By Mel Tharp © 1986
Issue: November, 1986
The Green River in Western Kentucky is 360 miles long from its origin in Lincoln County to where it empties into the Ohio River at Henderson.
The Green River Basin covers 9,222 square miles, almost 1/4 of the area of Kentucky. The Green River Country encompasses some of the finest farm land in the world.
I grew up in this area during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Although life was a struggle, we still had our happy time. There were play parties, church socials, ice cream suppers and sporting events to make us forget our miseries, if only for a little while.
One of my greatest pleasures, however, was listening to my elders relate stories from the past. Many of these stories related to the glory days of steamboating on the Green. Steamboats continued to carry freight along the Green as late as the mid 30's, but the halcyon days of steamboating on this river was in the era just before World War I.
Green River has had its quota of rogues, as well as good honest hard working people. There was a saying that when a steamboat stopped at a landing, you took the good with the bad. Unprincipled scoundrels, who plied their trade along the river, were never in short supply. One sharp shanked con man who fit into this mold was an unscrupulous gallows bird by the name of Matthew Muckridge.
Muckridge became a kind of legend in the towns and landings along the Ohio and Green Rivers. "As crooked as Matthew Muckridge," is a saying that can still be heard occasionally. Often the individual using the analogy is a young person who has no idea of the saying. They have simply heard it from childhood.
Muckridge's wont was to take passage on a steamboat at Evansville, Indiana and make a round trip up the Green and back. He would stay ashore long enough to foist off some worthless goods, or to divest some local boy of his hard earned money through some elaborate con scheme.
Muckridge always seemed to stay a jump ahead of the law or a tar and feathering mob. He always made it his business to know the time the vessel was ready to cast off its lines for departure. He would be safely back aboard before the victim realized he was fleeced.
But just as over confidence can be the undoing of the slyest of foxes, Muckridge became too brazen with his "galliwhooper eggs." This came to be known as the day of "Muckridge in the muck."
In the heyday of river boating, Wrightsburg was a busy place. It was one of the busiest ports of commerce along the Green. Wrightsburg, along with such places as Irvings Landing, Highbanks, and Jewel City, mushroomed and became sprawling villages as steamboat commerce flourished. Also like the mushroom, these places died quickly when the railroads came.
During the summer months, the days at the Wrightsburg landing were hectic ones. This particular day promised to be especially pressing. The Wabash Belle was inching her way into the dock. The Wabash Belle was one of the biggest boats on the river and today she was laden with every kind of conceivable commodity. The stevedores lounged about getting their last moment of relaxation before the boat tied up. It would be the last break they would get that day.
The hot, humid dog days of August were at their peak. The sweltering heat lay like a blanket on the river as the Belle warped up to the dock. When it was announced that the boat would be at Wrightsburg until late afternoon, there was a general exodus of passengers form the Belle seeking diversion from the heat and monotony of shipboard. Even among a host of well dressed passengers debarking from the boat, there was one who stood out from the rest. Even in the suffocating heat, he was fully attired in frock coat and ice cream pants. Yet, he seemed impervious to the heat. His neatly marceled hair hung in waves and his Vandyke beard had been trimmed and groomed just that morning by the Wabash Belle's hair dresser. This dashing sport was the notorious Matthew Muckridge.
Within the hour, however, Muckridge was back at dockside with a horse drawn dray he had rented at the livery stable. Going back aboard, he returned shortly with two big baskets. The baskets were covered and obviously heavy although Muckridge refused any assistance. This was in itself unusual. Under normal circumstances, Muckridge would not carry his own luggage.
Muckridge was in great haste. He urged the team of horses to trot, and was shortly out of town. It was the height of harvest season, and Muckridge looked warily at men working in the fields. He seemed to have a sixth sense that told him when women were home alone. He stopped his team and studied a white farm house. Finally, satisfied that no man was about, he tied the horse to a gate post and knocked on the door.
The door was opened by a woman who was evidently in the process of doing some heavy housework. Yet, Muckridge didn't give her an opportunity to show her displeasure. It is reputed that anyone who kisses the Blarney Stone in Blarney, Ireland will be endowed with skill in flattery. If this true, then Muckridge must have used the stone as a pillow.
Muckridge wasted no time before starting his pitch. He introduced himself, then hesitated. "You must please excuse me madam if I seem somewhat taken aback. It's just that every time I visit this verdant region, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the ladies here. I would like to stress that it's not just the well proportioned symmetry of the facial features to which I am referring. I can detect overtones of aristocracy. Do you happen to know much about your ancestors and where they came from?"
The lady didn't understand half of what Muckridge was saying, but she was certainly amenable to the buttery tones of flattery. She tried to stammer something about her "pap" and his "pap" before him but Muckridge interrupted.
"I think I can help you with your family tree," he offered. "You see, I've taken the liberty of doing some genealogy on the people of this area. I came up with a startling revelation. All of you are royalty. You are direct descendants of Bonnie Prince Charles."
"We are," the woman gasped, holding her hands clasped to her throat. "You don't mean it?" So far as this woman knew this 18th century prince could have been some farmer from the next county, but she was sure that from the way this slick tongued stranger talked, this Charles feller had to carry a lot of weight.
"You see, when the English defeated Charles at the battle of Culloden in 1746, many of his followers fled the country and came to America to escape persecution. A lot of these people eventually came to the Green River area and settled. I can see the unmistakable tinges of Scottish royalty in your face."
"Well I declare!" was all the lady could muster.
"But I know you're occupied, so I'll get right to the point of my visit." Reaching down, he removed the cover from one of the baskets. The basket held some battered, well traveled coconuts. "Do you know what these are?" he asked.
"No, I can't rightly say I do," the woman replied.
This was what Muckridge was waiting to hear. If the lady had identified the items in question, he would have made some lame excuse and left the premises immediately. As soon as the lady, however, confessed that she was unfamiliar with the coconut fruit, he knew he had a potential sucker on the hook. He wasted no time in dangling the bait.
"You see, madam," he explained, "these are galliwhopper eggs." Recently, my work as an explorer took me to the headwaters of the Zambezi River in Africa. There, I discovered a large colony of the rare galliwhopper turkey. These birds stand over 10 feet tall and when dressed and properly cured, will provide meat for an average family of five for one month. As you can see, I was able to secure a few of their eggs. One of these eggs will make an omelet as big as a wagon wheel. I brought back a limited number of these eggs to America since the Museum of Natural Wonders in Cincinnati had expressed an interest in them. There I'm afraid my good fortune ended."
Muckridge choked up. He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. "I apologize for my weakness. My health is shattered as well as my finances."
"I'm sorry sir," the woman said, obviously affected. "Didn't you sell the eggs?"
"Ah, therein lies the sad story," he lamented, regaining his composure after some effort. "You see, during my absence the curator, and unscrupulous man, absconded with the museum's funds and the museum was forced to close. Since my savings were invested in the museum, I am now destitute. I am a pauper. I am forced to go from door to door peddling these rare eggs at the pitiful sum of two dollars each. It will put bread in my mouth, and at the same time, by introducing this valuable food source to the people of this area, I can at least feel that I am retaining a shred of dignity."
In our modern economy two dollars is not considered a lordly sum, but when you consider that men in that era were working a 10 hour workday in the tobacco fields for 75 cents, two dollars was not an insignificant sum. Yet, a bargain is a bargain in any era and one must be objective and consider that the lady was not above taking advantage of the "scientist's" indigence. The woman remembered some money she had stashed back which her husband had given her for incidentals. Yet, there were still some unanswered questions about this huge egg.
"How do you hatch this thing?" she demanded. "You can't get it under a hen."
"How remiss of me not to explain," he replied. "I'm glad you asked that question. Just place the egg in an incubator. If you don't have an incubator, just place it near a kerosene lantern and keep it warm. It will hatch in about eight weeks."
The lady was convinced. She paid her two dollars and Muckridge made a hasty departure. He was running a tight schedule, and he had spent more time with this lady than he had expected. But generally, he was satisfied with his profit margin. The coconuts were a gift. They had been given to him by a produce man in Evansville simply to get rid of them. They had been declared unfit for human consumption.
Within a short time, he had made a number of successful stops. His coconut supply was getting low, and he decided to work his way back toward the landing.
Muckridge would have probably been content to discard his remaining coconuts and return to the comfort of the boat had he not came upon something that caught his attention. Posted in a field at the side of the road was a crude hand painted sign reading "WIDER MARX PROPERTY, NO HUNTING."
This was a challenge Muckridge could not resist. The lettering of the sign would indicate that this widow had a paucity of education. One would have to assume that she had not traveled extensively. The fact that she owned property gave rise to all sorts of possibilities.
Muckridge could not have been more incorrect in his surmise of Drucey Marx. Drucey's late husband had been an executive with the railroad, and the two of them had sipped the wine of high society. She had lived among the wealthy in cities from New York to Charleston. After her husband's death, she had retired to the quite life of her Green River estate. Drucey had a chameleon like nature that enabled her to adapt easily. She had adjusted quickly to the mores and customs of the Green River country. She had affected an exaggerated dialect which to strangers conveyed the impression of a benighted, foolish old crone.
Drucey pretended to have a hearing problem, and Muckridge was forced to introduce himself several times before she acknowledged. When he displayed his eggs, she was beside herself with amazement. She listened dutifully while he went through his sad saga of poverty although she appeared to have trouble understanding much of what he was saying.
"Them shore is big aigs," she cackled. "I shore would like to have one of them big chickens but I reckon them aigs is higher'n a cat's back ain't they?"
When he quoted his two dollar price, she shook her head sadly. "I reckon I don't keep that kind of hard money roun the house. I reckon though if'n you could wait, I could run over to my neighbor's house and borry enough to buy ever one of them big aigs. I could pay her back when I sell my shoat." Muckridge agreed that he could wait.
Drucey saddled her horse and made a hasty departure. She not only went to her closest neighbor, she started making the rounds of the neighborhood a la Paul Revere, raising the hue and cry. Some of the women she visited had already been taken in by Muckridge's galliwhopper hoax. In a short time, there was a small army of angry men in route to Drucey's home.
Meanwhile, Muckridge was getting impatient. Finally, deciding that this dotey old woman had got lost, he ditched his remaining coconuts in Drucey's yard and started for the landing.
He didn't get far before he was intercepted by something that looked reminiscent of Coxey's Army with Drucey at its head.
Had it not been for Drucey, Muckridge might have ended his life that day at the end of a rope. At her urging, he was allowed to return the money he had taken. He was then marched ignominiously back to the landing where he was dunked in a horse trough, rolled in the muck and mire of the river bank and then put back aboard the Wabash Belle.
Muckridge was never seen again around Wrightsburg. He evidently learned something that day about the science of climatology. Namely: Wrightsburg's climate was definitely bad for his health.