Bissell Buzz 2016/3

I sometimes wonder if our locals really know what a special place the Fort Bissell museum is.  One just has to read and listen to the comments of the visitors from afar.  During the past week a couple from Charleston SC that were just travelling through, were abruptly forced to stay over a few days when their vehicle broke down and had to be fixed.  They experienced the true hospitality of the town when they were loaned a car and guided which places to visit, which of course included the Fort.  At the end of their tour they told me that they have visited many, many museums on their travels, but ours is really unique.  What makes it stand out is it firstly restricting exhibits to local Phillips County and secondly all the stories woven into the exhibits adding that extra personal touch.  This is so true.  There are the historical facts with places and dates and then there’s the lore we keep alive and weave into the facts about people like Dr Mary,  Fred Albright and Jesse James to name but a few.  Some of these stories have been told to us by direct relatives or friends and although it holds no real historical value, it most certainly does add color and interest to the various exhibits.

Every day at the Fort is special, but some days are really like diamonds.  We had one such day the past week.   Leo Graham from Long Island discovered this week that we have a set of the McKenzie Mitts, which was invented by his great great uncle.  His great great grandmother was a McKenzie and this was her brother.  Both Leo and his sister Dolores Patterson from Phillipsburg visited the Fort that day separately to view their family connection to the Fort.

These mitts were in fact handcuffs, but proved to be efficient, yet very impractical.  The restraints were patented March 10, 1925, by Jacob Oliver McKenzie. In his book “Modern Handcuff Secrets for Magicians” the author Dick Norman describes them as follows: “…the mitts were designed to completely enclose the prisoner’s hands, which were, in turn, fastened to a belly chain to prevent these unusual cuffs from being used as a weapon. The theory behind this particular pattern was that in the event the guard fell asleep while transporting a prisoner on a long train journey, the prisoner could neither make use of the keys or be able to handle a gun. However, production of this item was stopped after only several dozen pairs were manufactured. The reason…was that these cuffs proved to be too good, making the wearer completely helpless to a point where personal needs could not be taken care of, and accompanying guards highly objected and refused to cooperate to this degree. Since railroads have strict rules about unshackling prisoners during transit, the cuff was used no further, and became the only locking device to be discontinued because it was too good.”

We are excited that we will be having an operational blacksmith shop in the near future and work on that is to commence soon.  We are anticipating it to be ready by July.  Although we have some good blacksmith tools, we are missing some tongs.  We would like to make an appeal to anyone who has such equipment lying around in a barn or shed, to sell same to us or if possible donate them.

Remember we are now open Tuesday to Friday from 9am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 2pm.  Hope to see ya all at the Fort!!

Ruby Wiehman – Curator