Month: January 2016

WHAT THE DICKENS? Did Charles Dickens Visit Paducah?


It’s one of our persistent local legends… that famed English author Charles Dickens actually came to Paducah in the 1850’s! For a small town in western Kentucky, particularly during the mid-19th century, a visit from the likes of Dickens would surely have been something to brag about. Simply consider the journey from London to Paducah before the days of planes, trains, and automobiles, and you can imagine what an honor it would have been to receive a visit from someone so renowned.

And what was it a12310438_459645520889885_6460026907952771773_nbout Paducah that supposedly captured Dickens’s imagination the most? The thing that got repeated over and over? It was Dickens’s fascination with a one-story house that had a two-story porch.

That’s right. A weird porch.

The earliest reference to Dickens’s visit that we could find comes from an 1897 article from the Paducah Daily Sun in which Dickens is referenced as “the illustrious novelist who came to America in the 50’s and in his tour did not pass Paducah by, but came here and immortalized her name in history by writing her up in his American notes as the only city he ran across boasting of a one-story house with a two-story porch.” That house did exist in Paducah and was located on the southwest corner of 4th and Jefferson streets. Apparently, the second story of the porch was only accessible by ladder.

The site of this unique house and Dickens’s visit became so well known that in 1910 the Paducah Park Commissioners chose the location as one of several historic spots that would be marked with a commemorative tablet (other spots included the house of Captain Jack Lawson, the Prison of General Tilghman, and the Burial Site of Chief Paduke). The site was even referenced by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” though errantly listed as being on Third Street.

So, is it true? Did Charles Dickens ever come to Paducah?

It’s hard to know as there is conflicting info and no real evidence. First of all, Charles Dickens didn’t come to America in the 1850’s at all. He came in 1842. Yes, he did come down the Ohio River as part of his journey, making the trek from Louisville to the Mississippi River, but not once in his extensive travelogue, “American Notes” did he mention Paducah. Nor did he mention Henderson or Smithland, other small Ohio River towns which claimed a visit from Dickens. In the catalog of his travels through western Kentucky, Dickens only mentioned two places by name, Louisville and Cairo, the places where he started and ended. With regards to Louisville, Dickens stayed at the Galt House and raved about the hotel saying he was as “handsomely lodged as though he’d been in Paris.” On the flip side, Dickens was not so kind to Cairo. He described Cairo as “a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water to commend it.”

11217536_459645517556552_2101661277472876534_nBut nowhere in his travelogue does he mention Paducah or any other small towns along the Ohio. While his trip to America did influence some of his later writings including “A Christmas Carol” and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” there is no reference in “American Notes” or any of his writings after 1842 of a one story house with a two story porch.

Perhaps Charles Dickens briefly stopped in Paducah; we can’t say for sure. The only thing we can confirm was that he floated by, and of that experience he said, “Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number; their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet.”

Join me, Matt Jaeger, for a discussion of Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carol” at the library on December 17 at 7 PM. There are versions to check out as well as several free versions to download and read online. You might even win a free turkey!

And for more about local legends, be sure to visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger



“Mr. and Mrs. Paducah will pay 25 cents per pound for their dressed Thanksgiving turkeys, according to a survey made yesterday of Paducah poultry dealers.”

This statement appeared on the front page of the Paducah Sun in November 1933, and at first glance, that seems like an awfully good price to the modern consumer. Heck, a twelve pound turkey would only cost you four bucks…flat.

Yet, with relation to inflation, the price of turkey is still very cheap…almost unbelievably cheap. A Kroger ad from this week advertised turkeys for sale for 78 cents a pound, which means that in the 82 years since 1933, turkey has only gone up 53 cents a pound. That translates to an increase of two-thirds of a cent per year and making that twelve pound turkey cost $9.36.

How little an increase is that? Consider this…the Consumer Price Index, which represents changes in prices of all goods and services purchased for consumption by urban households, states that 25 cents in 1933 would equal about $4.57 in today’s dollars. Therefore, if turkey had followed the standard rate of inflation, a twelve pound turkey would cost $54.84.

–Matt Jaeger



On this day in 1933, Galen H. Gough, Western Kentucky native and renowned strongman, was sitting in a steel cage in Louisville surrounded by guards.

Also surrounding Mr. Gough? Cases and cases of Louisville’s Oertel’s Beer.

November 19, 1933 marked the sixth day of a month-long endurance stunt in which Gough set out to prove that a man could live for 30 days on beer alone. His guards were Legionnaires from the Jefferson Post of the American Legion who were on 24-hour duty to ensure that Gough consumed no food…only beer. Said Gough of the stunt: “I am going to prove that Oertel’s Beer will give you more energy, more pep, more vitality. I am going to prove that Oertel’s Beer will keep your body in perfect condition” (The Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 17, 1933).

Galen H. Gough is truly a fascinating individual. This small article can hardly do his biography justice. In a nutshell, however, his story begins with his birth in Calvert City in 1899. By age 16, he had enlisted in the Marines to fight in World War 1. A shrapnel injury to the head left Gough partially paralyzed on his left side, and it was during his rehabilitation to regain his movement that he trained himself as a strongman. Billed as “The World’s Miracle Strongman,” his performances took him around the country. A few of his stunts included a tug of war with 40 men pulling on each arm, hanging from a rope with only his teeth while flying over Washington D.C., biting keys in half, driving nails with his hands, letting people hit him with an iron bar, and breaking steel bands over his biceps. His signature stunt was letting a truck or car run over his abdomen. Some even credit Gough with being the first strongman to rip a phonebook in half. The full list of his performances is impressively staggering.

As part of his physical training, Gough regularly went on 30-day liquid fasts in an effort to purify his body, a regimen which ultimately led to his Oertel’s Beer stunt of 1933. At that time, the United States was in a state of flux regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol. In fact, it was on December 5, 1933 in the midst of Gough’s stunt, that the 21st amendment was signed which revoked Prohibition. Breweries and distilleries were undoubtedly looking for clever ways to tout their products again, particularly to those who still maintained prohibitionist beliefs.

Oertel’s solution was brilliant. Hire a strongman, one who could already maintain a liquid fast, and promote your beer as a health drink.

John F. Oertel, president of the company, stated, “We don’t want anybody to get the idea that we are advocating beer as an exclusive diet. We want to establish accurate scientific evidence that a good beer will supply nourishment, sustain strength, keep the body in perfect condition and at the same time, not be fattening” (The Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 12, 1933).

So was it successful? Did Gough make it all 30 days?

According to his Legionnaire guards, Gough indeed lasted the whole month only drinking Oertel’s Beer (some reports say he consumed nearly 1100 brews). By the end of the fast, Gough had dropped more than 20 pounds. However, he was still in such fine shape that following his emergence from the steel cage he let an 8000 pound truck drive over him. In fact, he was in such good condition that he actually repeated the stunt in California a couple years later.

For more about Western Kentucky’s feats of strength, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger



“The best people in any community will indorse [sic] an ordinance to prohibit and prevent spitting in public places. The habit is filthy, disgusting and spreads disease, and ruins clothing.” – The Paducah Sun, August 15, 1904.

In the early 1900’s, on the site where Stuart Nelson Park now sits, was a building locally known as the “Old Pest Farm.” No, it wasn’t a place for the raising of rats and fleas, but a hospital, situated beyond the city limits, specifically for the housing and treatment of those afflicted with tuberculosis. The isolation of the hospital was intentional, not only for the welfare of the sick, but for the well-being of the rest of the population.

Tuberculosis (also called consumption) is contagious, and folks throughout the world were deathly afraid of catching it, as they rightly should have been. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection of the lungs, an ancient disease with its earliest traces dating back to 9000 B.C. Some have named it “the first disease known to mankind.” Even into the 20th century, before effective vaccines were developed, tuberculosis was often fatal. The only treatments thought to be effective were 1) tonics, often with recipes combining pine oil, glycerin, and bourbon; 2) segregating the sick on “Pest Farms”; 3) and curing people of the habit of SPITTING.

Spitting, you say?

Whatever you call it (mucus, phlegm, catarrh, sputum), spit was a problem. Folks liked to spit back then, apparently even more than they do now. Looking at the number of old news stories about the problems with spitting and it seems as if the streets must have been coated in goobers. And because those with tuberculosis were especially phlegmatic, with near constant coughing and hawking, it was believed that their spit was so contagious that if it dried on the sidewalk it would be “trodden to a powder and whirled about in the wind for healthy people to breathe” (Paducah Evening sun, 2/13/1907). Ladies feared trailing their long skirts through sidewalk mucus, and then dragging the disease into their homes to infect their families. The state senate actually voted on a bill to provide every tuberculosis patient in the state with a “tin cup for sputum.” The vote failed.

But with such trepidation toward tubercular spittle, the only true recourse to curb the habit was to make spitting illegal. Such laws were being enacted across the nation, and in Paducah, Mayor Yeiser finally signed the first anti-spitting ordinance into effect on May 26, 1905, making it against the law to spit specifically in Paducah’s Market House. The very next day, the newspaper reported that merchants at the Market House had already hung many conspicuous signs that read “Spitting Prohibited.” By early June of the same year, the citizens of the town were calling for the ordinance to be expanded outside of the Market House and onto the city’s sidewalks. Mayor Yeiser also signed that ordinance into effect, and thus on June 26, 1905, Paducah saw its first spitting-related arrest.

Jack Hughes was arrested on the charge of spitting at the corner of Broadway and Third. However, due to a stenographer’s omission, the ordinance was wrongly worded. The stenographer left out the word “walks,” so it became of breach of the ordinance to “spit on the side of the city” instead of the sidewalk. Because of the mistake, Judge Sanders threw out the case and Jack Hughes was set free.

Just a year later, a great stride was made in the development of a tuberculosis vaccine, and by 1930, so many people had been inoculated that tuberculosis hospitals became unnecessary. Paducah’s Pest Farm was torn down and a park went up in its place.

So what then about the anti-spitting ordinance? Did it go away too?

Nope. It’s still on our books. The contemporary ordinance reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to expectorate on any sidewalk, street or floor in public buildings or upon any other public place within the city.” Though the ordinance isn’t vigilantly enforced anymore, I can think of a few friends who wear long skirts who would be happy if it was.

For more about Paducah’s nasty habits, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this article, be sure to “like” our Facebook page.

–Matt Jaeger

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE: Anarchy, funding and athletics still an education focus in 1907


It’s easy to become discouraged at way the world seems to be shaping up, especially for our young people in our school systems. Budgets are being cut, teachers aren’t being paid enough, children are unruly and disrespectful, and the words Common Core make everyone want to shudder at the unknown.

And while it’s easy to believe things are unique for this time period, a look back in history tells us maybe not. A letter dated June 7, 1907 and appearing in The Paducah Evening News suggests that history does, in fact, repeat itself – or maybe it never changed at all.

Professor E. George Payne, the principal at Paducah High School and the Washington school building, submitted his annual report to Superintendent C.M. Lieb (printed in the Evening News) which included several recommendations to better programs, curriculum and facilities.

He began by bemoaning the state of the school buildings themselves, requesting repairs for floors, walls and even additional seating as there were more students than chairs. Payne wasn’t thrilled with the lack of proper equipment, especially for the science departments. A four-year program in science had recently been implemented but Payne was disappointed at the continued funding.

Payne went on to encourage the board to build playgrounds, and to possibly partner with the city parks department to give the youth in the schools a place to play and recreate. The high school students, he said, had made quite a name for themselves in baseball, football, tennis and basketball, but lacked the proper facilities to do so. “Interest in these games has kept the students off the streets and out of injurious forms of amusement and exercise,” Payne boasted. “The training and dieting of the football season has developed a marvelous power of self-control among our boys.”

He seems quite progressive to us now, but Payne suggested that the students at the high school were spending too much time in the classroom. He suggested required extracurricular activities in public speaking, reading, literary clubs and athletics to further boost a student’s all-around portfolio.

Teachers should all complete a minimum required amount of training and certainly were being paid a “pittance.” He suggested night school and vocational track courses. Payne also suggested to pay more attention to the arts, particularly music. Why? Because of girls, duh. “Music is especially an essential part for a girl’s education and as a large percent of our students are girls, music should have a more prominent place in the curriculum.”

No STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) course work here for the girls!

One of professor Payne’s greatest bugaboos? That the school board was not fully behind Lieb in terms of disciplinary expectations: “The discipline in the schools this year has been the most serious proposition of any since my connection with the schools,” Payne said. “The failure of the board to support you (Lieb) has left the principals without support, and created a spirit of anarchy among the students.”

Oddly, in his giant report he never once mentioned testing…

Thankfully, facilities at least were greatly improved over the years (wouldn’t Payne love Otis Dinning Gymnasium and McRight Field?) and thanks to music groups like Prime Rib, Concordia and the Band of Blue, music is a boon for all, not just the girls. We’ll still continue to discuss proper equipment outfitting and teacher pay for the rest of time, of course.

For all things periodical or a trip down memory lane, head to the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

— Dusty Luthy