‘Captain Kidd used to bury his treasure on this island,” said Veronica imperturbably, “and back in nineteen sixteen Jimmie Mellon found it.  A storm washed away half the shell bank and uncovered a brick cistern underneath a lot of Indian stuff.  Jimmie opened the cistern and there was a clay pot with the cover sealed up.  Mr. Dewberry was in charge of the island then-he and some rich folks were planning to develop it-so Jimmie closed up the cistern and sent for him.  As soon as he came they both ran over to the spot and opened the cistern but the pot was gone. There was one old Spanish gold-piece at the bottom of the cistern.  Nobody had left the island and nobody could leave for a while without bein’ searched.  But they never found anything.  Jimmie says he bets the Mermaid took it.’
‘Why did all these people give up and go back to the mainland?’ I asked.
‘Bad luck,’ said John.  ‘It all started, they say, ‘round the year seventeen-forty.  This harbor was better than the one at Pensacola then, and all the big boats used to make it.  Then one day the big sailing vessel Bellona was standing off waiting to take the governor, Bienville, to France.  The weather was just as calm and clear as it is now.  All of a sudden she sank-with out any warning-sank and drowned half her crew.  They say she just slipped straight down.  A couple of weeks later come a twelve-day blow that just wiped out the harbor-took one arm right away.  Nobody would stay here after that.  The rich families all left and the houses and orchards rotted away.  Spain didn’t get much when she bought us from France.  But if we could get some salvagers after the Bellona and bring her up, we’d get flush times again.  Her sinking’ was what started it all.’”3

A photo of Dauphin Island present day

A photo of Dauphin Island present day

With the importance of this beautiful island being so evident, the fight against the tide continues to this day. Five years after an oil spill, ten years after the island was violently split in two, and forty seven years after it’s hay day, the juggle of sand continues.  Trucks carry mountains of beach, moving shifting sands, desperately trying to keep the island that is so loved, the idea that is so adored by it’s people, together.  When looking at the stories and folklore of the little “Isle Dauphine”, it seems to be one shrouded in myth, destruction and rebirth.  Time and time again, this island has been rebuilt on shifting sands, fighting tooth and nail to keep it together.  Could this all be the effect of a mythical curse for disrupting a sacred burial ground in 1699?

A map of the early settlements on Mobile Bay.  The arrow points to Dauphin Island.

A map of the early settlements on Mobile Bay.  The arrow points to Dauphin Island.

The reality of the origin of “Massacre Island” might answer this question. The “Isle of Bones” is what is classified as a barrier island.  These islands are long, narrow, offshore deposits of sand or sediment that run parallel to the coastline, serving as protection for the shore from hurricanes.  They are separated from the main land by a shallow sound, bay, or lagoon, protecting vital wetlands.  Barrier islands also operate as a type of dune system, yet dunes that were recorded to be massive in the times of Bienville are now in modern days falling into small hills.  Some beliefs are that these islands migrate, depending on storms and environmental conditions.  What effect might years of habitation on this island produced?  Daniel Cusick says in his series as an E&E Reporter:

“Coastal erosion, storm surge and sea-level rise are all conspiring to wash the island away, or at least dismember it to such a degree that it no longer functions as a hurricane buffer, wildlife sanctuary, historic site or prime vacation spot.”  

He continues: 

“The breakup of Dauphin Island would also be one of the only known cases of a U.S. municipality giving up substantial parts of its landmass to the sea and put the state in the untenable position of seeing nearly half of its seashore lost or reconfigured, with huge implications for tourism, fisheries, transportation, commerce and hurricane resilience.” 
A close up of Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 

A close up of Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 

Dunes, as seen from a distance by French explorers covered in bones, are the heart of keeping this island together.  These mountains of bones were created from sacred burial grounds, being ripped open by a hurricane, exposing what lay beneath, for the explorers attempting to colonize an unknown land to witness.  Bleached white bones, thrown about like pillaged relics, from the heart of the island, from a sacred reverence that the explorers would never fathom.  That which wasn’t understood became unholy, the unknown became savage, and thus was the creation of “Massacre Island”.  Colonizing those “savages” and as a result, creating a civilization that is now what they know and understand.  They were ultimately doing away with all footprints left by the natives.  In a short time, this new civilization erased what the migrating natives believed and practiced, and created settlements that were permanent in their eyes. In the creation of permanent living spaces on the shifting sands of an unknown barrier island, was our society essentially established by trying to take control of that which can’t be tamed, that which will not be controlled?  

 

“Civilization comes with greater control of impulses. We control violence, the state is there to control ourselves and control others. We also have something called self-control. Inner directed self-control, whereby we know there are certain things we don’t do anymore. You could argue that civilization is increasing control over human nature.” -Louise Fresco

Myths, stories, and legends are our attempts to explain the unexplainable.  We tell stories around a fire, around the table, in a place of worship, trying to define that which shouldn’t have to be put into words.  Once we name something, we limit what it can be.  Humanity has a longing to search for explanation, and ultimately, create permanence in impermanence, to control our circumstances and environment.  Could that idea be, at our core, what is fighting to keep this beautiful island community alive? The fight for control, is that the island’s curse?  Or more importantly, is that our curse?  Could the true Massacre that took place on this island be that of the creation of modern civilization itself? 

A close up of Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

A close up of Illustration entitled "Massacre Island" 11"x17" Ink on Illustration board by Sean Herman

Looking back at the story we began with, we may see something with new eyes. In front of the explorers, piling higher than they could see, were bones, skulls, staring back at them, bleached by the sun, reaching all the way to the heavens.

Could the skulls staring back at the fearful explorers actually be the ghosts of our futures past?  Are these haints showing to us our fears of the loss of control, the unknown, which would ultimately be the end of our existence?  Death is humanity’s number one fear.  In death, we give up all control.

The beauty of a barrier island is that, left uncontrolled, it will protect the ecosystem and mainland it guards.  Control is not part of nature’s plan.  Eventually though, the island will change shape, and its life will end.  Nothing is permanent, not even something as mythological as humanity’s “Massacre Island”.


  1. "Fleur de Lys and Calumet" by Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, Original

    1723 French text translated/published 1953 ppgs 9-11

  2. Alabama Footprints Exploration Lost and Forgotten stories, Donna R. Causey pg 23 

  3. "Stars Fell On Alabama"  Excerpts from the 1934 book telling of visit to Dauphin Island by Arthur Carl Carmer ppgs 249-251