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|In 1940, Dickson promotes, opens Devil's Punchbowl site in Natchez|
(Tenth in a series)
In early 1940, Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr. began a whirlwind process of developing historic sites as tourist attractions in Natchez. Within a year he would open three.
As a native of Natchez with deep family roots in Jackson, he had a personal linkage to Mississippi history. He had also made a fortune in Europe in promoting everything from sports events to circus acts. A reporter observed that "if Jefferson Davis Dickson were to fence in an abandoned cistern and charge admission, he would have crowds flocking to the place."
The first of three projects to open was the Devil's Punch Bowl, a gorge eroded into the high bluffs on the north side of Natchez. There were apparently at least two of these features. They were mentioned as early as 1801 by James Hall who wrote: "About a mile above the [Natchez] landing are several caverns, horrible, from their depth, to a spectator standing above them, called The Devil's Punch Bowls. . . . They appear to have been sunk by some subterranean concussion. . ."
Over time these features, particularly the northern one, became the subject of wild stories about robbers and strange natural phenomena. In 1940 Edith Wyatt Moore wrote about the northern punchbowl describing it as "a gigantic semi-circular pit somewhat cone-shaped." It is "one of nature's freaks [that] no scientist has ever fully explained. One tradition claims that a great meteor containing radium and other precious substances fell here. All who view this wonder spot with its weird and sinister beauty feel that it has some secret affinity or connection with the river." The Devil's Punch Bowl offered twin advantages -- a marvelous view up and down the river and a safe hiding place for men and boats. In this latter regard the deep hole was regarded as having once been a hideout for pirates on the river and robbers on the Natchez Trace. Another tale was that the Natchez Indians buried their chief, the Great Sun, in the Punch Bowl. All of this was little more than nonsense.
Jeff's first project was the Devil's Punch Bowl, probably because it was more quickly established than the two that would follow at White Apple Village and Fort Rosalie. Both of these would be much more elaborate and costly.
First he selected which punchbowl to promote. The one around which the legends had accrued was the northern one, but it was also a considerable distance from town. Jeff selected the southerly, and lest legendary punchbowl, presumably because it could be accessed more quickly and thus more likely to be visited by tourists. All he had to do was used the stories associated with the northern punch bowl to publicize the southern one. If moving the Devil's Punch Bowl was a manipulation of truth, all I can say is that there wasn't much truth to be manipulated.
The site was scheduled to open on Monday, March 25, 1940, about two months after Jeff's return to Natchez, a date that would coincide with the spring pilgrimage and the influx of tourists. His wife Billie arrived from New York City on the 13th and settled into their suite at the Eola Hotel. Prior to the opening Jeff released an announcement designed to pique the publics interest:
"You feel you live in the Natchez of a bygone day when you stand on the edge of the Devil's Punch Bowl. Like the old river pirates you scan the mighty Mississippi; you gaze into the giddy depths of the Bowl's gigantic pit where outlaws lay in hiding with their booty; you realize why the Natchez Indians planned to build in the mossy hollow the tomb of their chief, this mysterious freak of nature.
"The Devil's Punch Bowl sheltered the leaders and four of the most infamous gangs in bandit history. Those terrible men the Harpes, the elegant Hare, dandy, fearsome fighter and blackhearted thief, the craven, wolfish Mason and the proud fantastic Murrel with the flat pale glance of a killer, last and most daring of the old time outlaws who preyed on the Natchez Trace.
"As Natchez-Under-The-Hill attracted settlers and merchants voyaging south the pirates would lay above the Bowl watching.. they would hail a craft, board her, murder the crew and passengers, scuttle the vessel and speed back to the black depths of the Devil's Punch Bowl."
Brochures were printed. The covers bore the image of a man identified as the Natchez Trace robber Little Harpe holding a cutlass and dressed like a pirate of the Caribbean replete with treasure chest and bags of gold. Signs with devil logos were erected on streets marking the route to the Punch Bowl located on Cemetery road opposite the National Cemetery. The site was on a parcel of land that was recently added to the National Cemetery. There is a promontory with a gorge to the south, presumably the punchbowl. A log stockade separated the site from the parking area, giving it a frontier atmosphere while preventing anyone from entering without a ticket. Once inside visitors could climb to the top of an observation tower from whence they could look down into the Punch Bowl or gaze upon a magnificent view of the river both upstream and down. Downstream one could see with considerable clarity the old part of Natchez both on-the-hill and under-the-hill.
The Associated Press writer was not particularly impressed. He interviewed Jeff's English friend Leo Fuller who was staying with the Dicksons in the Eola Hotel. Fuller was quoted as saying: "There is nothing in the hole. But the view up and down the Mississippi river from the platform is wonderful. And the tourists can sit there and look at the sunset." He also reported that Jeff had told friends: "I'm going to show tourists a hole in the ground and make them pay to see it."
One wonders though, given the penchant for some reporters to concoct quotes, if Jeff had actually made such a statement. Such cynicism wouldn't have been good for business.
Meanwhile with his first attraction opened, Jeff moved on to his bigger and more exciting projects.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|