The Fourth of July began peacefully enough in Vicksburg. White residents of the city, located on the Mississippi River around fifty miles southwest of Livingston, had received word the previous day about the insurrection fears convulsing Madison County, and they had been urged to be alert. But they were not going to let anything spoil their commemoration of the nation’s founding, which they planned to celebrate much as cities elsewhere in the United States did in 1835. In conjunction with a muster of the local militia unit known as the Vicksburg Volunteers, participants in the organized public festivities gathered just outside the city for a barbecue to be followed by speeches, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a series of patriotic toasts extolling the virtues of the nation and recalling the glories and heroes of the Revolution. The Volunteers would then conclude the day’s events in Vicksburg’s public square with a parade and a display of military maneuvers.1
For a while the program proceeded smoothly. William Benton and John Chilton lauded the bravery and sacrifice of the colonists who rebelled against English tyranny while reminding their audience that Americans needed to remain virtuous and deserving of the legacy bequeathed by their patriotic ancestors. Lawyers well suited to their oratorical tasks, Benton had been born in Connecticut and Chilton in Virginia, but both swelled with nationalistic pride as they vaunted what Chilton referred to as “Freedom’s natal day.” So rousing, in fact, were Chilton’s remarks that the buzz and cheering among the crowd drowned out the toasts that began in their aftermath, prompting a militia officer to call for order and quiet so they might be heard.2
Francis Cabler was not inclined to accede to that request. Arrested a year earlier for disorderly conduct after he and several other men brandished knives and sword canes while verbally abusing some steamboat passengers, Cabler had a reputation in Vicksburg as a ruffian and a professional gambler. Probably drunk and apparently feeling that the occasion of the day’s events entitled him to an especially vigorous interpretation of individual liberty, Cabler took umbrage at being silenced, insulted the militia officer, began breaking dishes, and struck another man who stepped forward to help quell the disturbance. A sketchy character at best, Cabler had never been entirely welcome at the barbecue and was tolerated only so long as he behaved himself. His refusal to do that incensed some of the other celebrants, and only the interference of the commander of the Vicksburg Volunteers and the threat of a sound thrashing convinced Cabler to leave.3
Cabler stumbled away from the scene, but he was determined to have his revenge. As the militia paraded in front of the county courthouse later in the afternoon, word began to spread that Cabler had armed himself and was vowing to kill one of the men who had expelled him from the gathering earlier in the day. Cabler never found that man, but he did find the limits of the assembly’s indulgence. Several of the Volunteers took him into custody and found in his possession a pistol, a dagger, and a large knife. Certain that releasing him would only postpone Cabler’s quest for vengeance and equally certain that no court would convict him for a crime he had not yet committed, Vicksburgers considered suitable punishments for Cabler. They settled on lynching.4
The term “lynching” had yet to acquire the connotation of deadliness or the common association with white supremacy that it would assume later in the nineteenth century. First appearing in the Revolutionary era, by the 1830s the word simply referred to any incident of extralegal violence seemingly sponsored or sanctioned by a community. No matter what it meant, though, a lynching was plenty rough. Guards marched Cabler to some nearby woods where “a crowd of respectable citizens” watched as he was tied to a tree, whipped, tarred and feathered, and ordered to get out of town within forty-eight hours.5
As night fell the residents of Vicksburg held a meeting at the courthouse. Sure that professional gamblers were malicious hoodlums who watched out for one another and that the entire lot had likely been provoked by Francis Cabler’s treatment, the meeting’s attendees determined that rather than wait for retaliation they would take the offensive and rid their city of men like Cabler once and for all. They resolved to give professional gamblers twenty-four hours to evacuate Vicksburg and to notify all those dealing in the popular game of faro that they would be prosecuted for doing so. They ordered one hundred copies of the warnings to be printed and posted at intersections throughout the city and then adjourned.6
Exactly what happened next would become a matter of significant controversy. It is indisputable that in their efforts to eliminate what they considered a scourge the residents of Vicksburg instead saddled themselves and their city with a reputation for bloodthirstiness that would take decades to live down. But that may have been undeserved. Though what transpired in Vicksburg was undeniably drastic and uniquely grim, underpinning those events were apprehensions and ambivalence about the economic energies unleashed by the flush times that could be seen beyond Vicksburg and beyond the Southwest. They were shared across the United States.
For his part, William Mills saw explaining and defending what happened to Vicksburg’s professional gamblers as his job and his responsibility, but he also embraced the undertaking. Thirty-five years old and a native of South Carolina, Mills had moved to Vicksburg in the late 1820s and had done well for himself there. A lawyer by training, Mills had become the first editor of the city’s newspaper, the Register, on its establishment in 1830. He bought a valuable city lot, acquired eighteen slaves, and in the spring of 1835 had wed Virginia-born Minerva Elliott. Increasingly prosperous, proud of himself, and looking toward starting a family, Mills believed in Vicksburg, had a lot riding on the city’s success, and held an occupational position that gave him one of its most prominent public voices.7
Many would have agreed that Vicksburg merited Mills’s devotion, for in the 1830s it appeared to be a brilliant example of how white Americans saw themselves extending civilization to the wilderness and creating opportunities for thousands of southwestern settlers in the process. Vicksburg was first established in 1819 on cotton fields that had been part of the plantation of Newit Vick, but long before a town ever existed there observers commented that the land seemed like a good place for one. Situated several hundred feet atop a bluff amidst a ridge known as the Walnut Hills, Vicksburg overlooked the Mississippi River from a spot just below its confluence with the Yazoo. It was extraordinarily scenic, and many even thought it romantic. It was also well protected from flooding and an ideal location for a commercial river port. Travelers heading north past Vicksburg would not see high ground on the east bank of the Mississippi again for hundreds of miles.8
The timing of Vicksburg’s founding proved fortuitous. As Native Americans were expelled from the northern half of Mississippi over the course of the next decade or so, much of the cotton grown on the farms and plantations rapidly springing up in the state’s interior as a consequence found its way to the thriving city. Named the seat of Warren County in 1825, by the middle of the 1830s Vicksburg was the retail center for products desired by farmers and planters in the surrounding countryside, and more than forty thousand bales of cotton came to its docks annually, enabling it to rival Natchez as the premier commercial hub in the state.9
A branch of the Planters’ Bank of Mississippi opened in Vicksburg in 1832, and a second bank opened in 1834. A railroad company had been chartered to build a line connecting the city to the interior of the state, and the population had grown from practically nothing to more than two thousand people. So small in 1822 that a traveler passing the Walnut Hills by flatboat could not even see it from the river, Vicksburg less than fifteen years later bustled with dozens of mercantile firms, cotton warehouses, law offices, and other businesses. Migrants packed its streets and wharves, horses drew carts laden with goods from docked vessels in a constant stream, and hotels were so crowded that guests had to draw chalk marks on the floors to designate their sleeping spaces. “The noise of the saw and the hammer” erecting new buildings filled the air, and a correspondent for one Mississippi newspaper reported that “mechanics who are steady, temperate and industrious, accumulate money very fast, and in a few years you will either find them at the head of a large mercantile house, or the owner of a plantation with from 50 to 100 negroes.” Author Joseph Holt Ingraham may not have been far off the mark when he wrote in 1835 that there was “no town in the south-west more flourishing than Vicksburg.”10
According to William Mills, however, the presence of professional gamblers in Vicksburg was extraordinarily troublesome. The city might be burgeoning economically, but as Mills saw it, professional gamblers so severely compromised virtue, honor, and the rule of law that public decency, moral integrity, and proper order could be achieved only by expunging them from Vicksburg altogether. He regarded the problem as one that well predated the lynching of Francis Cabler, and he argued in a lengthy article for the Register that what happened on the Fourth of July and in the days that followed had to be seen against the backdrop of the city’s recent history to be understood.
Portraying a constant battle between upstanding “citizens” and a vicious band of “desperadoes,” Mills wrote that professional gamblers had been gathering in Vicksburg “for years past,” making the city a base for their “vile and lawless machinations.” Selfish and motivated entirely by greed, gamblers were formidable enemies to what Mills referred to as “society.” As he did with the word “citizen,” Mills repeatedly used “society” as a conceptual foil for the noxious environment gamblers supposedly created wherever they traveled. In just a few lines Mills claimed that professional gamblers “poisoned the springs of morality, and interrupted the relations of society,” that they were “unconnected with society by any of its ordinary ties,” and that they hatched nefarious schemes “in the very bosom of our society.” To Mills, the “citizens” of Vicksburg “society” were quiet, industrious, orderly, and law-abiding. They felt responsible for nurturing the character of future generations and contributed to a convivial public sphere where everyone might feel secure. Professional gamblers, by contrast, were loud, drunken, unprincipled, and criminal. They defrauded and corrupted the young and made the streets unsafe and unsavory. “Citizens” of Vicksburg saw their fellow residents as friends and neighbors. Gamblers saw them as prey.11
Making matters worse was that more gamblers flocked to Vicksburg all the time and there seemed to be little anyone could do to stop them. There were laws against gambling and other sorts of objectionable and disruptive behavior, of course, but Mills argued that no matter how strict the laws or how severe the punishment for breaking them, nothing had been proven “sufficient to correct a vice which must be established by positive proof, and cannot, like others, be shown from circumstantial testimony.” For all their wickedness, gamblers were also clever and careful “to violate the law in such a manner as to evade its punishment.” Even when brought to trial, Mills wrote, gamblers found people to lie on their behalf, “secret confederates to swear them out of their difficulties, whose oaths cannot be impeached for any specific cause.”12
Mills thus accused professional gamblers simultaneously of being driven entirely by individual self-interest and also of bearing such strong allegiances to one another that none of them could be prosecuted successfully for their crimes. If Mills was conscious of such an apparent contradiction he never betrayed it. Overall, gamblers as he described them were redoubtable foes. United in defense of their own cravenness, professional gamblers stood as a threat to any class of persons but themselves, a collection of villains so powerful in their collaboration and so evil in their intent that they were ultimately “the secret or open authors of all the disturbances and crimes that distract the community.”13
Situated in such a context, the outrage with which the residents of Vicksburg responded to Francis Cabler’s unruliness on Independence Day was not only understandable, it was long overdue. Moreover, if the antipathy William Mills evinced for gamblers even remotely represented how others in Vicksburg felt about them, it is no wonder that over the course of the twenty-four hours following the posting of the warning notices on the morning of Sunday, July 5, most of them fled the city, “terrified,” in Mills’s telling, “by the threats of the citizens.” Perhaps they were not so tough as Mills made them out to be. But only the passing of the deadline established at the courthouse meeting would truly test the resolve of both the citizens of Vicksburg and their treacherous opponents.14
On the morning of July 6 the Vicksburg Volunteers convened again to finish the job of cleansing the city that they had begun two days earlier. Followed by a throng that Mills claimed numbered several hundred people, militia members began marching through the streets, sending into homes representatives who tossed out faro tables and any other gambling apparatus they discovered on the premises. The real target of the soldiers against fortune, however, was a house owned by a man named North, where “it was understood that a garrison of armed men” had barricaded themselves, defying the warning to evacuate the city. The crowd surrounded the house, and Mills wrote that everyone gathered hoped that the men inside would surrender rather than mount “a desperate defence.”15
But impatience and anger overwhelmed restraint. Someone kicked down the back door of the house, and the men inside opened fire. Situated in the open doorway was a “citizen universally beloved and respected,” a physician named Hugh Bodley, who took the brunt of the volley. Hit flush, probably with a load of buckshot, he was killed instantly. Members of the mob, guided by the muzzle flashes of the weapons used by those defending North’s house, returned fire into the dark building and severely wounded one man, who cried out in pain. Despite being led by a militia unit, a fire-fight was not exactly what the Vicksburg assailants had in mind, especially after seeing the impact of gunshots on Hugh Bodley. Sensing that the cry of the wounded man gave them an opening, the crowd rushed the house and overwhelmed the “garrison” of four men inside.16
North, the owner of the house, was not one of the four. But he was believed to be “the ringleader” who had foolishly “contrived this desperate plot” to resist the militia, and the members of the mob were not about to let him disappear. When he was apprehended nearby while attempting to make his escape from Vicksburg, his fate was sealed along with those of the men extracted from his house. All five were conducted “in silence” to a nearby gallows and hanged. Mills claimed that no one present objected, as any “sympathy for the wretches was completely merged in detestation and horror of their crime.” The faro tables and other gambling equipment the mob had confiscated were piled and burned after the executions, and the bodies of the five executed men were left on the gallows until the following day, when they were cut down and buried without ceremony in a ditch.17
Concluding his description of the riot, William Mills explained that the citizens of Vicksburg really had no choice but to behave as they did. Charitable impulses had no claim on people as brutalized as they had been, and for them to tolerate professional gamblers in their city even after the actions of Francis Cabler and the death of Hugh Bodley would have proved them not only “destitute of every manly sentiment, but would also have implicated us in the guilt of accessories” to the gamblers’ crimes. Perhaps weaker men susceptible to “sickly sensibility and mawkish philanthropy” would have followed a different path to ridding Vicksburg of gamblers, but Mills was certain there was only one way. “Society,” he wrote, “may be compared to the elements, which, although ‘order is their first law,’ can sometimes be purified only by a storm.”18
Moreover, Mills claimed that every decent person in Vicksburg agreed. “The Revolution,” as he called it, was a collective project “conducted here by the most respectable citizens, heads of families, members of all classes, professions, and pursuits. None have been heard to utter a syllable of censure against either the act or the manner in which it was performed.” In case anyone doubted that the effort of “exterminating” the “deep-rooted vice” of gambling was a truly democratic project sanctioned by “society,” Mills noted that an antigambling society had been founded in Vicksburg, the members of which, in a manner and language appropriate for declaring liberation from the bane of their city, “pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors, for the suppression of gambling, and the punishment and expulsion of gamblers.”19
Though offering no apologies for what the residents of Vicksburg had done, William Mills anticipated criticism. There was some defensiveness to the tone of his report, and he asserted plainly his understanding that a mob hanging five men without trial would surely receive “censure from those who had not an opportunity of knowing and feeling the dire necessity out of which it originated.” He was right. Newspaper editors across the United States wrote blistering condemnations of Vicksburg and the people who lived there, with headlines describing the hangings as a “tragedy” and an “outrage,” as “murders” and “butchery.”20
Running through the commentary was the notion that Vicksburgers had crossed a fundamental line into barbarism. In Baltimore, an editor asserted that “the annals of no civilized nation are blotted with a darker stain than that which is fixed upon this country by the late doings at Vicksburg.” A Raleigh editor wrote that events in Vicksburg “must be denounced by every reflecting man as one of the most wantonly cruel outrages ever perpetrated in a civilized community.” A commentator in Hartford thundered that the “horrid transactions” in the city had “scarce a parallel in the most barbarous ages and amongst the most savage people.” A writer for a national religious journal insisted that contrary to their pretenses of rectitude, those responsible for the executions in Vicksburg were in fact moral inferiors to those they executed, and that it was “a most awful burlesque upon all truth and decorum to call such men any thing else but banditti of the most ferocious turpitude.” In an age of highly partisan journalism when almost no important issue or event saw complete agreement among the nation’s editors, it was remarkable that the editor of the New York Evening Post could observe without exaggeration that “the Vicksburgh outrage is commented upon in terms of suitable indignation and reprobation in almost every mail paper which we open.”21
In part, most of the nation’s editors found the Vicksburg riot troubling because they argued the United States was supposed to be a country governed by laws. They insisted that gamblers—no matter how much William Mills tried depicting them otherwise—were citizens entitled to the protection of those laws, that the occupants of North’s house had acted in self-defense when they killed Hugh Bodley, and that even if they were guilty of murdering Bodley in cold blood, executing Americans without even the pretense of a trial was itself a serious and dangerous crime. As the editor of the New Orleans True American wrote, when it came to gamblers, the “unpopularity (and where it is the case) the illegality of their profession, furnishes no warrant to Tom, Dick and Harry to deprive them of liberty or life at their pleasure—they are as much as any other citizens, entitled to the privileges secured by the Constitution, to the protection of the laws of the land and the right when illegally assailed, to a practical resort to the first principle of nature—self defence.”22
The editor of the Hartford Times was still more forceful. “Are persons to be butchered like wild beasts,” he asked, “because they are guilty of vicious propensities and immoral practices? If so, wretched indeed is our country. The laws must be supreme, or we are a ruined people. It is wicked to attempt glossing over the Mississippi murders. They are a reproach to our country, a disgrace on the American name.” That Vicksburg had embarrassed the entire United States in the eyes of the world was a common sentiment in the aftermath of the riot. For a young nation that saw its global responsibility to be demonstrating the possibilities of republican government and democratic institutions, this was no small matter. The hanging of the Vicksburg gamblers was infuriating not merely because, as the editor of the Baltimore Gazette asserted, it was “a detestable mockery of justice,” but also because it seemed to call into question America’s very character and viability as a free country whose people could govern themselves without collapsing into anarchy.23
One editor felt forced by events at Vicksburg to make the “melancholy confession” that “our laws are too ineffectual to protect us, without the commission of illegal violence and murder,” a humiliating admission he felt “must degrade us in the eyes of Europe.” Another maintained that the hangings indicated the failure of Americans to “appreciate universally the responsibilities which rest upon them,” as “the cause of liberty and free institutions, not merely in our own land, but throughout the world, is deeply wounded, by every instance of lawless outrage.” Still another found himself nearly in despair and wondering what “the nations of Europe [must] think of us and of our country?—of us who boast that our land is the home of the free and the asylum of the oppressed. … Can we longer boast that ours is the land of liberty? No, rather must we say; and we do it with shame, ‘tis a land of anarchy and licentiousness, where liberty and law are trampled in the dust, and the arm of the civil authority is paralyzed and nerveless.”24
Though it is tempting to conclude that such rhetoric inflated the importance of the riot and the American national experiment alike, events in Vicksburg did in fact become fodder for skeptics of democracy abroad, especially in England. A Virginia newspaper, for example, noted that the “Vicksburg Affair is eagerly seized by the Tory Press and Tory Orators of England as an unfavorable illustration of the effect of Republican institutions, and of their tendency to degenerate into licentiousness.” Many papers published excerpts of a speech delivered in the fall of 1835 by Sir Robert Peel, a former prime minister and the leading Tory in England, who scoffed at American democracy and at “the vaunted happiness of the inhabitants of the United States.” Having read in American newspapers about recent outbreaks of mob violence, Peel pointed particularly to the hanging of gamblers in Vicksburg and suggested to his audience that if they “only bear in mind what has been the issue of similar experiments,” they would “not very much indulge in a popular Government.”25
Few Americans concurred with Peel that the Vicksburg riot actually signified the shortcomings of democracy itself. Yet William Mills’s attempt to defend what had taken place in his city did fall decidedly flat. James Burns Wallace, a New Hampshire native visiting the Southwest early in 1836, accurately predicted in his diary that the “rash & bloody transactions” that had occurred in Vicksburg the previous summer would “long be remembered.” But instead of making Vicksburg a place Americans thought of as peaceful, safe, and filled with upright citizens, the hangings of professional gamblers gave the city’s very name an association with danger and menace that it would not quickly shed. Within weeks of the hangings, newspapers were referring to extralegal punishments as being “on the Vicksburg plan,” “in the Vicksburg fashion,” or simply as “Vicksburg law,” and for years afterward, foreign and domestic travelers to the Southwest who stopped in Vicksburg mentioned the notoriety the mob assault had given the city. Until the Civil War siege brought a different kind of fame and a different kind of misery to Vicksburg, Americans outside the Southwest considered it, as Virginia lawyer James Davidson did in 1836, “the famous Vicksburg of Lynching memory.”26
Editorial condemnation of the hangings in Vicksburg was not just a matter of principle or public relations, however. Part of the problem with William Mills’s version of events was that it did not seem particularly believable. Mills assured readers that he had witnessed the acts his story described and that they could rely on “the correctness of the account.” But several editors were so skeptical that they essentially accused him of fabricating an extended lie to disguise the depravity of the people in Vicksburg. Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, suggested that Mills had put the best face possible on “the horrors” of the hangings but that his story did “not carry conviction with it.” Hezekiah Niles, whose Niles’ Weekly Register had a national readership and one of the largest circulations in the United States, was even more openly incredulous. Mills’s story might “be considered an ‘official’ account of the hanging of five gamblers at Vicksburg,” Niles wrote, but it was of a “specious character.”27
It is easy to see why some observers had doubts. William Mills’s story of the violence in Vicksburg was reprinted in dozens if not hundreds of newspapers all over the country. But that was only his version, and the story was not solely his to tell. The same roads, rivers, canals, and rail lines that carried his report in the Vicksburg Register through the increasingly interconnected information networks of the United States moved competing narratives of the hangings as well. One element of Mills’s account was assuredly true—many people had seen what happened in Vicksburg during and after the Fourth of July celebration in 1835. But as some of those people described what they witnessed, it was clear that not everyone saw what Mills claimed to have seen. Instead of a display of bravery and valor, they had seen something ghastly.
A few of the other eyewitness accounts differed from Mills’s version mostly in supplementary details, leaving the substance of his story basically intact. The Natchez Courier, for example, which got its information “from individuals, who left Vicksburg since this affair took place,” reported that North’s house doubled as an establishment known as the Vicksburg Coffee House, that the men hanged alongside North included two barkeepers and two “others (gamblers),” and that the gallows on which all five were hanged was situated in some nearby woods. “Several gentlemen” who arrived in Little Rock by steamboat told the Arkansas Gazette that the militia and the attendant mob paraded to North’s property with musical accompaniment, that Hugh Bodley was shot through the heart, that more than four men had barricaded themselves inside North’s house but most escaped as the mob rushed the building, and that the gallows was roughly one mile from the city.28
Even small details like these hint at how William Mills carefully constructed his story to place the actions of his neighbors in the best possible light. Failing to mention the name of North’s business denied him and it legitimacy that Mills obviously decided neither deserved. Making a point, meanwhile, as Mills did, of claiming that the accused gamblers had been conducted silently to the gallows created a mental image for readers of deliberation and solemnity. Such an image sat jarringly alongside the more sinister frivolity he neglected to note of a musical procession by hundreds of men to a house where they intended, at the very least, to beat the occupants into submission and make them into social pariahs with a coating of liquefied tar.
If these seemingly minor items hinted to careful readers that the riot in Vicksburg had a darker side than William Mills allowed, the account of it that appeared in the New Orleans Louisiana Advertiser made the darkness visible. Other than Mills’s report, no extensive version of the story was published in more newspapers than that of the Advertiser, and the picture its author painted was not a pretty one. Claiming to have received its information from “two gentlemen” who had just arrived in New Orleans from Vicksburg, where they had been “eye witnesses to most of the transactions” they described, the Advertiser immediately struck a different tone than Mills had in the Register. Vicksburg was indeed a place in turmoil. But where Mills presented it as a city plagued for years with disorder caused by professional gamblers, the witnesses for the Advertiser described it as a “hitherto tranquil place” that the rioters themselves had so disturbed that “almost all the women have left it, to avoid any future commotion.”29
The Advertiser and the Register agreed that the proximate stimulus for what happened was a dispute between Francis Cabler and a militia officer at a Fourth of July celebration. But other than in the broadest of strokes, that was where the two parted ways. The Advertiser noted that Independence Day festivities were often boisterous occasions where arguments and fights were common. It was thus unfortunate but hardly unusual when Cabler and a militia member named Alexander Fisher began quarreling and exchanging blows, or even when Cabler pulled a knife. What was unusual was the way the other members of the Vicksburg Volunteers responded to Cabler’s assault on “their comrade.” They grabbed Cabler, tied him to a tree, and “inflicted thirty two lashes on his person.” Then, “not considering this sufficient” and “alleging that he was a gambler,” they decided to tar and feather him, even as “he entreated them to shoot him rather than disgrace him in that manner.” As they prepared to pour a bucket of tar over his head, Cabler begged that they at least keep the tar from falling into his eyes, a plea that was met “violently with a stick across the eyes” instead. When the militia had finished, they ordered Cabler to get out of Vicksburg.30
The next day, according to the Advertiser, “in order to appear consistent, and continue their work of civilization (as they called it),” thirty to forty men under the command of militia captain George Brungard armed themselves and marched through the city determined to destroy “every thing appertaining to gambling” and warning that they would tar and feather anyone who tried to stop them. As the mob made its way from house to house, several terrified men sought sanctuary in North’s establishment. They found none. Hugh Bodley, the Advertiser wrote, kicked down one of the building’s doors, and shots were exchanged, resulting in Bodley’s death and in critical injuries to one of the men inside the house. The mob promptly dragged the man outside, bleeding and unconscious, along with three others. They tracked down the fleeing North about a mile away and brought him back to Vicksburg, where he and the three captured men who could still walk were bound with their hands behind their backs. Ropes were placed around their necks and used to drag all four to a scaffold.31
As the Advertiser described the scene, North and his compatriots “claimed to the last the privilege of AMERICAN CITIZENS.” They asserted their right to a jury trial and professed their willingness to submit to any legal punishment that might result. The mob would have none of it, instead ordering a company of black musicians to drown out the prisoners’ voices with music. The cashier of the Planters’ Bank, a man named Robert Riddle, asked the band to play “Yankee Doodle,” perhaps feeling that the song added a bit of patriotic and holiday-appropriate levity to the spectacle. The Advertiser did not see the charm of it, writing that the tune had “never been so prostituted.” Finally, after the prisoners had been denied even their repeated requests for water, North realized their cause was hopeless. He asked a friend to look after his family, and he and the three other captives mounted the scaffold and waited to die.32
In the Advertiser’s telling, this entire series of events did not go unchallenged. Few people had stood up to the mob as it went about its business looking for gambling equipment to destroy, and even those who wanted to protect their personal property quailed “when they saw the state of excitement of the volunteers.” But destroying faro tables was a far cry from executing people without any legal proceeding, and not everyone in Vicksburg had the stomach for the latter. As the prisoners were hauled to the gallows, the Advertiser wrote, they “presented such a horrible appearance, that the passers by were moved even to tears” and “some of them endeavored to interfere, but were threatened with a similar punishment, and obliged to desist.” Some local magistrates tried to step in as well, but they too “were cautioned at their peril not to intermeddle in the affair.”33
In the end, North and three other men stood on a platform, noosed and unhooded. Hugh Bodley’s brother-in-law, a lawyer named William Henry Hurst, cut the rope that held up the platform under the men’s feet, and all four dropped and swung by their necks until they died. The fifth prisoner never regained consciousness. Covered in blood, he was driven to the scaffold in a wagon, carried up the stairs, noosed, and thrown into open space alongside the four dead men. The Advertiser wrote that the wife of one of the five victims tearfully “begged permission to inter her husband’s body.” She was refused, and the executioners warned that anyone attempting to lower the bodies before a twenty-four-hour period had expired would be hanged too. The next morning at eleven the corpses “were cut down and thrown together into a hole which had been dug near the gallows.”34
The accounts of William Mills and the Louisiana Advertiser described the same events in entirely different terms. One described hundreds of upstanding men in Vicksburg acting with moral righteousness and the official sanction of a militia to eliminate dangerous criminals lacking a sense of civic responsibility or basic human decency. The other described a significantly smaller gang of sadistic thugs, driven by rage, hijacking what should have been an impartial protective force to enact personal retribution on people who had friends and families. One described a community united for the common purpose of locating and removing sources of disorder in its midst and unwavering in its determination to take the harshest steps necessary in pursuit of that goal. The other described a city population divided about the wisdom of a lynch mob and dissenters bullied into submission and silent witness. One described justice. The other described vengeance.
Eyewitness reports that departed from the narrative he had crafted irritated William Mills, and he did what he could to undermine their credibility. Soon after publishing his initial story in the Register, Mills insisted that other papers allow their readers to hear his voice, asserting that “in consequence of the gross mis-statements made by some newspapers, of the occurrences which took place in this city on the 6th inst., it is the earnest request of the citizens, that all papers having made any remarks concerning them, will do them the justice to publish the account of the transaction from the Vicksburg Register … which is a correct and impartial statement.” He deemed the Louisiana Advertiser’s story especially pernicious and lashed out, calling that paper’s reports “so distorted and detestable,—so different from the truth—that we can account for them only by supposing that a blackleg, who was liar enough to be scouted by his own associates, was at the elbow of the Editor prompting him when he wrote his accounts, or the editor was very gullible, and gave ear to a great many idle tales.”35
William Mills’s vexation with stories that suggested the tendentiousness of the one he told is somewhat understandable, as a few supposed eyewitness accounts that circulated in the national press may well have been falsehoods. One man who said he had been in Vicksburg claimed that an unnamed gambler had been lynched on the night of July 5, before the evacuation deadline established at the courthouse meeting had expired. Another reported that after hanging North and the men in his house, the crowd in Vicksburg whipped and then mutilated for their own amusement a sixth man by “sticking pins through his nose and ears.” Perhaps Mills was even right that the “gentlemen” eyewitnesses who appeared in the offices of the Louisiana Advertiser were gamblers fortunate enough to escape the wrath of the mob. If they told “idle tales,” though, they were not alone. Several accounts of the riot that were never intended for publication also indicate that Mills’s story was a decidedly partial one.36
George Featherstonhaugh, a British geologist who traveled extensively in the Southwest, read Mills’s account of the Vicksburg riot in the Register but also spoke to someone who had seen the hangings and who recounted for him a gallows procession that “baffled all description.” Featherstonhaugh’s witness saw not Mills’s silent crowd but rather the Advertiser’s “tumultuous mob, showing a savage impatience to hurry on the execution.” Led “by a drunken black fiddler,” North and the other men were “reluctantly dragged to the fatal tree” as those watching screamed curses at them. Some of the doomed, the man told Featherstonhaugh, were “dogged and malignant to the last,” but at least one “was thoroughly terror-stricken.” Until the moment he hanged, “he wept, he implored, he cried aloud for mercy, and evinced the most abject despair.”37
The Reverend Richard Wynkoop, meanwhile, sent a letter from Vicksburg to a clerical colleague in Maryland in which he wrote that the men pulled from the site of Hugh Bodley’s shooting were not even gamblers but rather “poor drunken creatures that happened to be in the house, the real culprits having escaped.” The mob, more interested in revenge than accuracy, rushed them all to the gallows anyway. Wynkoop wrote that the assembled hesitated briefly before the platform dropped from the feet of the accused as a dark cloud crossed the sky, and an awkward silence fell over the crowd while they listened to the condemned pray for mercy. The moment was a fleeting one. Someone, in a “deep horrible tone of suppressed rage,” roared curses at the noosed men, and in the next instant there were “five human beings in the last agonies of death.”38
Unlike Featherstonhaugh’s witness or those who provided information to the Advertiser, Wynkoop described a Vicksburg population that felt at least a modicum of shame. Once the men on the gallows had stopped pleading for a jury trial, begging for their lives, and praying, some in the crowd understood the magnitude of what they had done. “All the mad, blind fury that a moment before agitated their breasts had now subsided and conscience seemed to strike them as it were dumb at the horrible act they had just now perpetrated,” Wynkoop wrote. “They turned from the scene guilty in the sight of God, in the sight of men, and their own consciences.”39
William Mills could peevishly brush aside descriptions of the riot in Vicksburg that made its residents look impulsive, vindictive, and irrationally violent as lies told by gamblers who continued to cause problems even after they had been chased from the city’s borders. Richard Wynkoop’s letter, however, might simply have baffled him. Mills knew what had happened in Vicksburg was “startling” and he had expected reproach, but the idea that professional gamblers deserved any sort of quarter or compassion was bewildering, and the vehemence with which the nation’s newspapers castigated Vicksburg mystified him. Mills scoured the national press for editorials supporting what had happened in Vicksburg. Yet he found just a smattering that backed his assertions that gamblers were a menace beyond the reach of ordinary legal proceedings who could be disposed of only through extralegal force that communities could rightfully exercise in extenuating circumstances.40
There was a Kentucky newspaper that cheered the hangings, describing professional gamblers as men for whom “the law had lost all its terrors” and who “were already steeped in infamy so deep that human execrations could not move them.” By this editor’s reckoning, “death, instant and terrible, was inflicted, and should have been inflicted, upon the assassins,” and the residents of Vicksburg had merely shown “prompt and salutary energy” that ensured “the safety of the whole community.” That so few other editors shared those sentiments, however, genuinely surprised Mills.41
For one thing, mob actions were not unusual in the United States. If anything, they were on the upswing in the 1830s, as economic strains, racial and ethnic tensions, and political divisions yielded increasingly frequent outbursts of violence throughout the nation as the decade wore on. Newspaper editors rarely approved of such things, and Hezekiah Niles spoke for many when he wrote that the “spirit of riot or a disposition to ‘take the law in their own hands,’ prevail[ing] in every quarter” indicated that “many of the people of the United States are ‘out of joint.’” But the notion that events in Vicksburg singularly brought disrepute on the entire country seemed hyperbolic and unwarranted. This was especially so considering that instigators of mob violence in many parts of the country were often led, as in Vicksburg, by people presenting themselves as moral guardians of their communities.42
Equally confusing about the emphatic reproof of Vicksburg was that, particularly among the emerging American middle class of which many editors considered themselves members, gambling was widely condemned as an exceptionally dangerous vice. Strewn through periodicals, published sermons, tracts, advice books, and other prescriptive literature in the United States were cautionary tales of promising young men persuaded against their better instincts to gamble with friends or play the lottery. What followed was seemingly inevitable—dissipation, loss of reputation, financial ruin, familial destruction, physical decline, crime, imprisonment, and death, not infrequently by suicide. As one author concluded, “in the whole catalogue of unfortunate and criminal habits, there is no one which results so soon and so completely in loss of character, squandering of property and depravement of principle, as indulgence in gambling.”43
Part of the problem with gambling lay in its impiety. To evangelical Christians, gambling was sinful, immoral, and condemned its practitioners to damnation. It encouraged avarice, covetousness, and the unearned enrichment of self at the expense of one’s neighbors, and it often occurred in environments where drunkenness reigned, blasphemy was a source of amusement, and ruthless disregard for others was a virtue. There was a reason Americans commonly referred to gambling houses as “hells.”44
Yet gambling was hardly problematic just as a matter of irreligion. Above all else, gambling promoted economic activity and morality out of keeping with how middle-class Americans believed success ought to be pursued. Those fashioning themselves “respectable” placed premiums on mores and behavior that reflected frugality, temperance, probity, industriousness, and self-discipline. They argued there were no shortcuts to wealth and success, and that the only reliable path up the ladder of economic mobility was slow and steady gain from honest and productive labor. But gambling, one commentator lamented, “produce[d] a contempt for the moderate, but certain profits of sober industry.” It yielded financial rashness, encouraged a craving for money so insatiable that fraud could be sanctioned in its pursuit, and undermined a decent work ethic. It fostered the notion that something could be had for nothing, that riches could be gained instantly through sheer luck, and that fortunes could be augmented merely by willingness to take a chance. The consequences of gambling for individuals and the nation alike could only be devastating, because its “direct tendency is to undermine the foundations of the public prosperity and happiness.”45
Given how profound the damage Americans saw potentially inflicted by gambling, it followed that men who gambled for a living were almost universally regarded to be among the most detestable creatures to walk the earth. Few characters were more widely feared and loathed than the professional gambler, who, in the words of one critic, would play cards “upon his brother’s coffin” or “his father’s sepulchre.” Stock villains for editors, ministers, and advice writers, professional gamblers were confidence men who schemed to tempt the virtuous and left them corrupted and destitute. Stereotypically disguising themselves as refined gentlemen and targeting naive and inexperienced young people, professional gamblers befriended their victims, gained their trust, and assured them they could make easy money, their deceptions working all too well as the callow dupes were plundered by gamblers’ cheating confederates and eventually became drunken wretches unfit for decent society.46
Selfish, indifferent to the fates of others, and socially poisonous, gamblers were deceitful men who would destroy America’s future by destroying its youth, and mothers and fathers had to be vigilant. “Every parent who has the good of his offspring at heart,” wrote a columnist for a ladies’ magazine, “should not hesitate to expose the vipers, nor let the consideration that ‘he is a gentleman,’ have any weight in restraining him from withdrawing his children from the society and influence of such men.” William Mills and other residents of Vicksburg, however, were not alone in thinking that leaving matters in the hands of parents might be insufficient for dealing with such revolting characters. As a Massachusetts author argued nearly a year before the Vicksburg riot, professional gamblers were “enemies to the state,” and “if they will not submit to the laws, if they will do nothing for the common good—let them have no benefit from the laws, nor from the institutions of society.”47
Critiques of gambling and gamblers could be found most readily in the Northeast, where urbanization was taking place at an especially accelerated pace, and where young people alone in cities for the first time seemed particularly vulnerable and in need of protection from duplicitous strangers. But antigambling diatribes could be found even in parts of the country rarely thought congenial to the causes of reformers or to their periodicals. One fulmination that was disseminated widely in the Southwest in the months before the riot in Vicksburg and that helps point toward an explanation for its outbreak was Charles Caldwell’s “Address on the Vice of Gambling.” Born in North Carolina in 1772, Caldwell trained as a physician in Philadelphia under Benjamin Rush before accepting a faculty position in 1819 at the medical college of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Speaking to students there in November 1834, he warned that gambling was “a practice, which is, in fact, a revolting incorporation of almost every description of vice and profligacy.”48
Caldwell was a notoriously cantankerous man who managed to alienate colleagues everywhere he went, and if the scathing tone and uncompromising content of his address on gambling give any sense of his personality, it is not hard to fathom why. Caldwell blasted gambling of every conceivable kind as an unparalleled evil. Whether it was a family playing card games at home or a man wagering his last penny in the most abandoned gambling den, “any game of hazard, on which things of value are staked” amounted to “an attempt made by one person, to deprive another of his property or possessions, against his consent, and without the return of an equivalent,” and was thus essentially criminal. Caldwell had no patience for those who maintained that gambling could serve as an innocent source of entertainment or that those who gambled mutually agreed to venture money they knew they might lose. These were merely pitiful excuses for “a pursuit congenial only to the degraded and the vulgar” that “steeps the soul in the dregs of corruption and panders to its worst habits of turpitude and profligacy.”49
Caldwell concurred with most critics that gambling wasted time, encouraged bad habits, led inexorably to despair and bankruptcy, and produced a range of other unwanted consequences both for individuals who gambled and for society as a whole. He condemned parents who exposed their offspring to supposedly harmless friendly betting as practically abusing their children and setting them on the road to ruin, and elites who gambled as debasing themselves and providing “terrible examples of vice and mischief” for “thousands of inferior beings” who looked to them as models of how to behave. But even these criticisms, to Caldwell’s way of thinking, missed the “real viciousness and crime” of gambling, which was that it depended on trying to take someone else’s property without exchanging anything of value and thus intrinsically entailed fraud. “Each gambler,” he insisted, “is endeavouring to rifle the pockets of his companions” no less than if he were attempting larceny at gunpoint. Gambling, in Caldwell’s framework, was therefore not only “closely allied to theft, pocket-picking, and robbery.” It was “as indefensible, as murder.” Indeed, given the prevalence of gambling, “it surpasses murder greatly, in the extent of the misery it produces, and the amount of moral corruption it diffuses through society.”50
Caldwell thought it disgusting that some who gambled retained an estimable reputation and could be “welcomed into fashionable society” because they “assume the mask of some other calling, by day, and consort with the Black-leg and the ruffian, by night.” But he reserved special vitriol for those blacklegs, the professional gamblers, warning his student audience that some were probably among them right now, “waiting ‘in grim repose,’ ready to pounce on you, and make you their prey” like “the tiger crouching in the jungle, eager to glut himself with the blood of the unwary.” Caldwell urged his listeners never to trust anyone who proposed a mere “social game of cards.” Such a man might be “an artful profligate” and a “traitor” who would betray “with the insidious smile and prostitute courtesy of proffered hospitality.” He should be shunned as one would “the breath of pestilence,” for “his eye is on your purse, and he will beggar it if he can.”51
Charles Caldwell’s only immediate goal was to encourage the medical students of Transylvania University to form an antigambling society and commit to joining it, which more than 120 of them did immediately following his address. He issued no call for the kind of violence that would erupt in Vicksburg eight months later and did not even demand as a matter of public policy that gambling houses be shut down. It was rather Caldwell’s drawing of an absolute and unambiguous line between iniquitous gambling, on the one hand, and morally salutary economic activities, on the other, that exposed why gambling was so unsettling that a community might sanction the public murder of those believed to be making their living doing it.52
There was nothing new in the 1830s about the fact that Americans liked to gamble, nor that opportunities to place bets, play cards, and roll dice could be found nearly everywhere from Boston and New York down to Natchez and New Orleans. If anything, critics of gambling argued that one sign of its malignancy was people’s apparent inability to stop doing it. Over and over again, moralists noted that gambling tapped into something dark and uncontrollable in the human soul that, once accessed, could not be curbed by reason.
To one, gambling was “a fatal whirlpool, and those who are once drawn within its vortex, but seldom escape.” Another argued that “gaming corrupts the best principles in the world: like a quicksand, it swallows up a man in a moment.” A third encouraged anyone who saw a loved one “approaching this vortex [of gambling], to rush to him—and plead with him—and if necessary, throw their bodies across his path; for if not arrested, his body and his goods may escape—but his soul will die.” Even Charles Caldwell, who professed that those given a good education and raised with sound morals would never indulge in gambling, conceded that regardless of background no one ought to try betting, for it created a compulsion that could not be contained and led to “a form of positive and permanent monomania.”53
Concerns about what in modern parlance would be classified as gambling’s addictive quality reached new heights as the nineteenth century progressed because gambling’s popularity and its appeal to the passions indicated that Americans could not control themselves or their desire for gain at the very moment when the developing forces of capitalism made such control increasingly imperative. As Americans undermined traditional social structures and cultural norms while they jostled to accumulate wealth in a competitive market economy, distinguishing morally between socially constructive moneymaking and socially destructive gambling was a vital means of defining the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate kinds of economic striving. Yet making that distinction often seemed hopeless. The line so clear to Charles Caldwell was in fact blurred at best and nonexistent at worst.54
Never was that ambiguity plainer than in the flush times, whose economic contours facilitated becoming rich through speculation that looked as if it demanded no productive labor at all. It was alarming that millions of Americans thrilled to games of chance that distilled the calculations of risk and reward, luck and skill, and profit and loss central to many economic pursuits in a speculative age. Worse still was that they rushed to participate in supposedly legitimate economic activities that appeared little different from gambling. As the Philadelphia National Gazette noted in the spring of 1835, thousands of Americans who never would have considered themselves gamblers or approved of gambling nonetheless willingly engaged in behavior just as dangerous and reckless as playing poker with a professional gambler. “Speculation in stocks and real property,” the editor of the Gazette observed, “is more general and extravagant than it has been before for many years, in all our principal cities. … Multitudes are now prominent and desperate dealers in the stock and other speculation markets, of all classes and ages, callings and positions in life, that formerly were never seen nor expected and themselves never thought of action, in such scenes. Small tradesmen, shopkeepers, clerks of all degrees, operatives of town and country, members of the learned professions, students in the offices, beginners in the world without capital or with a little, all frequent the exchanges and the auction grounds to try their fortunes as with the lotteries.”55
The editor of the Gazette worried deeply about this trend, arguing that “this diffusive excitement … is unfavorable to productive industry, to steady habits and sure aims, and to morals which are always more or less in danger when hazard whets cupidity, governs actions, and determines fate in a general whirl of spirits and thoughts.” But if Americans in northeastern industrializing cities such as Philadelphia wondered whether individual quests for fortune unloosed in the flush times would lead to untrammeled greed, foolhardiness, and financial devastation, those anxieties were even more fraught in the Southwest. And they came to a head in Vicksburg.56
The presence of slavery obviously set Vicksburg socially and economically apart from a place like Philadelphia, and it was true that residents of the city believed that professional gamblers forged alliances with one another, committed a variety of crimes, and frequented tippling houses where slaves could buy alcohol and trade in stolen goods, all of which made them seem not unlike members of the mystic clan of John Murrell and thus subjects of special scrutiny in the summer of 1835. With Vicksburg having a substantial slave population in its own right and its prosperity depending on cotton, Francis Cabler’s disruption of Independence Day festivities while rumors floated about an impending insurrection nearby revealed him to be both impressively obnoxious and in possession of exquisitely bad timing.57
But when William Mills tried to explain what had happened to Cabler and his colleagues, he never made the case that professional gamblers were dangerous because of the threat they posed to slavery. By the time he published his account of the gambling riot in the Register, in fact, he had known about the insurrection scare blowing up just fifty miles from his office for nearly a week yet he said nothing about it. Such was the case because what happened in the city in the summer of 1835 was bigger than even the prospect of that fearsome and economically cataclysmic event.
Taking another, closer look at exactly what Vicksburg was and what it was not reveals that it exhibited the culture of American capitalism in the flush times in its most concentrated form, and that the convergence of the city’s local social and economic circumstances served to magnify and sharpen much broader concerns in the United States about order and morality. In July 1835, Vicksburg’s rioters were not just hanging professional gamblers, and William Mills was not just telling a story when he reported about it. They were all enforcing a version of Charles Caldwell’s imaginary line and, in the process, inventing a respectable place for themselves in Jacksonian America.