John Dunn’s (Smalltown) Mythic Proportions

About 110 years ago, a man named John Dunn lived in a one-room cabin out on E. McKinney, just past the “old wire bridge” in Denton. He was a single man in his 60s, who made a meager living by cutting wood, doing odd jobs, and was a “fortune teller” who was popular with college students and locals.

Known for being eccentric, John had a “peculiar manner of dress”; he possessed an old rabbit’s foot, “supposed to have come from a rabbit killed in a cemetery in the dark of the moon, and with the aid of that “conjure” he would essay to answer any questions propounded to him by means of the foot swinging pendulum-like on a string.” [Denton Record-Chronicle, Dec. 1, 1925, p.1]

John Dunn's home

John Dunn note

Students would visit his cabin to get their fortunes told, something that must have been a “lark” back then. Imagine, if you will, the sound of the prevailing winds blowing through the fields and once inside, the creaking of the boards, the tinkling of bones, or bits of metal hanging from string. Being a conjurer would require some kind of acting skill especially for one who hones their craft. And there would need to be props. The cabin would be lit by lantern light unless the travellers were there in the daytime and then there would be the dust motes and shadows.

John Dunn at home

Chief John Dunn, collector of rabbits’ foots and hoodoo. 08/08/1900 -Inscription on back of photo, Denton Public Library Archives

Speculation aside, what we do know about John are bits and pieces: He was described in two census records as a “black man,” and then, as a “mulatto” who had been born in Texas, somewhere ranging from 1847 to 1854. His father was born in Ireland, mother in Tennessee, and like many other people, John could not read or write. From several newspaper accounts, we know that he collected “curious trinkets, pieces of jewelry, old coins” [DRC Aug. 28, 1912], and that his job could be quite dangerous:

John Dunn 22 Oct 1909

Denton Record-Chronicle, October 22, 1909

As an “official local character” he was targeted by hooligans (my word) who broke into his home and stole some of his precious objects. Later, in 1917, an injury to one of his feet became gangrenous and had to be amputated.  One can only imagine what this lonely man had to go through.  A couple of years before, he moved from his home to another cabin located eight miles east of town out on the Jagoe farm.  One bitter cold night, on January 18, 1918,  the cabin caught fire. Neighbors found the structure in flames and made a search for him, but it wasn’t until the following day that the Sheriff found his body buried beneath the remains of the fallen chimney.

The tale should end there, but it doesn’t because of another story which was done about John and other “Peculiar Characters” in 1954. The editor of the DRC at that time decided to rerun the same story from 1925, but he spiced up the wording and added more details which came from another set of “old-timers” (“sons of the old-timers”?).  Anyway, these men described John as a “tall gaunt man whose long, straight hair proved his Indian blood.” This “newer” modern story was both vile and racist. It targeted the weakest and most unfortunate members of the community who it was suggested, were freaks.

What a lack of imagination (to say the very least).

John Dunn in Field

John Dunn, standing in a field near his home on E. McKinney Street. – Photo, Denton Public Library

I find myself thinking about that 1954 description of John and then looked at the photos above, but gol-darn it, they just aren’t clear enough! I picture some college students sneaking out and taking the unposed photos of this private man and sharing them with their friends. Who was he really?

It has been suggested by one of my co-workers that maybe John’s mother was one of the Cherokee or Chickasaw Freedman (someone of Indian and African American ancestry).  That could explain the odd clothes, the bones, and perhaps the storytelling.  As for his father, there is too much to speculate.

I have looked in the census for a child or young man by the name of John Dunn who might fit the description and in the 1870 census, found a 15 year-old boy named John Cook Dunn living in Coryell County, Texas, who, along with numerous brothers and sisters were listed as being “Servant” as their occupation. In a nearby prosperous farm, a white family by the name of Dunn, lived, along with a 33-year-old black woman (also with the last name of Dunn) who was their “House Keeper” and maybe the mother of the other of the young Dunns. But I am being hopeful.

I think John Dunn had a very important story to tell; I just can’t ask him any questions, only photos.

But at least I can tell a better story than the one from 1954.

~Leslie Couture, Special Collections Department

 

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