One of the funniest things to happen in Gadsden during the so-called “Gay Nineties” (1890’s) was the purchase of a “dead man” by four of the leading farmers of Etowah County.
The local farmers were taken in by one of the slickest swindles of the day, but could not do anything but grin and bear it.
Right in the middle of the panic of the 1890’s, a man came to the area and strung some huge sideshow banners across the front of a vacant storeroom in the 300 block on the south side of Broad Street. He started a speech and story about “Chavez the giant Spanish outlaw who had been killed by a California officer in the early days of this country and whose body was petrified.”
On the inside of the building the man had on display what really looked like a petriﬁed man encased in a heavy, square casket. First, he went around town and invited all the doctors to inspect his petrified specimen. Many of the doctors not only accepted the invitation but came out of the showroom with the declaration that there was no fake about the display.
Well, one could easily believe that, because everything about Chavez indicated that that he was the petriﬁed remains of a human being. Every detail was perfect. There was a hole in his left side that the storyteller said was made by the death bullet from the officer’s gun. Blood had poured from the wound, coagulated and petrified.
Bits of body had been chipped away, showing an epidermis, or skin, that was convincing. In fact, there was nothing fake in the appearance of the specimen, yet Henry Leon, an old showman of New York who was operating Kyle’s Opera House at the time, said that Chavez had been manufactured by a doctor on Anastasia Island in Florida who made petrified specimens for sideshows, circuses and museums.
The owner apparently was making so much money out of the exhibit that the four Etowah farmers decided to buy Chavez. The owner at first said that he would not sell under any circumstances, but a few days later he received a telegram saying that that his wife was dying, and he decided to sell at a big price.
The farmers soon found themselves in possession of a giant dead man, seven feet in height and weighing 600 pounds, including the casket. They employed a crackerjack young snuff drummer to go on the road with it, despite his lack of experience in the show business. He opened at Anniston, where the people began to make fun of his exhibit, declaring it a fake.
The young drummer stood it a few days then announced that he knew that Chavez was genuine because “he was my grandfather.” Broke and fighting mad, he soon brought Chavez back to Gadsden.
The next step was to send the remains of the “Spanish Outlaw” to the Tennessee Centennial at Nashville with a good, old fashion auctioneer in charge.
The auctioneer ran into financial trouble at once and came home despondent. Chavez was shipped home by freight, and it was months before his owners would pay the charges, largely because they had nowhere to store him where he could not be found by the public scoffers.
Finally, one of the farmers took Chavez to his residence, but had to enlarge a window to get him into the house. The hideout was soon discovered, and there was so much talk and ragging that another of the owners decided to haul him to his home. It is said that the mules ran away and scattered Chavez’s legs and arms along the roadside. Whether that was true or not, that was the last heard of the petriﬁed giant. The mention of that episode in the presence of any one of the owners, however, would start a fight, especially after they had learned that the man who sold it to them had immediately returned to Anastasia Island and bought an exact duplicate of Chavez and was out on the road with him. The telegram stating his wife was dying was just a fake.
The decision to go into the show business was no fun to the farmers, and it was less fun to put up with the ragging of their friends. In fact, it reached the point where they were ready to fight at the slightest hint at a “dead man” in their presence, and at least two of them did fight about it.
There were other “dead men” found in the United States.
The Cardiff Giant was one of the most famous hoaxes in United States hi-story. It was a 10 foot-tall purported “petrified man” uncovered on Oct. 16, 1869 and inspired a number of similar hoaxes.
In 1876, the Solid Muldoon emerged in Beulah, Colorado, and was exhibited at 50 cents a ticket. The exhibit was made of clay, ground bones, meat, rock dust and plaster.
In 1877, the owner of Taughannock House hotel on Cayuga Lake, NY, hired men to create a fake petrified man and place it where the workers that were expanding the hotel would dig it up.
One of the men who had buried the giant later revealed the truth when drunk.
In 1892, Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, the de facto ruler of the town of Creede, Colorado, purchased a petrified man for $3,000 and exhibited it for 10 cents a peek.
Soapy’s profits did not come from displaying McGinty, as he named the man, but rather from distractions like the shell game set up to entertain the crowds as they waited in line. He also profited by selling interests in the exhibition. This was a real human body, intentionally injected with chemicals for preservation and petrification. Soapy displayed McGinty from 1892 to 1895 throughout Colorado and the northwest United States.
In 1899, a petrified man found in Benton, Montana, was “identified” as U.S. Civil War General Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher had drowned in the Missouri River two years previously. The body was transported to New York for exhibition.