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This was the tangled hank presented, in 1834, to Prentiss to unravel,-a case out of which he expected to realize a threethousand-dollar fee.
From the above brief synopsis the reader can at once perceive that it was a case of great magnitude, not only because of the great amount of property involved, but also because of the deeplyintricate questions and the profound investigation required.
In the Rappleye suit a new actor appeared in the drama. To the unprofessional reader it may seem anomalous that one court should be allowed to lay its hands upon and stay the proceedings of another court, but so it was in this case. The city of Vicksburg filed her bill in the Chancery Court, setting up title to the “Commons,” in virtue of a public dedication of it to the city, first by the testator, then by the administrator, Lane, and, lastly, by prescription from the acts and acquiescence of the heirs. On these grounds she prayed for an injunction to restrain Rappleye from the further prosecution of his ejectment suit.
It was a battle between the legal giants of the day. Prentiss, Guion, Bodley, and Harrison were counsel for the heirs of Vick, while Holt and Grayson represented the city of Vicksburg. The city, in common parlance, won the suit in the lower court, and the defendants appealed to the “High Court of Errors and Appeals” (the Mississippi reader will note the change in the name of this court from “ Supreme Court,”—this was in virtue of the new constitution of 1832). Prentiss in the mean while had bought out the larger portion of the interest of the heirs, and thereby became personally interested.
Here occurred another of those curious episodes which seem to link the destinies of some men together. The case was before the High Court twice; in both instances Judges Sharkey and Wright recused themselves because interested in the incipient stages of the case. In 1836 the governor appointed Messrs. Tucker and Trimble special judges with Judge C. P. Smith, who passed upon some orders; but in 1837 Samuel S. Boyd and Thomas J. Jennings were appointed, and with Judge Smith constituted the court that was to preside. Thus it happened that Prentiss's old chum was called upon to decide the most important case of his (Prentiss's) life.
The briefs on both sides in this celebrated case are masterly; but a brief, at best, is but as a skeleton; it matters not how nicely each joint may be adjusted, it lacks the symmetry of fleshly vitality, the spoken argument alone can convey its full force and power.
In the reported decision in 1 How., Miss., 379, “Vick & Rappleye v. Mayor and Aldermen of Vicksburg," it will be seen that the construction of Vick's will as to who were the devisees of the real estate—that is, whether or not the land was willed to the sons alone, or to the sons and daughters together?— was collaterally brought under review and decided by the court. It was in this way: The city claimed a dedication, not only by Newit Vick's act, but also in virtue of the probate proceedings heretofore detailed between Lane and the three daughters with their husbands, thus representing the whole of the female members of the Vick family; that suit had settled the question, so far at least as those parties were concerned. The court, after pointing out the fact that this decision could not bind the minors, etc., proceeded to show it could not affect the case at bar, as it was based upon the assumption that the daughters were devisees of the land in common with the brothers, which assumption was not true. On this single point the court uses the following emphatic language:
“The whole proceeding" (that is, Lane's petition for sale and the counter-petition of the daughters for partition of the levee plat) "is based upon a wrong construction of the will. The daughters of Vick acquired no right by the devise to this land of their father; the clause from which their supposed interest arises warrants no such inference. The sale of the town tract was only enjoined in case it should be needed for the payment of debts. It was not an absolute direction to the executors to sell the land, but only to appropriate it to the payment of the debts in preference to the personal estate, and thus was considered to be for the benefit of all the heirs. One consideration renders this construction certain beyond all doubt. If Vick had died leaving no debts there would not have been a shadow of authority in the will for selling any portion of the tract. And this was not an unreasonable provision, for he might have desired the town site to remain in the hands of those who bore his own name, and so have left it to his sons, and directed it to be kept together till Wesley Vick became of age. At the same time, as he had made provision for his daughters out of his personal estate, and reflecting
that his debts might exhaust that entirely, his parental affection overcame his aspirations for fame as the founder of a city, and he ordered the town property to be disposed of rather than that his daughters should be de. prived of the means of a comfortable subsistence. The Orphans' Court took a different view of the subject, and the inquiry is, Whether the proceedings of the commissioners, acting under their authority, can bind these defendants? We think not. They were not parties to them," etc.
By a unanimous opinion the decision of the Chancery Court was reversed, and Prentiss was at once elevated to wealth. It would be anticipating the regular chronological detail of events were I to recount the effects of this decision upon his fortunes. The relation thereof must therefore be deferred.
It during this year of 1833 that there occurred the first painful episode of his life in Mississippi. I have already alluded to the jocular, pleasant side of the lawyer's life in riding the circuit. When they got to arguing in the court, however, persopal collisions not unfrequently arose in the heat of the debate, and these sometimes resulted in personal conflicts. On one occasion such an one happened in the little town of Brandon between Prentiss and General Foote.
General Foote was the most fluent speaker I ever listened to; his irony was sharp and cutting. Like the skilful matadore, he would fling his shafts of sarcasm at his adversary in order to provoke him to madness, and thus get him into his power. All this was done in a polite, good-humored manner; but naturally his opponent could not see it as such, and hence serious difficulties sometimes ensued.
He and Prentiss were engaged in a case upon opposite sides, when the latter, deeming some of his remarks offensive, resented them upon the spot by a blow. Foote was too magnanimous to strike back, but in due time challenged him. The parties met, accompanied by their respective friends and seconds, on the 5th of October, 1833, on the duelling-ground in Louisiana just opposite to Vicksburg.
Prentiss's resentment had passed away with the occasion, and from the first he had intended (this intention, however, was known only to himself) to throw away his fire. He was such an unerring marksman, however, that this humane purpose came very near being thwarted, for General Foote fired so
quickly that it drew Prentiss's fire ere he had elevated his weapon, as was his intention, above the danger-line, and his ball cut the shoulder of Foote's coat, without, however, wounding him. The honor of both combatants was satisfied, and they left the field. Colonel Dick Archer says that when he met Prentiss after this duel and congratulated him on not having the blood of a fellow-being upon his hand, Prentiss was so overcome that he burst into tears. This is one of the many proofs of how utterly ignorant the outside world may be of the internal emotions of the heart; and fortunate indeed would it have been had the world permitted this matter to rest; but, alas ! it was not allowed to be forgotten.
Those who have read “Georgia Scenes" will doubtless remember, in the combat, the character of "Rancey Sniffles, the hero, who rejoiced in a fight, but always took very good care to be only a spectator. So, concerning this duel, people began to talk; some, it is supposed, insinuated that Prentiss, by using his cane as a support for his lame leg, fired with the advantage of a rest. These rumors floated to the ears of Prentiss, and of course were galling to his sense of honor. He determined to probe to the bottom the report concerning himself, and therefore asked a friend,
“ Did you ever hear whether or not Foote had made the insinuation that I had taken rest because I leaned upon my
The friend replied that he had not heard anything of the kind.
“Well, I have heard it, from what I believe to be good authority. I had no animosity against him when I fought him, but the next time” (there is no use to repeat the bitter language)" he shall not come off so lightly."
Here let us pause, and remember, ere we censure him, the depth of the supposed provocation. It was misery enough to him to be afflicted for life, but to have his infirmity thrown up to him at such a crisis, in such an hour, on the field of honor, too, where he had exposed his own life without seeking that of his adversary, was to him an insult only to be expiated by vengeance.
The rumors and counter-rumors gradually assumed such shape and body that they culminated, and Prentiss sent, by his friend, Major G. B. Shields, a communication to Foote, the purport of which was that he was willing to receive another call from him. The bearer of the communication reached Clinton at night. Foote, at that time, was a married man and the father of a family, who were dependent upon him for support, but his wife was of heroic mould, and could brave anything rather than see her husband laid under the ban of cowardice. Foote courteously told the messenger that he would send his reply in the morning. He did so. The preliminaries as to time, place, and terms were soon arranged.
Prentiss came down in the mean time to “Coventry” for preparation. Each felt that this time there was to be no child's play. The former fight had been about a few idle words and a blow, but this was to be about a supposed imputation that touched the soul of honor.
The rumors of the impending duel in the mean time were bruited about. The officers were thought to be on the watch to arrest the parties. In order to avoid this, some two or three days before the appointed time Prentiss and his friends-General Huston and Major G. B. Shields-secreted themselves near the landing, “under the hill,” at Natchez, on the watch for a boat. Time passed, but none hove in sight. The parties lay close during daylight, but at night would sally out for an airing. In one of these airings, all incog., by the merest accident, they stunbled on to a cock-pit. Much to their astonishment and nrortification, just before the roughs were about to pitch two of the noble birds into the pit they named one after each of the principals in the coming duel, and bets were put up. In about a trice the one answering to the name of our friend fell at the feet of his antagonist. It is needless to say that the incog. spectators retreated from there as quick as possible. Prentiss, with a tinge of superstition, natural to all of us, regarded it for the moment as a bad omen.
In due time, much to their relief, a transient boat came along. They got aboard of her, and reached the duelling-ground just in time. It was the same spot on which Prentiss and Foote