Civil War creature story amidst the ruins of post-Civil War Charleston, where a mysterious apothecary builds a marine attraction like no other. Written by Thomas Fuller.
It was in March of 1867, after the Civil War was truly lost, that Dr. Rembrandt Cavanagh arrived in Charleston. He was what folks used to call a “carpetbagger” – a Yankee who came down South after the War looking for easy pickin’s. Folks remembered him as a slim, elegant man, with one blue eye and one green, and the sharpest, whitest teeth anyone ever saw.
Now Dr. Cavanagh was an apothecary, a provider of prescriptions, potions, and pills. He set up operations down near the docks, figurin’ to provide services to the sailors off the Union warships that still filled the harbor as well as selling overpriced drugs to the townspeople of what was left of Charleston. But his plan didn’t work. The sailors and soldiers had their own apothecaries, and most of the townsfolk were flat broke.
Now an ordinary man would have cut his losses and headed out West. But Dr. Cavanagh wasn’t an ordinary man. He had a mind as bright and fractured as the gears of a nickel-plated watch. He set all those gears and wheels turning and they ticked and ticked and ticked until finally his blue eye flashed and his green eye flashed and his white teeth shone like a shark’s. To sell things he had to give people a good reason to come into his shop.
He needed a gimmick.
So the next day, Dr. Cavanagh rowed out into the harbor and went from boat to boat, talking to the captains and leaving his business card. Then he went back into the city and placed the biggest sheet glass order anyone could remember. After that he hired some men to move his apothecary from the ground floor of his building up to the second floor. Folks thought he’d clearly lost his mind.
They didn’t know how right they were.
Soon as the apothecary was moved, the glass workers went in, and there was all sorts of banging and knocking about. And while that was going on, sailors started sneaking into Dr. Cavanaugh’s place, loaded with all sorts of little jars and boxes stuffed under their coats.
Well, all this got the townspeople’s curiosity up. Folks who wouldn’t normally go down to the docks found all kinds of excuses to wander by that apothecary. But they found the windows covered up with black curtains, and all anyone could see were the sailors and glass workers going in and out.
And Dr. Cavanagh stood there grinning, with his blue eye flashing and his green eye flashing, his teeth white and sharp.
Then the sign appeared.
It was right there in the big front window, smack in the middle of a brass easel. “Ten Days to the Hall of Wonders!” The next day it said “Nine Days to the Hall of Wonders.” Then “Eight Days to the Hall of Wonders.” Well, you get the idea.
Finally it was opening day, and most of Charleston was crowded into narrow King Street in front of Dr. Cavanaugh’s shop. It was late June and the heat was so fierce you could almost taste it. The door finally opened and Dr. Cavanagh himself came out and told folks they were gonna see something they’d never seen before, or ever would again, and all it was gonna cost them was a single copper penny. Well, he could have told them it was one thin dime or one Yankee dollar or even a gold double eagle and they would have forked it over. Every one of them lined up, dug out their pennies, and marched right into Dr. Cavanaugh’s Hall of Wonders.
Now every room in that ground floor had been ripped out, and there was some kind of magic lantern thing up on the ceiling that made it look like it was underwater. Slowly the walls began to glow and folks gasped and looked and gasped some more.
What they saw were fish. Hundreds of fish in hundreds of colors, swimming around in little glass tanks that covered the Halls. Now folks had seen fish before on a plate or on the end of a hook, but not swimming around freely inside a room. All those glass tanks were marked with the names of the fish and where they came from. And the only sound was the water splashing back and forth, as if the audience was swimming in the middle of the ocean.
Dr. Cavanagh suddenly appeared, and without saying a word he pointed to the back of the Hall of Wonders. Slowly, heavy velvet drapes pulled back and it was gasping time again. They saw one great sheet of glass that must have cost more than the rest of the tanks combined. Behind it was nothing but murky emerald water. Dr. Cavanagh then pointed to a sign on a brass easel. There was just one word there:
Folks crowded forward and stared into the murky depths for what seemed like hours. And just when everyone was nearly cross-eyed, it seemed like something flickered in all that opaque green, a flash of silver like a salmon’s tail, a gleam of yellow like golden hair, a hint of a body as pale and perfect as ivory. Then it was gone and Isaac Sims, Dr. Cavanaugh’s assistant, suddenly ushered the people out so the next group of folks could come in. And of course, Dr. Cavanagh had them ushered through the upstairs apothecary, just in case anyone needed to buy some overpriced medicines on the way out.
For the next two weeks, the Hall of Wonders was all anyone in Charleston could talk about. Folks went back again and again, two, three, four times. And the pennies filled the bucket that Isaac Sims passed around. And as Dr. Cavanaugh raised the ticket prices, those pennies turned into nickels, dimes and dollars. But each time, before anyone could get a good look at the supposed “mermaid,” Isaac Sims would hustle everyone out again.
And Dr. Cavanagh would just stand there with his green eye flashing and his blue eye flashing, his teeth white and sharp. It could have gone on forever if it hadn’t been for the rain.
It started at precisely half past ten on the 3rd of July 1867. A heavy black squall rolled in from the sea, followed by a drenching shower. The rain pounded and roared as if the very deeps had been lifted up and dropped on Charleston. And it stayed that way, never ceasing or abating, for well nigh a month.
It rained until all the roofs leaked, all the floors oozed, and every street and alley and lane was a fast-moving stream. All the city’s cockroaches, flooded from their holes under the low-slung houses, swarmed into the streets by the thousands and drowned. Along with all the rats trying to escape from the waterlogged ships, and all the cats trying to catch the drowning rats.
As the drenching rains continued, the townspeople started to get a little strange. No one, not even the oldest elder, could remember a storm like this. And when folks get real miserable, they start looking for someone to blame. Something had to have set off all this watery punishment. Couldn’t be the town folks, for no town with as many churches as Charleston had could sin that much. Something must be causing it, something that had happened lately.
Then Miss Araminta Tucker started to have her visions.
Now, Miz Araminta was a local conjure woman who had had visions all her life. She’d always be seen wandering the streets, chattering away to listeners only she could see. She was a constant source of amusement for the locals – but this time, folks were listening to her.
“Don’t ya idjets know nothin’? It’s that mermaid that’s causin’ all the rain! Don’t ya know what a mermaid is?”
The townspeople just stood there and shook their heads.
“A mermaid’s a person who’s been washed out to sea. If they don’t drown, they git turned into a mermaid by other mermaids. But once someone’s a mermaid, they cain’t go back to the human world. They gotta stay in the ocean like other fish. An’ that’s what that mermaid’s tryin’ to do. She’s callin’ on the water to wash her back to sea!”
Now the rumors and the whispers really got started up in Charleston. Suddenly every tavern and saloon had it’s own expert on mermaids and the powers they had over water. Summon it right out of the air, they could. Make it rain forever if they had a mind. Well, if whatever was in that big glass tank wanted out, then out it was gonna come.
There was no signal, no plan of action or call to arms. Folks just started pouring out into the rain and heading towards the apothecary. Out of Blackbird Alley they came, out of Philadelphia Street and Bottle Alley and Danger Court. All of them heading for King Street and the apothecary.
They were about a thousand strong when they reached the Hall of Wonders. At the doorway stood Dr. Cavanagh, with his green eye flashing and his blue eye flashing, his teeth sharp and white.
It’s just a trick, he cried, holding his hands up. Just wire and wax and pigs bladders full of air in a tank full of green dye! There’s no such thing as mermaids, you fools!
But the fools were having none of it. Even Isaac Sims, Dr. Cavanaugh’s trusted assistant, turned against him. They stormed into the Hall of Wonders and smashed open all the fish tanks. And Isaac Sims strode up to that gleaming glass mermaid tank with a sledgehammer, reared back, and smashed it right in the center.
Now when folks talk about split seconds, they mean the littlest amount of time possible. But a lot can happen in a split second and a lot did. Some folks swear that right before Isaac Sims’ hammer shattered all that glass down into shards, something swam up from the murk. And if it really was wire and wax and pigs bladders, it was an amazing piece of work.
It balanced on a sleek tail as silver as a hoarded treasure, its body was pale and perfect as ivory, and blonde hair as brilliant as spun gold glittered around its head.
Then the hammer hit the glass and it exploded in a solid wall of water, more water than could ever have been behind it. And folks swore that whatever was in that tank flowed right into Dr. Cavanaugh’s arms. And the waters gushed and roared and swept through the Hall of Wonders and up the chimneys out the windows and doors, driving folks before it like pieces of driftwood.
When the water finally stopped, folks picked themselves up from off the waterlogged street and stared at the soggy ruin that had been the Hall of Wonders. It sagged and gaped like it was made of wet pasteboard, and there was no sign of the apothecary or the mysterious exhibit. But the rain had stopped and the sun was out, and that was good enough for most folks.
Then the townspeople looked around for Dr. Cavanaugh. They had every intention of locking him up in the deepest, darkest jail cell in Charleston. But he was nowhere to be found. Through all the streets and back alleys they searched, but there was no sign of him. Finally, the townspeople figured he must have been swept out to sea with the fish. And that was good enough for them.
Dr. Cavanaugh was never seen again, but his “Hall of Wonders” never really went away. In later years, other people built similar places in other cities, though they called them something different: “aquariums.” And people still lined up and paid top dollar to watch hundreds of fish in hundreds of colors swimming around in glass tanks.
But should you ever go there, look closely behind the biggest tank in the place. If you see a strange looking fish with one blue eye and one green, and sharp white teeth, watch out. For you may have found Dr. Rembrandt Cavanaugh.
And what’s worse, he may have found you.
– THE END –
Hear another version of this story in a live Moonlit Road Radio Show.
The Hall of Wonders – Story Credits
Written and Told by Thomas E. Fuller
Sound Design by Henry Howard
About the author
Thomas E. Fuller
Thomas E. Fuller (1948-2002) was a native of Alabama, but spent most of his working life in Duluth, Georgia. He was a co-founder, head writer and artistic director for the influential Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, as well as an award-winning author of numerous stage musicals and plays, audio dramas and novels, including the popular "Pirate Hunter" adventure book series.