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|Gunfire, screams, murder at Natchez Under-the-Hill 1835|
At 11 p.m. on a cold February night in 1835, Tyrone Power stood at the edge of the Natchez bluff and watched smoke from his cigar drift into the moonlight. He and a friend had just dined with Katherine Minor, the widow of Natchez pioneer Stephen Minor, at the mansion Concord, which stood on a high hill about two miles east of the Mighty Mississippi.
A stage actor and writer from Ireland, Power was in town on an American tour. Several performances of his hit, "Born to Good Luck," had dazzled local patrons who packed the Natchez theater over several nights. He had been served a multi-course meal at Concord, a mansion Power wrote about in his journal. While there, he had given "a lump of fine Cavendish tobacco" to one of Mrs. Minor's slaves.
An hour before midnight, Power and his friend cut through a light winter wind on horseback to the edge of the bluff where they parted. For a few moments Power smoked his cigar and took in the beauty of the night as Natchez slept: "the moon at full, was sleeping over it, in as pure a sky as ever (a) poet drank joy and inspiration from; far below, wrap in shade, lay the scene of my almost dream..."
While the world above the bluff was serene, the world below was wide awake. Thriving under-the-hill was a bustling commercial center by day and an underworld of gambling, thievery and prostitution, which ruled the night.
Below he saw a "line of houses denoted by a few scattered lights," while just beyond was the Mississippi, "rolling on in its majesty through a dominion created by itself, through regions of wilderness born of its waters and still subject to its laws...I could distinctly hear the continuous rush of the strong current; it was the only sound that moved the air."
But a short time later, as he puffed on his cigar, "the murmur of a fray came to me, borne upon the light breeze; my curiosity was excited by the indistinct sounds, and I walked along in the direction whence they came..." He moved slowly along the edge of the bluff for a couple of minutes trying to locate the source of the sound.
"As I neared it," he wrote, "the tumult grew in loudness and fierceness; men's hoarse and angry voices, mingled in hot dispute, came crashing upwards as from the deeps of hell." The commotion frightened Power while simultaneously fueling his curiosity. He had heard about the high crime rate under-the-hill as well as stories of beatings and murders.
That very week he had been told of one recent killing, the story of man murdered aboard a steamboat which had just departed under-the-hill. When the boat first landed, many passengers debarked, and others came on board. Soon the vessel "was leaving the wharf" when "the crack of a rifle was heard, and one of the passengers, who had just gained the upper-deck after his shore-visit of an hour or so, fell dead, pierced through the heart." The boat docked again, and "the corpse laid on the nearest wharf by the captain, with an account of the manner of his death, and, this done, off went the steamer." Power said many believed that the dead man had been involved in a gambling dispute which "had excited a spirit of revenge amongst...desperadoes..."
But on this cold February night, Power's attention was focused on the "murmur of a fray...I bent anxiously over the cliff, as though articulate sounds might be caught three hundred feet above their source; a louder burst ascended, then crack! crack! went a couple of shots, almost together...the piercing shrieks of a female followed, and to these succeeded the stillness of death.
"I lay down upon the ground for several minutes, holding my ear close over the edge of the precipice, but all continued hushed. I then rose, and seated myself upon one of the benches scattered along the heights, almost doubting the evidence of my senses...so universal was the tranquillity."
Yet he knew what he had just heard and those sounds "told of a wild brawl and probable murder as having had taken place beneath the very seat I yet occupied..."
The whole episode, he said, was like a dream floating in the bright moonlight and dancing about in the frigid breeze of the February night.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|