OPINION | TOM DILLARD: The curious tale of Whistling Jim

I wish we knew more about Jimmy Ward. A popular entertainer in Little Rock at the turn of the 20th century, Ward was well-known and obviously well-liked, judging from the many positive things said about him in the local newspapers.

He was also mentally ill. Having spent time at the state mental hospital, he wrote a detailed account of that experience which, unintentionally perhaps, left little doubt as to his precarious mental state.

James Cook Ward was born Dec. 10, 1867 in Little Rock, the son of James W. and Adeline Ward. We know nothing of his education; however, he was verbally gifted judging from his publications, including works of poetry, a novel, plus his asylum memoirs.

Ward was first and foremost a showman, probably a street entertainer most of the time. Known as Whistling Jim, his acts involved singing, whistling, bird imitations, dancing stunts, and wild costuming. He was, one writer noted, "a human mockingbird."

On one occasion a Little Rock minister hired Ward to provide sound effects for his sermon.

Fred Allsopp, an owner of the Arkansas Gazette and author of numerous books on Arkansas topics, included a poem on Whistling Jim in his book "Arkansia":

With oddest clothes, a wide-brimmed hat/Big specs and white goatee/ He played his part with perfect art/This musical grandee.

Allsopp also noted Ward's reputation as a banjoist:

A banjo was his orchestra/His theater--the street/His hat served as an office box/His audience--all he'd meet.

It is unclear why and when Whistling Jim was sent to what was known as the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum, ultimately staying for 181 days. We know he was released before 1902, because that is the year he published his book "Experiences as a Lunatic."

Ward wrote that he was planning to travel to New York City to find theatrical work when "my mind commenced playing a sort of a see-saw game with me." This problem arose after Ward had an intense religious conversion, replete with visions. "People were saying that I had gone crazy over religion," he wrote.

Ward does not record the name of "a friend" who convinced him to go to the Lunatic Asylum for an examination. Accompanied by two friends, Ward's carriage soon traveled the three miles west of Little Rock to the Asylum, a large red brick structure situated atop a hill just west of the modern UAMS campus.

Although the state adopted legislation in 1873 to create a state mental facility, the early efforts were stymied by the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874, which brought an end to Reconstruction. The Asylum opened in 1883.

Upon arrival at the facility, Ward was directed by his friends to go into an examining room and await the doctor. However, he no sooner walked into the room than "slam! bang! clang!--a double iron door closed behind me. I was locked up in a lunatic asylum."

After looking around a bit, Ward later wrote: "I soon saw that I was in the midst of all kinds of crazy people."

Ward's book provides one of the few firsthand accounts of life in the Asylum. He was taken aback by the patients with the most severe afflictions: "I saw patients at that asylum who were going through all kinds of contortions with their faces and fingers."

"One patient," Ward wrote, "was often talking to himself about Free Masonry and the Bible and also often yelled out something about the Jay Gould party [railroad tycoons] doing this, that, and the other."

He concluded, "I saw one patient who used to sometimes spin around just like he was a top." It was, he mused, "a mighty ocean of crazydom."

During his first night of confinement Ward had a vision--he was visited by a talking star who called him "son." A few weeks later he developed another relationship with a heavenly body: the sun. Perhaps his most involved paranormal experience involved mental telepathy.

One day while Ward was sitting on a bench in a public space he heard a voice calling his name. When he finally acknowledged the disembodied voice, he was convinced that Junius Howe, the manager of a summer opera company in Little Rock, was calling his name using mental telepathy.

Ward made no effort to camouflage even his most severe mental challenges nor his poor behavior. At first he took great pains to destroy dozens of mattresses. Admitting that he lost control, Ward wrote: "Oh, I went to pieces. So did every piece of furniture or any other article belonging to the asylum go to pieces when I got my hands, mouth, or feet onto it."

He concluded, "I kicked every spittoon in football fashion all over the ward--my spittoon extermination."

It was only a matter of a few days after his arrival that Ward was segregated in a secure "strong room." As his violence continued, Ward spent more time in strong rooms, and shackled. "I venture to say that I never spent as much as 30 days out of 181 days without handcuffs and ankle straps."

Whistling Jim was an obvious flight risk, and it was only a matter of time before he made an escape. Using a large block of wood, Ward was able to knock a hole in a wall. He ran into town in an attempt to sneak onto a departing freight car, but foolishly decided to stop by the Gazette to cancel an advertisement he had bought. He was recognized and held for the police.

Ward's morale sank a bit after being returned to the Asylum. He stopped eating regularly, weighing 110 pounds when he was released. He was also transferred to Ward 9, the "incurable ward."

Eventually Ward was able to visit his parents at home. He convinced them that he was well, but would return to the Asylum if he relapsed. That was a good decision.

In July 1902, Ward married Miss Seaburn Harris of Hazen in Prairie County. The couple had seven children. Marriage must have agreed with Ward, for he avoided any additional mental episodes--or at least was able to carry on a normal life. He gained fame toward the end of his life as the beloved announcer for the Arkansas Travelers baseball team.

When he died in June 1927, Ward's funeral was well attended. Among the pallbearers were a former mayor, several aldermen, and a federal magistrate.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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