History Behind the Story: Charleston's "Black Eagles"

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Yes, there’s a bird on it!—and yes, it’s relevant to my upcoming novel set in antebellum Charleston. It’s a black vulture, also called (wrongly) a turkey vulture or turkey buzzard, and for over a century, these ugly scavengers were one of the foremost—and fondest—emblems of Charleston.
They appeared when the City Market was built in 1807 and they were removed in 1918 just after World War I, when they were (unfairly) accused of transmitting cholera. In between, they were so beloved that the city inspectors could levy a fine, originally $5, later raised to $10, on anyone who killed a black vulture.

John J. Audubon, whose eye beautified all the birds he saw, illustrated the black vulture in his Birds Of America, published between 1827 and 1838. He also participated in an 1834 experiment about their ability to find carrion that is hysterically funny reading.

The Charleston County Public Library has published a series on the history of the "black eagles," chronicling their rise and fall. Check out the scene at the Market, originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1866 (there’s also a larger version, not in color).

I made a lucky guess when I wrote my Market scenes. Before I saw the Frank Leslie illustration, I had already imagined my Charleston heroines at the Market, with the vultures at their feet.

Sabra WaldfogelComment