[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read”]

The Lost Child, by Timothy Flint (1830)

In October 1825, a young son of Benjamin Clark was kidnapped in the Arkansas Territory. The kidnapping was witnessed by a young black child unable to stop the man on horseback from carrying off the Clark boy and unable to fully describe who had taken him. Clark’s son wasn’t found until March 1828. The months between were filled with events so bizarre that details of the crime were reported in newspapers throughout the nation; and the crime inspired at least two fictional works.

Given a paucity of sources, it’s difficult to fully understand exactly what happened and when—or even to whom. With his father, Benjamin Clark, senior, Benjamin Clark, junior, had settled in Arkansas Territory before 1819, when he was appointed coroner of Hempstead County by the governer of the Territory. As stated in contemporary newspaper articles, Benjamin, junior, was married to a woman named Huldah. A well-sourced family history on ancestry.com traces the family’s travels: Benjamin was born around 1780 in North Carolina and had moved to Kentucky by 1804; here he met and married Huldah McClain (1796-1873) in 1812. They had seven children born between 1813 and 1838: Indiana (a girl born in 1813), Christopher Anthony (born in 1816), John Stewart (born in 1821), Thomas Eskridge (born in 1823), Joseph (born in 1828), Lauretta A. (born in 1833), and Albert P. (born in 1838). Benjamin’s will was probated in Hempstead County, Arkansas, in 1845. [see Richmond Family Tree]

All but one piece written on the kidnapping state that Clark’s unnamed four-year-old son was kidnapped in October 1825. In November 1826, the Clarks received a letter dated from Natchez, Mississippi, on 2 October 1826, stating that their son was alive and that the letter-writer would tell them where he was on receipt of $150 or $200 dollars; the Clarks should first send $50 in a letter addressed to “Thomas Tutty.” The letter and the money were sent, and Huldah Clark started for Mississippi. At that time, individuals called at the post office for their mail, and this is how Tutty’s plan began to unravel. Like many travelers, Huldah stayed on the journey with friends and acquaintances when possible; one living near Natchez persuaded her to write to the Natchez postmaster and request that Tutty be held when he picked up the envelope. On 24 or 25 November 1826, the man claiming the envelope was arrested.

It wasn’t Thomas Tutty. It was Edward H. Morris, born in Ireland, a wouldbe schoolmaster. Despite interrogation and Huldah’s pleading, Morris refused to tell anyone where the boy was. When one night Morris was taken from jail by a Natchez lynch mob and flogged, he confessed that the boy was at a certain house; the information turned out to be wrong.

On 2 December, the situation was described in an advertisement offering $200 for information about the kidnapped boy; Henry Tooley, a magistrate in Natchez, held the evidence regarding the crime and would award the $200. The reward was raised to $500 on 19 December.

By this time, Benjamin Clark had arrived in Natchez. It was decided that Morris would be taken to Hempstead County, Arkansas Territory, traveling with the Clarks. He didn’t get there. During an escape attempt on 9 February 1827, Morris attempted to swim to freedom and drowned.

A year passed. On 29 March 1828, a boy in Alexandria, Louisiana, was recognized by a friend of the Clark family as the lost son—an identification verified by other friends of the family. The boy had been left in Alexandria by a man named Morgan 15 or 20 months earlier. Since then, he’d suffered abuse in the household where he’d been placed and was sent to another family which treated him better. Under the care of a family friend, the boy traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, where, coincidentally, Benjamin Clark was visiting on business. And at last the family was reunited.

It’s a great story, and it was told again and again, in newspaper articles and in semi-fictional pieces. And this is where things get … complicated. In 1850, Henry Tooley wrote his own version, which doesn’t always line up with versions written 25 years earlier.

Tooley’s version has three-year-old Thomas Eskridge Clark kidnapped on 11 October 1826 by Morris, his wife, and a confederate, who had scouted the area for a likely target. In late October or early November, the Clarks received a letter from Thomas Tutty informing them that he knew where their son was and that they should send $50 to him in Natchez, Mississipi; they sent the money on 6 November, and Huldah Clark went to Vidalia, Mississippi. Here she made contact with Tooley, then acting magistrate in Natchez, who wrote to the Natchez postmaster requesting he hold whomever picked up the letter from Clark. Morris was arrested on 24 November. Brought before a magistrate on 25 November, Morris claimed to have been hired by Tutty to pick up the envelope. On 2 December, confronted with evidence that he’d written the letter himself, Morris claimed that Tutty had the boy and that Morris hoped to get the child from him and bring him to the Clarks for the reward; he informed Huldah Clark and the magistrate that he would tell them on 3 December where to find the boy.

It didn’t happen: that night, a lynch mob took Morris from jail and flogged him until he confessed that the boy was in nearby Jefferson County, Mississippi. Men galloped off to get the boy, only to learn that Morris’s confederate had taken him away the day Morris was arrested. Back in jail, on 3 December Morris refused to tell Huldah Clark where her son was, claiming that the lynch-mob beating had made him change his mind. Accompanying the Clarks back to Arkansas, Morris tried to shoot himself, then jumped into a bayou and drowned. Meanwhile, little Thomas Eskridge was left at Alexandria, Louisiana, in December 1826 and taken in by a woman who in summer 1827 began to neglect him. He was now recognized by a friend of the Clark family, who reunited Thomas with his family.

Tooley’s version is dense with information: the text of the letters sent to and by the Clarks, the legal maneuvers, the names of the examining magistrate, the postmaster, and the arresting constable. He includes information not in the contemporary accounts: that Morris had been seen in the vicinity of the Clark house before the kidnapping, that the Clarks’s neighbors immediately suspected him of kidnapping the boy, that Huldah Clark recognized him when she saw him in the Natchez jail.

There are difficulties, however, with dates. Tooley has shifted the date of the kidnapping to 1826, which suits Thomas Eskridge Clark as the victim; according to the Richmond Family Tree, he would have been three years old at the time, as Tooley states. But if the advertisements printed in 1826 are correct, then the kidnapping occurred in 1825, the victim was four or five years old, and only John Stewart Clark would have been the right age to be the kidnapped boy. Tooley’s account of the boy being recognized definitely is off by a year: he has him recognized in 1827, not 1828.

In the twentieth century, Charlean Moss Williams identified the child as Thomas Erskine and his rescuer as her relative, Matthew Moss. This version of the story has some details that line up well with the nineteenth-century stories, but has others that don’t. In Williams’ version, instead of being the subject of a court case, the boy is left with a band of horse-traders, by an unnamed man who never returns for him; instead of coincidentally meeting his father in New Orleans, little Thomas is taken home by strangers and finally is reunited with his parents.

So, which boy was it, and when was the kidnapping? It is, of course, impossible to know for sure, and either scenario leaves a lot of unanswerable questions. Why take the boy from Arkansas to Mississippi to begin with? Why lure the Clarks to Natchez and then refuse for a week to tell them where their son was? Reading the newspaper pieces from 1826, it’s easy to see Morris as a con artist hoping that a year-old kidnapping will net him some cash—a con artist in a panicky silence when he’s caught, because he has no information to give. Reading Tooley’s account, Morris becomes a kidnapper keeping information from the authorities for no apparent reason. Having had the boy’s whereabouts beaten out of him on December 2 by men perhaps hoping to earn a reward by bringing the boy to his parents, did Morris know on December 3 that his information was incorrect? Was this why he refused to tell Huldah Clark where her son was—because he knew that his information was wrong and he was still hoping for some sort of deal? And was Morris stubborn on December 3 because of the beating? Or did Tooley take a chance to malign lynch-mob morality when he wrote up his version of events?

The advertisements of December 1826 provide the October 1825 date for the kidnapping, which was repeated by all other accounts published in the 1820s. The first advertisement, appearing the day that Morris finally promised to tell authorities where the boy was, gives 2 October 1826 as the date of “Tutty’s” first letter to the Clarks; the date is repeated by Henry Tooley in a note printed once the boy was found. If Morris didn’t kidnap the child in Arkansas until October 11, how would he send the ransom note from Natchez on October 2?

That the kidnapped boy may have been Thomas Eskridge could be indicated by the 1850 United States census, where Thomas is listed as a 24-year-old farmer living with Huldah, Joseph, Lauretta, and Albert. Thomas is the only member of the family (and, in fact, the only individual on that page of the census) marked as someone over the age of 20 who is unable to read and write. [See U.S. census for Ozan, Hempstead County, Arkansas; page 216, family 102] Might a child malnourished and abused from age three to age five have had developmental delays that would preclude him learning to read and write?

It’s an interesting puzzle. And the first version of the incident—with the boy kidnapped for no apparent reason in 1825 and Morris sending the letter in 1826—affected the way it was fictionalized. Timothy Flint wrote about the kidnapping in 1827 in The Western Monthly Review and shaped it into a novel in 1830; an unknown author published “The Stolen Child,” a fictional version in Blackwoods Magazine in 1844. The Blackwoods author has Morris captured in late 1825 or early 1826. (He also has Morris use the name “Tully” instead of “Tutty”—very close to Henry Tooley’s name.) In the hands of the Blackwood author, the incident becomes a tragedy, with the boy never found. For Flint, however, the year-long gap and lack of motive provide an opportunity to explore the theme of Christians bearing up under tribulations which include religious persecution. Instead of being kidnapped for ransom, little Henry is kidnapped by neighbors jealous of the family’s success and wishing to punish them for being law-abiding and Christian. Henry spends the year living among evil-doers, unable to remember his family after a terrible fever—which explains why two years later he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone who he was.

Flint’s The Lost Child was on the list of missing American novels until 1950, when a copy was found in a library. Other copies have since been identified in other libraries. The book is available on microfilm: Western Americana, Frontier History of the Trans-Mississippi West, 1550-1900; reel 193, item number 1996. In 1847, the book was reprinted as Little Henry, the Stolen Child; A Narrative of Fact (Boston: S. G. Simpkins, 1847; 143 pages); this version was reprinted in 1970.

The Lost Child and the Blackwoods story are available here, with transcriptions of reviews of Flint’s book and pieces about the Clark kidnapping from contemporary newspapers and magazines and part of a piece by Flint on the moral usefulness of fiction, which he demonstrates in The Lost Child.

The Lost Child (1830)

The Stolen Child” (1844)

pieces in contemporary newspapers and magazines

Novels,” by Timothy Flint

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