Ben Lilly – A Louisana Folk Legend

In anticipation of Louisiana’s Bicentennial Celebration this month, Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne did an outstanding job of putting together his list of the Top 200 Notable people in Louisiana History.  While I agreed with 95% of the people that made his list, after thinking on it some, here is one name I would have to add to my own list. Many people haven’t heard of him, but he is Louisiana Legend, just the same. Still all in all, Secretary Dardenne’s list is superb. But rather than just throw out a name, I decided I should at least back up my claim.

1856-1936. Though born in Alabama, Lilly grew up in Mer Rouge, Louisiana, for approx 35 years,.
“Property is a handicap to man.”
Ben Lilly, 1856-1936.

Though born in Alabama, Lilly
spent much of his life in
Mer Rouge, Louisiana

Ben Lilly was not from Richland Parish, but as arguably the greatest bear hunter in American History, the legendary North Louisianan resident of Mer Rouge, Louisiana no-doubt found himself hunting Black Bear and countless other wild animals along Boeuf River and all along the Macon Ridge.

Peculiarities, humor and quotes

He was known for his simple, transcendentalist philosophy, derived of his radical lifestyle. He was an arduous free practicing Christian his own way, yet most considered him a mad wildman, deeply affected by his lifestyle, an iconic hillbilly. He believed that eating cougar meat would give him feline agilities.

In one well known account, his wife sent him to shoot a chicken-hawk that was bothering the birds around their home. Then he went missing for almost two years, and upon his return, when asked what happened, he gave the laconic answer:

“That hawk just kept flying!”

Other great quotes include:

“Anyone can kill a deer but it takes a man to kill a varmint.” — by varmints he meant bears, mountain lions, and wolves.

“Property is a handicap to man.”

“I never saw a man with his face shaved clean until I was a big boy. When I saw him I thought he was a dead man…. walking about, and I was mighty scared.” 

“You are condemned, you black devil, I kill you in the name of the law!” Ben Lilly to a rogue bear, prior to dispatching him with a Bowie knife:

“Here lies Crook, a bear and lion dog that helped kill 210 bear and 426 lion since 1914 (n.n. 11 years period), owned by B. V. Lilly …” 

“My reputation is bigger than I am. It is like my shadow when I stand in front of the sun in late evening.” Ben Lilly

Here is how President Theodore Roosevelt described him, after Lilly was called upon to lead Roosevelt’s infamous bear hunts in Louisiana.

“I never met any other man so indifferent to fatigue and hardship. The morning he joined us in camp, he had come on foot through the thick woods, followed by his two dogs, and had neither eaten nor drunk for twenty-four hours; for he did not like to drink the swamp water. 

It had rained hard throughout the night and he had no shelter, no rubber coat, nothing but the clothes he was wearing and the ground was too wet for him to lie on’ so he perched in a crooked tree in the beating rain, much as if he had been a wild turkey. He equaled Cooper’s Deerslayer in woodcraft, in hardihood, in simplicity–and also in loquacity.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Painted by Louisiana mural artist Robert Dafford and his team on the floodwall located on the waterfront in downtown Vicksburg. President Theodore Roosevelt's bear hunt.
Painted by Louisiana mural artist Robert Dafford and his team on the flood-wall,
located on the waterfront in downtown Vicksburg. President Theodore Roosevelt’s
bear hunt was lead by Ben Lilly.

Here are some great additional articles, etc, about Ben Lilly, including an article from LouisianaVoices, which I will borrow and post below, from James B. Rider.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Lilly
  2. http://amzn.com/0292707282
  3. www.gilawilderness.com/infopg/benlilly.htm
  4. http://theozarkian.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/ben-lilly/


“Ben Lilly, Strongman of Morehouse Parish,”Swapping Stories, by James B. Rider, Bastrop, Louisiana

Ben & the Boys Monument. In front of the Mer Rouge, LA post office.
Ben & the Boys Monument, located in front of
the Mer Rouge, LA post office, in Morehouse Parish.

Ben Lilly, around Mer Rouge, was always entertaining people. He was supposedly a tremendously strong man. People that have been witnesses to the things he did–according to what’s been written on him, he once stood on the sidewalks of Mer Rouge and got in a barrel. And without touching the barrel, just flat-footed, jumped out of the barrel onto the sidewalk.

They said it was many times that he could pick up a hundred pound steel anvil from the ground and just extend it out at arm’s length and just hold it there.

They said that he once picked up a five-hundred-pound bale of cotton and walked off with it.

Lilly made his own knives. He once said that, he showed a knife to a fellow one time out West and said that he had killed, in so-called hand-to-hand combat, six bears with this knife. He held it up and showed that he had stabbed those bears to death. They weren’t all black bears. One or two were supposed to be grizzlies. Pretty tough customers.

Ben Lilly would not do any kind of work on Sunday, no matter what. If his cows got out, he wouldn’t let anybody herd those cows up. They might stay lost for days. On Monday morning he’d go hunt them, but not on Sunday. He read his Bible on Sunday. He tried to adhere to the Bible as near as he could.

Audience member: Mr. Rider, I have heard that he organized a hunting expedition for Roosevelt. For President Roosevelt. Is that true? Have you found that to be true in your research?

James B. Rider: That was Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt came down to Tensas Parish, around Transylvania down there, and he wanted to kill a bear. So they hired Ben to come over with his dogs to run bear. And he hunted with Teddy.

Audience member: And I’ve also been told, since I’m a Mer Rouge resident, and because so many people enjoy talking about Ben Lilly, that he had such a keen since of smell and keen sense of hearing, they say he was more animal than human. But he could be a gentleman when the occasion arose. Didn’t they say something about how he could lay on the ground and tell you how the grass was growing, he had such a keen sense of smell?

James B. Rider: He said that. He told that. He was, like you were talking about, he was a gentle man, too. When he did come back to Mer Rouge on one of his hunts, he’d play with the children. He just spent a lot of time playing with children, no matter whose they were.

He had all kind of idiosyncrasies. He believed if you got wet, naturally out in the rain, that nothing would happen to you if you just kept wearing your clothes till they dried. You might get sick if you took them off and took a bath and dried off real good and put on dry clothes. You’d probably get sick. So what he did, he’d even go to bed with his wet clothes on. If he come in wet, and he wanted to go to bed, he’d just crawl in bed and pull the covers up and sleep wet. He had a belief, he stuck with it.

Audience member: They say he believed in bathing. He’d even bathe in the snow!

James B. Rider: One time, him and another fellow had been out in the woods for a long time. They hadn’t taken a bath in months. They decided they’d take a bath. Ben said, “Let’s take a bath.”

This guy said, “Well, you know, it’s about thirty degrees.” Only thing they had was this stream to take a bath in. He’d heard that Ben didn’t mind. He’d pull off his clothes and wade on in, start taking a bath. This guy didn’t want to do that. So Ben took his bath in that cold water. It didn’t make him any matter. It was just like when he was tracking a bear or a cougar. He’d pull off everything but his pants. He’d take his rifle and knife and take off. No food, no nothing. He might hunt two days without a bite to eat. Sometimes when he’d eat, he would just go out in somebody’s corn field and pull two ears of corn.

Notes: The local strong man is one of the major figures of folk legendry; see the discussion on historical legends in the introduction. Stories of local strongmen also abound in Louisiana’s Cajun tradition, often attached to such legendary constables as Joe Hanks and Martin Weber, who took on the formidable job of keeping order at dance halls in the first half of this century, when fist- and knife-fights abounded. Ancelet (1994, nos. 111-12) presents tales about the Cajun strongman Martin Weber.

Benjamin Vernon Lilly (1856-1936) has become a local legend in several locales. He first visited Louisiana at age twelve, after running away from his parents’ home in Mississippi and walking to Morehouse Parish to live with his uncle Vernon. In J. Frank Dobie’s account of The Ben Lilly Legend, Lilly was not only a legendary strongman in Louisiana (Dobie 1950, 29-49), but later also a legendary hunter and tracker in Texas, Mexico, and the Rocky Mountains (101-69). Dobie’s account of Ben Lilly’s Louisiana years was based largely on oral traditions in Morehouse Parish, including stories from four residents of Bastrop, the home of James B. Rider, narrator of the present tale. For a reporter’s firsthand account of a Lilly bear hunt in East Texas in 1906, see Abernethy (1968, 123-36).

F610. Remarkably strong man; C631. Tabu: breaking the Sabbath (cf. Dobie 1950, 39); F628.1.1.4. Strong man kills bear (cf. Dobie 1950, 75-76); F652. Marvelous sense of smell; F685. Marvelous withstander of cold. Ben has much in common with the marvelous companions of märchen fame; see, for example, the band of heroes in Cajun Elby Deshotels’s tale, Jean L’Ours et la fille du Roi (Ancelet 1994, no. 20).

Rider, James B. “Ben Lilly, Strongman of Morehouse Parish.” Louisiana Voices Homepage. LouisianaVoices.org. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. .

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