Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Queen Mary's Wabash River pearl

Several stories of pearls found in the area abound. Some are passed down by families who ‘worked the river’ and others are found in history articles.

July 24, 1909  The “Kohinoor” of the Wabash river pearls was brought to Evansville by Lew Pearson, a Wabash river mussel digger, who lives in a houseboat near St Francisville. It was about the size of a five cent piece, and Pearson asked $3000 for it.  He was offered $2500 for it by several local dealers, but refused it.  The pearl is without a flaw and is said to be the finest found in the Wabash river in many years. Pearson found it in a mussel several days ago.

Wabash River pearls have even found their way into the courts of England and Russia.  A black pearl discovered in the early 1900’s is reputed to have been owned by the Czarina of Russian.

And then there is the story of British Queen Mary’s pearl.

Queen Mary of England, Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, walked regally down the aisle of Westminster Abby on June 22, 1911 at the coronation of King George V wearing a white coronation gown decorated with delicate embroidered flowers and the historic Royal crown upon her head. Around her neck she wore a four strand pearl choker and a multi-strand necklace of large pearls, including one from the Wabash River. How did it happen that a pearl from the Wabash ended up in Queen Mary’s necklace?

From a newspaper article first written in July 10, 1912 and from an article published in the Sumner Press July 6, 2000 by Allen Johnson, the following story was compiled.

First published in 1912 the story began: Can Queen Mary wipe the stain of blood from her sickened American pearl? The favorite jewel of Mary, Queen of England is a big white pearl of wonderful luster. When she was crowned in Westminster Hall it held the place of honor in the center of her royal necklace. It is an American pearl, from the banks of the Wabash.

This loveliest pearl of the British crown jewel is stained with blood and the Queen is now trying to have the stain wiped out through the pardon of an American in prison for murder. It is a far cry from the Queen’s palace to the shacks of the Pearl fishers on the muddy banks of the Wabash in southern Illinois. They are poor folk they are, and live in wretched hovels, but they live always in the hope of riches; for the river is full of mussels, or freshwater clams, and some of them hold pearls.

William Adams, called Jumbo, was a steamboat hand who had always scorned such treasure hunting. He had a wife and five children to support. But one of his pals, Frank Pate, who had fished for pearls all his life, with the quenchless hope of the gold digger, persuaded him to try his luck. So Jumbo gave up his job in 1909 and joined the Pearl fishers of Mt Carmel.

In two weeks Jumbo struck it rich. Near the confluence of the White and Wabash rivers, he ‘found a trick’ – a white pearl of wonderful beauty, the size of a marble.A local pearl speculator, Dr (Paul E) Pepper, paid him $800 for the 72 grain marble-sized pearl.  To a mussel digger that was a fortune. Jumbo bought an interest in a little old steam boat, and soon had enough money to purchase a shack of three rooms – a home for his wife and little girls. But Frank Pate, the pal who had showed him the way to fortune, was jealous. “Frank wur sore at Jum”, a neighbor said “fur afining wat he wur a huntin’ fur so long.”

For a man who had never had more than $20 to his name at one time Jumbo felt rich. However, his bragging and drinking involved him in an increasing number of barroom brawls. His sudden wealth and high-living generated bad-blood among some of the other river men.One night at a dance that ill feeling reached its height.

On the night of November 23, 1909, Jumbo and his brothers attended the dance at the house of Jack Pate on McDowell Street near the Wabash River. A lively crowd filled Jack’s house, including many of the young people from the area. As usual for these riverfront dances, the crowd was drinking and grew rowdy or by the hour. Jumbo renewed his long simmering argument with Frank Pate, Jack’s nephew. At one point they exchanged heated threats.

About 11 o’clock Frank stomped out of Frank’s house muttering he’d kill Jumbo. He went home to get a gun but his mother wouldn’t let him have it. Undeterred Frank drove his buggy to a friend’s house and borrowed a shotgun. Heading back to the dance with the gun Frank encountered another friend who tried to reason with him. At that moment Jumbo came around Pate’s house with a pistol and walked toward Frank’s buggy. Frank stood up, put the shotgun to his shoulder and pointed it at Jumbo. Jumbo yelled “put your hands up” and fired his pistol. One of Jumbo’s shots hit Frank in the chest and he tumbled out of the buggy. They carried Frank into his Uncle’s house where he died minutes later.

The police arrested Jumbo and the court convicted him of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 14 years in Menard State Prison at Chester Illinois. All the wealth the pearl had brought to the Adams’ family went to pay for Jumbo’s defense.

Dr Pepper sold the pearl to Louis Wilson, a  New York jewelry buyer for $1200, who sold it to Tiffany’s for $2500.   A Paris firm paid $3000 for it. Just then the British royal family was preparing for the coronation. Queen Mary’s pearl necklace was to be doubled in length and value. London was searched for matching pearls but one thing was missing, a jewel fit for the center of such a priceless necklace. A special envoy was sent to Paris, and he returned with Jumbo Adams’ pearl.

Pearls and superstitions seem to go together. Somewhat later Anne, now the Queen, became convinced that the pearl was dying – losing its luster – and tracing back its history she was horrified to learn that it was stained with blood. So as the story goes, she determined to do all she could to remove that stain.
Continued tomorrow….


            Barbara Ross, of Crawford County, will be the guest speaker at the meeting of the Lawrence County Historical Society on Monday, January 25, 7:00 p.m. at the Lawrenceville museum.  Her program topic will be:  Lawrence County veterans from the War of 1812. 
            Ms. Ross has been well noted genealogist in southeastern Illinois for more than 30 years.  In 2011 she began her work of identifying all War of 1812 veterans buried in Crawford and Lawrence Counties, and much of her research was used by the State of Illinois to complete its soldier project in commensuration on of the war’s bicentennial.

            The program is free and the public is invited.