Murmurs, murders, business & steamboats
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 @ 3:20 pm
So busy was the Natchez landing under-the-hill in the mid-19th century that the well-respected national newsweekly, the Niles Register, reported that 38,000 bales of cotton had just been loaded onto vessels bound for Liverpool and 3,500 bales for Boston.
John Quitman, a Natchez lawyer who during his career fought in the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War while also serving as governor of Mississippi and as a Congressman, described the location in a letter to relatives as "a bustling place. The streets are lined with carriages, drays (carts) and wagons. The rush to the river is incessant. Every hour we hear the roar of the cannon, announcing the arrival and departure of steamers. Hundreds of arks or flatboats, loaded with the produce of the western States, even from the interior of Pennsylvania, here line the landing for half a mile, often lying five tier deep..."
Under-the-hill, he said, was a place where "vice and infamy are rampant and glaring, and the law almost powerless. Day and night the orgies of blackguardism and depravity are enacted without shame and restraint. The Sabbath is there particularly a day of profanation and debauchery. The gambler, the bully, the harlot reign triumphant, and little jurisdiction is taken over the atrocities..."
Twelve years after Quitman's arrival, Joseph Holt Ingraham's steamboat came into view of Natchez in 1835 where he observed "a pile of gray and white cliffs with here and there a church steeple, a roof elevated above its summit, and a light-house hanging on the verge."
Ingraham was 26, an educated man born in Portland, Maine. He became a professor of language at Jefferson College in nearby Washington. His most famous work of non-fiction -- "The Southwest. By A Yankee." -- includes his description of Natchez.
From the deck of his steamer, Ingraham wrote that "the foot of the bluffs are long, straggling lines of wooden buildings, principally stores and storehouses; the levee is fringed with flatboats and steamers, and above all, tower majestically the masts of two or three ships. The whole prospect from the deck presents an interesting scene of commercial life and bustle."
He called under-the-hill "a repulsive spot," which "had the tendency to depreciate the city, and fasten upon it a bad name...for many years it has been the nucleus of vice upon the Mississippi. But, for two or three years past, the establishment of respectable mercantile houses, and an excellent hotel, combined with an efficient police, and a spirit of moral reform among the citizens, has, in a great measure, redeemed the place -- changed its repulsive character and canceled its disgraceful name. Though now on the highway of reform, there is still enough of the cloven-hoof (mark of Satan) visible, to enable the stranger to recognize its former reputation was well earned.
"The principal street, which terminates at the ascent of the hill, runs parallel with the river, and is lined on either side with a row of old wooden houses; which are alternately gambling-houses, brothels, and bar-rooms; a fair assemblage! As we passed through the street -- which we gained with difficulty from the boat, picking our way to it as we could, through a filthy alley -- the low, broken half-sunken sidewalks, were blocked up with fashionably-dressed young men, smoking or lounging, tawdrily arrayed, highly rouged females, sailors, Kentucky boatmen, Negroes, negresses, mulattos, pigs, dogs, and dirty children. The sounds of profanity and Bacchanalian (drunken) revels, well harmonizing with the scene, assailed our ears as we passed hastily along, through an atmosphere of tobacco smoke and other equally fragrant odors.
"After a short walk we emerged into a purer air, and in front of a very neat and well-connected hotel. From near this place, extending along the Levee to the north, commences the mercantile part of the 'landing,' lined with stores and extensive warehouses, in which is transacted a very heavy business. The whole of the lower town is built upon a reclaimed flat, from one to two hundred yards broad, and half a mile in length; bounded upon one side by the river, and on the other by the cliff or bluff, upon which Natchez stands..."
GUNSHOT, SCREAMS, DEATH
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 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.