“It’s an eerie scene that’s never left my head!”

Red Devil Lye label

When I was a child, I looked forward to visiting my grandparents. It was always an exciting and adventurous occasion. Generally we traveled at night, and often times came upon road construction sites along the way.

Back then there wasn’t battery-powered warning lights on the edge of the highway advising folks to slow down. Construction crews used black “smudge pots” as dad called them to alert drivers. These pots were round in shape and contained kerosene and cotton wicks much like lanterns and lamps. To me they resembled bombs.

As we slowly drove through these areas the soot-laden-pots flickered in the night much like sinister candles. The smell of burning kerosene permeated the air. It’s an eerie scene that’s never left my head!

My brother and I deserted our television and toys in Selma when we ventured to Vernon. That’s the name of the rural Alabama town where both set of grandparents lived. Neither of them had TV’s or electronic gadgets to keep us entertained. Smartphones and computers weren’t invented back then. Jim and I relied upon our imagination to keep from getting bored.

We’d bring along BB guns, comic books, and our own digging utensils. We used these tools to build an underground fort at Papa and Mama Haynes’ place. It turned into quite the structure with tin roof and wooden door, until a tornado totally destroyed our creation. It was good we weren’t inside at the time.

Papa & Mama Haynes’ home – Vernon, Alabama (1974)

My grandparents on both sides would take time to sit and talk to us about their early years. I was always eager to hear what they had to say. A few of their tales I still remember while most of them I don’t. One that’s never left my brain is a bizarre story that Grandma Hankins unexpectedly shared. I’m sure she was chatting with my parents when I accidentally overheard her words.

Grandma said that a fellow she went to school with had recently ate some Red Devil Lye. This product is highly poisonous and no longer sold in grocery stores. The FDA banned it for good reason. Too many little ones were getting into the toxin and innocently ingesting it. Back then lye was popular for cleaning.

The caustic powder evidently destroyed this poor fellow’s stomach. Grandma said that doctors removed the useless organ and transplanted a goat’s stomach in place of it. For some strange reason I found that fascinating.

Each time we visited I wanted to hear the tragic tale. More and more as she repeated it I had to know more. Finally things got to the point where on one trip I asked,

Grandma, why did this man eat Red Devil Lye?”

To the best of my knowledge she never answered that question. I’m pretty sure Grandma and my parents knew, but most likely they believed I was too young to understand.

With the horrible story still rattling ’round inside my skull, a year ago I decided to investigate. Using it didn’t take long to find the answer.

It wasn’t uncommon back then for folks to commit suicide by swallowing lye. Doing so wasn’t always an instant death. Instead, it could be slow and painful. Evidently this former classmate of grandma’s elected to take his own life for whatever reason? Grandma said he didn’t live long after the transplant.

Not all of my grandparent’s tales were so macabre. As I mentioned earlier, this Red Devil Lye tale wasn’t meant for my ears to hear.

The events I still recall basically dealt with good things. Stories like my grandma and grandpa walking to school, wading or swimming in a stream, working in the fields, or going to church each Sunday in a horse-pulled wagon. Grandma said they’d not return home until late evening. Evidently it was customary back then to visit friends after a sermon.

When it was time for us to leave and return to Selma, Jim and I never wanted to go. We had too much fun there in spite of having no television.

I now have to wonder. Could children these days endure such an ordeal?

Road construction warning “smudge pot”

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

2 thoughts on “RED DEVIL LYE”

  1. I loved your story. I found it because I’m looking for the Red Devil Lye soap recipe that was on the back of the can for my mom. She said that was the best lye soap she’s ever used. Do you happen to have that recipe?


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