The spirit of an age: The prohibition press of Mississippi, 1876-1890

Timothy Alan Nicholas


The time between the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and the adoption of the State Constitution of 1890 was known as the Bourbon period. During that time a loose coalition of newspaper editors arose who championed the cause of Prohibition. Headed by J. B. Gambrell, editor of the Baptist Record, the group included Gambrell's son, Roderick Gambrell, editor of the Sword and Shield; B. T. Hobbs, editor of the Brookhaven Leader; John Martin, editor of the New Mississippian; and D. M. Huff, editor of the Magnolia Gazette. In addition to being ardent foes of the alcohol trade, the group added two issues to the debate: convict leasing and a push for a new constitution. A new constitution, they felt, was needed to emplace moral reform. And convict leasing was considered a societal ill ready for demise. The chief foe of this group was Jones S. Hamilton, who was not only an anti-prohibitionist, but also the chief lessee of the state penitentiary, and a builder of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad which used convict labor. The editors regularly excoriated Hamilton and his associates. Particularly condemning was Roderick Gambrell, who took Hamilton to task week after week. Finally, Hamilton and Gambrell had a gunfight on the iron bridge on Capitol Street in Jackson where Gambrell died of his wounds. Hamilton was tried for murder, in one of the state's most celebrated trials. This dissertation tracks the work of the prohibition press in Mississippi, particularly the rather personal war between Roderick Gambrell and Jones Hamilton. The dissertation tells of other violence done in the name of chivalry by newspapermen who looked for power by the gun as well as by the pen. By the end of the Bourbon period, Mississippians were united against convict leasing, though the practice continued into the next century; they had adopted a new constitution which had little of the moral reform wished for by the prohibition editors; and they were deeply divided over prohibition itself, so divided that it took another 18 years for prohibition to become enacted into state law.