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Friday, November 16, 2012

Goodreads | Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists

Goodreads | Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists:


A fascinating, if often hyperbolic and disjointed, look at the Mississippi River and especially the communities surrounding it, not to mention the customs and eccentric characters that thrived on the river frontier.  It might also be called, the Book of Lists.

I was surprised by the importance of prostitution to communities in the 19th century frontier society. Their importance was so crucial as to be almost "structural."  Women were a rarity, often outnumbered by men 20-1, and it was common for some women who wanted to secure their financial future to marry several at once, visiting them on a rotational basis and being provided for. It was a system that suited all parties, apparently.  The institution was so crucial to the army, they were imported to all forts, respected and called seamstresses.  Brothels in St. Louis could be lavish places and held in high esteem by the community despite ostensible moral antagonism.

Religious camp meetings were immensely popular.  One such event pulled a gathering of 20,000 people at a time when the population of New Orleans was about half that.  The events became occasions of ecstatic behavior with "jerkings," falling", other kinds of physical religious behavior we would now label pejoratively as "holy rollers."  It also included orgies, the sexual component of ecstatic behavior being quite strong, and until the vigilantes moved in to put a lid on it, it was quite common for groups to move off into the woods to consummate their religious fervor resulting in a high birth rate about nine months after the camp meeting.

Corruption was endemic.  It was assumed and understood that everyone along the river would cheat, shorting the steamboats on piles of wood, counterfeiting (although very much frowned on it was helped by the number of different banks issuing money, species being quite rare and always in demand.) Con men thrived.

The story of Stewart's pamphlet and John Murrell was fascinating.  Stewart had written and published a pamphlet that purported to report on his infiltration into the infamous Murrell gang. Murrell  supposedly had revealed to him that Murrell was orchestrating a vast conspiracy that would result in an enormous slave rebellion on July 4th, 1835.  The names of many so-called conspirators who belonged to this "Mystic Klan" were fomenting the rebellion were included.  The ultimate purpose was so they could rob and pillage virtually the entire south.  Always fearful of slaves revolts, the end result of publicity surrounding the pamphlet was the formation of vigilante committees and extensive use of "Lynch Law."  Fear of slaves spilled over into antagonism toward river-town gamblers in Vicksburg and soon bodies were hanging from trees on virtually every road. Some people, after interrogation by the "committees," were lucky to get off with 1,000 lashes. Neighbors would inform on neighbors they didn't like and it must have been like scenes out of mob actions of the French Revolution.  (Tom Sawyer and Huck talk about looking for "Murel's treasure.")

Lots of really good stories and cultural history. If you are looking for information about the river itself, however, you might be better served by The Big Muddy.


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