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The fascinating evolution of the fool killer

bookOne of the oldest traditional folktales, ‘Godfather Death,’ exists in all cultures; however, the tone of the stories may vary from bleak and grim invocations of death’s certainty to humorous tales of tricksters who scheme to avoid death’s coming. Death becomes personified as a shadowy figure who comes to collect “his due.” 

Along the way, Godfather Death has inspired memorable creative works: film (“The Seventh Seal,” “On Borrowed Time”) and even Appalachian folk tales (“Soldier Jack, the Man Who Caught Death in a Sack”). However, one of the most provocative variations is “The Fool Killler.” In these tales, Death has been transformed into a terrifying agent of divine justice.

The Fool Killer first appears in the years following the Civil War. In fact, he might be considered a product of that conflict. He is always described as a hulking figure that shambles drunkenly down the moonlit roads of rural America. In the early versions, he is armed with a great knotty club, but eventually his weapon of choice is an axe. If he is, indeed, a product of the Civil War, there is considerable confusion regarding “which side he fought on.”

One of his identifying features is a facial scar — a great livid furrow that runs across his forehead from ear to ear. The implication is that it is a battle wound.

In the Helen Eustis novel, The Fool Killer, the author creates a fascinating character, Milo Bogardus, an amnesiac vagrant who has escaped from a hospital.  He tells George Mellish (the 15-year-old runaway who narrates this novel who goes by the name Milo Bogardus, but that is not really his name) “That name belongs to a dead man. When they found me on the battlefield, all my clothes had been blown off in an explosion, so they never knew if I was Confederate or Union. They brought me to the hospital and gave me a dead man’s name.”

For a while, Milo and George become friends and talk about going to see the Pacific Ocean. However, their hobo life is sometimes interrupted by Milo’s seizures, which originate from his head injury and cause him to suffer a mindless rage that will send him crashing through the forest. He is often gone for days at a time, and when he returns he has no idea where he has been. Often, he returns covered with blood.

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In time, young George discovers Milo’s secret. He is the Fool Killer. But George remains confused about what a fool is and how Milo knows them when he finds them. In one significant scene, George hears Milo whistle a strange, sorrowful tune. It is a tune that he whistles on the road at night and when others hear the tune, they are filled with an overwhelming sadness. Milo’s victims seem incapable of escaping and they wait resignedly for the shadowy figure with his axe.

The Eustis novel was made into a film starring a young Tony Perkins, and for reasons that remain unclear, the film was withdrawn after a few limited showings. A clip from the movie is currently on YouTube and in addition, I now own a copy. The film has the same dark mood as “Night of the Hunter,” another black and white classic.

Back when Works Progress Administration projects were operating in Appalachia, a group of writers in Tennessee edited a collection of folklore titled God Bless the Devil. One of the tales collected was a Melungeon folktale entitled “Fool Killing Shep Goins,” and suggests that the traditional story of the Fool Killer was a vital part of Melungeon folklore. In this dark, humorous tale, Old Master (the Melungeon version of God) visits Shep Goins one night and tells him that he has become disillusioned in the Hebrews and no longer considers them his “Chosen People.” Instead, the “Portughee” (Melungeon people) in East Tennessee and North Carolina will now become “the blessed people.” 

However, Old Master has noted that some of the Portugees living in Tennessee are fools and have become a constant embarrassment to him. Consequently, Old Master orders Shep to practice his markmanship for a few weeks and then begin a purge. He is requested to kill all of the fools in East Tennessee.

Although Shep is newly married to a feisty little woman named Vandy, he takes his religion seriously and informs his newlywed wife that he will be gone for a few months carrying out Old Master’s wishes. Shep has befriended a local red-headed minister named Puddlefoot and asks the preacher to look out for his bride while Shep is away. Old Master has cautioned Shep about the fact that the rapid growth of fools in east Tennessee is largely due to the opening of schools and colleges (which are fool-making factories), and he needs to get busy.

Shep has no trouble identifying fools (he claims he can smell them), and after several months he returns home and informs Rev. Puddlefoot and Vandy that his work is done, he has killed all the fools in East Tennessee and he can hunt down the survivors at his leisure. However, Puddlefoot immediately inquires about the fools in North Carolina. Shep says that Old Master had only asked that he kill the fools in Tennessee.

Puddlefoot insists that North Carolina had to be cleansed as well and urges Shep to go to the Old Master in prayer. However, when Shep attempts to do so, he invariably goes to sleep while praying. However, eventually he wakes one night to find a sheet-draped figure in his bedroom that demands that he go to North Carolina. Shep reluctantly agrees and, after stocking up with ammunition and guns, he sets out again. This time, he encounters a great deal of resistance and receives several injuries from North Carolina fools who are both defiant and courageous.

However, after 11 months, he returns home and goes immediately to Rev. Puddlefoot to tell him he has done as Old Master requested. However, when he finds the minister he is packing a wagon to go tend his dying mother in west Tennessee, but he tells Shep that Vandy has just delivered a baby.  

Shep is perplexed. How could that be? He has been gone for 11 months. Puddlefoot informs Shep that the baby was originally to be born about six months ago, but that Puddlefoot has asked Old Master to put Vandy on hold. According to Puddlefoot, Old Master postponed the birth until Shep returned home. So, seeing that Shep was home, Old Master allowed the baby to be born this very morning.

So saying, Rev. Puddlefoot drove away in his wagon.  Shep continued on to his home where he found Vandy on the front porch with her new baby.  Her new red-headed baby. Poor Shep. He pulled a gun and shot himself in the head since he had missed one big fool in Tennessee.

Gradually, during the last century, the characters of the Fool Killer and Godfather merged. By the time that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer in 1939, the axe had ceased to be the Fool Killer’s weapon of choice. The end of life is noted by an admonition much like that given to Everyman in the old medieval play. In fact, there is little difference in Godfather Death in the Appalachian Jack Tale, “Soldier Jack” and the Fool Killer in broadway musical, “Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer” in 1993. Instead of axes and sythes, death’s messenger brings a stern reminder, simply noting that it is “time to go.”  In fact, the firm touch that stops Johnny/Jack’s heart may actually be a blessing to a body crippled by age and sickness.

The Fool Killer by Helen Eustis. Doubleday, 1954. 219 pages.  

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