John Hirchak, owner and lead guide of the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington, spoke on Tales of Old Wilmington at the regular monthly meeting of the History Center on Monday, October 19, 2015.
John began with his own personal story, starting in 1996 when he and his wife Kim visited a ghost walk in Savannah. This planted the seed in his wife’s mind to begin a similar venture in Wilmington. That seed sprouted in 1999 when the Hirchaks started the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington. John was to work behind the scenes, doing the historical research, and Kim was to be the tour leader. When Kim broke her leg the first week of the Ghost Walk, John took over as tour guide and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Ghost Walk branched out to include a Haunted Pub Crawl, also known as “bar hopping with a purpose.” John wrote short stories for the tours, which led to his first book, Ghosts of Old Wilmington, and, in 2014, his second book, Legends of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear.
John demonstrated that he was a consummate storyteller, turning his own personal history from a series of discrete dates and events into a compelling narrative. As he put it, learning about yourself can be either tragic or amazing, and his story was a little of both.
He then turned to the stories in his most recent book. The common thread running through Legends of Old Wilmington and Cape Fear is that all its characters were legendary in one way or another. John introduced us to two of these characters: Topsy the Elephant and police officer Leon George.
In 1922, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus came to Wilmington for a sold-out run. As the circus was preparing to head out of town, Topsy the Elephant decided she wanted to explore Wilmington, and she escaped from the circus grounds.
Topsy made quite a stir in her dash through the city, inspiring this frantic call to the police: “There’s a large varmint in my backyard—ripping my collards with its tail and stuffing them in its rear end!” Topsy destroyed a chicken coop and, unfortunately, its resident chickens, fences, porches, and the interior of the Eureka Pressing Company before getting stuck chest-deep in the swamp near Greenfield Lake.
She would have died there had it not been for the second legendary character: Officer Leon George. Officer George stayed with Topsy for many hours, calling her “Mumsey” and coaxing her out of the muck with apples and peanuts. An exhausted Topsy was finally led back to the circus grounds. There she caught her second wind, escaped again, and dove into the Cape Fear River. This time it took two days for Officer George and his apples, peanuts, and calm demeanor to capture Topsy and help her safely back to the circus train.
As Topsy was led into the train she bowed to the cheering crowd, singling out Officer George with her gaze. Officer Leon “Tiger Hunter” George, as he was now called, was openly weeping.
“We’re all heroes if you catch us at the right moment,” John told us.
But the reverse is also true. A character caught at the wrong moment is just as often the stuff of legend, and many of these characters can be found lurking in other tales from Hirchak’s old Wilmington.