I seemed to have lost track of Patrick Henry in our story, but let me catch you up. After the original 1789 Yazoo Swamp-Land deal fell through, Patrick had sold most of his shares in the now almost worthless Virginia Yazoo Company to Georgia Senator James Gunn and the North American Land Company (Robert Morris, John Nickleson and James Greenleaf). They had renamed it the Northern Mississippi Company, and in 1795 completed the purchase of the same land (and more) from Georgia for 1.4 cents per acre. Patrick seriously considered suing Georgia, claiming he still had a legal claim to the land, but the suit was never filed. In the meantime he had developed stomach troubles, and was popping out children (11 in all) with his second wife, Dorthea Dandridge Henry.
But back to our main story. First of the great speculators to succumb was the young man who had promised so much and delivered so little, James Greenleaf. Late in 1796, the collapse of his over leveraged lifestyle dropped the silver tongued seducer into Philadelphia's dreaded Prune Street Debtors Prison.
It was part of the larger Walnut Street jail, an imposing structure which housed 300 prisoners, but in the back, in a two story building originally designed as a work house, was the small debtors jail. All the prisoners were expected to pay for their own incarceration. It was a strange system considering the prisoners were in jail because they were broke. Those with wealthy friends willing to pay could receive better food or even a small private apartment. Still, one look at his new dismal surroundings, and a desperate Greenleaf had his lawyers petition for his immediate release. But Robert Morris' instructed his lawyers to intervene. They reminded the court that the young seducer had been granted a divorce in Rhode Island, which meant he was an out-of-state debtor, and the law required they remain in jail for at least six months. In fact James Greenleaf would remain behind bars much longer than that. But, at least he would not be lonely.
Morris may have preferred that Greenleaf was skinned alive, but actually, the debt left him and Nicholson by Greenleaf was a mere drop in his own rising tide of unpaid promises. Morris' mansion in Philadelphia was so heavy besieged by creditors, that he retreated to the country estate he called “The Hills”.
He was most repelled by the idea of sharing a cell with his old partner Greenleaf. He wrote Nicholson, “I do not want to be under the same roof with such a scoundrel.” But at last, on 15 February, 1798, one venal vindictive creditor named George Eddy, aided by a local sheriff, managed to lay hands on the great speculator. The amount owed to Eddy was small (by Morris's standards), but even this pittance the largest private land owner in North America could not pay. Morris wrote to a friend, “George Eddy is the most hardened villain God ever made. I believe if I had bank bills to pay him with he would refuse them on the ground of their not being legal tender. He was positively determined to carry me to Prune Street last night, but the sheriff humanely relieved me from his rascally clutches.” It was only an overnight stay of execution. The next day, Robert Morris, signer of the Deceleration of Independence, entered the Prune Street Debtors jail. Now living under the same roof, Morris refused to even acknowledge Greenleaf's presence, studiously avoiding him in all encounters.
John Nicholson held out for another year, until the winter of 1799 when the 43 year old joined his partners behind bars. But Nicholson lost not only his fortune - creditors squeezed $8 million from his estate, still leaving him $8 million in debt- but his mind as well. He died in the Prune Street Jail, on 5 December, 1800. Robert Morris survived the humiliation, supported by his wealthy sons, but died four years later, still $12 million in debt and occasionally harassed by creditors. And James Greenleaf, the despised debonair silver tongued seducer of women and money, survived as well. He unloaded his shares in the Georgia Mississippi Company for 10 cents an acre to a group of prominent Boston speculators, headed by Judge William Wetmore. Then, shortly after his release, James Greenleaf married Anne Penn Allen, a lovely and wealthy Washington socialite. However before the wedding Ms Penn Allen put her sizable estate in a trust, where James Greenleaf was never able to reach it. Not that he didn't continually try, until his death in 1843. It gave him something to occupy his time.
Meanwhile, in 1797, Judge Wetmore's group re-sold the Georgia Yazoo company to yet another group, headed by a Boston speculator named John Peck, who renamed it the New England Mississippi Company. They also hired a Boston Law firm which offered the legal opinion that the “Rescinding Act” by the Georgia legislature had been unconstitutional. That made it legal to sell shares in their Yazoo lands for 33 cents an acre. By 1798 the New England Mississippi Company had attracted $2 million, mostly from small investors, all gambling that somehow the courts would re-approve the Yazoo Swamp-Land sale.
Senator James Jackson was determined that would never happen. As Governor of Georgia he oversaw, in 1802, the sale of all of the Georgia's claims to the Yazoo lands, everything beyond the Apalachicola River to the Mississippi, to the federal government for $1.3 million. He remained determined that the deal was D-E-A-D, dead, even refusing to pay a printer who published a codification of Georgia laws under the old constitution, because the volume mentioned the Yazoo swamp land sale.
It wasn't as simple as that, of course. The publisher of the codification was Robert Watkins, son of a state Representative in the excommunicated 1795 legislature. Robert had even received land in the heinous deal, so his inclusion of the interdicted laws was no accident. Still, Governor Jackson stubbornly refused to pay him.
One afternoon in 1802, in the new Georgia capital of Augusta, the ex-Governor and newly elected U.S. Senator James Jackson was confronted on the street by the infuriated printer. Robert Watkins denounced Jackson as a “pygmy general” and a member of a “damned venal faction which has disgraced Georgia.” Where upon Jackson whacked Watkins in the face with his cane. Watkins returned the favor by using his waking stick to hit Jackson on the head, drawing blood. Jackson pulled a pistol, but somebody knocked it out of his hand. Watkins leapt upon Jackson, and tried to gouge his eyes out. Jackson bit Watkins finger, causing Watkins to roll away, screaming in pain. And while everybody was trying to catch their breath, Watkins pulled a pistol with a spring loaded bayonet, and stabbed Jackson in the chest. The blade missed his heart by an inch. Friends were finally able to pull the two hot heads apart.
It seemed that even five years after the Yazoo Swamp-Land Deal had been “rescinded”, it was still trying to rise from the dead, like any good movie monster would.