Seargent S. Prentiss, the famous lawyer and orator of the 19th century who hailed from Maine, was dying in 1850. He was only 47, but chronic cholera had taken its toll.
He had grown to fame in Mississippi as a politician and A-listed attorney. He made and lost a fortune in Vicksburg before relocating to New Orleans to reach a larger clientele base and earn enough money to pay his debts and care for his family.
Mary Williams of Natchez – the daughter of the owners of Longwood Plantation – was Prentiss’ wife. They had a happy marriage, four children and hopes for a long life together. But those dreams were fading.
Prentiss loved Natchez. It was where he got his start – first as a teacher, then as a lawyer. There, he made lifelong friends and there he always felt at home.
‘A … STRANGE DISEASE’
On June 2, 1850, Prentiss wrote his brother, George:
“I am — still thanks to a kind Providence — improving rapidly in health, though more slowly than I could wish in strength. It is certainly a very strange disease. One feels perfectly well, when the slightest imprudence throws everything aback, and one has to get well again from the beginning.
‘I am dieting with great care; I eat nothing but tea and dry toast, with occasionally a little bit of lamb or mutton. Pastry, fruit, especially apples are mala prohibita. For several days I have been entirely free from the disease, but am very weak and feeble; I shall not recover my strength till I get away from this enervating climate. I am staying at the St. Charles Hotel.
“Mary and the children went up to Longwood ten days ago; and, notwithstanding my weakness, my business in Court has kept me so busy during the time, that I have not been able to write you before. I believe I told you in my last how we had changed our plans, for the summer at least, and probably for next year.
“I have broken up housekeeping, and am going in for a general curtailment of expenses, to see if I cannot work out of debt. What a jubilee I would have if I could once again stand forth and say, I owe no man a cent! Well, I am going to strive for it.
“The rapid growth of our four beautiful children warns me that I must make some provision for their education. When Mary comes down in the winter to stay a month or so, I will take rooms. This arrangement will save from two thousand five hundred to three thousand dollars a year. One or two years will be something handsome.
“At Longwood, in the meantime, they are all most delightfully situated among fruits, flowers, solitude, and salubrity … Mrs. Williams has been continually urging Mary to come and live at Longwood, awhile at least. The house is large and commodious, and I am making all sorts of improvements for them. I shall be able to spend at least half of my time with them, and Mary will pass part of the winter here with me. Of course I shall suffer most from this temporary separation, but I cannot doubt it will be for the best … I hope to get my business arranged for the summer in the course of two or three weeks, when I shall go up to Longwood, spend a fortnight with my family, and then go direct to the Virginia Springs. This course is advised by my physician, and I am inclined to think it best for restoring, what alone I now need, my strength. I shall strive to come on and take a fishing expedition with you, though not as early as you wish. My love to your dear family, and believe me always.”
‘KISS THE DEAR CHILDREN’
George recalled of his brother:
“The final hour was now rapidly drawing near, and everything seemed mercifully ordered to make ready for its advent. His wife, exhausted by heavy cares and incessant vigils, had been persuaded by him, sorely against her will, to precede him with the children to Longwood; the trouble of moving was thus past, and several weeks of rest were secured to strengthen her for the death-bed ministration.”
On June 10, Prentiss, still in New Orleans, wrote Mary, by then in Natchez:
“My Dearest Wife:
“Mr. Hammet is going up to Lake Providence this evening on the Lowndes, and as ‘Old Joe’ has just come over from the Pass, I send him up in Mr. H.'s charge. Mr. Hammet will not be able to stop, going or returning, for which I am sorry; but I shall certainly get him to spend a few days, at least, at Longwood, before I go North. It rains hard to-day, and therefore I am not able to send up anything by Joe. The other servants are all well.
“I sent up quite a lot of things by Mr. E, which I trust arrived safe and are acceptable. The balance I will bring with me. I shall endeavor to get through my business this week, and come up on the Princess next Tuesday. I am still convalescing, and my health is as good as I could expect; but I cannot get my strength, and suppose I shall not till I leave the city. I was never so anxious to leave a place in my life. I long for country air, and rest, and you, and the children. I suppose I shall stay with you about three weeks. It is quite probable we shall go up on the Bostona, which leaves here on the 5th of July, and will consequently leave Natchez on the 6th.
“I am having made a splendid awning of water-proof canvas. I haven't got the pony yet and may fail here, so David had better be looking out for one about Natchez. One the children must have. Let the cistern at the stable go on; it is necessary, and therefore must be built. Kiss the dear children for papa, whose heart yearns towards them. I send love to all. God bless you, my dearest wife.”
‘I WAS QUITE FEEBLE’
Five days later he sent another letter to Mary:
“My Dearest Wife:
“I have got everything nearly ready now, and unless something unexpected occurs, shall leave on the Princess on Tuesday, and be with you on Thursday morning. You may send in the cart for baggage, but not the carriage, as I shall bring up the buggy.
“I have tried to get everything to make you comfortable, and think you will be pleased with some of my arrangements. We have had some fine rains here, which I hope have reached you, killed the gnats, and filled the cisterns.
“I feel finely to-day, better than I have for two weeks. The last two or three days, however, I was quite feeble, and did not leave my room at all. I shall revive when I get to Longwood. I am very anxious to see you and the dear children … Did I tell you in my last that that fine, intelligent young friend of mine, Mr. Collins, of Lake Providence, died suddenly on Monday last? Hammet started the same day with the body for Providence, where his wife resides. He will be back to-day. I was much shocked at the event.
“I have not found a pony yet; if I do not, I will have one, if to be got in Adams county. The awning will be all ready to put up, so you had better be all ready for it. Much love to mother, and Mrs. C., and all of you. Tell the children papa will soon be rollng over in the grass with them, God bless their little souls, how I long to see them!”
Brother George picks up the story:
“Towards the middle of June, as intimated in this letter, his malady returned with such violence as to create instant alarm among his friends, lest he should die before reaching his family. But, for several days, no entreaty could induce him to leave the city, or even to keep his bed. ‘I must work,’ he said. ‘Why, good sirs, a man cannot lie in bed and make his living!’
“On the 11th or 12th he rose early, in a state of much weakness, and ordered his faithful servant Richard, to get the buggy and drive him round the city. They stopped at the French market, where he bought some plums, ate them, and then rode to his office. Here he soon had a violent fainting turn.
“‘I got him some ice water,' such is the substance of Richard's account, "and rubbed him until he came to, and then took him to the St. Charles. As soon as he recovered a little, he seemed to throw it off, and talked and laughed just as he always did. That night he hardly slept at all. The next day he went to the Federal Court, and spoke, I reckon, two hours. The court-room was very crowded. I stood where I could see him all the time. He did not look feeble while speaking; the moment he began to speak he looked just like himself. But when he got through, he fainted, and I took him to the St. Charles.
“After resting and bathing, he smoked a cigar, and then fainted again, and then he came to, and talked as pleasantly as if nothing was the matter. That night he got no sleep at all.’”
HE REMAINED CHEERFUL
George wrote that on “Sunday, the 16th, he had a violent recurrence of the disease, lost his pulse, and was, for some time, in a state resembling the choleraic collapse, from which he was restored with extreme difficulty. In the course of the day, however, he was visited by an old friend, who found him in bed, but very cheerful, and with whom, for several hours, he conversed upon various important subjects in a strain unusually animated and instructive.
“Monday he was compelled to keep his bed all day. He attempted once to ride to his office, and with great effort actually crept his way down stairs; but before reaching the carriage, he fainted, and Richard carried him again to his room. He slept well on Monday night, but Tuesday morning found him exceedingly ill, the fainting turns being very severe.
“Yet even then his wonted cheerfulness and pleasant humor did not forsake him; he seemed to look upon his case as a curiosity, as something apart from himself, and as one fatal symptom after another disclosed itself, he could not help moralizing upon it, or making it the occasion of sportive remark, somewhat in the mood of Hamlet at the grave of Yorick.
“On Tuesday morning he consented to abandon the thought of business and hasten to his family. Mr. Hammet, who had just returned from his sad errand to Lake Providence, made instant preparation for his departure. Mr. H. was an old Mississippi friend, having been for several years Editor of the Vicksburg Whig, and during Mr. Prentiss' protracted sickness in April, as also in the spring of 1849, had watched over him by day and night, with truly fraternal affection. To this gentleman, since deceased, and to Richard, his devoted servant, it was chiefly owing that he ever lived to reach Natchez.
“The moment the determination to stay and wind up his business was once broken — for he had remained and kept up by pure, indomitable force of will — his eagerness to get off was like that of a homesick child. The minutes were to him as hours; his mind seemed filled alone with the images of his absent wife and children, and the fear that he might never see them again … About five o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, he was borne to the steamer.”
Recalled friend Garrett Duncan:
"As he was too weak to ride in a carriage, a mattress was placed on a covered wagon for him to lie upon, and Dr. McCormack, I think, took the reins. A few of his friends walked down to the boat, taking care, however, not to follow the wagon. But we felt as if we were attending his funeral. Upon reaching, the wharf he was carried on board in an arm-chair. Just as he reached the gangway, his eye caught mine from his elevated position; instantly his countenance brightened, and casting on me a smile, with a graceful inclination of his head towards me, he asked, ‘Any motions to make, gentlemen?’ I followed him on board, and took leave of him in his state-room. He was then so much debilitated that we feared he would not live to see Natchez."
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