The Tale of John Leak and His Foot of Clay

Once upon a time, spring had begun for the more than 4,000 people in a booming Southern town named after the Marquis de Lafayette. Trees and shrubs—forsythia, azaleas, redbuds, and wild cherries— provided a dazzling palette of yellow and pink and purple and white to paint the birthday of Annie Murchison on Palm Sunday, March 24, 1861. This girlchild had rosy cheeks, but she was fragile and of delicate health. Before she was three weeks old, the nation was at war. Two weeks before her fourth birthday, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops blew up the Fayetteville Arsenal, torched the offices of the town’s influential newspaper, laid waste to the local cotton mills and railroads, burned stores of rosin and cotton, and destroyed all the grist mills save one to feed the families that remained.

Annie grew up in a town struggling to rebuild after the war. She struggled as well. Her frail constitution prevented her from attending the gatherings where her friends met their beaus, so her father made provisions for her support as a single Southern lady. However, the dashing Walter Francis Leak spotted Annie at a church supper and obtained her father’s permission to court her. They married on October 7, 1885; at 24, Annie was spared the grim future of a spinster aunt.

Although she did not conceive right away, Annie made a comfortable home for Walter, who by this time was making a name for himself at the mercantile firm of A. E. Rankin & Co. However, shortly after their first anniversary, Annie learned that she was expecting. Raising a family was her only dream, but one she had never expected to come to fruition. The weeks and months ahead were treacherous for the loving couple. Annie was ill, and blood stained her underclothing from time to time. She spent weeks confined to her bed, but after a long and arduous labor, she gave birth to John M. Leak. His arrival on September 12, 1887, was the happiest and most blessed event Walter and Annie had ever experienced—or would experience.

Annie could not produce the milk to suckle her child, so Walter employed a wet nurse until the infant could eat solid food. But Annie loved her little boy; she cuddled him and called him Baby Johnny and sewed an intricate christening gown for him. She delighted in his laughter and even in his tears because he was her handsome son. She sang to him the ballads and hymns and songs of Southern allegiance she had learned at her own mother’s knee. She knitted socks and sweaters and crocheted blankets for her little prince, for he was always shivering from the cold. At Christmastide, she sang him the haunting Coventry Carol that the mothers of Bethlehem sang to their doomed infant sons: “Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child. Bye, bye, lully, lullay.”

Johnny was delicate like his mother, and both were fortunate to survive his first winter. They lay cuddled together, wrapped in quilts of goose down, gurgling and cooing and singing together with the crackling sounds of the fireplace as their steady accompaniment. They were constant companions in the sumptuous room Walter prepared for them. Annie read stories to Johnny and told him all the mother’s lessons he needed to know because she knew they would not be together long.

Spring came again with its brilliant colors and heady fragrances. Walter opened the curtains so mother and son could share in the richness of the season. And they did. Even though her health was waning, Annie entertained her smiling son with rhymes and handmade puppets and songs featuring talking animals. And so, clinging to the child who had brought so much joy into her uneventful life, Annie slipped away to Heaven just two months after her 27th birthday.

It soon became apparent that she had taken her son with her—at least most of him, the essential part, the soul. Johnny clung to his meager life, but without the constant physical and emotional presence of the mother who had never left his side for their eight months together, and despite his sunny disposition, he began to seem far, far away. His grief-stricken father and his doting grandparents often speculated that Annie had left only a small and insignificant part of her little boy to be with them on Earth—perhaps something as small as a hand or a foot.

Johnny never flourished. He failed to gain weight, and he neither sat alone nor fed himself nor crawled as other children did. He never learned to walk or say Daddy or Memaw or Papaw. The sounds he made were nonsense rhymes, and strangely, he seemed to know the tunes to the ditties Annie had sung to hum. On the morning of September 24, 1889, aged 2 years and 12 days, he opened his blue eyes wide, smiled a smile such as his father had never seen, and said strongly and clearly, “Mama.” And then the earthly part of John M. Leak—his little clay foot—went to Heaven to join his better self in the arms of his joyful and loving mother.

All the angels in Heaven rejoiced that day. And through their tears, even Walter and his parents and Annie’s own parents rejoiced to know that Johnny was whole again and with the mother who loved him so. And Annie and her little Johnny could be heard singing together in their little corner of Heaven, “Lully, lullay,” whose haunting minor strains resolve, as ever, into the serene smile of the final major chord, the Picardy third.


This little tale is a combination of fact and fancy. I first learned about the short lives of Annie and Walter and their little son when, cameras in hand, I visited Cross Creek Cemetery #2 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. As I wander through historic cemeteries, photographing the graves that touch me with their poignant beauty, I often imagine the stories of those who lie beneath my footfalls. The strange statuary adorning the graves of Annie and John Leak provided fertile ground for my fancies. Below, I have included a series of fascinating links that I used to provide some historical grounding for the story I created of John’s earthbound foot:

Coventry Carol (YouTube)
Cross Creek Cemetery Number One, National Registry of Historic Places
Diary of a Woman of Fayetteville, March 22, 1865
Five Days of Destruction in Fayetteville
Walter Francis Leak grave
War Is Marching Our Way, Fayetteville Captured March 11, 1865

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