The Washington Post
Unsigned Notice
Washington, D.C.: 19 July 1896


Meredith Calhoun Was the Original Cruel Simon Legree.


William Hugh Robarts Tells How the Great Authoress Told Him in Boston About Calhoun's Character, Which Was First Related to Her by a Mississippi River Pilot—A Philadelphian, He Purchased a Large Tract of Land.

  Discussion relative to the originals of leading characters in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has been renewed at a great rate since the death of Mrs. Stowe, the author. It seems to be generally accepted that nearly all of these had an individual identity in actual life. Yet there has been one exception. Simon Legree has been thought of as a type, and it has never been supposed that Mrs. Stowe drew her picture of him from an individual model.

  Legree, however, as certainly as any of the others, is known to have been evolved from a real personage; but the detestation in which the character has been held apparently decided Mrs. Stowe to be extremely careful of giving any suggestion as to the identity of the original.

  It is the privilege of Gen. William Hugh Robarts, of this city, not only to have been informed by Mrs. Stowe of the source from which she drew the character of Legree, but also to have known the remarkable man who unconsciously posed as the model. The story shows in a striking manner how a great character may be grown from a very meager beginning.

  To a reporter for The Post Gen. Robarts gives the following deeply interesting narration of his meeting with Mrs. Stowe, the revelation she made to him in regard to Legree, and of his knowledge of Meredith Calhoun, the "original" of that strongly drawn character:

  "Of all the leading characters in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,'" said Gen. Robarts, "but one remained unidentified by the public at the time of Mrs. Stowe's death. That one was Legree, the Red River planter, Uncle Tom's last owner. It happened to me to hear from Mrs. Stowe herself the identification of the original of her Legree. When it is remembered that of all the leading personages in Mrs. Stowe's novel that one that fired the Northern heart most fiercely was the Red River slave owner, the identity of the character, something of the vraisemblance of the man in the story, the individual from whom the character was adapted, must be of the highest interest.

Noted a Distinguished Looking Lady.

  "In October, 1878, I spent a most charming week in Boston as the guest of the Hon. A. H. Rice, then the Governor of Massachusetts. The Governor lived at the Brunswick, Clarendon and Baylston streets. One morning as we were seated at breakfast I noted an elderly and somewhat distinguished looking lady observing the Governor with interest. Finally she caught his eye and bowed to him. He immediately excused himself for a moment, and walked over and spoke to his acquaintance. Returning, he said:

  "'Do you know Mrs. Stowe?'

  "'No,' I replied, 'and, no offense to you, I don't care to become acquainted with her.'

  "'That is unfortunate,' he observed, 'for she wants me to present you.'

  "'Why, when did you see Mrs. Stowe?' I inquired.

  "'I have just been speaking with her,' he answered. "I told her I had a Louisianian staying with me, and who belonged to the last generation that saw the institution of slavery in its prime. She urged me to bring him into the morning room after breakfast, but as you don't like it I will make some excuse.'

  "'No,' I answered after a moment's reflection, 'pray present me. I spoke without thought just now, not knowing that she was in the vicinity.'

  "So after a small cigar in the Governor's study, he sent his card to the lady, and a moment later I was making my bow to the author of the most famous anti-slavery novel ever written.

  "Prejudiced as I was against Mrs. Stowe because of her political tenets, I found her extremely interesting.

  "'You wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin without any real, practical knowledge of slavery, did you not?' I ventured.

  "'Yes,' she said, 'I had to write it in that way or not at all. I was living in the West, and had no opportunity to see anything of slavery as it then existed in the far South. Yet I think my Legree is one of the best drawn characters in the book.'

The Planter She Had in Mind.

  "'May I ask,' I interrupted, 'if you had any particular Louisiana planter in your mind when you depicted Legree?'

  "'Oh, yes,' she promptly replied, 'and a very prominent one in his neighborhood, too. I got the story out of which I evolved Legree from a Cincinnati steamboatman, who was a pilot and a Captain in the Red River trade.'

  "'Yes,' I said, 'the description of the country in which he lived fits a certain portion of Red River to the very life.'

  "'Do you know,' said Mrs. Stowe, 'the man who before the war owned and operated the only profitable sugar estate on the north bank of the Red River?'

  "'Yes,' was my answer, 'Mr. Meredith Calhoun.'

  "'Well he was my Legree,' responded Mrs. Stowe, 'and never before have I so clearly indicated the character in real life from whom my Red River planter was drawn.'

  "All this was very curious and most interesting to me. Mrs. Stowe requested that nothing be said or written by me relative to the identity of the cotton planter as long as she lived. I gave the promise, and have never repeated the conversation until this moment. I think there can be no harm done the living nor injustice worked to the dead in my telling now what I know of the original Legree.

  In 1831-2 there was a great rush of emigration from the older slave States to the lands on Red River in Louisiana and Arkansas. These lands were a wonderful red loam fifty feet in depth on a clay sub-stratum, rich as the Valley of the Nile. Among the buyers was a gentleman who had been the chief confidential clerk of Stephen Girard, of Philadelphia, when that eccentric millionaire died in 1881. His name was Meredith Calhoun.

Purchased by a Philadelphian.

  "Just above the rapids of Red River (from them the parish of Rapides takes its name) was a tract of exceptionally well located planting land. It was naturally drained and perfectly adapted to the development of a large and valuable estate. There were in all something over 30,000 acres, and through the agency or James Bowie (the gentleman who adapted the celebrated knife christened for him to the requirements of our modern civilization) this tract became the property of Meredith Calhoun, Esq., late of Philadelphia. He paid in hard cast $300,000, and the property was cheap at that price. Instead of burning the forests that covered 20,000 acres of this land, the owner erected great sawmills and cut and sawed timber that other planters would have burned into most desirable lumber. Thus be almost paid for the work of clearing, for there was an active demand for lumber all along the Red River, where so many new plantations were being established, and the product of the Calhoun sawmills became famous for its high character and quality far and wide. Slaves were another commodity in which the movement could have been called "active, supply hardly equal to the demand, holder firm, prices gradually advancing." On each estate a few old, reliable family servants were retained by the emigrants from the old slave States, but for the most part the negroes were imported from Africa, who assisted the Red River planters to make fortunes in those fertile valleys, where one crop of cotton or sugar was worth ten of the cereals and five of tobacco.

  "Men of Anglo-Saxon blood in these days had but little time, and often smaller inclination, for the cultivation of what this generation would denominate the 'aesthetic side' of life, and often were disposed to jeer at the dandy, or, as we of to-day call him, the 'dude.' But though Calhoun was a bowling swell in the fashion of the period, those of rougher mold were usually very civil in his presence. And, besides his 'petit maitre' tendencies, he had a rather remarkable personality. About five feet in stature, his figure combined grace and activity in an unusual degree.

Eyes that Grew Green with Excitement.

  "Legree followed the mode of the time in his dress, and was usually attired in a manner that would have been pronounced correct by a committee of clubmen form any city in the Union. His eyes in repose were dark gray, but in moments of excitement or anger they seemed to be a deep, cat-like green. Always smoothly shaven and immaculate in linen, he was something of a curiosity to a community where his peculiarities were usually held to indicate effeminacy to a degree that must be incompatible with 'real grit' as understood among the fighting men of the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

  "'You'd better not try him,' said Col. James Bowie, smiling grimly at the situation.

  "It chanced one day, shortly after Col. Bowie had expressed this opinion, that Mr. Calhoun in some way happened to offend a man named Williams. The latter was a physical giant, tipsy enough to be without reason, and quarrelsome, besides. There was a shot. Then Williams staggered forward, his head half severed from his body by an awful slash from a nine-inch Bowie knife in the hands of Calhoun.

  "'I never beheld a human being that looked so much like Satan incarnate as did Calhoun, when he killed Jack Williams,' said the late Gen. Montfort Wells, of Rapides Parish, as he told me the story. 'Williams had killed three men, and he fired at Calhoun with a Derringer when they were not five feet apart. How he ever missed I don't know, but Calhoun leaped upon him like a panther, and at two strokes did the work. What was done about it? Why, nothing. Williams was a dangerous man, and it was with a feeling of relief that the community learned of his death. But the bad men of that time let the panther-like dandy severely alone after that, I can tell you. The little incident confirmed me in a theory I have always held,' concluded Gen. Wells, 'which is that in the hands of a dead game man, who knows how to use his tools, a Bowie knife in a close fight is a far more reliable and dangerous weapon than a pistol. The knife is always loaded and never misses fire.'

Calhoun's Nativity Was Uncertain.

  "That Mr. Calhoun was not a native American was generally understood, but just where he was born was uncertain. He spoke French beautifully, and Spanish very well. He had the peculiarity of never seeming to grow any older. For twenty years he would have been taken to be a well-preserved man, anywhere between forty and forty-five. Other men had their youth, passed it, and grew old, but for this strange man the hands on Time's great dial seemed to have stood still.

  "In a few years the foundation of a great estate on the north bank of Red river had been well laid. Mr. Calhoun divided the property into five plantations. The first he named Smithfield, and the sugar place was called Firenze. He erected a mansion that for years was known as the finest residence on Red River, and furnished it in excellent taste. He had a French cook, and occasionally gave splendid dinners that were the talk and wonder of the whole country-side. The display of old silver and fine china was the delight and despair of the ladies who were invited to these dinners. But through he had good looks enough, and manners that were perfect, though they would be deemed a trifle florid now, somehow Mr. Calhoun was not popular. He was a bachelor, and a most eligible one, too, but the ladies did not like him, or, rather, they all avowed they were afraid of him. By and by curious stories were widespread about. They were to the effect that Mr. Calhoun was in the habit of indulging in periodical and extreme fits of intoxication, and that at such times he was wont to call into his parlors two enormous negro drivers (a sort of sub-overseer), and the three would drink and carouse together in the most riotous and familiar manner. These stories were heard all over the parish, but no responsible party backed them. At any time in the South it has been a dangerous think to circulate stories detrimental to your neighbor, for somebody will be apt to get hurt if any lying has been indulged in. Here was the very first man in his country, a model of courtesy to his neighbor, and of fair dealing to all. It could not be true.

Burned a Negro at the Stake.

  "In the autumn of 185— a fearful story infiltrated itself through the community. Men and women spoke of it with bated breath, and children were not allowed to hear it at all. It was told one day that two nights before a negro on Smithfield, the finest of the great Calhoun estates, had been chained to a tree; that pine piled high about him was ignited, and that he was roasted alive, while his awful shrieks echoed through the valley for miles around. What his offense had been, if any, could not be told. The late Hon. T. C. Manning, United States Minister to Mexico in Mr. Cleveland's first administration, was District Attorney for Rapides, Natchitoches, and other Red River parishes. It was his official duty to investigate this matter. A number of gentlemen, planters, who respected their calling, waited upon Mr. Calhoun, acquainted him with the charge, and inquired if he had anything to say. He looked at the Hon. Henry Boyce, then United States District Judge, the head of the committee, a moment in silence:

  "'Who is responsible for this story?' said the accused planter, as his face became livid with fury. 'Does any gentleman (emphasizing the word) make such a charge against me? Name him, and I will know how to deal with him.'

  "'No gentleman accuses you of such a horror,' answered the dignified Judge, himself a planter, 'but we learn that 300 negroes saw this cruelty committed.'

  "'A cheerful and dignified business for you to be engaged in, listening to niggers' tales. When you can bring some responsible authority fro this story, I will answer. Good-morning.' And he nodded to his gatekeeper to open the way out for his visitors.

  "This story made a great sensation at the time, but it could never be proved, even if the entire force of the Calhoun estate had witnessed the burning as was charged, for a slave could not testify. Judge Manning would never say what his investigation had disclosed. Certainly had it been possible to make a case against him Mr. Calhoun would have been prosecuted, his great wealth notwithstanding.

Married a Belle of New Orleans.

  "Very shortly after this it was announced that the master of Smithfield would soon be married, and the rumor proved to be true. The lady chosen was from New Orleans, very much her husband's junior in years, and a great beauty. In due time a son was born to Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun, and a finer child never delighted the parental heart.

  "When he was about eighteen months old, a careless nurse let the infant fall, and its injuries developed a serious spinal disorder that resulted in a permanent distortion. This son grew to manhood, and, crippled as he was, became his father's idol. He was taken to Italy to be educated, where he had the title of Count bestowed upon him.

  "In Louisiana, during the fiercest days of the reconstruction period, young Calhoun developed his father's quality of courage on one or two occasions, when his changes were indeed desperate. I do not know what became of him after he lost possession of the great paternal estate. It is my impression that the direct line of the Calhouns is extinct.

  "The Calhoun estates were the center of a now parish made out of parts of Rapides and Natchitoches, and called the parish of Grant. The sugar house of Firenze was rehabilitated into a courthouse. In this parish were gathered some of the most troublesome of the pestilent persons, who came into the State solely to hold office. A pitched-battle occurred at the Firenze sugar house, in which the carpet-bag power was completely broken in that section of the State.

  "It was from the stories told of this strange man, one of the most accomplished gentlemen I have ever known, that Mrs. Stowe constructed what she thought was her greatest slave-owning character—Simon Legree.

  "Mr. Calhoun was himself afflicted somewhat with the itch for scribbling, for he prepared a brochure relating to the manner in which the United States obtained the 60,000,000 francs paid France on account of the Louisiana purchase, from which fourteen States have been carved.

  "Mr. Stephen Girard sold the bills of the United States accepted by the Treasury, and thus obtained the ready cash, of such vital importance to Napoleon at that time."