Friday, March 20, 2009

Robert Potter: kind of nutty

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Violent political scandals are fairly rare among the litany of financial or sex scandals that crop up throughout the country's history. Robert Potter, a politician in both North Carolina and Texas, might be one of the most bloodthirsty politicians the country has seen, and certainly the most emasculating.

Potter was born in either 1799 or 1800 in Granville County, North Carolina. He served as a midshipman in the United States Navy from 1815 to 1821, and followed up with a career in law. A member of the state house of commons in 1826 and 1828, he was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat to Congress in 1828 and 1830.

Potter is best known for the incident that forced him out of the Capitol. In a rambling broadside appealing to the residents of four counties in North Carolina, Potter said of the two men he maimed that they "had indeed stabbed me most vitally - they had indeed hurt me beyond all cure." He was probably speaking metaphorically, since he makes no reference to any sort of self-defense against physical attack. He was certainly being melodramatic, for the injury he inflicted on the men was certainly worse than whatever hurt his pride suffered. Believing that they had carried on an adulterous relationship with his wife, Potter castrated Reverend William Lewis Taylor and a teenager named Willie K. Lewis in August of 1831.

In the broadside, Potter said his wife had admitted to having an affair and that his trial was rigged against him, but did not shy away from the castration accusation. "I am consoled by the conviction that in what I have done I have only acted upon those feelings which nature has implanted in the hearts of all men, indeed, I may say, of all animals; and that each of you would have done the same thing under the same circumstances," he wrote. Found guilty in the Granville County court in September of 1831, he was ordered to serve six months in prison and pay a $2,000 fine.

Potter resigned from Congress in November of that year, and he and his wife were divorced. Not long after, the North Carolina house of commons passed an act making castration punishable by death if it was done with malice aforethought. If it wasn't done in such a matter, the punishment was exactly like the one meted out to Potter: six months in prison, with a fine to be determined by the court. Despite this snub by the legislature he once belonged to, Potter was returned to the house of commons in 1834.He was kicked out in January 1835.

The circumstances of this expulsion differ from account to account. He may have cheated at cards; he may have reneged on a gambling debt; he may have pulled a gun during a card game to steal the money up for grabs after losing his own share. The common thread is that he was kicked out due to some sort of misconduct involving a deck of cards.

Potter moved to Harrison County in Texas after this latest embarrassment, and soon regained some political and military clout as the territory sought independence from Mexico. He joined the Nacogdoches Independent Volunteers to help equip men for the siege of Bexar, but resigned soon after to offer services to the Texas navy. A signer of the Texas declaration of independence, he also saw action at the Battle of San Jacinto, where he was part of a group advocating the execution of the captured Mexican president. He remarried, and served as Secretary of the Navy and commander of the port of Galveston during the provincial presidency of David Burnet as well as a representative to the Texas congress.

During an obscure East Texas feud known as the Regulator-Moderator War, Potter became a Moderator leader for Harrison County. In 1842, his home was surrounded by members of the Regulators and he was gunned down while trying to escape into a nearby lake.

Some sources say that Potter went to Texas to escape the ignominious acts marking his public service in North Carolina; if that was the case, it seems to have worked. Buried on a bluff near his home, Potter was exhumed and re-interred in the Texas State Cemetery in 1931. A double-sided headstone lists his political service in both North Carolina and Texas, and Potter County in the latter state is named for him.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, the Texas State Cemetery (, American Annual Register edited by Joseph Blunt, American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War by David Grimsted, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Homesteads Ungovernable: Families, Sex, Race, and the Law in Frontier Texas by Mark McNeese Carroll, "Mr. Potter's appeal to the Citizens of Nash, Franklin, Warren, and Granville" available at American Social History Online

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