The King of the Sinkholes
Dr. Wesley Partin (1877-1958)
He was born without ears, his skin bone-white. His mother bled out. His father, a veteran of the Civil War, his left arm a sleeve of fabric, smothered the newborn baby for seventeen minutes with a wadded-up cloth handkerchief but the child did not perish.
He reportedly called sinkholes “the most vaginal of god’s natural occurrences,” though this has been disputed and is probably a case of mythmaking rather than fact.
Wrapped in a thin mummy of his deceased mother’s dresses, the child developed quickly. He discovered his first sinkhole at age seven, noting in the letters section of the June 7th, 1884 edition of the Gainesville Sun the “slumping fenceposts” and “wilting vegetation” of the affected area. Seven days later, the earth had collapsed, a cone of debris signifying the development.
He once berated an assistant for an error, exclaiming, “This is a goddamned hole, you fool, not a sinkhole. Just a hole.”
At age ten, he was elected to the Southeastern Topographic and Geologic Society. At the initiation ceremony, he allowed the vice-president’s wife to touch the places where his ears should have been. “How do you hear?” she asked. “My teeth,” he answered, and when she ran her fingertip across his incisors, he winced.
He reportedly called sinkholes “the devil punching holes in the earth with his penis,” though this has been disputed and is probably a case of mythmaking rather than fact.
After his father tried to poison him with a fork melted down and poured over his food, he accepted a position with United Fruit in South America. During his three years on this continent, he is credited with the acquisition and study of four separate sinkholes, the most famous of which is the Pacarana Sinkhole, which was single-handedly responsible for the near-extinction of the pacarana, a giant rat first reported in Western science by Count Branicki of Poland. Partin called the loss, “less than regrettable.”
When an assistant was lost in the resulting collapse of a sinkhole in Amarillo, Texas, due to the boy’s attempt to obtain a photograph of himself standing in the widening depression in the earth, Partin called the loss, “less than regrettable.
He returned to the United States in 1900 and quickly began gathering investors for a scientific experiment that culminated at the 1905 World’s Fair in Portland, Oregon, when Partin, three fingers on his right hand now jaggedly amputated, his skin peeling and cracked from exposure to the sun, unveiled the first intentional man-made sinkhole in recorded history. He achieved the feet by pumping acidic groundwater through drilled holes underneath a layer of limestone. Having created an underground cavern, he then removed the water and gradually increased the topsoil weight, causing the sinkhole, which was timed to occur on the third day of the fair. The damage totaled in the millions for the city, but Partin was hailed as a visionary by the international press. Man Once Again Defies God was the headline in the Antwerp Gazette in Belgium, along with a photograph of Partin, covered in particulates, his mangled hand covering his face, backing away from angered onlookers.
He liked to pronounce the word sinkholes in the Spanish way.
After a lucrative, around-the-world lecture tour, Partin returned to the States in the company of a young, deaf-mute girl of thirteen years of age, Beatrice Byerly. She was alternately referred to as Partin’s young ward and Partin’s wife by the press. In a diary discovered after her death, Byerly called Partin “my insane lovely” and referred to his interest in sinkholes as something akin to “a dead tiger reanimated by means of wire and electricity, ferocious and unnatural.”
He referred to sinkholes that did no damage and barely altered the landscape as “Jesus sinkholes, not God sinkholes. Experiments made with a toy chemistry set to show the father that the child understands the methods, but lacking any of the rage that all great occurrences must possess.” Sometimes this is attributed to Graham Moxon, another sinkologist of the era.
In 1923, the noted American artist, Ermil Pageant, painted Partin’s portrait, which currently hangs in the Jacksonville Museum of Art. In the painting, Partin is soaking wet, his hands stained with pine tar, his eyes closed and shoulders slumped as if asleep or dead. The painting was commissioned by the state of Florida in commemoration of the honoring of Dr. Partin as the Floridian of the Year. Partin refused to sit for the portrait and the painting was made only after he fell down a well and was rendered unconscious.
Sink – to bring to utter ruin or collapse.
After a fired assistant referred to Byerly as “dumbed by God in anticipation of her union” with Dr. Partin, Partin beat the young man to death with a rock hammer. The body was then deposited at the bottom of a sinkhole in Huffman, Georgia. For reasons unknown, Partin placed a tuning fork in the assistant’s hand to suggest suicide or misadventure. Partin was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. This event lead to the popularization of several songs about the murder, including “Hammered to Heaven” and “The Rock Hammer Waltz”.
In a letter to Byerly, he referred to the escape from prison by means of creating a sinkhole as “a damned fool’s errand.”
While in prison, Partin existed on spelt, both boiled and in seed form. He attributed this to his good health while incarcerated and, when released, created the Balda Spelt Company, which introduced spelt crackers to the American public. It was a financial disaster and left Partin nearly bankrupt.
On his deathbed, Partin reportedly called sinkholes “merely one of the many forms by which the earth expresses its displeasure with humanity,” though this has been disputed and is probably a case of mythmaking rather than fact.
His gravestone reads: Here Lies Wesley Partin For As Long As The Earth May Contain Him.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has twice been included in the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his son, Griff, where he teaches fiction at the University of the South and helps run the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.