Walter is Coming

On March 6, 1891, Louanna Harris Cagle gave birth to a prophet.

Her son worked a farm in Mountainboro, Alabama, a forgotten city absorbed by Boaz in 2009. Walt Cagle knew the weather. His predictions were often accurate, if not precise, and his arrival in Boaz for winter shopping a joyous occasion.

Cagle claimed that he watched the chipmunks and squirrels. He stared into the trees for hours and noted where they buried their acorns, he knew the size and frequency of each stash. The patterns of the little forest animals told him all he needed about the coming months.

People drove from far and wide to see the man. They made the trek from all over Alabama, from eastern Tennessee, and from as far afield as Atlanta to hear his predictions. Stores opened early and closed late on the day he planned to arrive. It could snow and gust and the sky might lob hail all it wanted, but Sand Mountain knew that winter started when Walt Cagle picked up his pants.

Walt Cagle Tuscaloosa News December 1936.png
Walt Cagle holding Boaz city keys. The Tuscaloosa News; December 2, 1936.

For you see, Walt Cagle ate twenty biscuits a day.

Often described as a giant, he stood 6’2″ tall and weighed in at over five hundred pounds. He dwarfed almost every other man in Depression-era Alabama. As such, no garment mill in the state could fill his clothing orders. Instead a tailor named S.H. Leeth fashioned pants and ordered 24 yards of flannel every August that his unfortunate yet aptly named wife, Minnie J. Cagle, fashioned into heavy winter underwear.

Although Cagle came to Boaz to pick up his annual set of pants for most of his adult life, he remained a regional phenomenon until 1935, when the city began celebrating “Walt Cagle Day,” to kick off the winter season. Suddenly newspapers from around the nation found his story enthralling and by 1937, he received fan mail from every corner of America. Several circuses tried to entice him to join their retinue as a special exhibit and a museum even requested a used pair of his flannel underwear.

On June 29, 1938, Walt Cagle died. A mortician from Albertville offered to design his coffin, taller and wider than any before it. Sixteen men carried Cagle to his final resting place – the Thrasher Cemetery in Mountainboro.

Winter has surprised north Alabama every year since.


“Big Walt Cagle Sees His Fan Mail Pour In.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), January 19, 1937.

“Boaz Prepares to Greet Cagle.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 1, 1936.

“Cagle Descends From Mountain.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 2, 1936.

“Huge Weather Prophet Honored by Villagers.” The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, FL), December 3, 1936.

“Sixteen Pallbearers To Carry Walt Cagle.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), June 30, 1938.

“Walt Cagle, 550-Pound Weather Prophet, Dies.”  The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), June 29, 1938.

“Walt Cagle’s Around the Mountain, Winter’s Official in North Alabama.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 19, 1935.

“Walt is Ready for Winter Now.” Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC), December 19, 1935.

“Winter and Walt Breeze into Boaz.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 18, 1935.






Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman, Part Five

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5: “…we should seize Riley”

Judge Smith owned land all around Huntsville’s downtown. He rented his shed on Randolph Street to the stonemason William Edwards and both John Lewis and Preston Yeatman used the judge’s “large brick stable [on Green Street]… as a salthouse.” Both locations provided perfect vantage points for surveillance of the Coleman property.

coleman edits
Emiline and Henry are terrible at subterfuge.

Normally such surveillance might include mundanities like: John Coleman on a horse, Emiline Coleman drinking tea, or someone reading a book.

However, on Sunday, September 10, 1836, William Edwards noticed something different. His shed, “being on much higher ground than any part of said Coleman’s premises,” overlooked all of Randolph Street and allowed Edwards a view down into the Theatre on clear days. Around three or four in the afternoon, “during the continuance service of the Methodist Church,” he saw Emiline Coleman slip from the main house and down into the privy. Scarcely a moment later Henry Riley, “crossed the fence into the complainants garden and went into the same privy or necessary house.”

Apparently this happened often, as Edwards noted that “on divers occasions I had watched the maneuvers of Mrs Coleman and this man Riley,” which included the adulterous conspirators leaving notes for each other in fence posts and the aforementioned outhouse rendezvouses. William Edwards returned to his work but noted that not long after the two began their privy shenanigans; John Coleman rode up on a horse and, unable to find his wife or assuming that she went to church, began reading a book by the window.

Edwards ran into Henry Riley not long after this near “Mr Sydne’s Lot” (number 6 on the map) and spoke with him briefly about his time in the toilet. No reliable account exists of this encounter, but it appears that Edwards’ casual snooping entered the rumor mill and produced well hewn gossip about Emiline Coleman’s impropriety.

Such gossip died down, though never fully evaporated, following the departure of Riley’s acting troupe. However, his reappearance in early December ignited a flurry of activity, both among people who liked talking, and between himself and Emiline Coleman. More conspicuous than his reappearance was the fact that he was “unaccompanied by the residue of the Company and without any ostensible business.”

Henry came to see Emiline.

Preston Yeatman noticed his sudden reemergence and felt compelled to track the actor all over Huntsville. So when Yeatman, and his associate John Lewis, noticed Riley hovering beneath a window – they paid attention.

Around two p.m. on Saturday, December 17th, 1836, the two men quit unloading salt from a wagon as Henry Riley walked up the street and instead ran inside Judge Smith’s stable and watched intently through the grates. The solid brick structure hid them as “the window blinds of a window on the second story… cautiously opened and a small piece of paper drop[ped] down at the feet of said Riley.” The actor cast several furtive glances around the street to make sure nobody watched him as he “picked up the paper and thrust it into the pocket of his pantaloons,” before scurrying off towards to the town square.

Preston Yeatman and John Lewis turned to look at each other and they said ‘oh dang, we should tell somebody.’

That somebody happened to be James W. McClung, a close associate of John Coleman and a man of hasty action. He knew of the rumors circulating about Emiline Coleman, a woman whom he described as “volatile and girlish,” and it appears he was none too fond of Riley either. Upon being informed of the paper dropping, McClung immediately found John Coleman. McClung formed an impromptu posse of himself, Coleman, Lewis, and Yeatman; who at McClung’s suggestion that “we should seize Riley and thus get possession of the paper,” set off for the town square.

Henry resisted their initial demands but the four men assaulted him and afterwards “forcibly examined the said Riley’s person.” They indeed found a letter in Riley’s pantaloons.

I am so much pleased to see you here once more but it is impossible for me to speak to you. I am still the same and ever shall be return home Henry and forget me if you please if it is ever in my power to become the Bride of H with honor I will, and as soon as I can you shall know it keep my secret if you please, never betray me so long as you live, write a letter this evening and tonight after tea slip it through the window blinds of the porch I will be there playing on the piano. Adieu Henry

Yours – Yours

Distraught at this plain evidence of Emiline’s affair, John returned to his work at the Land Office; where he spoke with his close friend Samuel Cruse. John remembered his sister, Narcissa, warning him of Emiline’s infidelity, but had ignored her and instead listened to Emiline’s tales. While he contemplated his next move the three other men ran Riley out of Huntsville, apparently he left so quickly that his luggage remained in town.

Samuel Cruse had an idea. He remembered that Henry Riley stayed at the Bell Tavern inn. So he accompanied John to the place, and after some misgivings from the owner, they barged their way into Riley’s room. There they found a large trunk, which they forced open. Among Riley’s clothes and baubles they found fifteen letters written to him by Emiline Coleman, as well as “a miniature of Mrs Coleman, which I recognized as a likeness of her.”

Samuel Cruse paid for a stage coach to take Emiline to her father’s home in Marengo county. John Coleman paid for a lawyer. On November 1, 1837, the court granted him a full divorce.


John J. Coleman vs. Emiline R. Coleman, Book J, 91-114 (1837).

Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman, Part Four

Part 4: Front Seats reserved for the Ladies 

Like most actors of the time Henry Riley made the rounds. Outside of the major cities on the eastern seaboard, very few people could make a living at a single theater due to either lack of interest by the locals or their general lack of funds. So nineteenth century actors formed an itinerant comity that traveled from one cottonopolis or boomtown to the next; a living marching recitation of Shakespeare, bawdy stories, and songs about cheese. That is to say – they carried high culture on their backs from end of America to the other.

Due to the lack of radio or other recording devices these actors often aped the styles of their more famous brethren. These fifty cent theater-mongers imitated the powerhouses of London, New York, and Philadelphia; perfecting their speech patterns and timing in the hope that one day somebody else would be mimicking theirs.

Henry Riley offered “celebrated imitations” of both male and female performers – including the recently deceased Edmund Kean as Richard III, the famously fainting Sarah Siddons as Lady Randolph from the tragedy Douglas, and of course Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, as Iago from Othello.

So when he came to town in the summer of 1836, it was kind of a big deal.

Arrangement were made to sell tickets to his performance, half a dollar apiece, at various hotels around the city. He offered a discount for children and claimed in his promotional pamphlets that he reserved the entire first row at every performance for various society ladies.

It was during this performance that he first made contact with Emiline Coleman. The young woman not only attended the event but apparently became smitten at Riley’s range and his beauty. One can only speculate that she fell madly in love with him by the first verse of “Butter and Cheese.”

The early days of the affair went well. Riley spent much time at the Theater and, fortunately enough for both involved, the Coleman’s house lay directly next to it.

Diagram p 6793
Map of Downtown Huntsville produced for this court case, 1837.

As one can see from the map, the Coleman’s outhouse lay directly next to, and probably drained into, the “Theatre Lot.” All Emiline needed to do was skip out into the garden and she might make an illicit rendezvous with Henry inside.

Although John J. Coleman eventually lost his wife to Henry Riley, the fact that he literally shit on the actor’s career every day provided some small measure of solace.

Part Five