The average person today knows very little about clock making. For many, it seems like an outdated practice, especially considering that most of the delicate procedures involved are now performed by machines. As technology has taken over the industry, the community of horological professionals has become smaller and more isolated. One such horologist by the name of John B. McLemore reached out to reporter Brian Reed from his home in Woodstock, AL. The result was the This American Life podcast S-Town, the name of which was taken from John’s opinion of the less-than perfect state of his hometown. He contacted Reed asking for help investigating a peculiar murder that took place in town and was seemingly swept under the rug. After Reed got touch with the antique clock restorer, he soon learned that the only thing more intriguing than the circumstances of this murder was the horologist himself, John B. McLemore.
McLemore’s craft of repairing and refurbishing old clocks was a delicate art. Compared with the rest of his lifestyle, which was chaotic and messy at times, it was truly a sight to behold. McLemore was a member of the NAWCC from 1983 to 2000. His work as a clock repairman was highly regarded by his colleagues and customers alike.
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Al Dodson is one such colleague. Dodson has been a clockmaker since 1971 and began working in his father’s clock shop as a boy. He and McLemore met in the late 1980s at a horology convention in northern Kentucky. Despite his eccentric manner and unassuming exterior, it quickly became obvious to Dodson that McLemore had a wealth of knowledge and hidden skill. John wowed Dodson with talks about the chemistry involved in various facets of clock making. Dodson says, “The man certainly knew his craft and had an exceptional talent for it.” Dodson learned of S-Town and John’s suicide from a colleague. The next day he listened to all seven episodes of the podcast in one sitting. The experience was heartbreaking for Dodson who felt that Reed’s portrayal of John was authentic. He has many fond memories of John McLemore, “He was a great man who was extremely bright and a lot of fun to be around.”
One particular technique he used, known as fire-gilding, was featured in the S-Town podcast. The process of fire-gilding is an ancient one and dates back as early as the 4th century BC. The purpose of the process is to transfer gold or silver onto another object, using mercury as a catalyst. When added to mercury, silver and gold will break down and dissolve into a viscous state, after which the mercury is heated past its boiling point and melts away, leaving behind only the liquefied silver or gold. This is the exact process used by McLemore to create a gold-plated dime for Brian Reed.
The career of a horologist is typically not a lucrative one, but McLemore claimed that he had large amounts of gold and money hidden around his property. Real or imaginary, John’s hidden wealth was the subject of much conflict throughout the S-Town podcast. Following John’s untimely suicide, his friends and family were put at odds over who should receive the apparent assets he had, as well as how to find them.
S-Town’s last chapter describes a ritual practiced by McLemore’s mother who, while pregnant, rubbed her stomach and prayed to God, “Please, Lord, make my child a genius.” By the time you finish listening to S-Town, you may believe that he was.
S-Town is free for listeners at stownpodcast.org.