Time once again for a portly gent in red-jacketed, top-hatted, and high-booted livery to raise a bugle of extravagant length and blow the notes for “Boots and Saddles.” Time for the Call to the Post. The race again is on.
Q: An inn once located in present-day west Salem also included a horseracing track. A book I once read from the Roanoke College library indicated President Andrew Jackson was an occasional visitor to the inn and patron of the track during his travels to and from Washington, D.C. Supposedly on one of these occasions, a dispute about one of the races between Jackson and another man almost led to violence. What more is known?
Smith Mountain Lake
A: Precise details of said episode of Jacksonian passion are elusive, but ample evidence from the public record indicate the great man had some querulous times in Salem. The nature of the peeve and whether it ever got to the point of drawn pistols is unclear.
Which is not to say that the old soldier would have been opposed to such measures, but that’s getting ahead of things.
What we do know, as described in Norwood C. Middleton’s “Salem; A Virginia Chronicle,” is that Jackson was an occasional guest at the long defunct Mermaid Tavern, proprietor Griffin Lamkin, a businessman of great flair if not ostentation.
Of Lamkin, William McCauley wrote in his 1902 history of Roanoke County (thanks for the expert aid of Edwina Parks at the Roanoke library’s Virginia Room), the innkeeper’s lavish lifestyle was illustrated by his ownership of a coach and four, quite the status statement in what then was still a frontier backwater.
McCauley’s analysis of Lamkin’s spending was that it ultimately barred “an inconvenient overflow of riches” in family coffers.
Near as the historian could tell, Lamkin built the inn soon after buying 125 acres from Andrew Lewis Jr. in 1811. The hospitality industry was an occupation Lamkin was imminently suited for.
“He was doubtless a jolly landlord, and the ‘flowing bowl’ must have circulated freely at his cheerful board, and the choicest wines and liquors filled his cellars.”
Lamkin’s love of the high life lincluded his fondness for blooded horses and the turf, the top entertainment (along with cockfighting) for sporting types back in those days. As detailed in earlier reports here, the Roanoke Valley was home to numerous thoroughbred racing venues during the antebellum era.
Lamkin came to be one of the promoters “if not the prime originator” of a quarter-mile track opened in 1816 near the Mermaid.
Back to Jackson. Middleton noted a discrepancy with McCauley in dates on the Mermaid’s founding by citing a July 2, 1807, letter Jackson wrote to Fincastle lawyer Andrew Hamilton. The return address was a Salem establishment Jackson named in the creative spelling of the day the “Mair Maid.”
Middleton did not doubt the date having unearthed a license issued in 1809 to Lamkin for “private entertainment.”
Hamilton was a member of the Virginia General Assembly and apparently had said something publicly of which Jackson took a dim view. Then a former United States senator from Tennessee and not yet president, Jackson wrote Hamilton that if what he had heard the legislator had said was accurate “you … sinned both against light and reason, by stating a thing to be true which you knew to be false.”
Middleton: “The tone was foreboding and could have set the stage for a duel, for which Jackson had an affinity, but didn’t.”
Affinity, indeed. Marquis James listed 34 pages referencing “duels” in the index to his two-volume “The Life of Andrew Jackson.” One with a younger man named Charles Dickinson, who had insulted Jackson’s wife, had a fatal end.
By James’ account, Jackson, knowing that Dickinson was a crack shot and quick draw of which Jackson was not, the future president calculated ahead of time he would likely be grievously wounded before he could respond with return fire and planned accordingly.
Meeting at dawn, Dickinson, as expected, shot first aiming for the heart. The bullet found a mark but not a fatal one, a terrible surprise to the shooter. Bleeding into his boot, Jackson took his turn and plugged his adversary with a one-ounce .70 caliber ball fired from a 9-inch barrel with deadly accuracy thus putting a “furrow through his bowels.”
After enormous suffering, Dickinson finally expired at 10 p.m. that evening. When Mrs. Jackson heard the news, insulted though she may have been, she fell to her knees in tears. “Oh, God, have pity on the poor wife” — who Rachel Jackson knew to be pregnant — “pity on the babe in her womb.”
Jackson was a noted horseman with an expansive racing operation at family seat the Hermitage outside Nashville, as James outlined. After buying at a fire-sale priced Virginia-bred horse “of splendid repute,” a bay with white hind feet named Truxton, Jackson staked a soaring $5,000 for a famous 1805 victory over a horse named Ploughboy. In a driving autumn rain Truxton won the race by an astonishing 60 yards “without whip or spur.”
Jackson’s patronage of the Mermaid was probably accelerated after the track was built. If a near duel occurred there for Jackson on account of a disputed wager, Middleton had no details. McCauley mentioned an undated episode there in which Jackson engaged in “a quarrel with a gentleman then living in Fincastle, out of which grew a hostile correspondence which came near terminating in a duel.”
Did McCauley mistakenly conflate the 1807 Jackson-Hamilton slander accusation with a many years later gambling dispute at the Mermaid? Maybe.
In any event, no question Jackson was a hothead when conversation turned to personal honor. Jackson once challenged Gen. Winfield Scott to a duel with correspondence James judged “does not materially enhance his reputation for moderation.”
Scott replied by complimenting Jackson for besting him “as a master of epithet” but declined the offer of hostilities on religious grounds, adding that the general preferred his risk-taking to be undertaken to better purpose in “the next war.”
James wrote of Jackson the incident of sidestepped violence was “further proof that his talents for unproductive controversy amounted, at times, to genius.”
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