The Weekly Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, ran the following article on Thursday, January 29, 1903, taken from The Kentucky Standard, of Nelson County, Kentucky. This account lists the particulars but doesn’t cover the celebrated lawyers, both for the defense and prosecution, that were quite famous for their day. And it doesn’t take into account the reaction of one of those lawyers that changed Mercer and Boyle counties forever.
Let’s read the particulars.
One of the most noted and famous murder trials over in the south, says The Yazoo Herald, was that of Judge Edward Wilkinson and his friend, a Mr. Murdaugh, which occurred in Kentucky in 1839. Several of the parties were well known in Yazoo City, and the following incidents connected with the trial will be read with interest by numbers of the Herald’s readers. The account is taken from the Kentucky Standard, published at Bardstown:
One of the most noted trials that ever occurred in Kentucky was that of the Wilkinson’s – celebrated more on account of the array of counsel than any that ever took place in the state.
In 1838 Edward Wilkinson was a prominent lawyer and Judge of Mississippi. He was well-known in Kentucky and was engaged to be married to Miss Eliza Crozier, an accomplished young lady of Bardstown and belonging to one of its oldest and best families. The wedding was to have occurred in December 1838. It was an event of no small proportions to Nelson County society.
Shortly in advance of the appointed day, Judge Wilkinson reached Louisville accompanied by his brother, Dr. Wilkinson, and his friend, a Mr. Murdaugh, young lawyer of Mississippi. The interim at Louisville was devoted to preparation. Dr. Wilkinson had engaged with a tailor for a suit of clothes. He called alone at the tailor’s and received the coat, ordering the remainder of the suit sent to his hotel.
On meeting his brother and Murdaugh they disapproved of the fit and style of the coat. The party then returned to the tailor, whose name was Redding, when, after a bad humored discussion, the suit was returned to the manufacturer. Redding, irritated at the discontent of his customers, and attributing it to Dr. Wilkinson, indulged in some very disrespectful remarks toward the latter, which caused him to assault Redding with an iron poker. The affray which ensued was shortly arrested and the combatants separated, Wilkinson and his friends going to their hotel, while Redding went in quest of an officer.
After supper Redding went to the hotel (the Galt House) under pretext of obtaining the names of the Wilkinson party, in order to procure a writ for their arrest. A number of Redding’s friends were in the bar room and there was a strong ground to believe that a conspiracy had been formed to do violence to the Wilkinson party. Judge Wilkinson entered the bar room and was at once assaulted by Redding with violent and insulting language. Retreating to his room Wilkinson soon returned, accompanied by his brother and Murdaugh.
As soon as they entered the bar room Redding accosted Murdaugh in an offensive manner. Murdaugh drew a dirk knife telling Redding to stand off and swearing he would kill the first man who laid hands on him. A man named Meeks at this point seized Murdaugh’s knife hand and struck him with a cow-hide whip and cursed him. Several persons then rushed up and Murdaugh was struck on the head with a club, inflicting a painful wound. Murdaugh changed his knife to his left hand, and thus using it caused Meeks to relinquish his hold. He then made short work of Meeks, who died immediately from the effects of his wounds. Some one gave Judge Wilkinson a stab; but the chief punishment fell upon Dr. Willkinson who seemed to have given least offense. He was knocked down and beaten until almost senseless by a man named Rothwell. Judge Wilkinson stabbed Rothwell in the breast. The Wilkinson party then retreated, and the affair ended. Meeks and Rothwell were both dead. Rothwell was Redding’s brother-in-law, while Meeks was unacquainted with Redding and why he foolishly took part was never explained.
The Wilkinson’s and Murdaugh were arrested and placed in jail. Excitement ran high and fears of lynching existed. An examining trial was held at Louisville, Ben Hardin representing the prosecution, Judge Rowan the defense. The examining trial resulted in committing Judge Wilkinson and Murdaugh to answer the charge of murder. They were admitted to bail, which was given. They secured a change of venue from Jefferson to Mercer County. In the meantime, Judge Wilkinson and Miss Crozier were quietly married.
The trial was called at Harrodsburg in March 1839. The prosecution was represented by Edward L. Bullock, prosecuting attorney, and Mr. Hardin; Judge Rowan, S. S. Prentiss, Col. Robertson, Samuel Davis, John B. Thompson, Charles Cunningham, James Taylor and C. A. Wickliffe represented Wilkinson and Murdaugh. The trial occupied five days. The whole interest of the trial centered in Hardin and Prentiss. Large numbers attended from the surrounding counties. Wilkinson and Murdaugh were acquitted. Judge Wilkinson died in 1863 and lies buried by the side of his wife in the Catholic cemetery at Bardstown.
Two of the main attorneys were from Bardstown. In that day Ben Hardin was the state’s most noted orator and did his best as special prosecutor. John Rowan, of ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ fame, and seven other noted lawyers, defended. One of these was Sergeant S. Prentiss, one of the great orators of all time, who came all the way from Mississippi to defend his friends the Wilkinson’s.
Anyone who knows much about Ben Hardin knows he didn’t like to lose – perhaps even ‘sore loser’ could be said about him. This trial came to Harrodsburg at a time when Boyle County wanted to separate from Mercer, who was not in favor. In Col. George Chinn’s book, The History of Harrodsburg and The Great Settlement Area of Kentucky, he writes, ‘… the very strong and vehement “neighborhood rivalry” which existed between Harrodsburg and Danville. In the 1840 census they were the tenth and eleventh largest cities in the state respectively. Mercer itself ranked only behind Jefferson and Fayette in terms of population. Instead of using their combined influence to attract interest to the center of the state, the citizens of the two towns wasted energy of petty jealousies.’ Perhaps this would have gone no further except for this murder trial and the outcome. From the Advocate Messenger of April 28, 2002, ‘Prentiss made reference to the “purchased wrath” of the fiery Hardin and charged that a “contract: had been made in which “blood shall be exchanged for gold.” These insults did not go well with Hardin.
‘The trial drew almost a thousand people, including at least 200 women who were well-dress ladies. Prentiss, of course, appealed to Kentucky chivalry, the beauty and sentiment of women and the disgrace of receiving a blow without returning defense. In his conclusion he noted, “Let your verdict take character from the noble state which you in part represent. Without leaving your box, announce to the world that here the defense of one’s own person is no crime, and the protection of a brother’s life is the subject of approbation, rather than of punishment.” Applause thundered throughout the court room.
In his speech to the jury, Hardin bombasted the philosophy that makes a hero of “the young aspirant to fame that pinks and kills his man.” Let us never dream, he said, of selecting for our leaders or our examples, those who have so little moral courage as to trust to bowie knives and pistols for the preservation of their manhood. For five long hours Hardin relentlessly attacked the arrogance and ruthlessness of the Mississippi aristocrats. In conclusion he said, “Gentlemen, I beg of you in the name of Him who sits upon the cloud and rides upon the storm, mete out the measure of justice to these men, and vindicate the honor of Mercer County.”’
‘A Dr. Graham said, ‘Mr. Hardin retained all the memory and vigor of mind for which he was so remarkable, and forced upon the jury all the convicting law that ever was written, and like a bulldog clinching his fangs upon every vulnerable point, making all that any mortal man could out of the case. At the close of his powerful argument whispers were heard all around, ‘The jury is bound to convict.”’
And from the April 28, 2002, Advocate Messenger, of Danville, ‘After a short fifteen-minute deliberation the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. As Hardin mounted his horse in front of the Old Stone Tavern where a crowd of spectators had gathered, he made a sobering pledge: “I will see that my sons-in-law (both members of the legislature) run a stake-and-ridered fence between here and Danville.” A stake-and-ridered fence is made by putting a vertical stake in the ground and joining the stakes by horizontal wood or another fencing material. It was called a ”rider” because that’s the kind of stake they rode people out of town on.
‘His threat was not an empty one since he had strong influence in the state legislature, and this outside spur was all that was needed to revive the separatist movement initiated by the citizens of Danville. In 1841, by one vote, Boyle was divided from Mercer, becoming effective February 15, 1842.
‘The local citizens of Mercer County were too l ate in realizing their error in provoking the wrath of Ben Hardin, but they did make a vain attempt to appease the powerful statesman. He was guest speaker for the first celebration of the founding of Fort Harrod held in Harrodsburg in the middle of June 1841. The town citizens opened their doors for hundreds of people, descendants of Kentucky’s first settlers, who came to town by carriage and horseback. Military companies and town bands from Lexington, Versailles and Georgetown, and even Danville, turned out in full uniform.’
Who knew that the murder trial of Mississippians would change the course of Mercer and Boyle counties? You can read more about Ben Hardin. I’m still searching for his grave in Washington County and will try again soon. This trial was also mentioned in a previous post in Mercer County.
Categories: Family Stories