Country of Duels

For five hours, prosecuting attorney Ben Hardin with beautiful words and poetic sentences held the undivided attention of the 12 white male jurors in a Harrodsburg, Kentucky, courtroom.

On trial were three Mississippians charged in the murders of John Rothwell, a skilled mechanic who worked with machines and tools, and Alexander Meeks, a bartender. Each had been stabbed to death during a brawl at the Galt House hotel in Louisville in December 1838 when they and five other Kentuckians tussled with the Mississippi boys.

Rothwell had been stabbed three times. Two wounds on the left side of the back were mortal – one was four inches deep, the other was five. One of the Mississippians, Judge Edward Wilkinson, used his Bowie knife on Rothwell.

Meeks, the bartender, received a single knife wound on the right side of the belly between the naval and the hip that left a hole so big (six inches wide and six inches deep) that the intestines protruded from his body. John Murdaugh, a protégé of Judge Wilkinson, stabbed Meeks with his Bowie knife. According to the defense, Meeks sparked the brawl when he struck Murdaugh with a cowhide whip.

The third man charged with murder – Dr. Ben Wilkinson – didn’t physically kill anyone but was involved in the fray. All three Mississippians were badly wounded in the fight.

The whole affair began in the clothing store of a respectable Louisville, Kentucky, merchant named John Redding, whose brother-in-law was Rothwell, one of the men killed. There in the shop, the judge advised his brother, the doctor, not to do business with Redding because the quality and fit of an outfit being considered was poorly made and unfashionable. The doctor needed a suit for the judge’s wedding to a Kentucky girl.

Redding cursed the judge for interfering with a business deal between the tailor and the doctor. The judge insulted Redding, disparaged his profession as a tailor and swung a fireplace poker at the merchant. The fight was broken up when the doctor, rushing to assist his brother, prepared to stab Redding with a Bowie knife after Redding began to manhandle the judge.

The defense claimed that Redding afterward called upon his friends to meet him at the Galt House, where the Mississippians were staying, and that they lingered in the bar waiting to attack the three in revenge. When the Mississippians walked into the barroom they were surrounded by a crowd of men – seven attacked -- and had no choice but to use their knives to defend themselves, acting, so claimed the defense, purely in a manner of self-preservation.

The prosecution was represented by the district attorney and Ben Hardin, a trial lawyer and well liked Kentucky politician whose $1,000 fee was paid by Redding, the tailor. Eight lawyers represented the well-to-do Mississippians, led by one of the country’s most famous lawyers, Seargent S. Prentiss, a Maine native who held a lucrative law practice in Vicksburg while also serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It was the pitting of these two great lawyers – Prentiss and Hardin -- in a courtroom of outstanding attorneys that resulted in the Galt House case being remembered as the greatest criminal trial ever known in 19th century Kentucky.

 

BOWIE KNIFE & FREEDOM

 

In his argument, Hardin vilified the well-to-do out-of-towners from Mississippi for their aristocratic attitude toward the hard-working, “common man” Kentuckians and for what he called their senseless use and abuse of the Bowie Knife, which had only in recent years become famous as a standard concealed weapon for some men of the Deep South. In Vidalia, in 1827, the frontiersman Jim Bowie had used the weapon – an oversized butcher knife – to carve up his opponents in a duel that turned into a savage brawl. News of that brawl spread in newspapers and on the steamboats along the Mississippi and every tributary in the country.

Hardin vilified the so-called culture of the Deep South in which the slightest perceived insult could quickly mushroom into a fight to the death with the use of one of two weapons – a dueling pistol or a Bowie Knife. He claimed the knives were used to mete out justice when the courtroom was the only place for that. He suggested the knife should be outlawed.

But his Bowie Knife argument quickly met a firm rebuttal from one of the defense lawyers. Kentuckian John Rowan was a politician and well respected former judge who had been tried and exonerated of murder years earlier after killing a man in a duel following a drunken dispute during a card game. Judge Rowan’s argument was quite similar to one side of today’s great gun debate. He told jurors:

“The right of the people to carry arms, is little less than identic with their freedom. Without arms, they cannot vindicate their freedom. Without the right to possess, and wear them, they will very soon be without the spirit to use them, even in defense of their liberty.

“I feel no apprehension for the liberty of my country from that source. I fear nothing from the carrying of Bowie knives — brave men do not fear them, and cowards seldom use them. It is wrong to reason against the use of any good thing, from its occasional, or even frequent misuse. While our institutions are pure, and especially our Courts of Justice, we have nothing to fear; they will vindicate the just use, and punish the misuse of Bowie-knives or any other arms, which our free citizens may choose to wear.”

 

GLORIOUS REDEMPTION

 

T. Edgarton Browne covered the March 1839 trial for the Louisville Daily Reporter and later published a full transcript from handwritten notes. His coverage drew a national readership.

Browne wrote that of the 1,200 people in the courtroom, 200 were women, all seated in the balcony. According to the reporter, the ladies were there for one reason – to hear the great orator Sergeant S. Prentiss defend his Mississippi friend -- Judge Wilkinson.

When Prentiss arose, wrote Browne, some of the women almost fainted. Single at age 31, Prentiss had suffered a childhood disease that left his right leg limp and somewhat deformed. He could walk only with a cane. The physical deformity made him unsure of himself with women. He avoided them, feeling that they thought less of him as a man.

But in the Harrodsburg courtroom he saw the adoring glances.

Browne wrote that those “who have seen and heard Mr. Prentiss, will not be easily satisfied with any faint attempt to depict his merits. Those who have not, will hardly have their anticipations realized by any thing short of the opportunity of judging for themselves.

“I must content myself with giving a mere outline of my own impressions … When he speaks, if he always speaks as he did … it is indeed no wonder if he demonstrates in his own person, that the highest order of human genius, is that which is gifted with transcendent eloquence. He spoke with all the ardor of unconquerable friendship under varied excitements; and with a depth of feeling and power of expression, which it would take eloquence scarcely less than his own to describe.

“When he spoke of the undoubting faithfulness with which his heart clung to his friend, Judge Wilkinson, through good report and evil report; of the bright land which gave them birth; of the beloved State of their adoption {Mississippi}, and of the sad fatality which had induced that unhappy deed, that placed him at the bar, a pleader, and his friend before that tribunal as an imputed criminal — his whole frame thrilled with an emotion which radiated like animal magnetism to every bosom in that vast assembly.”

Even those who heard Prentiss speak in political settings found it difficult to describe his power with words. You simply had to be there to understand.

 

PRINCIPLE OF SELF-DEFENSE

 

Prentiss’ argument rested on two primary points: That the Mississippians acted in self-defense and that Redding, the tailor, was the head of a criminal conspiracy to enact revenge on the three after the confrontation at his store before the Galt House fray:

“That these defendants took away the lives of the two individuals whose deaths are charged in the indictment, they do not deny. But they assert that they did not do so voluntarily or maliciously; that they committed the act from stern and imperative necessity; from the promptings of the common instincts of nature; by virtue of the broad and universal law of self-defense; and they deny that they have violated thereby the ordinances either of God or man. They admit the act and justify it.

“The ground of their defense is simple, and I will state it, so that it cannot be misapprehended. They assert, and I shall attempt from the evidence submitted to convince you, that a conspiracy was formed by Mr. Redding … and various other persons, among whom were the deceased, to inflict personal violence upon them; that the conspirators, by pre-concerted agreement, assembled at the Gait House, in the city of Louisville, and attempted to accomplish their object; and that, in the necessary, proper and legal defense of their lives and persons from such attempt, the defendants caused the deaths of two of the conspirators.”

Even if no conspiracy existed, Prentiss maintained, the three Mississippians had every reason to believe that one existed, and by all means the right to protect themselves.

“If war was declared against your country by an insulting foe,” he pleaded, “would you wait till your sleeping cities were wakened by the terrible music of the bursting bomb? till your green fields were trampled by the hoofs of the invader and made red with the blood of your brethren?

“No! you would send forth fleets and armies — you would unloose upon the broad ocean your keen falcons — and the thunder of your guns would arouse stern echoes along the hostile coast. Yet this would be but national defense, and authorized by the same great principle of self-protection, which applies no less to individuals than to nations.”

(Next week: The verdict.)

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