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Phelps grew impatient. “Throw it down, you d-d old fool,” said he.
“I can't; I might break it,” replied Cotton.
“ That's my lookout, not yours, sir.” And so, to use a cant phrase, the divine “cottoned up.”
Before they parted, however, the robber gave his pious victim a homily on the ill effects of "curiosity.” “This, sir, will teach you a lesson. Remember, whenever you wish to follow a stranger hereafter, in the manner you have followed me, first make sure that he is not a robber; for if you
do not make sure of it, you may have to pay more dearly for your temerity than by the loss of a watch. Now go, sir.” And so they parted.
Of course the daring robbery was noised abroad all through the hill country, and created great excitement. Phelps disappeared from the vicinity and emerged in Yazoo County, about one hundred miles above Natchez. According to his code, necessity for subsistence forced him to take the life of his victim in cold blood. The indignation of the whole community was aroused, the murderer was pursued and captured. He was brought to trial in the old court-house in Vicksburg.
Prentiss was employed to prosecute. This is one of the very few cases in which he appeared to prosecute a criminal for a capital offence. He was opposed to doing so. It is probable that in such cases he was afraid of his own powers, lest his zeal might cause the conviction of some innocent man; he did not like either to take “ blood-money,"—that is, to receive pay for helping to have a man hanged. But in this case the atrocity of the blood-thirsty villain's act justified his course. General Foote was counsel for the defence, thus the two famous champions stood antagonists.
It was a case of purely circumstantial evidence. The murderer was identified as being seen near the spot of the tragedy, etc. The conclusive circumstance, however, that fastened the guilt upon him was, that close by the body of the dead man was found the wadding of the gin; this wadding was a piece of newspaper, which, upon being smoothed out, to a jot fitted into at torn place in a newspaper found in Phelps's pocket. While Prentiss, with masterly hand, was unfolding link by link the chain of testimony which fastened the act upon the prisoner, 1.o sat glaring upon the speaker like a tiger ready to make his spring.
Phelps was convicted and sentenced to be hung. The subsequent part of his brief remaining career has a tinge of romance. He actually sent for Prentiss and unbosomed himself; he told him of his early life and of his fall, and that he had taken an assumed name, and would never let his family know of his tragic end. He told Prentiss that while he was speaking in the case he intended at one time to spring upon him, crush him, and escape in the mêlée. Prentiss replied to all this, "I saw it all, and was ready for you.”
Phelps afterward broke jail and was pursued, but had to be shot before he would surrender, preferring, as he said, to die by the bullet than the rope; but in this he was disappointed : he was wounded, captured, and on the appointed day expiated his crimes upon the gallows.
The case of Byrd v. State was also one of great note in its day, and Prentiss prosecuted the prisoner. The circumstances were in substance about as follows: A Mr. Joel Cameron, a planting partner of A. G. McNutt, on a plantation a few miles back of Vicksburg, mysteriously and suddenly disappeared. Search was made; a pond on the premises was dragged and the body found, bearing evident marks of having been murdered. Suspicion fell upon his slaves, and one of them, named Daniel, was tried and convicted. Byrd was a free person of color, and suspicion falling upon him, he was searched, and the watch of Cameron was found
person. It was known that Cameron had on the watch the day he disappeared.
Acting on the grounds of circumstantial evidence, Byrd was indicted by the grand jury at the February term of the Circuit Court of Warren County, 1833, as accessory to the murder. Both of the regular terms following, May and November, failed. An act of the Legislature authorizing the holding of a term in February, 1834, Byrd's counsel here moved for his discharge on the ground that four stated and one special term had passed and he had not been tried. This motion was overruled; he was tried and convicted. He took an appeal to the High Court, and
in its first opinion the judgment below was affirmed; but on reargument it was reversed, on the ground that one of the jurors was neither a freeholder nor householder as required by the statute.
The venue on the new trial was changed to Hinds County. He was again convicted, and took an appeal to the July term, 1835, of the High Court. Among other grounds claimed for a new trial was, that during its progress in the Circuit Court the district attorney stated that he was willing to withdraw from the prosecution and leave the management of it to Mr. Prentiss, which the court permitted him to do, against the objection of the prisoner. The High Court overruled all the prisoner's exceptions, the judgment was affirmed, and he was condemned. Before he was executed he made a full confession implicating others, but this was suppressed. He was hung at Raymond. He was defended with great zeal by General Foote against Messrs. Coulter and Warren.
Colonel D. S. Pattison, of Claiborne, has just written to me, “ That some time after this he heard Mr. Prentiss say, in Clinton, in a conversation with some gentlemen, that he, Prentiss, would never prosecute (for a capital offence) another man ;' nor do I think,” continues Pattison, "he ever did while in Mississippi.” He spoke also of money made in that way as bloodmoney. Of course “ he did not refer to district attorneys whose duties are to attend such causes, or causes where attorneys are employed by the State to prosecute.”
Leaving for a moment the narrative of Prentiss's legal career, we shall now pass, for a while, to view him in another arena.
Politics is the great maelstrom into whose vortex has been drawn the living talent of our republican country, and many a broken spar lies stranded on the beach to tell of the wrecks gone down in its yeasty billows. To drop the figure: whenever a young man of that epoch evinced any forensic ability the political party to which he belonged seized and dragooned him into service. There is something so irresistibly fascinating in the applause of the people, something so charming in the success of one's own eloquence, that the victim becomes a willing sacrifice, and, though he knows that it will lead to his ruin, he glories in his self-immolation.
Of course such a man as Prentiss could not long steer clear of the whirlpool. About the time of his appearance the names of the old national parties, "Federal” and “Republican,” had died out, and new party organizations had been constructed from their ruins. They may be classed under three general heads, the “Democratic,” the “ Whig,” and the “States' Rights” parties. The first was of the Jeffersonian school, and courted the will of the people as supreme. The second, whose name was transmitted from the hills of Scotland to our patriotic ancestors of the Revolution, were accused of being mere Federalists in disguise, inasmuch as they believed in a broad, liberal construction of the Constitution of the United States. The third believed in a strict construction of that instrument, and boldly asserted that the States, as the creators of it, were its superiors, and therefore sovereign. These distinct cardinal principles of the three parties entered into and became a part of the matters discussed in the great questions of the day : the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States; the question of internal improvement by the general government; the question of a tariff for the protection of domestic manufactures, etc.
President Jackson, the head of the Democratic party at this time, was its idol; he had done enough to justify his becoming the idol of the people; for, in brief, he had saved his section from the tomahawk of the savage, and his country from the bayonet of the British. Mississippi was overwhelmingly Democratic; there was, however, in the State a small body of intellectual leaders, who, while they conceded to General Jackson his full meed of glory as a military hero, demurred to his capacity as a statesman and civilian. These few preferred the statesmanship of John Quincy Adams, and afterwards followed the lead of Jackson's great rival, Henry Clay.
The political principles of a youth are generally inherited from his ancestry, and Prentiss was no exception to the rule. He was a Whig by inheritance, and his early convictions were ground into him by the precepts of his strong-minded, intelligent uncle, Lewis, who had been a bitter opponent of Jefferson's administration. Prentiss was a pronounced man in his convictions, and, of course, it soon became known how he stood politically ; accordingly, not long after he had located in Vicksburg, he was called upon to lead, as it were, the “forlorn hope" of the Whig party.
The account of his first speech on the national topic is detailed by John M. Chilton in the “Memoirs.” He knew it would be folly to attack(the old war veteran
veteran, so he flanked that battery, and criticised Van Buren, who was to be the successor of the old hero:
“Look at General Jackson's influence over this people! See him transferring his power
*To Albany, with feeble band receiving
Is it not a virtual violation of our Constitution thus to transfer the appointing and elective power from the people to one man, and that man at once their idol and their despot? Beware of such unbounded executive influence ; beware, lest it utterly prostrate the co-ordinate department of the government! See how a noble cabinet has been shattered! One of their number refuses to allow his family to associate with that of another, as he had a perfect right to do; and, lo! he is dismissed, and a unit cabinet is substituted, and that unit is Martin Van Buren. Thus, while the stately and gallant vessels, which braved the battle and the storm, have been wholly wrecked, the cockle-boat of Martin Van Buren has risen corklike securely above the waves and floated safely into Democratic favor. But they say that he, while minister to England, settled the question of Great Britain's right of search. This is news to history. I thought this question had been settled years ago by the war of 1812, and that even the American sailor boy, seated at the mast-head, if asked by a Briton whether such right existed, would point to the cannon's mouth, and
say, indignantly, 'Go, take your answer thence.'' This was received amid bursts of applause, Democrats joining in as heartily as Whigs.
General Jackson was, however, as is well known, re-elected for a second term. His administration was a boisterous one, in a financial sense, in consequence of his destruction of the United States Bank. The seeds of the storm were sown, and although Van Buren succeeded him one term, he reaped the cyclone of 1840. Prentiss, as we shall see farther on, was one of the most conspicuous actors in the drama; however, we need not anticipate the narrative.