Child

A HOMELESS woman and her children cast out into the cold in this 19th century illustration. When Seargent S. Prentiss crossed the paths of the unfortunate, he often brought them into the warmth of his home. (Credit: “In the Snow - Homeless,” H. Buckmann, Harper’s Weekly, January 20, 1877) 

In December 1848, an epidemic of cholera plagued New Orleans where Seargent S. Prentiss had recently moved. Prentiss, too, had fallen victim to the scourge, at one point coming very close to death. 

In letters home to his family in Maine, Prentiss wrote of the gloom of the people and the stench of the city. 

At age 40, he had only months to live. A brilliant man, he was best known for his kindness and for his compassion for his fellow humans, traits he learned from his mother who displayed those qualities abundantly in her love for him. Even as his own health was failing, he often expressed great empathy for the downtrodden, especially the homeless and dying immigrants in their struggle to survive the unsanitary hellholes in many areas of New Orleans. 

As an orator on politics and life, Prentiss ranked at the top in America. His gift of expression could hold a man trancelike for hours. 

Disabled by a childhood disease resulting in the disfiguring of his right leg and foot, Prentiss journeyed to Natchez in his youth, taught at a plantation school in Jefferson County and studied law. As an attorney in Vicksburg, he made and lost a fortune before resettling in New Orleans in the late 1840s to start anew with his growing family and loving wife (Mary Williams, whose family-owned Longwood Plantation in Natchez). 

By then the California gold rush was underway and the Mexican War only recently ended. 

A THOUSAND HORRORS 

On January 15, 1849, he wrote his youngest brother, George: 

“We have at length passed safely through the terrible epidemic which has filled this city, during the last month, with so much alarm and gloom. The disease has been bad enough in reality, but imagination has clothed it with a thousand unreal horrors.  

“I never witnessed a greater panic. In three or four days after it broke out, not less than 15,000 people fled from the city, and those that remained were little less frightened than those who ran away. It was soon apparent, however, that the mortality was principally confined to the exposed and the intemperate among the poorer classes; especially to the poor emigrants, who, arriving in large numbers, were huddled together upon the levee, without clothing or shelter. 

“The weather for several weeks was worse than I ever before saw, and tended greatly to aggravate the disease. Few persons have died among those who were in comfortable condition and prudent in their diet. I do not miss more than two or three of my own acquaintances. One of our little servants was taken ill at the beginning of the disease, but recovered readily.” 

‘THE STENCH INTOLERABLE’ 

In June 1849, he wrote his mother (reprinted in the book (Memoir of Seargent S. Prentiss): 

“You have already heard through Mary of the severe illness under which I labored several weeks since. By the blessing of a kind Providence, I have entirely recovered from the malady, though still very weak from its effects. It was not the cholera I had, but an inflammation of the breast and bowels, caused by long continued colds, aggravated by over-exertion. {In fact, Prentiss suffered from chronic dysentery.} 

“Now that is over, I do not regret my sickness; on the contrary, I think it was of great service to me. My appetite, which had for two or three years dwindled to almost nothing, has revived, and so soon as I pick up my strength, I shall feel like a new man. 

“I was sick, that is, confined to my bed, about two weeks. When I got well enough to move I went up to Natchez, where I had some business, and where I stayed two weeks. About ten days ago I sent Mary and the children up to Longwood. Geordie had been quite ill, and Mary was worn out, and though they did not like to go without me, I insisted upon it. I have had several letters from them, and they are now all doing nicely. 

“This city {New Orleans} is in a very disagreeable condition; one-half of it overflowed, the weather hot and sultry, and the stench intolerable. I fear it will be exceedingly sickly this summer. I shall get through my business in a week or ten days, when I shall go up to Natchez, spend a couple of weeks with my family, and then come on North and enjoy the happiness of again seeing you, my dear mother, as well as the rest of our loved ones.” 

Also in June 1849, he wrote brother George: 

"We have had a miserable winter in New Orleans, and the city is still in a horrible condition; one-half of it is inundated, and the whole of it is reeking with villainous odors, swarming with mosquitoes, and filled with cholera. I apprehend a terrible pestilence upon the subsiding of the waters. As yet they have not receded. Great distress has ensued from this new calamity.  

“Most of the submerged districts are inhabited by the poorer people, and no pecuniary calculations can reach the amount of suffering which has been and still is being experienced. The whole scene is sickening to both the physical and mental eyes.” 

‘HIS LIPS QUIVERED’ 

No man was more compassionate to those suffering illness and misfortunate than Prentiss. There are scores of stories about his kindness and love. 

A friend of his, Col. Peyton, once recalled in a letter to George Prentiss: 

“I once witnessed a touching incident which revived in his memory a recollection of the early days he spent at Natchez. We were walking arm in arm along Gravier street, in New Orleans, a short time before he removed his residence from Vicksburg to that city, when a man in rags crossed the street and stopped in front, as if he would ask charity of one of us. Perceiving that he was not recognized, he said, ‘I see that you do not recollect me!’ announcing, at the same time, his name to Mr. Prentiss. Your brother, evidently much affected, grasped his hand with the utmost cordiality, and apologized for not knowing him. Poor fellow! his own mother would not, in all probability, have been able to do so, such was his bloated and fallen condition. 

“I walked on to the corner, where I awaited Mr. Prentiss, and saw him, with his pocket-book out, handing bank bills to the beggar. When he joined me, his eye moistened and his lip quivered, as he alluded to the former circumstances of this man, who was a merchant in good standing at Natchez, and had been kind and attentive to him on his arrival there, but being unfortunate in business, had become intemperate and thrown himself away.” 

‘BURST OF SUNSHINE’ 

Brother George recalled of his brother: 

“His fearless and generous heart found a natural pleasure in ministering to the sick, especially in times of raging pestilence. Cholera, yellow fever, or small-pox, had for him no terrors, and only served to develop in greater beauty his utter self-forgetfulness. How eagerly would he hasten to the bedside of a friend, smitten by one of these dreadful maladies, and watch by him day and night, taking him, meanwhile, if possible, under his own roof! How he would soothe and comfort the poor sufferer by his manly sympathies, and his hopeful, cheery words! To see his face in a sick room was like a sudden burst of sunshine on a dark day. 

“These are, it is true, but the common charities of life, especially in the Southwest, where epidemics are a school of unselfish, humane discipline; and yet it is none the less grateful to witness them adorning the character of one we love. 

“His sympathy with the afflicted was such as might have been expected from a man whose sensibilities were so acute and tender. He had the heart of a child; the sight or tale of grief and misery melted him to tears, while its relief, if within his power, called forth all the characteristic energies of his soul …” 

A friend of Prentiss reported: 

“Of his kindness to the unfortunate — particularly to the widow and the orphan — you can never say enough. I have been so long accustomed to his generosity, that I am filled with wonder when I meet with mean or selfish conduct. How often has he come home and told me that he had given away his last dollar to some one in distress. Any poor man about here, who knew him, could tell you as to that. He was often imposed upon, but it never checked his charity. He was always ready to give, and no one in trouble ever resorted to him without being relieved and helped on his way.” 

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