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May 28, 1996

A local anecdote used to be told that years ago many Perry young men experienced a rite of passage through an initiation ceremony in the courthouse park. They were told that a ghost haunted the courthouse building from pre-statehood days (before 1907) when a man named Alexander was executed in a public hanging on a gallows in the park. The novices were led by their elders on a nocturnal visit to the stately building to prove that the ghost story was true. "When we get to the courthouse," the youths were told, "you will say: 'Mr. Alexander, Mr. Alexander, what did you do to make them hang you?"' And they were told the apparition would say in reply: "Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Right. And that's exactly what they heard; nothing, absolutely nothing. Well, it's an old joke, so don't expect too much.

Public executions actually were not uncommon in the early days of the Cherokee Strip country. Rick Kukuk of Moore, who grew up here, remembers that his late grandfather, Clarence Kukuk, used to say that as a youth he himself attended a public hanging in the courthouse park and it nearly made him ill. "He said it was horrible and something he'd never go to again," Rick says. Clarence Kukuk was born in 1899 so Rick is guessing the hanging he described occurred between 1910 and 1920.

Rick also remembers that his maternal great-grandfather, Scott Wakeman, used to say that years ago Jesse James, the fabled "Robin Hood of the Ozarks," was a folk hero among people of this region and that he was seen around Perry quite often. "No one could turn him in," Mr. Wakeman told Rick, "and as a matter of fact my great-grandmother (Mrs. Wakeman) cooked several meals for him." Rick is now near the age of 40 and is looking for information that would verify or dispute any of those tales he remembers from his childhood. Perhaps one of you could help him. I know public hangings did take place in the courthouse park, but I have no information on the Jesse James' story.

Here's an interesting recollection provided by Belle Busse, especially appropriate for the weather conditions we know so well at this time of year. This is Mrs. Busse's account:

"One day in April of 1912, there was a bad storm here. They called it a cyclone. We lived in northeast Perry, out near the fairgrounds. My mother, Mrs. D. C. Moore, saw the storm corning. She took her five children across the street to the home of my aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. D. W. Moore, the parents of Vern Moore, because they had a much newer home than we did.

"To make a long story short, our house stood the test, but it blew away the home of my aunt, Anna Belle. It left the floor under us. The iron bed steads folded up around the children as if to protect them. I was two days short of being two months old, and the wind just took my breath away. My aunt's parents, Grandpa and Grandma Coate, lived nearby and they came running as soon as the storm was over. Grandma worked with me but couldn't get my breath going. She said, 'I guess this baby is dead.' They started picking up the pieces and I started breathing on my own. No one was seriously injured, just scratches and small hurts. Two mothers and eight children lived to tell the story. The children were Vern Moore and his older brother, Chester, his twin sister, Myrna Hoffman; my older brother, Lloyd, and my sisters, Faye, twin sisters Iva and Marie, and myself. This all happened 84 years ago."

Mrs. Busse is describing the famous storm of April 20, 1912, which occurred between five and six p.m. Newspaper accounts called it a cyclone; it probably was a tornado. The Perry area was devastated by it; two children were killed and at least 20 adults were injured, some severely. Property loss was estimated at nearly a half million dollars. Thanks to Belle Busse for providing this interesting sidelight on what happened to one Perry family on that fateful day.