Beyond the Levee

By  |  June 11, 2019
“A Devil’s Bridge” (2011–2012), by Hernan Bas. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul “A Devil’s Bridge” (2011–2012), by Hernan Bas. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

 

The first person from Rosedale, Mississippi, to lay eyes on Perry Martin was the town marshal. This was summer, 1918, at the landing south of town. Thin and compact, a Winchester rifle laid across his shoulder, a pistol tucked in his belt, Martin stepped off a riverboat and asked if the marshal was going to escort him to town. Neither man spoke as they drove, but when the marshal dropped his passenger at the town square, Martin looked puzzled. “I just killed five men over the river,” he said. He had figured he was being taken to jail.

Martin was a timberman who would become known for his life on a swampy peninsula called Big Island. Bordered on its east side by the Mississippi River, to its north and west by the White and the Arkansas, the land became entirely surrounded when the water rose into flood. (Today, the name is literal: a canal offers permanent passage between the two smaller rivers.) Early in the twentieth century, the Mississippi Delta was still being cleared and settled. Big Island, which sits just across from Rosedale, in Arkansas, was known as a lawless and dangerous place, a haven for moonshiners and other rough men.

I first learned of Perry Martin after a weekend canoe trip on the Mississippi. Along with three friends, I launched a dozen miles above Rosedale and then paddled a few miles downriver, into a quiet backchannel. We camped on a spit of sand at the edge of Big Island. Woods rose behind us in a seemingly impenetrable wall. Even now, across the island’s tens of thousands of acres there are no public roads, just scattered deer camps and timber company offices amid the water-soaked hardwood trees. The beach was pockmarked with wallows, dug up by feral pigs. After sunset, we waded into the channel and sunk our feet in the mud, enjoying the coolness of the water. The stars stretched above us, and in the distance, a smear of purple indicated the lights of Rosedale.

When I got back to shore, I told locals about the trip. Often, a romantic glow would dawn across their faces. I’d been on Perry Martin’s island, they’d say. Much of what they’d tell me next was legend—tall tales, rumors, exaggerations. Perry Martin adopted an orphan girl he found on the riverside, raised her up as his own, paid her way through college. He killed nine people, or eleven, or a dozen. One of his alleged victims was his own stepson: the younger man had rocked a boat they shared too violently, which angered Martin. Apparently, despite his life along the river, this outlaw did not know how to swim.

A book of Rosedale stories and memories, published in 1976, provides a useful portrait. A local English professor, William Sullivan Jr., spent years collecting his neighbors’ Perry Martin tales and included them in an essay. While they contain some verifiable errors, there exists no more dense accumulation of details. Sullivan had interviewed the old town marshal, who explained the killings: thieves had stolen Martin’s timber as it floated downstream to the mill. “Martin was simply protecting his property,” Sullivan wrote, and so these deaths led to no legal consequence. Indeed, Martin was embraced by the law: he was at some point deputized by an Arkansas sheriff to serve as a kind of frontier lawman on Big Island.

Eventually Martin’s exploits went too far. After he shot first in a feud over a stolen hog and hit his target between the eyes, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served just one, and when he was released he abandoned Big Island. His life of crime continued, though: he became a moonshiner, which today is the real source of his fame.

In 1929, Martin moved into a houseboat that sat on blocks, just outside of Rosedale. The house stood within the dense stand of woods on the levee’s wet side—the “batture,” as this flood-prone landscape is locally known. The plot of land that Martin occupied belonged, officially, to the city; but it was an open secret that from this houseboat Martin distilled a fierce strain of whiskey. That town officials allowed Martin to remain there for four decades indicates that his product was well regarded.

Locals remember the whiskey being sold by name—or by initials, PM—in high-class bars in New York City in the 1940s. Al Capone supposedly shipped PM in armed boxcars up to Chicago. Some of these sightings were likely mix-ups: there was a legal brand of blended whiskey, also called PM, produced in the 1950s. But it’s typical of the Delta that a local moonshiner would be upgraded, in stories, to a man of national status. John Pearson, who was mayor of Rosedale from 1951 to 1957, told me of an associate who’d visited a bar in Mexico City, seeking bourbon. “They didn’t have any bourbon, but they had some ‘Rosedale corn,’” Pearson said. “But these are just stories I’ve heard.”

I’d been told that Pearson—a willowy man in his nineties, recognized as the grand seigneur of Rosedale—might be my best source for facts about Martin. But Pearson couldn’t recall who told him the Mexico anecdote. He told me that he was hesitant to talk about Martin with a writer at all, because he did not know which stories were true. “I knew who he was,” Pearson said. “But I never did buy any whiskey from him.” Pearson tasted the whiskey once (“but it was too strong for me”).

We sat in Pearson’s house, a mansion whose edges are etched in Victorian detail, built by his forebears in 1889. The river levee, which stands across from the house, was visible through the windows as we chatted. It dominated the view, in fact—a wall of green rising as high as the first floor. Pearson’s yard was civilized, even beautiful, with its precise rows of magnolia trees and crepe myrtles. Beyond the green wall, though, I knew Perry Martin’s old wilderness still seethed.

 

Over the past few years, I’ve spent around fifty nights along the river. When I tell people that I camp out there—that I swim in the river, that I boil its water to make my coffee—the reaction is almost always shock and alarm. The Mississippi is supposed to be dismal, worthless, foul.

This is an old tradition. Charles Dickens declared it an “intolerable river” in 1842 after a steamboat voyage, decrying its “slimy length and ugly freight.” He was happy to reach New Orleans and abandon the river, though he knew it would return in “troubled dreams and nightmares.”

The stories we’ve been told about this river are peopled by the same few characters, suited to such a grim idea of the place: con men and pirates and drifters. Historically, this is not entirely wrong. Moonshiners like Martin lived in clusters of cabins on the banks. Wharf rats were a famous nuisance in nineteenth-century New Orleans; in the late 1800s, a whole tent city of orphans popped up beneath the city’s docks. For many, the rough land behind the levee was the only place left to squat. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who would later design Central Park, passed through the Mississippi Valley in the 1850s. He asked one resident whether there were any poor people around. “Of course not, sir,” the man replied. “Every inch of the land bought up by swell-heads on purpose to keep them away.”

The Delta was settled by just such swell-heads, families like Pearson’s, wealthy planters who already had the gobs of money required to buy and clear vast swaths of land. Class distinctions—black and white, rich and poor—were bright lines. Then, as now, there was a small, well-heeled white minority and a largely impoverished black majority who in those early days worked on the Delta’s farms. Poor white folks like Martin were rare, and relegated to the margins. Pearson told me that Martin and his ilk were “good Anglo-Saxon people who got off to the wrong foot in America.” (“A lot of them have gotten on to do good things,” he added, charitably.)

The idea of a dismal Mississippi is one more story. While in its narrow beginnings in Minnesota there is often too much bacteria for safe swimming, the mighty river that runs through the Deep South is relatively clean. Indeed, the thick woods and wide, sweeping sandbars are, in my opinion, among the most beautiful American landscapes.

This river is not trashed. But it has been tamed: its path has been shortened and straightened; its southernmost thousand miles are sheathed in an intricate system of locks and levees, and now ninety percent of its old floodplain stands dry. This engineering, accomplished in pieces over three centuries, often came at the behest of the swell-heads who bought up the valley and demanded protections against the river’s floods. The U.S. government, to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars, acquiesced.

The greatest flurry of engineering came in the twentieth century, in the wake of the Great Flood of 1927. It’s probably no coincidence that Perry Martin abandoned Big Island soon after that flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to install the floodways and spillways and dams and reservoirs that precisely managed the river’s flow; eventually, they paved the banks of the bends in concrete. From his perch in the batture, Perry Martin watched his former timber frontier be paved into a flowing machine.

By the mid-1960s, still living in his Rosedale houseboat, Martin seems to have caught the ire of the authorities. His final whiskey still is said to have been destroyed in 1966— which happens to be the year Mississippi lifted its state prohibition laws, the last left in the nation by then. Bitter, Martin never cooked again. Two years later, he was dead from a stroke.

On my paddle trips, I still see the occasional river dweller, or at least the evidence of their existence: a tent erected beneath a pier, or a lean-to in a stand of trees, shelter for those with nowhere else to go. More common are weekend cabins, surrounded by groves of trees that all bear NO TRESPASSING signs. The river—which was once the margin, the place for the drifters and dreamers as the farms filled its valley—was eventually bought up by the swell-heads, too.

It’s not clear that this is a great investment. In Greenville, Mississippi, downstream from Rosedale, the river has hit flood stage in seven of the past ten years. This is, yes, one more threat of climate change: as the seas rise up our coastlines, as wildfires rage across the nation, the Mississippi too is striking back. Our warmer atmosphere holds more water, which means when it is finally released, the rain is long and fierce. But the man-made problem of climate change is amplified by our engineering: scientists have affirmed that the river control structures we’ve built are not just ineffective—they are making flooding worse.

The land where Perry Martin lived was eventually turned into a state park, and for a time locals held a one-day festival in their favorite outlaw’s honor. There was a campground in the park, but it has been closed for nearly a decade: in 2011, the facilities were damaged in the worst of the many recent floods. Now, to spend a night in Martin’s old wilderness, you need to be part of one of the nearby hunting clubs, which sometimes charge exorbitant membership fees. The one remaining marker of Martin is a small fishing lake that bears his name.

Martin himself has become a tall tale, an emblem of the days when this place sat at the fringe of civilization, unbound by domesticity. How free those days look to us now. I’ve always been drawn to these stories, incomplete as they are. Soon, though, we won’t need stories to conjure a lost wildness. We never stopped living on the edge. We are dragging it closer every day. 


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Boyce Upholt is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. His work has appeared in the New Republic, the Believer, and the Atlantic, among other publications.