Seargent S. Prentiss would live only 41 years before his death in Natchez in 1850. But during those four decades he excelled at many things – as a lawyer, politician and public speaker. He also made – and lost – a lot of money.
When a child he almost died of an undiagnosed illness that cost him the use of his right leg.
While in his 20s, he survived a mild form of Small Pox thanks to a childhood vaccination. Once he swallowed a piece of glass, a misfortune that almost cost killed him. Through adulthood he suffered from alcoholism, a disease not uncommon in early America.
But in the end it was chronic dysentery, an ailment that plagued his father, that claimed Prentiss’ life.
On May 11, 1835, the Maine native and Vickburg, Miss., attorney, wrote home:
“My Dear Mother:
“For the first time since I have been in this country, I have to inform you that I have been a little indisposed; but then I have the satisfaction of telling you that I have entirely recovered from it, and am again as well as ever I was in my life. And what do you think has been the matter with me? Nothing more nor less than the varioloid.
“Soon after my last letter, I learned that a particular friend of mine at Natchez, Mr. Huston, was lying at the point of death with the small-pox. I went immediately down to see him, and found that he had, indeed, a terrible case of that loathsome disease. I stayed with him two or three days, and finding that he had passed the crisis, and would probably get over it, I returned to Vicksburg. As I had a good vaccine mark on my arm, and knew you were always careful to have the children vaccinated, I felt no alarm—although I could not recollect that I ever had been vaccinated.
“But, thanks to your care, it had been done and well done; otherwise I should have had the worst kind of small-pox. Even as it was, after having returned about ten days, I had the varioloid, and was laid up for just a week. There was very little eruption, and it will not mark me in the slightest degree. I have been out now several days. I am glad of the occurrence, as I now need have no fear whatever of the small-pox.”
Also in 1835, barber William T. Johnson, a free man of color, recorded in his diary that he had heard that Prentiss injured his throat when he swallowed a chip of a broken wine glass: “He was then very ill.”
Surviving such an injury in the 19th century seems miraculous.
On Dec. 10, Prentiss wrote his sister Anna:
“I have been quite ill from an accident, which happened to me about three weeks ago, and from which I have just recovered. I was eating dinner, and by some chance, a small piece of broken glass got into my glass, and in drinking I swallowed it. It lacerated my throat very much and I have been laid up by it till within a day or two. I am now entirely recovered, and as well as I ever was in my life, but I have had a pretty severe time of it, I assure you. I have not written mother about it at all, as it will only worry her, and as there is no harm done, perhaps it's not worth while she should know anything of it.”
Prentiss’ brother George recalled:
“The casualty was much more serious than he represents it. For several days his life hung by a single thread: humanly speaking, nothing saved him but the buoyancy of spirit, and the extraordinary vigor of his constitution. Some time afterwards, he gave me a very interesting account of his state of mind in prospect of death.”
THE INTOXICATING BOWL
Prentiss had barely reached the age of 40 when chronic dysentery and alcoholism became to wear him down. In New Orleans, he ran into his old friend, Willliam Sparks, who recalled in his book (Fifty Years of Memories) Prentiss’ battle with alcohol and their last meeting:
“The habits of Prentiss were daily growing worse — the excitement he craved he found in the intoxicating bowl. The influence of his lovely and loving wife greatly restrained him; but when she was away, he was too frequently surrounded by his friends and admirers, and in social conviviality forgot the prudence of restraint, and indulged to excess. The more this indulgence was tolerated, the more exacting it became. The great strength of his nervous system had successfully resisted the influence of these indulgences, and after potations deep and long, it was remarked that they had no inebriating effect upon him. This nervous strength by degrees yielded to the power of alcohol, and as he advanced in life it was apparent the poison was doing its work.
“Now it was that he found it necessary, in order to stimulate his genius to its wonted activity and vigor, on occasions demanding all his powers, to resort to artificial stimulants. His friends urged upon him temperance, to forbear altogether, to visit his mother and friends in Maine, recreate amidst the scenes of his childhood, and to do so in company with his wife and his lovely children, for they were all a parent could wish them to be. He promised to do so.
“Sad memory brings up our last meeting, and when the subject of his intemperance was the theme of our parting conversation. We stood together upon the portico of the St. Charles Hotel; he was preparing to leave for Maine; I was leaving for my home in the country.”
THE SCORPION STINGS
Prentiss observed that Sparks was holding in his hand a gift Prentiss had given him years earlier.
"You still keep the old cane," Prentiss said.
"I shall do so, Prentiss, while I live,” Sparks replied.
Sparks wrote: “He continued to view the head, upon which our names were engraved, and a melancholy shade gathered upon his features.”
Prentiss said, “Oh, were I, today, what I was the day I gave you this!”
Sparks wrote that Prentiss “paused for a while, and he paused many minutes; still the shade darkened, and his voice trembled as he proceeded.”
Prentiss: “We were both young then, and how light our hearts were! We have gathered about us household gods, and we worship them; how sad to think we shall have to leave them! You married long before I did. Your children will grow up while yet you live; I shall never see mine other than children.’”
Sparks: "Say not so, Prentiss. You are yet young. You have but one thing to do, and you will live to see those boys men; and what may you not expect of them, with such a mother to aid you in rearing them!"
Prentiss: "I know what you mean, and I know what I will; but … the serpent of habit coils around me, and I fear its strength is too powerful for mine. Perhaps, had my angel of today been my angel when first a man, I had never wooed the scorpion which is stinging me to death; but all I can do I will. This is all I can promise.”
He returned the cane to Sparks.
“Keep this stick to remember me,” Prentiss said, “it will support you when tottering with the weight of years, and with strength will endure. When age has done her work, and you are in the grave, give it to your son to remember us both."
The two men clasped hands warmly. A short time later, Prentiss died at Longwood in Natchez.
The last word Sparks heard Prentiss say was: “Farewell!”