Stanley Nelson

On March 24, 1839, Vicksburg, Miss., lawyer Seargent S. Prentiss wrote to his sister, Abby:

 “I got home on yesterday, in good health, though somewhat fatigued with the journey. I stopped a week in Kentucky, to assist in the defense of Judge Wilkinson and his friends, who were tried on an indictment for murder, arising out of an affray which occurred at Louisville during the winter, and an exaggerated account of which you doubtless saw in the newspapers. Judge Wilkinson is an old friend of mine; you may recollect, he called and took tea with me several years ago … in New York, at the time you were there.

“… The trial took place at Harrodsburg, and resulted in the entire acquittal of the Judge and his friends, it appearing in evidence that they acted wholly in self-defense, against a number of men who had conspired together for the purpose of beating them. You will probably see some account of the trial in the newspapers.”

News of Prentiss’ sensational performance at that trial spread throughout Kentucky and across the country. No one was better at speaking before crowds or in convincing juries to support his side. Years earlier, Prentiss had convicted an innocent black man (Mercer Byrd) of murder in Mississippi in one of his few appearances as a prosecutor and on a few occasions as a defense attorney won the release of clients who most likely were guilty.

In the Kentucky courtroom, a 12-man jury found his friend Judge Edward Wilkinson and two others (Dr. Ben Wilkinson and John Murdaugh) innocent of two murders in a controversial case. Prentiss’ defense was so overwhelming that the 1,200 courtroom attendees interrupted his arguments with cheers on several occasions. He received an ovation when he concluded.

Mississippi attorney, politician and author Henry S. Foote (Casket of Reminiscences) – who was shot by Prentiss during a duel years earlier – compared Prentiss’ speaking abilities to Biblical prophets:

“At times he was indeed most electrical in his utterances, reminding one forcibly of the soul-thrilling strains of an Isaiah or an Ezekiel … I was not at all surprised to see it published in the newspapers of Boston many years ago, on the occasion of Mr. Prentiss' visit to that city for the first time, that even in the midst of the memorable dinner speech which he there delivered Mr. {Daniel} Webster and Mr. {Edward} Everett (both great orators of the era), with eyes overflowing under his wondrous enunciations, were heard generously whispering to each other: ‘We have never heard such eloquence as this before.’”

 

‘TRACKS OF BLOOD’

 

The Wilkinson case arose from a dispute at a tailor’s shop in Louisville that ended in a barroom brawl at the Galt House Hotel barroom. The defense convinced a jury that the tailor, John Redding, and six others followed the Mississippians to the hotel to continue a fight that had begun at the tailor’s shop in a dispute over clothes for Dr. Wilkinson. 

As a result of the brawl, Judge Wilkinson and Murdaugh stabbed to death two men – a bartender named Alexander Meeks and a mechanic named John Rothwell, the brother-in-law of John Redding.

A reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal, 43 years after the deadly affair, did a recap in 1882 of the melee and trial with updates on some of the participants: “The whole country was shocked, and excitement in this city was intense … the scene of the fight, was literally covered with blood. It seemed hardly credible that so much blood could come from two men. There was snow on the ground, and I remember with what horror the people gazed on the tracks of blood all over the city, made by the feet of those whose curiosity led them into the scene of the tragedy.”

Due to a change of venue from Louisville, the trial was held in Harrodsburg, which “began to fill up with people from all over the country. I suppose there never was a trial in the state of Kentucky where so much legal talent was engaged as in this one. The three great lawyers of that day were in it, viz.: John Rowan, Ben Hardin, and the great Seargent S. Prentiss.”

 The paper described the Wilkinson brothers, both Mississippi residents like Murdaugh, as “beau-ideals of the southerner. They were finely educated, polished gentlemen, with black hair and eyes, about five feet eleven inches in height, and spare built.”

Judge Wilkinson, a Virginia native who was 32 when the brawl occurred, had begun his law practice in Natchez before relocating to the thriving town of Vicksburg in the 1830s. He later moved to Yazoo County where he became a judge. He and his friends and family were in Louisville for his wedding to a Kentucky girl, Eliza Crozier.

Their engagement had become part of the narrative regarding the affray. Eliza was painted as a 21-year-old robbed of her fiancé just hours before her scheduled wedding in her hometown of Bardstown, Kentucky. Their marriage ceremony was held in early January 1839 between the fight and the trial.

They lived most of their 16 years together in Mississippi. Wilkinson died in Kentucky in 1855 at age 50. Eliza died in 1880 at age 62. They are buried side-by-side in a Bardstown cemetery

Murdaugh – the judge’s protégé -- was described as “a short man with jet black hair and restless eyes of the same color, and looked like – what afterwards proved to be the case – a fearless and desperate man when aroused … Fifteen years after the tragedy, Murdaugh committed suicide somewhere in Virginia.”

 

THE DEAD

 

Of the two men killed in the fight, Rothwell was described as “a highly respected citizen … a large man and of a quiet disposition.”

After the fight, the mortally wounded man was taken to the home of his brother-in-law, the tailor Redding, where Rothwell soon died.

One reporter noted that Rothwell was “attended to the grave by a very large concourse of citizens; many of the companies of the city in costume. He was buried in a little grave-yard set apart several years ago by his father, on a piece of wood-land which he had owned, about a mile south of Centre street, near Beargrass creek. He was in his 38th year, and unmarried.”

The other victim, Meeks, a bartender, was an “entire stranger to everyone; was a small and handsome man, red complected; and seemingly about thirty years of age,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal 1882 report.

 

THE KEY WITNESS

 

The story of Redding, the tailor, may be the most fascinating. The event doomed him in Louisville

According to the paper:

“Redding’s standing in business circles was high. He was a very quiet man but sensitive, was short in stature, but fleshy.

“Redding had hosts of friends, but many censured him for dragging his brother-in-law into such a scrape. Rothwell was liked by everyone, was the sole support of a mother and two sisters and was doing well.”

The reporter for the paper recalled Prentiss’ prophetic remarks about the tailor in his attack on Redding in the courtroom: “You see that man (Redding) sitting there; that handsome healthy-looking man; that man who ought to be occupying this chair (pointing to the prisoner’s chair); well, take a good look at him, and should any of you meet him in after years, you will see only the wreck of a man, with hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, and emaciated form; a wanderer up and down the earth; seeking rest, but finding it not; seeking peace, but for him there is no peace; not even on the seas, for the white caps will remind him of Rothwell’s winding sheet. For I tell you he is the indirect cause of every drop of bloodshed on the night of December 15, 1838, at the Galt house, in Louisville, KY.”

The reporter wrote:

“Of course the Wilkinsons and Murdaugh were acquitted. Although Redding had published a card as to his standing and character, signed by about forty of the best citizens of Louisville … he could not make headway against the terrible castigation he received at Harrodsburg from Prentiss.

“In two or three years his wandering commenced. He first tried Shelbyville and then Lexington, and in 1849, I met him in New Orleans, where he was keeping part of the St. Louis hotel. I had a talk with him, in which he said that {Wilkinson} had insulted him about his calling or trade, and that the trial had ruined him financially. Twelve years later {1861} I saw him at the National Hotel {in Louisville} where he was filling the role of caterer. In 1864, he died of heart disease.”

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