A self-described raconteur, Royce R. Hart loved nothing more than to tell a good story. A grandson of early settlers of Mississippi, he was the charming and erudite father of my classmate, Ethebet Hart, who encouraged him to publish a book of his stories and essays in the waning days of the 1970s.
Home from New York to visit my parents around that time, I stopped by to see the Harts at their home on Storm Avenue, and Mr. Hart -- with great flourish -- gave me an autographed copy of his book, "Hi, Y'all!" on April 30, 1979.
His in-print musings have been in my possession ever since, and only lately have I sat down to re-read his prose.
Catching my attention today was the retelling of a tale Mr. Hart's father related "from the end of the last century" of a peddler who plied his trade from Bogue Chitto to Monticello.
Peddlers -- enterprising men, usually European immigrants, with padded, compartmented bags mounted on their shoulders -- would walk a regular rural route and supply to farmers and their families spools of thread, cookware, shoe leather and tacks, laces, ribbons and other non-bulky items. Such enterprise proved to be a welcome convenience to the poor farming families who had little means to regularly travel to towns that would otherwise be a source of these necessities.
The unnamed peddler of which Mr. Hart wrote would embark on his route in the spring, sell his wares along the way, and hope to sell out as he reached the Pearl River by mid-year. There, he would meet supply boats, restock his wares and retrace his steps back to Bogue Chitto, reaching his destination by early winter. From there, he would take a train to New Orleans and overwinter there before resuming his route once again in the spring.
One fall, Mr. Hart wrote, the peddler failed to show along on his regular route. Neighbors inquired of neighbors, and it was established that the peddler had last planned to spend the night with a farming family in western Lawrence County.
That was the last anyone had heard of him.
The family, however, disavowed any knowledge of that plan.
Winter "came and went," according to Mr. Hart, and presumably, the puzzle of what had happened to the peddler faded from collective thought.
Around that time, hard work continued on a dyke project perpendicular to a stream called Bardwell's Creek, a tributary of Boone's Creek, near the Mount Olive church community. A couple of years passed, and the dyke project, designed to steer flood waters and thereby enrich soil for crops, was finally completed.
"Then it happened," wrote Mr. Hart, "a gigantic long-lasting freshet impounded so much water above the dyke that a section of it was washed away, and when the waters finally receded, old man (John) Boone and his crew went to examine the damage inflicted by it.
"Imagine their amazement when they discovered the skull and other bones of a human skeleton in the mud below the ruptured section of the dyke!"
County authorities were called in to investigate, and while nothing of legal substance was ever discovered, "it was said Mr. (X) became increasingly nervous."
The case evidently ended after "the nocturnal departure of Mr. (X), who reportedly headed west across the Mississippi River at Natchez, over to Vidalia, Louisiana," and then south into "swampy, wild, untamed land," where the denizens "were not exactly friendly with 'the law.'
"Mr. (X) was never again seen in these parts, so they say," wrote Mr. Hart.
Note: To wear the hat of a defense attorney, it should be pointed out that in this story, the authorities never established that the bones were actually that of the peddler, and one can only imagine that the suspect, unable to prove a negative in the late 1800s, may have well felt intimidated by the inquiries of the authorities and fled, not necessarily out of guilt, but out of fear and intimidation of being prosecuted for something he did not do.
Regardless, the case of the missing peddler and the skull and bones in Boone Dyke is yet another death under mysterious circumstances in the Piney Woods.
Post Script: Mr. Hart, born Aug. 15, 1911, died on Oct. 11, 1989. Mrs. Hart, who later moved to Tennessee to be near her daughter and her family, only recently passed away, on Nov. 13, 2012. She was 87. The Harts are buried in Mount Olive Church of Christ Cemetery. For more information on the Harts and how this beloved Brookhaven couple met, please see this link.