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|Poindexter's accusation against his wife; his son Albert's pitiful death|
(First in a series)
George Poindexter seemed a good candidate for romantic leanings considering the story of his parents' courtship.
But romantic, said those who knew him, was not the word to describe his nature. As Mississippi Territory Attorney General, Poindexter was a young man on the rise in 1804. That year he wedded one of the most beautiful girls in Natchez country -- 14-year-old Lydia Carter.
George's father, Thomas, was an example of how deeply romance can motivate two people in love. Thomas was born in France, but his family moved to England, where, as a young man, he fell for a girl whose family was of good stock, but quite poor. On the other hand, Thomas' father, a Frenchman, had money.
Once an engagement was announced, the displeased father determined to get Thomas far away from England and the girl. He provided his son "a handsome sum" of money and sent him to Virginia to become a planter.
Six months later, the young lady, lovesick and miserable, decided to go to America and find Thomas. Because of her poor financial situation, she couldn't afford passage, so she indentured herself for passport and thereby agreed to become a servant for four years after which time she was to regain her freedom.
Just as her ship arrived on the Virginia coast, Thomas was walking the harbor looking for indentured passengers to work on his plantation. As he boarded one vessel, he couldn't believe his eyes -- there stood the woman he loved.
Recalled a Poindexter relative, Thomas immediately embraced his love, "purchased the indenture, and repaired forthwith to the church. From this marriage sprung the Poindexters of the United States."
These were the parents of George Poindexter, who was their seventh son.
ENTIRELY TOO 'FOND OF FROLIC'
As a young boy, George was remarkably smart, but restless. He couldn't sit still. Known to be "fond of frolic," George also grew to despise authority. Baptist brethren once shook their fingers at him for wearing a queue (long ponytail), fashionable for men in the late 1700s but contrary to Paul's teachings that long hair on men is shameful. To this, George expressed himself plainly. He quit the church.
Says John F.H. Claiborne in his 19th Century book on Mississippi, George was "a stickler in small as well as in great things, fond of squabbling, would never give way a hair's breadth, and was, consequently, perpetually embroiled."
After the death of his parents, George lived with his brother, John, whom George found "too tight and too exacting." So he moved in with another brother, James, in Kentucky, who got George a job with an attorney where the young man studied law and was looking to the future.
The attorney put George in charge of collections in which the young man received a small commission. But George was later fired for "gambling and frolicking."
George returned to Virginia, set up his own law practice in the small town of Milton (which no longer exits), bought some real estate and was doing okay, earning about $5 per client for basic legal transactions. Despite making a decent living, his fondness for living above his means and his reckless pursuits resulted in great debt. In Milton, says the historian Claiborne, George became "fond of cards, wine, horse-racing and society."
George decided it was time for a change, but before leaving town, he acknowledged his debts and promised to pay. He didn't sneak out of town, but he didn't advertise his departure.
With empty pockets, George asked his brother, John, to sell the property George owned in Milton and pay his bills with the proceeds. To get out of town, George borrowed money from a man named William Ragland. John stood good for his brother's debt to Ragland, which was to be repaid from the sale of the George's lot.
Claiborne says what happened next was an example of a lifelong problem for George Poindexter, typically "slow in paying his debts, and always cramped for funds. His lot, which he valued at $1000 cash, was finally sold for $500...and in 1810 he had not paid his brother, and was squabbling over the claim."
John wrote to George: "At a time when you could not remain here, and could not go for the want of means, I borrowed that money for you, which no other man on earth would have done, and the payment of it, as you must know, has cramped me, and compelled me to stint my large family. Since I got the money for you, more than seven years have elapsed, of prosperity with you, and adversity with me."
John also said that George had to leave Milton because he "could not stay without liability to arrest; could not go for the want of means" until John "borrowed the money for him," which George refused to repay. George claimed his brother should have made enough from the sale of the lot to pay the debts and realize a profit.
ARRIVAL IN MISSISSIPPI TERRITORY
This money borrowed from William Ragland enabled George to travel to the Mississippi Territory in December 1802, a place everybody in Virginia had heard about. Natchez was growing, property was available and lawyers were in demand. George immediately drew business, but his mood was low.
On Jan. 18, 1803, 23-year-old George wrote one of his sisters to update her on his life. In the depths of depression, a state in which he often dipped, things seemed bleak.
"Here I am, without society, and without the hope of forming any," he said. But his sister didn't feel sorry for him. She figured he was broke again, and knew about his erratic mood swings. He apparently said some bad things about the prospects for a wife in Natchez country.
His sister wrote him back: "Your impressions of the ladies of your new country seem unfavorable. You, however, have this consolation, that you are not dependent on their beauty and graces for advancement in your profession. A man of business is not obliged to attend fashionable assemblies."
Noted Claiborne: "Mr. Poindexter was not at any time a ladies' man, nor had the traits of character, nor the refined and deferential manners to make him a favorite with them. He was coarse and boisterous, with a loud, preemptory voice, and a decided inclination for courthouse and tavern circles."
But soon came an opportunity that transformed his professional life. Just a few months after his arrival in Natchez, Gov. William Charles Cole Claiborne named Poindexter Attorney General for the district of the Mississippi Territory between the Mississippi and the Pearl rivers. Gov. Claiborne, also a Virginian, knew that the young man had a good knowledge of the law and might be capable of serving well, which Poindexter did.
In fact, George Poindexter served in almost every major office in Mississippi for the next few decades. He became a leading citizen, was a friend and foe of Andrew Jackson, was known as a good legislator in the halls of Congress, considered an authority on national issues, and helped lead Mississippi from a territorial government to one of a state. But his accomplishments were always overshadowed by his debilitating bouts of depression.
Poindexter suffered from a mental condition that was in his day called "folic circulaire" by two French physicians. This was a disease in which the patient, explained Dr. T.S. Clouston, suffers "regularly remitting and recurring periods of mental exaltation, depression, and sanity. The patient, in fact, may be said to live three lives, during each of which he is in a different condition emotionally, intellectually, and in conduct." Some people may have simply thought Poindexter a man who fell into bouts of craziness. In today's world, his condition might called "bipolar," a term familiar to most every family and a medical condition much better understood today than 200 years ago.
Poindexter seemed to manage this condition in his highly-successful professional life, but his personal life seemed always in shambles.
FAILED WIFE; FAILED SON
In late spring 1804 he took another step forward when he married Lydia, the daughter of Capt. and Mrs. Jesse Carter, who were wealthy folks by the day's standards. This wedding was big news in Natchez country -- the daughter of a wealthy planter with a healthy dowry marrying an up and coming Virginian. But almost immediately there were problems and young Lydia would regret this marriage.
In just four years, George and Lydia were separated. By then in Congress, Poindexter publicly accused Col. Thomas Percy of sleeping with Lydia. When Lydia bore the couple's second son, Albert, Poindexter believed the child to be Percy's, and he threatened to shoot Percy on sight.
"By every law human and divine I should be justified in taking your life," he wrote Percy, "without affording you an opportunity or means of resistance." Poindexter said that through friendship he had welcomed Percy into his home, but accused him of having the morals of a "midnight assassin" and a robber.
In a day when the newspapers carried letters from men making accusations against others of every kind -- often followed by duels -- Poindexter indicated that because of Lydia's pleas he would never discuss publicly what he believed happened.
The historian Claiborne says he reviewed documents concerning this alleged affair and thought Lydia "may have been indiscreet, and the more so from resentment of her husband's suspicions," but Claiborne felt she was a "pure and true wife." The marriage failed.
While still in Natchez but divorced from Poindexter, Lydia, said to be a generous and kind person, was heartsick after hearing the story by a missionary concerning an orphaned Osage Indian girl. The child was being held by the Cherokee following a battle between the two tribes. The Cherokee wanted a ransom for the child's release.
Lydia immediately gave $150 -- a mighty sum in the early 1800s -- and after her release the little girl was christened "Lydia Carter," but died a short time later. Lydia later remarried -- not to Charles Percy but to a minister named Williams -- and the couple left Natchez country.
While still a young teenager, Albert was in school in Philadelphia. George Poindexter paid for his education, but paid no attention to him otherwise. Happily remarried, Lydia continued to provide Albert as much emotional support as a mother can, but Albert was ashamed of the suspicions over his birth and longed for the love of his father. He consequently became a young man who was good at nothing and he knew it.
A poor student, Poindexter ordered Albert's teacher to take whatever measures necessary to force Albert to learn. When the teacher told Albert of the methods his father suggested, the young man wrote to Poindexter.
"Dear Father," his letter began, "I am very sorry I cannot please you in any way. I try my best. I have just left a school where I was not made to study, and I hope you will not expect so much from me here the first quarter."
Albert told his father that he was more than a year or two away from being prepared for college "no matter how I try." He promised that "if you keep me at school I will try my best."
Fearing that Poindexter was preparing to throw him "upon the world" without emotional or financial support, Albert was desperate. To his father's warning in a "hard letter" that only one more year of school would be financed, Albert wrote, "Please tell me what I am to expect?"
Albert's teacher told him of Poindexter's proposal "about locking me in a room to compel me to learn," but Albert wondered why his father didn't communicate directly to him. "Dear father, won't you write to me? I have written to you many times, but have never received a letter from you. I still remain your affectionate son."
But Poindexter wouldn't speak to Albert directly by word or pen and he wasn't at all moved by this letter from a son crying out for love. Claiborne suggested that Poindexter had "lived to see the boy, the very image of himself, a pauper, vagabond and criminal."
Never a loving word did Poindexter utter to this son, who tumbled into a world of alcoholism and aimlessness. Jobless and penniless, he crashed wherever he could rest his head at night. In 1832 in his 20s, he took his last breath in a ramshackled house in Louisville, Kentucky.
FINAL HOURS OF ALBERT'S LIFE
Albert's final hours were described by a Dr. G.E. Pendergrast in a letter to Poindexter, then a U.S. Senator, on Feb. 19, 1832. Pendergrast didn't hide his disgust over Poindexter's treatment of the young man.
"Early this morning," the doctor wrote, "Albert sent for me in great haste, that he was suffocating. I set out immediately with the messenger, but he was dead before I saw him. The disease was inflammation of the throat and tonsils.
"The individual in whose house he died had applied to the Mayor to have him buried, as he had left nothing but the clothes he had on. This I would not permit, and have taken the necessary steps to have him decently and respectfully interred tomorrow.
"Not withstanding the coldness you exhibited to me when you were here, I cannot permit the son of an old friend to fill a pauper's grave. No matter what your feelings may have been towards the poor boy, or may be towards me, I am simply doing what I would wish done for me, or mine, under similar circumstances."
This letter was found tucked away in Poindexter's papers after his death. Claiborne suspected that Albert's death haunted Poindexter for the rest of his life.
Certainly it should have.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|