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"Ben Lilly, Strongman of Morehouse Parish," #147 Swapping Stories
James B. Rider, Bastrop, Louisiana

 

Ben Lilly, around Mer Rouge, was always entertaining people. He was supposedly a tremendously strong man. People that have been witnesses to the things he did--according to what's been written on him, he once stood on the sidewalks of Mer Rouge and got in a barrel. And without touching the barrel, just flat-footed, jumped out of the barrel onto the sidewalk.

They said it was many times that he could pick up a hundred pound steel anvil from the ground and just extend it out at arm's length and just hold it there.

They said that he once picked up a five-hundred-pound bale of cotton and walked off with it.

Lilly made his own knives. He once said that, he showed a knife to a fellow one time out West and said that he had killed, in so-called hand-to-hand combat, six bears with this knife. He held it up and showed that he had stabbed those bears to death. They weren't all black bears. One or two were supposed to be grizzlies. Pretty tough customers.

Ben Lilly would not do any kind of work on Sunday, no matter what. If his cows got out, he wouldn't let anybody herd those cows up. They might stay lost for days. On Monday morning he'd go hunt them, but not on Sunday. He read his Bible on Sunday. He tried to adhere to the Bible as near as he could.

Audience member: Mr. Rider, I have heard that he organized a hunting expedition for Roosevelt. For President Roosevelt. Is that true? Have you found that to be true in your research?

James B. Rider: That was Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt came down to Tensas Parish, around Transylvania down there, and he wanted to kill a bear. So they hired Ben to come over with his dogs to run bear. And he hunted with Teddy.

Audience member: And I've also been told, since I'm a Mer Rouge resident, and because so many people enjoy talking about Ben Lilly, that he had such a keen since of smell and keen sense of hearing, they say he was more animal than human. But he could be a gentleman when the occasion arose. Didn't they say something about how he could lay on the ground and tell you how the grass was growing, he had such a keen sense of smell?

James B. Rider: He said that. He told that. He was, like you were talking about, he was a gentle man, too. When he did come back to Mer Rouge on one of his hunts, he'd play with the children. He just spent a lot of time playing with children, no matter whose they were.

He had all kind of idiosyncrasies. He believed if you got wet, naturally out in the rain, that nothing would happen to you if you just kept wearing your clothes till they dried. You might get sick if you took them off and took a bath and dried off real good and put on dry clothes. You'd probably get sick. So what he did, he'd even go to bed with his wet clothes on. If he come in wet, and he wanted to go to bed, he'd just crawl in bed and pull the covers up and sleep wet. He had a belief, he stuck with it.

Audience member: They say he believed in bathing. He'd even bathe in the snow!

James B. Rider: One time, him and another fellow had been out in the woods for a long time. They hadn't taken a bath in months. They decided they'd take a bath. Ben said, "Let's take a bath."

This guy said, "Well, you know, it's about thirty degrees." Only thing they had was this stream to take a bath in. He'd heard that Ben didn't mind. He'd pull off his clothes and wade on in, start taking a bath. This guy didn't want to do that. So Ben took his bath in that cold water. It didn't make him any matter. It was just like when he was tracking a bear or a cougar. He'd pull off everything but his pants. He'd take his rifle and knife and take off. No food, no nothing. He might hunt two days without a bite to eat. Sometimes when he'd eat, he would just go out in somebody's corn field and pull two ears of corn.

 

Notes to the Teacher: The local strong man is one of the major figures of folk legendry; see the discussion on historical legends in the introduction. Stories of local strongmen also abound in Louisiana's Cajun tradition, often attached to such legendary constables as Joe Hanks and Martin Weber, who took on the formidable job of keeping order at dance halls in the first half of this century, when fist- and knife-fights abounded. Ancelet (1994, nos. 111-12) presents tales about the Cajun strongman Martin Weber.

Benjamin Vernon Lilly (1856-1936) has become a local legend in several locales. He first visited Louisiana at age twelve, after running away from his parents' home in Mississippi and walking to Morehouse Parish to live with his uncle Vernon. In J. Frank Dobie's account of The Ben Lilly Legend, Lilly was not only a legendary strongman in Louisiana (Dobie 1950, 29-49), but later also a legendary hunter and tracker in Texas, Mexico, and the Rocky Mountains (101-69). Dobie's account of Ben Lilly's Louisiana years was based largely on oral traditions in Morehouse Parish, including stories from four residents of Bastrop, the home of James B. Rider, narrator of the present tale. For a reporter's firsthand account of a Lilly bear hunt in East Texas in 1906, see Abernethy (1968, 123-36).

F610. Remarkably strong man; C631. Tabu: breaking the Sabbath (cf. Dobie 1950, 39); F628.1.1.4. Strong man kills bear (cf. Dobie 1950, 75-76); F652. Marvelous sense of smell; F685. Marvelous withstander of cold. Ben has much in common with the marvelous companions of märchen fame; see, for example, the band of heroes in Cajun Elby Deshotels's tale, Jean L'Ours et la fille du Roi (Ancelet 1994, no. 20).


About the Transcriptions

 

National Endowment for the Arts.

 
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