The Vagabond – Bell ringing buzzards and a false apocalypse


By Danny Crownover

In 1900, there was a local story about the famous belled buzzard that attracted attention in every section of the South.

J.M. (Billy) Butler was the man who put the bell on that ubiquitous vulture and started it out on its sensational visit to every state in the southeast section of the nation. His grandfather had a hobby of putting bells on horses, mules, sheep, goats and such.

One day, Billy captured a full-grown buzzard and decided, just for the fun of it, to hang a small sheep bell around its neck and see what would happen.

At first the tinkling of a bell high in the air alarmed some of the locals, who took it as a sort of warning. They were not quite so excited when they learned that a bu-zzard was flying overhead with a bell attached to its neck. A few folks were still superstitious, so much so as to believe the bell provided some sort of warning. At any rate, Billy Butler started something he did not anticipate.

In a few weeks, the press wires began carrying items about a belled buzzard being seen and heard in several states. Billy began to wonder if others had not caught on to the idea, as it was difficult to believe that one buzzard, belled or otherwise, could travel over such a wide area.

Later on, Billy trapped four young buzzards in their nest and arranged for the mother bird to feed them. After the birds had grown strong enough to fly, he put a sheep bell on each of them and turned them loose. From then on, bell-ringing buzzards were a common sight in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. Every newspaper carried stories about the buzzards’ appearance. Billy soon tried another stunt by catching an old buzzard and painting it white. It caused some local excitement but soon disappeared.

In another story, Ira L. Hicks was an amateur weather forecaster in these parts long ago and did a lot of forecasting by interpreting signs and the like. He sometimes accurately predicted the kind of weather a state and even the South would have at a certain period. It was about the same information as one could find in any almanac. Hicks had a big following, and when he came out with a prediction that the world would come to an end on a certain day in May, many believed it.

A small community on Big Sandy River in Tennessee took the prophesy literally and began preparing for the destruction of the world by fire. Some folks refused to plant any crops, saying that such labor would be useless in view of that fact that the end was near.

Members of the community held daily prayer services in a little church, and many confessed their sins. Just before the day of final reckoning, the locals spent the night in the church house.

When the big day arrived and nothing happened, the folks were a disappointed and disillusioned, and eventually returned home.

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