The Legend of Bo Whoop
More than sixty years ago, the South's most famous shotgun went missing. Here's the story of how it was found
On December 1, 1948, two hunters emerged from the cool wetlands of Clarendon, Arkansas, and ambled along a country road. The men—Nash Buckingham and Clifford Green—had spent a long morning in a duck blind and were headed back to Green’s car, on their way home. Buckingham, then sixty-eight years old, was at the time one of the most famous writers in America, a sort of Mark Twain for the hunting set. At Green’s car, they met a warden, who asked to see their hunting licenses. The warden quickly realized that he was in the presence of the celebrated writer. He asked Buckingham if he could see the most famous shotgun in America, Buckingham’s talisman, an inanimate object that the writer had referred to—in loving, animistic terms—in a great number of his stories. The nine-pound, nine-ounce gun was a side-by-side 12-gauge Super Fox custom-made by the A. H. Fox Gun Company in Philadelphia.
The carbon steel plates on the frame were ornately engraved with a leafy scroll. The gun company’s signature fox, nose in the air, was engraved on the floorplate. The barrels had been bored by the renowned barrel maker Burt Becker and delivered 90 percent patterns of shot at 40 feet, an uncharacteristically tight load for a waterfowling shotgun. It was named Bo Whoop. A hunting buddy had designated it so, after the distinct deep, bellowing sound it made upon discharge.
The warden chatted up Buckingham, handling and admiring the writer’s gun, like a kid talking to Babe Ruth while holding the slugger’s bat. At some point during the conversation, the warden laid the gun down on the car’s back fender. Buckingham and Green soon bid the warden farewell and drove off, forgetting about Bo Whoop until many miles into their trip home. In a panic, they turned around and retraced their route, painstakingly eyeing every inch of the road, to no avail.
Buckingham spent the next few years in a desperate hunt for Bo Whoop. He lamented the loss of Bo Whoop in print, likening it to the death of a treasured hunting dog. He took out ads in local newspapers, offering rewards. He befriended local wardens and police, appealing to them to be on the lookout.
He would never find it. But in the process of its loss and failed recovery, its legend grew in stature. Bo Whoop became a metaphor for other things gone and never to be retrieved, like one’s youth or the American wilderness. It became the object of intense speculation and hearsay. Reports of Bo Whoop’s discovery surfaced regularly over the years. The gun was once supposedly displayed behind the counter in a southern Illinois pawnshop, only to disappear again, hastily, into the hands of a wealthy coal baron, before its identity could be verified. A man once fabricated a Super Fox, adhering to the specifications Buckingham had left behind in print, and sold it as Bo Whoop before being outed as a fraud. Bo Whoop became like the Russian duchess Anastasia, who purportedly died in the Bolshevik Revolution but kept turning up all over the world, different women claiming to be the youngest daughter of the last czar, still alive. Belief in the existence and reemergence of Bo Whoop required a great leap of faith. It became the province of dreamers.
The legend befitted its mythmaker. Theophilus Nash Buckingham was born in Memphis in 1880. He attended Harvard University in 1900, where his boxing coach was “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. There he contracted malaria and went home for a year to convalesce. When he recovered, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee, where he was the captain of the football team in 1902 (the team went 6-2). He pitched for the Memphis Chickasaws, a minor-league baseball team.
Buckingham was a man of idiosyncrasies. He was impeccably tidy in appearance, rarely seen in public without his tweed jacket and tie. He was a business owner, running a sporting goods store in the 1920s. Yet he never owned a house or a car, and never learned to drive. He was reportedly prone to moments of extreme forgetfulness, sometimes unable to recall the name of his own bird dog.
Buckingham was also a strident conservationist. He covered conservation topics in the hundreds of pieces he penned for magazines like Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield. He produced nine books (some were collections of his magazine stories), the most famous being De Shootinest Gent’Man & Other Tales, published in 1934 by the Derrydale Press. His writings sometimes veered into the pervasive sentimentality of that time, and some of his attempts at local dialect—particularly that of Southern blacks—are nearly indecipherable (he was no Twain in that regard). But Buckingham very often rose to the occasion in print, penning bons mots that must have induced knowing smiles and nods from his dedicated flock of readers. They loved him for lines like: “A duck call in the hands of the unskilled is conservation’s greatest asset.” They loved him for creating a legendary life for a shotgun.
In 1950 two considerate friends made Buckingham another Fox, named Bo Whoop II. But the original, in the mind of its erstwhile owner, would never be replaced. Buckingham died in 1971, two months shy of his ninety-first birthday.