Tag Archives: Historical Legend

The Whaley House

Context: Z is a 21 year old Filipino American man. Growing up with a close community of Filipino friends and family. Z went to an elementary school within California. This story was collected over a Discord audio call.

Z: “The one that I thought of the other day, which is ‘spooky’ but not really, is The Whaley House. Which is like the only ghost house I know of, like, a unified school district takes everyone in the school district out of class to go visit it for like a week. There’s like a bunch of weird stories, and I don’t know a lot of the history off of the top of my head, but I know there was a family that lived there in the 1800s, and they all had some untimely deaths. Then there was some guy who was hanged who got buried in the graveyard adjacent to it.” 

Intv: “So there were just a ton of stories surrounding the place?”

Z: “Oh yeah, and you know one thing that I think really contributed to that, were the people who would always be walking around in period dress, like era accurate garb to the 1800s and you’d wonder if you saw a ghost. You know, it’s supposedly one of the most haunted houses in America, but I’ve never seen a ghost there, and I don’t know if I really believe in all of it. I think it’s probably just an old house, but it at least made an old house fun.” 

Analysis: I find it very interesting that the Unified School District of San Diego actually pulls  children out of class for a week to go and study the myths of The Whaley House. While some historical activities are present (like children learning how early settlers panned for gold) it really is a week that glorifies to the children of San Diego just how important culturally folklore can be. As Old Town and The Whaley House are two major tourist attractions within an already tourist heavy city. 

Eilmer the Flying Monk

Main piece: There’s this, in the Abbey where my Gramps works, there’s a legend of Eilmer the Flying Monk. From what I remember, he is supposedly a monk who in the thirteenth century tried to fly by jumping off the roof of this abbey. And I don’t think he succeeded, but they call him the flying monk nonetheless. 

I definitely think it’s kind of farcical, it’s so British. Apparently he tried really hard… it is kind of referred to around Malmesbury, like there’s pubs named “Flying Monk” and there’s like, on the “Welcome to Malmesbury” sign, they have a sign about it. I think people just find it funny. 

People like to talk about him. He’s a fun kind of figure about the town that people know about. They’re like “this guy jumped off a roof in the 1200s and we’re never going to let him forget it”. You know, Malmesbury’s really small, it’s got a lot of history though, and I think that people just really like the image of a flying monk. Religion has a kind of social function there, but it’s pretty individual in their own take on spirituality and religion, but the center of the town is the abbey. The main street branches right off from that [the abbey]. And it’s kind of what people come to Malmesbury for. It’s a very small-scale tourist operation, people just don’t really come to Malmesbury. But when they do- I mean, the queen has been there – to the Malmesbury Abbey. My gramps met her there, once. 

I don’t think they have commercialized it that much. I mean, they have a 10k called the Flying Monk, there’s a beer, but I was never super aware of it being commercialized when I was there. It was just a story my dad told me. It might not even be Malmesbury companies that make it 

Background: O’s father grew up in Malmesbury, a town in Wiltshire, England. O has been visiting her grandparents (her grandfather is the town’s organist) and aunt, who still live there, once every year or two for a few weeks since as long as she can remember. He was the one who told her the story of Eilmer, and she finds it incredibly funny.

Context: When talking about Malmesbury, O immediately launched into a description of Eilmer the Flying Monk. Her grandfather (referred to as “Gramps” in the transcript) has been an organist at Malmesbury Abbey for decades, and O has spent a lot of time at the abbey with him, either spending time in the garden or in the graveyard of the church. 

Analysis: Malmesbury Abbey has a population of a little over five thousand, and much of its history occurred in the pre-Enlightenment era. As O said, the abbey is the center of a lot of the social life in Malmesbury, so it makes sense that their unofficial mascot would both connect to the historic events of the town, as well as the Church, even if it is in a fun, subversive way. Eilmer of Malmesbury was a real monk who in 1010 made an unsuccessful flying attempt using a primitive hang glider. It is believed that he broke both legs in the attempt (this was documented by historical William of Malmesbury). Although this is not widely known outside of Malmesbury or seen as a tourist attraction, the symbol of Eilmer of Malmesbury is seen as both a joke and a proud symbol of the Malmesbury people, an example Michael Herzfeld’s “cultural intimacy”, which is described as “the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered as a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with the assurance of common sociality” (Ginnging, 2)

Gingging, Flory Ann Mansor. “‘I Lost My Head in Borneo’: Tourism and the Refashioning of the Headhunting Narrative in Sabah, Malaysia.” Cultural Analysis 6 (2007): 1–29. 

“Eilmer the Flying Monk,” February 27, 2020. https://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/malmesbury-history/people/eilmer-the-flying-monk/. 

“Thirteen Days to Immortality”

             The informant explained that most schoolchildren in San Antonio are familiar with a song written about the Texans’ final days at the Alamo Mission, where a group of Texan military leaders and their troops resisted the Mexican army’s assault for thirteen days before they were all killed. The song, “Thirteen Days to Immortality,” is incorporated into theatrical performances of the Alamo, namely the Phantom of the Alamo. It is a popular feature at annual school performances and at local summer camps. She acknowledged that the author is unknown and, while the song is sung to a medley of musical tunes from other folk songs, she couldn’t identify which ones.She did, however, note that while her parents were familiar with the song during their childhood, her grandparents had never encountered it, suggesting that it is a fairly recent folk song that has emerged over the last two generations.


Oh! What a beautiful sunrise,
Day Twelve is a wonderful day!
Texans all gather together
To find out who all wants to stay.
Travis and Crockett, Jim Bowie
Lead the men over the line.
One man decides it’s not worth it,
It’s not his time yet to die.


On Day Thirteen. . .everyone died.
All of the heroes who fought on both sides.
Take down the flag, honor the dead, isn’t it sad.
Everyone suffers the loss for those are bad.
Take down the flag, take down the flag.


            The song is clearly a children’s song, akin to one you might see taught in a history class to aid children in memorizing historical facts. It is sung to a cheery tune, and there is a heavy emphasis on the collective loss shared by both parties during wartime: “Everyone suffers the loss.” Moreover, the lyrics also recognize heroics in both the Texan and Mexican troops, introducing the values of equality and honor in fighting for one’s land. “Thirteen Days to Immortality” presents perhaps a more sympathetic angle than the legend of the Alamo itself, which antagonizes the Mexican troops as the aggressors and looks unfavorably upon those who flee from death in battle (the lone Texan who abandoned the Alamo was left cursed to haunt the Alamo). Instead, the lyrics mourn the lives of the fallen, calling the deaths “sad” and the deserter is receives no negative attention at all.

            Both “Thirteen Days to Immortality” and the historical legend of the Alamo illustrate examples of war-related folklore or, in this case, folk history.  The song, in particular, relies on a lexicon of war-related vocabulary, namely “hero,” “honor,” and “flag.” In this way, outside of the song’s lyrical content, the vocabulary is recognizable as being related to war texts and literature.


“The Phantom of the Alamo”


            A native Texan, the informant told me that all schoolchildren in San Antonio, Texas are intimately familiar with the story and history behind the Alamo, and she briefly explained that the Alamo Mission was the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo between Texas and advancing Mexican troops. While the informant understands that the Alamo has now become a historical museum and San Antonio’s primary tourist attraction, the history of the Alamo represents something much deeper for her because she has grown up in the area. She explained that residents of San Antonio are fiercely proud of the Alamo monument and the story behind it (all the Texan defenders were killed whilst protecting it), which is perhaps why several legend-like narratives have been spun from it. She feels that, as a resident of San Antonio, she has a duty to be proud and loving of her city to validate the Texan’s selflessness and sacrifice in protecting the Mission. The informant has also performed theatrical renditions of the story at various summer camps in Texas. While the informant told the story, she wore a small pendant of the Alamo around her neck.


            When you’re in San Antonio, which is where the Alamo is, you’re raised on the Alamo. The first time we had Texas history was in fourth grade, so that’s when you, kind of, like, really start to learn about the Alamo, but the myths just, kind of, come along with it. When I worked at the summer camp, we even put on this play called The Phantom of the Alamo, which spurns off an Alamo ghost story that’s created in a Phantom of the Opera style, but it’s a story that everyone is familiar with.

            I don’t know if you knew this, but there actually only about four Texans that fought at the Alamo―everybody else was just from the Union who came to help. Sorry, this story just needs some historical background. The Battle of the Alamo lasted thirteen days. The main people in charge of the Alamo were William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett. None of them were from Texas, but they were helping out Sam Houston’s cause and they needed to hold the Alamo long enough for Sam Houston to gather an army. They didn’t know they would die―they hoped they would live―but they knew it was a very distinct possibility. So, there were thirteen days, this Battle of the Alamo. They’re outnumbered. . .4,000 Mexican troops and 150 people at the Alamo. So, on day twelve, they know no more help is coming. The help that was supposed to come got held up, like, no one’s coming. The Mexicans have almost closed in on them, so William Barret Travis draws a line in the sand―and this part is great because people never know where it comes from―so he draws a line in the sand, and he says, “Men. . .we probably won’t survive another twenty-four hours, so if you wanna to leave, I understand. But if you wanna stay, and if you wanna die for this cause, and you wanna go down fighting, step over this line.” And so Davy Crockett steps over the line. Jim Bowie, who’s sick on his deathbed from an injury, is on his stretcher and he tells his men to carry him over the line. One by one, 149 Texans cross the line. . . and there’s one man that doesn’t. This one man looks around and he decides it’s not his time to die. So William Barret Travis is, like, “Fine, you can leave the Alamo.” And so he leaves, and he’s the only one that leaves, but as he leaves he can hear the sounds of everyone he left dying because they’re all dying behind him.

            The story goes that this one man―and history says it’s not clear but as a Texan, I believe that this man actually did leave the Alamo―ran into an old woman on his way back. She was a witch and said that it was his job to protect the Alamo from falling into wrong hands ever again because he abandoned all his men. And he didn’t believe her! But as he was running away from this woman, who essentially cursed him, he fell into a river and he drowned. From that point on, it’s said that he walks around in the Alamo when you’re coming to visit or any time the Alamo is in danger since his curse is to protect it. So the play Phantom of the Alamo takes that story and turns it into a musical. Basically, in the feature the Alamo has been turned into a theme park and it’s up to this guy who died fleeing the Alamo to restore the Alamo to its former glory. So if you go to the Alamo it’s said that you can feel him lingering around and making sure you don’t disturb anything.


            Highly engaging and dramatic, the informant’s performance of the Alamo legend made it easy for me to imagine the story, as well as its corollary Phantom of the Alamo, performed on a stage. Oftentimes, she recounted parts of the narrative with her eyes closed, as if she were recalling a memory or, in this case, imagining the scene in her head. The informant’s comfort level with the performance led me to believe that she had not only heard and performed it countless times herself―the lack of hesitance or doubt in her voice during her retelling (the pauses were for dramatic effect) made this clear. Moreover her facial expressions were natural and followed the narrative’s plot; the gesticulated wildly with her hands as she described the sickly Jim Bowie who mustered the fortitude to cross the line while on his deathbed. Evidently,  for the informant, the Alamo represents far more than the museum and monument that it is today, and her pride and spirit emerged during the more climactic moments in the story.

            Furthermore, the legend is versatile, perhaps because the story―though embellished―is grounded in history, obscuring the lines of authorship. For example, the haunting end of the man who fled the Alamo only to be cursed lends itself to a nighttime ghost story setting. And although the informant acknowledged the factual events of the Alamo that she and her peers learned in history class, she wholeheartedly admitted that this more fanciful legend is the one they tell when those unfamiliar with the Alamo ask about it. The truth value of “the line in the sand” is irrelevant because, as the informant admitted herself, “as a Texan” she believes in even the more myth-like elements of the legend. Lastly, among Americans, Texans are labeled as proud (the stereotype is that they are obnoxiously so) and this legend clearly utilizes those elements, as the men fight to defend their fatherland knowing that death is imminent. Whether these elements were exaggerated because of the stereotype, or whether the stereotype emerged from legends like that of the Alamo, however, is unclear.