It was Friday afternoon and a typical winter day in Vicksburg in 1869. Federal troops, garrisoned in the city to “reconstruct” it, policed the muddy streets. The inauguration of U.S. Grant as the 18th president of the United States was only a month away.
Local attorney and politician Walker Brooke and his friend, Sgt. Levi Fletcher of Maine, a Yankee soldier who was stationed in Vicksburg, stopped by the Bank Saloon, operated by F. Piazza, at the corner· of Crawford and Washington streets.
Seating themselves at a table in the rear of the building, they enjoyed friendly conversation. As it was February, a month with an “R” in it — which most folks thought made it safe to eat oysters — the two men ordered some, probably on the half shell.
They were having a good time, and when Brooke picked up a very large oyster, Fletcher joked that he bet the senator couldn’t swallow it whole. Brooke bet he could, and he plopped the big oyster into his mouth. As he swallowed, part of it lodged in his trachea, the other half in the pharynx, and Brooke began to choke. He tried to cough it up, but the oyster wouldn’t budge.
Sgt. Fletcher immediately sent for Dr. E.T. Henry, and the doctor opened Brook’s trachea with a knife. Using his fingers, the doctor forced the oyster back into Brooke’s mouth, but it lodged again in the esophagus. By this time, Brooke was bleeding badly and passed out.
Six more physicians arrived — doctors Hunt, Whitehead, Balfour, O’Leary, Duncan and finally, Dr. Swift (the latter two were stationed in Vicksburg with the occupation forces). None of them could alleviate the pain, though the oyster was removed.
At dusk the unconscious senator was taken to his home which stood at the corner of South and Cherry streets where the First Presbyterian Church is now located. At 3:15 the next morning he died, and later that day a group of citizens met to pass resolutions of respect.
A native of Virginia, Brooke was born on Christmas Day 1813, and was a graduate of the University of Virginia. He taught school in Kentucky for two years before moving to Holmes County, Mississippi, where he made his home in Lexington. In 1840 he married Jane Eskridge of Carroll County, and to them were born 10 children.
Brooke served in the state Senate from 1850 to 1852 when he was elected to the United States Senate to fill the unexpired term of Henry Stuart Foote who had been elected governor. Brooke and his family moved to Vicksburg in 1857 where he entered the legal profession.
Brooke was a Whig but eventually became a Union Democrat. As a Warren County delegate to the Secession Convention in Jackson in 1861, he urged that the measure be put to popular vote. Once the die was cast, he cooperated with the secessionists and was a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States in Montgomery, Alabama. When he sought a full term as a Confederate senator, he was defeated and returned to Vicksburg.
Walker Brooke was a very popular man in Vicksburg, and when his funeral was held Feb. 21, 1869, Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, the Presbyterian Church where he had worshiped and the courthouse where he had gained fame in the legal profession were draped in black. The courthouse bell tolled as the procession passed, and the United States Army Band played the funeral dirge for the former Confederate official.
While his body lay in state, it was guarded by a dozen lawyers and a dozen Masons as an act of respect. Services were conducted by Dr. C.K. Marshall and the Rev. Mr. Wheeler, and pallbearers included many prominent men as well as several officers of the Union Army.
The editor of the Vicksburg Daily Herald noted that Brooke “fell in the midst of friends and in the fullness of his strength.” He was 55 when he died. The editor went on to say that Brooke was a speaker noted for his power, beauty and effect, and described him as one who “read much and thought more.”
“A more noble, true or generous man than Hon. Walker Brooke will never ‘hallow a grave’ in Warren,” the editor concluded.
A year later, a portrait of the senator was placed in the courtroom of the Old Court House where it still hangs.
Years later, a very large pearl, retrieved from the murderous oyster and possibly responsible for the tragedy, was lost when the Fletcher home burned.
Walker Brooke was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, and a simple stone marks his grave, but therein lies quite a story.