Albert Pike and the Old Canoe

Where the shadow is heavy the whole day through—
There lies at its moorings the old canoe.

“The Old Canoe” was a popular 19th century poem written by Emily Rebecca Page. However, over the years, the poem became attributed to another person, a man named Albert Pike.

Yes. That Albert Pike—the Mason, Confederate general, and poet-lawyer of Arkansas.

Albert Pike circa 1880, courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

To learn why the poem became attributed to Pike, one should look no further than Columbia, Tennessee. Albert Pike left Massachusetts (the state of his birth) in 1831, headed for the West. It seems that Pike, like so many others of the day, stopped in Columbia on his way to a new frontier.

It is not clear how long Pike stayed in Columbia, but it was long enough for him to rack-up a bill for room and board at the Nelson House hotel. Pike was not having much luck in Columbia and the young school teacher and poet did not have the funds to cover his fare. He looked towards the West once more.

Pleasant Nelson, the proprietor of the hotel, was known to keep an old canoe tied on the banks of the Duck River. Albert Pike helped himself to this canoe one night and paddled downstream to Gordon’s Ferry on the Natchez Trace. Now, with Columbia and his hotel bill well behind him, he could start anew.

Pike would find success in Arkansas as a newspaperman and attorney. He would also become active in politics and a leader of the Whig party. In this capacity, Pike would return to Columbia.

1844, hometown-boy James K. Polk is the Democrat nominee for President of the United States. Not everyone in Columbia is behind “Young Hickory,” though. The local Whigs planned a huge rally in support of their candidate, Henry Clay. Among the many noted orators to speak at this rally was a man that the people of Columbia remembered—Albert Pike.

Perhaps he had forgotten about the hotel bill. Maybe, perchance, Mr. Nelson had forgotten about the hotel bill and the canoe, too. Pike would know when he returned to Columbia.

Pike checked into his Columbia hotel (it is safe to assume not the Nelson House), and, as he tried to sleep, the town band began playing on the street below. It was a very catchy piece of music. There were also twenty verses of lyrics to go along with the tune. Only these lines remain:

“Albert Pike he came to town
          to spend a day or two.
 He ate up Nelson’s meat and bread
          and stole his old canoe.”

After enduring several encores of this performance by the local Democrats, Albert Pike was said to have left Columbia again without ever giving his Whig speech. It was the last time he was ever known to be in Columbia.

This humorous little act performed by the people of Columbia would follow Pike for many years. The story about he and the old canoe he stole became so well-known that Pike was eventually given credit for writing the poem titled “The Old Canoe.”

The story did little damage to Pike’s fame, however. He would go on to fight in the Mexican War, be active in railroad speculation, and eventually became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, in command of Native American regiments. After the War, he returned to law and focused on Freemasonry, on which he wrote much, including the famous work, Morals and Dogma.

All pretty good for a common “canoe thief.”

-Adam Southern

From the Knoxville Daily Tribune, April 6, 1876.

The “Black Widow” of Hazel Green

She “was a beautiful and charming woman, with auburn hair, dark brown eyes and fair complexion. She was well educated, an aristocrat and had in her veins the blue blood of men who had followed in the steps of Lord Baltimore…” Sounds pretty good, right? Well, reader beware. All that glitters isn’t gold.

The above quotation was taken from a 1933 Huntsville Times article written about a lady known by many names. For now, we’ll just use her maiden name, Elizabeth Dale. Elizabeth was the daughter of Adam Dale, who, at the age of just fourteen, volunteered to fight the Redcoats during the American Revolution and later helped Andy Jackson raise an army to fight the Brits in the War of 1812.

Adam Dale was an early settler of Middle Tennessee. He was one of the first inhabitants of what is now modern-day Dekalb County—then Smith County. There, he built and owned a successful mill before selling his holdings and moving to Maury County a wealthy man.

Adam Dale

Miss Dale, as the author of the 1933 article continued, “loved fine clothes, fine horses, fine furnishings and all of the conveniences made possible by the considerable wealth of her family.” She moved to Columbia with her parents, her husband Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons in tow. In 1816, just a few years after their marriage, Rev. Gibbons filed a will in Smith County that promised his new bride his entire estate, save a $100 bequeath to his sister and a shotgun to his nephew. He was only twenty-three when he wrote the will.

Fourteen years later, the good Reverend died near Centerville in Hickman County, Tennessee. His will had never been updated. The union did not produce children and his wife, Elizabeth, inherited all of his worldly goods, an estate that included slaves and other property. They were married for nearly eighteen years. It would be Elizabeth’s longest relationship.

In October 1831, she took a second husband, Phillip Flanagan. He died five months later in March of 1832.

November 6, 1833, Elizabeth took her third husband, William Alexander Jeffries. Jeffries was a widower who owned a sizeable plantation in Hazel Green, Alabama where he had built a four-room log cabin atop an Indian mound after finding that the best place to look over his land holdings. Legend says Mr. Jeffries had met Elizabeth during her short marriage to Mr. Flanagan and, once he learned Flanagan had passed, Jeffries came to Maury County to court the widow.

This marriage lasted for nearly five years before William Jeffries died in 1838. The union produced two children, one boy and a girl. His aging—yet, still lovely—widow inherited his entire estate. The once-wealthy widow became even wealthier.

And wealthier, still. She soon married again in May 1839 to Robert A. High. As a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, he was included in William Garrett’s Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama. Garrett wrote of High, “He had acquired a large property.” This, probably more than anything else, attracted the widow to him. High gave no second thought to marrying a woman who had outlived three husbands, as he, too, had been married a few times. Garrett continued in his description of High:

At the time he served in the Capitol, he was a dashing widower, seeking his fourth wife. His head was a little bald, which he took great pains to conceal… At all events, he filled a large space in society at Tuscaloosa, and succeeded in marrying before his term of service expired—an ample compensation, it is hoped, for his subsequent defeat as a legislator.

Venture to say that it was little compensation, as the former legislator was dead within two years of saying “I do.” Husband number four died on February 16, 1841.  

Four is enough for most folks, but Elizabeth was not finished with matrimony just yet. She took her fifth husband, Absalom Brown, on March 16, 1846. Brown was a wealthy merchant. His wealth, along with her existing assets, allowed Elizabeth to build the house she always wanted atop her Indian mound in Hazel Green, Alabama.

For simplicity, “Elizabeth Dale,” date unknown.

An enslaved master builder and a crew of others worked for over a year to complete the home. The finished product was an impressive four-on-four home built to overlook the road to Hazel Green. It was furnished with the best furniture her husbands’ money could buy. The gardens surrounding the home were also impressive, with varieties of flowers and shrubs.

Absalom Brown did not enjoy the home for very long, though. He died in 1847, leaving behind a young daughter and, of course, the almost-perpetual widow.

Brown’s death was long remembered in the community for many reasons, the first being the nature of his burial. After his death, his body began to swell. Fearing what might happen if they left him in the parlor, the widow made the decision to bury him that night. This is when the rumor mill really started churning. What was she trying to hide by burying her husband at night? Many speculated she had poisoned her poor husband and that’s why the body reacted as it did. The nighttime funeral was her way of covering up the evidence, they thought.

Despite all of the rumors and speculation surrounding the widow, Willis Routt was not deterred. He married Elizabeth in 1848. As fate would have it, he died three years later in 1851, leaving Elizabeth a six-time widow. Lips continued to flap around North Alabama as everyone speculated on the nature of Willis Routt’s death.

To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s father had died in the home just a few months before Willis Routt. The widow’s parents had moved into Elizabeth’s home around 1850. When Adam Dale died in October 1851, he was buried with Elizabeth’s husbands in the ever-growing family cemetery. Elizabeth’s mother went back to Columbia. As the years went on and the rumors surrounding “the Widow of Hazel Green” continued to spread, Mrs. Dale imposed upon her son-in-law, Nathan Vaught, to go and retrieve her late husband’s remains.

Nathan Vaught, long-remembered as Maury County’s “Master Builder,” was also a founder of Rose Hill Cemetery. Established in 1853, this was to be the new home of Adam Dale’s remains. This, too, created a buzz, as when the body was disinterred, Vaught discovered it was petrified and dark—sure signs, many thought, that poor old Dad had met the same fate as Elizabeth’s husbands… poison!

Even with all of the rumors, another man came courting. His name was D. H. Bingham, a school teacher from Meridanville. Even though near sixty years of age, Elizabeth was said to still be beautiful and Bingham was very much smitten. The two might have married, too, had it not been for a neighbor named Abner Tate.

Some say the fight began over Elizabeth’s livestock getting loose and ruining Tate’s crops. Others believe that Tate had wanted to marry the widow himself but had been rejected. Whatever the case, Tate set out to ruin Elizabeth and he didn’t have to work very hard to do it—he just repeated what everyone else had already been saying about her. Shortly thereafter, Tate was shot and wounded by one of his slaves. The generally accepted story was that Elizabeth paid one of her own slaves to kill Abner Tate, and this slave subcontracted one of Tate’s slaves to do the deed.

Being only slightly wounded, Tate continued his harassment of the widow.  Elizabeth countered by having her courter, D. H. Bingham, level claims of murder against Tate. (Supposedly, he had killed a traveler from Kentucky on his property and had the body burned in the fireplace to dispose of the evidence.) Tate retaliated by writing a pamphlet titled, Defense of Abner Tate Against Charges of Murder Preferred by D. H. Bingham.

In this small book, he struck out at the widow with a vengence, writing her “bridal chamber was a charnel house.” As if that were not enough, he continued about Elizabeth, writing “around whose marriage couch six grinning skeletons were already hung.” Elizabeth filed a $50,000 defamation suit against Tate.

Elizabeth Dale-Gibbons-Flanagan-Jeffries-High-Brown-Routt had already lost in the court of public opinion. Rumors continued to spread about the widow. One famous story is that she kept six pegs by her front door and hanging from each peg was a hat belonging to one of her husbands.

Before a decision could be made by the courts, Elizabeth sold her Hazel Green plantation and moved to Mississippi. She would later drop her defamation suit against Tate. There is no documentation that she ever married again. She died in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1866.

Despite her death in 1866, her story lives on. Generations of children in North Alabama were told ghost stories about the home in Hazel Green, Alabama where so many husbands died by poisoning.  Some have even gone as far as to call Elizabeth Routt a witch.

Was she an evil, husband-killing witch or the victim of cruel misfortune? That truth went with her to the grave in Mississippi. But, her legend still lives on.

In 1982, songwriters Jim McBride and Stewart Harris got together to write, and, as they were brainstorming for inspiration, the two started swapping ghost stories from their childhoods. McBride remembered hearing the story of the Black Widow of Hazel Green, although he mistakenly thought the widow’s name was Rose. After sharing this story with Harris, the two penned the song Rose in Paradise which Waylon Jennings released in 1987 and took all the way to the top of the Country Music charts, lending a pop-culture tie to this story with strong Maury County ties.

Today, in Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery, two graves that pre-date the cemetery’s founding stand just within a few yards of each other—that of Adam Dale, Elizabeth’s father who died in 1851, and Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons, her first husband, who passed in Hickman County in 1830.

-Adam Southern

The grave of Rev. Samuel G. Gibbons. He died in 1830 in Centerville, TN and was moved to Columbia’s Rose Hill Cemetery after its founding in 1853. His monument is shaped like an alter and the top is complete with an open Bible. The main base also includes Masonic symbols.


Garrett, Jill Knight. “Hither and Yon”: The Best of the Writings of Jill K. Garrett. Maury County Historical Society, 1999.

Garrett, William. Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama for Thirty Years, with an Appendix. Plantation Pub. Co.’s Press, 1872.

Hackett, Vernell, and Angela Stefano. “Story behind the Song: Waylon Jennings, ‘Rose in Paradise’.” The Boot, 16 Mar. 2016,

Jones, Pat. “Historic Homes: The High-Brown-Routt Home.” The Huntsville Times, 26 Mar. 1933, p. 4.

The 1846 Courthouse & What Remains

The Maury County Courthouse stands proudly in the center of Columbia’s Public Square, a bright, shining example of the county’s prosperity at the turn of the 20th century.

Maury County was still a rich agricultural hub in the early 1900s and it was also emerging as an industrial powerhouse with phosphate mines and all of the processing companies that came along with them. In building a new courthouse, the county’s fathers might have been sending a statement that a county such as Maury deserved a building more refined and polished.

That may have been a small piece of the puzzle. But, the other 999 pieces were all about the condition of the old courthouse.  

The “old courthouse” was built in 1846. Many people refer to it as the “Second Courthouse” since it was the second building to stand in the center of the square. Nimrod Porter, a long-serving Sheriff of Maury County, is credited with building the 1846 building which replaced another brick structure (the “first” courthouse) built in 1810. [The first county court was held in Joseph Brown’s log cabin. Today a stone tablet stands on Mooresville Pike just south of Elm Springs, marking the approximate location of the true first courthouse.]

As the 19th century came to a close, the 1846 building was already being called shabby. An 1898 newspaper article in the Columbia Herald claimed that courthouse was “the shabbiest in the state.” Similar comments were made in the new century. A 1902 Herald article stated, “The present building is an eye-sore and a disgrace to the prosperous town and county.”

The late War Between the States is to be given a little credit for this. During the War, Federal troops fortified the courthouse and placed cannons on the north, south, and western entrances. The building was left in a terrible state at the close of the War. Yet, it survived. Many of Tennessee’s courthouses burned during the War.

The War left the South financially ruined and there were no funds available to repair the damages made to the courthouse. Left unrepaired and without annual maintenance, the building fell into even more disrepair.

An early postcard showing the 1846 Courthouse razed in 1904.

January 1902, a resolution approving the construction of a new courthouse failed. The Nashville Banner reported, “Maury County needed only a change of three votes of the special session of County Court yesterday to gain a new court-house.” Even though the measure failed, a committee to investigate a new courthouse was formed.

No action would be taken until June 1903 when Maury County’s Grand Jury grave their opinion to the Quarterly Court. It read:

We have examined the county court-house. It is in bad and dangerous condition. The noise of the streets is heard above the testifying witnesses and it is a difficult matter to hear or know what is said during an investigation. We have observed during our present session that the rains came through the roof and top floor onto the second floor. The walls are cracked and dilapidated. There is absolutely no protection to the county records. Land titles, court records and other documents and records of vast importance to the citizens of the county are practically subjected to the elements. There are no vaults nor other protection from fire, and should a fire occur, the result would most probably be their destruction, bringing an unending turmoil of lawsuits, trouble and expense to property owners. The building is in such a state of dilapidation and decay that it would be folly and useless expense to undertake to repair it. The pride of the county calls for a new court-house, the serious and dangerous conditions demand, and the unprotected citizens are entitled to it.

We, therefore, heartily and unanimously recommend to your Honor, and through your Honor to the Quarterly Court, that an appropriation be made, and such other necessary steps be taken as are necessary for the building of a court-house suitable to the present needs of the county.

On June 15, 1904, the ground was broken for the new building. The cornerstone was set a few months later on October 8th by Dick Porter, a man estimated to be over 120 years of age. As a slave, he worked on the two previous courthouses in 1808 and 1846. Now, as a free man, he was selected to lay the first trowel of mortar on the cornerstone.

The “new” courthouse was finished in 1906 and has served the people of Maury County since. Other than a few remaining photographs, not much remains of the 1846 building… or so we thought.

One of the old gasoliers from Maury County’s 1846 Courthouse survived and has been in a private collection since 1957. The beautiful, four-armed fixture has been electrified and it is currently for sale. It will take $5200 to bring it home—a small price to pay for one of Maury County’s lost jewels.

The gasolier from the 1846 Courthouse. $5200 is needed to bring it home to Maury County!

Local historian Adam Southern is issuing a cry for help. He is currently seeking donations to bring this rare fixture back home to Maury County. Once the $5200 has been raised and the fixture is purchased, it will be installed in Colonel Looney’s study at Historic Elm Springs.

Elm Springs was the home of Colonel Abram Looney, a prominent man in Tennessee’s political scene and an attorney in Maury County. Looney practiced law in the 1846 Courthouse and would probably be very familiar with the fixture. This is just one of the reasons Elm Springs was selected to be the home of this fixture.

Photograph of Maury County’s Abram Looney

Another reason being that Elm Springs, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has only one antique light fixture. This fixture, when purchased and installed, will add more history and ambiance to the tour at Elm Springs.

Donations are needed NOW! Please give what you can. Donations are being accepted through Go Fund Me at You can also mail donations to the Southern Light Fund at 409 3rd Avenue, Columbia, TN 38401.

Historic Elm Springs, built in 1835, is listed on the National Register.

Lt. James C. Wooten of Maury

This Sunday on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of the Great War.

At the Maury County Library in Columbia, a selection of books are on display to commemorate the First World War Centenary. The public is encouraged to check out a book or two concerning the conflict thought at the time to be the “war to end all wars.” A unique look at the war can be had by reading Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation by Ann Bausum.

Also at the library are artifacts from the life of local hero Lt. James C. Wooten.

James Council Wooten, II was born in Columbia on August 7, 1896. He was named for his grandfather, the first James Council Wooten, who had served as a Confederate colonel during the War Between the States. Young Wooten’s father, John, was a merchant and owned Maury Dry Goods. His mother, Emma, was of the prominent Hughes family of Maury County.

Being of a prominent family and having means, James C. Wooten, II was afforded the best education his parents could give him. His early education began at the Columbia Female Institute. (NOTE: It was not unusual for young boys to attend the Institute—the grammar school, or lower grades, were open to both boys and girls from Columbia.) Following the Institute, he attended Columbia Military Academy.

His friends, of which he had many, called him Jim or Jimmy and, by all accounts, he was a very bright young man. These accounts must have been true, as he finished his coursework at C.M.A. and entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland at just age 16. While in the academy, “he had been upon a cruise in French waters as a midshipman of junior grade and witnessed the entrance of France’s men into the struggle with Germany.”[1] Jim Wooten would have joined the fight then and there had he been allowed.[2]

In 1914, at the request of his parents, Wooten left the naval academy with an honorable discharge and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then, as with now, MIT only took the best and brightest minds. Jim Wooten fit the bill. In addition to his course work, he was involved with the Tech Show Ballet, on the editorial staff, and was on the tug-of-war and wrestling teams. But, when the United States entered World War I, Wooten put his studies aside and volunteered for the army.


Wooten finished training and was sent to Fortress Monroe in August 1917 as a second lieutenant of the coastal artillery. On the sixth of September, he, along with 2,000 other officers, sailed from New York to France. There, he would volunteer for the aviation service. Except for the month of training he received in France, Lt. Wooten was in service on the front lines.

Flying above the lines as an aerial photographer, he won the admiration of his brothers in arms and citations for gallantry from his commanders.

The Daily Herald printed some of his exploits. On August 13, 1918 (twelve days after his death), the headlines read, “Columbian Out after Pictures Got a German.” In the article, a letter written on July 7th by Lt. Wooten to his parents is printed in its entirety. In the letter, he tells the exciting tale of his latest flight into enemy air with his pilot, Tom:

I sighted 3 Huns coming in, yelled to turn to the left as one dived at us. Tom pulled a quick one and I put my guns on. All 3 immediately beat it without firing. We turned and I snapped another string [aerial photos]. We turned and began as first time. I had head down, snapping about the middle of last string of pictures, having cautioned Tom to watch direction of 3 others, when he yelled “Look out right!” And, gee whizz, there were 7 of them. I yelled “turn left and run!” He yelled “Oh boy!”

… All seven opened up. Well folks, the feeling was over in a second, but I thought we had done the greatest duty and began firing under tail wires, as tail was in way—a bit dangerous but necessary. My guns jammed and, as I managed to jerk them loose, I yelled, “Climb, tail in way!” We climbed and I had wonderful shooting. Picked out 2 in center very close together, left slightly ahead, and let loose. One of right we down into nose dive giving out smoke and the others all turned and went into big cloud, unfortunately. I continued to fire into cloud. The Boche use them to cover themselves. Wish that cloud hadn’t been there.

They put some holes in our ship, shot up our motor. We did our darnedest with our altitude to make the Allied field in a long straight line, but couldn’t make a good field, hit an invisible ditch and tore up, cutting my nose and the back of my head and hurting my old ankle again. We both hollered “OK,” unhooked our belts and crawled out. Doc came up in ambulance but we laughed and ran it away. Tom wasn’t hurt but let the Doc tie up my head after stopping the blood and cutting off some hair. My head is a funny sight now, as the hair I shaved off on top hasn’t grown back and I’ve got another streak behind. Now don’t worry. Any of us old ones who wish can go on Repose now, or I can get leave if things don’t go badly with us, but I want to wait until later.

He closed the letter with:

I wouldn’t write so much about all this for fear of worrying you, but by the time you receive this, I will be safe on leave.

Lots of love to all, from you devoted boy.[3]

Wooten Lt James C

Portrait of Lt. James C. Wooten painted from a previous photograph. This portrait is now at the Maury County Archives. (Photo courtesy of the Maury County Archives.)

That leave would never come. William Fry, a Maury County soldier, wrote his father and included information about of Lt. Wooten’s death on August 1, 1918. Another letter arrived in Columbia a few days later from Wooten’s comrade, Lt. W. L. McNutty, and recounted his fallen friend’s final moments.


Lt. Wooten was John and Emma’s only child. Grief-stricken, the mother sought to memorialize her son in a way that would benefit the community. Mrs. Wooten was a member of the Student’s Club. This club founded Columbia’s first library in 1902. She knew that the library lacked a children’s section, so in 1919 she created the Lt. James C. Wooten Memorial Children’s Library in her son’s name. Along with the collection, she purchased child-sized furniture and started an endowment to ensure new books were purchased for the children’s library every year. That fund is still active and generates revenue to purchase children’s material annually.

Lt Wooten

Mrs. Emma Wooten in the children’s section of the Maury County Library when it was located inside of the Memorial Building. This children’s section was created in memory of her son. 

Lt. Wooten’s remains rested in France until 1921 when the family was finally able to bring their son home. John and Emma actually traveled to France the year before to visit the original grave site. In May 1921, he was interred in Rose Hill Cemetery. On his cross-shaped marker, his citation from the French government is inscribed.

-Adam Southern



[1] Moore, John Trotwood. Tennessee, The Volunteer State, p 823

[2] Ibid

[3] The Daily Herald, August 13, 1918

Columbia’s “Crackup”

Among the personalities that made Columbia such an interesting place in the twentieth century, perhaps none were more colorful than Captain Frank Foster (F. F.) Frakes. Better known as “Bowser,” Captain Frakes made his living by living on the edge as a barnstormer and stuntman.


1938 Camel cigarette ad highlighting Bowser Frakes.

In 1913, Bowser saw his uncle fly an old Curtiss-Wright pusher. It was love at first sight. With his uncle, Bowser learned everything he could about flying the flimsy planes from the infancy of aviation. Bowser thought he had learned enough to help the Allies with the Great War (WWI), but Uncle Sam did not see it that way—Bowser lacked the two years of college required to be a pilot in the early air force.

During a 1955 interview, Bowser said of his time in WWI, “The closest I came to flying was when a Maury County mule kicked me about 30 feet through the air.” Grounded by the army, Bowser’s main objective was to transport mules to Europe to aid with the war effort.

When the war was over, though, Bowser found himself in luck. The army had hundreds of surplus planes they were all-too-happy to sell to would-be pilots like Frakes. Bowser took what he learned from his uncle and hit the road as a barnstormer, becoming one of the best. Soon after, Bowser landed a job with Curtiss-Wright as a test pilot. But, the Great Depression came along and, in its wake, Bowser’s job was lost, forcing him back to barnstorming.

Bowser and his comrades in the “air circus” quickly learned that things were tough all over; people were no longer paying to watch the old air acts with simulated dogfights and acrobatics that once brought in thousands of spectators. Bowser knew he had to come up with a new act.


From Flying, July 1951

Bowser said, “I got the idea of cracking up planes before a crowd which would pay admission to see me risk my fool neck.” In 1929, before a crowd of 30,000 spectators, he performed his first “crack up.”

Jack Dealy, in a feature for Flying magazine, wrote, “The crowd roared approval—and Frakes was on his way to a world’s record for walking away from crackups.” The title of the feature in Flying should give you an idea of how many times he cracked up. It was titled, “He Walked Away from 99 Crashes.”  (Bowser crashed into homes, barns, cars, and, once, a body of water during his career spanning ninety-nine crashes.)


From Flying, July 1951

All along this journey of cracking up planes, Bowser had to stay one step ahead of the law. The Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) did not much care for Bowser’s occupation. As soon as it was announced Capt. F. F. Frakes was going to perform a crackup in a town, CAA agents would alert authorities with orders to nab Bowser. Toward the end of his career as a crackup pilot, Bowser was known to feign injuries and go straight from the crash to the ambulance. Once away from the prying eyes of the spectators (and the police), he would have the medics drive the ambulance to either his hotel or the local train station.

In September 1938, Bowser knew the law was close, so he again played hurt. The medics threw Frakes in the back of the ambulance and, before the car took off, two men climbed into the back with the “patient.” Bowser looked at the men, but assumed they were doctors when one of them said they were going to the hospital.

According to The Lincoln Star, “No!” replied the flier, “I’m all right, hurry up and get me to my hotel so I can get out of town.”

“Well,” retorted one of the men, “If you’re all right then we’re going to the jail, not the hotel.”

That’s when Bowser realized the two men were the town sheriff and one of his deputies.

The Wild West-era of air shows was coming to a close, but a new world war loomed on the horizon. Bowser decided to offer his services to the British by writing a letter to their embassy in Washington, DC. According to Bowser, “I told them if British intelligence would map out Adolf Hitler’s residence for me I’d be glad to rid the world of his presence. I said I thought could fly a plane carrying high explosives right down his chimney.”

The Brits thanked him for the offer, but declined. That did not stop Bowser from enlisting in the Royal Air Force where he served honorably from 1941 until 1942 as a flight instructor. In ’42, he transferred to the United States Air Force where he finished the war.


“Casket of Death,” June 5, 1955, The Tennessean.

Having served through another world war, Bowser, now in his fifties, had to find a new show. Cracking up planes was out—he needed something a little easier to do in his golden years. So, Bowser developed the “Casket of Death” routine, where he lined a coffin with dynamite, sealed himself inside, and had someone light the fuse. Then, BOOM!

Later, at close to sixty years of age, he started performing a rocket routine. Bowser would saddle onto a rocket and have it launched only to explode in midair.

Bowser is still considered an aviation legend. His story has been told in countless newspaper articles and magazines, including Flying and, most recently, Air & Space by the Smithsonian. He flew as a stuntman in thirty-four movies, including Hell’s Angels and Devil Dogs, and was also featured in numerous newsreels during the 1930s. In 1938, at what was probably the height of his career as a “crackup pilot,” Bowser was sponsored by Camel cigarettes and he was featured in several of their print ads.


From Camel cigarette ad, 1938

In Columbia, Tennessee, many look back fondly on their experiences with Bowser Frakes. Those of us too young to have known him, only wish we could have met the legend. Today, after a daring life of stunts and near-misses, Frank Foster Frakes is resting peacefully in Rose Hill Cemetery, a far cry from the airfields he knew so long ago.







Bowser, his wife Carol, and his dog, Ike. Bowser Frakes was a favorite among the children of Columbia, as was his dog, Ike. The kids of Columbia would feed Ike chocolate bars as treats. As far as anyone knows, the chocolate never made Ike sick. August 23, 1954, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


Dealy, Jack. “He Walked Away From 99 Crashes.” Flying, July 1951, p. 26.

Rayburn, Taylor. “Death Diver!” The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), 05 Jun. 1955, p. 110.

Staff. “Pictures of Captain Frakes Crashing Plan Thru House.” The Lincoln Star, 11 Sept. 1938, p. 3.

Start, Clarissa. “An All-Around Daredevil.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 Aug. 1954, p. 27.