Stanley Nelson

Until December 15, 1838, Edward Wilkinson’s life had been bright and promising. He was in Louisville, Kentucky, getting ready to marry the love of his life when an argument over a suit of clothes led to a deadly brawl at the Galt House hotel. The bloody event turned his life upside down.

It was a period in American history when men fought duels. But during the era, the Bowie Knife made famous by frontiersman Jim Bowie during a bloody brawl along the Mississippi at Vidalia 11 years earlier, soon became a preferred weapon for southern men. 

Bright, handsome and well educated, Wilkinson was a Mississippi judge who hailed from Virginia. He had moved to the thriving Magnolia State in 1830 where he practiced law briefly in Natchez. Like other young lawyers, including his friend Seargent Smith Prentiss, Wilkinson found the Natchez bar crowded with outstanding senior lawyers who counted the richest planters and merchants as their clients.

So Wilkinson moved his practice to Vicksburg, then to Yazoo City, where in 1833 he was elected circuit court judge. He was said to have been able and fair on the bench, but was otherwise hot tempered and impulsive.

His hair trigger temper led to his troubles in Louisville when, following an argument with a local tailor, seven men attacked Wilkinson, his doctor brother, Ben, and a young man named John Murdaugh, who was the judge’s protégé. When melee ended, two Kentuckians were dead. The Mississippians were soon charged with two counts of murder.

Two days after the incident word reached the nation’s capital, Washington City. There, Congressman Seargent S. Prentiss, a Maine native who practiced law in Vicksburg, Miss., learned that his good friend, the judge, was in a mess of trouble. Newspapers were filled with stories of the events in Louisville. The city was in an uproar over the brawl.

As soon as Prentiss “heard of the difficulty of his friend, Judge Wilkinson, he immediately tendered his services,” wrote Prentiss biographer Joseph Dunbar Shields (The Life & Times of Seargent Smith Prentiss). Wilkinson felt “immense relief” after the message from Prentiss arrived “for he not only had unbounded confidence in Prentiss’ ability, but implicit faith in his word.”

No doubt, Prentiss was one of the best trial lawyers in the country. His forensic skills were top notch, but his gifts of communication and inspiration were unmatched. But the Galt House case would test Prentiss’ skills in the courtroom like no other. He had to convince a Kentucky jury as a national audience followed the trial that his out-of-state clients were guilty of nothing more than self-defense.

 

DON’T MARRY ME … YET

 

Following the melee at the Galt House, a large crowd had assembled. Locals simmered with outrage, as their initial belief was that three Mississippi thugs came into their town and for no reason killed their friends.

Before things were sorted out, the police privately and for safety sake escorted the three blood-soaked Mississippians – Judge Ed Wilkinson, Dr. Ben Wilkinson and John Murdaugh – to jail.

One of the men involved in the brawl, a local barkeeper, died at the scene on Saturday from a knife wound so deep his bowels protruded from his belly. A second died the next day, a Sunday. This man was so popular that his funeral drew an enormous crowd. He had been stabbed three times.

Wrote Shields: “On Monday the prisoners were brought before the police court, but on account of absence of witnesses the examination was postponed till Wednesday. The indignation of the populace in the mean time began to subside, inasmuch as the facts connected with the tragedy became more developed. The prisoners were brought before the police court at the appointed time, and, after a thorough examination into the facts, the parties were admitted to bail, to appear at the Jefferson County {Kentucky} Circuit Court.”

In the meantime, Judge Wilkinson faced his new reality.

Wrote Shields, “On Saturday he was brimful of blissful anticipations, and before midnight he was within the walls of a dungeon; his mental suffering increased by the melancholy soughing of the wind, as it mingled with the howling of an excited populace outside. In the brief space of a few hours his circumstances were so utterly and overwhelmingly revolutionized that he felt it his duty, in announcing this to his intended bride, to release her from her engagement.”

Once bonded out of jail pending trial, Wilkinson immediately went to see his love, Eliza Crozier. She was shocked by his battered appearance and mental anguish. Wilkinson told Eliza she should not marry a man who may be sent to prison. But she would hear none of it, insisting that her love for him was boundless and if he were sent to jail she would wait for him as his wife.

Eliza expressed her deep feelings in a letter, quoting a poem about two famous star-crossed lovers, Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran. Emmet, an Irishman, was imprisoned after leading an abortive rebellion against England. Sarah’s father disowned her when he learned the two were engaged.

The British executed Emmet for treason in 1803. Sarah died of tuberculosis five years later.

Poets and writers immortalized the forbidden romance.

In her missive of devotion to Edward Wilkinson, Eliza Crozier quoted a line from Irish poet Thomas Moore’s ballad about the tragic romance of Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran, quoting Sarah:

“I know not, I ask not, if guilt's in that heart,

“I but know that I love thee whatever thou art."

Eliza Crozier and Edward Wilkinson were married in Bardstown, Kentucky, 40 miles south of Louisville. Wilkinson brought his bride back to Mississippi as he awaited his murder trial.

 

WHERE WAS PRENTISS?

 

Prentiss biographer Shields, raised on a plantation in Jefferson County, Miss., near Natchez where Prentiss briefly served as his childhood teacher in the late 1820s, recalled the 1838 Louisville affair:

“The papers of the day teemed with grossly-exaggerated accounts against the accused. Conceiving that they could not have a fair and impartial trial in Louisville on account of local prejudice against them, they presented their petition to the Legislature on the 19th of January for a change of venue. This petition was endorsed by the opinion of eleven of the most prominent citizens … Accordingly an act was passed on the 28th of January changing the venue to the Circuit Court to be held on the 4th of March, 1839, before Judge John L. Bridges, at Harrodsburg, Mercer County, about seventy or eighty miles from Louisville.”

In early March 1839, Wilkinson left Vicksburg on a steamer for Louisville on the Ohio River with plans to meet with Prentiss three or four days before the trial.

But Prentiss, busy with congressional work in Washington City, was delayed.

Wrote Shields, “Day after day passed and Prentiss came not … Great was Wilkinson's anxiety, the more especially as Ben Hardin, the Achilles of the Kentucky bar, had been engaged to prosecute. He feared Hardin's power over a Kentucky jury.”

Hardin, age 55, had served in the Kentucky legislature and five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was considered one of the foremost trial lawyers in Kentucky and like Prentiss, was as good as a prosecutor as he was a defense attorney. It was reported that friends of one of the victims in the melee paid Hardin a small fortune to prosecute the Mississippians.

 

‘FIGHT OR FROLIC’

 

“The agonizing question would arise,” wrote Shields. “Could it be possible that his {Wilkinson’s} life-long friend {Prentiss} was now to trifle with his safety? He could not sleep as the precious hours passed by, and the time, that could not be put off, drew nearer and nearer.

“Such was his state of feeling when, at about nine o'clock of the night before the morning on which it was absolutely necessary he should start for Harrodsburg, a gentleman came in and reported that a boat was coming down the river, and that either a fight or a frolic was taking place aboard of her.”

The news was so electrifying – “fight or frolic” -- that a crowd greeted the steamer at the landing. On board were Prentiss and some of his colleagues, all – with the exception of Prentiss -- homeward bound on a congressional recess.

It became apparent rather quickly that there had been a “frolic” onboard and not a “fight.” Prentiss was at the head of the celebration. All reeked of alcohol.

The party disembarked and headed for Louisville’s best hotel – the Galt House – where they all would spend the night. But before sleep came, the revelry continued until the “wee small hours” in the very barroom where the savage melee had occurred weeks earlier.

 “All this while,” Shields wrote, “Wilkinson was in an agony of suspense, for he had sent for Prentiss, who replied that he was engaged. It is needless to say that there was not much sleep that night for Wilkinson.

“The next morning he arose very early and met Prentiss, looking perfectly fresh and buoyant. They passed the usual compliments of a hearty greeting, but, to his (Wilkinson's) surprise, Prentiss made not the slightest allusion to the great tragedy. After they had breakfasted they, in company with Judge Chambers, got into a hack and started for Harrodsburg.”

As Louisville disappeared behind him, “Prentiss settled himself back in his seat.”

Then, with a grave expression on his face, Prentiss turned to his friend.

“Now, Wilkinson,” he said, “tell us all about the affair."

(Next week: The brawl.)

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