Stanley Nelson

(First in a series)

In the fall of 1849, Seargent S. Prentiss was dying.

A longtime sufferer of chronic dysentery, he also suffered from alcoholism.

Born in Maine, Prentiss came to Natchez while still in his teens. He taught school while studying to be a lawyer. Along the way – from Maine to Natchez – he made friends and impressed all he met with his brilliant mind and amazing talent for public speaking.

For years, as his fame as a Vicksburg lawyer and politician grew nationally, his influence in the Whig Party and in Mississippi drew headlines from the big newspapers in the northeast. A childhood ailment that left him with a maimed right leg caused him years of grief: He feared that no woman would ever accept him due to his physical handicap.

When he married Mary Williams of Natchez, whose family owned Longwood Plantation, he was overjoyed. As his family grew with children, his letters home to his mother and family in Maine were filled with stories about the little ones.

A financial collapse nationally and in Vicksburg cost him a fortune. By the mid-1840s he had relocated to New Orleans to try to rebuild his bank account and start anew. Often, he, Mary and the children would visit Natchez.

But during the year of the California Gold Rush, Prentiss’ health was failing him at the young age of 47. He had fought duels, won sensational murder trials, helped the poor and the sick, and spent money like it was going out of style, but now his active life was closing.

Just about all who knew him – even those who stood on the opposite side politically in a day when political violence was not unusual – loved him.

His letters home to his family thousands of miles away were filled with news of his life, trials and victories.

 

‘TERRORS OF THE STORM’

 

On October 2, 1849, following a trip to the northeast, Prentiss wrote his brother, George:

“We arrived here {New Orleans} safe and sound the day before yesterday, at five o'clock, p.m. … We had a terrible time for the first two days: the sea ‘wrought’ exceedingly. There was a severe gale and our vessel rolled among the waves like a child's plaything. Every one on board was sick. I suffered much more than Mary or the children.

“For three days I vomited continually, and suffered more than ever I did before in my life. To add to the terrors of the storm, about three o'clock in the morning of the first night, I was awakened by the startling cry of fire, mingled with the shrieks of many of the passengers, who burst from their staterooms in the most inconceivable alarm. The fire, which originated from a broken lamp, was soon quelled; and after the storm had subsided, we had a quiet, and, excepting that it was very hot, a pleasant voyage. The vessel moved along as smoothly as if it were in the river. There was a beautiful moon, and we frequently sat up on deck till midnight.

“I find the city perfectly healthy. It is true, there are some cases of yellow fever in the hospitals, but none have occurred as yet in private practice, and it is now too late to allow any serious apprehension of an epidemic.

“We found our house had just been painted, and everything was, of course, topsy-turvy. Mary is busy putting things in order, but it will take several days to make it look like home. We shall not go up to Natchez, but have written for Mrs. Williams to come down, and bring dear little Seargy … I have no doubt my health will now be rapidly restored. I believe the journey has been of great service to me, and also to Mary and the children. The latter especially are as fat and hearty as so many little pigs.”

 

‘TRIP TO MOREHOUSE PARISH’

 

On October 31, 1849, he wrote his mother:

“I have delayed writing longer than I intended, owing to various causes beyond my control. We have all been suffering much from cold since our return, first one, and then another. At present {son} Seargy and I are the afflicted ones. The weather is delightful, and there is every prospect of a pleasant winter. It was a sore disappointment to me, to leave without seeing you again; but, on the whole, it was fortunate we came out at the time we did.

“Mrs. Williams has paid us a nice visit; she brought Seargy down with her. I would give anything if you could see him. He is entirely different from all the rest, both in appearance and disposition. He is more quiet and sensitive than either of the other children. Little Una walks perfectly well now, and is running about all the time. All of them remember you, and talk a great deal about you. I have still the strongest hope and belief that you will soon come and spend a winter with us. How I wish you were here now!

“I never saw more beautiful weather. It is cool, without frost, and the sun has been shining brightly for more than a week … I start on Monday to attend courts in the country, and shall be gone three or four weeks.”

On Dec. 10, he wrote that he had a week earlier returned from northeastern Louisiana “so worn out that I have not been able to do anything before to-day. I went to the parish of Morehouse to attend the trial of an important will case. The weather was very inclement and the roads horrible, some thirty or forty miles being through the worst swamp I ever saw in my life. I suffered a great deal from cold and wet, and have had, in consequence, a slight return of my old malady, have been improving slowly since I got home; but it will take a week or two before I can expect to recover my strength entirely. On the whole, however, my general health is better than when I returned from the North. Mary wrote you, I believe, that I had had an operation performed on my throat, which resulted most beneficially; it has nearly cured me of my gagging fits in the morning.”

 

‘UP TO HER ELBOWS’

 

On Christmas Day he wrote his mother again to wish her a “merry Christmas.” Wish “you were here to enjoy it with Mary, the children, and myself! It is one of the loveliest days I ever saw; just cool enough to be comfortable, and the sun as bright as if it had never been covered by a cloud.

“Indeed we have had several days of the most beautiful weather you can imagine. Mary has been up to her elbows, for the last week, making boned turkeys, mince-pies, and other goodies, while the children, under pretence of helping Mamma, manage to get their fingers wherever there are any plums or spices. The dear little things are in excellent health, and enjoy themselves beyond measure. Una is the gayest of them all; she is singing and hopping about all day like a bird. Oh! How delighted we should all be if you were … enjoying this sunny day with us … My health is gradually but firmly improving. Mary and the children are all well, and join in much love to you.”

 

‘THIS SAD WINTER’

 

But things would soon change as Prentiss’ brother George reflected in Prentiss’ memoirs:

“Early in 1850 his health became so feeble that he could with difficulty eat or sleep; yet, he scarcely ever worked so hard. A single case before the Recorder occupied nearly three weeks, exposing him to the worst kind of New Orleans winter weather, when he should have rather kept his bed. His disease became more and more obstinate, and oftentimes, after toiling all day at his office, or in court, he would pass a large part of the night in painful attacks, followed by severe fainting turns. He was a perfect novice in sickness, and, as is apt to be the case with men of robust constitution and strong will, he found it hard to follow the rules of prudence, or to subject himself to medical prescription.

“A terrible restlessness and nervous irritability also seized upon him—sure precursors of what was coming! One human being alone could tell his sufferings, mental and physical, during this sad winter. His own graphic picture of the poor Irishman besieged by famine, is scarcely an exaggerated description of the manner in which his relentless foe conquered him. He made heroic and desperate resistance; but it was a case past cure, as many of his friends too plainly saw. Indeed he, at times, felt it himself.”

 

‘SADLY ALTERED’

 

One friend, Col. Joseph B. Cobb, described Prentiss’ failing health:

“A few months anterior to his death, he chanced to visit Mobile, hoping that the fresh sea air might recruit him sufficiently to enter with wonted zeal upon the argument of an important law-case, then pending in some court at New Orleans. I arrived in Mobile the day he had appointed to leave. Not finding him at his hotel, I was directed to go down to the New Orleans packet, as he had already embarked for return with her to his home.

“There I found him, but sadly, sadly altered. I saw at a glance that the Death-angel had already marked him for early prey. The hollow, sunken eye, and the peaked nose, and sallow cheek, indicated too plainly that disease had baffled skill and science, and that the sands of life were fast running out. I was too much touched not to show my feelings. He fixed his eye steadily on me, and asked if his appearance did not shock me, and if I did not think ‘that he was nearly ready for the shroud and the coffin.’”

Soon, Prentiss would embark on his final earthly journey as he rode a steamer up the Mississippi to Natchez and Longwood Plantation.

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