- Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson by Joshua D. Rothman
In this finely crafted work, Joshua D. Rothman uncovers the lives of Virgil Stewart and John Murrell, two men whose unlikely encounter would help set off a wave of violence in frontier Mississippi. Flush Times and Fever Dreams is a remarkable book that is at once a biography of two men, a crime story, and an astute analysis of the complicated relationship between slavery and the quest for wealth in Jacksonian America.
At the heart of the book is the interaction of Stewart and Murrell, two men on the margins of southern society. Stewart was an ambitious but remarkably unsuccessful speculator, farmer, and retailer looking for [End Page 458] wealth and respect. Trying to ingratiate himself with the local planters of western Tennessee, Stewart agreed to follow John Murrell, a petty criminal accused of stealing horses and slaves. Stewart posed as a fellow traveler and potential accomplice, riding with Murrell in the winter of 1834. According to Stewart, Murrell revealed the existence of a vast criminal conspiracy to unleash a horrific slave rebellion and then plunder the countryside. Murrell was jailed, while Stewart basked in the glory of apprehending a dangerous fugitive.
From there the episode took a far darker and more dangerous turn. Upset that some locals did not fully believe his more fantastical claims, Stewart published a sensationalist account of Murrell’s purported conspiracy titled A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the Great Western Land Pirate. Newspaper editors generally panned the account as the fabrication of a publicity-seeking author. Anxious residents of central Mississippi, though, took Stewart’s warnings seriously. In July 1835, residents of Madison County formed a loosely organized and extralegal committee of public safety in response to rumors of an impending slave revolt. After torturing slaves to extract confessions, the committee executed a number of slaves (perhaps as many as twenty) and poor whites for allegedly fomenting a slave revolt. With few friends in the community, the half-dozen white men who were killed (and several more who were tortured) had questionable associations with slaves that made them immediate suspects.
At the same time, a similar episode of extralegal violence took place in Vicksburg, just to the west of Madison County. Vicksburg was the center of the speculative fever that gripped the Cotton South and became a magnet for professional gamblers. After a violent Fourth of July celebration, a crowd of respectable citizens gathered to rid the city of this menace once and for all by forcibly evicting the gamblers. Five of the alleged gamblers (the evidence suggests that most of them were ordinary patrons in the wrong place at the wrong time) were hanged, setting off a fierce debate in the press about the role of mob violence.
This simple summary cannot do justice to the way Rothman skillfully weaves together these episodes into a sophisticated portrayal of Mississippi society in the 1830s. Rothman analyzes every scrap of evidence to re-create the lives of Stewart, Murrell, and his other cast of characters. At the same time, Rothman rarely loses the thread of larger themes, such as the complex relationship between literary invention and social reality. Rothman skillfully shows how Virgil Stewart attempted to reinvent himself as a frontier hero in a continual quest for social and economic advancement, but his efforts were too obviously self-aggrandizing. Instead of achieving fame [End Page 459] and fortune, Stewart alienated those around him. He was accused of theft, charged with libel, and died in obscurity. Although the cotton frontier produced great riches for some, Rothman reminds historians of the Virgil Stewarts who failed to find even a modest competence.
How, then, did this troubled man so profoundly influence Mississippi, at least for a few bloody weeks? Part of the answer lies in the insecurities inherent in a fast-growing...