THE POISONED WEDDING SUPPER
Niles Register, May 22, 1847:
At a wedding of an orphan girl raised by a Mr. Wilkinson in the
community of East Hamilton in Shelby County, sixty of the guests were poisoned,
ten or twelve of whom have already died, and thirty, Dr. Sharp was of the
opinion, would not survive.
The Regulator-Moderator War was coming to an end in Shelby County. Just when you would think it was over, a little spark would break out anew. In the spring of 1847 there were still some hard feelings between Shelby County families involved in the feud, including some individuals who lived at Hamilton, a community established in the spring of 1828 by Alexander Hamilton and his wife Mary.
The Hamilton’s, who lived in Perry County, Alabama, decided to load their household effects on a horse-drawn cart, hitch a milk cow to the cart and head west. They crossed the Red River at Grand Ecore, four miles north of Natchitoches, passed through what is now Zwolle, and came to the swollen Sabine River. Crossing the river on a raft built of logs fastened together with vines, they built a small log house on the river’s west bank and decided the site would make a good trading post. He called his store Hamilton Trading Post. The name of the community was later changed to East Hamilton, since it was understood that there was another Hamilton in Texas.
Other settlers soon joined Hamilton in the settlement, including Elder William Brittain, a Baptist preacher and cotton buyer, who called the Sabine River bottomlands "the law-less, no-man’s land of Texas." Brittain arrived in 1837 to found, in his home, one of the first Baptist churches in Texas, along with a cemetery. A school followed in 1838.
One of the worst catastrophes in this little community was the Wilkinson wedding supper. The wedding supper, a common event in small communities of the 1840’s was to honor a young couple following their marriage ceremony. The folks at East Hamilton were ready for a pleasant celebration. All up and down the Sabine River news was: "Old man Wilkinson’s daughter was finally getting married." The groom, Morris, was not much of a catch, and everyone thought he would fit right in with his new in-laws, or rather outlaws. Old man Wilkinson was a bad character himself, and a notorious hog thief.
All around the community, the ladies were trying on dancing shoes and pulling out dresses they had not worn for years. Excitement was in the air. The date was April 22, 1847. The groom wanted to wait for a June wedding, but Wilkinson insisted on an early marriage – something could happen, you know, and Morris could get away.
Mrs. Edens, the woman Wilkinson hired to bake the cakes, had left them in the smokehouse for safekeeping. She went early the next morning to see if the cakes were all right. She noticed that the icing had been removed on all but one, and that one was covered with custard. The others were dark and discolored. She tried to make them look a little better by grating some loafsugar over them. After all, she didn’t have time to bake more.
The Spottswood Sanders family, a neighbor of Wilkinson, did not really want to go as there had been trouble between the families. Wilkinson has been accused of stealing Sanders’ hogs. And, too, Wilkinson was a Moderator and Sanders was a Regulator. But, they thought that if they did not go, the talk would be that the feud was still going.
At the last moment, the Sanders family decided not to attend the wedding. When Wilkinson heard that the Sanders family was not coming, he packed up some of the wedding supper that had been prepared and sent it to them. Among the assortment was a half of a shoat, one turkey, three chickens, chicken pie, and butter pound cakes - enough to feed all, even their Negro folks, for a week. What a feast! They thought, "Old Wilkinson ain’t all bad!" They all sat down and ate. All of the food was poisoned, even the butter which was elegantly molded. The meal resulted in the death of Mrs. Susan Eliza Sanders, wife of Spottswood Henry Sanders, and two of her sons, Robert Henry, age 5, and Edward Hamilton, age 3. As Mrs. Sanders was dying, she asked that her children be reared in the nurture of the Lord. She did not know they were already dead or dying. She also asked that her Negro servants come and bid her farewell; but they couldn’t, they were poisoned too. Spottswood and his son Francis survived after they crawled to a slop bucket, drank from it and vomited.
Meanwhile, back at the party, everyone was eating finger foods. That is, everyone but the Wilkinsons. The food was laced with arsenic. It did not take long for the poison to start killing. Some dropped dead on the spot, others took longer.
Allen Haley and his mother were apparently the only persons at the wedding who were not poisoned. The Haleys arrived late, after the other guests had been served, and ate some of the same food, but not the cake. Wilkinson supposedly cut a fresh cake for them, but they declined to eat, saving their lives. The Haley’s lost a Negro slave, whose wife was one of the servants attending the wedding. She carried him a piece of the pound cake. He ate two mouthfuls and not liking the taste, ate no more. Yet, that killed him.
Mrs. Edens, who made the cakes, was poisoned along with her son and a Negro girl. The girl died and her son was not expected to recover. The poisoned butter left at the wedding was thrown out. Birds supposedly ate the butter and died within a few minutes.
Elder William Brittain, who may have officiated at the wedding, entered the names of several members of his own family on the death pages of his family Bible. There are five Brittain graves in the East Hamilton Cemetery with names but no death dates. They are: Thomas, R. J., Mary, Martha, and Bobbie. The Brittain family Bible has been lost, and we may never know if these children died at the supper.
Two Castleberrys, one of the Daughters and his wife, died. One of the bridesmaids died, and yet strange to tell, neither the bride or any of the Wilkinson family were injured.
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.
Dr. James H. Starr of Nacogdoches writes that seventeen of the fifty-four who were poisoned have died, and fifteen others are considered dangerously ill. His statement was printed in the Niles Register on June 5, 1847.
On July 19, 1847, an article in the Telegraph and Register states: "Wilkinson, at whose house the wedding was held, has confessed that he had the arsenic purposely mixed in the cakes…." The article also confirmed that the bride was an orphan girl raised by Wilkinson.
On May 23, 1847, a letter written in Bayou Sara. Louisiana to a friend contained the particulars of the incident. The 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 to kill him. 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 1847 states what Wilkinson was captured and hung. It is said that he confessed that he had given the arsenic to the cook to be mixed in the cake, and that he cautioned the bride and other members of the family not to eat the cake.
With the passage of a century and a half years, the poisoned wedding supper has evolved into a folk tale throughout East Texas. Various accounts and a retelling of the story have confused what really happened, or the number of people who actually died. In the East Hamilton Cemetery, a series of old, unmarked gravestones – deceased’s names erased by the ravages of time – lend some credibility to the tragic, unthinkable incident.
Thanks to Reba James for her contribution to this writing.