52. Tricksters

The Thursday evening salon group were involved in a variety of activities to uncover additional facets of the Cibola community out of the public eye and to promote the interests of the community. One of the strangest and most amusing of these tales has been past down to a number of elderly Cibola residents by their grandparents and older relatives when they were children. This is their story. It involves the duration in Cibola of the Amerindian institution of the tricksters — groups of (mostly) boys and men who conceive, plan and conduct assorted “tricks”, pranks, and practical jokes.

The trickster, a player of tricks, deceiver, shape shifter or master of disguises whether sacred and merely lewd is a stock character in many Amerindian cultures. The trickster was also a tinkerer or fixer-upper, noted for his ingenuity in forming creative solutions to collective problems. Gastronomic tricks, and those involving flatulent, sexual, phallic or fecal tricks are particularly common in trickster annals. Thus it was with the tricksters of Cibola. As far as is known, there were tricksters, and even an organized clan for them, in Cibola from the very earliest decades of the seventeenth century, although very little is known of the antics of the earliest tricksters.

It was perhaps inevitable, given the number of native Americans involved in the Cibola community over its nearly 500 year history, but there is ample evidence that at least by sometime late in the 19th century, there was an upsurge of trickster behavior originating among men and boys from Cibola. This was tied to the Barley Mill Ministerial Association, the Barley Mills Chamber of Commerce and a somewhat mysterious local fraternal organization that was, in reality, a highly ironic chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. According to a story originating with Scottish-American civil war veteran, Russell Lyon, six young men from Buchan, Scotland who had emigrated together to the US were recruited during the American Civil War by the Confederate army’s cavalry. The six were familiar with legends of Scottish secret societies of ‘horse whispers’ and after the war they decided to set up their own secret society based on the whisperers’ traditions. They chose a name derived from the Greek word ‘kuklos’ meaning circle; they called themselves the ku klux klan. The founders’ original intentions were ‘to have fun, make mischief and play pranks on the public.’ History records that this original trickster organization was soon overwhelmed by those with more deadly intent and transformed into the first Ku Klux Klan of history. By the turn of the twentieth century, the world had largely moved on and this original klan had nearly died out.

Some time after the emergence of the first klan in the 1880s, a group of approximately two dozen men from Cibola — Hispanic, French, English, Cherokee, Cree, Seminole, Afro-Caribbean, Ghanian, Irish, mixed together in that amazing biological stew and cultural hodgepodge learned of the original Buchan Boys, the Scottish horse whisperers and decided they would seek to continue the tradition. Increasingly thereafter, reports began to filter back to Cibola from many different parts of the Reconstruction South that white robed and hooded Klansmen were spreading terror throughout the region. It was immediately obvious that the KKK would make a tempting, if formidable and potentially deadly, target for the tricksters of Cibola. Originally founded as civic and social organizations, as the era of Reconstruction drew to a close, these local Klan chapters turned increasingly toward reinforcing white supremacy by bedeviling and terrorizing local black, Jewish, Amerindian and other minority populations.

One of the longest-lasting of the early accomplishments of the Cibola tricksters was formation of the “Dare County Chamber of Commerce,” (DCCC) which was, in reality, a front for the largest and longest-lasting hoax ever perpetrated by the tricksters of Cibola. The existence of a chamber of commerce headquartered in Cibola was in itself a massive joke. Throughout its history as a secret community Cibola never joined the American market system or modern consumer society, retaining a mix of subsistence economy, household production and economic cooperation. “Commerce” as such was not a feature of the community. By the time of its destruction, there were still only a few small shops scattered throughout the seven villages. These were mostly small, independent craftspeople — a shoemaker, apothecary, seamstresses, a watchmaker, and a few others.

The real reason for founding the DCCC was because the leading tricksters in Cibola had found that local businessmen were prominent in the organization of local Ku Klux Klan chapters during this period. Thus, the Cibola tricksters concluded that a local chamber of commerce would give them cover for their activities and because it was officially designated a county-wide entity with a post office box in Huttonsville, any efforts by outsiders to track the DCCC down would come to no avail. Thus, for nearly a hundred years and unbeknown to national clan leaders the DCCC was the only multi-racial, multi-cultural chapter of the KKK.

As they learned of the extent of the involvement of members of the business community in this new and terrible dynamic, a group of roughly two dozen adult men and teenaged boys from all seven villages of Cibola, most of whom were already well-established local tricksters, hatched the idea of the DCCC as a front for their very own, and very special, KKK chapter. Although members and their families became very proficient at designing and sewing the white robes, conical hats, white gloves and other costumes of their simulated klan chapter, as well as an ingenious false-bottomed carpet bag for traveling incognito with the minimum chance of being detected, the first KKK movement died out before the DCCC could engage in any real tricks outside Dare County.

Youngsters who were invited to join the trickster clan in Cibola often started out on a range of what were called “school boy pranks.” They might, for example, furtively smear butter on the windshield of a local driver known for his rude and aggressive road manner. Before the automobile, feeding mild laxatives to horses expected to be in parades in communities around Dare County was a common trickster practice. In the 1960s when the anti-smoking campaigns were still gaining momentum in the U.S. and many smokers still smoked pipes. Tins of Sir Walter Raleigh were at the time a familiar pipe tobacco brand and a favorite trick for younger tricksters was to phone local grocery and drug stores and ask, “Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in the can?” When the clerk answered, “Yes. We do.”, the caller would reply, “Well, you’d better let him out!” and hang up laughing uproariously.

Another common trick for young tricksters was to paint various nonsense phrases and images in a variety of public places around Dare County, although some tricksters, mindful of the possibility of permanent damage to the property of others, were careful to use only water soluble materials that were easily removed. In the 1940s and 1950s, the “Kilroy was here” phase, together with the famous oval-shaped bald head and elongated nose peering over a fence, was very popular. It is still believed by some in Dare County that the Cibola tricksters were the original inventors of graffiti, although this is not the case since examples have been found on monuments at ancient Pompeii, on the walls of Mayan temples in Mesoamerica, at Newgrange Mound in Ireland and even Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Regardless, the Cibolan tricksters were prolific producers of graffiti from the very earliest days of the community, and local leaders had always been very tolerant of the practice. One day each year was devoted to scrubbing, repainting and in other ways removing graffiti and members of the secret clan of tricksters were always among the volunteer cleaners.

As they grew older, and in particular after the second half of the nineteenth century as the railroad came to Dare County, adult members of the Tricksters began to reach out further into the world, and design plots that were more intricate, more politically potent and more dangerous. Over time, the Ku Klux Klan, the Pinkertons and the Baldwin-Phelps detectives became favorite targets of the tricksters, who lived in a highly diverse community and were deeply offended by the racism and xenophobia of the Klan and the aggressive bullying of the detectives.

Annually, a group of self-selected young members of the Trickster squad of the DCCC would identify 1–2 Klan leaders at different points in the six-state region, and plan an elaborate ruse that would lure them to a remote location. Usually, the leaders had already been identified or singled out for particularly heinous behavior, but there was no chance of them being brought to justice. The Tricksters would capture the Klansmen and after hypnotizing them in order to subdue them for a fixed number of hours (usually 13 for some reason), lock them in a steamer trunk with instructions for the victims to “awaken” after midday inside the specially designed cage which would by then have been placed in a prominent location in the downtown area of their home community. The malefactors would then find themselves inside the cage in a public place and completely naked, having already been the object of laughter and ridicule from passers-by for some hours. Several of those handled in this manner were known to have left the Klan and more than a few moved away from their communities.

During the long 19th century some of the Cibolan tricksters also became prolific pickpockets; adept both at lifting objects from unwary victims, and placing objects unawares in the pockets of the unsuspecting. One especially favorite activity of this sort was “lifting” the revolvers of B-P detectives in diverse mining camps in Dare County and several surrounding counties. The tricksters would then fill the barrels and chambers of the weapons with pine pitch and leave them in a prominent location for the detectives to recover. This particular trick had various unanticipated consequences. Not only did word of the prank spread among the miners’ families in the camps, who were very amused. There was the further prospect of the detectives spending many hours and large quantities of carbolic acid in their efforts to clean their weapons. They also went to great lengths to keep word of this from company “higher ups”. These were not always successful, and several detectives were known to have been disciplined by the company for carelessness in losing their weapons.

As far as Freddie and the salon members were able to determine, most tricksters preferred placing rather than lifting, and specialized in inserting (rather than removing) objects from the pockets of Klan members during marches and rallies. Some of these were religious messages, notably Bible passages opposing hatred and maltreatment of strangers. But many were also humorous, and frequently scatological. Some of these were their own variations on the well known “Your mama” theme: E.g., “Your mama is so fat, when she goes to church she sits next to everyone!” and “Your mama is so dumb. She got locked in a mattress factory and had to sleep on the floor!”

There is talk among the tricksters that at some time past — some say it was in the 1940s while others claim different years earlier or later — a group of teenage tricksters from Cibola carried out a legendary prank that is still laughed about all over Dare County. They had learned that the town constable in Barley Mill and a prominent member of the local klan operated a speed trap on the state highway through town and was ticketing out-of-towners and then collecting the fines directly from them with promises to turn the fees over to the local magistrate but never doing so. The errant cop would park his patrol car at the intersection of State Highway 58 and County Road 26. About 100 yards away in both directions were speed limit signs the town council had been convinced were necessary announced a sudden 15 mile an hour reduction in the legal speed. High percentages of non-residents passing through would inevitably either ignore the signs completely or take too long to slow down. Office Johns, for that was the malefactor’s name, pretty much had his pick of which cars to ignore and which to target, but he had a decided preference for out-of-towners and particularly black or brown skinned drivers.

As it happened, later at night, usually after 10:30 p.m., the officer after having consumed his usual large dinner would fall asleep at the wheel of his patrol car, awakening only by a particularly loud or fast vehicle passing through. Under their plan, after determining the officer was sound asleep, a small group of tricksters approached the patrol car from the rear and attached a heavy log chain to the rear axle of the patrol car, fastening the other end to a fire hydrant located on the nearby curb, careful to leave about 15 feet of slack chain. All of this was done without waking the sleeping officer and when the task was completed the tricksters disappeared into the night as quietly as they had come.

About fifteen minutes later, a red pickup truck with a loud, broken muffler and driven by an African-American driver with two Amerindian passengers came racing down the street at a relatively high speed, windows open, drivers and passengers yelling in full voice, headlights off, horn honking, passing directly in front of Officer Johns and heading out of town. Officer Johns, startled awake, headed after the malefactors only to feel a sudden jerk, followed by a loud clunk and a shower of sparks before the car came to a complete stop. When he looked in the rear view mirror he saw the entire rear axle and wheel assembly of his squad car on the street, still attached to the log chain. Although not part of the trickster’s plan, the chain had also pulled the hydrant from its position and a fountain of water was streaming about 10 meters into the air. Thanks to several anonymous tips the ensuing investigation by the town council of Barley Mill uncovered Officer John’s rather large bank balance and the entire speed trap operation, resulting in his dismissal as a local police officer and his subsequent indictment and conviction for diverting public funds.

On other occasions, tricksters were reported to have planted newspaper columns and what have since become known as “op ed” pieces in newspapers throughout the region. In the particularly stellar example of such a “plant”, one of the Huntington, West Virginia newspapers printed a column by a supposed Klan leader indicating that he had had a change of heart and would, henceforth, foreswear all Klan involvement. In other cases, announcements published in a wide variety of regional newspapers announced entirely fictitious holidays, complete with plans for parades and rallies. Klan leaders were left to explain later that no such holidays, parades or rallies were in the works.

On at least one occasion, an exhibit was mounted at an international Klan gathering purporting to display, in the manner of a medieval relic, the middle finger of the first Grand Dragon of the Klan, supposedly lost in a complex and amazing set of circumstances. A message in a mixture of Aramaic, Greek and Latin was accompanied by a “translation” which indicated how heroic the Grand Dragon had been. The entire exhibit was presented at three successive Klan gatherings until a Klan member fluent in all three languages did his own translation and reported to embarrassed Klan officials that the message actually said the finger was actually the middle finger of a female orangutan who had died at the Cincinnati zoo and had been found with her middle finger extended in an obscene gesture widely known as “giving the finger”.

Between the Spanish-American War and World War I most of the klan impersonators’ antics were best characterized as “good clean fun.” It was only after the release of the movie, Birth of a Nation, in 1915 that their anti-klan activities took on greater intensity. This movie which was responsible for the second birth of the klan also meant that the DCCC and its covert KKK wing swung into real action. These were the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of earlier generations of tricksters at Cibola, and they proved even more adept at the challenge than their forebears. Their additions to the original costumery of their forebears included not only the addition of female tricksters to the secret company, an addition which vastly increased the range of possible tricks they might engage in. They also added the refinement of a finely knit fabric “white skin” glove worn under the standard KKK-style white glove. This was a necessary addition because of the tremendous range of black, brown, yellow and red skin tones present among the Cibolan population. The glove was actually a light, yellowish pink with slightly irregular, bluish, raised lines to simulate the skin tones and veins of the “white” hand of a “pure” Anglo-Saxon Klan member. The design of the gloves was so hand-like that they even contained simulated fingernails.

The idea was that if any other Klan member asked, or more likely, demanded that a Cibolan remove their gloves, or the situation otherwise arose, this would offer a bit of additional insurance. While it was unlikely that the white under-gloves would pass a detailed inspection in the harsh light of day, members of the DCCC reasoned, in the torch-lit circumstances of a Klan night ride they almost certainly would. In the end, however, the gloves proved both expensive and time consuming to produce, and so on most outings the members of the Cibola klan used stage makeup to give everyone the proper white hands.

And this proved to be sufficient in the remarkably few instances when such challenges were issued. “These klan guys may be mean as junkyard dogs, and what they do is downright evil, but they are none too bright,” was the general sentiment of the members of the Dare County Chamber.

With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s, the Cibola tricksters ceased to present themselves to the world as the Dare County Chamber of Commerce (nee Ku Klux Klan). Prior to that, they had conducted literally hundreds of KKK-related tricks. One of the all-time favorites of several successive cohorts of the group was to find out the location of a large Klan rally somewhere in the Eastern United States and to plant exotic fireworks, which were procured from Chinese sources in San Francisco, in the obligatory Klan bonfire. Then, shortly after the bonfire was lit and the cross-burning commenced, the fireworks went off with sufficient intensity and in all directions, so that Klan members would be forced to scatter in all directions as tricksters planted in the crowd yelled things like “Run for your lives! It’s the FBI.” And numerous other shouts designed to foment confusion and disrupt the event.

In later years the tricksters also tried to infiltrate the telephone trees of local Klan groups, so that in the hours before a planned rally, march or gathering they would phone someone high up in the hierarchy, claiming to be someone even higher, with one of a series of false messages intended to postpone, cancel or disrupt the event. One of their favorites was to call the number two or three leader in a local Klan chapter with news like this: “Bernie? This is Clarence. Tonight’s march has to be cancelled. Joe’s got the runs. Put out the word.” It seemed to most members of the Dare County Chamber of Commerce to be in the best traditions of trickstering whenever they were able to spread a false rumor that a local Klan leader had been sidelines with a bout of diarrhea.

The most difficult facet of the ongoing trickster operations of the DCCC in the decades from the 1920s to the late 1950s was gathering information on the various KKK events to be disrupted. Over the decades, the group operated all over the eastern U.S., most notably in the states of the old Confederacy. In half a dozen of the most opportune situations, they were able to learn of klan discontent with particular African-American, Jewish, or Catholic local figures and sent out “watch teams” of two or three tricksters, who would move into the affected communities and report back to the group regularly with coded telephone and telegraph messages. Generally, one of the lightest skinned (“anglo”) tricksters was paired with someone who could blend into the affected group. In such cases, the anglo team member might pose as a traveling salesman and klan member who would make attempt to make contact with the local KKK chapter and keep abreast of their plans. The other member could usually be more open and forthright with members of the affected group.

On several occasions, such teams were able to learn of plans to burn out local troublemakers late at night as a warning to others in the area. By warning the occupants, their houses and contents were still destroyed, but several lives of local leaders and their families were saved in this way. Gradually, however, the national klan leadership began to connect the various incidents incited by the tricksters of the Dare County Chamber of Commerce, and those light-skinned members of the DCCC who attended national and state klan conventions began to bring back reports of steps the leadership was taking to identify and neutralize this activity. In particular, one of the most deeply held secrets of the Klan was its sponsorship of an offshoot group to be known as the Rural Nationalist Association, or RNA. At about the same time, there began to be reports that the klan, along with many other organizations, was being infiltrated by the FBI.

In the final decades of the Cibola community before its destruction, trickster activity was once again limited to local pranks, mostly graffiti, and by the time that the Cibolans began moving into Eden, it was unclear whether any such activities would continue at all.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store