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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pint-sized P.I.s uncover plundered Civil War treasure

While most kids their age are out catching frogs and collecting Pokemon cards, four youngsters right here in Oxford have been up to their necks in buried treasure.

The fabulous foursome, dubbed "the Kudzu Kids," recently solved a 135-year-old mystery in their own backyard.

By researching old manuscripts and interviewing key Oxford residents, the kids — Rachel McGowan, 13; her brother, Hunter, 12; Melody Cheever, 12; and Zach Burgess, 11 — discovered an underground labyrinth of tunnels designed by an obscure Civil War general who made his home in Oxford around the time of these kids' great-great-great-great grandparents.

The intrigue began when the kids were hanging out on the University of Mississippi campus and saw people entering an off-limits building on campus. Their curiosity got the best of them, and they explored the building, where — much to their surprise — the kids stumbled upon a human bone.

The angry professor

Professor Charles LowryTheir discovery made them heroes on the front pages of newspapers throughout the area, but they made an enemy of Ole Miss Civil War professor Charles Lowry.

"Right away it was clear that we had found something we weren't supposed to," said Kudzu Kid Rachel. "Dr. Lowry was mad that we had brought publicity to his project, so we knew right away it was Civil War-related."

The kids went to work digging through the university's archive of Civil War documents and letters, and they discovered that the college campus had been used as a field hospital during the 1860s.

"All of the letters mentioned this guy, General Shegog, and we did some more research and found that he had tried to horde all the wounded soldiers' valuables to hide them from the Yankees, who were about to invade Oxford," Rachel explained.

The kids recorded interviews and photographed different sites on campus. They also used their cell phones to record conversations and important information.

When the angry professor caught wind of their investigation, he tried to sabotage the kids' progress by closing the Civil War archives.

The general's descendant

Mrs. Mildred ShegogThe kids turned their search to the Internet and found a Shegog living in Oxford. It turned out to be Mildred Shegog, great-great granddaughter to the old general.

She invited the kids to rummage through her ancestor's old records, where they found a poem written by the general that gave clues to his treasure's hiding place in a series of tunnels beneath the university.

The kids were almost ready for their treasure hunt when the last clue fell into place — an actual treasure map.

Following the map

Click to enlarge
Rachel explains how the Kudzu Kids found the treasure room by consulting the General's map and poem.

"By reading the General's cadence and poem, we knew that he put God before country. If you look at the map, the tunnels to the left of Santo Spirito form a cross, and the tunnels to the right of Stark's Bait form a star, representing the republic.

"If there's one thing General Shegog put before his country and after God, though, it was the Confederacy.

"If you notice the dens positioned at various places throughout the tunnels, you'll see that the design resembles the stars and bars of the Confederate flag, except the middle is cut out — that's precisely where the bars intersect. In other words, 'X' marks the spot."

"It was totally luck," said Rachel. "We were following one of Dr. Lowry's assistants, who happened to have the map. He scanned the map at the computer lab, and Zach knew how to retrieve the file after he left. After that, we just studied the map and followed the clues."

But when the kids finally set out to claim the hoarded treasures, their journey through the dank, dangerous tunnels resulted in near tragedy.

Instead of treasure, danger!

"We followed all the clues and found the treasure room, but there was no treasure," Hunter explained. "Instead, we get down there, and a flood of water comes gushing in. We couldn't get out or anything. Thank God Zach brought his cell phone, and we called my dad to let him know what was going on."

Luckily, Rachel had remained above ground and maintained contact with the amateur spelunkers. She was able to assemble the clues and pinpoint her fellow treasure hunters on the map. That gave emergency rescue workers the exact spot to dig and retrieve the soggy sleuths before the treasure room was flooded.

The kids help authorities locate the treasure

After Hunter, Zach and Mel were rescued from the tunnels, the kids explained to the police about the treasure, and by studying their clues one last time, they figured out where the missing treasure was located.

"The whole thing hit me when Hunter and the others were already in the tunnels," Rachel said. "Mrs. Shegog had already found the treasure. When we went to visit her, she told us we could look in the attic, but that she didn't have a basement. But in the general's poem, he specifically mentions being in his basement, and that was the exact same house Mrs. Shegog lives in today.

"On top of that, we found an article about Mrs. Shegog winning a senior beauty pageant, and it mentions her wearing a red-heart locket," Melody added. "That necklace was mentioned in a Civil War letter we found from a wounded soldier named Beauchamp, who said the general had taken a locket just like that from him."

Just as the kids had predicted, police discovered a basement filled with treasure at Mildred Shegog's home. Among the artifacts was a jewel-studded, gold crucifix, which dates back to the 16th century during the time Hernando DeSoto and his fellow Spanish explorers passed through Mississippi.

Descendant double-crossed

The Yoknapatawpha County Sheriff's Department intervened in the mystery just in time, as Shegog's grandson, Jerry O'Brian, was loading the treasure in a U-Haul for a quick getaway.

O'Brian, who was on parole from Washington's state prison, had misled the kids during their investigation by planting the bone and posing as a janitor for their witness interviews.

Jerry O'Brian AKA Jerry BoyceO'Brian was taken into custody for breaking parole and attempting to steal the Civil War treasure from his grandmother.

Professor pays the piper for pretense

Investigators subsequently found out that Dr. Lowry and his crew had caused the flooding in the tunnels when they ruptured a water main while digging for the treasure.

"I swear, I wasn't trying to hurt those children," Lowry insists. "Sure, I was upset that they interfered with my excavation, but I had no idea they knew as much as they did about Shegog. I didn't even know they were in the tunnels at the time the water main was ruptured."

After the revelation about his actions, Lowry was fired from the university for destroying university property and acting in a manner unbecoming of an Ole Miss professor.

The professor reacted in outrage. "This university still hasn't forgiven me for being related to William Lowry, a soldier in the University Greys who stormed the Lyceum with a bullwhip and challenged the chancellor after he was expelled," Lowry told the school newspaper following his own expulsion.

"That was over 150 years ago! I offer a challenge of my own to the Lyceum, though mine is in an intellectual challenge: Come to terms with your own history, and don't be afraid of past defeat, for victory answers the call of the righteous and brave."

Back to school and back to normal

In the meantime, the Kudzu Kids have returned to their everyday lives, going to school and doing homework.

Though the pint-sized P.I.s didn't get a share of the treasure, the university expressed its appreciation for their exemplary research and courage, and the kids have the memories of a job well done.

"Anytime we want to remember this, we just have to go to, and it's all right there," said Rachel.

"Yeah," added Zach. "And who knows what'll happen next summer."

By Kemper Jones at 4:30 PM

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