This is the second part in Dick Gentry’s article on James Gordon and Pontotoc’s Lochinvar that Gordon built. Dick is a HottyToddy.com contributor, former Daily Mississippian editor and authority on certain colorful aspects of Mississippi history.
General Andy Jackson whipped the British in The Battle of New Orleans in 1815 but his most eternal victory was won 15 years later without firing a shot. When President Andy Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Choctaws and Chickasaws were uprooted from Northeast Mississippi and marched to Oklahoma. Almost immediately the white sale of cheap land filled the vacuum.
No one fared any better from this prejudicial Act than Scottish newcomer Robert Gordon who bought two sections near Pontotoc for pennies on the dollar and built Lochinvar in 1836. He became super wealthy until the Civil War took almost everything away, including his slaves. His son, James, inherited Lochinvar in 1867 when his daddy died. And James did mostly great things.
Like most of us today, we never worried much about the Indians. But some of the great thinkers of the past put it in perspective. This is a comment from a Frenchman who watched the exodus:
“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but somber and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. ‘To be free,’ he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.”
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Memphis, 1831
Robert Gordon first immigrated to Cotton Gin Port on the Tombigbee River where he did his profitable trading with the Indians. It had a cotton gin when he arrived, built by the government in 1810 for the Chickasaws. It is near Amory, but don’t look too hard for it. It’s now a ghost town, abandoned in 1887 after Amory was founded. Robert also gets credit for founding Aberdeen, one of my favorite antebellum Mississippi towns spared by advancing Yankees.
In the first chapter of this story, we learned how Lochinvar was saved from a Yankee raid by a letter and a Yankee sword which was saved for visitors to see today. Neurosurgeon Dr. Forrest Tutor and wife, Dr. Janis Burns Tutor, a plastic surgeon, now live at Lochinvar and have been restoring it since Feb. 24, 2001, when a tornado devastated it.
The Tutors and their amazing carpenter/plumber/electrician Terry Walton are bringing it back to life.
“I was watching the sky all day,” Dr. Tutor told me. He could feel it coming. In the dark he saw his fearsome premonition racing over the fields toward Lochinvar and dove toward the bedroom door where his wife was reading.
“I opened it just when it hit and yelled for her to run!” he said. The tornado began to rip Lochinvar to pieces. He looked at the spiral staircase leading to his son’s upstairs bedroom and watched it crumble and collapse. The roof fell and blocked his son’s room except for a small opening. His uninjured son stuck his legs through the hole and dad pulled him to safety. Whew!
Everyone in Mississippi with any sense a ’tall is frightened of twisters. Especially me! My dad and mom were playing gin rummy in Tupelo at 9 p.m. on April 5, 1936 when the fourth-worst tornado in U. S. history blew down the fence in their front yard. My Aunt Sadie was standing by her chimney. She died instantly, along with more than 300 others.
Mom asked Dad, “Is that a train?” Then the lights went out. I was born a year later, and I’m still shaking.
Lochinvar stayed with the Gordon family until 1900 when Pontotoc attorney J. D. Fontaine bought it for use as a tenant house. Dr. Tutor and his wife fell in love with the house and told the owners—Fontaine’s son and daughter-in-law—if they ever wanted to sell it to call them.
The call came in 1966 and the Tutors went to Lochinvar to bargain. The aging owners understood how much the Tutors loved Lochinvar and asked them if they would pay $50,000 for the house and 200-plus acres. Well, of course. The Tutors allowed the couple to live free at Lochinvar as long as they were able.
James Gordon grew up in the house, served with Jeb Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forest in the war, represented his county in the Mississippi Legislature for many years and was appointed in 1909 by Gov. Edmond Noel to fill the unexpired term of the late U.S. Senator A. J. McLaurin until the state could elect a new Senator in 1910. Gordon’s final speech in the Congress about reconciliation was considered so exceptional that it made him nationally famous for a number of years. He died in 1912.
I began my research on Lochinvar and Col. Gordon during the writing of my book Under Fire At Ole Miss, which includes an unrelated chapter on the family legend of John Wilkes Booth’s escape and final burial in our deteriorating Smith Cemetery north of Tupelo. The book relates the story of John Wilkes Booth as a frequent, secret guest of Col. Gordon at Lochinvar.
The following is condensed from Dr. Tutor’s book about John Wilkes Booth and Col. James Gordon:
When the popular Gordon was appointed by the state legislature and about to be sworn in as U.S. Senator in 1910 to fill the unexpired term of the late Mississippi Senator McLarin, a serious question arose about Gordon’s service to the Confederate cause.
A War Department report was produced that claimed there was a $10,000 reward for Gordon’s capture in connection with his participation in a conspiracy to kill President Lincoln. The War Department researched the allegation and finally reported that “nowhere is the name of Col. Gordon found,” in any of its records.
However, at one time after the war Gordon was sought for his anti-government activity. He cleared his name by writing a letter to a one-time United States cavalry officer and friend in New York. The letter ended up in the possession of General Dix, then Army forces commander. Dix sent Gordon a passport to New York in order for Gordon to surrender, which he did. After swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States, he was free to return home with his reputation intact.
According to Dr. Tutor’s research the story of what happened is that Gordon became an undercover agent for the Confederacy. Gordon traveled to England, and ended the war with a $10,000 price on his head. As mentioned earlier, his appeal to General Dix allowed him to return home.
During his spying adventures, he entered Canada and met with other conspirators who had unanimously concluded that Lincoln was going to impose crushing penalties on the defeated South unless action was taken. Their aim was to kidnap the president. There was only one person there, according to Dr. Tutor’s report, who had murder on his mind.
One plan was to kidnap Lincoln, bring him to the South, and hold him hostage until a fair treaty could be signed. Gordon said he was a supporter of this plan. But then the men in the plot became impatient and finally a new conspiracy was hatched, Dr. Tutor reports, and it contemplated assassination. Gordon said he had no sympathy with that plot—and it was the work of “desperate and revengeful men.
“I met John Wilkes Booth in Canada,” Gordon said as described in Dr. Tutor’s words: “He was a very handsome man, and quite an intelligent and agreeable companion. And as he sympathized with the South in her struggle, we became intimate friends on a brief acquaintance. When he left for Washington, I bade him goodbye with many kind wishes, little thinking that I grasped the hand in friendly farewell that would soon be stained with the blood of an assassinated president…”
With great respect for the owners of Lochinvar and Dr. Tutor’s fantastic research, I continue to wonder about the possibility of Booth’s escape and eventual burial in the old Smith Cemetery in Guntown. I’m related to all of the 33 residents of the cemetery. No, I’m not convinced yet, but all of my living relatives on that side of the family believe it.
The headstone is there, installed some years ago by Tommy Palmer, the man who created the granite headstone and installed it on specific instructions from my second cousin Emma Emily Epting Pressey. Aunt Emma’s instructions were to seat the headstone after her death. Following her directions, a metal casket was probed, and the stone placed in 1988.
“I put it up and he’s down there!” Palmer told me.
Aunt Emma’s mother was the “little girl” who carried food to the upstairs home of my cousin Dr. Fletcher Booth in Guntown for many years.
Palmer, a history buff, also told me about Booth’s secret visits to his friend Col. James Gordon at Lochinvar, escorted there by the Klan.
Unfortunately, most of my close relatives who knew the story first hand, died before I had an opportunity to talk with them about this. I know that most who knew about the legend—they were all country folk—were so frightened of being hanged by federal troops that they never talked about it.
And that makes me wonder if perhaps Col. James Gordon himself might have been way too smart to talk about it.
(NOTE — Following his term in the U.S. Senate, Gordon was elected to the Board of Trustees at Ole Miss. He was selected as Poet of the University and served on the building committee. Gordon Hall, an almost forgot dorm which was destroyed by fire, was built in his honor. He was appreciated and beloved by the student body. Dr. Tutor said this was a great source of pleasure to him during his declining years.
For those interested in purchasing Dr. Forrest Tutor’s book about the Gordons of Lochinvar, or asking about a private tour, the address is 300 Lochinvar Loop, Pontotoc, MS 38863-8414. His personal telephone number is also listed publicly).
HottyToddy.com contributor Dick Gentry was the Summer Editor of The Daily Mississippian prior to the 1962 riot at Ole Miss. He left Ole Miss shortly after and later graduated with a degree in journalism and business from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, where he was a writer for the Spokane Daily Chronicle. His career also includes editor and publisher of The Caymanian in The Cayman Islands; executive editor of Hawaii Business Magazine; editor of Atlanta Business Chronicle and executive editor of the Birmingham Business Journal.