Tales of a river gone mad and a would-be suicide’s cork leg

Historian and local mensch John Barry has written some recent articles comparing the current Mississippi River flood conditions to the Great Flood of 1927, about which he authored the definitive account.

These prompted me to look up other Mississippi flood years, and through the power of the Internet I learned about the flood of 1882. Bobby Joe Williams described it thusly:

The flood of 1882 was devastating in terms of human misery. While the water was at
its highest point, a steamboat could have gone from within 20 miles of Pine Bluff,
Arkansas to the Gulf of Mexico without entering the Mississippi River.

That image of hundreds of miles of uninterrupted overflow is mind-blowing. Williams continues:

Human suffering was made even more harsh by the attitude of the federal government
and local landowners. It was in this period of United States history that the
concepts of rugged individualism and self-help were at their peak. The federal
government finally came to the aid of the flood victims in a small way.

Plantation owners, to a man, opposed any issue of government rations. They believed
that once their workers had been given free rations, they would never again return to
the fields.

The flood of 1882 was “the greatest on record to that date,” but as Barry’s work demonstrates, it didn’t change the consciousness of the nation like the Great Flood of 1927 did.
In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described how the 1882 flood cancelled planned festivities in the Crescent City:

New Orleans intended to fittingly celebrate… the bicentennial anniversary of [Robert de LaSalle’s navigation of the Mississippi]; but when the time came, all her energies and surplus money were required in other directions, for the flood was upon the land then, making havoc and devastation everywhere.

Twain quotes a Captain Marryat, whose impression of the Mississippi River in 1837 was less than sanguine:

It is not like most rivers, beautiful to the sight, bestowing fertility in its course; not one that the eye loves to dwell upon as it sweeps along, nor can you wander upon its bank, or trust yourself without danger to its stream. It is a furious, rapid, desolating torrent, loaded with alluvial soil; and few of those who are received into its waters ever rise again…

Twain notes that “There was a foolish superstition of some little prevalence in that day, that the Mississippi would neither buoy up a swimmer, nor permit a drowned person’s body to rise to the surface.”

Well, that reminds me of a dark but funny old news story* from The Times-Picayune. Not sure of the exact date but the incident took place no later than 1965. It’s the sort of humor that appeals to me right now, as I avoid contemplating the growing hydrologic forces that surge, most of the time unnoticed, through our city:

Man’s Cork Leg Cheats Death
Keeps Him Afloat After Leap into River

A carpenter’s cork leg kept him afloat and prevented him from taking his life by jumping into the Mississippi river from a Canal Street ferry, Fourth District police reported Monday.

Taken to Charity hospital after his rescue was Jacob Lewis…  Suffering from a possible skull fracture and internal injuries, he was placed in a psychiatric ward for examination.

Police said that after his release from the hospital he would be booked for disturbing the peace by attempting to commit suicide.

The incident occurred about 11:25 p.m. Sunday while the ferry, M.P. Crescent was tied up on the Algiers side of the river.

Police quoted a ferry passenger as saying he saw the man leap from a rest room window into the water. When the call was sounded, two employes [sic]… lowered a boat and rescued Lewis.

He was brought into the boat about 100 yards from the ferry after he refused to grab life preservers the men threw him.

Ferry employes [sic] said he told them he had no desire to live. His attempt on his life might have succeeded if his cork leg had not kept him afloat, police said.{/BLOCKQUOTE}

*Source: New Orleans Times-Picayune, quoted in “Comedy: Meaning and Form,” Ed. By R.W. Corrigan, San Francisco, Chandler Publ., 1965. p1.)

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