The Fool Killer is an enduring figure in Appalachian folklore and oral narratives. Defined as an imaginary or legendary person, the Fool Killer is an archetypal character whose business is destroying fools.
One particular Appalachian ethnicity, known as Melungeon, enjoys a rich history of variations on the origin and role of the Fool Killer, known variously as Father Death and Longstaff. Melungeons, thought to be a tri-racial population of European, African, and Native American descendants, still thrive in the mountains of East Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.
One folk tradition accounting for the existence of Melungeons is that the Devil/ Old Horny coupled with Native American women to produce Melungeons. One such woman bore the Devil a son who became the infamous Fool Killer stalking the land in search of the ripest specimens of fool he could find. As it turned out, there was no shortage of fools lurking in the Tennessee mountains. For whatever mysterious reasons, the Fool Killer continues to fulfill an imaginative need for residents of Appalachia, leaping from genre to genre while showing up at the worst possible times for a fool.
He makes a startling first impression in author Helen Eustis’ 1954 novel The Fool Killer. An Ohio native who migrated to New York, Eustis attended Smith College before embarking on becoming a mystery writer. Her first of two novels, The Horizontal Man (1946), won the prestigious Edgar Award, named for Edgar Allan Poe, for a best first book of mystery fiction.
Like Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Eustis’ The Fool Killer is a picaresque novel, a genre of prose fiction depicting the adventures of a roguish but good-natured hero, usually of low social origins, living by his wits in a corrupt society. The questionable protagonist of such a narrative is termed a picaro. The picaro in Eustis’ tale is twelve-year-old George Mellish, a runaway whose foster father has subjected him to beatings and other trials until George has had enough, finally escaping into the East Tennessee wilderness, unaware of what awaits him there.
While roaming the country-side, George happens upon Milo Bogardus, an amnesiac vagrant who has escaped from a hospital. A Civil War veteran, Milo tells George that Milo Bogardus isn’t his real name, explaining that
That name belongs to a dead man. When they found me on the battlefield, all my clothes had blown off in an explosion, so they never knew if I was Confederate or Union. They brought me to the hospital and gave me a dead man’s name.
Milo and George become friends, even discussing the prospect of travelling out West to see the Pacific Ocean. However, their hobo life is put on hold by Milo’s seizures, originating from a head injury causing him to experience furious rages that send him flailing into the forest. On returning home, he has no memory of where he was or what he’s done. Often his clothes are blood spattered.
Gradually, George surmises that Milo is the Fool Killer. All his life George has heard about appearances by the spectral avenger. Curiosity turns to terror as the Fool Killer materializes out of darkness into the stark clarity of George’s dreams:
Oh, it was a terrible sight, I can tell you! Eight foot tall with a big bushy beard, hungry-looking red lips, and that chopper (i.e., axe).
George’s description aligns with similar versions of the bogeyman myth featuring a hulking figure shambling drunkenly down the moonlit lanes of rural Appalachia holding a club in one hand and a Bowie knife in the other. Following his discovery of Milo’s secret, George is baffled about what a fool is and how Milo can pick one out of a crowd. The boy drops this line of inquiry, fearing that the inability to detect a fool may be an indication of being one.
One night at a revival meeting, George finds himself swept up in a Pentecostal frenzy:
I can remember kneeling down with the rest of them up front, hollering and sobbing and praying like I was taking the worst licking of my life, yet at the same time feeling – I don’t know, just grand! I’ve heard folks talk about the light within, and t’was just so: I felt like something had touched fire to a candlewick, and I could feel the hot wax from it running down, burning me and making me easy at the same time.
George’s religious exhilaration is cut short when it’s discovered that the preacher conducting the camp meeting has been murdered with an axe. George’s mind explodes with terror, especially since Milo disappeared around the time of the murder. George heads on without him, arriving at a house belonging to the Galts, a kind family who’d earlier taken him in. While staying with the Galts, George dreams increasingly of the phantom Fool Killer until one night the boy wakes to find Milo in the flesh standing at the foot of his bed:
“Milo, where have you been all this while?”
“Oh,” says he, “hither and yon, like always.”
“But, Milo,” I says, “where did you go?”
“North for a time,” he answers.
“I don’t mean that,” I says. “I mean where did you go after the meeting? What happened to you?”
“What meeting?” says he.
“Why the camp meeting!”
But he just looked at me, shaking his head. I was reasonable sure I was awake, but it seemed queerer than any of my dreams.
George urges Milo to stay and meet the Galts, resisting Milo’s appeal for George to leave with him and travel as they did in earlier times. But George is resolute in his fondness for the Galts, especially Mrs. Galt who makes the boy do-nuts, among her many kindesses. It is clear to Milo that she’s the obstacle to his reunion with George as fellow vagabonds. George knows the only way Milo can vent his rage is through murder, and the boy’s predicament is compounded by his conflicting love for his friend and for the woman he views as his surrogate mother.
The climax of the novel is a tour de force of terror and intrigue, qualities elevating Eustis to the ranks of America’s most illustrious writers of horror and mystery. Reviewer Harrison Smith of the Saturday Review wrote the following assessment of The Fool Killer in 1954:
The only American novel . . . in this reviewer’s opinion comparable to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye . . . imagination, suspense, terror and a style perfectly suited to the characters and narrative.
Other critics complained about the author’s use of “archaic” language, which wasn’t archaic at all in a time before television was ubiquitous and American dialects became homogenized. What the astute reader will hear in Eustis’ prose are the rhythms of the King James Bible.
Almost a decade after its publication, The Fool Killer attracted the attention of Hollywood when renowned Mexican filmmaker Servando González directed a film adaptation of the novel, starring Anthony Perkins (of earlier Psycho fame) and a young Edward Albert. Of particular interest to film aficionados may be that most of the scenes were shot in and around Knoxville. The world premier of the movie took place in the city at the Tennessee Theater on April 28, 1965.
Helen Eustis isn’t the only American author to have explored motifs surrounding the Fool Killer. William Sydney Porter, popularly called O. Henry, was a widely read writer of short stories published in some of the country’s most prestigious periodicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As such, his interest in the Fool Killer occurred decades before the publication of Eustis’ book. O. Henry’s stories tend to be quirky and irreverent, and he delights in providing readers with a twist ending. He also writes himself into the stories as the narrator/ author.
O. Henry’s fascination with the Fool Killer began after reading journalist Charles Napoleon Bonaparte Evans’ earliest written versions of the Fool Killer narratives. The tales are written in an epistolary format, epistolary referring to works of fiction written as a series of letters between characters. Evans published the tales as if they were letters from the Fool Killer himself, a man alleging to be Jesse Holmes, a popular folk figure in the oral narratives of the Carolinas. In deference to Evans, O. Henry opted to keep the Fool Killer’s name. Beyond that, similarities in the authors’ treatment of the myth are nominal. Often, O. Henry sets his stories in locations beyond his native Southland. “The Fool-Killer” is no exception, though echoes of the South are always in the background, as the story’s opening suggests:
Down South whenever any one perpetrates some particularly monumental piece of foolishness everybody says: “Send for Jesse Holmes.”
Jesse Holmes is the Fool-Killer. Of course he is a myth, like Santa Claus and Jack Frost and General Prosperity and all those concrete conceptions that are supposed to represent an idea that Nature has failed to embody. The wisest of the Southrons cannot tell you whence comes the Fool-Killer’s name; but few and happy are the households from the Roanoke to the Rio Grande in which the name of Jesse Holmes has not been pronounced or invoked. Always with a smile, and often with a tear, is he summoned to his official duty. A busy man is Jesse Holmes.
In O. Henry’s narrative, the Fool Killer has traveled North, to New York City, in search of a particular fool, in this case a millionaire’s son who has thrown his father’s fortune and moves to Greenwich Village to paint. The young man magnifies his foolishness by marrying a girl “below his station” in defiance of his father. Although the narrator/ author befriends the wayward son, a foolish chap named Kerner, the authorial observer never loses sight that he’s a fool. Still, the narrator is troubled by a cognitive dissonance that finds him liking the young man while simultaneously reviling him:
I hated Kerner, and one day I met him and we became friends. He was young and gloriously melancholy because his spirits were so high and life had so much in store for him. Yes, he was almost riotously sad. That was his youth. When a man begins to be hilarious in a sorrowful way you can bet a million that he is dyeing his hair. Kerner’s hair was plentiful and carefully matted as an artist’s thatch should be. He was a cigaretteur, and he audited his dinners with red wine. But, most of all, he was a fool. And, wisely, I envied him, and listened patiently while he knocked Velasquez and Tintoretto. Once he told me that he liked a story of mine that he had come across in an anthology. He described it to me, and I was sorry that Mr. Fitz-James O’Brien was dead and could not learn of the eulogy of his work. But mostly Kerner made few breaks and was a consistent fool.
At a restaurant called Faroni’s, the two men share an absinthe drip, an alcoholic drink concocted with green anise and sweet fennel. The high percentage of alcohol in the cocktail loosens the tongue of the narrator who speaks bluntly to his companion:
“You are a fool,” said I, and began to sip the filtration. “What you need,” I continued, “is the official attention of one Jesse Holmes.”
The mere mention of his name invokes the Fool Killer who materializes in the flesh at a nearby table. However, only the narrator can see or hear him. The prodigal son is blissfully ignorant of his presence and keeps sputtering about the plans he has for himself and his wife. The author recognizes the spectral visitor at once:
“Jesse Holmes,” said I, facing him with apparent bravery, “I know you. I have heard of you all my life. I know now what a scourge you have been to your country. Instead of killing fools you have been murdering the youth and genius that are necessary to make a people live and grow great. You are a fool yourself, Holmes; you began killing off the brightest and best of our countrymen three generations ago, when the old and obsolete standards of society and honor and orthodoxy were narrow and bigoted . . .”
Because Kerner can neither see nor hear Jesse Holmes, he is unable to heed the warnings of the Fool Killer who has risen from his table and approached the table where the narrator and the young fool are seated. The Fool Killer’s threats literally fall on deaf ears:
“You are a hopeless fool,” he said to the artist. “Haven’t you had enough of starvation yet? I offer you one more opportunity. Give up this girl and come back to your home. Refuse, and you must take the consequences.”
“You have decided your own fate,” said the Fool-Killer, in a low but terrible voice. “You may consider yourself as one dead. You have had your last chance.”
As the Fool Killer exits the restaurant and enters the street outside, the narrator excuses himself and rushes to catch up with the man while explaining the reasons why the grim destroyer should not target his friend as a victim.
The narrator even offers alternatives whereby the Fool Killer can fulfill his homicidal quota and locate more deserving fools and scoundrels:
“Good Mr. Fool-Killer, please don’t kill little Kerner. Why can’t you go back South and kill Congressmen and clay-eaters and let us alone? Why don’t you go up on Fifth Avenue and kill millionaires that keep their money locked up and won’t let young fools marry because one of ’em lives on the wrong street?”
It suddenly dawns on the narrator that the only way he can save his friend is to make a fool of the Fool Killer. As is his habit, O. Henry supplies a brilliantly ironic conclusion to the story, one the author conceals to the very end. Devoted readers know the author’s penchant for surprises that delight, and in this regard, “The Fool-Killer” delivers an inimitable ending fulfilling every requirement of a well told tale.
O. Henry’s story made it to television in 1957 as a thirty-minute episode on CBS’s O. Henry Playhouse, starring Thomas Mitchell (O. Henry), Natalie Norwick, and Claude Akins. Stars appearing in the other thirty-eight episodes included Maureen Stapleton, Charles Bronson, Lisa Montell, and Ernest Borgnine. Those interested can order the complete DVD series of O. Henry Playhouse from ClassicFlix Silver Series for $13.99.
The Fool Killer’s metamorphosis continues in the twenty-first century through the agency of Marvel Comics. Marvel’s Foolkiller is the name of four fictional characters, vigilantes consisting of Ross G. Everbest, Greg Salinger, Kurt Gerard, and Mike Trace. All of Marvel’s Foolkillers have their own powers and abilities. At one point or another, all require psychiatric treatment. For instance, Greg Salinger is an amateur poet and a self-trained hand-to-hand combatant. At one time, he was said to have been in the army but was discharged for medical reasons, possibly related to mental instability.
Marvel’s anti-heroes seem edgier and funnier than earlier incarnations. Characters display plenty of cheek as heard in the following exchange between Greg and his colleague Deadpool, aka Wade:
Wade: I’m a hurtin’ Greg. A hurtin’ real bad.
Greg: Well, what seems to be the problem, Wade?
Wade: The problem? Well . . . I’m a schizophrenic deviant with a face like rotting cottage cheese, carnal desire for anything that can poop, and a deeply held belief that I’m living inside a comic book.
In the comic book universe, numerous iterations of the avenging Fool Killer exist, sporting such names and identities as Spawn, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Warpath, and Jackal, each with his own grudges and each with his own ways of meting out justice to deserving offenders.
Obviously, the presence of a Fool Killer presupposes the existence of fools – often in abundance. Wherever fools congregate, he’s there, performing the only task for which he’s suited: rounding up fools and dispatching them to Fool’s Paradise. A word of caution! Don’t try to bribe him with substitutes or pleas for additional time. He’s morally magnetic North when executing his duties. Don’t think you can predict when he’ll show up, either. Thinking otherwise is foolish, and it’s a rare fool wise enough to know that. Experience teaches that avoiding a Fool Killer’s wrath is a relatively simple formulation: Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, doing what you’re supposed to do. Most importantly, don’t accept advice from fools.
**Featured image: Abd Alrahman Amin, Pexels, cropped