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Long live the King and Queen of the Roma



Graves of the Roma royal family in Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian. (photo courtesy Gordon Cotton)

“I’m going to wait here in the car. The Gypsy graves are at the top of the hill, on the left,” Mrs. Elsie McWilliams told me in Meridian many years ago. I had gone to Meridian to interview her as she had written many of the hits recorded by her brother-in-law, Jimmy Rogers.

There were some Roma (once called Gypsy) graves in Meridian, and I wanted to see them. Miss Elsie rode with me to the cemetery. Weeds and undergrowth covered the hill, and a badly rutted gravel drive led between two brick pillars up the shaded drive.

Two stones, each topped with marble crosses, marked the graves. On each was carved a crown. “King of the Gypsies” is engraved on one stone and of the other is “Queen of the Gypsies.”

Visitors had been there, and someone had left a cup of tea on the Queen’s grave. It had evaporated, leaving the leaves in the cup, probably so whoever left the cup could come back and read the tea leaves.

I was going to photograph the graves, and the cup covered part of the epitaph. I moved the cup and jokingly said, “I hope you don’t mind, your Majesty.”

That’s when I just about jumped out of my skin. Miss Elsie had changed her mind, had walked up the hill (I had not noticed) and was standing right behind me when she said something.

The Queen, Kelly Mitchell, was buried there in 1915 after her death in nearby Coatopa, Alabama. She was 47 and, despite her age, was said to have died in childbirth. A local doctor was promised $10,000 if he could save her life, but he couldn’t.

Queen Kelly’s funeral was probably one of the most lavish events in Mississippi history. Her body lay in state at a Meridian funeral home where candelabras at the head and the foot of her silver­ trimmed metal casket burned day and night. A Meridian newspaper reported that she was beautiful with high cheekbones and a swarthy complexion. Her head was covered with silk, pinned at the back with solid gold pins. Into her braided black hair were woven Russian, French and Portuguese coins dating from 1750 to 1820.

The newspaper article said she was “robed in death with all the barbaric splendor of a medieval queen.” She was dressed in a bright red robe trimmed in yellow. Gold coins, sewed with gold thread, laced the gown and “sacred linen,” which was used only at death, draped the lower part of her body.

Two necklaces, one of gold coins and the other of shells, both tribal heirlooms, were around her neck. Each of the Queen’s children (there were 15) came to the casket and placed a piece of jewelry by their mother’s body. The youngest child tenderly put golden earrings on the Queen’s ears.

As there was no Orthodox congregation in Meridian, funeral services were held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Following the Christian ceremony, all the rites of the Brazilian Indians, from whom the Queen was descended, were performed.

Two black horses pulling a black hearse carried the body to Rose Hill Cemetery behind which was a Roma band, followed on foot by the King and the immediate family. The women and children rode in carriages. At the proper time the band switched from playing mournful dirges to spirited Roma music. It was estimated that 20,000 Roma came from all over the United States.

Twenty-seven years later King Emil, 85, died at Sand Mountain, Alabama. Born in a tent in Rio de Janeiro, he had come to New Orleans with his roaming parents when he was 5. He left the world the way he entered it — in a tent.

His funeral was not so lavish as the country was at war. He was buried in a gold casket, and before his body was lowered into the grave, he was very generously sprinkled with wine “so the King will have something to drink on the way to the other side.”

Approximately $900,000 worth of jewelry and gold is supposed to be buried with the Queen, and her grave and the King’s, which are side by side, were sealed with many layers of steel-reinforced concrete. Vandals have attempted to break through to the graves, but none have succeeded.

Other members of the Royal Family have also been buried there, but not in such lavish style. Most of the tribe are said to live in Missouri and Oklahoma.

Perhaps Queen Kelly could have read the tea leaves in life, but in death she hasn’t told her secrets. Like her jewels, they remain buried with her.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.


In defense of a bedbug



The portrait of Seargent Smith Prentiss, who died in 1850, was painted posthumously by an unknown artist and has been hanging in the courtroom of the Old Court House Museum since 1860. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

Verse by great poets has been written in honor of a louse — and possibly other critters — but it was a Vicksburg attorney who delivered perhaps the most eloquent speech of his illustrious career when he spoke in defense of a bedbug.

The attorney was Seargent Smith Prentiss, considered one of the greatest orators in U.S. history. Speeches and pleas by the attorney and congressman captivated audiences and brought lavish praise from such men as Daniel Webster.

Prentiss came to Mississippi from Maine at the age of 19 in 1827. For a while he lived in Natchez and taught school for the Shields family at the Maryland Settlement in Jefferson County. He was admitted to the bar and soon moved to Vicksburg where he was active in Whig politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The small-in-stature Prentiss was 5-feet 6-inches tall and walked with the aid of a cane because of a badly crippled foot. His forehead, like Webster’s, was high and broad, and his eyes were as penetrating as his voice was commanding. No other attorney wanted to face him in court for Prentiss seldom lost a case.

Two things Prentiss enjoyed were liquor and practical jokes.

When inspired with enough spirits, Prentiss was a master at entertaining. He was in just such a condition in the mid-1830s when he made his famous bedbug speech.

One evening Prentiss and fellow attorney Sam Gholson were traveling and stopped at a hotel in Raymond, Mississippi. After several hours at the bar the two secured a room for the night. For an hour or more, they slept soundly in the double bed, but Prentiss awakened suddenly to discovered that they had many small “bedmates.” He shook Gholson until he was awake as well, and they then debated whether to leave the hotel or meet the enemy head on.

Intoxicated to the point of being ridiculous, Prentiss and Gholson decided to attack. So, arising in their night shirts, they lit the lamp, drew their pistols and preceded to exterminate the tiny enemies. As a bedbug came forth, they would smite it with a bullet.

An interpretation of the massacre of the bedbugs at a Raymond, Mississippi, hotel was done in pen and ink by David Kleinman, an artist who grew up in Vicksburg but now lives in Ocean Springs. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It didn’t take long before the owner of the hotel came running. Prentiss told him they were simply exercising the right of self-defense, “granted by law of man and God.” Amid the frantic pleas of the landlord, the shooting continued until mattress and bed were demolished in the smoke-filled room.

And then a tiny, last culprit appeared and Prentiss caught the critter. Gholson immediately urged execution of the sole survivor of the massacre, but Prentiss pled for mercy. Both decided the bug deserved a trial by his fellow countrymen. Quickly, they got another attorney who was staying at the hotel to act as judge, and the landlord’s sons and others were brought in to serve as the jury.

For two hours Gholson, speaking for the state, prosecuted the case against the bedbug. Then the eloquent Prentiss spoke in the insignificant creature’s defense.

Prentiss talked for more than three hours, until dawn arrived, and the guests at the hotel who crowded the room to hear the great orator termed it the best address of his career. Unfortunately, no court stenographer was present, so Prentiss’ words were not recorded for posterity.

The fate of the bedbug? He was acquitted. He deserved it after over five hours of speechmaking past the midnight hour. He had enjoyed the services of Seargent Smith Prentiss, something many humans couldn’t financially afford.

The bedbug? He was set free to probably bite again.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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Hunting club restoring a piece of Vicksburg’s history – VIDEO



Riverfront mural capturing the streetcar era in Vicksburg (photo by David Day).

Members of a Vicksburg hunting club are working to preserve a priceless piece of the city’s history.

Photo by David Day

Vicksburg Electric Street Railway opened the first line of eight miles of streetcar track in Vicksburg on April 24, 1899. Electric trolley cars continued to serve Vicksburg under a succession of companies until 1939, when streetcars were replaced with busses for public transit.  At the height of the streetcar era, Vicksburg had 12 miles of track serving as many as 22 trolleys.

Tracks still remain embedded in some of Vicksburg’s oldest streets, like these on Howard St. (photo by David Day)

Prominent local attorney Emmett Ward purchased one of the streetcars and brought it to his Long Lake Hunting Club. The club, founded in 1908, remodeled the car to serve as a kitchen for their clubhouse and even added a porch.

Photo by David Day


When it was originally installed, the car and surrounding clubhouse was set 8 feet off the ground. After the 1973 flood, it was raised another 8 feet.  The car remains in remarkably good condition, having been protected from the elements high among the trees and surrounded by the rest of the clubhouse.

Long Lake Hunting Club members, including Don Miller, contracted Paul Lynn Construction for the daunting task of removing the trolley from its 16 foot perch so that the historic car could be saved for posterity.  The crew worked all day to dislodge the streetcar from the rest of the clubhouse and lower it safely to the ground.

Eventually, the club would like for the car to be moved to a location for public viewing. For now, at least, the trolley is to be stored at the old Blackburn building on Washington Street.

Photo by David Day

The club hopes to eventually restore the trolley car to its original condition when it ran on the streets of Vicksburg.

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John Leland had an idea: freedom of religion



This monument to Elder John Leland, who insisted that the Constitution contain a provision guaranteeing religious liberty, is in Orange County, Virginia. (photo courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It is doubtful that many people have ever heard of John Leland, but Americans owe him a heartfelt thanks.

Leland deserves more than a footnote in history. Part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, No. 1 in our Bill of Rights, was his idea and his perseverance made it a reality.

I had heard the story of John Leland, but was it true?

I was at the Orange County Courthouse in Virginia, working on family history. I knew that Leland lived in Orange, so I asked folks in the local historical society if the story was true.

A few miles drive down a state highway, and I found the monument to him. It is an impressive marker with a relief portrait of Leland and a brief account of his accomplishments:

Elder John Leland, courageous leader of the Baptist Doctrine, ardent advocate of the principles of democracy, vindicator of separation of church and state.

Near this spot in 1788, Elder John Leland and James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, held a significant interview which resulted in the adoption of the Constitution by Virginia. Then Madison, a member of Congress from Orange, presented the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech and a free press. This satisfied Leland and his Baptist followers.

Leland’s role in suggesting the First Amendment, the one that guarantees our freedom of religion, came about because it appeared that Virginians would not ratify the Constitution in 1788.

Many patriots opposed it, including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and George Mason.

Leland was Patrick Henry’s friend, and he was also a neighbor of James Madison, who wrote the Constitution. Leland, a Baptist minister, had a tremendous amount of influence. If he backed the adoption of the Constitution, it might be just enough to secure its passage.

One afternoon Madison called on Leland hoping to secure his endorsement. The two men talked late into the night, so long that Madison missed another meeting. Leland was well aware of persecution suffered by the dissenters, which, at the time, included anyone who was not a member of the state-supported church. As a Baptist in Virginia, Leland was a dissenter because he was not a member of the Anglican church.

Leland believed that government had no right or responsibility in dabbling in religion, and he wanted a written assurance of that in the nation’s laws. When Madison bid Leland good night, he assured the minister of the adoption of an amendment securing religious liberty.

Leland was not a Virginian. He was born in Massachusetts in 1854 and began preaching when he was 20, the next year moving to Orange, Virginia. He protested the state’s paying the salaries of Anglican ministers from the tax monies collected from dissenters and from money made from glebes, land set aside for support of the church. By some accounts, Leland hired Patrick Henry as his lawyer to sue over the state’s support, and the case went to court. Technically Henry lost the case, for the court upheld the law but also set the salaries at a penny a year.

Leland’s fame spread. He was known from New York to Virginia as an outstanding orator and theologian. It was during this time that he delivered one of the most memorable sermons in his long career. It was not unusual for worship services to be held in private homes — in fact, the practice became very fashionable in some areas. Such was the case when he was invited to preach in a fine Virginia mansion.

Elder John Leland (image source:

His portrait shows him as not a very impressive looking man, and most knew him by reputation, not by sight. He preached without salary and walked almost everywhere. On the afternoon before his appointment the next morning, he arrived at the mansion tired, dusty and thirsty but was greeted with “What do you want, old man?”

When he asked for some water and a place to rest, he was curtly told to go down to the slave quarters. There he met an elderly black couple who happily shared their cabin with him.

During that evening, he and the slaves discussed the Bible, sang some hymns, and he prayed before retiring.

The next morning there was a flurry of activity as the hostess and her staff prepared for the religious service. Soon finely dressed visitors began arriving in handsome carriages, but at 10 o’clock, the hour of the service, Mr. Leland had not arrived. An hour passed, and still no minister. The guests were becoming restless. The old slave woman suggested that her mistress ask the old man to pray. She had heard him the night before, of course, and urged the lady of the house to ask him.

From the shade of a tree on the lawn, Leland watched as the hostess and some others conferred. Then they came and asked him if he would pray.

Leland walked to the steps on the front gallery. He sang a short hymn from memory and then began to pray. By the time he said “Amen,” all eyes were fixed on him, for never had the crowd heard such earnest eloquence. Noting that they had expected a sermon, he said he was going to take the liberty to say a few words. Carefully he chose his text, turning to Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”

Legend says that the lives of those in attendance were greatly changed that day, especially that of the hostess.

In the 1790s, Leland returned to Massachusetts, but he continued his travels and preaching, baptizing untold numbers of converts. He also wrote hymns (some of which are still sung in the Primitive Baptist churches). He visited his friend Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson became president, and in 1832, he attended a meeting of Baptist leaders at Black Rock, Maryland, where denominational beliefs and traditions were heatedly debated, resulting in a division. Those who kept to the old ways were sometimes called Old Regular Baptists, Old School Baptists, or in later years simply Old Baptists and more commonly, Primitive Baptists.

Leland chose to remain with the original group, continuing to use the title “Elder” rather than “Reverend.” He died in 1841 and is buried at Hopewell Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Elder John Leland’s name certainly isn’t a household word, but it should be. We owe him a lot.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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