I love this story with my whole heart, but I never could figure out where to try to sell it.
Sweet Pauline, the Pirate Queen, Governor of Tennessee
By Betsy Phillips
Andrew Jackson had a cussing parrot. If you believe nothing else of what I’m telling you, believe that he had a parrot who cussed like a sailor and that parrot attended his funeral. The bird had to be removed from the President’s funeral because of its prolific cursing—which, all things considered, probably shouldn’t have been surprising. It was, after all, Andrew Jackson’s cussing parrot. But in this anecdote is the revelation of a more surprising detail: when the slaves rushed to remove the cussing parrot from the funeral, they were appalled by its behavior because it was usually so subdued at funerals.
I repeat, it was usually so subdued at funerals.
This was not the first funeral the parrot had attended.
The parrot had a social life the likes of which we might envy today. It went to funerals, weddings, the inaugurations of at least two governors (more on that in a minute) and the swearing-in ceremonies of every Nashville mayor it hated.
Oh, how the mayoral candidates wooed that bird so as to not end up on its bad side if and before they became the leader of the city. No one had forgotten how that bird had harangued Felix Robertson at his first swearing-in, calling him a jackass and a poltroon and “the last tobacco leaf in an otherwise empty barn,” which was an insult that didn’t entirely make sense, but the vehemence with which the bird spoke it made all the prominent men of Nashville fear being referred to as such.
There are some scholars these days who will tell you that the Jackson family’s most trusted slave, Alfred, was probably behind the bird. In later years, it was obvious to visitors that Alfred’s competence and wit masked a great deal of misery. Perhaps, these scholars speculate, Alfred taught the bird phrases to repeat and gave the bird some signal for when to say them, so that the bird was, itself, just a mouthpiece for the informed opinions of a man who would be sold or killed for expressing them himself.
But I know for a fact that Alfred and the bird did not get along. One night, when Alfred had come into the study to tidy up, the bird squawked “Coward!” at him and Alfred, it’s said, snarled the same ugly word back at the bird. They never spoke to each other again.
No, for better or for worse, the parrot’s opinions were its own. That they likely didn’t differ much from Alfred’s just goes to show that anyone could see the truth of most matters. Most Nashvillians just chose not to.
The parrot once laid a clutch of three eggs and it was said that there wasn’t anything that those eggs did not know. Ask them a question and they would answer it. The trick was that one of the eggs could only answer truth and one of the eggs could only lie and one of the eggs could tell the truth or lie and you had to figure out what questions to ask them that would reveal to you the honest egg before you asked any question that mattered.
Two of the eggs have been lost over the years. But one is at the state museum. It’s not on display so you have to ask to see it. It’s small and white and unremarkable, except that, yes, it will answer any question you ask it.
I asked it, “Are you the egg that lies?”
It said, “Yes.”
And I felt like I had been the butt of a very old joke. I was embarrassed, but a little proud.
People used to believe that the parrot was that old New Orleans pirate, Pauline Lafitte, cursed by a witch to have to live in the form of a parrot until she forgot every word of French she ever knew. This had the effect of making her practically immortal, for who can forget her own name?
I don’t know if you know this story, so forgive me if I’m repeating something you already heard, but there were three great pirate siblings, Jean Lafitte, his brother, Pierre Lafitte, and their sister, Chère Pauline. Sweet Pauline the Pirate Queen, as the song goes. She ran the Lafitte warehouse in New Orleans, through which their smuggled and stolen goods were sold. But she was arrested shortly after the Embargo Act of 1807 and, as women tend to do, she disappeared from history.
Not from legend, though. The legend was that Sweet Pauline had taken a lover, a prominent politician in New Orleans. It’s said that his wife and his placée, who normally passed their days refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other, joined together to hire the witch to get rid of Sweet Pauline. Some now say she died and still haunts old corners of New Orleans. But a century ago, everyone just accepted as fact that she had been turned into a parrot.
According to that story, Andrew Jackson had gotten the parrot from that witch after the Battle of New Orleans and brought it back to Nashville because the man was always bringing oddities home—nephews, Creek boys, charming daughter-in-laws, Alfred, a slave girl who could count to thirty-three in twelve languages, a wife who smoked a corn-cob pipe, the ghost of Charles Dickinson, a mule that could win any race as long as a left-handed jockey rode her, and so on—but it’s also possible that Jackson had ulterior motives. To say he could be cruel is akin to saying that rain is wet.
The best evidence I have for the parrot being a person under some form of enchantment is that it attended the first mass held in Nashville, in the home of that old fur-trading French diplomat, Timothy Demonbreun, and all who were present and who left records, report that the parrot was very familiar with the ritual.
Was it truly Sweet Pauline Lafitte? Well, they did call it Poll.
And Poll was clever. Very, very clever. The kind of clever a woman might learn to be if she had taken a lover who made the laws she and her brothers were breaking. It was, for instance, Poll’s idea for Sarah Yorke Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s daughter-in-law, to sell The Hermitage to the state on the condition that the state let her live out her days there, after Andrew Jackson Jr. squandered all the Jackson family money and goodwill down in Mississippi.
There’s one story about Poll that has all but vanished from history, though it is as true as all the others and truer than most—how she became governor. It goes like this: On June 24th, 1861, Tennessee’s Governor, Isham Harris, best known at that point for having the state’s most magnificent mustache, dissolved Tennessee’s obligations to the United States of America.
At that moment, Harris was no longer Governor of the State of Tennessee of the United States of America. As far as he, and everyone who voted to secede were concerned, Tennessee wasn’t a part of the United States of America. But, of course, the United States of America still considered Tennessee to be a U.S. state.
But Harris wasn’t the governor of a U.S. state. The U.S. state of Tennessee had no governor.
So, Poll called in some favors and her backers declared an emergency election. In order to vote, you had to prove you hadn’t supported secession and still considered yourself a United States citizen, but it wasn’t clear what other laws still applied. So, everyone who opposed secession, and who dared admit that in public, voted. Men, women, black, and white. Poll received 178 votes. She had no opponents.
She was the Governor of the U.S. State of Tennessee.
When Harris demanded to meet with her, she reported told his messenger to tell him to “make his tongue acquainted with my sourest hole.” Harris then hired three men from Spring Hill to assassinate her. Apparently Harris had forgotten how long she had lived with men who believed the first and best solution to any problem was murdering. Poll quickly dispatched each of the three assassins and sent their bodies back to Harris covered in bird poop.
Harris gave up and fled Nashville for Memphis.
Perhaps the only real accomplishment of Poll’s short stint as Governor was her grand Inaugural Ball. She held it on the public square so that everyone in the state who wanted to could come. Very few people wanted to be seen at the Inaugural Ball lest they be mistaken for some kind of threat to the Confederacy. In fact, the only attendees I can confirm were present was Mrs. Polk, whose loyalty to the country that elected her husband president was considered a mild, but understandable, eccentricity, and Mrs. Acklen, who told Poll that she had not wed that “goat” and suffered through the deaths of her children just to put herself back in a position where men told her what she could and could not do. I assume the “goat” is her first husband, the notorious slave trader, Isaac Franklin. I also understand that Poll gave Mrs. Acklen some useful advice, when the time came, for how to best smuggle her cotton out of New Orleans. There’s all you need to know about Mrs. Acklen—that was her cotton, not her current husband’s.
The ball itself was a marvel. A hundred thousand birds descended upon the city—scarlet cardinals, jays the color of ripe berries, whole delegations of wild turkeys followed by armies of wives and poults, ducks of every design, enormous swans, bobbing peacocks and quail, hawks dancing in grand, tall circles above the city, joined by eagles and vultures, all surprised to see that, though their folk dances were different, they were not so strange as to be incompatible, and brightly colored finches leaping from rooftop to rooftop, giving an impression similar to twinkling lights.
And the noise! Everyone in town who remarked on it left incredibly similar descriptions—it was like a grand symphony warming up, all noise and chaos, but each note lovely in its own way.
When Poll came forward to greet her revelers, she smiled, spread her wings in welcome, and then said, “Well, shit.” The whole crowd tittered quietly as birds who understood English whispered translations to those that didn’t. And then a roar of laughter, as loud as close thunder, rumbled through the streets.
The people of Nashville who had not dared go to the ball all hurried to secure their windows from whatever madness was about to overtake the city.
But the madness was not to come that evening. Later, when Poll surrendered the keys to the governor’s office to Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s appointed military governor, the city would learn what it meant to live under strange rule. But that evening, there was only feasting and dancing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.
After the War, Poll’s trail runs cold. There was a parrot in the Women’s Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition, but there were a number of birds in many of the buildings. I’m tempted to believe that might be Poll, but there’s not enough evidence to make me feel certain.
I found some stories about how Prentice Cooper took a parrot with him to Peru when he was appointed Ambassador to that country just after the Second World War. Obviously, I cannot prove that parrot was Poll, but I ask you, why would anyone need to take a parrot to Peru? Doesn’t Peru have enough parrots already?
And after that? Nothing.
I never gave up looking, though. I wanted to believe that a woman like that, proud, defiant, so alive, was not destined to be forgotten. Better a parrot than a footnote, right?
Yesterday, I was walking up by the State Capitol right at dusk, when I saw three state senators and two lobbyists standing under tree, waving their hands around furiously as they conferred about some obviously important matter. I paid them hardly any mind, when I heard a voice—that distinctive squeeze-box voice—impatiently asking, “Well, who the hell cares what the God damn Democrats want? There’s not enough of them to fill a car. I’ll give a fuck about them when they’re back in power.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“They’re not going to be back in power in my lifetime,” one of the lobbyists laughed.
“Sucks to be you, then, doesn’t it?” the strange voice asked. By now, the group noticed I was staring at them all conversing with whatever was in the tree. I flushed with embarrassment. I wanted to say something, to ask something, to just let her know that I knew, that I know, but what?
So, I sang, “Sweet Pauline, the pirate queen. Prettiest woman that I’ve ever seen. Quick and mean and good with a knife, she’ll never be a gentleman’s wife,” which was not the oldest version of the song, but the one I was most familiar with.
And I swear, out of the dark green leaves, came a streak of lighter green, almost the color of a pear. I thought I heard laughing, but that may have been wishful thinking. But I saw a parrot. I know it.
It flew off to the west, into the setting sun, and though I tried to shield my eyes to watch it, I lost it among the reds and yellows of the sunset.