FUKK, Dead-Ringers and Wilmer McLean by Anne Sweazy Kulju

People often ask what I do for a living. Generally, I tell them I kill people–or else I’m thinking of killing people. Once, I even slaughtered an entire team of draft horses! That was colorful. But again, it’s a generality. Specifically, I am an untimid, unapologetic, wise-assed author of historical fiction adventures. Why this genre? I have found an enduring literary expression to be an absolute truth: life is stranger than fiction. If that “strangeness of life” becomes well-written fiction, and is bound and infused with actual history, real persons and accurate settings, the reader won’t be able to tell for certain what is fiction and what is actual history. Best. Job. Ever.

I caught the history bug honestly; my dad was a history teacher since I was knee-high to a fly. One day I visited his summer school class. I slipped in through a door in back and stood against the wall. My eyes immediately went to the chalk board. In my dad’s hand were four large capital letters: F.U.K.K.  Lucky me! I had arrived just in time to hear why he’d written those letters on his chalk board… and so did the school’s Principal. The first thing “Coach Sweazy” did was call out a student who had apparently used the verbal profanity in his classroom. “Do you know what it means?” Dad asked the student. With a knowing wink, the young man assured his classmates he did.

“I doubt it,” Coach told him. He pointed to the letters and read: “Fornicated. Under. Kareless. Konditions. It is an anagram in the King’s Old English. But what does it mean, and where would someone find it?” he asked. The student was clearly growing uncomfortable. He mumbled he didn’t know.

My father turned that profanity into a history lesson on Shakespeare, Elizabethan times, how the style of dress deigned to hide the sores from tell-tale venereal disease, and finally to 15th century headstones emblazoned with the F.U.K.K. legend. “So,” my dad told the red-faced teen, “you were telling your friend to fornicate, catch a venereal disease and die. Maybe I can’t stop you from saying it in my classroom, but I can teach you to know what you’re saying, so you’re not a dumbshit.”

I can pretty much guarantee his students never forgot that lesson… unless I just made all of this up.

While we are on the subject of graveyards, do you know how the traditional Irish Wake came to be? A small town needed to relocate a centuries-old graveyard to make way for a new road. While transporting a sorely decomposed casket, the interred fell out the bottom. When they tried to return the remains by flipping the casket upside down, they found scratches, gouges, and even pieces of fingernails imbedded in the interior of the lid. Horrors! Officials decided it prudent to check out the other caskets and several more were found, suggesting the interred may have been buried alive. An investigation determined the cause to be poisoning; the culprit, beer steins that had been lined with lead to keep the grog cold. Apparently, the afflicted sometimes sank into comas that mimicked death. Officials decided the town’s presumed-dead would no longer be interred post-haste, but instead would lay-in-wait at the family home for a few days. Meanwhile, friends would drink and make toasts, hold banquets and generally whoop it up, all in an effort to “wake” the deceased. Now, you may have already heard this historical scrap before, but the history lesson does not endeth here. Still concerned their celebrations may not be loud enough, or go on for long enough to “wake the dead,” a person was employed to watch over the grave yard while the rest of the town slept. This became known as the “graveyard shift.” But listen for what? The bodies were planted under six feet of dirt! The town decided future burials would include a string tied to a finger of the deceased. The string would pass through a tiny hole in the coffin lid, through the six feet of dirt, to a bell up above. And do you know what they called a person who was “saved by the bell”? Why, that would be a “dead ringer”… unless I just made all of this up.

And then there’s Wilmer McLean, who thought his claim to fame was that the First Battle of Bull Run was fought on the McLean family farm.  The American Civil War literally started in his front yard! But his story doesn’t end there.

The Union Army learned Brigadier General Beauregard was using McLean’s home as a headquarters and fired artillery at the house. A lucky shot dropped a cannonball right down the kitchen fireplace, destroying far more than the General’s dinner.

McLean, a sugar-broker for the Confederate States Army, was getting older and feeling his age. Perhaps he was motivated to protect his family from further dangers of war. Maybe it was getting too difficult to supply Confederates with the Union Army all about the place. No matter his reasons, McLean decided to move his family away from the farm.  In fact, he took them more than one hundred twenty miles south… to Appomattox County, Virginia.

In April, 1865, General Robert E. Lee arrived at a dusty little crossroads community to surrender to Grant. He needed a suitable place to meet, so he sent a messenger to the local court house to make inquiries. Shortly thereafter, Wilmer McLean received a knock on his door. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the parlor of McLean’s home. It was the end of the Civil War!  It was also the end of Wilmer McLean’s quiet life in Virginia. At the close of the ceremony, Army staff began grabbing McLean’s furnishings—nearly anything that wasn’t nailed down—as souvenirs. Some offered payment, but most did not. McLean could no longer meet his mortgage payments. He died bankrupt.

…Or did I just make this up? Don’t you love historical fiction?

 

If you agree with Anne Sweazy-Kulju (and Anatole France) that history books that contain no lies are extremely dull, visit Anne’s website: www.Historical-Horse-Feathers.com, and read more of the author’s fun perversions of the past!

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20 thoughts on “FUKK, Dead-Ringers and Wilmer McLean by Anne Sweazy Kulju

  1. Clayton Bye Post author

    I enjoyed your blog post. In fact, I haven’t had so much fun with history since picking up A Dream of Eagles by Jack Whyte or, perhaps, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Keep up the great work!

    Clayton

    Reply
  2. Kenneth Weene

    I love history, but I love made up history even more. Obviously, I LOVED this piece. McLean was not, however, simply a sugar broker; he was running sugar north and selling it at high price to the sweet-starved Yankees. Assuredly his connection with Beauregard helped him amass his fortune, a fortune that was indeed dissipated, but not by soldiers taking souvenirs. The poor fool had laid up all his wealth in Confederate money; he was a true believer in the Southern cause.

    Reply
    1. Anne Sweazy-Kulju

      You are correct on the history of Wilmer McLean, Ken. I keep forgetting you’re the Professor! Hopefully, the piece will have folks interested enough to read the history surrounding him. It’s why I call historical fiction “smart” fiction: you can learn some facts by reading it, but you learn so much more by digging into history to see if I’m pulling your leg… or not. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  3. Trish Jackson

    Anne,
    I salute you! Not only is the information fascinating and informative, but it is also written in a way that draws the reader in and makes it fun to read. To me this is the best post so far on this blog.

    Reply
  4. James L. Secor

    And then there’s…Sheep Dip Scotch. Something about James Anderson, George Washington (Martha’s pilandering hubby) and the necessity of hiding liquor from the excisemen, in civilized Pictland, in kegs marked…… Sheep Dip scotch is, in fact, not worth the money–nor the nice box the bottle comes in. But that’s history. Unless you made it up, Anne, and inserted it into my dreams that night.

    Reply
  5. R.L. Cherry

    Amusing romp through etymology. A bit like posh is from Port Outbound, Starboard Home for upper class Brits going to India and crap originating from British plumber Thomas Crapper’s name: fun even if not true.

    Reply
  6. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    Finnegans Wake can attest to your not having made up that bit :) Whether the rest is fact or fiction is immaterial, since it achieves a writer’s purpose to draw the reader’s attention and keep it engaged to the very end. Great job!

    Reply
  7. Bryan Murphy

    As the author of “Houlihan’s Wake”, I am very much indebted for the lesson in etymology. In Houlihan’s case, fortunately, all the waking work worked, and woke him, before he even succeeded in dying, to boot. In truth (whatever that is), stories behind idioms and other common terms are almost always controversial, so I’d say yours are as valid as most others, and more fun. I loved this piece.

    Reply
  8. Linda Hales

    Absolutely fascinating post Anne! I especially liked the part about the Irish Wake – so much more interesting than traditional explanations. Your imagination is captivating and I thoroughly enjoy your offering. You are a rare talent Anne!

    Reply
  9. Sharla

    What an enjoyable read! Being a lover of history anyway, I was hooked from the beginning. Then, the humorous twists kept me reading to the end. An added plus, of course, is the igniting of my inquisitive nature to use keywords from your article to search for further information or perhaps documentation . . . fact or fiction? You definitely left me wondering!

    Reply
  10. Martha Love

    Anne, what a fun article you have written, thank you! I do love history when it is in exciting story form rather than facts and details only. I remember liking history for the first time in a European history class in college taught by a master lecturer that had 500 students in a large auditorium absolutely captivated. And like your father, he told us the “fascinating truth”!

    Reply
  11. Micki Peluso

    Anne, I agree with Trish that this is the best blog piece yet and that says a lot since they were all great. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction, especially when it includes Irish and Scotsmen. Much of what you said, particularly about the idioms, I’ve read about as truth–unless the authors were lying. :)

    Reply
  12. Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    Anne, I have never been a real history buff until about four years ago and reading your take, I must say gives it a twist of humor that was quite enjoyable. I definitely love to write myself with the “believe it or not” side-Thanks for making me curious enough to look further.

    Well written and very good indeed. I am anxious to read more!

    Mamie

    Reply
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  14. Vicki M. Taylor

    What a great blog post. I loved the humor. So easy to follow and I loved the story about your dad’s lesson to the boy in his class. Thanks for sending me a link to your blog. Have a blessed day.

    Reply

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