Welcome to Idiots of Yesteryear, a new series wherein we’ll remember the klutzes, cretins, and bumbling dunderheads who populate the cobwebbed dunce’s corners of the American past. In this great nation, for every gallant General Washington, who could not tell a lie, there is a doofy George W. Bush, who could not finish chewing a pretzel before trying to swallow it. Here, we will celebrate the blowhards, the two-timers, and the wretched scamps; we will honor the feckless morons and malevolent jerks who made our great nation in their images. Forgotten morons of history, we salute you.
We begin with Robert Potter, U.S. Representative from North Carolina who, one sultry Sunday afternoon in the late summer of 1831, sliced off the testicles of two men he believed had been sleeping with his wife. Gather ‘round.
Two Households, Both Alike in Idiocy
Robert Potter (born 1800 or so, died 1842) is probably best known for his role in the Texas Revolution, the mid-19th century conflict in which the state declared its independence from Mexico, which ultimately led to its annexation by the United States in 1845. (You remember the Alamo, don’t you?) Potter, who emigrated to Texas in 1835, is credited with founding the Texas Navy, a provisional maritime force that protected Texas during the decade or so that it called itself an independent nation, and as a framer of the Texas Constitution and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Potter County, the 900-square-mile chunk of the panhandle that is home to the city of Amarillo, is named after him.
But the most colorful parts of Potter’s story happened before he settled in the Lone Star State, when he was just a swashbuckling upstart state legislator, and later U.S. Congressman, in his home state of North Carolina.
In 1824, after a five-year stint in the U.S. Navy, Potter ran for a seat in North Carolina’s House of Commons, the predecessor to the state’s current House of Representatives. A charming and argumentative young Jacksonian Democrat whose capacity for inflaming voters with populist oratory outpaced his legislative ability, Potter hoped to unseat Jesse Bynum, the conservative Whig who incumbently represented Halifax, a small town with only 50 or so registered voters.
When Bynum won the seat amid violence at the polls, Potter did what any self-respecting man of the era would do: He sent Bynum a letter politely inviting him to a duel to the death. The letter, included in Founder of the Texas Navy, a Potter biography by Texas historian Ernest G. Fischer, contains a decent burn on Bynum, which I’ve bolded below:
SIR: I foreborc to chastise your insolence at the polls yesterday because I was unwilling to invoke my brave and devoted friends in the consequences of a quarrel with you. I understand you have renewed your vaporing today; indeed you appear to have a wonderful itching to riot in the van of mobs. This is to invite you to the field of combat. I cannot say that of honor, your presence would deprive any spot of that character. You can choose your own weapon and distance. My friend, Mr. Burges, will make the necessary arrangements with any person you may think proper for that purpose.
Fortunately for the purposes of our story, that punchline did not entice Bynum into participating. Potter was “not a gentleman,” Bynum said, and therefore not worthy of dueling against. He declined the invitation.
Potter ran against Bynum once more in 1825, and the campaign was even more contemptuous. An 1859 report in the Fayetteville Semi-Weekly Observer, which looked back on the politicians’ feud with some perverse fondness, sets the scene.
It was the period when the celebrated Bob Potter, Hal Potter, Jesse A. Bynum, and perhaps other noted characters and rowdies, flourished in and about the town of Halifax. That town was entitled to a Representative in the House of Commons under the old Constitution, and there being only forty or fifty voters, there was abundant opportunity for the exercise of every species of electioneering—the kind most in vogue being drinking and fighting. Pistols and dirks were commonly used, and every body looked for bloody accounts from a Halifax election.
On one occasion (1825) no member was elected, the election having been broken up by a brawl between Potter and Bynum, and their friends.
The Observer goes on to note that the Halifax Compiler, the local paper, was eager to fan the flames. For one issue documenting the Potter-Bynum battle, an employee supposedly made a surreptitious change to the type on the Compiler’s flag, so that instead of bearing the paper’s title, the front page read Hel-fiar (hellfire) Compilax. “In that way the whole edition of the paper was printed off and circulated,” according to the Observer, much to the chagrin of the Compiler’s editor.
By Fischer’s retelling, the men had an altercation that was a good deal more brutal than the barroom antics suggested by the Observer’s account. It started with Bynum insulting Potter by placing his hand on Potter’s shoulder, apparently a no-no in those days. By the time it was over, “swords, pistols, knives, and clubs” had been used by both sides. Potter himself had been run through with a blade, and Bynum suffered a serious head injury.
Both men survived, but the 1825 election was called off entirely, and the people of North Carolina’s Halifax borough went without a representative in the House of Commons that year. Everyone involved was ordered by local courts to stay out of trouble. Again, Potter challenged Bynum to a duel, and again Bynum refused.
Finally, in 1826, the men faced each other for the House of Commons seat once more, and this time, Potter won, formally launching his political career.
What was the source of Potter and Bynum’s bitter, violent resentment? It may have had as much to do with the pursuit of a woman as it did with their opposing politics. “There was a story,” Fischer writes, “that Bynum had refused to introduce Potter to a young lady to whom Potter desired an introduction.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Robert Potter’s unconventional sense of romance got him into trouble.
Fairwell, Gruesome Twosome
A year after his election to the state House of Commons seat, Potter married Isabella Taylor, a woman from a “prominent family” in Granville, Potter’s home county. Thanks to Potter’s populist focus on railing against the state and federal banks, his star rose in state politics, culminating with his election to U.S. House of Representatives in 1831. Along the way, Potter and Taylor had two children.
“This apparently happy situation,” University of North Carolina historian Carolyn A. Wallace writes ominously, “Ended on Sunday, 28 Aug. 1831.”
Some of the particulars of that fateful day have been lost to history, but one fact is generally agreed upon: Two of Potter’s romantic enemies awoke on Sunday with four testicles between them, and they went to bed that night with none. Potter had evidently become suspicious that Isabella was messing around in the sack with two of her cousins, one a 55-year-old reverend named Louis Taylor, the other a 17-year-old identified by various names in different accounts. The congressman took the most direct route of vengeance available to him.
The account of Robert W. Winston, a historian quoted in the Fischer biography, implies that Potter’s violence that day gave rise to a ball-cutting neologism that has evidently long since been forgotten: potterized.
Mrs. Potter had two cousins who frequently visited the home, Reverend Louis Taylor, a minister of the Methodist Church, about 55 years old, and Louis Wiley, a youth of 17. Potter had conceived a dark, malignant hatred for these two men and had charged his wife with criminal intimacy with both. That Sunday Aug. 28 Taylor came out to Potter’s on a visit, not knowing Potter’s feelings towards him.
Potter laid the charge of adultery on Taylor and after a few angry words, pounced on him like a wild beast, beating him senseless. He then whipped out his keen, sharp blade and castrated the man, “potterized” him. Putting him to bed he told him if he would keep quiet his disgrace would not get out. “I have been very merciful and kind to you,” Potter vouchsafed. “I have spared your life.”
Potter then set forth in search of Wiley, who lived three or four miles nearer Oxford than Reverend Mr. Taylor’s home. Finding Wiley at home, Potter sprang upon him like a tiger, treating him as he had Taylor.
Fischer’s biography also quotes from a primary-source letter that is dated just two days after the incident. Confusingly, the letter refers to the teenage castrato as Miller, not Wiley. Whatever the victim’s name, the writer spares no details about his fate.
As Potter and Miller were attempting to corral a dog, he writes,
They both got down to tie the dog, & while in the act, Mr. Potter, instead of putting the rope around the neck of the dog, put it around Miller, & drew it around so hard as to choke him & then lashed it around his legs & tied him hand & foot & castrated him completely...
Potter was jailed the following day, without bail, and represented himself in court about a week later. The court convicted Potter for maiming his young competitor, sentencing him to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. His assault on the older man never went to trial.
Potter resigned from Congress before going to prison. However, the castration conviction did not even come close to ending the young lawmaker’s political career, as incredible as it may seem today. While Potter was imprisoned, Fischer notes, the North Carolina House of Commons ruled that his crime should be thereafter punishable by the death penalty. Upon his release, he ran once more for a seat alongside them.
Potter’s wife divorced him, and her brother made a failed attempt at his life, but he won the election. “His victory under the circumstances,” Wallace writes, “was a remarkable demonstration of his popularity in his home county.”
Potter remained in the House of Commons until 1835, when he was expelled for good after pulling a gun on another member during a gambling dispute. He fled to Texas, where he remarried and built up his name as a military man with the Texas Navy, and later as a lawyer and a two-term member of the Texas senate.
But he did not leave violence behind. In 1842, Potter arrived at the doorstep of William Pinckney Rose, a neighbor with whom he’d been feuding. Rose was accused of murder, and Potter carried the warrant for his arrest, but when he got there, Rose wasn’t around. The following day, Rose showed up at Potter’s house with a gang of men. Perhaps sensing that the jig was up, Potter jumped into a nearby lake. When he came up for breath, one of Rose’s men shot, hitting Potter’s head and killing him.
An (Ineffective) Public Servant to the Last
For each of these entries, so as to avoid desecrating the dead too profoundly, we will point to a moment in each famous idiot’s career that merits genuine praise. Every dog has its day, and every drunken local lawmaker has some piece of legislation that may have actually done some good.
Though Potter was not a man you’d like to cross, or be married to, or even spend any time around at all, really, at least one of his political hobbyhorses should be easy for modern readers to get behind. As a North Carolina state legislator, he advocated strongly for free public education. According to Fischer, Potter’s signature piece of legislation during his first term would have created a state agricultural college, where impoverished boys could learn the basics of farming without having to pay. (The bill ultimately failed.)
Voters today might heed the moral of Potter’s parable: it takes more than a big personality and a pocket full of hilarious insults to make a great leader. The toughest-seeming guy in the room usually turns out to be a paranoid, ineffective bully. He usually turns out to be not that tough at all—no matter how willing he is to go after the other guy’s balls.