Yesterday's News

Short story 'Spawn of Satan' chronicled abolitionist's trevails

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner Columnist
February 27, 2005

Fiction sometimes beats out historical fact in getting to the soul of the truth.

I'm departing from my usual practice in that this column uses fiction as its primary source. The story was based in fact, although the names were changed and the ending entirely fictional.

This work of fiction is a short story by Young E. Allison called "Spawn of Satan," which he privately printed in 1929. Allison, a Henderson native who lived from 1853-1932, was a prominent journalist here and in Louisville, but also gained some attention with his poetry and short fiction.

I first read "Spawn of Satan" because of a letter to the editor published in The Gleaner March 2, 1930. The letter, from Sudie P. Tuell, makes it clear that the story is based on historical occurrences in Henderson just prior to and during the Civil War.

"Would that Mr. Allison had mentioned the name of Henderson in full instead of alluding to it as H...." Tuell wrote. "Nevertheless, we all know the place he means even if the rest of the world does not."

Intrigued, I went to the Henderson County Public Library and looked up the story, which was published in pamphlet form. The library has three copies, and one of them was apparently a Christmas gift to someone identified only as Jonas. Allison made handwritten notes on that copy, saying most of the events took place 1862-64, but the real gold mine is that Allison revealed the true names of actual persons his fictional characters were based upon.

Allison's story, however, used the real name of the main character, David Pruitt -- although I could find no mention of that name in local public records. Pruitt, or "Old Prute" as the schoolboys of the time called him, was the "Spawn of Satan" in the story's title.

Pruitt, you see, had a reputation as an atheist. As a child, Allison wrote, he and his compatriots had some trouble determining exactly what that meant. "The term was rarely pronounced in those days, except in horror -- certainly not before innocent children.... Anybody who didn't believe in God was offscourings of the Devil's Kitchen." (Technically, Pruitt was not an atheist; his conception of God was just vastly different from the majority's. You'll have to read the story if you want the details.)

With the coming of the Civil War, Pruitt's public reputation suffered further, because it became clear he was an abolitionist. "At once even the neutrals friendly to him grew wary and cold," Allison wrote.

But "then a miracle happened. Old Prute bought a slave! It was Prissy, the handsome, sensuous-like eighteen-year old light-brown mulatto.... She was called the 'hell cat' of her owner's collection.... She was more 'unbreakable' than any wild colt in the stables. Whippings, fastings, had had no effect. She seemed to hate the white race and all men."

Pruitt immediately freed her and hired her to work as his housekeeper and cook. Pruitt's customers soon noticed "the tailor shop became neat, the cooking exhaled appetizing contagions," but the public strongly disapproved because "it was plainly indecent to buy a girl and live with her openly."

In response to a committee that knocked on his door one night, Pruitt responded, "I am not living with her in the meaning you suggest. She is living here as my servant -- not as my concubine!

"She is free -- yet she stays here voluntarily. I pay wages to her. Where she worked for her former owner with slovenly resentment, she works for me industriously and cheerfully. Is that not a lesson in the humanities as against so-called Christianities?"

In the end, though, the situation became too dangerous for them to remain in Henderson, and steamboat Capt. Charles G. Perkins arranged for Pruitt and Prissy to flee to Canada.

"I like this man's size, but he hasn't got common sense," Perkins said. "If the 'Rebs' get control here they will hang him and that brown girl, and in doing it they are liable to cause the deaths of others. He ought to go North."

I don't want to ruin the story for you -- it's worth reading -- so I'm not going to reveal the charming but sentimental end. Besides, it's not factually true. Allison's handwritten note says "this coda is fanciful, but every yarn must have an ending."


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS