Looking Back: Murder trial moved to Harrodsburg

Published 8:32 am Monday, July 24, 2017

(Editor’s note: This is the second 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 and ended up in jail on murder charges.)

The trial for three men from Mississippi who were accused of murder on December 15, 1838,

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in Louisville, was moved to Mercer Circuit Court.

Judge Edward C. Wilkinson of Yazoo, Mississippi, made the trip December 15, 1838, with his brother Dr. Benjamin R. Wilkinson and a friend, Navy Officer John  Murdaugh (Murdough). They arrived at the Galt House and immediately went to a local tailor’s shop to pick up the judge’s wedding attire for his wedding. He was scheduled the next day to marry his sweetheart Elizabeth Crozier of Bardstown.

The murder 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 affray with a Louisville tailor, who made the suit of clothing for Wilkinson.

Murdaugh was charged with murder and the Wilkinsons were each charged with first-degree aiding and abetting.

As word of the incident spread through the city, a mob gathered around the city jail and great tumult and excitement prevailed.

S.S. Prentiss, one of the prisoner’s counsel, said this about the scene:

“Passion and prejudice poured poison into the public ear. Popular feeling was roused to madness. It was the greatest difficulty that the strong arm of the constituted authorities wrenched the victims from an infuriated mob. Even the thick wall of the prison hardly afforded protection of the accused.

“Crouch and shivering upon the cold floor of the dungeon, they listened to the footsteps of the gathering crowds. And ever and anon the winter wind that played melancholy music through the rusty grates, was drowned by the fierce howling of the human wolves, who prowled and bayed around their place of refuge, greedy and thirsting for blood.”

Five days after the accused were admitted to bail, they were released under a $50,000 bail. 

Judge Wilkinson and his Kentucky fiancee, Elizabeth Crozier, were married Jan. 10, 1839.

It is not known if he wore the new suit to the wedding.

The state legislature granted a change of venue to the Mercer County Court, in Harrodsburg, where the accused were to be tried in March 4,1839.

E.J. Bullock, prosecuted, assisted by Ben Hardin, and was paid a $1,000 fee.

Judge John Rowan, Judge Robertson, and S.S. Prentiss, of Mississippi, were chief lawyers for the accused.

Fifty witnesses were called to testify on both sides.

Harrodsburg was filled with people from all over the county, who wanted to see the action in the trial.

The Wilkinsons and Murdaugh were acquitted with their plea of self-defense.

By 1870, most of those involved — the Wilkinsons, Murdaugh, Prentiss, Hardin and Rowan — were dead.

Redding moved around for a while and died 12 years later from heart disease. Murdaugh committed suicide 15 years after the incident.

Judge Wilkinson

A large slave holder in Yazoo, Judge Wilkinson’s real estate was valued at $15,000, according to the 1850 US. Census.

He was a native of Charles City, Virginia, according to a book on “Bench and Bar of Mississippi” by James Daniel Lynch.

Wilkinson moved to Natchez, Mississippi, in 1830. After not finding a suitable place to set up his law practice, he went on to Athens and also looked at prospects for a lawyer in Vicksburg. He moved to Yazoo in 1841.

Three years later, he was named circuit judge.

“He was highly thought of with an untarnished integrity and uprightness. It was owing much to the momentary uncontrollable impulsion of this quality that he was participated into the unfortunate affray at the hotel in Louisville, which became necessary in defending himself and his brother to slay one of his antagonists, for which he was tried before the Kentucky jury,” according to the “Bench and Bar” book.

Wilkinson was an uncle of U.S. Senator E. C. Waltham of Mississippi who was a brigadier general in the Civil War.