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Judge Poindexter And Editor Marschalk     

Newspapers played a crucial role in chronicling and influencing the early years of American government in Natchez. When the French, British and Spanish held Natchez, there were no local newspapers.

Just as important to this new U.S. territory were judges.

When the Americans came, judges were appointed by the government and newspapers were privately established at the expense of the publishers who depended on the legal advertising from government to survive. A judicial system and a free press are vital to any society. But what happens when the two collide?

There is no better example in the nation than what happened right here in Natchez country almost 200 years ago.

Different publishers and editors came and went to Natchez but few were as outspoken and controversial as Andrew Marschalk. In 1814 and 1815, the editor and a judge -- George Poindexter -- were at war with one another.

At the outset, the first governor of the Mississippi Territory, Winthrop Sargent, realized the need for a printing press when he first arrived in Natchez in 1798. While he lamented the need for judges, he also wrote the Secretary of State:

"We have no printing offices in this country, we are remote from all others...." A small press, he said, "would be a blessing to the people of the territory..." Sargent needed someone to print the new American laws to be enacted in the territory as well as public notices.

Plus, all communities need a newspaper, which, in those days was the only form of media. There were no television cameras, no radio stations, no telegraph, no telephones. If you didn't get news by word of mouth, you got it exclusively in the local newspaper.

When the Spanish were preparing to transfer possession of Natchez to the American government, a soldier named Andrew Marschalk from New York came south to Walnut Hills (Vicksburg) with the second detachment of U.S. troops. A veteran of the Revolutionary War as a member of the Continental Army, Marschalk's true love was printing.

In 1790, while in England, he bought a small mahogany press in London. When he journeyed down the Mississippi to the South, he brought the press with him. At the Walnut Hills, he printed a ballad, popular in the day, called "The Galley Slave." Folks in Natchez heard about Marschalk and his printing press and urged him to come down the river.

Marschalk recalled years later: "Great excitement was caused in Natchez by the knowledge of a press being in the country, and strong inducements were held out for me to remove to that place."

When the territorial Legislature was organized, Marschalk was hired as the official printer. A short time later, Marschalk was printing a newspaper, one of several he edited and published over the years. In 1815, he was publishing the Washington Republican, based in the territorial capital located six miles north of Natchez.

Marschalk was remembered as a gregarious man, friendly and easy to approach. He had black hair and brown eyes but his face was pockmarked with scars from a disease that killed many -- smallpox.

The historian Claiborne said that in those days political parties "were personal rather than political." Marschalk took sides on political issues and George Poindexter was often the target of scathing and venomous articles. The two men had a great personal dislike for one another.

What fueled the existing tension even more was a duel in 1811 in which Poindexter shot Abijah Hunt, a prominent businessman and political opponent of Poindexter's. On the Concordia dueling grounds just north of the Vidalia riverfront, Poindexter emerged victorious, shooting Hunt in the gut. Hunt fired, too, but missed while Poindexter's shot was accurate. Hunt died.

Though it was a fair fight there would be claims later that Poindexter fired "before the word" to "fire" was given. Marschalk flamed these allegations in his newspaper and also reported other stories from Poindexter's opponents, some of which were untrue.

THE NEWSPAPER ATTACKS THE JUDGE

No one was surprised that Poindexter fought back and fought hard. His reputation for confrontation was well known. He had not only killed Hunt, but he came close to dueling with others. He got into a fist fight in Natchez one day with a man named Thomas Percy, whom Poindexter believed had slept with his wife, Lydia.

Poindexter threatened to kill Percy but after years of jawing, and Percy moved away, the conflict died out. But so convinced was Poindexter of the affair, that he disowned his son, Albert, thinking that the boy was the child of Percy.

When Marschalk -- who was said to resemble Benjamin Franklin -- began to escalate his attacks on Poindexter, the hot-headed native Virginian didn't sit still. But for the first time, Poindexter took on a man who as a newspaperman with a printing press bought ink by the barrel. The 19th Century Mississippi historian John F. H. Claiborne, himself a former newspaperman and editor, summed up the difficulties for any public person taking on the press.

He wrote of the Poindexter-Marschalk feud: "The individual who engages in a controversy with the conductor of a newspaper encounters fearful odds. No matter how just his quarrel, or great his abilities, the advantages are with his opponent, who can always have the last word, and is more or less regarded as the guardian of the public welfare. The writer may be malignant and unjust, wholly influenced by personal or party resentments, or even by mercenary motives, but the people have been educated to regard him as their representative and champion, and the majority are always sure to side with him, especially if the antagonist be one whose talents or virtues have made him obnoxious to the base and envious."

EDITOR ASSAILS POINDEXTER

In May 1811, just one month before Poindexter shot Hunt in the duel, rumors began to swirl that Poindexter had beaten a widow out of money. One man, John Hopkins, said Poindexter had borrowed $600 dollars from Mrs. John Smith in 1805 and had agreed to pay her 12.5 percent interest. The widow died before Poindexter had paid his debt, and this, said Hopkins, was so exasperating "that I can scarcely express myself."

But a few days later, Richard Carradine said in a deposition that he was due money from the estate of John Smith and when he visited the man's widow on several occasions he learned "there was an unsettled account between herself and George Poindexter...and that she expected to owe him money." Later, however, Carradine said the widow Smith informed him that she and Poindexter had settled their accounts "on much better terms than she expected, having thought before, that she would have fallen in his debt."

Said Claiborne: "This is but a sample of the annoyances by which he (Poindexter) was assailed. His enemies were numerous, violent and implacable. He was dogged by calumnies from the moment he left Virginia, and to the last hour of his life he was thus pursued."

Marschalk's newspaper, said Claiborne, "bitterly opposed George Poindexter and many of his personal and political friends. Judge Poindexter, particularly, was assailed week after week, in the most aggravating style."

Although Poindexter was often attacked, he continued to advance politically. He had served as Attorney General, served two terms in Congress as a Representative, and was appointed judge in 1808, replacing Judge Peter Bryan Bruin, who resigned from office.

Claiborne said Poindexter "displayed on the bench the same ability, acuteness and capacity for labor that had distinguished him in Congress, but his appointment displeased his old enemies, and they used the columns of the Republican very freely against him."

Those "columns" Claiborne referred to were articles similar to a "letter to the editor" today with the exception that the most slanderous and outrageous charges would be made, somewhat similar to what appears on some blogs today in which the writer's name is not attributed. Back then, though, if the charges weren't attributed by name the editor took responsibilty for whatever was printed.

The judge was accused of raping the daughter of a Chickasaw Indian agent, and of disgracing himself during the Battle of New Orleans on January 1, 1815. On the second allegation, one man swore that Poindexter fled the front lines four minutes before the battle began and sought "shelter in the rear" of a house "behind some brick chimneys."

Poindexter's cowardice was so evident, said one man, that as the shells began to burst Poindexter "took a seat in the lap of Henry, General Carroll's servant, where he remained during the action. Manuel, a Negro boy attached to headquarters, incautiously exposed himself, had his head carried away, and his brains and blood were scattered over the Judge."

Such allegations would normally be devastating to a politician even if untrue. But Poindexter survived. Claiborne pointed to a letter Poindexter received from the adjutant general of the army:

"I am sorry to notice in a Natchez paper remarks (about you)...I ought certainly to know the services you rendered our division, when I had you on my roster, and detailed you, in rotation, for night services and all other duties required. You relieved us of much hard duty during this siege."

EDITOR, JUDGE IN COURT

But Judge Poindexter, soon to return to Congress by the vote of the people, wrote to the Speaker of the House, noting that Marschalk had recently "published an anonymous letter, addressed to myself, containing a...false, scandalous and libelous matter."

Marschalk's office was located within view of the courthouse and while court was in session one day the editor did an incredible thing. He carried copies of his paper, hot off the press, containing the "libelous" letter and walked into the courtroom while court was in session and Poindexter presiding.

The editor distributed copies of the paper to jurors and other persons there to "transact judicial business." Then he walked over to the bench and placed a copy there "so as to attract the notice of the court." Poindexter was outraged as he should have been.

He said Marschalk's goal was to insult him and his "honor and integrity" as a judge, adding that the "dignity of the court was directly and flagrantly assailed in a manner which imperiously demanded the infliction of legal punishment commensurate with the offence."

The judge brought Marschalk before his court and asked him why he shouldn't be charged with contempt. With his attorney by his side, Marschalk refused to answer any questions so the judge sentenced the editor to 24 hours in prison, a $20 fine and required "security for his good behavior."

After serving his time Marschalk appeared before the bench the next day and told the judge, "I thank your honor for the sentence," and said he would pay the fine because "I meant a contempt" of Poindexter's court.

Poindexter's temper boiled. He sued Marschalk for printing those many articles that the judge labeled as "libel" and during a four-day trial many of the rumors alleged in Marschalk's paper were scrutinized in court. The proceedings brought up some interesting conflicts between the press and public officials that still exist today.

The presiding judge -- Walter Leake -- told Poindexter afterward: "Indeed it was a matter of much surprise to many, whose minds had been somewhat affected by so many scandalous charges, as had been published in the defendant's newspaper, that something was not produced in evidence which would at least cast a shade over your character."

He added: "In the argument of the cause the defendant's counsel did not pretend to have proved the truth of the matter charged as libelous, but rested the defence of their client on the latitude which ought to be given to the liberty of the press, and the propriety of taking, by means of the press, a wide range in scrutinizing the conduct of public agents."

One well-respected citizen said Poindexter came through the proceedings as "a fair man" after having "been subjected to such a rigid examination, embracing every transaction for a period of fourteen or fifteen years."

Said Judge Leake, a big supporter of Poindexter's: "Your character exhibited as much purity as any man's could have done, which had been subjected to such a rigid scrutiny. For the trial having taken place in the county wherein your residence had been fixed since your first arrival in the country, an opportunity was the better afforded to exhibit evidence relative to every transaction of yours, in which any kind of dispute had arisen with others; and that evidence, too, derived from witnesses who were parties against you in those disputes, and whom, though honest, might be fairly supposed, to be much under the influence."

Claiborne said the trial acquitted Poindexter of many charges made by Marschalk in The Republican "of the calumnies by which he (Poindexter) had been assailed since his residence in the Territory. His temperament and indiscretion, as well as the decided part he had taken in politics, had exposed him to misconceptions and misrepresentations. But on the trial he challenged an inquest, and after four days of active effort, prompted by a host of enemies, they failed to establish any one of the countless slanders floating about in the community."

JUDGE ATTACKS THE EDITOR

But Marschalk, then 48, continued his attacks on Poindexter, then 36, until finally Poindexter's temper got the best of him. After reading another article in The Republican that he deemed libelous against him, he walked across the street to the door of Marschalk's office and with his cane beat the daylights out of the newspaper editor.

When Marschalk recovered, he went back to work, and reported in the March 15, 1815, issue of The Republican that he filled out a warrant for the arrest of the judge for "an assault on the editor of this paper." The editor said Poindexter was arrested on March 1, 1815, and brought to Washington to the courthouse to appear before the Justice of the Peace who issued the warrant. But before he was jailed, Marschalk said the judge slipped out of the courthouse.

A deputy followed him to the home of Judge Leake where Poindexter posted bond and security to the deputy promising not to escape. But since that time, said Marschalk, "we have no account of him." In fact, Claiborne said Poindexter had been making plans to leave the territory "for a northern tour."

Eight lawyers wrote a letter to the judge showing their support. This was proof, said Claiborne, "of his ability and integrity on the bench," and evidence that the judge "was not the monster that (he) was represented to be." Claiborne added that a "good and honest judge cannot have been a bad and dishonest man..."

Although he had support, he also had enemies who hated him as much as Poindexter hated them.

"Mr. Poindexter's temper and associations perpetually involved him in altercations, and in newspaper controversies," said Claiborne.

When Poindexter returned home, the quarrels between the judge and the editor continued but not to the level of 1814 and 1815.

But even when judges and editors collide, newspapers keep publishing and judges continue to preside in court. The same old arguments made then are still made today, although it's obvious that newspapers shouldn't print lies as truth and judges shouldn't cane hardworking editors.

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