Legends and Lore of North Florida

Foremost Folklorist

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When folklorist J. Russell Reaver talks of the legends and lore of North Florida, nature listens. A thunderstorm appeared just minutes into an interview at his Tallahassee home. Then the power went off, shrouding his basement study in darkness. Perhaps a warning to let rest certain old tales? Reaver only smiled at nature being so accommodating.

Florida State University professor J. Russell Reaver speaking at the 1954 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, Florida.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

A scholar who has tracked down folklore for decades, and a professor of American literature at Florida State University since 1947, Reaver has every right to be at ease with the unusual and the seemingly coincidental.

When it comes to folklore, he has few rivals in the United States, and particularly in Florida. John Fenstermaker, chairman of FSU’s English department, pointed out, “Russell Reaver is an institution of folklore who is known nationally and internationally.”

Reaver’s accomplishments are most impressive. He helped found and is past president of the Florida Folklore Society. Among his nine published books is “Fundamentals of Folk Literature,” and some of his many articles and reviews have appeared in Southern Folklore Quarterly and the Journal of American Folklore. His travels around the country have paid off handsomely; in 1972, Reaver donated more than 2,000 manuscripts of American tall tales to the Library of Congress’ folklore archives.

“Dr. Reaver is one of the most widely read scholars I have known,” said Bruce Bickley, associate dean of FSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “His teaching and research integrate impressively his several areas of expertise — folklore, music, literary criticism and 19th- and 20th-century literature.”

During the interview, Reaver centered on larger-than-life figures and peculiar places of the Florida Panhandle. We interrupt him only long enough to set the stage. So pull up a chair, settle back and listen to a veteran storyteller weave a yarn or two.


The Eccentric Prince

Prince Achille Murat

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Reaver first spoke of Prince Murat, a nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte who moved to Tallahassee in 1825. A year later, he married Catherine Willis Gray, a great-grandniece of George Washington.

“A good many of the older people around here know that Murat and his wife are buried in the Old City Cemetery, the only royalty I know of that are actually buried in Tallahassee,” Reaver said. “But he’s not really remembered because he was related to Emperor Napoleon so much as for his eccentric kind of character. He apparently was a difficult man to get along with. There was a sort of mischievous or unthinking side to his personality.

“His habits were interesting and varied. Perhaps one of the most typical kind of incidents was a dinner party he had where he invited friends from the North, which was supposed to be a more civilized part of the country at that time.

“At the party, the guests tended to emphasize the unusual kind of meat that was the main entree. They learned from Murat that they had been eating buzzard.

“Perhaps one of the least disagreeable aspects of this local hero’s personality was that he used chewing tobacco a great deal and was usually provided with a spittoon wherever he went. He was never upset, though, when there wasn’t one available, because he often took his big, shaggy dog with him and spit tobacco juice into its thick fur. Another floating kind of story was that Murat liked to experiment with wild plants and flowers of the countryside. One day when his wife wasn’t home, he put together a mixture of all sorts of plants and cooked them in an open pot.

“He determined that he had created a dye of a reddish-pink shade, the story says, but he didn’t have any way to be sure that his dye would take to different kinds of fabric. As a result, he went upstairs and took all of his wife’s dresses from her closet and dunked them into the pot. So when his wife returned, she found an entirely pink wardrobe,” Reaver said.

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