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Captain Leathers

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Persons intending to become American folk heroes need to pay as much attention to their manner of dying as to their manner of living. Take the case of Captain Tom Leathers.

There was no question that Captain Leathers's manner of living was the stuff of legend. Steamboatmen on the Mississippi River all considered him the steamboat captain of all captains. Skilled at piloting both people and boats, he ran his boats better than most kings run countries.

Physically, too, Captain Leathers was larger than life. He stood nearly six-feet-four inches in his bare feet, weighed two hundred and seventy pounds. His locks and great flowing white mustache stayed in place to the last curl. No regular uniform for Captain Leathers: he wore sheer, flawless whites with a white hat, or dark expensive blacks with a black hat. Either outfit supplemented by a giant cigar which he wielded like a baton.

Even his moods were Jovian, ranging between fury and overflowing generosity. He had a manner with the ladies and his plantation friends that was so heavy and courtly it seemed almost a caricature.

For his crew and for river roustabouts, he saved his greatest attribute. He was, his men said, "the best curser on the Mississippi." His mastery of invective was awesome in both breadth and versatility. He could shrivel a man to cinders for five minutes without repeating a single oath.

For several decades Captain Tom Leathers ruled the Mississippi, leaving stories behind wherever he went. He seemed destined to take his place in American folklore alongside Mike Fink, Davey Crockett, and Jim Bowie. Had he died in a grand steamboat explosion, or in a duel with a rival captain, it might have been so.

Instead, on his eightieth birthday, on a street in New Orleans, Captain Tom Leathers was struck to the pavement and killed by a hit and run bicyclist, a fate not even King Arthur's reputation could have survived.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.