‘A practical difficulty arose. The jail was locked up….’

“The stores [in Burnsville] were closed and the two churches also, this not being the Sunday for the itinerant preacher. The jail also showed no sign of life, and when we asked about it, we learned that it was empty, and had been for some time. No liquor is sold in the place, nor within at least three miles of it. It is not much use to try to run a jail without liquor.

“In the course of the morning a couple of stout fellows arrived, leading between them a young man whom they had arrested,– it didn’t appear on any warrant, but they wanted to get him committed and locked up. The offense charged was carrying a pistol; the boy had not used it against anybody, but he had flourished it about and threatened, and the neighbors wouldn’t stand that; they were bound to enforce the law against carrying concealed weapons.

“The captors were perfectly good-natured and on friendly enough terms with the young man, who offered no resistance, and seemed not unwilling to go to jail. But a practical difficulty arose. The jail was locked up, the sheriff had gone away into the country with the key, and no one could get in…. The prisoner and his captors loafed about the square all day, sitting on the fence, rolling on the grass, all of them sustained by a simple trust that the jail would be open some time….”

— From “On Horseback: A Tour in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee”  by Charles Dudley Warner (1885)

By the time Charles Dudley Warner arrived, North Carolina had already been trenchantly described by visitors such as Fanny Kemble (1838), Frederick Law Olmsted (1856), William Howard Russell (1861) and Sidney Andrews (1865). But Warner took a different tack, viewing the natives with amusement, wit and generosity.

His knack for observation wasn’t limited to his travel writing. Although the quote is often credited to his friend and sometime coauthor Mark Twain, Warner apparently was first to comment that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

 

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