Albion Tourgee, A Fool's Errand

Patito de Hule

Ad Honorem
Jan 2009
Minneapolis, MN
The owl on the bauble appeared on the cover of Bricks without Straw, Tourgee's sequel to A Fool's Errand. The two novels were his first best-sellers.​


I. Comfort Servosse, known throughout the novel as the Fool, becomes a lawyer, settles in Peru, MI, and marries Metta Ward.

II. In 1861, Servosse is settled with Metta when the Civil War comes. He is now 27. He experiences anxiety and depression, at first unexplained, but then he reads the news of the Union rout at Bull Run.

III. War sets a heavy pall over the Servosse home. Comfort is determined to serve. The desire to serve is spoken of a mental illness afflicting especially youth. The particular symptom of his mental illness consists in donning blue clothing.

IV. Four years later back home with a daughter named Lil. He was a colonel and brevet brigadier. He broaches the idea to Metta of moving back to the South. He believes that things will be quiet now in the South and that within two years one fifth of the Union’s former soldiers will have moved there too.

V. He continues to consider moving south and writes his old friend and college professor, Dr. Enos Martin, DD.

VI. While the state of affairs is still up in the air, Servosse receives a letter from a Col. Ezekiel Vaughn. This letter is a flashback to his experience of meeting Col. Vaughn who, a few days after Appomattox, had wanted to take an oath of allegiance.

VII. The flashback is continued to reminisce on Jehu Brown, a Redstring whom he met about the same time. The contents of the letter are revealed. There is an old place, The Warrington Estate, that is up place is for sale.

VIII. This chapter describes the Warrington Estate and some of its history. How Col. Servosse comes to buy it through Col. Vaughn’s agency.

IX. The family arrives at Warrington. Metta writes her sister describing the place enthusiastically.

X. In another letter to her sister, Metta tells of the first signs of trouble. Respectable people don’t appreciate the fact the Servosses are carpet baggers and associate with ladies from the Missionary Association who teach at the colored school. Their friend, George Garnet, is said to be a “Virginia abolitionist,” a slaveholder who believes slavery is wrong.

XI. Servosse builds houses on lots of Warrington and sells to a few freedmen. Attends a political meeting in a grove, six miles from Warrington.

XII. Servosse is called upon to make a speech at the meeting.

XIII. That evening, an ambush is laid for him, but Servosse is warned and waylays the ambuscade. Thomas Savage is injured in the attempt. Servosse takes the injured man to Warrington.

XIV. Three Blacks are arrested for the “murder” of Thomas Savage. They are about to be bound over for lynching when Comfort Servosse speaks up and tells the “court” that Savage is alive and at Warrington.

XV. Squire Hyman stops by for a visit and borrows some abolitionist books. They discuss slavery and abolitionism. Hyman explains the Southern POV to Comfort.

XVI. Servosse learns what it means to be a carpetbagger. He receives a threatening letter from “The Capting [sic] of the Regulators.” His tenants are visited by regulators. He publishes the threat and his reply in the Verdenton Gazette.

XVII. Metta writes another letter to her sister, Julia. She describes a church service in the Negro village and their growing feeling of isolation at Warrington.

XVIII. Comfort and Metta receive a number of letters in response to Comfort’s notice in the paper about the warning from the Regulators.

XIX. Col. Servosse hears of the Union league and attends a meeting at Verdenton. He learns to him about Red Strings and the like. He is still naïve about his neighbors’ feelings.

XX. A hiatus in the story to tell the history of Reconstruction and evoke an understanding of the emotions involved.

XXI. Continuing with the history lesson, this chapter discusses the differences between the North and South as regards the status of Blacks and of slavery in people’s thinking. What Southerners think, what they think Northerners think, what Northerners think Southerners think. This chapter is somewhat preachy, but there are some quotable passages in it.

XXII. The Fool has received repeated friendly warnings to keep his opinions to himself. On his way home after dark, he is met by Dr. Gates who warns him sternly about this and advises him not to take the same road home after dark all the time.

XXIII. Comfort attends a Union League meeting, is nominated and elected delegate to the Constitutional Convention. At the meeting he meets Col. Rhenn, scalawag.

XXIV. Wisdom Crieth in the Streets is the title of chapter 24 of 47. “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice;” Proverbs 1:20 RSV. Having been elected as a delegate, the Fool receives many letters urging him to participate in such-and-such a way. One letter from Senator _______ _______ urges him to pass certain amendments to the antebellum state constitution and hurry it through the convention. Servosse disagrees and writes the senator a letter explaining his own opinions on the importance of this job.

XXV. A year has passed. Servosse writes his old college mentor complaining about how reconstruction has been done. “We have sown to the wind; we shall reap the whirlwind.”

XXVI. A longer chapter than most, it is a tract on the hatred of the conquered South for its conqueror, the north. Discussion of epithets “Abolitionist” and “Carpetbagger” contrasting what each means in the North to what it connotes in the South.

XXVII. The Fool hears of the Ku Klux Klan. At first he believes it is just fun loving kids, but Bob Martin comes to him. He’s been whipped and his baby killed. Uncle Jerry forgets his usual prudence and suggests Huntsville prepare to defend itself. Huntsville is the Black suburb of Verdenton, cut out of the old Hunt plantation and a part of Warrington that the Fool has bought, subdivided, and sold to the freedmen. Servosse hasn’t realized yet that he has anything to fear. He’s been called a Carpetbagger.

XXVIII. Records letters received by the Fool from friends in nearby counties recounting incidents of the Klan. Each letter contains a different type of incident, clearly selected to typify the types of activities the Klan engaged in. He receives a letter from the governor warning him not to go to an appointment in the town of P­­­­______ where the KKK has threatened to kill him. He goes anyway and returns home safely.

XXIX. Servosse’s neighbor, Squire Hyman, drops by Warrington. His son Jesse has been whipped by the KKK. He asks Servosse to give him a letter of introduction to anyone out west where his son might go. He writes a note to the Rev. Theophilus Jones. A surprising letter comes back; Jones was whipped at the instigation of Hyman several years ago. But he’s a fanatic and will take care of Jesse Hyman.

XXX. I. John Walters, modeled after Sen. John Walter Stephens, a scalawag, was murdered in the courthouse at Rockford after a Democratic meeting of the “best people” of the town. The local press makes much of the jealousy of his Negro and radical friends, suggesting that some of them assassinated him. They also slander his wife. “The fool would not hear a word as to any other word of his friend’s death, except that it was a political murder, coolly planned, and executed with the assent of the entire meeting of respectable men who were passing patriotic resolutions above the scene of its perpetration. It was very unreasonable, but perhaps not unnatural, that he should do so. II. Describes the last few hours of John Walters and the search for him after the town meeting. III. One Nat Haskell relates to Servosse the story of John Walters’ death, a story he overheard eavesdropping on a Mr. Barksdill and Mr. Thompson.

XXXI. THE FOLLY OF WISDOM “Uncle” Jerry denounces the men who killed Walters at a church meeting. A week later Jerry is lynched. “It don’t do fer niggers to know too much! Dat’s what ail Uncle Jerry.”

XXXII. The Fool writes to “One of the Wise Men” (a Congressman) telling him what has happened so far. He pointed out the “mockery of the boast “ that slavery had been abolished and liberty established without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude. He receives back a letter full of platitudes, but no suggestion of help. The Fool writes back telling his own opinions regarding reconstruction. This letter he allowed to be published in the Verdenton newspaper. To this the Wise Man made no answer but let it be known that he considered the reply disrespectful

XXXIII. Servosse is visited by a committee of the best citizens. They demand that he retract or deny the letter. He refuses.

XXXIV. The North is becoming aware of the KKK. At first skeptical, then mocking, finally horrified. A “few” of the carpetbag governments have declared martial law to put down the KKK. Congress prepares the KKK reports and passes the enforcement acts.

XXXV. Lily is beginning to grow up. She has met a young man, Melville Gurney, son of General Marion Gurney of Pultowa County. Because of the family’s social isolation she doesn’t know whether to invite him to her house. He discusses Col. Servosse with his father who is one of the most influential Southerners in the county. Col. Servosse receives an invitation from Judge Denton in Glenville. After he has left, Lily gets a message warning her father not to go to Glenville and, if possible, to get a warning to Judge Denton. It is too late to catch him before the train for Glenville leaves, and she takes off for Glenville on her father’s spirited thoroughbred, Young Lollard. It is a race against time.

XXXVI. “A Race against Time” is an apt if unimaginative name for the chapter. Lily races toward Glenville. She makes good time until she reaches a four-way fork in the road. Hearing KKK signals, she hides in a thicket and finds herself in the middle of Klan camp meeting. They discuss killing Judge Denton, learn that Servosse is with Denton, and vote with only one dissent to kill Servosse as well. Mel Gurney is with them as she hears the lone dissenter say that he and Mel Gurney had only come as substitutes at the last minute. She learns that it’s four miles to Glenville and which road she needs to take. While they are talking, she takes off, but runs into a Mel Gurney standing guard along the road. She surprises him and apparently shoots him in the arm. She runs and he pursues for a couple of miles while Walter Scott’s Lochinvar runs through her head. Lily reaches Glenville physically and emotionally exhausted and collapses in her father’s arms at the train station.

XXXVII. John Burleson and Mel Gurney discuss the Klan raid and express their admiration of Lily Servosse’s night ride. Both decide to back out of the Klan. Burleson confesses to Judge Denton regarding his membership, but says he will never implicate anyone else. Gurney admits his part in the raid to Servosse and asks his permission to return Lily’s hat in person. Burleson and Denton decide to go back with Servosse to Warrington for mutual protection.

XXXVIII. The party, along with Mel Gurney, returns to Verdenton and to Warrington. Mr. Eyebright, a prominent scalawag in the county is there as well. After dinner, a servant asks Mr. Eyebright to come to Servosse’s library where after a mysterious meeting Judge Denton and Servosse are also invited in. There, Ralph Kirkwood confesses to participating in the lynching of Jerry Brown. Word spreads, and soon hundreds of Klansmen are confessing to crimes large and small. They will not be tried, however, for soon the legislature pardons both the Klansmen and their victims.

XXXIX. Twelve years after Lee’s surrender there was another surrender.

XL. The chapter sarcastically extols the “peace” in Rockford since the death of John Walters.

XLI. “The Fool felt that he was learning wisdom . . . He saw that he had expected to much, that he had been simple enough to believe that
the leopard might change his spots, while yet the Ethiopian retained his dusky skin.” The fool is getting along better with his neighbors and no longer preaching about equal rights. Lily is growing up. Discussion of her education.

XLII. John Burleson interceded with Servosse and convinces him that what Mel Gurney did was an act of chivalry.

XLIII. Mel Gurney asks Servosse permission to court Lily; he agrees with some reservation and tells Gurney that she is out riding toward Verdenton. Gurney overtakes her; she recognizes the horse as the one ridden by the messenger who warned her of her father’s danger. Mel has a younger brother Jimmie. Lily turns down his request, but says he may court her if he gets his father’s permission. She returns to Warrington and tells her family what has occurred. Mel returns to his family and informs them that she has refused him.

XLIV. Lily and Lollard go out for a ride and join a fox hunt. Lily is first to the kill and General Gurney a close second. He likes her. The Servosses go North, and Mel follows Lily.

XLV. This chapter is the didactic conclusion of the novel. Back home in the North Col. Servosse discusses with his old professor, Dr. Enos Martin, the failure and success of Reconstruction. Servosse says that the freedmen must spend their “forty years” of wandering in the desert and leave an entire generation in the wildernesss. The chapter could be read without reading any of the rest of the book, and one would, perhaps, only fail to understand why the author felt as he does.

XLVI. This chapter is the conclusion of the story. Comfort Servosse returns to Warrington ahead of his family and is soon taken with yellow fever. He adds a codicil to his will to specify where he is to be buried and the inscription on the marker. He sends a letter an telegram to Metta not to come back yet. But General Gurney writes Metta anyway and she and Lil return the night before his death.

XLVII. The monument to the Carpet Bagger.


He followed the council of the wise

And became a fool thereby


Patito de Hule

Ad Honorem
Jan 2009
Minneapolis, MN
The novel A Fool’s Errand was Albion Tourgee’s first successful novel, published in 1879, two years after the end of Reconstruction. It is not strictly biographical, but the parallels to his own life are close enough to warrant attention to some of the details.

Tourgee was born in 1838 in the Western Reserve in northeastern Ohio. His mother was sickly when he was born and died when he was five. He did not get along with his stepmother and lived with his mother’s family for several years before returning to live with his father. He attended schools and began some college. He was whiggish but apolitical. His fiancé, Emma was an abolitionist. He became a Repbulican. When the Civil War began, Albion wanted to answer Lincoln’s call, but Emma was against it. He decided to go, but did not want to marry and leave her alone. She insisted that they marry now, and they did.

Tourgee was a sergeant when he was injured at Bull Run. While in full retreat toward Washington, he was struck by a gun carriage, injuring his spine. Told by doctors he would never walk again, he left the army and returned home. He spent a year in recovery, and did recover sufficiently to rejoin the Army. During this time, he passed the exam and was admitted to the bar in Ohio. He was appointed a lieutenant and asked to organize the 105th Ohio dragoons. A few days after beginning, his unit was redesignated infantry and was sent to the front. This time he was captured and spent a few months as a prisoner of war before being traded back to the North.

It is worth noting at this point that Comfort Servosse, the protagonist of the novel, was a successful lawyer in Peru, MI, and joined the Army at age 27. He would become a colonel and brevet brigadier. When Tourgee was being considered for an appointment to a judgeship by W W Holden, he would claim to have been a captain and that he had gone to law school at Harvard. He narrowly avoided being caught in this lie and was careful thereafter not to claim such a resume.

After the end of the war, Tourgee moved to North Carolina. The move was partly to find a warmer climate to recuperate from his back injury. Initially he was in a radical faction of the Republican Party opposed to W. W. Holden. The two recognized the necessity for unity in the party, and Tourgee bowed to the Holden faction. He had a nursery business in Greensboro with two northern partners. The business went bankrupt within a couple of years. In 1867 he was nominated as a delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868. He had made ten promises to the Guilford County residents and managed to keep all but one of them. He was pretty pushy, but also intelligent and a good leader.

One of the innovations he pushed at the Constitutional Convention was a modernized Civil and Penal code and a simplified code to combine procedures at courts of equity and criminal courts. A code commission was created in the new Constitution to write the new code. Tourgee was one of the three code commissioners, and it brought in enough salary to relieve the bankrupt family. During this time he was also elected to be the Circuit Judge in the Superior Court. Tourgee’s ambition had been to run for Congress, but he did not get the nomination. One of his Black friends pleaded with him to remain in the court. He gained the reputation of being a fair judge, both among the Conservatives and among the Republicans.

Tourgee received numerous threats from the Ku Klux Klan. When Senator John Walter Stephens was murdered, he wanted to prosecute the guilty parties, but was much frustrated when they obtained perjured alibis and he had to dismiss the charges. It was similar in the lynching of Wyatt Outlaw. John Walter Stephens and Wyatt Outlaw are represented in the novel by the characters John Walters and Jerry Hunt respectively. These two murders led to what is called the Kirk-Holden war in North Carolina. Tourgee had written a letter to Senator Abbot a week after the murder of Stephens. Abbott sent a copy of the letter to Governor Holden who turned it over to a newspaper reporter. It was published in the New York Tribune and subsequently, with distortions, in North Carolina. This letter and its consequences are recorded in the novel as a letter “the Fool” wrote to one of the “Wise Men.”

The result was great danger for Tourgee and his family. He wrote to acquaintances in Washington saying that he would face yellow fever, ticks, cannibals, or anything for a post outside of America safe for the Klan. The response was that there was a diplomatic post in Peru that he might have if Thomas Settle did not accept it. Settle did accept, and Tourgee remained in Greensboro for fifteen years.

While Comfort Servosse would die at Warrington, Tourgee eventually moved west, and was later given a post in the Consulate in Bordeaux. After the war Tourgee spent his entire life fighting for civil rights for Blacks. He was the plaintiff’s attorney in the famous case Plessy v. Ferguson which decided that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. The phrase “justice is color-blind” made famous by the dissenting opinion actually came from Tourgee’s brief in the case.

Patito de Hule

Ad Honorem
Jan 2009
Minneapolis, MN
I have one serious criticism of this novel. It is that there are two threads in the story, and they are not very well woven together.

One thread is the story of Lily and of her love of Mel Gurney. The synopsis of this story is short. Lily was born in Peru, MI, of a mother and father who, after the Civil War move to a large estate, Warrington, in the South. So the setting is Reconstruction with a Radical Republican carpet bagger father. The family becomes socially isolated, then under threat from the Ku Klux Klan.

As Lily comes of age, she meets Mel Gurney, the son of General Gurney who is an ultra-conservative. Lily invites Mel to a dinner party at Warrington. Mel asks his father about the Servosses and learns that they are radicals of whom he disapproves. Yet, as a man, Gen. Gurney thinks well of him.

Some time later, Col. Servosse is invited to Judge Denton's home at Glenville. Shortly after he leaves the house, a young messenger arrives on a gray horse with a message that the Ku Klux plan to waylay Judge Denton between Glenville and his home. The plan is to stop him on a bridge and burn him to death there. The message tells Col. Servosse not to go and, if possible, to warn Judge Denton but not to use the telegraph to do so.

Lily saddles up "Young Lollard," a very spirited horse and races toward Glenville in hope of arriving there before the train. On the way, she comes to a crossroads and isn't sure of which way to go. She sees a Ku Kluxer and hears others coming, and hides in a grove of trees near the road. As she waits, others arrive and have a meeting at the crossroads. They have learned that Col. Servosse will be with Judge Denton and decide to "visit the extreme penalty" on him as well as Denton. There is one vote against killing Servosse and he will turn out to be John Burleson. To Lily's advantage, they mention which road leads to Glenville and that it is four miles. They will take another route that is five or six miles.

Lily takes an opportunity to break out of the trees at a full run of her horse, but meets a KKK sentry as she starts up the road. She fires her gun, and he chases her a couple of miles before dropping back to rejoin his Ku Klux mission. Lily reaches the train station in time to stop Judge Denton and her father. The KKK party is left in lurch at the bridge between there and Judge Denton's home.

In the morning, everyone in Glenville knows of the plot and Lily is considered a hero. John Burleson returns to town with Lily's hat and with Mel Gurney. The latter was the sentinel shot in the arm by Lily. Gurney had recognized Lily and let her get away. He brought back to the KKK a tale about being startled by a rabbit that made his horse run to throw them off her track. He arranges with Gurney to take Lily's hat back to her himself. Gurney publicly confesses to being a Klansman, followed by Gurney. Col. Servosse invites Judge Denton to go home with him for a few days and invites Gurney and Burleson to come too.

Here the romantic thread becomes entangled with the historical thread. At Warrington the next evening, a character confesses to being present at the murder of Jerry Hunt. When word gets around everyone around is confessing to involvement or is leaving town. Jerry Hunt was modeled after Wyatt Outlaw, a Negro politician, and when some of the perpetrators confessed to the real Judge Tourgee, he obtained 63 indictments from the grand jury. More about that in another post.

Mel Gurney asks Col. Servosse's permission to court Lily, and Servosse is reluctantly OK with that. But when Mel asks Lily, she wonders how his parents feel about it. She recognizes his horse as the one that the messenger rode and asks Gurney if he has a younger brother. On learning that his parents do not approve of this courtship, she refuses but will not tell him about the messenger.

The Servosse family leaves town for a year in a chapter that is the end of the historical thread. When Col. Servosse returns, everyone learns what Lily already knows--that Gen. Gurney had sent Servosse the message about the KKK raid. By the time the colonel's family catches up with him, he is dying of yellow fever. The book ends leaving the end of the romance, obvious, but tantalizingly to the reader's imagination.

Patito de Hule

Ad Honorem
Jan 2009
Minneapolis, MN
A Fool’s Errand is not autobiographical, but the events described are real, historical events. And the frequent asides to describe reconstruction, what I call the historical thread of the novel, are an accurate portrayal of Reconstruction from Judge Tourgee’s point of view. Many of the characters are composites or actually built on a personage in the counties adjacent to Guilford County where Judge Tourgee rode circuit. The character John Burleson is an example. It has been suggested that he is built around one John Birney Gretter of Greensboro. C. Alphonso Smith in his 1916 biography of William Sydney Porter mentions Burleson in a passage worth quoting:

The Fool’s Errand finds few readers today, but when it appeared, in 1879, it took the country by storm. . .
The story takes place in Greensboro, which is called “Verdenton”; Judge Tourgee, “the fool,” is “Colonel Servosse”; and most of the other characters are Greensboro men easily recognized. It is certainly a noteworthy fact that “John Burleson,” a citizen of Greensboro and the hero in “A Fool’s Errand,” has recently reappeared as “Stephen Hoyle,” the villain, in “The Traitor,” the novel which Mr. Thomas Dixon has wrought into the vast and stirring historic drama called “The Birth of a Nation.” Neither author attempts an accurate appraisal of the character or career of “John Burleson” alias “Stephen Hoyle,” both interpreting him only as the rock on which the Ku Klux Klan was wrecked.
C. Alphonso Smith, Biography O. Henry, p 61 ff.

Tourgee originally published the novel anonymously only as “by One of the Fools.” It is not surprising, then, that the character “Comfort Servosse” does not closely resemble Tourgee. He may be more of what Tourgee liked to imagine himself to be. While Tourgee joined the Union Army at age 21 before he passed the bar exam, Servosse was more mature and joined at 27 and was already an established lawyer. Tourgee sometimes claimed the rank of captain, he was only a lieutenant at the end of the war. Servosse was a colonel and brevet brigadier. Tourgee was injured at Bull Run and forced to leave the Army for a year; Servosse became depressed at Bull Run and joined right after.

As to the character of John Burleson, Otto Olsen in Carpetbagger’s Crusade, cites a letter in which Tourgee states that John Birney Gretter of Greensboro was the only man he (Tourgee) ever knew who confessed and renounced the Klan without fear. Olsen and others have identified Gretter as the character Burleson was built up around. However that may be, there is no mistaking the circumstances of the death of Wyatt Outlaw , a Negro leader of Graham, NC, and that of “Uncle” Jerry Hunt in the novel. Similarly, the murder of State Senator John Walter Stephens in Yanceyville. In the novel, Servosse wrote a letter to “one of the wise men” in Washington. In real life, Judge Tourgee wrote a letter to Senator Abbott a week after the murder. (The details of the murder cited in the letter are not accurate, but were well within Tourgee’s understanding right after the event.) The confessions referred to in the novel were confessions, many of them obtained by Tourgee, resulted in numerous indictments of Klansmen in the areas around Guilford, Alamance, and Caswell Counties. As stated in the novel, the indictments led to an act by the North Carolina legislature in a general amnesty for all outrages committed under the auspices of secret organizations, including the Union Leagues. Judge Tourgee was outraged and the Republicans attempted unsuccessfully to remove Republicans from the amnesty. Six Negroes were convicted by Tourgee of arson in vengeance for a KKK raid, but they were not pardoned since they were not connected with a secret society.

Many other characters and incidents in the novel can be connected easily to historical persons or events, but these should suffice to make the point. The novel was worth reading just for the fun of making these connections if not for the flavor on the era of Reconstruction.
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