Henry Minor, A Vintage Vignette

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Henry Minor
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
June 12, 2011

In 1960, as a Junior in high school at Washington, Mississippi, I wrote a 15-page historical research paper about the murder of Miss Jennie Merrill of nearby Natchez, Mississippi. That murder occurred during the evening of August 4, 1932, eleven years before my birth. At the time, it was the equivalent of the O. J. Simpson murder case with respect to getting nationwide public attention. Because of name similarities to some of the primary characters involved in the Merrill murder to surnames of pioneers of this area, my curiosity about a possible connection was stimulated by my research here. Of course, none of the Natchez murder case people were football stars, but they had gone from the pinnacle of prominence to dismal depths.

Henry Minor was an attorney, born in 1783 in Virginia. In 1813 he purchased 160 acres that today is west of Jordan Lane and north of University Drive at their intersection. By 1829 Henry and his representatives had been involved in more than 30 additional land transactions here. In 1819 Henry was an Alabama Constitutional Convention representative. From 1823 he served as Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, later becoming clerk of that court (a higher paying position than being a judge at the time) for the rest of his career. He is known in history for writing “Minor's Reports” about the court's actions. He also joined with Irby Jones, Clement Comer Clay, and LeRoy Pope to host a banquet for President James Monroe and over 100 prominent local citizens in June of 1819. (Irby Jones' house was utilized as the meeting place of the Alabama House of Representatives convening in Huntsville in 1819.) Henry moved to Greene County (Tuscaloosa area) in 1826, where he died in 1839.

The direct Natchez connection to Henry Minor has not yet been established, but the surname is not very common in the nation. Somewhere back in time there should be a link. During Henry's lifetime, there were many business and family relationships between Natchez and Huntsville. Natchez's Stephen Minor was known as “Don Esteban Minor,” acting Governor in 1798 when the area was turned over by Spain to the United States as part of Mississippi Territory including what is now Alabama. Born in 1760 Pennsylvania, Stephen traveled to New Orleans in 1779. He was the Spanish Commissioner establishing the boundary of Spanish Florida with the United States in 1799. He continued involvement in defining boundaries of the Natchez and Louisiana area to 1805, well after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. He lived in the house of the former Spanish governor, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, who had promoted Stephen to Captain of the Spanish forces for his bravery in battles and granted him large land holdings around what is now Pensacola and Mobile for his Spanish service. Stephen also established extensive plantations in southern Mississippi and Louisiana.

Stephan's great-grandson Duncan Minor was a figure in the Jennie Merrill murder story in Natchez. Jennie and Duncan were extremely wealthy cousins. Jennie had been presented at court to the royalty of Europe in the 1870s when her father was U. S. Ambassador to Belgium. Jennie and Duncan wanted to marry, but both families objected, so they lived together unmarried during their later years in the Merrill plantation house known as Glenburnie. Their prominent “next door” neighbors and friends of 40 years, Octavia Dockery and Dick Dana, gradually became estranged from them. Octavia and Dick also lived together without marriage. Their residence was Glenwood, the Natchez plantation house that became known as “Goat Castle” due to the herd of goats that was allowed to roam freely in the house and ultimately destroyed it. Dick and Duncan both became reclusive, with strange behaviors. Dick was implicated in Jennie's murder, but he was never tried for it. In spite of evidence indicating a number of involved parties, only one person was ever tried and sentenced -- a confessed look-out. She served just eight years in prison for her part in the crime that netted only $75. Jennie's story is truly one of Southern glory turned to tragedy in the aftermath of the Civil War, and Duncan Minor's fate was not much better.

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