The wedding cake from Hell: A 19th century Shelby County murder episode still filled with mystery

NOTE:  As with many of the items we post here, I must graciously thank a reader of All Things Sabine for directing me to check this story out… the case of the “Poisoned Wedding Supper” was completely unknown to me before I was told about it yesterday evening.

On the Texas side of Sabine River, there lives on a murder mystery so intriguing, it could have well been subject matter for Dame Agatha Christie.

And no matter how you slice it up, the dessert cake served to 60 East Texans at a wedding party in May 1847, was the wedding cake from Hell.

Back in those days, it was common to honor a young couple after they were joined in marriage with a wedding supper.  Cake, of course, played a starring role in these suppers.

In 1847, as the weary and draining Regulator-Moderator War was coming to an end in Shelby County, the good people of East Hamilton (which lies on the Sabine River’s west bank, now near Patroon but covered by Toledo Bend Lake), were ready for a joyous celebration of any kind.

The bride was an orphan girl, raised by a Mr. Wilkinson, resident of the East Hamilton community.

Read an article in The Niles Register, “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.”

As the story goes, Wilkinson had hired a Mrs. Edens to bake the cakes… which she did, and then left them in the smokehouse for safekeeping.  The next morning, she noticed that the icing had been removed on all but one of the cakes and that one was covered with custard.  The others were dark and discolored, but she didn’t have time to bake some more so she grated some loafsugar over them for appearance’s sake.

Further as the story goes, and where it gets a bit hairy, is that a sort of rival family to the Wilkinsons– the family of Spottswood Sanders– was invited to attend the party.  Because there had been trouble between the families, the Sanders did not want to go.  Wilkinson had been accused of stealing Sanders’ hogs and moreover, Wilkinson was a Moderator and Sanders was a rival Regulator.  As timing had it, the Moderator-Regulator War was supposed to be over… Texas President Sam Houston himself came to Shelby County to see to this war’s end.  And so, in part, the Sanders’ felt obligated to go to the party, lest people think their absence was related to the Moderator-Regulator fued, which was supposed to be good and over.

The account of this complicated story was further detailed in The Niles Register:

“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.

“(Problem was that) 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.”

The account continues:

“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 17 of the 54 who were poisoned have died, and 15 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, as well as 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, it is stated that Wilkinson was captured and hung. It is said that he confessed 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.

More than 150 years later, the “Poisoned Wedding Supper” has evolved into quite a folk tale.  Multiple accounts along with different retellings of the story have confused what exactly happened and we do not know with certainty the number of people who actually died as a result of the “Poisoned Wedding Supper.”

So while the details that have been handed down through the years seem to leave little doubt that the Wilkinsons were somehow responsible for the poison cakes, the real mystery (or mysteries as the case is) lies in the specifics of what happened that night, down to the number of souls lost at that tragic event.

Photo from Tracey Chelette Strong
Photo from Tracey Chelette Strong

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.

 

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Longview News Journal documents Toledo Bend Dam and power plant construction

I have found no newspaper which documented the construction projects involved in the making of Toledo Bend better than the Longview News Journal.  Here are some photos and pages of one of many features that The News Journal published on the making of the Toledo Bend Project.longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_1-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_2-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_3-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_4-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_5-copy   longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_8-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_9-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_10-copy longview_news_journal_mon__jan_1__1968_11-copydam dam2 longview_news_journal_fri__oct_10__1969_1 longview_news_journal_fri__oct_10__1969_2 longview_news_journal_fri__oct_10__1969_3 longview_news_journal_fri__oct_10__1969_4 longview_news_journal_fri__oct_10__1969_5

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East Texas Twain

E. I. KellieYears ago, I came across an article on a quite interesting journalist from East Texas.  To say Edward Irwin Kellie, who founded the still operating newspaper of Jasper, Texas, was a “character” seems to be a bit of an understatement.  In an August 1967 edition, Shreveport Times writer Norman Richardson compared Kellie to Mark Twain, and in fact, named his editorial piece “East Texas Twain.”

Following is the text of the editorial:

He was a 190-pounder with piercing eyes, a big walrus mustache and a pen of penitence that dug furrows in the conscience of Jasper County citizens.

Once, when his words evoked the wrath of carpetbaggers, they arrested him and tied him to a tree on the courthouse grounds.

Later, when he was dying, he insisted on being buried wrapped in a Confederate flag.

Capt. Edward L. Kellie was the Mark Twain of East Texas, a plucky little publisher who found-ed the Jasper News-Boy in 1865.

Twain dreamed of being a cowboy. So did Kellie, Twain labored in a print shop as a boy, as did Kellie. Twain loved the river and longed to be a steam-boat captain, as did Kellie. And both possessed a biting wit.

Kellie’s parents died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1856. Three. years later, tired ‘ of walking the streets, he headed for Texas with a body full of the cowboy fever.

In Galveston, looking for work, he was given a job as a printer’s devil, with duties of keeping the office clean, picking up the type dropped on the floor and whatever else he was told to do.

He stayed there a year and then took a steamboat to Sabine Pass and hooked on with a newspaper there in the same capacity.

Edward KellieIn 1861 the Civil War broke out and Kellie immediately enlisted in a Confederate company.

“We drilled on the prairie for about six months,” he once wrote. “Seeing no chance to get into a fight, six of us under age who wanted to fight packed our duds without asking anybody and went up to Jasper, where we learned a company was going to war.”

Kellie’s baptism to fire came at Elk Horn in Arkansas but he later wrote that, “I never did know which whipped, as the federals quit and so did we, they going north and we going south.”

Jasper News Boy, early daysIn 1865, with the battle flag of his Confederate company hidden under his uniform, Kellie re-turned to Jasper, found a hand press and a box of jumbled type in an old newspaper shop, rented an office and founded the Jasper News-Boy.

Few escaped his pungent scoldings. He wrote on many things, including this note on Masonry:

“We have always thought Masonry was a good thing and we intended to try to join them when we could get money enough. But this stripping a fellow and tearing his undershirt (during initiation rites) all to pieces we don’t like. We ain’t got but two undershirts and blamed if we know what to do if one of them was tored up.”

E. I. KellieDuring his career as publisher—which he left in 1880 to become a steamboat captain on the Sabine River—Kellie left Jasper with somewhat of a mystery.

In 1872 he solemnly reported that the News-Boy had received a cable from Queen Victoria of England, asking that a subscrip-tion be started and sent to Buckingham Palace. “I have been a constant reader of your paper for the past year and find it impossible to live without it. It is, indeed, the life of my household,” the cable reportedly said.

Kellie never did say if the wire was authentic or a hoax.

the_times_sun__aug_13__1967_

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Red Hills Lake, of Sabine County, Texas

DCIM102MEDIADJI_0196.JPG
DCIM102MEDIADJI_0196.JPG

Opened in 1940, Red Hills Lake Recreational Area is a public park which is part of the Yellowpine Ranger District of the Sabine National Forest.  It is located off Texas Hwy. 87 north of Milam, Texas, in Sabine County.  The park is open seasonally and is very affordable ($3 per car, on the honor system, so please be honorable to help keep the park open).

A 19-acre lake is featured, along with an additional 20 acres or so of tent camping and picnicking areas.

Sabine National Forest - Red Hills Lake
Sabine National Forest – Red Hills Lake

The park was enormously popular in the 1960s and 70s.  It is sort of a hidden gem now, with mostly Sabine County residents taking advantage of it.  Volunteers help keep the park up and offer friendly reminders to campers and park goers who bypass (accidentally or intentionally) the honor fee station.

At least one alligator has made the lake it’s home, and park rangers are watching it closely.  There are warnings at the fee station.  The alligator tends to stay away from the swimming area, we were told.

image
1960s or early 70s on Red Hills Lake
image
1970s on Red Hills Lake
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Building a Dam: The making of Toledo Bend Lake

In May 1963, land acquisition for Toledo Bend Reservoir got underway.  Construction of the Toledo Bend Dam, which would halt the flow of the mighty Sabine River to ultimately create the lake, began almost one year later, in April 1963.  The dam and the spillway construction were initiated, along with the building of a power plant from which hydroelectricity would be generated.

The closure of the earthen embankment and the filling of the lake began in October 1966.

Here are a few photos of the construction of the Spillway and Dam.  The spillway was designed to provide the controlled release of flows from the dam downstream to the Sabine River, and to release flood water so the level does not get too high and overtop or damage the dam.

Here are some photos of construction of the dam and spillway.  I added some close ups of a couple of the photos… honing in on different parts of the original photo.

ats dam Continue reading “Building a Dam: The making of Toledo Bend Lake”

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Time Travel Backwards Style: Ferries on the Sabine

We received a request regarding photos and information on ferries which operated on the Sabine River before the bridges were built (most of the bridges that were added on the Sabine River were built in the 1930s).  So I rounded up all the photos I had and grabbed up a few old newspaper articles and here they are.  If anyone has additional photos, I would love love love to share them! They are really invaluable and I get so excited any time I come across one.

Pendleton Gaines Ferry.  Not sure of the year, but was pre 1937.  This photo was shared with ATS by Donna Owens Jones
Pendleton Gaines Ferry. Not sure of the year, but was pre 1937. This photo was shared with ATS by Donna Owens Jones

Continue reading “Time Travel Backwards Style: Ferries on the Sabine”

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Through the years: Crossing the Sabine River between Bon Weir, Texas and Merryville, Louisiana

 

1931. On the Sabine River between Merryville, Louisiana and Bon Weir, Texas. From The Beaumont Enterprise, "The old hand-powered ferry which took its departure with the erection of the bridge. This is one of the old and historical crossings of the Sabine river."
1931. On the Sabine River between Merryville, Louisiana and Bon Weir, Texas. From The Beaumont Enterprise, “The old hand-powered ferry which took its departure with the erection of the bridge. This is one of the old and historical crossings of the Sabine River.”
1931. Bridge over Sabine River between Merryville, Louisiana and Bon Weir, Texas. From The Beaumont  Enterprise.
1931. Bridge over Sabine River between Merryville, Louisiana and Bon Weir, Texas. From The Beaumont Enterprise.
Railroad bridge over Sabine River, built pre-1910.  Photo by Patrick Feller
Railroad bridge over (ATFS) Sabine River, built 1905, according to BridgeHunter.com. Photo by Patrick Feller.
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The railroad bridge over the Sabine River between Newton County and Beauregard Parish is a swing through truss bridge. Photo by Patrick Feller.
Bridge today, as part of US Hwy. 190 system.  Not sure when the bridge was constructed... Looked a good bit online but did not find a date pinpointed.  Feel free to comment if you know more about this bridge.  NOTE:  We took this photo from the air this past December... The river was at flood stage at this time... So it may appear quite high in these photos because it is quite high.
Bridge today, as part of US Hwy. 190 system. Not sure when the bridge was constructed… Looked a good bit online but did not find a date pinpointed. Feel free to comment if you know more about this bridge. NOTE: We took this photo from the air this past December… The river was at flood stage at this time… So it may appear quite high in these photos because it is quite high.

 

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“The Best of the Bass Anglers”

imageWhile searching for something totally unrelated at the Sabine Parish Library, I came across rather fascinating articles on a local fisherman who apparently has been quite the celebrity in the fishing world.

The first article is from The Shreveport Times, entitled “The Quiet Champion” and dated June 2004; while the second is from Louisiana Conservationist, entitled “The Best of the Bass Anglers” and dated September 1981.

 

Continue reading ““The Best of the Bass Anglers””

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Wild and Wide Open… The showboat Harry Lee was once “one of the roughest spots” on the Sabine River

Photograph of the Steamboat Harry Lee - later to be the Showboat - docked across the Sabine River on old Highway 90. Used as a gambling establishment in the late 1920s. Photo from Portal to Texas History, crediting Heritage House Museum, Orange, Texas.
Photograph of the Steamboat Harry Lee – later to be the Showboat – docked across the Sabine River on old Highway 90. Used as a gambling establishment in the late 1920s. Photo from Portal to Texas History, crediting Heritage House Museum, Orange, Texas.

Some people know of it.  Most do not.  It was the Steamboat Harry Lee, a steamboat which once was docked on the Sabine River and was used as a gambling establishment.

Continue reading “Wild and Wide Open… The showboat Harry Lee was once “one of the roughest spots” on the Sabine River”

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Old photos from Call School

From the collection of Mr. D. T. Kent, these are some photos from early to mid 1900s of Call School in Newton County, Texas

Call School in Newton County. From the collection of Mr. D.T. Kent, Kirbyville, Texas
Call school looking east, 1935.  From the collection of Mr. D.T. Kent, Kirbyville, Texas
Call school looking east, 1935. From the collection of Mr. D.T. Kent, Kirbyville, Texas
Call School, From the collection of Mr. D.T. Kent, Kirbyville, Texas
Call School, From the collection of Mr. D.T. Kent, Kirbyville, Texas
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