Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes

Article excerpt

When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes. By Jay Feldman. (New York: Free Press, 2005. Pp. vii, 305. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, index. $27.00.)

Jay Feldman knows how to weave good stories together. The warp and woof in this book involve the sordid episode of a politically well-connected lunatic axe-murderer, the most remarkable campaign for unified Native American resistance, and what were, literally, the most earth-shaking moments of American history.

The title refers to the New Madrid earthquakes, centered in southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas, that lasted from late 1811 to April of the next year. The first great convulsion, on December 16, rang church bells in South Carolina, tossed sleepers from their beds in Ohio, destroyed the town that gave the disaster its name, and reportedly (although many doubt it) reversed for hours the flow of North America's greatest river.

It also knocked over a chimney in western Kentucky, which would rate no attention except for two facts. The chimney's fall revealed the partially consumed remains of a murdered slave, and the house's owner was Thomas Jefferson's nephew. Lilburne Lewis was the son of Jefferson's brother-in-law and a cousin of Meriwether Lewis, and to say that he had shown signs of mental instability is to understate the matter considerably. In a drunken rage the night before, he and his younger brother Isham had called his several slaves into his kitchen and had hacked to death George, seventeen, as a cautionary for breaking household pottery. Then he had the slaves toss the dismembered corpse into the fire. When the chimney collapsed the next day, he had them rebuild it, with George in the brickwork. But in a twist that no novel's editor would accept, a later tremor toppled it again, and this time white authorities were alerted. Indicted, deserted by family, and with creditors snapping at his heels, Lilburne committed suicide.

Meanwhile, the Shawnee warrior and brilliant diplomat Tecumseh and his brother, the holy man Tenskwatawa, a. …

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