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Forgotten Tales of Alabama

This is an eclectic and eccentric little book, put together, one is sure, over time from bits Kelly Kazek, managing editor of the "News Courier" in Athens, Alabama, has collected, heard, read, researched and written up and gathered here.

By Don Noble

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

"Forgotten Tales of Alabama" is comprised of about 71 short entries divided into five general sections: Colorful Characters, Strange Sites, Intriguing Incidents, Tombstone Tales and Curious Creatures and Odd Occurrences.

This is an eclectic and eccentric little book, put together, one is sure, over time from bits Kelly Kazek, managing editor of the "News Courier" in Athens, Alabama, has collected, heard, read, researched and written up and gathered here.

Some of the entries are familiar to me and so probably very well known generally, not "forgotten" at all. Kazek tells briefly of the 1954 incident in which Ann Hodges of Sylacauga was napping on her couch when she was hit by an 8.5 pound meteorite that came though her roof. The meteorite is now on display in Smith Hall on the U of A campus.

Many will remember the various UFO incidents on Sand Mountain. From the 1970's into the 90's space aliens seem to have been studying Fyffe as well as Garmany, Geraldine and Albertville. Space craft were sighted and cows mutilated in various unsavory ways that do not make one wish to make the acquaintance of these particular interstellar visitors. What were the aliens looking for? Perhaps snakes. There is a brief account of some Alabama snake handlers, a story covered at length and very well indeed by Dennis Covington in "Salvation on Sand Mountain."

In a similar vein but moving in the reverse direction, so to speak, there is the story of Marshall Herff Applewhite, a charming fellow who taught chorale students here at the university from 1961 to 1964 but then went on to other pursuits.

Applewhite became the leader of a cult that awaited a UFO in the Colorado desert in 1975 but, alas, the spaceship failed to arrive. Undaunted, Applewhite formed the group Heaven's Gate which developed plans centered around the Hale Bopp comet in 1997. He and 38 followers dressed up in purple robes and sneakers and drank a mixture of vodka and barbiturates. They died together at Rancho Sante Fe in California waiting to be picked up, as I remember. They believed they were going to "The Next Level." It is not polite to pass remarks on other people's religious beliefs and practices, still?

Alabama, like everywhere else, has a few Bigfeet, Mothmen and Monster Hogs, but in spite of having one of the more heavily armed populations on the planet, no one has bagged a Bigfoot or a Mothman yet.

I HAD forgotten that Alabama was a divorce mecca in the 1960's. Estranged individuals could fly in to Birmingham Airport, meet with an attorney willing to perjure himself by affirming the visitor was a resident, and fly away divorced, without ever spending the night. In 1960 Alabama granted 17,000 divorces; Nevada 9,274. The practice, described here as a "goldmine," was finally stopped and several lawyers disbarred.

The section on Colorful Characters is of course fascinating. There are entries on the outlaw Tom Clark, John Wilkes Booth, Blind Tom, a musical prodigy, and other unusual folk.

Always interesting to me are the serial spouse killers. Nanny Doss killed four husbands and probably ten other people including her mother, two daughters, a grandson, a nephew and one of her mothers-in-law. Betty Jo Green of Athens, Alabama, only killed an ex-husband and a sister-in-law, but her legal defense wins the prize. Green claimed "she had another woman living in the left side of her body." She, or they, were convicted anyway and are serving a life term in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

This is a peculiar little book. It contains some errors of fact, some chapters seem undigested news clippings, and often one wishes that a story were told at a more satisfying length but, all in all, odd tales make good entertainment.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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