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Tom Chaney: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave

Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave. Tom approves of Roger Brucker's having Stephen Bishop's wife Charlotte tell his tale. This column first appeared 8 November 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Organic Tobacco or "Hosannas to the Herb Divine"

By Tom Chaney

Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave

Roger Brucker came into the Bookstore on a Sunday afternoon some time back. He told me that he was writing a novel about Stephen Bishop, the slave who was a guide at Mammoth Cave during the first half of the nineteenth century.

He read a chapter or so to me, and I was hooked -- wanting more.

This was no surprise. Brucker is a fine story teller. For years he with his co-authors has been telling the story of cave exploration in these parts. Beginning with The Caves Beyond and continuing with The Longest Cave he chronicled the Flint Ridge cave exploration until it was joined with Mammoth Cave. In Trapped he and his co-author Robert K. Murray told the tale of the entrapment of Floyd Collins and the attempts to rescue him in 1925. From time to time I have quibbled with Brucker's use of history, but never with his ability to tell a roaring good tale.

If I remember aright, I once took him to task for inventing the mind of Floyd Collins while the hapless explorer lay trapped in a lonely cave unable to defend himself.

I just discovered the Bishop book, published and on the book shelf at Mammoth Cave -- Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave, [Cave Books, 2009].

Two days later, I had finished reading and wanted more.

Roger, you have done yourself proud!

Stephen Bishop was near as famous in the 1830's and 1840's as Mammoth Cave itself. Many tourists came to the cave because they had heard of Bishop's prowess as a guide. Many stayed to take repeated trips in the cave, because they were enthralled by Bishop.

Bishop expanded the cave, crossing 'bottomless pit' and pushing the known underground world further and further to Echo River and beyond.

Taking the gift of a compass and a lot of ingenuity, he mapped where he explored.

Brucker is the right one to tell the story. He is, of course, an experienced caver himself. And he uses his knowledge of caving and of Mammoth Cave to illuminate Bishop's tale.

Those of us who know Mammoth only from the tourist routes can see through Brucker's eyes what Bishop is up to. He takes us into the dark with Bishop. But he does not leave us there. Bishop may have seen Mammoth Cave only by the dim light of lanterns and tapers, but Brucker illuminates the dark passage ways as with the limelight's glare. So much so that the reader is tempted to forget the shadowy blackness that is the cave.

And Brucker makes another fictional choice that is equally illuminating. The story could be told in the first person, by the voice of Bishop himself. Equally possible is the third person. A twenty-first century narrator could tell the tale of Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave in a compelling way -- witness the poetry of Davis McCombs.

We know that Stephen Bishop married Charlotte Brown in 1843; that they were able to buy a small farm some years later and that Charlotte outlived Stephen.

Brucker has Charlotte tell the tale.

Charlotte has come up country from Mississippi in a slave trade to Bell's Tavern in what is now Park City. There she meets Stephen when he comes by the tavern with his owner Franklin Gorin of Glasgow who also owns the cave. She is learning to cook. As an aside, Brucker has Charlotte tell us how to make the famous Bell Tavern brandied peaches.

Soon they are together at the cave. Charlotte is able to run like the wind. Running from the tavern seven miles to the cave in an hour, she is able get word to a man traveling with Stephen's master that his wife is ill at Bell's Tavern.

She admires Stephen "The lantern grazed Stephen's light brown face and his eyes sparkled as he smiled. He seemed softer than when I first met him. . . Now he was more at ease."

Together they learn to read and write.

Here again Brucker takes no short cuts. In many states slaves were forbidden to learn to read. Without a didactic lesson in slave culture, Brucker lays in the situation in Kentucky where there was no such prohibition against literacy. In fact, Charlotte is encouraged to learn to write if she wishes to learn to cook.

For years they live and work together. Dr. Croghan, who had purchased the cave from Gorin, brings Stephen and Charlotte to his Louisville plantation, Locust Grove. Charlotte is working in the kitchen and Stephen is creating a map of the cave. When the map is finished, he informs Dr. Croghan that he and Charlotte will be married according to an earlier agreement they had.

Some years before the two had served at a Quaker wedding which took place at Locust Grove. May Thurmond and Tilford Appleby had 'married themselves' pledging their vows while seated before the guests. "It was a more joyful celebration than when [fellow slaves] Alfred and Hannah married, and there was no preacher to show off his long prayer while the food grew cold." Thus were Stephen and Charlotte wed.

In 1849 Croghan died leaving the cave in a trust and directing that all slaves be freed in seven years. Before that time the slaves were to be paid wages so that they might have a start to a new life.

In 1857 Stephen took sick and died. Mr. Procter who managed the cave for the trust decreed that Stephen be buried in the guide's cemetery where he yet lies.

Roger Brucker has produced a fine novel in tribute to Stephen in Charlotte's voice. His ability to tell a good tale melded with his good research and knowledge of the cave makes the book compelling.

Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar has claimed a rightful place of honor in the tales of cave country. It is a worthy companion to the likes of Davis McCombs' poetic study of Bishop in Ultima Thule

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-11-09 09:24:18
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