Boy ‘prophet’ warned of tornado 50 years ago, then vanished
HAZLEHURST, Miss. (AP) — A deadly tornado hit Hazlehurst in the early morning of Jan. 23, 1969. No one was prepared.
That day, 6-year-old Shirley Sandifer awoke to an earsplitting roar. Windows exploded. Glass shards rained down on Sandifer’s family, who were still in their beds.
Sandifer felt the powerful vortex of wind pick the house up, then drop it back to the ground.
“Then later that day you come out and see what it had done. You look at the neighbor’s house and the house isn’t there anymore,” she said.
“It’s just a memory you never forget .... because it was a nightmare,” said Sandifer, who is now the mayor of Hazlehurst, a town of about 3,800 residents a half-hour south of Jackson.
Fifty years later, talk of the tornado that killed about 30 residents brings back distressing memories — and unanswered questions.
In the minds of many Hazlehurst residents, the historic maelstrom is inseparable from a local mystery they refer to as “the boy with the pop bottle on his head.”
‘PEOPLE JUST CHUCKED HIM ASIDE...’
A strange young boy, they said, showed up in town one day, apparently without family or friends. Everywhere he went, he had a glass Coca Cola bottle balanced on the top of his head. He preached from the Bible and foretold of a disaster that would strike Hazlehurst years before the tornado came.
“He was always preaching that the Lord was going to bring something to Hazlehurst that was going to change their lives,” Sandifer said. “People just chucked him aside and laughed at him. When the tornado came through, they tried to find him because they realized he wasn’t lying, but he was nowhere to be found.”
Some are now convinced this boy was a prophet who was capable of healing, predicting individuals’ fortunes and accomplishing superhuman feats. He escaped from handcuffs when police sought to jail him, some say. When he jumped off the top of a tall, wooden bridge, his legs didn’t stop moving — it was like he was walking through the air until he landed lightly on the ground without a scratch, they say.
It sounds like the stuff of myths. However, scores of people who are alive today say they personally interacted with the boy. They still tell the tales spawned from his appearance in town.
“His story reads like it could be a book out of the Bible,” said Steve Collins, a Hazlehurst filmmaker who has been working on a documentary about the boy for three years.
“What got me most interested was, nobody knew where the boy came from,” Collins said. “Nobody knew where he went after the tornado.”
TORNADOES LEFT ABOUT 30 DEAD
The tornado hit on a Thursday, Collins said. The previous night, a television station’s meteorologist said there would be thunderstorms and rain, but she didn’t say anything about a tornado.
Collins and his siblings were getting ready to go to school.
“All of a sudden, we heard this noise that sounded like a freight train. It got louder and louder and louder,” he said.
They hid under a bed. Collins remembers his sister began laughing uncontrollably because no one was sure what was going on.
“It seemed like it lasted forever, but it really just lasted for a few seconds. I could feel the whole house was shaking,” he said.
Afterwards, Collins stepped outside. Half of his neighborhood was destroyed by the tornado.
“Every house north of us was standing,” he said. “Houses going south, pretty much every one looked like a lumber yard .... I heard people screaming and hollering.”
Collins’ and Sandifer’s families all survived the tornado.
Others were not so lucky.
The following day, the Clarion Ledger reported about 30 fatalities and hundreds of injuries across Copiah, Simpson and Smith counties, caused by multiple tornadoes that devastated the area. Two of the people who died lived in Collins’ neighborhood, he said.
The newspaper carried stories about the deaths of five members of a “well-to-do” family from the small town of Sardis, a family who survived the tornado without a scratch while their house was torn down around them and dazed south Hazlehurst residents searching for personal belongings in the wreckage.
South Hazlehurst, which was home to predominantly black neighborhoods, was one of the hardest hit areas.
Before the destruction, the Hazlehurst community was close-knit, Sandifer said.
“Everybody wasn’t really blood kin but they set like they were all kinfolks,” Sandifer said. “They’d kill a hog and invite everyone in the community over and everyone would get part of the hog. That was the way it was. It was a real good community.”
Then came the tornado. About 100 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged, according to a Clarion Ledger story published on the one-year anniversary of the event. More than 900 people were displaced.
“It never did come back like it was,” Sandifer said. “It just changed.”
Many people moved away after losing their homes. The neighborhoods were eventually rebuilt and the newcomers preferred to keep to themselves, she said. Sandifer’s own family home was demolished. Now the city uses the area as a landfill.
Others believe the tornado brought the community closer together.
Marietha Catchings, now 63, said everyone suffered in the aftermath of the natural disaster, but in the face of adversity, people helped one another.
For example, men, women and children would work together to catch blackbirds.
“Children would have to shake the canes to run the birds out of the canes and the mens would shoot them and the women would get together and pick the birds and make a big stew for everybody. Everybody would have some food to eat,” she said.
“Back in the day, we were poor. All of us were poor,” she said. “If I had a slice of bread, you had half of it.”
Sandifer agreed that Hazlehurst is a city where “when someone needs something, we’re there to help each other.”
There’s a certain tenacity that defines the people who live there.
″(Hazlehurst) don’t never give up,” Sandifer said. “And maybe the tornado started that.”
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS ABOUT THE LOCAL MYSTERY
Collins never met the boy with the pop bottle on his head, but growing up, the story had always fascinated him.
The filmmaker said there is no written record of this mystery boy. No newspapers wrote about him. No one has any photos.
But ask almost any black resident of Hazlehurst, and they’ll know exactly who you’re talking about, he said.
Young people nowadays regard the boy’s appearance in Hazlehurst as myth, not history, he said. Collins hopes the documentary will help find the boy’s true identity.
The filmmaker has interviewed about 100 people who personally interacted with the boy. He hopes to finish the documentary in the coming months.
Collins believes the boy was 10 years old when he showed up in Hazlehurst in 1966. The last time he was seen was in 1969. He had dark skin, gentling curling black hair, and a flat dent at the top of his skull that allowed him to run with a Coke bottle balanced on his head, Collins said.
He was a stranger and an oddity. Some people took him into their homes, to feed him and give him a place to sleep. Others mocked and mistreated him. At one point, Collins said, the child was thrown in jail, partially to keep him safe from harm, but mostly because he was accused of “vagrancy.”
No one believed his dire predictions for the town.
Shirley Watkins Little’s mother invited the boy to stay at their house one night. Little, now 58 years old, remembers the boy as a “little fellow” with “pretty, curly hair.”
He talked about the Bible and not much else, she said.
Little said not everyone was kind to the boy like her mother was.
“They were just calling him names. They were scared of him and were throwing stuff at him to go away or something,” she said.
Little said she’s not sure she believes the boy had to power to heal people, but there’s no doubt in her mind that he had the power of prophecy.
“He said something was going to happen. And it did,” she said. “The big tornado came up. That made a believer out of me.”
Little still thinks about the boy.
“I think about the young man and (wonder) what became of him and if he’s alright, if he’s still living,” Little said. “If I had a chance to meet him, I really would love to.”
Catchings said she was scared of the boy when she met him more than 50 years ago.
“One of his eyes was crossed or there was something defective about his eye,” she said. “He was just different. He wasn’t like the little children I played with back in the day. But I understand now he was wise before his time.”
Catchings said her mother drove the boy home after she saw some people beating her up at the local school. He stayed for about half an hour.
“That’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she said.
Some of the things Collins has heard about the boy, such as the tales about his power to heal, cross into the miraculous. Was the boy truly a prophet? Could he have been doing God’s work?
Sandifer believes so. The mayor said when her mother told her stories about the boy, it came with an important lesson.
“She told it to us because she wanted us to remember that just because people are different, they act different, don’t shun them and don’t be impolite to them,” Sandifer said. “Because you never know you may dealing with someone that God sent.”
“She said: ‘Always remember, listen, you don’t have to agree. But listen, and pay attention and be nice to people.’”
For more information about Collins’ documentary, visit Facebook.com/TheBoyWithThePopBottleOnHisHead.
Information from: The Clarion Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com