:: SPRING 2018 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Moonshine stills, pistol-packin’ mamas, rare flowers, geographical inconsistency, the Andrews Sisters, snakes, South America & gunshot wounds of the abdomen.
On a humid summer night in 1944, with the rotted wood of the cabin creaking beneath her bare feet and whiskey fresh on her breath, my great-grandmother staggered into the room where her teenage girls were having a party. She swung what she thought was an unloaded pistol and danced while she sang the newly popular song “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” She pointed the gun at her eldest daughter’s boyfriend, fourteen-year-old Lawrence Partin, and pulled the trigger.
“Oh, Lord!” she cried out. “They told me this gun wasn’t loaded!”
The gunshot echoed in the bare clapboard house supported by a rusty corrugated roof. The porch was a witness, wrapped around the cabin; the moonlight glared off empty tin cans in the yard. Moonshine stills were hiding amongst the closest surrounding trees.
In 1942, Al Dexter penned “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Dexter apparently got the idea for the song after conversing with a waitress in a roadhouse he owned in Texas. The waitress told him a story about an extramarital affair she’d had: her lover’s wife chased her with a pistol through a barbed-wire fence. Dexter scribbled lyric ideas on a napkin; the idea of a gun-toting broad was apparently not only a farcical situation, but an inspiring one. He recorded the song on March 18, 1942. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters popularized the song the following year. The record quickly became a number-one hit and sold over three million copies, making it the most successful album sold during World War II:
Oh, lay that pistol down, babe
Lay that pistol down
Pistol packing mama
Lay that thing down
Before it goes off
And hurts somebody
M y family lived in an unincorporated community called Pearl, right on the border of Bell and Whitley counties. This part of Bell County was known for its remoteness and its abundance of wildlife and plants, and was nicknamed “South America” by the locals. Isolation bred poverty and a lack of education. By that fateful summer of 1944, Edna’s husband, Floyd, had already deserted the family after losing his job at a local coal mine.
Lawrence Partin was rushed to Middlesboro Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries the next morning. The certificate reads that his immediate cause of death was “gunshot wounds of abdomen.” He was the son of Greenlee and Dora Partin of Pearl, Kentucky, born on August 29, 1929. He died about a month and a half before his fifteenth birthday.
The porch was a witness, wrapped around the cabin; the moonlight glared off empty tin cans in the yard.
His gravestone reads: GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
Fourteen-year-old Georgia and twelve-year-old Evelyn Hurst—my grandmother—told their mother to run. Edna decided to hide. A wanted poster, placed all over Bell County, read:
Reward: For more information leading to the arrest of Mrs. Edna Hurst (formerly Edna Dixon) wanted for willful murder at Pearl, Kentucky. Description: about 32 years old, light brown hair, blue eyes, slender build, about five feet 5 inches tall. Give information to Maynard Partin, Pearl, Ky., or telephone Pruden Coal and Coke Co., Pruden, Tenn.
Pistol Packin’ Mama” became a hit during the war because of its ability to make people laugh and forget about the bleak headlines. The lyrics were easy to memorize and fun to sing along with. When the Yankees won the World Series in 1943, “Pistol Packin’ Mama” was their celebratory song in the locker room.
Some of the historical records list the Hurst rural address as being in Pearl; others state a place called Magisterial District 8 in Back Creek Precinct, Pruden, Tennessee. The Middlesboro Daily News and the Courier-Journal state that the cabin was along the Bell-Whitley border in the area known as “South America,” but Frakes claims to be the community that was once referred to that way. Pearl is the place on the county border; Frakes is northeast of it, and Pruden is even farther east and south of both. They form a triangle on the map, bordering Tennessee, and I could stare at it all day trying to decipher where, exactly, my grandmother’s abandoned cabin is or was amongst the dense vegetation.
On a death certificate for their barely two-month-old daughter, Letha Mae, Floyd and Edna Hurst are from Pearl.
An enumerator from the 1930 Census lists their township as Back Creek Precinct.
In the papers, they were from South America.
The town of Frakes was named after Reverend Hiram Frakes, who “saved” the moonshine-making Laurel Fork Valley residents by building churches, schools and orphanages in the area. It had been previously known for its lawlessness and feuding. It is said that outsiders steered clear of South America and its sinful mountain folk. It was a rugged, remote town. Today, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust is attempting to preserve the side of Pine Mountain in Whitley County, known for its rich species of wildlife and biodiversity, and the aquatic and plant life that is unique to that area in particular. Because it is so inaccessible to outsiders, the wildlife and aquatic systems flourish. There are picturesque waterfalls and rock formations, and an abundance of rare flowers.
It’s hard to picture such stark poverty in paradise.
Edna Hurst hid in her father-in-law’s home for ten days before confessing to Judge Pursifull. Her two eldest daughters, Georgia and Evelyn, ran away to Baltimore, Maryland, and the seven younger children were placed into orphanages. Evelyn eventually came back for her younger siblings and raised them all on her own. Baltimore was their new home.
On Wednesday, December 6, 1944, a Bell County jury found Edna Hurst not guilty. The shooting was pronounced accidental.
On the front page of the Middlesboro Daily News, underneath the main headline—“B-29’S RAID ON PEARL HARBOR ANNIVERSARY—is a headline that reads, “Edna Hurst Cleared.”
Edna, often fresh off of benders, would tell her grandchildren stories of the Appalachian countryside. Once, she said, while lying next to her husband, a snake slithered into their bed and under the blanket. She remained frozen with fear until morning, when the snake slid its way back out.
Jamie Shrewsbury received her MFA from Northern Arizona University. Her work appears in Natural Bridge, Passages North, decomP and apt. She was the creative non-fiction editor of Thin Air magazine in 2018/19.
Lead image: Erik Mclean