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The History of Charlotte’s Weird and Wild Moments in Time

An alternative look at the strange things you've missed over the years

It came in with a bang. It passed by with a whimper. It will go out with a Shout.

On July 3, the city kicked off its year-long celebration of Charlotte’s 250th birthday with a Star Spangled Spectacular fireworks show at Memorial Stadium. The show went well enough, although it ended awkwardly when a malfunction meant the bombs kept bursting in air, meaning folks parked on a nearby parking deck had to wait out the sporadic shells before returning to their cars.

It was a fitting way to start CLT250, the city’s hashtaggable name for the upcoming year full of events. In a city that has striven for so long for “world-class status” that the expression itself has lost its meaning, we’re all too often stopped short from reaching that glorious end goal by other names and expressions that need no further explanation within our city limits — HB2, Keith Lamont Scott, economic mobility report — shorthands for experiences that remind us that the New South still has plenty of old ghosts.

A cover band plays at the CLT250 celebration in Uptown on Dec. 3. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

As the year has progressed toward its end, the city has continued to celebrate CLT250, although it hasn’t built the buzz that some city leaders hoped for back in July. Many of the signature CLT250 events consist of piggybacking the logo on things we already do here — National Night Out, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, Charlotte Pride. Other CLT250-related events more deserving of your attention — Through This Lens, Charlotte’s Got History — have quietly passed without fanfare.

On Dec. 3, the true Queen City birthday, a few hundred people showed up to Center City to help ring in the quarter-millenia for a couple hours and watch city council members make predictably bad attempts at dancing before heading back to their offices and resuming work on Monday’s catch-ups.

We may sound cynical, but we’re not here to shit on CLT250. In fact, we’re all the way here for the awkward endings and bad dances. Sure, we’d like to have seen the city shut down for the birthday party it deserved on such a milestone. But we’ll take what we can get.

There’s still hope ahead for CLT250. In February, the city gets a chance to show out on the national stage with the arrival of the NBA All Star Game, followed in May by the “crescendo” of the CLT250 celebration: Charlotte Shout. The month-long celebration of Charlotte music, arts and food sounds like it’s right up our alley. Hell, maybe we should have waited until May to drop this new paper.

But alas, we’re here and we’re ready to get weird. Charlotte’s arrival at the ripe old age of 250 years old got us thinking about some of the lesser spoken of aspects of the Queen City’s history. We all know about “the hornet’s nest of rebellion” and the streetcar suburbs, but what about the Hilton sisters?

If you’re asking yourself what in the hell Nicky and Paris Hilton have to do with Charlotte, well, nothing. But we do have a few stories for you about Charlotte’s more forgotten historical stories and characters — some of which are strange, some of which are funny, some of which are just fucking cool.

The Downfall of Daisy and Violet Hilton

Although their grave in Forest Lawn West Cemetery on Woodlawn Drive on Freedom Drive reads, “Beloved Siamese Twins,” the Hilton sisters were technically pygopagus twins, meaning they were literally joined at the hip, from the back. Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in Brighton, England, in 1908 to Kate Skinner, who ashamedly sold them off to midwife Mary Hilton. They were used as entertainment through most of their childhood, kept in the window of a Brighton pub until they became two big and were moved to the backroom, where Hilton charged bargoers to see them, according to a 2014 piece by Mark Washburn of the Charlotte Observer.

Hilton sisters in Charlotte history
The Hilton Sisters circa 1927. (Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Collection)

According to a 2014 documentary titled Bound by Flesh: The Story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the two arrived in San Francisco in 1915 and had to fight to gain entry after officials deemed them “medically unfit” to get into the United States. After Hilton’s passing, the two were passed on like property to Hilton’s daughter Edith and her partner Myer Myers. They flirted with fame in the States, but not success. As vaudeville acts, the twins shared stages with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope and brushed shoulders with Harry Houdini. They remained broke, however, as their various owners and managers continued to take advantage.

After fighting for and securing emancipation in 1931, the two struck out on their own, taking part in various public relationships with different beaus and even giving birth, while also touring and starring in movies. As their star began to fade, they found themselves in Charlotte working under the guidance of Phillip Morris of Morris Costume, according to Washburn. Their performances stopped attracting fans, and they later went to work at a Parn-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard, where the counter was designed to allow them to work inconspicuously side-by-side.

Sometime around the holiday season of 1968, the two would die of Hong Kong flu in the cottage they lived in near the market where they worked. As Washburn reported, a woman named Shelagh Childs from England would eventually discover that she was the long-lost niece of the Hilton sisters , and then came to Charlotte to visit their grave, letting them know that ,though they lived a tragic life, they were beloved to someone.

Brand New Bag

Most folks familiar with the local music scene know that the up-and-coming R.E.M. recorded some of their best work at Mitch Easter’s and Don Dixon’s now-defunct Reflection Studios, but Charlotte’s recording history goes deeper than that. While Reflection also recorded legendary artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Robert Plant, it wasn’t the only Queen City studio where history was made.

Back in 1965, James Brown was looking for a new sound, and he found it with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. A co-host of WBT’s Carolina Barndance, Smith was the first person to own a commercial recording studio in Charlotte. Come 1965, Brown was moving away from his gospel sound and experimenting with funkier rhythms. One fateful day, he cut a song in Smith’s studio called, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and history was made.

James Brown in Charlotte
James Brown in 1969. (Photo courtesy of ABC Television)

According to an NPR story from 2000, Brown’s original recording of the song ran a full seven minutes. He took it to his team at King Records in Cincinnati, and they made some changes to it while also cutting it to just over two minutes.

The song changed the direction of soul music, said journalist and author Nelson George.

“It wasn’t totally a smooth-flowing melody like you might find at Motown Records,” he said. “It wasn’t Southern, per se, the way that the stacks records sounded. It had its own kind of universe that it existed in.”

And if we ever catch Cincinnati folks trying to claim credit for that song like they did with our city’s nickname, we will have words.

The Capture of Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh

In March of this year, the country was introduced to Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh through the documentary series Wild Wild Country on Netflix. For those non-bingers, Rajneesh was the leader of the Rajneesh movement. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, he traveled through India spreading his anti-socialist messages before setting his sights on the United States in the 1980s. And that’s when shit really got crazy.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Charlotte history
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh with followers in Poona, India in 1979. (Creative Commons)

By the mid-’80s, Rajneesh’s followers at his commune in Oregon had become more extreme, allegedly poisoning an entire town’s water supply with salmonella bacteria and planning to assassinate U.S. attorney Charles Taylor.

That type of behavior is known to bring about the wrong sort of attention, so it was that on Oct. 28, 1985, Rajneesh got on a rented Learjet that was later said to be headed to Bermuda. Rajneesh’s followers who took him on the trip later insisted that he was unaware of the authorities’ intentions to arrest him or that he would be leaving the country for good.

Nevertheless, he never made it out. While the jet was parked at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, it was surrounded by police cars and special agents, which looked extra cool because those were the days when they used to put the Naked Gun light on top of the car in times like those. Aboard the plane, agents found $58,000 in cash and enough watches and bracelets to fetch about $1 million — not surprising for the guy known to have owned 90 Rolls Royces.

Rajneesh and six other passengers were taken into the custody of Mecklenburg County Sheriff C.W. Kidd. They were kept for about nine days before being expedited back to Oregon. According to the Charlotte Observer, Rajneesh brought on the recognizable Charlotte attorney Bill Diehl for emergency legal services, but didn’t stick with him moving forward.

The sudden arrival of a national fugitive in the still-sleepy town of Charlotte created a stir, and some folks took advantage, selling “We Bagged the Bhagwan” t-shirts when Rajneesh attended court in Charlotte. As Wild Wild Country filmmakers Maclain and Chaplain Way admitted to the Observer, though it wasn’t related closely to the case, some of the reaction shots from Charlotte residents following Rajneesh’s arrest made for the best television in the whole series.

That’s called recognizing your moment and grabbing it before it goes. You just never know when you might end up on a ridiculously popular series 30 years later.

Vicki Makes a Break For It

Speaking of taking advantage of opportunity, there might not be anyone in Charlotte’s long history who grasped that concept quite like Vicki the Elephant. Back in the 1950s, the Airport Amusement Park was the place to be on Wilkinson Boulevard. According to a Gaston Gazette passage from 1950, the park had “a big steam train, Dive Bomber, kid land, Octopus, Tilt & Whirl, Ridee-o, Merry-Go-Round, a Ferris wheel and fireworks.”

A 1955 Gaston Gazette ad for Airport Park in 1955.

Most inviting about Airport Park, though? The zoo. And in 1955, the zoo got a new tenant, Vicki the baby elephant. After debuting at the park, Vicki would join Lena the llama and Dollie the chimp in a three-ring circus that visited Tryon High School.

While ads from the Gazette and other papers boosted up Vicki as the new main attraction at Airport Park all summer, eventually she would truly get the attention she deserved.
On September 11, Vicki’s owners were trying to transfer her to the Spindle-Center Fairgrounds in Gastonia when she made her move. She quickly disappeared into the wooded marshlands near the park. Vicki was not seen again for four days, when she wandered onto the Pilot Trucking Company freight yard. Despite the efforts of her trainer John “Smoky” Strickland and a group of truckers to box her in, Vicki busted past them, slinging Strickland aside without a problem.

Zookeepers tried everything to get Vicki back, grounding nearby National Guard flights and bringing in other elephants to attract her — everyone gets a little lonely after a week on the lam — to no avail. They left trails of grain, hay and molasses leading from her known stomping grounds back to the park. Bulldozers were called in to dig deep pits to trap the 2,300-pound pachyderm. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile, Vicki was becoming a media sensation. Advertisers jumped on the topic of the day, as seen in a Rocky Mount Telegram ad for a movie theatre stating, “We don’t know where to find Vicki the Charlotte Elephant but… We do know that week after week the finest entertainment is found at The Center.”

Vicki with her trainer (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

After nine days of hide and seek, officials called in Louis Reed, a former Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus elephant trainer, to help coax her out of the woods using “Indian jungle calls” and “talking like a baby,” according to a 2013 Creative Loafing article.

In a must-read essay, then Charlotte News reporter Charles Kuralt recalled the capture, stating that a group of 20 high schoolers and volunteer firemen tussled Vicki to the ground in an open field while Strickland and Reed looked on from their vehicles.

“Vicki in shackles was a different animal than the sapling-snapper she was in the woods,” Kuralt wrote. “She marched the last mile back in Airport Park with her head down, her trunk swinging sadly. She walked through the park gates, entered her old stall willingly and submitted to photographers’ flashbulbs going off in her face.”

As intriguing a chapter as she inspired, Vicki’s story would come to a sad, premature end not long after her escape — one of many escapes, although the others stayed hushed up, according to park owner Jack Partlow’s daughter-in-law. Two years after she made national headlines, Vicki was sold to Carowinds developer Pat Hall, who moved her to Hickory. She would die there a year later at just 9 years old.

The Partlow family believed that Vicki’s escape may have led to her downfall, as her underdeveloped feet were not yet ready for the wild terrain, leading to infections — an irony, as it was her quickness on those feet that made her famous in the first place.

Queen City Legends

In the modern era, you know of the Anthony Hamiltons and Brooklyn Deckers, and we are big fans of both at the Nerve. But a deeper dig into Charlotte history uncovers a couple guys whose names aren’t so well known but were household names during their time.

Charles Moss Duke Jr. was born in Charlotte on Oct. 3, 1935. Today, the former astronaut, Air Force officer and test pilot can claim more time in the clouds than Snoop Dogg with 4,147 logged flight hours — more than 172 days up in the air. Those hours include 265 in space, which we all know counts double.

But let’s put aside how much flying this guy has done and how much of an absolute badass someone has to be to have been a test pilot in the 1960s and just focus on the one item that nobody could put on their bucket list today if they wanted to: Duke was the 10th man to ever walk on the moon. As lunar module pilot for Apollo 16, Duke and fellow astronaut John Young landed at something called the Descartes Highlands and disembarked from the ship three separate times.

Apollo 16 in CHarlotte history
Charles M. Duke Jr. (far left) with fellow Apollo 16 trainees learning desert survival.

Before that, Duke’s Charlotte accent (yes, that used to be a thing) became familiar to folks around the world when he served as capsule communicator for Apollo 11, which was the first trip to the moon. Duke could be heard communicating with the Aoollo 11 team as the world watched in awe at what transpired on their television screens.

Now 83, Duke lives in Texas with his family and participates in prison ministry.

While not much can match up to the accomplishments of Charlie Duke, if you take into the account all the things Randolph Scott did onscreen, it would certainly come close.

Randolph Scott (left) in a publicity photo with Cary Grant. (Creative Commons)

Although born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1898, Scott was raised in Charlotte. He lived on Dilworth Road and his father a city alderman, chairman of Charlotte’s Finance Committee and CEO of an accounting firm. The elder Scott supervised the city’s first published financial statement in the early 1900s, and was recognized by the state for drafting North Carolina’s first certified public accountant law, according to the Charlotte Museum of History.

Scott served in World War I, where he learned horsemanship and how to use guns, skills that would come in handy for his impressive film career later down the road. Between 1928 and 1962, Scott starred in more than 100 films, including about 60 Westerns. He starred along leading ladies like Shirley Temple, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich during what’s known as the Golden Age of Film.
Much has been made about Scott’s sexuality, as he lived with fellow leading man Cary Grant for 12 years, but we can’t speak to it. If he was able to carry out such a long and successful career with that weighing on

him all the while, it would be a shame, but more power to him.

One thing we know for certain is that in 1964, new owner of the Oakland Raiders Al Davis used Scott’s likeness (with an eye patch for added toughness) as a model for the team’s new logo.

These are the types of stories we enjoy telling, and we want to see who’s next to come from Charlotte’s striving streets to make history in whatever way they see fit, world class or not. So go ahead, make Charlotte proud. We’ll be here to jot it down.

Queen City Nerve would like to thank Charlotte Is Creative for their help in gathering much of the info told above. Keep up with the Queen City Quiz Show to learn more about Charlotte’s lesser known trivia.

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