Tidbits of Shelby County History
The Poison Wedding Supper

This week’s article is on the famous Poison Wedding Supper that happened in 1847 in the East Hamilton area. The events surrounding the poison wedding supper are still under question. The date was April 22, 1847. It is not completely known how many died, or exactly which family members and friends actually ate the arsenic-laced cakes. Through the retelling of the series of events, it has evolved into a folk tale, somewhat distorted from the original story. We may never really know what the true events were.  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), were ready for a joyous celebration of any kind.

Most of what we do know is from newspapers articles that appeared across the nation telling of the terrible event that happened in Shelby County.

The following information is from Mrs. Hazel M. Brittain

Many people were invited both far and near, as was the custom of that day. This occurred before my marriage, but my husband told me of the awful times.

Several of his family was victims and he himself made only a narrow escape.

People continued to die for a number of days. Many, many were the new graves made in Hamilton graveyard in Shelby County. Several of the Sanders were victims – Spot’s entire family except himself and one son, Frank, who was saved by crawling to the slop bucket and drinking the dirty greasy dish water that was being saved for the hogs.

(Note:  Spelling and grammar written as it appeared in the newspaper articles)

Clipping from the Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati, Ohio

15 Jun 1847, Tue page 2

Texas Poisoning Case

The New Orleans Delta, of the 3d, contains the following letter from a Mr. Stille, in relation to the case of poisoning, in Shelby County, Texas, which we noticed some days since:

Bayou Sara, May 23, 1847

Dear __________ I returned from a flying visit to Hamilton yesterday, and learned some more particulars in relation to the poisoning - fifteen are dead, and some eight or ten are expected to die daily - some got better, but took a relapse and died. The poison was arsenic. I will relate the circumstance as I heard it:
It appears that old Wilkinson(Note: he was a Moderator) was a man of bad character - a notorious hog thief - and Morris, the groom, had been twice whipped in Mississippi for negro stealing. Wilkerson was accused of stealing the hogs of Spottswood Henry Sanders (Note: he was a Regulator), and you will perceive, from what follows, how he revenged himself. When his neighbors didn’t arrive, Wilkinson made it a point to pack up the wedding supper and sent it to their house. He sent to the house of Sanders, who lives some two or three miles from him a half of shoat, one turkey, three chickens, some chickens pie, butter, pound cake, & etc, enough to last the family a week, all poisoned, even to the butter, which was elegantly moulded. The family ate of it - Mrs. Sanders, three children, and a negro boy, are dead - the other, and only child left, was dying when I was at our friends Kerr's. Mr. Sanders and seven negroes are yet sick - some, it is thought, will die. Poor Mrs. Sanders did not know that her children, (Note:  Robert Henry, age 5, and Edward Hamilton, age 3), were dead, or dying, and told her husband to rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. She requested, when dying, that her negroes should come and bid her farewell - they could not, all being poisoned. Mr. Sanders' mother, an old lady of seventy, was a victim also. All Haley lost a negro man - the man's wife was one of the servants at the wedding, and took him a piece of the pound cake - he eat two mouth's full’s, and not liking the taste of it, eat no more - yet that killed him. An old lady by the name of Edens, made the cakes, and she was poisoned, together with her son and a negro girl - the girl is dead, and her son not expected to recover. The butter that was left at Sanders was thrown out, and some fowls eat of it and died in a few minutes. Allen Haley and his mother were the only persons at the wedding not poisoned. They came late, after the guest were served, and eat with the family, partaking of the same food they did - even to the cake. Old Wilkinson insisted on cutting a fresh cake for them, but they refused. The lady that made the cakes, Mrs. Edens, went on the morning of the wedding day to look at the cakes, in the smoke house, where she had put them, and found that the covering she had put on the top of them, was removed from al the cakes but one that was covered with a custard pie - they looked dark and discolored, and she took some loaf sugar, which she grated and put over them, thinking it strange that they were so disarranged. Old Wilkinson and his wife, and Morris' wife, were arrested and examined before Squire Sanders, who committed them to prison. Charles Alexander bailed the women, and Wilkinson was taken out by a writ of habeas corpus before the Probate Judge, Lester, and set at liberty. He was afraid to leave the house during the day, as there were persons determined on killing him. During the night he escaped on Morris' horse, which Morris brought to him. Eight persons are in pursuit of him, who have sworn to kill him on sight. Morris is Wilkinson's agent - he was ordered to leave, or he would first be whipped, and then hung. He refused to go, and we many therefore expect that he will be made short work of.

I wrote you in my last that the negroes were suspected of having been hired to poison the food. Such is not the case, as the negroes were all poisoned, they not belonging to Wilkinson.

At the last accounts the pursuers were but a few miles behind Wilkinson - headed by Mr. Castlesberry, who was one of the poisoned, and lost his sister, he swore he would follow him to the ends of the world, being bent on taking his life. I have seen some of the survivors - they are black under the eyes and their finger nails and the ends of their fingers are black - they look like walking ghosts. They all think that health and strength are gone, being every one unable to do any laborious work. Poor souls!

A letter from the parish of Sabine, dated the 2nd, and published in the N.O. Delta of the 11th inst., states that a wedding of an orphan girl raised by a Mr. Wilkerson in that area, 60 of the guests were poisoned, then or 12 whom have already died, and 30, would not survive. Two sons Mr. Britton, two Castleberrys, one of the Houghters and his wife are dead, and yet strange to tell neither the bride or groom nor any of the family were injured. The letter adds, “Old Wilkerson has absconded.  This portion of Texas is in arms and woe betide the guilty! It is supposed that the negroes were hired to administer the poison in the coffee or food, by a disappointed suitor who was present at the wedding.”

The same paper dated several weeks later on June 5, 1847, the following item appeared: “The poisoning of the wedding party, noticed in our last, on investigation, is likely to have been accidental, arsenic having been given out instead of saleratus to make the cakes and pastry with; - at least that is the statement of Dr. A.C. Denson of Cherokee County. Dr. Jas H. Starr of Nacogdoches, who was sent for, writes that 17 of the 54 who were poisoned have died. Six have died since he wrote, and 15 others are considered dangerously ill.”

Still later in an issue dated; June 19, 1847: “A new version and additional facts of the tragedy are given in the Houston Telegraph and Register which states that Wilkerson, at whose home the wedding was held, had confessed that he gave the arsenic purposely, to be mixed in the cakes, etc. and cautioned the bride and other members of the family not to eat thereof.  He belonged to the Moderator Party and stated that he took as many Regulators as possible in revenge for the injuries received of them by him and his friends. Telegraph and Register adds that he has made a fearful atonement for this horrid crime, and has heard a report that he was overtaken in his flight by a party of Regulators and hung. Fears of a bloody feud between these two factions are expressed.”

In still another report they stated, that the groom did died of the poison at this fatal supper.

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.

Elder William Brittain, who may have officiated at the wedding, entered the names of several members of his own family on the deaths page in his family Bible.(Note: 5 graves at the Hamilton cemetery with names but no death dates. They are Thomas, R. J., Mary, Martha, and Bobbie.)

We know that this all actually happened as there are rows of graves in the East Hamilton Cemetery of the victims who died at this Poison Wedding Supper.