Looking Back: ‘The great Wilkinson tragedy’

Published 8:39 am Monday, July 17, 2017

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series of articles about a Mississippi judge who came to Kentucky in the late 1800s to marry his sweetheart in Bardstown. The second article will appear in next Sunday’s Looking Back.)


Contributing writer

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When Judge Edward C. Wilkinson of Yazoo, Mississippi, made a trip in December 15, 1838, he had one thing on his mind. He was scheduled to marry his sweetheart in Kentucky.

He had no idea that he and his brother, and a friend, would be charged with murder the day before the wedding.

The charges stem from an argument at the Galt House in Louisville over the way Wilkinson’s wedding coat fit.

An article printed in The Louisville Courier Journal and reprinted in The Advocate Messenger on December 16, 1870, gives details of a deadly scuffle with a Louisville tailor, who made the suit of clothing for Wilkinson.

The trial was held in Mercer County Circuit Court after a change of venue in the case.

Called the “great Wilkinson tragedy”, the affray began after visit to a tailor shop to get Judge Edward C. Wilkinson’s wedding suit.

On December 15, 1838, Wilkinson and his brother Dr. Benjamin R. Wilkinson of Mississippi, and a friend Navy Officer John Murdaugh (

) stopped at the Galt House to spent the night.

The three went into the merchant tailor shop owned by John W. Redding to pick up a pre-ordered suit of clothes for the judge who was planning to get married in a few days. However, the coat did not fit.

After an argument, Judge Wilkinson struck John Rothwell, Redding’s brother-in-law with a poker, and a scuffle ensued.

Alexander H. Meeks, a stranger, also was in the shop, witnessed the ordeal.

An hour later, Redding and Rothwell went to the Galt House to get the names of the men and had them arrested on assault charges.

By then a number of Redding’s friends had gathered in the hotel for the purpose of insulting and punishing the Southerners, according to the judge.

The men assembled in the bar. Judge Wilkerson first came in, alone. Redding accosted him and denounced him as a coward, and scoundrel.

Wilkinson said, “Take no notice of a man of his profession, but if Rothwell interferes with me I will kill him.”

The judge left and returned with friends.

The proprietor at the Galt House perceiving that trouble was likely to follow, endeavored to persuade the Mississippians to take supper in the ladies ordinary, which could be reached by a private staircase, and told them to not go through the public dinging room where the crowd gathered.

Murdaugh rejected the idea and was sustained by his friends. “We went that way to dinner, and we will go that way to supper,” Murdaugh said.

They descended the stairs and entered the bar. Redding came in about the same time, and said the “three are in here now.”

He said to Murdaugh: “You are the gentleman who drew a knife on me at my shop today.”

Murdaugh replied “Whoever says I drew a bowie knife on you is a liar.” As he drew a Spanish dirk knife, and said, “stand off, or I’ll cut the guts out to the man that lays hands on me.”

Alexander H. Meeks, who who happened to be in the tailor’s shop at the time the problem began, seized Murdaugh’s knife hand and said “you are the little rascal who struck him over the head with the butt end of a cowhide.”

People rushed up and it was said Rothwell struck Murdaugh with his cane.

Murdaugh charged the knife to his left hand until he extracted the other from Meek’s gasp, and replacing the weapon in his right hand, inflicting a fearful cut in the abdomen of Meeks. The wounded man fell and died within a few minutes.

Evidence showed Rothwell had either joined in the assault on Wilkinson, who was prostrated and helpless on the floor, or was attempting to pull Holmes off him.

Judge Wilkinson rushed to his brother’s relief and stabbed Rothwell twice, and also cut Bill Holmes, a pilot, in the arm.

The judge released his brother and assisted him to get up; Murdaugh retreated to the passage and up to his room, with the crowd pursuing them. He kept them off with a brandished bowie knife.

They were struck with missiles, however, and Henry Oldham, who swore during the trial that he was not a friend of either party, fired a shot at the Southerners. Meeks died on the spot and Rothwell survived an hour.

The post mortem exam revealed Rothwell had a third wound from a weapon similar to the one used Wilkinson and that it was of more fatal character than those which Wilkinson inflicted.

Several others at the scene were wounded, but none of Wilkinson’s’ party were wounded.

The three men from Mississippi were taken to jail in Louisville.