Seargent S. Prentiss

Seargent S. Prentiss

Can the poor man ever beat the rich man?

Almost two centuries ago, in a Kentucky courtroom, this question was put to the test.

In that courtroom in March 1839 were two prosecutors, one the famous trial lawyer Ben Hardin whose $1,000 fee was paid by the brother-in-law of one of two men killed during a bloody fray at the Galt House hotel barroom in Louisville the previous December. The two victims, both poor in comparison to the men who killed them, were John Rothwell, a mechanic, and Alexander Meeks, a bartender. Each had been stabbed to death.

Accused in their deaths were three well off Mississippians. They admitted to having killed the two men during the brawl, but justified the act by claiming it to be self-defense. The defendants included Judge Edward Wilkinson; the judge’s brother, Dr. Edward Wilkinson; and the judge’s protégé, John Murdaugh. All were in town for the judge’s wedding to a Kentucky girl.

They came from the rich land of cotton, where in Mississippi all three had become accustomed to living well in an economy that was fueled on the back of slave labor. They had more money than the Kentucky district attorney’s office assigned to prosecute the case. The three used their riches to hire seven of their eight lawyers. The lead lawyer was Seargent S. Prentiss of Vicksburg, a friend of Judge Wilkinson.

In cutting through all of the step-by-step details of the ghastly event that landed the Mississippians in a Kentucky courtroom on trial for murder, the beginning confrontation was this:

A rich man (Judge Wilkinson) disparaged a poor man (tailor John Redding) for what the rich man judged to be inferior work and later claimed that the poor man’s occupation was not worth a rich man’s time.

The poor man cursed the rich man for the insult.

The rich man, feeling disrespected by an inferior person, attacked the poor man with a fireplace poker.

The poor man blocked the blow and gained the advantage over the rich man.

The rich man’s brother intervened and attempted to stab the poor man with a Bowie knife although his attempt was thwarted.

A few hours later, the seven poor men -- the tailor, his brother-in-law Rothwell and five others -- tangled with the wealthy Mississippians at the Galt House hotel barroom. During that melee, Judge Wilkinson and John Murdaugh used their Bowie knives to stab to death Rothwell and Meeks.

The defense and prosecution presented their cases step-by-step. There were many arguments, including the prosecution’s contention that the reckless use of Bowie knifes and dueling pistols – rather than courts of law – were too often used in the Deep South to handle grievances. The defense claimed that Meeks sparked the physical confrontation in the Galt House when he struck Murdaugh with a cowhide whip.

The themes of money, honor and privilege were all part of the equation as well.

 

‘ARISTOCRATIC DISTINCTIONS’

 

Prosecuting Attorney Benjamin Hardin said of the Mississippians: “To be sure they came from the El Dorado of the South, with their thousands of bales of cotton condensed into their pockets. They were perfect magnets of attraction, for the secret of their loadstone lay wrapped up in their Mississippi bank notes. Hotelkeepers were bowing to them on all hands, tradesmen and storekeepers honored the pavement they trod, and as to tailors, I am ready to believe they became perfectly fascinated with them. Nay, I even make no doubt that the keepers of watering establishments and medical springs, submitted to the soft impeachment, and became devoted to their interests—it is the necessary consequence of the influence of cotton bales … ”

 “There is I fear a principle growing up amongst us inimical to our Republican institutions—a principle of classification favorable to aristocratic distinctions. We have our bankers, lawyers and doctors, arrogating one rank in our society; the statesmen, heads of departments and officials, another.

“Our mechanics and those who toil by the sweat of their brow to produce our riches, are cast into the shade; and knowing as they do, that such an attempt however noiselessly it is made, still exists palpably, is it any wonder they should be sensitive to every whisper that is breathed to mark the invidious distinctions? An apparent unimportant word may wound deeper than rough language.

“Call a man a knave, and he may forget it; but call him a fool, and he never forgives you.

“Call a young lady a coquette, and she may pardon you; but tell her she is ugly, and she will never abide you the longest day she lives.

“Tell a tailor he is a botch, and he may not even get angry with you; but sneer at him about … his profession, and you insult him, though the words in themselves are harmless.

“It is the allusion to prejudices that have existed, which carries the poison of insult in its barb. Sir, we must not disguise the fact, that there is a line of demarcation drawn by the proud and arrogant between themselves and those who live by the sweat of their brow; between the comparatively idle, who live but to consume; and the industrious, who work but to produce; between the drones of the hive, and the laboring bees. And to which pray is the country in its strength, prosperity and wealth, indebted for its teeming productiveness?

“Go to Louisville when a portion of the city is enveloped in flames and you will see a thousand mechanics rushing into the devouring element for the protection of property, while the lawyer and the judge, and the haughty aristocrat walk about as spectators with their hands in their pocket. The mechanics compose the moving power and labor-working machine upon whose industry we all feed and fatten. Their labors are the wealth of the country, and when we cease to honor and cherish them, we poison the springs of our own invigorating prosperity, and cut off the sources of our own enjoyments.

“Do we treat them with gratitude when we taunt them with epithets, which they esteem derogatory or insulting?

“Are we to treat them thus in the halcyon days of peace; and when the thunder-cloud of war gathers around our course, with a monstrous pusillanimity, fling ourselves into their arms as our only hope and rescue?  Has not the history of our country shown, and will it not show again, that when the storm of invasion ravages our coasts, our safety is to be found alone in the strong sinew and ready arm of our laboring population?”

 

‘OH GOD! I DID IT!’

 

Attorney John B. Thompson for the defense: “The manner of the attack—the weapon {cowhide whip} used by Meeks, (peril and necessity apart) gave higher provocation than a brave man will tamely endure.

“Should Murdaugh, when stricken with a cowskin, have submitted?

 “Should the finger of scorn be pointed at him as a coward, disgraced by the whip?

“The jests of the rude, the taunts of the vulgar, would mark him for insult and mockery, had he not fought: the very girls, even at church and on gala days, would have pointed to him as the chivalrous young gentleman of the striped jacket, had he tamely submitted.

“There is not a man on that jury, who deserves the name of a man, that would passively submit to personal degradation by personal chastisement.  The whelks of the cow-skin would bleed and blister, fret and forever fester upon his memory, long after all traces of the lash were cured on his back. The life of the aggressor could alone atone for the indignity.”

 

PRENTISS FOR THE DEFENSE

 

Prentiss for the defense: “Kentucky has no law which precludes a man from defending himself, his brother, or his friend. Better for Judge Wilkinson had he never been born, than that he should have failed in his duty on this occasion. Had he acted otherwise than he did, he would have been ruined in his own estimation, and blasted in the opinions of the world.

“And young Murdaugh, too; he has a mother, who is looking even now from her window, anxiously watching for her son's return—but better, both for her and him, that he should have been borne a bloody corpse to her arms, than that he should have carried to her, unavenged, the degrading marks of the accursed whip.”

In his book (Fifty Years of Memories), Sparks writes that Prentiss pointed to Judge Wilkinson’s new bride in the courtroom and told the white male jurors to consider what would happen if they sent her husband to death for murder:

“Go with her, gentlemen, through life … watch the tear which falls in secret; see her sink into the grave; then turn away, look up into heaven, and from your heart say: O God! I did it.'

“You will not!

“You cannot!

“You dare not!”

T. Egerton Browne with Louisville Daily Reporter wrote: “Mr. Prentiss during the delivery of his address had been repeatedly interrupted by bursts of applause from the assembled auditory; and when he sat down was greeted with irrepressible cheers.”

 

‘HOW SHALL I PAY YOU?’

 

When the final arguments were completed, the judge sent the jury to deliberate. They returned 15 minutes later, reporting:

“In the case of Edward C. Wilkinson and others, for the murder of John Rothwell, we of the jury find the within named defendants, and each of them, NOT GUILTY of the offense charged against them in the within indictments … Same verdict on the indictment for the murder of Alexander H. Meeks.”

Writes Sparks:

“Wilkinson was immediately discharged, and in company with his friends was repairing to the hotel, when, in the warmth of his emotion, he said, laying his hand on the shoulder of Prentiss: 

"’How shall I pay you, my friend, for this great service you have done me?” " 

Prentiss’ reply was quick and firm: “By never mentioning pay again.”

(Next week: The Aftermath)

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