Tuesday History: “Death was on his brow,” the discovery of Elisha Mitchell’s body

MITCHELL'S FALLS: This lithograph was used as an advertisement in the December 31, 1857 Asheville Spectator. Mitchell's Falls is the site where Elisha Mitchell's body was discovered in the summer of that year.
MITCHELL'S FALLS: This lithograph was used as an advertisement in the December 31, 1857 Asheville Spectator. Mitchell's Falls is the site where Elisha Mitchell's body was discovered in the summer of that year. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

We continue with our look at Elisha Mitchell’s final ascent and fatal fall from the Black Mountain range. Last week’s post included the first half of an 1857 letter, written by one of Mitchell’s former students. In it, the unidentified writer recounts the initial search and eventual discovery of Mitchell’s body. This week, we excerpt from the second half of the letter, which details the recovery of the body and the arduous climb with it to the peak.

The letter was first published in The North Carolina Standard on July 22, 1857. Bracketed information included in these excerpts was part of 1857 publication.

The 1857 missive reads:

The Coroner, with a company who had spent the night on the top of the Peak, joined us. The jury were invited to the platform, slippery with spray, on the verge of the water. The rest, at the mouth of the pool, on drifted logs, gazed at the proceedings. It was a solemn, impressive scene. The oath having been administered to the jury, a pole, with a hook attached, was let down into the pool. The hook fastened in the clothing, and the body rose, face downward.

I was the only one present who for the last forty years had gone up to the hill of science to listen to the teachings of him whose mortal remains were now before me; and though twelve years had passed since I had looked on those features, I do not think I should have hesitated a moment, had I been summonoed to say whose they were. How natural! How life-like! The eyes were closed, lips slightly parted, more like slumber than death. The limbs were flexible; but death was on his brow. There was a slight wound on the head, caused, I think, by falling against the log … that leans against the torrent’s channel.

A gentleman drew a blank book from Dr. M.’s coat pocket and handed it to me. The last entry was, “0.551—Saturday.” No doubt a minute of measurement or survey. On his person were found a purse with some silver change, a pocket-book containing $17, an eye glass, end cover of a telescope, handkerchief, knife, a note, &c., and what was of most interest, his watch, not run down, but stopped at 19 minutes after 8 o’clock. I concluded he must have fallen at that time, or a few minutes previous, on the evening of 27th of June.

While the jury were engaged in their examination of the body, I ascended to the precipice and was shown the trace, the last on earth, whence the fatal fall. It was at the root of a small, tall spruce pine — thence down to the dark waters, 35 or 40 feet. Did the fall or drowning occasion death?

The crowd were debating as to the way they should carry the body. The outside garments were taken off, and the body, wrapped in tow cloth, was swung on a pole. The mountaineers are noblemen, and men of resolution. Some had declared it would take four days to carry the body to the top of the Peak. We started at 20 minutes before 11. As many as could, at the upper end, had hold of the pole, two or three shouldered, others in advance, hand linked in hand. Behind, two or three shouldered, others pushing, pushed themselves by others. The right spirit animated all. The body weighed 215 pountds, yet, almost incredible to relate, these men climbed Alpine heights, a distance estimated at from two and a half to three miles, and a little after 2 o’clock deposited their burden on the loftiest point of land this side of the Mississippi.

I will not conceal the fact that one great motive was the hope of burying the body on the Peak. They expected to meet Buncombe men with the coffin. Poor fellows! They did meet them, and learned that the body was to be carried to Asheville. A murmur rose, deep, indignant.

[Our correspondent here gives us an account of the controversy between the different parties, in which some ill feelings were engendered, but he adds:]

These feelings were transient. Half a dozen words by way of appeal, and however indignant the Yancey men seemed, they would have re-shouldered the burden and borne it to Asheville. Some proffered their services, others have since told me they would have gone. With the exception of some who had been out searching for four or five days, and were worn out and exhausted, I believe every one, to a man, would have followed. Their aid was not required. The Buncombe force separated from ours, and bore off the dead.

We regretted the state of feeling, but it was light, momentary. It was indeed a compliment to the deceased, expressed in the mountaineers’ rough, open manner. Rightly viewed it is scarcely a cause for regret. The pall-bearers descended the mountain on the Swannanoa side. Our company from Yancey divided. One portion went down to the Caney river settlement. Twenty-seven of us, including three from your section, viz: A.J. Emerson, of Chatham, H.E. Rhodes, of Wake, and Moses Dent, their wagoner, from Frankline, remained on the mountain top.

The trip will be long remembered by us all. Perhaps never in time will a similar scene be witnessed. Visitors to the mountain will henceforth enquire for the fatal pool. We, the petty actors, will pass away, forgotten; but never, while the everlasting mountains stand, the name of professor Mitchell. Let the loftiest Peak bear what name it may, it is connected with his memory forever. Students, scholars from distant lands will come hither, and on what a scene shall they gaze! But description fails — wildness, grandeur, sublimity, where man feels his littleness, yet his immortality — mountains on mountains, range beyond range, excelling the Alps, and, to exceed them in interest, consecrated now by death.

The evening view was very fine, and one might have thought unsurpassable, had he not remained till next morning. We slept that night in a cabin on the peak, and in the “Rock House,” close by. In the morning we went up on the summit. The views can never be excelled. The eye swept the horizon, limitless except by the imperfection of sight. Finally we descended to Wilson’s. Big Tom was fishing for a wager — 40 trouts for 75 cts. He was in the village yesterday and reported 60 caught. We reached home at 4 o’clock, P.M.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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