Country of Duels

“If you go into the Northern States,” exclaimed prosecuting attorney Ben Hardin in a Kentucky courtroom in 1839, “it is a rare thing if you can find a man in ten thousand with a deadly weapon on his person. Go into other states that shall be nameless, and you will hear of them as often as of corn shuckings in an Indian summer. 

“Go further south — to Arkansas or Mississippi, for instance, and though you would be a peaceable man … in these states you may arm yourself to the teeth, and trade your steps in blood, with impunity. Why is this, but from the relaxation of the laws that are elsewhere enforced and obeyed.”

In his eloquent closing argument, Hardin focused on law and order and the dreaded Bowie knife, which became famous when frontiersman Jim Bowie, raised to manhood in the Catahoula Parish wilderness, used the weapon during the brutal Vidalia Sandbar Fight of 1827:

“Why does the law call for punishment?” Hardin asked. “Surely it is not in vengeance for the past, but to deter others from the too free and frequent use of deadly weapons, whether in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi or Arkansas. Is it to be left to the vitiated taste of the brutal few to give tone to the mind of a community in setting up the code of the Bowie-knife against the common law?

“It was but the other day that in the Legislature of Arkansas, a member on the floor was a little disorderly, and the Speaker, to keep quietness, stepped down, brandishing his Bowie-knife, to silence the ardor of the unruly member … Gentlemen, one question is, are we to tolerate this Bowie-knife system under the false pretence of self-defense? … Many a woman is made a mourning widow, many a child made a pitiable orphan, and many a father childless by the use of this accursed weapon.”




Hardin had been hired by the district attorney to join in the prosecution of three Mississippians accused of killing two Kentuckians. The friends of John Rothwell, one of the men killed, paid Hardin’s fee. The other man slain was a bartender named Alexander Meeks.

Rothwell was 38 and remembered as a powerful man physically who was well known in Louisville. In fact, wrote T. Egerton Brown, a Louisville reporter who published an account of the trial, “The oldest inhabitants of the city could call to mind, vividly, the day on which his mother had landed on the wharf with him as an infant in her arms, just thirty-seven years ago. He had grown up with its growth … and he had prospered with its prosperity by keeping pace with its enterprise and industry.”

Roth and Meeks were each stabbed to death in December 1838 during a ferocious brawl at the Galt House hotel in Louisville along the Ohio River. Afterward, the Mississippi men were charged with murder.

Their trial in March 1839 in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, would involve two of the best lawyers in the country. Ben Hardin, whose powerful words were used at the beginning of this story, headed up the prosecution team. He was known for his great memory (he rarely took notes) and was a political force in Kentucky, serving in various state offices and in Congress.

Seargent S. Prentiss of Vicksburg, also a congressman, led the defense team. He was nationally famous as an orator and drew crowds when he was in the courtroom. The other lawyers involved on both sides of the case were outstanding as well.

This was a day when great lawyers quoted Shakespeare and the poets. And it was a time when emotional closing arguments caused hardened men to cry like babies. It also was a period in the South when horrendous violence was used against the slave on the plantation and by white men upon other white men who claimed to find honor in killing one another over the silliest of disputes.




The facts of the Kentucky case that pitted attorneys Hardin and Prentiss against one another in a courtroom were these:

Judge Edward Wilkinson visited Louisville in late 1838 to prepare for his marriage. His brother, Dr. Ben Wilkinson, and the judge’s protégé, John Murdaugh, accompanied him. At the tailor shop of John Redding, the judge and Redding got into an argument over the quality and fit of the clothing desired by Dr. Wilkinson.

Redding, the tailor, cursed the judge harshly for what he felt was the judge’s interference in negotiations between the tailor and the doctor. Feeling insulted, the judge attacked Redding with a fireplace poker. During a scuffle, Redding managed to get control of the judge whose brother, the doctor, rushed to his aide. According to some witnesses, the doctor was preparing to stab Redding with a Bowie knife before other men intervened.

Two things should be noted: Both brothers pulled weapons while Redding was prepared for a fistfight.

A short time later, Redding went to the police station where he was informed that to file a complaint he would have to have the names of all three men. Accompanied by his brother-in-law John Rothwell, the two went to the Galt House, where the Mississippians were staying, and quickly obtained their names. But rather than return to the police station, Redding and Rothwell lingered as more of Redding’s friends and acquaintances arrived while the barroom filled with other men awaiting supper to be served in the adjoining dining room. Talked circulated in the bar that a big fight would soon break out.

Minutes later, the judge walked into the barroom. Redding immediately accosted him with more harsh language, called him a coward, and challenged him to go outside for a fistfight. Judge Wilkinson told Redding that if he laid a hand on him he would kill him and then exited the room. While Redding and his friends lingered, the judge after the passage of 10 or 15 minutes returned to the barroom with his brother, Dr. Wilkinson, and their friend, John Murdaugh. Murdaugh quickly displayed a Bowie knife as Redding’s abusive language escalated.

In a flash, seven men pounced on the three Mississippians as blood splattered on the floor and walls of the barroom. As quickly as they could, the three retreated but not before Murdaugh had stabbed to death Alexander Meeks, the local bartender, and the judge had stabbed to death, Rothwell, the brother-in-law of the tailor Redding. Both the judge and Murdaugh had been severely cut themselves. The doctor had been savagely beaten. They were fired upon as they retreated.

 During the course of the trial, the so-called code of the honor by well-to-do men in the Deep South came under scrutiny. Curse a man of high standing and face a fight to the finish with weapons, not fists.

Even Prentiss, the lead defense counsel who was born and reared a Yankee, was involved in two duels with the same man in Vicksburg over petty insults. In a letter to his brother, Prentiss explained that in Mississippi it was better to die in a duel than to refuse to fight and be labeled a coward, which would ruin your standing and livelihood as a man.




At the outset of the trial, wrote Joseph Dunbar Shields in his 19th century book (The Life and Times of Sergeant Smith Prentiss):

“The clerk read the two indictments, couched in the usual technical language, the one charging the prisoners with the murder of John Rothwell, the other charging them with the murder of Alexander Meeks. The State then began the examination of witnesses for the prosecution, beginning with Redding, and examining sixteen others seriatim on the facts. The defendants examined seventeen as to facts, and four to prove their peaceable character and reputation. The testimony was closed on the third day, and the court took a recess for dinner.

“By one o'clock the court-house became crowded to excess, not less than a thousand well-dressed, respectable persons being present. The gallery was appropriated to the ladies, about two hundred of whom were present, three-fourths of these were remarkable for their beauty.” 




A short time before the trial, Hardin had visited the Deep South, a place he called a land of Bowie knives. Hardin observed the location where the Black Hawk steamer went down following a boiler explosion at the Red River’s juncture with the Mississippi at the southern tip of Concordia Parish. He told the white male jurors, as his voice grew louder than a preacher’s:

“I was down the river lately and it was pointed out to me where the Black Hawk had blown up and killed her scores; to another place where the Gen. Brown had blown up and killed her hundreds; to one spot on the shore where two gentlemen blew each others brains out with rifles; to another, where the widow of somebody's overseer was butchered; to another, where the keeper of a wood yard was shot for asking pay for his wood; to another, where an aged gentleman had his guts ripped out for protecting his slave from cruel treatment.

“Great God! cried I, at last, take me back, take me back to where there is more law though less money — for, I could not stand the horrid recital any longer — when every jutting point or retiring bend bore the land mark of assassination, and irresponsible murder.”

(Next week: Prentiss for the defense.)

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