VIII. Missouri Legislator

Barely more than a year after moving to Saline County, Becknell ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives and won. He began service in November 1828 and served two terms for a total of four years. (Note 1.) In his first term, 1828-1829, his activities were limited to mundane matters. (Note 2.)

Whatever his militia activities were during the late summer of 1829, at that time he was serving in the dual roles of militia captain and state legislator. A regional history written several decades later would record the following recollections of his fellow citizens. (Note 3.)

[Becknell was] well versed in Indian warfare and fighting, and would have made a good record with his company if he had had opportunities. He was not of a religious turn of mind at all. Capt. B. was not. Many a settler remembers how volubly and with what wonderful force and power he could swear. He was a rough-and-tumble fighter of no mean ability.

Indictment of William Becknell and William Allen Gwinn for fighting (Saline Co., Mo. Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C29915, Missouri State Archives)

Indictment of William Becknell and William Allen Gwinn for fighting (Saline Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Microfilm C29915, Missouri State Archives)

Saline County residents may have been proud of their “rough-and-tumble” representative. If they didn’t know his character when first elected, they certainly did when he was reelected in the fall of 1830. By that time, a grand jury had indicted him for engaging in a fight with William Allen Gwinn on September 1, 1829. (Note 4.) As a result, in November 1830, at the same time that Becknell was beginning his second term in the House of Representatives, he was being prosecuted by the state attorney general “for an affray.” (Note 5.)

June 27, 1831 jury verdict, Saline Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 1, p. 198 (Microfilm C29915), Missouri State Archives)

June 27, 1831 jury verdict (Saline Co., Mo., Circuit Court Book 1, p. 198, Microfilm C29915, Missouri State Archives)

The case eventually came before a jury on June 27, 1831. The jurors found both defendants “not guilty in manner and form as charged in the indictment.” (Note 6.)

Apart from that unfortunate and perhaps embarrassing incident, Becknell largely avoided litigation during his time in Saline County. (Note 7.) He found himself dragged into another dispute, however—one involving Alonzo Pearson and the Sappington family. The matter came to light in 1830 with the filing of a chancery case ominously titled: “Mary Ann Parsons v. Augustine Parsons alias Alonzo Pearson.”

Dr. John Sappington (1776-1856), who lived between Arrow Rock and Jonesborough (now called Napton), was a pioneer in the use of quinine to treat malaria. The deadly disease, which was prevalent in Missouri, is an infection of parasites carried by mosquitoes. The indigenous people of Peru had used the bark of the cinchona tree, which contains quinine, as a malaria treatment. In the 1820s, Europeans and Americans began to extract quinine, and Dr. Sappington began purchasing quinine in Philadelphia for use in his medical practice.

Of course at that time Dr. Sappington did not understand the nature of infectious disease and believed that all fevers were variations of the same malady, whether appearing as malaria, yellow fever, cholera, scarlet fever, typhus, or influenza. In 1844, he would describe his ideas and practices in the book, The Theory and Treatment of Fevers. (Note 8.) In 1832, Dr. Sappington began selling “Sappington’s Anti-Fever Pills,” which were his own mixture of quinine, liquorice, myrrh, and oil of sassafras. In the following years, he prospered financially by selling the pills for resale in states south of Missouri and in Texas.

As of 1830, Dr. Sappington was already engaged in substantial business activities beyond his medical practice, including with his two sons (William and E.D.) and with his son-in-law Meredith Miles Marmaduke, who had married his daughter Lavina. Marmaduke would be elected lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1840 and serve as governor for nine months in 1844 after Governor Thomas Reynolds committed suicide.

Excerpt of complaint by Mary Ann Parsons against Alonzo Pearson (Saline Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Box 3, Folder 155 (Microfilm C29916), Missouri State Archives)

Excerpt of complaint by Mary Ann Parsons against Alonzo Pearson (Saline Co., Mo., Circuit Court Case Files, Box 3, Folder 155 (Microfilm C29916), Missouri State Archives)

It was a shock to the Sappington family when, in the summer of 1830, a woman from Georgia named Mary Ann Parsons née Miles filed a chancery suit in Saline County, Missouri, claiming that Alonzo Pearson—the husband of Dr. Sappington’s daughter Eliza, the father of five of Dr. Sappington’s grandchildren, and the business partner of E.D. Sappington—was actually a man named Augustine Parsons and married to Mary Ann, with whom he had a son. The archives of the Missouri History Museum contain a remarkable letter written on June 18, 1830, from E.D. Sappington to Marmaduke, to inform him that their brother-in-law had “been marryed to another woman before he ever saw my sister” and that Pearson had reportedly absconded with his Georgia wife’s dowry. (Note 9.) E.D. wrote that “Pearson looks more like a dead man than like a living one.”

The matter was further complicated by the fact that Mary Ann Parsons had also named Marmaduke, Eliza Sappington, and E.D. Sappington as defendants, on the ground that they held assets that were part of the Georgia marital property. (Note 10.) The lawsuit was still in court in the fall of 1830 when Becknell was reelected to a second term in the House of Representatives.

The solution that the Sappington family arrived at was to secure private legislation from the General Assembly to declare that the Pearson/Sappington marriage never existed. Dr. Sappington and his son-in-law Marmaduke would both actively pursue that goal. Becknell was their Saline County representative in the House when a petition was submitted requesting action. On December 8, 1830, the first reference to the matter in the House journal places Becknell in the center of the controversy. (Note 11.)

Mr. Becknell of the select committee to whom was referred the petition of Eliza Whitsett Sappington praying the legislature to pass an act divorcing her from the bonds of matimony [sic] contracted by her with Alonzo Pearson and, for other purposes, reported “A bill to declare the marriage heretofore contracted and celebrated between Augustine Parsons otherwise Alonzo Pearson and Eliza Whitsett Suppington [sic] to be absolutely and utterly void from the beginning,” which was read a first time, and objections being made to said bill, the question was put upon its rejection, and decided in the negative. The same was ordered to a second reading.

Neither the text of the petition nor the text of the bill in any of its forms is known. Nor is it known what the basis was for the initial motion in the House to kill the legislation. The following day, the bill was read a second time and committed to a committee of the whole House. (Note 12.) On December 17, the House adopted an amendment whose text is unknown. (Note 13.)

The committee of the whole house also reported the bill to declare the marriage . . . with an amendment; which was read and agreed to. Ordered, that said bill be engrossed and read a third time on tomorrow.

The following day, on December 18, the House passed the bill. (Note 14.)

“An engrossed bill to declare the marriage heretofore contracted and celebrated between Augustine Parsons otherwise Alonzo Pearson and Eliza Whitsett Sappington to be absolutely and utterly void from the beginning” was read a third time and passed. Ordered, That it be entitled “an act,” &c. Sent to the Senate for concurrence.

The smooth sailing ended when the bill came before the Senate on December 20. (Note 15.) The Senate apparently rejected the bill upon its third reading on December 22. On the following day, Senator Lilburn Boggs “moved the sanction of the Senate, to ask leave to withdraw from the House of Representatives, the message of the Senate, informing them of the rejection.” (Note 16.) On December 24, the Senate reconsidered its “vote rejecting the bill . . . which was agreed to, and the bill was laid on the table.” (Note 17.)

In other words, the Senate neither rejected nor passed the bill but instead put it on hold. Writing from Jefferson City to Dr. Sappington on December 24, 1830, Becknell explained the circumstances in a letter. (Note 18.) The letter’s language and handwriting show that it was written by someone else on Becknell’s behalf.

The Bill in relation to your daughter passed the lower House a few days since and on yesterday was rejected in the Senate by a vote of 8 to 8 and the presiding officer giving the casting vote against the Bill in consequence of its involving as he considered the private right of individuals. On this day a reconsideration of the vote was obtained by the friends of the Bill with a view of laying it on the table untill further evidence could be obtained in relation to the consent of Mrs. Pearson herself, which was the main cause of the Bill failing in the Senate on the first vote above alluded to. It will be necessary therefore that Mrs. Pearson should make oath before some Judge or Justice of the Peace that she wishes the Bill to pass and that she is not constrained by her father or any one else to make the application but that she does it of her own free will and accord. . . . There are some flying reports in circulation that she is not willing or did not give her consent to the application being made, which operates very forcibly with those who are strangers to the history of the case. Col. Boggs and Mr. Miller of the Senate had sustained the Bill in its progress through the Senate and have informed me that it is absolutely necessary in order to effect is passage that the evidence requested should be furnished with as little delay as possible. Col. Boggs effected a reconsideration of the vote on the rejection of the Bill by getting the Senator from New Madrid, who voted against it, to agree to the course which was adopted at his suggestion, in order to do away the main objection (with the Senator) to wit, the want of evidence to convince him that the lady herself wished it.

On December 26, Senator John Miller painted a similar picture in a letter written to Marmaduke. (Note 19.)

The same day I wrote you last the Bill divorcing Elizabeth Whitside [sic] Sappington was taken up contrary to my wish; and was lost by one vote, which was the vote of the President of the Senate. I prevailed upon one of the Senators who voted against it to move a reconsideration of the vote, the motion succeeded & the bill is now on the table & will I hope remain there untill we can here from you.

The objection urged against it was that her name was not subscribed to the petition, consequently no evidence that she desired any thing of this body. Mr. Bates is the principle opposer, however he spoke against the Bill and he says if she would forward her signature to the petition attested by yourself he would support it. Capt. Becknell informes me he has written to you & enclosed a copy of the Bill, which will give you further satisfaction. I should have written to Doctor Sappington, but for the delicacy of the matter.

As Senator Miller noted, one of the senators opposing the bill was Edward Bates. Bates had been the first attorney general of Missouri after statehood and was now representing St. Louis in the Sixth General Assembly. He would later serve as President Lincoln’s attorney general from 1861 to 1864.

After Marmaduke learned that the Senate had failed to pass the bill on what some might see as a technicality, on December 30, he wrote a blistering letter to Senator Bates. Although Marmaduke’s letter has not been found, its contents are revealed in a remarkable reply by Senator Bates on January 4, 1831. (Note 20.)

Your letter of the 30th ultimo has just reached me, & I will not pretend to conceal my entire surprise at the passionate tone & accusatory style in which you have thought proper to address me.

You do not ask me for an explanation, & I certainly should not trouble you with one, but for the belief on my part, that you have been misled by erroneous information of the course I took in regard to the bill in question, & of my reasons for that course, and but for my desire not to suffer the harmony which has subsisted between us from the time of our first acquaintance, to be marred by a passionate misconception on your part, or a hasty resentment on mine.

You assume it as a truth, that my opposition to the bill to declare null etc. the marriage of Miss Sappington to Mr. Pearson was founded upon the belief that “Doct. Sappington was base enough to endeavor to practise an imposition upon the legislature, etc.” and then ask with emphatic earnestness “What circumstance could justify me in believing any such thing?” This assumption & this emphatic interrogatory are alike unjust to Dr. S. & to me. I never did believe any such thing. I have known Dr. S. for several years, & have always entertained & do still entertain a high respect for his character & esteem for his person. And I really did suppose that a reputation for tolerable intelligence would have screened any member of the Assembly from the supposition that the lack of Mrs. Pearson’s sign manual formed the basis of his opposition to the bill. I considered her fully & fairly a petitioner before the Senate, & yet, I should have been unworthy of a seat here, if I had suffered the bill to pass without my opposition. I opposed the bill because, in my opinion, it is dangerous in its principle & injurious in its effect upon society; and, as far as regards the unfortunate lady & the no less unfortunate children concerned, it is an absolute nullity. It is dangerous & injurious because it assumes & declares, without any legal proof, that Pearson is guilty of the enormous crime of bigamy. It is an assumption of judicial powers by the legislature, & that too under the aggravating circumstance of a pending prosecution for the offence, in the proper Court. And it assumes unconstitutionally, the right to legislate ex post facto upon the rights of property; and that too in a case in which no lawyer can believe legislation of any practical utility.

It is a nullity as regards the marriage, because if Pearson was married in Georgia, & that wife is alive, the marriage here must have been absolutely void, without an usurping declaration to that effect, by the Gen. Assembly. And if he was not married in Georgia, his marriage here was good & valid in law in spite of such legislative adjudication. As to the property – The marriage in fact, if void in law, could give Pearson no right to claim it; and if valid in law, the act just passed cannot take it from him. And as to the children, the idea that an act of Assembly was necessary to legitimate them, could only spring from an entire ignorance of the statute law, as it has stood for many years. Every man who will choose to examine the statute book must know that “the issue of all marriages deemed null in law or dissolved by divorce, shall nevertheless be legitimate.” . . .

I am sure . . . that I hazard nothing in leaving it to your good judgment to determine whether your address to me was characterized by that candor & courtesy (to say nothing of delicacy) which, considering the official responsibility under which I acted & the years of friendly intercourse between us, I had a right to expect at the hands of Col. Marmaduke.

The Sappington family must have obtained Eliza’s authenticated signature and delivered it to the General Assembly in Jefferson City by January 1, 1831, because on that day the Senate took up the bill again and—contrary to the logic of Senator Bates—passed it. (Note 21.) The governor signed it into law on January 13, 1831. (Note 22.) For some reason, however, the act was not included when legislation enacted by the Sixth General Assembly was published. (Note 23.)

Eliza Sappington was now single again, but with five children. At about the same time, another of Dr. Sappington’s daughters, Jane Breathitt, married Claiborne Fox Jackson but shortly after died on July 21, 1831. Two years later, Jackson married a second Sappington daughter, Louisa Catherine, who, in 1838, also died young leaving two children. Later that year, Jackson married yet a third Sappington daughter—Eliza Whitsett Sappington (formerly Pearson).

Jackson would be elected governor of Missouri and assume office in 1861. So Eliza became the first lady of the state just as the Civil War was breaking out. A Confederate sympathizer, Jackson left Missouri to set up a shadow state government in Arkansas, but died December 6, 1862. Eliza died less than two years later.

As for Alonzo Pearson or Augustine Parsons, he left the state in 1831 and disappeared from history.

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