The Polly Langston Story
Wed, 02/10/2021 - 2:57pm admin
Her death prompted newspaper coverage in major cities and small towns across the country. The St. Louis Post Dispatch printed a full-page tribute to her life. An immigrant to this country, on arrival, she spoke no English but quickly learned the language of her new nation. One hundred years after her death, she was still being written about and spoke of on Springfield's Ozark Public Radio. I can think of no one in Howell County's past on whom so much printing ink has been expended.
Her life started soon after the American Civil War. It might surprise the reader to know that Polly was not born then, but hatched. Polly Langston was brought to New Orleans on board a boat from Cuba. Polly was a talking parrot with an extensive Spanish vocabulary, and it was soon learned by her owner most of her words were cuss words!
Polly was likely a Cuban Amazon parrot, as they have outgoing personalities and are playful. They learn to talk quickly, usually between three to twelve months of age. They have a life in captivity of fifty to sixty years, but we shall see that in Polly's case, her life of fifty-three years was a bit of a miracle.
Polly was purchased in New Orleans by Dr. Thomas Bradford in 1867. By 1870, Bradford, his wife Laura, and children are shown in census records living at Marshfield, the county seat of Webster County, Missouri. A daughter Sarah, known in the community as Sallie, was married in 1876 to Thomas J. Langston, an influential merchant in West Plains. Langston had met his wife to be while attending school in Marshfield.
On April 18, 1880, two of the Bradford's lives ended, and the rest of the family was totally disrupted by an F4 tornado that struck Marshfield. Dr. Tommy Bradford and his 19-year-old son Sydney were killed in the "cyclone," and Mrs. Laura Bradford was critically injured.
A few years ago, I acquired the book, "Marshfield and Her Cyclone," which details the loss of Dr. Bradford, two of the one hundred people killed in the storm. In the book, Mrs. Bradford gave her account of events that included, "The members of our own little home circle: myself and husband, our only son Sydney, and my niece, Maggie Kibbey. Maggie had been sick a few days before the cyclone, and on that day, was much better. Some friends had been to inquire after her health and started home to escape what we supposed a rainstorm. The doctor was out among his patients through the day, and Sydney alone attended church in the morning."
"Late in the afternoon, I went into the kitchen and kindled a fire, around which we sat chatting with each other in a familiar, home-like manner. I stepped out of doors to bring the parrot's cage inside, and noticed the threatening aspect of the clouds. I said. 'I will hasten and prepare supper before the storm comes; what do you want for supper, son?' He replied, 'If you will get supper, ma, I want some good biscuits and tea.' I knew what the doctor liked, so I stepped around briskly with a happy, cheerful heart to prepare our last evening meal. While getting out the flour for biscuits, I heard Sydney say, 'Maggie, I am going to die.' She replied, 'Of course you are Sydney. We are all going to die some day.' Again Sydney said, 'I mean soon; my time is short!' Maggie said, 'Hush, Sydney, or I will tell your ma!' Then I heard Sydney begging her not to tell me, and supposing their talk only a little bit of fun or nonsense, I made a pretense of having not heard it, and the conversation might have passed forever out of my mind, had it not been so sadly realized."
Mrs. Bradford continued preparing their supper, but when she stepped to a door to empty the teapot, she saw in the distance what appeared to be a "train on fire" and called her son, who identified it as a tornado. The doctor sitting in his office was alerted, and all inside ran outside, leaving Polly in the house. Mrs. Bradford last saw her husband as she followed him with her hand on his shoulder. Quickly all members were overwhelmed by the storm, lifted in the air, and separated. Mrs. Bradford was blown into a pile of logs and a log home, severely injured. She was unconscious for a time but got up and searched for the rest of her family. She was found by volunteers searching the destroyed town and taken to a restaurant serving as a makeshift hospital.
The writer of the book continued the story of the Bradford's by writing, "In passing the ruins of Dr. Bradford's house a man heard the cry of 'Oh Ma, oh Ma!' Thinking it was a child buried in the ruins, he started to find it. Something hobbled along the road before him, which he surmised was a chicken with burnt feet. He pursued and picked it up, and carrying it to the nearest lantern, found it to be Polly, Mrs. Bradford's parrot. Mrs. Bradford was bruised beyond the recognition of even her own sister, but not beyond the recognition of Polly, for when she was taken to her bedside at the restaurant, she set up her cry of 'Oh ma, Oh ma" and huddling down by her, she commenced active work with her bill to pick the blood and dirt from her face, each time wiping her bill on the pillow or on Mrs. Bradford's dress."
"She would fight the doctors that came to Mrs. Bradford's bedside, and when they bathed her face with healing ointment which caused the wounds to appear discolored and disfigured, Polly was very much troubled about it and renewed her attacks on the wounds with such violence and determination that she had to be separated from her mistress. When, after a few days, she was brought back, she exhibited signs of great joy, and again set up her dry of 'Oh ma, Oh ma!' Her supreme delight rested in being on Mrs. Bradford's bed. Many times she would perch herself on the headboard apparently well contented with her elevated position, but let a wind or rainstorm come up suddenly, and Polly would utter a sound of chr-r-r-r and quickly dart under the covers."
"After Mrs. Bradford was again domesticated in a new home on the old home place and Polly was brought back, she immediately recognized home scenes and set up a cry of 'Oh pa!, and Sydney!' Not a day passed that she did not call them, sometimes for an hour at a time, a custom that was unusual with her to a very great extent during their lives, as Mrs. Bradford was always her favorite."
Dr. Bradford was found blocks from their home deceased, and Sydney was located some distance in another direction mortally wounded. He died soon after.
Because of her continual calling for "Pa and Sydney or Buddie," Mrs. Bradford eventually sent Polly to West Plains and the home of her daughter, Mrs. Thomas Jefferson Langston. There, Polly would spend the final forty years of her life and become known to everyone in town and the nation.
Gleaning hundreds of newspaper accounts, I found details not told in others. The State Gazette of Dyersburg, Tennessee told readers upon the death of Polly in 1920, "How Firm a Foundation Ye Saints of the Lord, the shrill voice of Polly Langston, singing her favorite hymn while perched on the rail of the front porch of the home of Mrs. T.J. Langston will be heard no more, for 'Polly,' Missouri's most famous parrot is dead."
"When Polly was in her teens, she was taught to pray and sing. Her favorite hymn was 'How Firm a Foundation,' and she could sing several stanzas. But persons not in the family taught Polly to swear equally as well. One night Dr. and Mrs. Bradford took her to a Methodist camp meeting. When the minister began, Polly interrupted: 'preacher, preacher! Pray for that ornery ------,' and Polly named a prominent citizen. It almost broke up the meeting. On another occasion when a prayer meeting was held in the Bradford home, Polly, overcome by the emotion of a sister, broke into prayer and concluded with a volley of oaths in English and Spanish."
"In the late 1870s, the Barnum and Bailey circus visited Marshfield. Polly, on the porch, volubly cussed the passing performers, roustabouts, animals, and canvas men. P.T. Barnum was attracted and tried to purchase her. 'Do you think we'd sell one of our children?' Mrs. Bradford demanded.
The St. Joseph Observer reported shortly after Polly's death that a tombstone would mark the grave of Polly. Indeed a granite stone with the name "Polly" and the dates 1867-1920 adorns the Langston family plot where Polly was laid to rest in Oaklawn Cemetery in West Plains at the foot of Mrs. Langston's grave. The paper also reported that, "when Polly wanted to be really entertaining, she carried on long conversations with herself to which she repeated bits of talk she had heard at the gatherings of neighbors at Mrs. Langston's home. It may be truthfully said of her, 'One beloved gossip has gone from our midst.'"