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
County, 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.
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.
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.
October 24, 2004 Column
Published with permission
A weekly column syndicated in 70 East Texas newspapers
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman
of Lufkin is the author of more than 35 books about East Texas, including
“The Forgotten Towns of East Texas.” He can be reached at bob-bowman.com