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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

THE POISONED SUPPER

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
A tragic, unthinkable incident in the spring of 1847, frequently associated with the Regulator-Moderator War, remains after 157 years one of East Texas’ worst mass murders -- if it was murder.

In the isolated settlement of East Hamilton in Shelby Country, many of those who ate a cake while attending a wedding supper came down with a sudden illness and over a period of days as many as forty individuals may have died.

The wedding supper, a common event in small communities of the l840s, was to honor a young couple following their marriage ceremony.

In May of 1847, the Texas Telegraph and Register of Houston, reported: “We learn from San Augustine...that seventy or eighty persons who attended a wedding...on the evening of the 22nd (of April), were taken ill immediately...and eight or ten died, evidently from the effects of poison.”

On May 23, 1847, a letter written in Bayou Sara, Louisiana to a friend contained the particulars of the incident. The culprit was allegedly a man known as Wilkinson, “a man of bad character and a notorious hog thief,” Wilkinson was apparently accused of stealing the hogs of Spot Sanders, whose daughter was to marry a man named Morris.

The 1847 letter said that “old Wilkinson and his wife, and Morris’ wife, were arrested and examined before Squire Sanders, who committed them to prison.” Wilkinson was brought before a magistrate and released. “He was afraid to leave the house during the day, as there were persons determined on killing him,” said the l847 letter.

During the night Wilkinson supposedly escaped on a horse brought to him by Morris. Eight men rode off in pursuit of him with intentions to kill him on sight. In an account printed in the Telegraph and Register in May, 1847, Wilkinson was captured and hung.

“It is said that he confessed and had given the arsenic to the cook purposely to be mixed in the cake, and that he cautioned the bride and other members of the family not to eat the cake,” said the newspaper.


Wilkinson, according to the newspaper account, belonged to the Moderators party “and often stated that he took this opportunity to destroy as many Regulators as possible.” While newspaper accounts claim Wilkinson was accused and lynched for the alleged crime, other sources claimed it was simply a case of food poisoning, which was not uncommon in the 1840s. The Telegraph and Register account speculated “they may have been poisoned by eating pies seasoned with peach leaves,” adding that “prussic acid in peach leaves is very poisonous.” Whatever happened, guests at the supper are said to have screamed, blown horns and induced their hounds to howl. In those days a sound created by blowing a cow’s horn was a universal distress signal.

Elder William Brittain, who may have officiated at the wedding, entered the names of several members of his own family on the deaths page in his family Bible.


With the passage of 157 years, the poisoned wedding has evolved into a legend-like story throughout East Texas. What really happened, or the number of people who actually died, has been confused by various accounts and a retelling of the story. Today, few vestiges remain of East Hamilton and the wedding supper. But in East Hamilton Cemetery, a series of old, unmarked gravestones -- the deceased’s names erased by the ravages of time - -lend some credibility to the ballad-like tale.

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All Things Historical
October 24, 2004 Column
Published with permission
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman, of Lufkin is the author of “Historic Murders of East Texas” and “More Historic Murders of East Texas”)
 
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