The Most Hated Man in the Southern States
I was but a cub in the spring of 1870. I'd been little more than a child when the great War broke out, so that conflict was nothing to me but scattered memories, veteran's stories and newspaper articles. Now the War was five years over, the political free-for-all that followed was in full swing and the Great Southern Railroad was at the center of the controversy. John Haynes, retired as President of that company, was in seclusion in his great house on the Shell Road, mourning the recent death of his wife, Caroline, and the imminent death of his great dream and life's work. He was seeing no-one, much less a newspaper reporter, and the very thought that he might ask to be interviewed by the youngest, rawest boy on the staff was not even to be considered.
So I was puzzled when my editor (gruff, bald old Charley McFee of the Mobile 'Intelligencer', dead these five years now) told me to go out to that house for an interview. Only later did I puzzle out that my father must have mentioned me when he paid his respects to Mr. Haynes. They were not old friends, exactly, but they knew each other well. Mobile has never been a great city in the fashion of New York or New Orleans, and the planters, merchants, factors and financiers all know each other well. My father had been in turn a supplier to and an investor in the Great Southern from its earliest days in Mobile. But however it came about, John Haynes had decided he would speak to me and only to me and had sent such a message to the offices of the 'Intelligencer'.
The paper was a small one, fighting for circulation and advertisement revenue with its larger cousins the 'Press' and the 'Register'. So there was no hesitation from old Charley; if Haynes had said he would speak to a carriage horse, Charley would have sent one. Given the choice between a raw cub and a carriage horse Charley might not have picked me. But as there was no choice I was inspected, instructed, taken from the office on St Francis Street, pushed into a hired hansom and wheeled away down the wide white Shell Road to John Haynes' splendid house. The Shell Road that wound out into the country was pavemented in crushed oyster shells and shaded by vast live oaks whose branches often intertwined overhead. Mobile was occasionally given to fevers, and many families kept summer homes some way west of town atop a long low rise in an area known as Spring Hill. It was here, far away from the bustle of our little city that John Haynes had built his great house. I had never called upon the Haynes, nor been with my father if he had, but I knew where it was, of course, and the driver either knew or had been briefed. At any rate we made good time and raised remarkably little dust. The road being fine and smooth, I opened my notebook and jotted some questions as the carriage rolled on.
The Haynes house was set back some way down a curving, shell-paved drive and the bulk of it was hidden behind artfully placed trees and hedges. It was not, on first sight, an impressive house to a young man. The portico was large, true, and the colonnaded front was tall and gleaming white. The window-shutters were an attractive blue and the many windows glittered with expensive plate glass. But the true size of the place was only apparent from the inside, as I found when I was ushered up the steps and into the great hall by the unsmiling butler.
I can't recall details at this remove of years, only that the walls were covered with fine paintings and mirrors in fabulous frames, lit by a chandelier that looked like a frozen fountain of ice. I remember clearly, however, that the floor was a parquet of white marble and some blue stone, and I remember it was then I realized the blue paint outside and the blue stone inside were railroad blue, Bonnie Blue, recognizable to anyone who had ever traveled the Great Southern or seen its ubiquitous emblem.
After relieving me of my coat the butler showed me into a parlor off the great hall, a warm and intimate room with lush turkey carpets and comfortable plush armchairs. I had scarcely taken my seat before my host entered through a door in the side. He offered beverages but confessed he no longer kept spirituous liquors in the house. I was much too nervous to indulge in strong drink and said I would be grateful for a cup of coffee, which was immediately served. Real coffee, it was, too, though laced with chicory in the New Orleans manner made popular by the War.
I have never before or since seen a more formidable man, and I have met many of the so-called great men of our day. The planes of his face, the set of his mouth and jaw above somewhat antiquated chin whiskers, all spoke of strong will and unrelenting resolve. I thought of the bald eagle, so fierce of eye and beak above its snowy ruff of neck-feathers. I thought it, but it would have been scandalous to compare anyone in the Southern states to such a Yankee bird, and so I held my tongue. It would be no exaggeration to say that his face seemed carven, so sharp were the features and so near the surface lay the bones.
John Haynes - John Ephraim Haynes as he would say with that slight emphasis on his biblical middle name - was an impressive and formidable figure even at that late date. He was dressed in a dark suit of excellent fabric and cut; his vest was a rich golden buff and his shirt a crisp, snowy white, no little feat in Mobile's damp climate. On his hand was a ring inset with a single sapphire of that same Bonnie Blue. His face...
One look into his eyes and I knew this was a man who was maintaining a rigid control by dint of terrible exertion. His eyes were piercing yet haunted, lips thin and bloodless, cheeks sunken as from some wasting fever. There was no weakness in him, no compromise with the age that snowed his whiskers and thinned his hair, but there was a weariness - more, a depthless, soul-destroying exhaustion that dimmed and diminished him. I had my little list of questions, but there was no need for them. I knew as soon as I looked up into his eyes that he would tell me everything. I prayed I was strong enough to withstand the telling.
Coffee was served and some polite conversation was made. I remember little of it save that I offered my condolences and thanked him for agreeing to speak with me. For his part he said almost nothing, and I grew more nervous as the silences stretched. But at length he rose and stood by the mantle with his face partly obscured from me, looking into the fire, and he began to speak in a clear low voice. I drew out my notebook and began to take it down as best I could, questions forgotten and unneeded as his narrative poured out, a freshet too long pent up but now freed of its constraint. That narrative took more than one afternoon to tell, and when it was finished old Charley McFee found he could do nothing with it after all, and thus I kept it until now.
Here then is the story of John Ephraim Haynes, edited and rearranged somewhat, but as nearly his as my own poor skill can recount it.
Historical: The portrait selected for John Ephraim Haynes is that of Sir Francis Hincks.
Copyright © 2006 - E. Porter Hopson - All Rights Reserved.