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“If any place in the world . . .”

November 12, 2009

If any place in the world is utterly given over to depravity, it is Port Tobacco.  From this town, by a sinuous creek, there is flat boat navigation to the Potomac, and across that river to Mattox’s creek.  Before the war Port Tobacco was the seat of a tobacco aristocracy and a haunt of negro traders.  It passed very naturally into a rebel post for blockade-runners and a rebel post-office general.  Gambling, corner fighting, and shooting matches were its lyceum education.  Violence and ignorance had every suffrage in the town.  Its people were smugglers, to all intents, and there was neither Bible nor geography to the whole region adjacent.  Assassination was never very unpopular at Port Tobacco, and when its victim was a northern president it became quite heroic.  A month before the murder a provost-marshal near by was slain in his bed-chamber.  For such a town and district the detective police were the only effective missionaries.  The hotel here is called the Brawner House; it has a bar in the nethermost cellar, and its patrons, carousing in that imperfect light, look like the denizens of some burglar’s crib, talking robbery between their cups; its dining-room is dark and tumble-down, and the cuisine bears traces of Caffir origin; a barbecue is nothing to a dinner there.  The Court House of Port Tobacco is the most superfluous house in the place, except the church.  It stands in the center of the town in a square, and the dwellings lie about it closely, as if to throttle justice.  Five hundred people exist in Port Tobacco; life there reminds me, in connection with the slimy river and the adjacent swamps, of the great reptile period of the world, when iguanadons and pterodactyls and pleosauri ate each other.

The Life, Crime, and Capture of John Wilkes Booth by George Alfred Townsend, 1865.  From the Internet Archive.  Original image here.

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