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It Happened Here

Story Birney Imes | Photograph courtesy of the O.N. Pruitt Collection

Eighty-six years ago, the townspeople of Columbus, Mississippi, were witness to a confluence of events and personalities that, encountered in a work of fiction, would have evoked little more than a smile and head shake of disbelief. We know of this convergence thanks, in part, to the photographic legacy of O.N. Pruitt.

Pruitt operated a commercial studio in Columbus for most of the first half of the 20th century. He took on commercial assignments and made studio portraits, both the stock-in-trade of a small-town photographer. He also took to the streets shooting — if you can call the making of photographs with a tripod-mounted 8-by-10 view camera “shooting” — fires, local spectacles and the oddities that washed up on the doorstep of his Main Street studio.

One such venture solidly within the local spectacle category was the November 1930 appearance in Columbus of “The Great Pasha,” a self-styled exotic in the Harry Houdini mold, and former world heavyweight-boxing champion Jack Dempsey. The two were in town for “Dollar Days” and “Dempsey Day” retail promotions designed to lure shoppers and fight fans to Columbus from the surrounding rural areas. The cast of luminaries included Lillie Mae and Arch Persons, who were the parents of author Truman Capote, and the Pasha’s performing companion, Madame Flozella.

Arch Persons managed The Great Pasha. He had teamed up with local business leaders to produce the event, which included a boxing match refereed by Dempsey.

Gerald Clarke, in his biography of Truman Capote, reports that Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae, and Dempsey were having an affair around the time of the 1930 photograph. Described as the “ultimate huckster,” Persons likely exploited his wife’s relationship with Dempsey to lure the boxing legend to Columbus.

Clarke describes Persons’ relationship with the Pasha: “Arch spied that elusive gold mine in the Great Pasha, otherwise known as Sam Goldberg from the Bronx. With the help of what was advertised as a secret Egyptian drug, he could retard his heartbeat to such an abnormally slow rate that he hardly needed breathe; he could remain alive in an airtight coffin for up to five hours.”

Days before Dempsey’s arrival, the Pasha, with silver dollars taped over his eyes, drove a convertible through downtown streets thronged with people. At the end of the drive, he was buried alive in a coffin for two hours. Pruitt photographed this spectacle as well.

The late Billy Thompson, who was 18 at the time of the Pasha visit, said in a 2000 interview, “The promoters went to the Gilmer Hotel and all got drunk while (Pasha) was buried alive. They like to have kept him in the ground too long.”

This photograph was taken at Lake Norris, a fishing club south of town comprised of a network of gravel pits ringed with moss-draped cypress trees. Pictured, from left to right, are two unidentified men; Birney Imes, Sr., owner of The Commercial Dispatch; Arch Persons; Madame Flozella and the Great Pasha; Jack Dempsey; an unidentified man; Lillie Mae Persons; and two unidentified men.

The entourage was at Lake Norris for Brunswick stew and lamb and pork “barbecued to please the taste of any champion” as reported in The Commercial Dispatch. Also on the menu was a famous Columbus dish, hobbly-cobbly, a relish of onions, bell pepper, vinegar, salt and sugar, seasoned with Louisiana hot sauce.

For his part, the ex-champ was to referee a three-card fight at an 11,500-seat wooden arena built for the occasion. The promoters made no provision for the heavy rains that came, and the event was a financial bust. The fight drew 1,200, many of whom watched from their cars. With more rain in the forecast, Dempsey left by train the following day for his home in Los Angeles.

Persons claimed he lost $3,500 and sought recompense from Dempsey. The ensuing dispute resulted in the National Boxing Association banning Dempsey from appearing at boxing matches for a time.

Persons also had a falling out with the Pasha, and the two went their separate ways. Not long after, the Pasha truly died. Writes Clarke: “Goldberg’s Egyptian drug failed him. One day when his coffin was dug up, the Great Pasha was as still as the Pharaohs.”

Information for this report comes from the research of Berkley Hudson, a Columbus native and journalism professor at the University of Missouri who has worked with and written extensively about the Pruitt Collection since the mid-1980s. The collection, estimated to contain 88,000 negatives, is housed at the Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.