Random Recollections -- Colonel Thomas M. Whittington

Contributed by Jann Woodard.

by Lance Hemingway
Published in the Advance-Monticellonian Apr. 11 and 18, 1935

One often receives from an old citizen much interesting information about an older citizen. In the days before the written word and perhaps far into the years following perfection of the alphabet by Cadmus, the Phoenicians, or whoever it was that invented letters, incidents and legends of the previous generations were communicated by word of mouth to current and subsequent generations; and to this good hour we pass along verbal information from one to another.

One balmy evening I was talking with Ashley M. Bell of the days when he first went to Monticello from Ashley County. We were both in a reminiscent mood, and talked far into the night. There were some disagreements, of course, but in the main we recalled the same people and the same events. The stock question was "Do you remember?" and usually both of us did.

"When I moved from Hamburg to Monticello," said Mr. Bell, "Mrs. Bell and I drove through the country in a buggy. Somewhere on the road after we left Lacey we observed a man on a horse coming toward us from the opposite direction. I do not remember what sort of horse it was, but I do remember the man. He sat erect in his saddle with head up and eyes to the front. He had rather long black hair and an ample black beard, and he held the bridle reins in his right hand above the saddle horn. As we passed him on the road he changed the reins to his left hand, reached for his hat with his right, and made a courtly bow as he rode on toward Lacey. Mrs. Bell said to me as we drove on, 'I believe that is the politest (sic) man I ever saw. Later we both met him and respected him highly. He was Colonel Thomas M. Whittington.

Without the least desire to delve into the ages of either Mr. or Mrs. Bell, I place the time at about 1876 or a little later, for I knew both the Bells and Colonel Whittington in the early eighties, and the Colonel was then suffering from rheumatism as constantly, in fact, that he wore carpet slippers even when down town, and he also carried a cane. I judge from these facts that he was no longer able to sit a horse with his former grace, or to take such long horse-back journeys as that on which he passed Mr. and Mrs. Bell. Nevertheless he was the same courtly gentleman, and remained so until the summer day on which he died.

I knew Colonel Whittington well, and liked nothing better than the privilege of listening on those rare occasions when he talked of himself and his young manhood. His command of words was remarkable, his diction as pure as Addison's and his rhetoric flawless. Unfortunately I never heard him make a speech although he was a lawyer - graduate of an eastern university (I think he was a Virginian) and must have been a veritable tower of strength before a jury. In ordinary conversation he was always the cultured gentleman, but if the occasion required he could use a bit of highly ornamental profanity that was also convincing. It had no crudities; no rough edges; no vulgarity. He swore "By the living God" and "By the remotest fires of hell," and he would say "Damnation, sir," with such fire and verve that it sounded like the end of the argument.

In all the years or so in which I knew Colonel Whittington he lived in the little cottage in the rear of the grove of magnificent oaks that bore his name. It was located on South Main Street, and the grove was utilized for the annual May dinners and other gatherings too large for accommodation in the court house or one of the four churches. Here the people for miles around gathered on the first day of May and partook of a tempting basket dinner, watched the Maypole dance, listened to an address by some rising young Monticellonian (Billy Hyatt was the last one I remember hearing), and had a general good time with their friends and neighbors. I wonder if the old custom is still kept alive. What a pity if it isn't!

It was at one of these May dinners that I first met Louie Belser and Zach Hyatt. The three of us all about the same age (thirteen or fourteen) arrived at the Whittington well at the same time, each in quest of a drink of water. Colonel Whittington was sitting in the shade of his back porch, and we spoke to him, as boys were taught to do in those days. He said, "Good evening, young gentlemen, I hope you are having a pleasant time." One of them drew a bucket of water, and Louie, dipper in hand, said, "Will you have a drink, brother Tom." The offer was courteously declined; so we three drank our fill, got acquainted, and went back to the scene of merriment fast friends. We remained so until death claimed Zach in the first decade of the present century and Louie only a few years ago. I am the lone survivor of that trio of boys that met at the Whittington well in May, 1883-84. I learned later that Colonel Whittington, then a widower and living alone, was Louie's brother-in-law. He later married Miss Jennie Cordell, who became the mother of his children.

Like all boys of my day, I looked upon men and women above 20 or 30 as old. They were old only in the sense that they had grown out of their youthful ways. Mothers of 20 or 30 years "dressed old" - forsook the charming costumes of younger and unmarried women and dressed in "older" style. The men of 21 and beyond wore either mustaches or beards, or both, and we thought them old. This was not the case, of course, but hairy faces and "oldish" raiment were responsible. There were only two in Monticello at that time who habitually shaved their faces clean. These were the McCain brothers, William S. and Charles L.

So it was the facial adornments of the period that prevented boys from becoming more closely acquainted with Col. Whittington, Col. Barrow, Judge Sorrells, (of Warren) Capt. Jackson, Judge Billy Wells, Col. Brooks, Dr. Cole, Col. Belser, John Hussey, (sic) Col. Slemmons, Major Anderson and others of the more prominent grown-ups. The older women, too, "dressed the part" - wore their hair in a way that made them look older than they actually were. Pantalettes had not gone completely out of fashion, and I remember three ladies who wore hoop skirts on "full-dress occasions." These were Mrs. Marie Mengershausen, Mrs. Fisher, who married Patricia (Pat) Raymond, mother of Tom and Mrs. Smith, who lived two or three doors north of the Howell (afterwards the John McCloy) home on North Main street. This (the Smith) home, I believe, was later purchased by Sam McCloy.

Like many other boys, I looked upon Col. Whittington and the fellow beard and moustache-wearers as people of a different sphere from our own, and never dreamed that one day I might be accepted or at least tolerated by these older citizens, although far younger in years and lacking in knowledge of things that were of interest to them. They had all been through the Civil War, a few had fought the Mexicans, and at least one (Joseph Johns) had helped to quell the Florida Seminoles. Mr. Johns was lame, and I always understood that he was one of three American soldiers who captured the Seminole chief Osceola (Billy Bowlegs).

But the time came when I enjoyed the high privilege of "listening in" while these older citizens were conversing with each other, and some times I was permitted to ask questions. They were characteristically reticent concerning their own part in the wars in which they fought, but occasionally a bit of information would be let drop to register instantly in my memory. These men occasionally talked about the war deed of some one else but I never heard one of speak of his own soldierly performances.

Colonel Whittington was not only a very fountain of information about many things, but he had the rare gift of putting his thoughts into beautiful English. His conversation was delightful, and his statements were alive with action. For this reason, and because of his unquestioned learning, those who listened to him were never lacking in attention. He was a most interesting raconteur, and I shall never forget his account of a journey he once made to Napoleon, long since destroyed by Mississippi and Arkansas River inroads upon the ground on which it stood, but then not only the largest city in Arkansas but also one of the wickedest in the Valley. It was the American Port Said. Charley Harding, once a familiar practitioner before the Drew County circuit and chancery courts, was born at Napoleon, and has told of its gradual destruction, but from Col. Whittington I heard first of its bloody history, which seemed to be in keeping with that of the whole swamp country of that day.

It was the Colonel who planted barren mulberry trees on the south side of Court Square before the boys of my day were born, and these trees furnished ample shade when clothed with summer foliage. They grew at the edge of the sidewalk, which was made of oaken planks two inches thick, and in the hot months there were always cane or stool-bottomed chairs to attract occupants. These trees long ago perished under the weight of years, but when I was a boy they were in their prime and on almost any fine day in summer Col. Whittington could be found sitting under one of them looking cool and comfortable. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat of a weave that I have forgotten, unbleached linen trousers, soft white shirt, and loose fitting black alpaca coat. He sat straight in his chair with his slippered feet in front of him, and his cane resting between his knees. The costume, barring the loose carpet slippers (a concession to his rheumatism), was not unique. Many of the elderly men of Monticello were similarly garbed in those days because they believed in coolness and comfort. Seersucker mohair, and Palm Beach clothing had not come into being, but unbleached linen (mostly made into shirts and suits at home and alpaca were common enough among the men), while the ladies wore calico about their homes and black silk when up town, at church, or attending social functions. They also wore black silk slippers and shoes, the latter being often tied on the inside.

It was on such a day, under the grateful shade of a mulberry tree, that Col. Whittington told us of his trip to Napoleon. I can not state is as a fact, but I seem to recall that the object of his trip through the wilderness and swamps was to secure his license to practice law. Just why this should have been necessary I do not know. It was some years before I was born, and Napoleon was destroyed two years before I came into the world.

The "Book of the United States" (1834) does not mention Napoleon in its list of Mississippi Valley towns, but Mark Twain knew it well. In his "Life on the Mississippi" (1874) he says: "These performances (Marquette and La Salle) took place on the site of the future town of Napoleon, Arkansas, and there the first confiscation cross was raised on the banks of the great river. When De Soto took his fleeting glimpse (modern historians and women's societies who have erected memorial stones at various De Soto "crossing" points from Natchez to Memphis will please take notice) of the river, away back in the dim early days, he took it from that same spot - the site of the future town of Napoleon, Arkansas. Therefore, three out of the four memorable events connected with the discovery and exploration of the mighty river occurred; by accident, in one and the same place."

Further along in the same volume the author of "Tom Sawyer" and Huckleberry Finn" says Napoleon had "Banks, churches, jails, newspaper offices, court house, theatre, fire department, livery stable - everything", and he closes the chapter with this paragraph:

"Yes, it was an astonishing thing to see the Mississippi rolling between unpeopled shores and straight over the spot where I used to see a good big self-complacent town twenty years ago. Town that was county-seat of a great and important county; town with a big United States marine hospital; town of innumerable fights - an inquest every day; town where I used to know the prettiest girl, and the most accomplished in the whole Mississippi Valley; town where we were handed the first printed news of the Pennsylvania's mournful disaster a quarter of a century ago; a town no more - swallowed up, vanished, gone to feed the fishes; nothing left but a fragment of a shanty and a crumbling brick chimney!"

Note the disjointed phrase in the middle of Mark Twain's paragraph: "town of innumerable fights an inquest everyday." It fits admirably into Col. Whittington's story of his journey to Napoleon on horseback. I can not repeat it in his own words, so I use my own:

He left Monticello early in the morning of a summer day to ride sixty or seventy miles through swamps and wilderness to the river town situated on what is now Big Island country, but which at that time (probably in the early 1850's) was the Arkansas mainland. At noon the first day he came to a large log house, back of which was a corn field. A wide veranda ran the full length of the side toward the road, and a man appeared to be stretched out asleep on the floor of the shady end. The Colonel was hungry and in need of a drink of water, so he stopped at the gate and gave the usual "halloo" of the time. Nobody answered, and the man on the porch did not move. The Colonel "hallooed" again with the same result, although he could hear voices far out in the cornfield. Puzzled a bit, he got off his horse and walked toward the house with the intention of waking the man on the veranda and requesting food and water for himself and his horse. The man had been shot. There was blood on his clothing, and a pool of it on the floor. He was dead.

Astonished and perhaps a bit fearful, although he had plenty of courage, the Colonel stood and looked at the man. He could hear the voices in the corn field coming nearer, so he waited eventualities. Presently three other men emerged from the corn field and came toward the house. Two were supporting a third between them. He, too, had been shot. Col. Whittington had arrived on the very heels of a crisis in an Arkansas feud between the Bledsoes and the Watsons. He offered his assistance in caring for the wounded man, but this was declined. So he accepted a drink of water, mounted his horse and rode on.

Arriving at a stream that had to be crossed on a ferry (probably Boggy Bayou or Bayou Macon( he was told by the ferryman that on the day before a traveler coming from the opposite direction had been chased by a panther. This was far from nerve-steadying news - especially to one carrying nothing more deadly than a .41 caliber vest-pocket derringer, but the Colonel crossed on the ferry and rode on into the wilderness toward Napoleon. He reached that place in due time, and while attending his business at the court house he met a young doctor, and found that he, too, would be returning westward the next day. So they agreed to ride together.

Having transacted his business, the Colonel went to one of the hotels (taverns, he called them) to seek accommodations for the night. The whistle of a steamboat had just sounded on the river, and there was considerable movement toward the boat landing. Several men sat about the hotel office, none of whom were known to the Colonel, as he was not acquainted in Napoleon. He was occupied some minutes arranging with the proprietor of the hotel for accommodations, and just as he turned from the counter, or desk, or whatever it was called in those days, he heard several men approaching from the direction of the river. There were three of them, and as they entered the door of the hotel office, two of the men who sat about inside leaped to their feet and drew their pistols. Immediately there was general firing, and when the smoke cleared three men lay dead on the floor and two others had been shot.

One of the dead men was the captain of the steamer that had just landed, and two others were gamblers who plied their trade on the Mississippi and Arkansas river steamboats and made Napoleon their headquarters. They had been gunning for each other for some time, and the Colonel had arrived at the psychological moment, thus coming upon a second tragedy in the wilderness.

Next morning the Colonel arose early and prepared for the return journey to Monticello. Meeting the young doctor, he was informed by a gentlemen that business would keep him for another hour, but the Colonel was anxious to start west, for he wished to get out of the swamps before night. So it was agreed that he was to ride on and that the doctor would overtake him in the forenoon and the Colonel rode on alone.

Approaching the stream that had to be crossed on a ferryboat, he recalled the story told him by the ferryman of the man who had been chased by a panther. The story stuck in his mind, and he found himself becoming nervous as he drew nearer to the stream. Suddenly he heard a scream far back in the direction from which he had come, and he realized instantly that he must get to the stream and onto the ferryboat as quickly as possible. He spurred his horse into a gallop, and hurried on. Another scream came from the rear, and it appeared to be closer. The Colonel urged his horse into a run, and as he came within sight of the ferry he heard another scream from behind and was horrified to find the ferry boat on the opposite side of the stream.

Here was a situation indeed!

Colonel Whittington yelled to the ferryman, and saw that gentleman moving leisurely toward the boat. "Hurry, Man! Hurry!" the Colonel shouted, drawing his little derringer and preparing to argue matters with the panther.

Just at that moment he heard the sound of a galloping horse and immediately thought of the young doctor who was to join him on the road. A moment later this gentleman came into view. The "panther" screams that had so unnerved the young lawyer were merely the hails of his belated fellow traveler, who sought by this means to appraise the man ahead that he was coming.

Colonel Whittington drew the picture of that journey with consummate artistry. It had plenty of thrills, and his manner of telling it brought these out into plain view. Moreover, the story had the added quality of being true.

In the fall of 1878 the people of Drew and Ashley counties, composing the Seventeenth Senatorial District, sent Col. Whittington to the upper house of the State Legislature to serve during the 22nd and 23rd sessions (1879 and 1881). D.E. Barker, a brother-in-law of Dr. J.F. Wright, Monticello's first dentist (I think), was Drew County's representative in the lower house during those four years, and for several terms thereafter, going to the Senate and becoming its president in 1887. In 1904 he was again elected to the House for the session of 1905. I saw Col. Barker for the last time during that year. The community of Barkada, out on the road to Cornish Landing, took its name from the Barker family.

On another summer day (in 1900, I think) the whole town was shocked by the news that Col. Whittington had suffered a stroke of paralysis from which he might not recover. Forty-eight hours later, he was dead.

End of article.

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