Fact or fiction? 4 Birmingham legends that may or may not be true

Willie Perry, the Birmingham Batman, with his 1971 Thunderbird. Photo via BhamWiki

Some tall-tales you hear just can’t be true…or can they? We looked into several Birmingham legends throughout the years to learn more—here’s what we found!

1. Birmingham’s Underground River — False

Joseph Mulhatton described a wide river in a giant underground cavern beneath Birmingham. Photo of a cavern in Wales for illustration (photo by Jon Eastwood)

Have you heard of the 300ft-wide, underground river that runs below Birmingham for miles? According to legend, a massive river runs below Birmingham’s streets and flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico!

Although there are several underground springs and water sources around town, this story is FICTION. A tall-tale-teller by the name of Joseph Mulhatton entertained himself by penning fictional stories and sending them to gullible news organizations. On August 28, 1884, the Birmingham Iron-Age published Mulhatton’s report, titled “Underneath Us“, which spoke of the great (fictional) river. However, no one has ever seen the river!

2. Birmingham’s Batmobile — True

A local man driving around town in a 1971 Thunderbird decked out in gadgets and antennas, rescuing stranded motorists sounds too strange to be true, doesn’t it? Well, buckle your seatbelts because that’s exactly what Willie Perry, the “Birmingham Batman” did in the 1980s.

Perry lived by the motto, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So, he would drive around Birmingham with gas, jumper cables and other tools to help people with broken down cars. Additionally, he would give rides to folks who had too much to drink, drive the elderly to doctor’s appointments and much more.

Unfortunately, Perry died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on his car in 1985. Since 1982, August 3rd has been recognized as “Willie Perry Day”, thanks to Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr.

3. Jack Daniel’s Birmingham Branch — True

The Motlow’s Corn Whisky sign still exists! Photo via Wally Argus

In the early 1900s Lemuel and Frank “Spoon” Motlow, nephews of the Jack Daniel of Jack Daniel’s distillery in Tennessee, opened their own distillery here in Birmingham. Although they had to deal with Jefferson County’s own prohibition laws from 1908 to 1911, they reopened as the Jack Daniel Distilling Company that year. In fact, they produced the No. 7 Lincoln County Whisky while the original Jack Daniel’s dealt with Tennessee’s prohibition. Eventually, the distillery had to shut down due to nationwide prohibition in 1918.

4. Miss Fancy, the Alcohol-Drinking Elephant — True

Miss Fancy, a large and gentle Indian elephant, was the main attraction of Birmingham’s first public zoo—the Avondale Zoo. After Miss Fancy was rescued from a circus in 1913, she became a favorite of schoolchildren who visited the Zoo. In fact, she became an informal mascot for Howard College (now Samford University) and even led the students on a parade to Legion Field for a game against Birmingham-Southern!

When Miss Fancy felt under the weather, her veterinarian would mix “elephant medicine” with a quart of liquor and several gallons of water. Since Alabama had statewide prohibition at the time, she would drink confiscated liquor. On one occasion, Miss Fancy and her trainer—both under the influence—went for a walk in Avondale. The police soon found it impossible to arrest a drunk elephant, so they sent Miss Fancy and her trainer back to the zoo to sleep it off.

What is your favorite Birmingham legend? Tag us @bhamnow and let us know!

  • Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.