The Rude Awakening of Jimmy O’Neal

On occasion I come across some unique gems tucked away in our local history, and during a recent chat with Donald Ward, one such story was told to me that came to him from Joe Ben Hudson.  Mr. Hudson, some readers may recall, lived to be one of our oldest citizens, going home to be with the Lord at the young age of 108. He bore witness to many of the historical facts we can only read about today.

Every town has its characters, and Millsboro has had its share. Some of us could name quite a few in a brief conversation, but I’ll go farther back in time, beyond the living memory of any reader here. In the mid-1800s, there lived a man by the name of Jimmy O’Neal, whose reputation for the consumption of alcohol was the stuff of legends. He was the town drunk. Jimmy could drink almost anything, and he would it seemed, even at peril to his own life.

Round about the year 1851, during the winter of ’51, folks in Millsborough were rounding up firewood and coal for the night.  It was a bitter wind that blew across town, made even more so as the last tinges of heavenly warmth disappeared with the setting sun. Even though it was Saturday, no one lingered on Main Street, as was the custom. Coal stoves were being stoked, ashes were stirred in fireplaces, and wood stoves were reloaded, all over town. People were settling in for another long, cold winter night.

Down at the cupola, the men at the iron ore foundry were keeping the fires going there, just as on any other night. Sunday made no difference to the foundry owners, for it was uneconomical to allow the furnace to cool, only to require extra fuel and labor to restart it again on Monday. So the two men on duty were checking the grounds one last time before bolting the door against the wind and resuming their card game.

One of them saw something in the shadows and called to his partner. Together they peered into the darkness and made out the shape of a man lying between the buildings. “He’ll freeze to death out here,” one said. “Let’s get him inside.” Each grabbed a leg and dragged the heavily clothed body to the doorway of the furnace building. As light fell upon the fallen man’s face, the other foundry worker shouted, “Huh? It’s Jimmy O’Neal!”

With that, they threw open the door and continued moving Jimmy inside, in this most indelicate manner. His head bounced across the threshold, as the two men maneuvered Jimmy through the inner workings of the furnace building, and the resulting groans confirmed the presence of a life within. They settled him against the wall and sat him upright on the far side of the room from their card table, with only the furnace between them.

“All the booze in his system wouldn’t help him tonight,” one man remarked. “Let him sleep this off. At least now he won’t freeze to death,” and with that, the two men resumed their game of cards.

Sometime after midnight, a stirring was heard at the far side of the room, as Jimmy roused slightly from his drunken stupor. “Huh! Huh?” His face was contorted as he moved his head slowly, undoubtedly in response to the banging taking place within. A hand came up from his side just in time to catch his bobbing head.  Jimmy’s mouth gapped open, he drew in a deep breath, and then he smacked his parched lips in time to two pitifully blinking eyes.

“Hey there,” shouted one of the men, “by what name do they call you?” He winked at his partner and whispered, “we’ll see if he’s near sober.”  No response came from a rather wide-eyed Jimmy, so the man called out again, “What’s your name?”

Jimmy’s mouth was now wide open, and his bulging eyes were transfixed on the blazing furnace before him. He wailed mournfully, “where I come from they call me Jimmy O’Neal, but down here you can call me anything you want!”