Buzzard The Burying Man

In Memory of Dr. John Thomas Bailey

(South Louisiana Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1866)

We’ve all of us heard o’ the Queen o’ the West

In the summer o’ forty-five.

And how they desp’ratly clung t’ the boats

When she took her final dive.

We’ve all of us heard of the boilin’ sun.

And the hunger And tharst bearin’ down

For twenty-nine days on the rolling sea

And prayin’ for to drown.

Some says they ate their shipmates

So as to stay alive.

Ninety-eight souls in two little boats

And ended with thirty-five.

And we’ve all of us heard o’ Doctor Death

And his pickin’ who lived and who died.

And maybe it’s true and maybe it ain’t

But the women and children survived.

But when it was over and when they was found

The doctor, his life was done.

He lived but he died in that terrible ride

Of twenty-nine days in the sun.

They called him a killer. They called him a fiend.

They called him a murderin’ lout.

He crawled in a bottle of whiskey.

Crawled in… and didn’t crawl out.

He gave up on healing. He gave up on life.

He took for to death as a trade.

He cleaned ’em and dressed ’em And buried ’em

And he wept and he drank and he prayed.

He drifted around to hide from his shame

Through the years that the tale would span.

How Doctor John became Doctor Death

Then, “Buzzard” the Buryin’ Man.

For ten long years he ran from his past

Then finally settled down

As the funny old drunk with the measuring tape

That laid people down in the ground.

In a tiny town where nobody knew

And nobody seemed to care

That the village drunk and buryin’ man

Was more than it would appear.

In time he built a life, of sorts

But not like the one he knew.

And sodden drunk and sombre

He watched as his business grew.

Sodden drunk And sombre

And dressed in his black frock coat

He’d  clean ’em And dress ’em and plant ’em

And remember those days in the boat.

He dwelled at society’s bottom.

Humanity’s lowest place.

He hid behind his bottle

And his sombre buryin’ face.

Then a horror came to the little town

Worse than those days at sea.

When Yellow Jack stalked the village

Taking one out of three.

And wagons rolled in with the dying,

And the hospital beds were full.

And the moans of the sick and suffering

Gave the Buryin’ Man’s heart a pull.

Three wagons came in, in the morning

Thirty souls who were at deathes door.

Thirty desperate, suffering people

The poorest of the poor.

And the Burryin’ Man, he saw it,

And he knew what had to be done,

And he knew there was no one to do it.

And he went to them at a run.

And they laughed when they saw ‘im comin’

With his battered old bag in his hand.

Sodden drunk and sombre,

Old “Buzzard” the Burryin’ Man.

But he didn’t come for the dyin’

He came for to make ‘em live.

And in he dove with a mighty shove

And gave all he had to give.

For four long days he stood there,

With his measure around his neck

But in his mind he wasn’t there.

He was back on that pitching deck.

Back then they’d called him “killer” and “fiend”

And called ‘im a “murdering lout”.

But whatever they’d thought of “Doctor Death”

The women and children got out.

Now the sodden drunk old Burying Man

Looked to the work to be done,

He stayed on his feet through the tormented days

And he never lost a one!

And the whiskey vapors left him.

And ‘is mind began to clear.

An’ th’ man that they’d called a murderin’ fiend

Felt somebody standing near.

And when it was over and when it was done,

He silently went away.

As if it had never happened,

With not a word to say.

Nobody noticed his going.

Nobody noticed he came.

Except for the sick and the dyin’

Who prayerfully uttered his name.

Sodden drunk and sombre,

Dressed in his old frock coat.

He slaved o’er the sick and the dyin’,

The same as he had in the boat.

And sodden drunk and sombre

With his battered old bag at his side,

T’was sodden “Old Buzzard the Burying Man”

As kept us all alive.

No matter how other folks seen him;

For those to whom he came

T’was th’ angel o’ God’s own mercy,

And “Buzzard” was his name.

NOTE: Dr. Bailey was essentially accused of implementing a system of “triage”, assisting only those who he estimated had a chance for survival. This was considered unethical for a physician at the time. There were accusations of “cannibalism” made by the press although there were still supplies in the lifeboats when the victims were recovered. None of those charges were ever substantiated and he was acquitted in a public trial of any wrongdoing. None of the survivors of the shipwreck would testify against him. This however did not prevent his license to practice medicine revoked or his being denied a further licence to practice medicine.

© 2011 by J. Lee. Choron; all rights reserved unless specifically granted in writing by the author.