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William Prissick


William Prissick.

Passages in the Life of an Eccentric Texas Legislator.

The Family Pedigree of Hon. William Prissick—Oddities of an Odd Englishman—
Scraps of Early History in the Settlement of Texas.

(Written for The News by D. E. E. Braman, of Matagorda.)

On the unpicturesque eastern shore of Tres Palacios bay, where the wire grass flats and the gradually ascending land toward the bay each commingle, and where mosquitoes and other insect and animal pests of low degree abound in summer and winter alike, stands a small, windowless ranch-house, that was once used by Allen and Poole for their herders, when they shipped cattle from Palacios. These premises afforded a home for the Hon. William Prissisk for several years previous to his death. The innermost recesses of this house were accessible to all of nature’s elements—save sunshine; rain, wind and hail penetrated with little hindrance, and bleak northers howled and scurried through its rents and openings with undiminished force. The only room was fourteen by sixteen feet, with bare rafters and studding; here and there daylight peered through the roof; several of the decaying weatherboards had dropped from their nailing at one end, and were convenient openings for slinging out any household refuse. A box of earth in the middle of the floor was the fireplace, from which the smoke escaped through the roof in calm weather, and wherever the wind drove it at other times. From a nail in one of the studdings hung a strip of rusty bacon rind; from another the vertebrae of a dried fish; in one corner was a used-up cast-net; at another place a two-gallon stone jug, with which the late tenant had brought his water about two miles from a cattle tank, and alongside the jug was a blue paper, fourth-gross match box, which, from its inside appearance, had contained very brown sugar. This about concludes the inventory of the humble dwelling, as near as I can now reproduce the scene. The odor from the inside and the outdoor filth, even in the cold weather of winter, was sickening. The bad smells, however, could by retreating from this “dread abode,” be left behind; but the moral sensibilities were affected by a more serious subject beyond a temporary shock, for there, within a few feet of the water jug, lay the lifeless corpse of William Prissisk on his couch, which consisted of prairie hay spread on the bare floor; over that was an old sail for a sheet; a piece of drift-wood served for a pillow; his lifeless body was clad in filthy summer wear, and was partly covered with an old brown blanket. Age, exposure and starvation combined had, after many years, extinguished his restive, restless life, and, according to his belief, his every attribute.

After this fashion lived William Prissick, and there he miserably died during the very inclement weather in the early part of the year 1881, destitute, uncared for and unattended. But during his life he asked no favors from anyone, and died as he had lived, in the bay, lay his water-logged skiff-boat, tied to a stake on the shore; the stump of a mast was still standing, but there was no rigging or other appliances on board. She was named the Never Sweat, and was now, like her master, at the end of her last voyage. A few feet from the door was a large heap of oyster shells and the remains of crabs and fish, which were the refuse portions of Mr. Prissick’s edibles, and had accumulated in the same way that the prehistoric man left his sign in the kitchen middins.

Mr. Prissick was born in County Shropshire, England at his father’s farm, called Polmer, seven miles from Shrewsburg, towards Wales, in 1805. His mother’s maiden name was Weaver, and she was Welsch. Young Prissick received a good common and scientific education, and at the age of twenty-one he was apprenticed to a large mercantile establishment in Liverpool. The third year of his apprenticeship he was sent as supercargo in the ship Chelydrea, D. Smale, master, to the African gold coast, where he remained six months. In his absence his father moved to Seacomb. During his apprenticeship he married and had one son; and in 1831, on account of incompatibility between himself and his wife, he abandoned her and his child, came to America and purchased real estate in that portion of Ohio then called the Western Reserve, where he lived until 1834; and in the early part of the year he went back to England for the purpose of settling up his family affairs, in which settlement he conveyed to his son and only heir a large tract of land in Australia. On account of troubles with his Ohio neighbors, he immediately, on his return, sold out his estate and came to Eastern Texas the same year and joined Captain Cheshire’s company of soldiers. He received a headright to one league of land in Vehlin’s Colony, and was for several years engaged in surveying for Gen. T. J. Chambers, by whom he was much commended for his skill and scientific knowledge as a surveyor. In the summer of 1841 he suddenly and unheralded appeared in Matagorda.

“His figure,
Both of visage and of stature,
Is lothly and maigracious.”

He was about six feet one inch in height, long, lank-bodied, small limbed, dark skinned, with little flesh and much muscle, and in looks and habits more of an Arab than a European. His face as rigid and sharp cut as though it had been whittled out of an old live oak and his small piercing dark-gray eyes indicated Moorish blood, which he claimed to possess.During the summer weather he invariably slept out of doors, with his head and upper part wrapped in an old blanket, and in winter he sought shelter in some deserted building. Mr. Prissick was an excellent mathematician, knew something of every science and theory, and talked intelligently, but dogmatically, on all subjects, and expressed his ideas fluently and lucidly. When interested, he was a great talker, and it mattered not to him whether the subjects were grave or gay, moral or immoral., he talked with the same earnestness; and not withstanding the filth of his person and his presumptuous egotism, he was always listened to with attention, even by strangers.

This man was an enigma, a self-contradiction, a man beside himself; not by any means crazy, as we generally understand that term, but

“Full of quips and cranks and wanton wiles,”

and had a bee in his bonnet, as the Scotchman would say. The most dire accidents and misfortunes that human beings are liable to, when they happened in his presence, were the sources to him of unseemly puns and ribald jokes, while his own ill luck was treated in the same way. On the other hand, his sympathy was frequently excited towards the afflicted, in which case he freely contributed his money and time for the relief of human distress without any regard for his own necessities. With educational acquirements and natural mental capacities fitting him for employments above manual labor, he was generally engaged in callings which required very little save physical strength and endurance, such as chopping wood and fishing; he was always clothed in the most flimsy, cheap and ill-fitting garments for summer and winter, and withstood the changes and inclemency of the seasons with the stolid indifference of a Digger Indian. He was no respector of persons, times or places; his intercourse with the high and with the lowly was on the same independent plane.

He frequently annoyed and angered sober people by his rude remarks; but he had no enemies, neither had he any particular friends. The indifference did not arise from his worthlessness, because in many ways he was a very useful member of society, but from his utter disregard of the feelings of others and his contempt for the conventionalities of civilized beings.

His Religious Belief.

He had doubts about a future state of rewards and punishments, but there were no doubts in his mind about the falsity of the Christian religion. Voltaire and Rousseau were shining lights, and Tom Paine was his apostle par excellence. One day Mr. Prissick got into a warm religious discussion with an old-fashioned Baptist preacher, and had riled him considerably by some sacrilegious remarks, when the good brother said: “Once on a time the god Jupiter gave notice that on a certain day he would distribute to mortals souls and gizzards; that when Mr. Prissick arrived the souls had all been taken and he was obliged to accept a gizzard,” which was the cause of his waywardness.

His Advent to Matagorda

On the first appearance of this strange man in Matagorda he was quite a mystery and from his apparently destitute condition, which contrasted with his independent manner and free, intelligent conversation, the citizens became curious about his private history, but his he carefully concealed from all inquirers. The first seen of him at this place was on a warm summer’s day when he came into a store with a large catfish attached to a fishline in his hand; he threw the fish on the clean counter, and lay down on the floor, leaning his head against a partition wall; not apparently from fatigue; but his natural position of comfortable repose. In this position he commenced an animated discussion with one of the store attendant on the geology of the Colorado Valley, its tertiary formations and cocene period, from which he branched off to Dr. Samuel Johnson and pleonasm, and ended the two hours’ discourse, with a dissertation on cat fish and the best bait to catch them with. Never during the whole time did he ask one question, but he promptly made answers to the interrogatories of his nonplused listeners, and then dropped off to a comfortable sleep. It was quite apparent that he had diligently studied Nature’s laws and the effects thereof, and reasoned from no theories but his own. The storekeeper had been so absorbed by the strange visitor, not knowing whether he was from above or below, that he had allowed the writhing, gasping catfish to beslime his counter, until Mr. Prissick awoke from his soft repose and took it away. Mr. Prissick, after a few days, procured  an old sail-boat and followed fishing and oystering for several months, with rather a poor pecuniary success, however as he knew very little about the managing of a sailing craft, and as the prevailing winds in summer are southeast and ahead in coming from his fishing grounds, he usually poled into shoal water and waded his boat to tow. He was known to start frequently on a week’s fishing expedition without provisions or fresh water and depended entirely on oysters and roasted fish for food, and chance pools of brackish water to quench his thirst.

For several of his first years in and about Matagorda he was miserly in his habits and saved every cent that came to his hands, excepting the merest trifles for food and raiment. His clothes, which were always of the cheapest fabric and most uncouth styles were worn unchanged until time and rough usage wasted them to a scant covering of his form, and not till he became loathsomely filthy would he recloth himself. His bedding was in unison with his wardrobe, and so scant that one small horse blanket, or a bit of old sail, and a little moss in a gunny bag sufficed for his repose. Mr. Prissick may have though with Rousseau: “Man is never less miserable than when he appears to be deprived of everything.” This dispensing with bodily comforts to a degree that would have been cruelty, if not disease and death, to any other human being was not from extreme carelessness and a natural indifference to the requirements of civilized life. With the palate and stomach of an ostrich, and bones and muscles to match, he ws insensible to all manner of discomfort. But within this filthy uncouth form was a vivid, refined and cultivated intellect which belied its squalid tenement, and verified what Pythagoras taught about metempsychosis. When talking or reading, his mind was absorbed in the subject to such a degree that, if he said or did anything outside of that subject, it was through mechanical volition. One cold winter night when he was holding forth over a bar-room stove to a party of listeners, one of them voluntarily handed him a half-pint tumbler nearly full of French Brancy, and told him to drink. Mr. Prissick talked and drank until he had finished the whole, and left for his sleeping den; but before the got there the effects of the branded grounded him, and he lay in the prairie all night exposed to the norther, but with no injurious effect. The next morning he declared that he had been drugged, and never could be convinced that he had drunk more than an ordinary dram; but he was never at any time addicted to the intemperate use or even the common use of ardent spirits.

By fishing, wood-chopping and surveying and other odd jobs of muscle and brain, Mr. Prissick, in the course of about four years, had accumulated and saved over $200 in hard earned money, which he secured not by bond or mortgage, but in large mouthed glass cherry bottles, and buried them in the ground in a secluded place. He said that if he did not increase his pelt in the most approved financial manner, he was never troubled about the insolvency of debtors. In order that luxury should not be extravagantly used, he would one in several months buy 50 cents worth of cheap brown sugar, and with much time and trouble put it into a narrow mouthed tin can canister, such as are used by grocers to retail gunpowder from; and if it took a long time to get it into the tin vessel it was a far more tedious job to get it out.

Another of this strange man’s peculiarities was, when he went to the country on a surveying expedition, or other business, no matter how great the distance of how bad the woods, he generally made the trip on foot, and if he took a riding horse along he walked and led his horse the greater part of the way; on starting he struck a bee line for his destination, and no more deviated from a straight course than Norway rats when they seek a new home. When riding on horseback his motions appeared most grotesque, and were likened to an unfledged bird vainly trying to fly.

His Disinterested Follly.

In about the year 1845 a widow, an old colonist, died in Matagorda, leaving a large stock of cattle and real estate and slaves; as heir, a daughter of tender years. The disposition of this estate and the care of the orphan evolved on Mr. Prissick, who was employed in the business for several years. During this time he had also been appointed tax collector of Matagorda county, to fill a vacancy in that office. The affairs of the dead widow’s estate prospered in his hands and waxed exceedingly, but the county finances waned in the same portion, and when he came to account and settle for the taxes collected, he was not only indebted to the county $1600, but had used up all of his own private funds in paying the expenses and carrying on the business of the estate, without having made a single charge against the trust in his own favor. He had by his folly enriched the estate confided to his care, jeopardized the surities on his tax bond and bankrupted himself. In order to pay up his official deficit to the county, he sold his headright league of land in Houston county for $1600. One of his idiosyncracies was, when entrusted with the business of two or more persons, he selected one as a favorite and made all others subservient and contributory to that one, and even sacrificed his own time and money to promote the object of his choice as freely as he did that tax fund. He was subsequently intrusted with other public and private business but he invariably managed the affairs of others to his loss and their gain.

Estranged From His Early Connections.

He never communicated with his relatives in England, and always endeavored to keep his place of abode secret from them; but they through the British Consul, discovered his hiding-place, and in 1842 sent out in care of one Dr. Duck, on a British vessel, to Matagorda Bay, several trunks and boxes with valuable clothing, books and family relicks. As soon as the vessel arrived at Matagorda anchorage, Dr. Duck dispatched a note to Mr. Prissick, informing him of his charge, and requesting him to come on board and receive the goods. Some of the young men about town hearing about the circumstances, started the report which came to Mr. Prissick’s ears, that his English wife was on board the vessel; this agitated him so much that he fled to the woods and remained there two weeks. During his absence the vessel sailed away to Port Lavaca, and Prissick’s freight was stored in the custom house, where moisture and rust do corrupt and thieves do occasionally break in and steal; at any rate Mr. Prissick never received any of the contents of said trunk and boxes.

Cistern Marshall the Discoverer of Gold in California.

In 1842 Annah Marshall, the original discoverer of gold at Sutter’s flume, came to Matagorda county and lived on the west side of the Colorado river, with Mr. Vandeveer. He was a suspicious, jealous sort of human formation, with much Yankee ingenuity. Having heard in his New England home that Texas was a very dry country, he conceived the idea of storing the water from the clouds for domestic purposes, by digging holes in the ground and plastering them over with mortar. This kind of cistern may answer in some countries, but from the nature of the soil they soon cracked and let the water out. From the circumstances, he gained the sobriquet of “Cistern Marshall,” and was very little known by his sobriquet or prefix. One day he rowed over the river from Vandeveer’s to Matagorda, and purchased twelve hams, which he sent down to his skiff at the river landing by Bill Hailey, the drayman, who instead of carrying the freight on board like a prudent carrier, tossed the pieces one by one from his dray into the boat, and in doing so missed his mark once by a little too much momentum, and the ham fell into the river where the water was ten feet or more. Hailey then with a long pole groped around in the water for the magnificent freight, but meeting no encouragement gave up the search and drove back to town, where he reported correct delivery and collected his drayage from Marshall. Mr. Prissick was during the whole of this time lying in the bottom of his leaky hulk, which was tied to the bank a few feet above Marshall’s and he say how Hailey had managed the loading. When Marshall arrived at Vandeveer’s and unloaded his hams, he found only eleven, being one short of his invoice. On thinking over the subject, he recollected that there was no other boat at the Matagorda landing save Prissick’s, and he came to the reasonable conclusion that the outward appearance and apparent circumstances of the strange man, ran conclusive evidence of his bad character, and that the theft of a single ham by such a looking outcast would be one of his least crimes. Marshall had frequently seen Prissick about the landing at Matagorda, and had formed his estimate according to New England notions.

When he next came to Matagorda, he accused Mr. Prissick of stealing his ham, and demanded restitution of him, but Mr. Prissick, without denying the insulting charge, or making any other answer, merely laughed in his face. Marshall was terribly angered and aimed a heavy righthander at Prissick’s head, which the latter fenced off with his left hand, and as quick as thought gave him a blow with each fist, which instantly grounded the cistern man, and wonderfully humbled his pride; while prostrate he even agreed that he had not lost a ham, or even a piece of meat of any kind, and never expected to. But after he had got well through with his first painful experience, and brushed and washed himself off, he found that, added to his sense of loss, he had acquired other new and disagreeable sensations, as shame and humiliation at being whipped and browbeaten by a rag-muffin, and pain from the blows. He quickly made up his mind that it was waste of time and breath to any longer discuss the disagreeable subject with Mr. Prissick, and he also thought that he could more satisfactorily vindicate his cause with Bill; so he goes, sore and bruised as he was, straight to the drayman, and accuses him of stealing his ham with malice aforethought. This was rather brash talk for a vanquished man, and so thought Bill Hailey, and so he expressed himself in language not appropriate for tea-table or church. Marshall made an ineffective effort to spoil Bill Hailey’s frontis peace, but before the well-intended blow had quite reached its destination, or anywhere else in particular the unyielding ground had arrested his sudden descent, and Bill was working away on the prostrate cistern builder with his two ugly fists. In due time Mr. Prissick who had been witness to the scene, came up and rescued Marshall, who didn’t save his bacon and had lost his prestige as a fighter. Marshall, soon after the foregoing Texas experience, left Matagorda for the Pacific coast, and our loss was his gain, for he has been rewarded for his discovery of gold at Sutter’s mill, with a respectable annual pension by the State of California, and now enjoys prosperity at his home in the Sacramento Valley, and several half-filled circular holes in the earth with crumbling mortar attached to their sides are the only existing evidences that Annah Marshall, the gold-finder, ever developed anything in Matagorda.

Grom the time Mr. Prissick came to Matagorda until emancipation he was a bold and outspoken abolitionist, and was always opposed to public opinion on that subject, but somehow he passed along unmolested at times when any other man would have suffered for like temerity. During the Civil War, as a natural sequence, he was a fearless advocate of the Union cause, and several times jeopardized his personal safety by his indiscretion. After the fighting had commenced he followed the movements of the commanding armies, from the published reports and other sources; and announced the results with the precision of a military commander. He foretold in 1861 the result of the war, and he then said that it would not continue over four years.

A Time of Peril.

In the year 1862, when the war excitement was intense, and even moderate Confederates were accused of disloyalty, Mr. Prissick made himself unusually obnoxious by denouncing and refusing to pay a Confederate war tax which he, as the agent of another person’s property, was called upon for. It was intimated to him by a well-wisher that in immediate seclusion could he only expect personal safety, and he knew that by the popular sentiment he had been adjudged guilty of many other acts of disloyalty besides his refusal to pay the tax, and concluded that a timely retreat was the proper movement. So one day, just before sundown, he mounted his horse, Old Ball, and took a circuitous route from Matagorda to Hill’s Ferry on Peyton’s Creek. When he arrived there it was sufficiently dusk to make the outlines of all distant objects indistinct. He hallooed lustily for the ferryman, and in a few moments he perceived a tall human form, who seemed to have a long rifle in its hand, and the figure leisurely approached the ferry. It seemed to the excited fancy of Mr. Prissick to be aiming a charge into the man-killer. Mr. Prissick was greatly excited by the hostile appearances in his front, and came to the conclusion that he had been outflanked by the enemy. His knowledge of military science suggested a hasty retreat with the least possible portion of his force exposed to the enemy, and the exposed parts as well protected from attach as circumstances and materials would admit. Mr. Prissick recognized that strategy was the art of war, and that only by strategy could he outmaneuver the advancing foe. He stripped the Mexican saddle from Old Ball in a twinkling, and bending himself toward the ground, so that his body and legs formed a right angle, he held the old saddle against his supposed enemies in the way as a shield, and retreated in quick time to a near gulley, where he lay and listened for hostilities until near daylight, and from thence, in the haze of the early morning, he fled to the Colorado timber, and secreted himself for nearly a week; in the meantime his unencumbered horse had found his accustomed prairie range. It turned out that Mr. Hall, the owner of the ferry, was absent; that his stalwart daughter had answered Mr. Prissick’s call to be ferried over, and that she at the moment held in one hand a knife, and in the other a lusty sugar-cane from which she was deftly stripping the sweet rind as she walked toward the ferry. This young Texas girl and these harmless objects were magnified through the nervousness and fear of Mr. Prissick into a hostile foe, prepared for and intent on murder.

As a Legislator.

Mr. Prissick, from having been an abolitionist before the war and a prominent and active Union man during the four years of internecine strife, naturally, after emancipation, became the freedman’s friend and counselor and was elected by their vote as one of the representatives to the Twelfth Legislature from the Twelfth District. Of course after his election to this distinguished position, and before going to Austin, he realized the necessity of brushing up; he shed his much depreciated raiment and reclad his person in a suit of “Cheap John” store clothes of various stripes and hues; the imitation cottonade pantaloons were six inches too short at the lower end; his coat of linsy-woolsey was built for a different model, and the scant sleeves reached but a short way below the legislator’s elbows, and exposed much of his thin dingy arms, to which his dirty hands added no grace. For under linen, a blue hicory shirt was his selection, and his shoes had been intended for plantation wear, and were therefore unsightly and too large; his hat was a coarse, lowly constructed, straw concern, also too capacious, and to diminish its capacity he wore a red cotton bandanna, thrust in a wad between his skull and the hat crown, which made his head appear to his constituents much like the mental dome of Daniel Webster. A short time before the first session of the Twelfth Legislature he started from Matagorda for Austin on the outside of a sorry old horse and traveled by by-ways and cross-roads most of the distance on foot, leading his horse and camping out at night. He was a punctual member of that august body of law-makers, and performed much honest labor on committees; and although in dress and manner uncouth, was respected for his stern integrity and intelligence on all subjects by his colleagues. After adjournment of the session, he returned to Matagorda by crossroads and by cowpaths, walking and leading his horse, as was his want on a journey. At some out-of-the-way place midway between Matagorda and Austin he met a dozen of his constituents of whom, for talk sake he turned a distance from the high road; the men gazed with amazement, and at length, said, “Bees your name Mr. Prissick, from Matagordy?” Mr. Prissick answered, “Yes, how did you know me?” To which the German citizen said, “I been read ‘bout you in Mr. Flake’s newspaper, and I knowed you so soon I sot my eyes on you.” “Dot is Mr. Prissick,” I says to myself. “My gracious, Mr. Prissick, how you find yourself?” This illustrates the unmistakableness of the strange man’s identity, if once seen or heard of. When Mr. Prissick left Austin he left undrawn the whole pay as a representative, amounting to about $500.

His Seven Years Travels

In September 1871, Mr. Prissick left Matagorda, ostensibly for the purpose of attending as a member of the second session of the Twelfth Legislature, but in fact he struck off in the uninhabited region of Northwestern Texas, where he met with a fellow countryman named Gilbert, and they travelled leisurely about in that wild country for months, examining and studying the geology, fauna, and botany, lying loose about, and hunting for their daily provender. At the Pack Saddle mountains, Mr. Prissick and his co-partner Gilbert dissolved companionship and the latter with his old horse, gun, ammunition, small bag of salt and package of matches, started for Denver, Colorado, where he safely arrived in good condition after several months, having walked nearly al the way and subsisted on the small game that he killed with his gun. At Denver he discharged his horse and took the more expeditious mode of travel by rail.

From Denver he went to Salt Lake City, and remained among the Mormons two months. From thence he went to the Pacific coast, and arrived in San Francisco without money, and among strangers; but he soon replenished his purse by teaching mathematics in a private class of students. He also speculated in a small way in stocks, took risks at the gambling tables, bought the fruit of a vineyard on credit and manufactured it into wine and was altogether prosperous in his novel adventures. After two years sojourn in San Francisco and vicinity, he took passage on a British steamer for Australia in search of his son, who had married on coming of age and settled on the tract of land which his father had conveyed to him. He landed at Sidney and from thence he traveled into the southern part of Central Australia, and near Lake Forrens he found his son’s grave; also the last resting place of his son’s wife and their two children. As to what had become of his son’s estate he made no inquiry. He then sailed to the Figi Islands, to Borneo, China, and to Japan, and after an absence of three years in these countries returned to the Pacific coast. He then invested a few hundred dollars in suitable merchandise and went in a sailing vessel to the Sandwich Islands. There he remained six months, trading with the natives, studying their peculiar habits and names and exploring the wonderful volcanoes in that group.

During all the time no tiding had been heard of Mr. Prissick by his Texas friends and acquaintances, and he was presumed to be dead. His supposed lifeless body had several times been found, and administration on his estate for the purpose of realizing his legislative dues had been attempted. It is said that in such a case the courts hold that seven years absence is prime facie evidence of the absentee’s death. After over seven years of unexplained absence, Mr. Prissick suddenly appeared in Austin, collected the money due him from the State, obtained his veteran pension bonds, and arrived at his old Matagorda home in robust health and spirits, unchanged in features, and with $3000 in his pocket. But this amount of money, which with prudence would have long supplied his humble wants, was wasted on frivolous objects, or lost by loaning to irresponsible persons. He existed during the last earthly turmoil in extreme poverty, and after he had outlived his money and his usefulness, he died uncared for like an unowned beast, in that desolate hovel on Tres Palacios Bay. Much of good and no little of evil were inherent in the nature of this man, but I judge that the various benefits and kindly acts conferred by him on his fellow-creatures in distress and under other circumstances, far outweigh all the bad effects of his obnoxious precepts and examples.

Galveston Weekly News, January 12, 1882


Copyright 2011 - Present by Carol Sue Gibbs
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Nov. 23, 2011
Nov. 23, 2011