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From a Tartar's skull they had stripped the flesh
“So well had they broken a lingering fast
With those who had fallen for that night's repast."
As Prentiss's deep guttural tones threw expression into the theme I could almost see the horrible banquet. He seemed always able to touch the diapason that vibrated through the soul. Byron was his chief favorite; in fact, the cast of his genius was not unlike that of the poet's: the same brilliant imagination, the same capacious memory, the same exquisite diction, the same classic culture ; if we add to this a similar physical infirmity, the likeness is still more complete ; this misfortune warped Byron into misanthropy and colored the life of Prentiss with a faint tinge of jocular cynicism. There is not the least doubt but that, if he had devoted himself to the Muses instead of throwing his genius on to the Hustings, he might have rivalled his great idol; but, alas for his fame, he flung his glittering thoughts broadcast among the multitude and they have sunk into oblivion.
Inasmuch as Huston had an extensive practice, Prentiss realized enough to be independent, and, had he been of a selfish disposition, he might have been content with a moderate income, and would have probably remained in Natchez; but, after the death of his father, he ever thought it a solemn responsibility to help support his family and, above all, educate the younger children.
He did not profess to be pious and only occasionally attended church, sometimes the Presbyterian and sometimes the Episcopal. He acknowledged a deep veneration for the preachers of religion and always showed a reverence for the ministers of the gospel, but he could not comprehend or appreciate the differences of faith between the various sects.
Impelled by a noble self-devotion to his great life-work, he determined to cast about for a more prolific field. At one time he thought of settling in Port Gibson, a town about forty-five miles northeast of Natchez, but on mature deliberation he selected the then young town of Vicksburg.
During his brief career in Natchez he formed the deepest and most lasting attachments of his life. The members of the bar, old and young, had not only conceived a high estimate of his talents, but had formed a personal attachment for the man. His intercourse with them was marked by professional courtesy, and in the social circle he was the light of the company.
PRENTISS took his final leave of Natchez as a place of residence, and arrived in Vicksburg about the 1st of February, 1832. The Vicksburg bar was then, as it has ever been, distinguished for its great ability. W. L. Sharkey, John I. Guion, W. C. Smedes, T. A. Marshall, J. Harrison, Joe Holt, J. M. Chilton, W. F. Bodley, A. G. McNutt, H. S. Foote, were some of its members who achieved great reputations. Through this array of talent Prentiss had to make his way. His reputation had already preceded bim, and his arrival is beautifully described by his contemporary, John M. Chilton.
The very first case in which he was employed attracted a great deal of attention from its novelty as well as its public interest. The smallpox had broken out in a large hotel, which stood alone in one of the squares of the town.
Moved by a desire to confine the disease and prevent its spread, the city authorities had by an ordinance quarantined, or rather embargoed, the building. Prentiss was employed to enjoin the enforcement of the order and have it repealed. This was a theme well suited to the cast of his mind; ou it he could bring to bear his logical power, blended with wit, sarcasm, and pathos.
Although not a note is left of what he said on the occasion, yet, from the meagre description given, we can imagine how clearly he dissected the powers of corporations and showed their want of authority in the charter; how pathetically he appealed to the humanity of the board : could they, or would they, like the heartless priest or the hypocritical Levite, turn aside froru the sick stranger and leave him to die? or, worse than that, bar him within the doors of the contagion, and let him die like a rat smothered in a hole? Would they not rather imitate the good Samaritan, help the stranger in his sickness, soothe him in his distress, and, if possible, save and restore him to health ?
The embargo was an outrage on our humanity, a disgrace to the age, and contrary to the teachings of Christianity, etc. It is said that he spoke for two hours. Knowing, as we do, how hard it
. is to move men to revoke an order which they have deliberately adopted ; knowing, too, what a panic is created in a little town by the presence of a contagious disease, and how clamorous the people are for quarantine, it is a wonder that the young lawyer succeeded at all, but the result was a triumph, the obnoxious ordinance was repealed.
This remarkable speech for one so young at once enhanced his reputation, and his star began its upward ascent. not long ere he stepped into a large practice and assumed his position in the front rank of the profession. While his forte was in criminal cases, he was equally at home in the dryer matters of civil causes and the more pliable principles of courts of equity.
The old court-house was a square brick building, standing upon the lofty eminence where the present court-house now stands ; this latter is a beautiful airy structure, and is the first object which strikes the traveller as he approaches Vicksburg by the river ; but whenever the men of the days of Prentiss visit the spot their memory goes back to the days of the old square brick court-house that so often resounded to the tones of his eloquence.
In the arena Foote was often pitted against him, but, by common opinion, his most formidable opponent was Joseph Holt. Never, perhaps, were there two great men more dissimilar in manners, tastes, and habits; the one, as we have seen, was jovial, genial, and sparkling; the other was quiet, retired, and reticent; the one was bold, brilliant, and dashing in his arguments; the other spoke with a polished beauty and power,--of him it could always be said semper paratus. He was called the “Demosthenes of the bar,” because his arguments were thoroughly prepared orations. Only a few days since I heard an octogenarian say that Holt was the most beautiful speaker to whom he ever listened, and I have often been told that it was an intellectual treat to hear the arguments of these two remarkable men in some of their great cases.
About this epoch there was roaming through the river counties a noted freebooter, whose pseudonyme was Phelps." He too was a Yankee, was educated and well connected, but lapsed from the Puritan into the Robber; he was of undaunted
“Left a corsair's name to other times,
Linked to one virtue and a thousand crimes."
Strange to say, he never had a confederate, but “ went it on his own book.” The fate of the robber Mason may have been a warning to him; for Mason was betrayed and tomahawked by one of his own gang.
Phelps only killed in cases of necessity; he was not altogether cruel, as the following rather whimsical incident will show. A Rev. Mr. Cotton, of the Methodist Church, and his father-inlaw, Mr. Folks, were returning from a religious meeting at Mount Carmel, in Franklin County; as they were leisurely journeying along, they saw a man run across the road and make his way through the surrounding woods. The Rev. Cotton, impelled by curiosity alone, wished to find out what the fellow meant by this strange manæuvre, and trotted after him; it was not long before he overtook him, for Phelps was perfectly cool and had no idea of running. Any one can imagine how utterly dumfoundered the pursuer was when the other stood with his rifle cocked in “present arms” position, and gave the imperious order, “Stand and deliver."
The preacher, as soon as he could collect his thoughts, replied in just such a way as a man in his vocation would do : “My dear sir, I've got nothing in the world ; I'm nothing but a poor Methodist preacher.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Cotton, it was the fashion of that day for gentlemen to wear enormous seals and watch-chains suspended from their fobs, and he was in the fashion. The quick eye
of the robber fastened on that watch-seal. “I see, sir, you sport a watch ; will you please to hand her over?”
Old Mr. Cotton being unwilling to knock his faithful timepiece out of joint, began to fix it to his umbrella in order to “let it down easy."