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Catfish Jack’s Jar of Toes: Part 4 of 8

August 9, 2017
BY CHUCK CLEGG - Columnist , Wetzel Chronicle

If you remember from last week, my friend Samuel Clemens was telling me the story of Catfish Jack. As he sat next to me he continued the story...

The morning sun rose over the hills to the east, and Jack and Crow were already at the tannery paying Birdy for the cow hide. It was heavier than they thought it would be. The unexpected weight gave cause for Jack to use a small hand cart to transport the heavy wet hide to the workshop of the Widow Hendershot. Wasn't much of a work shop, just an old barn she used to upholster wagon seats.

When they arrived, the widow was measuring the wooden fish. She was standing, looking at the odd wooden form with a bit of a perplexed look.

She told Jack. "Gonna' be hard to wrap it with the fish's head turned to the side. I figured on it being straight from head to tail. Didn't figure a turn in the body. I just hope that when the hide dries, it will pull tight in the bend behind the head. Not draw up so tight it pulls away from the rest of the body. Going to need lots of good quality hide glue to make sure it don't pull loose."

She turned to Jack, "You do have some hide glue don't you?"

Jack had not realized they would need glue for the project. But Crow perked up as he said, "Billy Harson uses glue in his woodwork shop. I'll bet he's willin' to loan us some glue." While the widow began working the hide onto the form, Jack and Crow set off to see Billy the cabinet maker to borrow some glue.

It didn't take long until they came in the back door of his shop. He was busy working on a wooden steamer trunk. He looked up and saw the two men enter. "Well I'll be, I ain't seen you two boys in a possum's age. And I'll be a bettin' you're wantin' somethin,' am I right?"

Crow grinned and explained they were wanting to borrow some glue. Billy wasn't sure how you borrow glue. After all, use it and it isn't likely you'll be bringing it back. Jack and Crow explaiedn what they needed it for. After their explanation, and Billy was able to stop laughing, he asked if they were going to make any money on their crazy project. If they did, they could pay him for the glue instead of returning it used. The two agreed with Billy's request.

The two men quickly returned to the Widow Hendershot's workshop with the warm pot of glue. They were amazed at her progress when they returned. She had managed to pull it tight and had begun forming it to the wooden body. Once she was satisfied it was going to work, she had Crow pull the front of the hide toward the fish's head. Next, she instructed Jack to quickly paint the wooden body with the warm glue. She explained they had to work quickly before the glue began to set.

Jack and Crow pulled and stretched the hide as the widow tucked and trimmed the hide to the wooden form. Finally, after three hours of hard work, the job was done. Lo and behold, the trio stood back and admired their handy work. When viewed from a few feet away, the raw hide fish truly look like a taxidermist had preserved a great flathead catfish. The Widow Hendershot had carefully placed each stitch in such a way, they were not easily seen. With the hide in place, and the open mouth with its rows of large thorn teeth showing, it looked real enough to strike fear into the minds of those who saw it. Even Crow felt uneasy around the creation. And the yellow eyes that reflected light, gave the wooden creature an appearance of looking straight at you. Their catfish was so perfect, even Jack would have been fooled if he had seen it in a carnival side show.

The widow instructed Jack to come by twice a day and wipe the hide down with water and a small amount of formaldehyde. The water would help to slow the shrinking process while it dried from the inside out. If the outside dried too quickly, it could cause the hide to pull excessively tight in some areas. The formaldehyde would prevent bugs from eating the hide.

A week later, the skin had stopped shrinking. Jack boiled walnut hulls and wiped the mixture on the back of the fish. As he worked his way down the side, he added water to reduce the color. By the time he was done, the fish looked almost real in its coloring. Finally he took green butter nuts and boiled them, producing an ugly yellow coloring. He rubbed it on to the belly of the fish. He also dabbed the mixture along the sides, giving it a splotchy appearance. Now, it looked like a catfish. Even Jack was convinced people would believe it was real.

The final steps: he dried two pieces of hide and formed them into side fins. Next, he inserted willow branches on each side of the mouth, giving the appearance of barbells on its lips. Now, they had a genuine flathead monster. Crow was already counting the money they were going to make with their creation.

There was one more piece of the puzzle they needed before setting out to join the sideshow: a jar of toes. Seven toes to be precise. Crow had already taken care of this problem. He knew this feller just down river - Homer Blackman. He was about an hour away by train. The guy he knew, worked at the medical college. He knew his friend was just the person to help find him the collection of toes they needed for the show.

Bright and early the next morning, while they waited for the hide on the fish to dry, they hopped a train south to see Crow's friend. In a few hours, they had made it into town and were on the way to the school of medicine. Crow's friend worked in the basement. It didn't take long to find him.

Homer was a tall man with bugging eyes, with dark circles under them. His skin was pale and almost clay looking in the darkness of the lower levels of the school. A tattered black apron covered his stained white uniform. His thick black hair was greased and slick in appearance. From working in the low basement, his tall frame took on a bent look. Crow had explained to Jack as they were coming down river, his friend had a bit of an odd look. Mostly from working around bodies preserved in formaldehyde. The medical students used the bodies to practice their skills. It was Homer's job to get the bodies ready and take them after they had been used. When the bodies were of no more use to the school, it was Homer's job to make sure they were given respectable burials in the vagrant's row of the county's cemetery.

Jack was not sure this was a good idea, going to this place looking for a jar of toes. But he knew of no store that sold pickled jars of toes.

 
 
 

 

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