Stanley Nelson

In March 1839, Mississippi congressman and attorney Seargent S. Prentiss boarded a stagecoach in Louisville, Kentucky, for a 75-mile ride southeast to Harrodsburg.

Among the people traveling with Prentiss was his friend Edward Wilkinson, a Mississippi judge who along with his protégé (John Murdaugh) and his brother (Dr. Benjamin Wilkinson) had gotten themselves into deep trouble in Louisville.

They had arrived in the city the previous December on a most happy occasion. The judge was to be married in his bride’s hometown of Bardstown not far from Louisville.

What happened next would eventually be settled in a courtroom. The three Mississippians would be tried for murdering two Kentuckians. During the trial, their lifestyle as prominent men from the Deep South – particularly well-off Mississippi men – would become part of the story. What they brought with them to Louisville was another part of the story – the Bowie knife. When it came time to fight, they didn’t raise their fists, they raised their weapons.

The knife that made Jim Bowie famous would be romanticized in the 19th century rather than become a symbol of violence. It was used to settle the slightest of disputes. In fact the prosecutor in the trial would make a compelling argument that southern men were defined by their love of duels and Bowie knives and that their rather warped sense of honor was nothing more than a senseless widow maker.

While Jim Bowie’s 1827 Sandbar Fight at Vidalia was a duel that turned into a knife-wielding brawl, the melee in Kentucky was every bit as savage a fight that also left behind a trail of blood, guts, gore, death and grieving families.

 

THE CITY OF LOUISVILLE

 

The town where the bloody brawl occurred was for all practical purposes born a half-century earlier. A team sent by the governor of Virginia to survey the interior of Kentucky camped at what became Louisville in the 1770s. It was located just above the Falls of the Ohio River, so named because of a limestone ledge, in essence a broken wall of rock that turned the Ohio into rapids depending on the depth of the stream.

According to the Navigator, an early 19th century river guide, the falls were “occasioned by a ledge of rocks which extend quite across the river, and are hardly to be perceived by the navigator in times of high freshes, unless by the superior velocity of the boat, which descends over them at the rate of from 10 to 18 miles an hour. When the water is low, the greater part of the rock becomes visible, and it is then that the passage becomes dangerous.”

Passage was gained through three openings or channels.

Often times, passengers were debarked and cargo unloaded so that experienced pilots could guide the vessels through. In fact, officials in Louisville and nearby Jeffersonville, Indiana, made sure that experienced pilots were always available to guide the boats through. In the meantime, passengers could relax in Louisville before reboarding.

By 1800, Louisville had a population of 800. More than a quarter century later, in 1827, the number of residents had risen to 7,063, while the town’s first mayor was elected the following year.

By 1838, the year of the Galt House fracas, the population of Louisville was 27,000. Two years later, the town would boast 270 retail stores, three lumberyards, two flouring mills, two tanneries, two breweries, seven printing offices, one college, 10 academies and a handful of nice hotels, the Galt House being the most celebrated.

Like all towns on the Ohio, commerce and industry were related to the river level. Low water typically meant a suspension of river traffic and a decline in business.

The Galt House was brand new, having been built in the mid-1830s on the location of the former residence of Dr. W.C. Galt on the corner of Second and Main. The four-story, 60-room structure was the place to stay in Louisville and a favorite of river travelers.

Before supper in the Galt House, male guests routinely assembled in the barroom, marked by a long counter, chairs and a fireplace. The bar opened into the dining room. A bell usually rang throughout the hotel to advise guests that supper would be served. When navigation of the river was at its peak, and when the Legislature was in session, the Galt House bar was often filled to capacity.

On the stage ride to Harrodsburg, Prentiss, who served as Wilkinson’s attorney, listened as the young judge narrated the events, provided a list of names that would be friendly to the defense and revealed what had been testified to during preliminary hearing in Louisville.

Prentiss had just arrived from Washington, where Congress had adjourned for recess. Previously, the defense team had successfully obtained a change of venue and the trial moved to Harrodsburg.

 

A DISPUTE OVER CLOTHES

 

The origins of the deadly Galt House dispute began in a men’s clothing store.

According to Joseph Dunbar Shields (The Life and Times of Seargent Smith Prentiss), who grew up outside Natchez in Jefferson County, Miss., “Dr. Benjamin Wilkinson had ordered a suit of clothes, vest, pants, and overcoat, from a respectable merchant tailor named John W. Redding. On Saturday, the 15th of December {1838}, the doctor went to Mr. Redding's alone to get the clothes. He tried them on, observing that the overcoat was loose, but he took the suit and left a hundred-dollar Mississippi Bank bill, requesting Redding to hold on to it for a week or two, as the discount on it might then be less.

“About three or four o'clock in the afternoon of the same day he returned to Redding's store, accompanied by the judge and Mr. Murdaugh. The fit of the overcoat became the subject of discussion, the judge saying that it was a bad fit and unfashionable. The doctor offered to pay for the vest and pants and return the overcoat, but the judge advised against this course, as they, too, might not fit.

“Redding, probably not knowing the relationship between the doctor and the judge, took exception at what he thought an unjustifiable interference, saying that it was none of his business. This led to high words, and the judge took exceptions to Redding's language, stating that he did not come there to be insulted. The judge then seized a poker. A scuffle ensued; the judge at first was on top, but Redding turned him and was dragging him to the door. The doctor interfered, as some thought, to pull him off, while some said he raised his hand with a knife. His hand was seized.

“One witness said he heard Murdaugh call out ‘Kill him!’ while another said that he said ‘Part them; don't let him kill him!’ The parties separated on the pavement in front of Redding's store.

“Redding seized a brick-bat, saying, ‘Lay your damned knives down and I can whip all three of you." The judge, who had walked across the street, returned and carried one (Murdaugh) of the party away with him.

“The fight brought several parties to Redding's store, and he told his grievance. Some advised him to take the law, and others advised summary vengeance. Redding went to the mayor's office to get a warrant for the arrest of the parties, but was told that it was necessary to have their names. On his way to the ‘Galt House’ to ascertain these he met his brother in-law, John Rothwell, and told him of the affair.”

 

‘I SHALL KILL YOU’

 

In Shields’ account, Redding and Rothwell “reached the hotel a short while before supper and obtained from Mr. Everett, the clerk, the names of the three; but instead of leaving then they ‘lingered’. In the mean time a ‘crowd had collected’. While Redding was thus ‘lingering’, awaiting, as he said … Judge Wilkinson came into the bar-room to take a glass of water. He commenced walking up and down the room. Redding crossed his path, and with his back to the bar accosted him, as he says in his testimony, with, ‘I think you're the gentleman that struck me with the poker in my own house to-day?’

“Wilkinson replied that he was, and added, ‘I shall not quarrel with a man of your profession, but if you interfere with me or lay a hand on me, I shall kill you.’

 “Redding, in his testimony, continues: ‘As he said this he put his hand behind him, as I thought in his coat-pocket, for some weapon.’ Redding then called the judge a coward, and offered to whip all three if they would come out and lay aside their weapons. Wilkinson meanwhile kept walking backward and forward, Redding telling him all the while what he thought of him. This was a tirade of abuse.

“Judge Wilkinson now walked out of the bar-room. An expression was heard, ‘The coward, he has run.’ The judge was absent but a little while; when he returned his brother {Dr. Ben Wilkinson) and {John} Murdaugh were just behind him. Redding told Murdaugh that he was the man who drew a knife on him. Murdaugh replied in substance, ‘If you said I drew a bowie-knife on you it was a damned lie, and whoever said it was a damned liar!’ As he said this Redding asserts that he (Murdaugh) threw up his hand with a drawn knife.

“Just then two new actors appeared upon the scene. One Alexander Meeks {a local hotel bartender} stepped up, remarking, ‘You're the damned little rascal that did it,’ and struck at Murdaugh with a whip or cane. About the same time John Rothwell {the brother-in-law of the tailor} also struck him. Murdaugh's right arm was caught just as he was about to strike. He seized his knife with his left hand, and with this hand struck Meeks a mortal blow, and thus extricated himself.

“In the mean time one Holmes, another stranger, had attacked Dr. Wilkinson and was beating him unmercifully. Judge Wilkinson rushed to the rescue of Murdaugh, and with, it is supposed, his bowie-knife struck Rothwell. Still another man, Marshall Halbert, was engaged in the fray.

“The names of the men attacking the Mississippians were Redding, Rothwell, Meeks, Oldham, Bill Johnson, Halbert, and Holmes. Rothwell had a sword-cane, Meeks a cowhide and other weapons, and Oldham fired with a pistol at the Mississippians as they retreated from the bar-room.

“In the brief space of fifteen or twenty minutes Meeks lay dead upon the floor, Rothwell mortally wounded with wounds of two characters, the one made by a large blade, the other by a slender instrument. Judge Wilkinson, too, was wounded apparently by a slender instrument, the wound ranging down from the shoulder blade towards the spine. Murdaugh was badly wounded in the head, and his hat punctured with a sharp instrument. Dr. Wilkinson was greatly bruised in the face, his eyes discolored and swelled till nearly closed.”

(Next week: The trial)

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