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Ask Rufus: A duel, a preacher and The Ten Commandments


Shown is an engraving of Jerusalem that served as the frontispiece of the 1859 edition of J.H. Ingraham's book,

Shown is an engraving of Jerusalem that served as the frontispiece of the 1859 edition of J.H. Ingraham's book, "The Prince of the House of David," a novel of the life of Jesus. Ingraham, a teacher turned minister, was one of the most popular novelist of the mid 1800s publishing over 83 books of historical fiction. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Shown is the title page to Joseph H. Ingraham's 1859 novel of the life of Moses,

Shown is the title page to Joseph H. Ingraham's 1859 novel of the life of Moses, "The Pillar of Fire," or "Israel in Bondage," which was used for the screenplay in the 1956 movie classic, "The Ten Commandments." Ingraham resided in Aberdeen from 1851 to 1853 and served as rector at St. John's Episcopal Church there and also rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Columbus (1851-52).
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Rufus Ward



With Passover and Easter approaching the classic movie, "The Ten Commandments," is sure to be shown again. Few people, though, know the Aberdeen, Columbus and Holly Springs tie to the movie. The Rev. Joseph Holt Ingraham entered the ministry after losing a duel near Natchez in the 1840s. He became rector of St. John's Episcopal Church from Aberdeen 1851-53, and when St Paul's Episcopal Church in Columbus was without a rector in 1851-52 he also served there.  


Then 104 years later he was credited as writer in Cecil B. DeMille's classic movie "The Ten Commandments." 


Ingraham was born in 1809 into a shipbuilding family in Portland, Maine. As a teenager he sailed to South America on one of his grandfather's ships. There he became involved in a revolution. He returned to New England and entered Yale College but did not graduate. 


In 1830, he ventured to New Orleans where he studied law. There he showed little interest in the legal profession and again moved. Ingraham began teaching at Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi, just outside Natchez. He was professor of modern languages and was said to have been "proficient in twenty languages." Though he had never graduated from Yale, he was still given the title of "professor." 


It was while teaching at Jefferson College he began writing novels. 


Ingraham published his first book in 1836 and during his lifetime was most famous for sea adventures, such as those about the pirates Lafitte and Captain Kidd. In an 1836 review of Ingraham's first book, The South-West, Edgar Allen Poe called it overly descriptive with unnecessary detail. Ingraham, however, became a prolific and popular writer. An 1846 letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentions he had written 80 books.  


While in Natchez he and a friend, Dr. S.M. Tibbits, fell in love with the same girl. Their friendship turned to hate, and they decided a duel-to-the-death should determine who could ask for the girl's hand in marriage. According to newspaper accounts, the two "principals were armed with rifles, revolvers and bowie knives." The two former friends met just outside the little town of Grand Gulf.  


They stood at their places, and the word to fire was given. Ingraham was shot through his cheek with Tibbits' first shot, and he fell to the ground unconscious but alive. The duel was ended with Tibbits having won, or so he thought, the right to the girl's hand in marriage. However, the girl's family had other ideas. Hearing of the duel, her parents removed her to another part of the state and away from both Tibbits and Ingraham. 


In 1849, Ingraham decided to study for the ministry, and he moved to Nashville to study theology under his brother, who was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church there. He also began to teach again and founded a school for young girls. He returned to Natchez in 1851 and was ordained a deacon by Episcopal Bishop W.M. Green. Later in 1851, he was sent to the struggling Episcopal congregation at Aberdeen and ordained a priest. There, efforts to build a church had raised only $1,250.  


Ingraham's response was that he, as architect, contractor, and laborer, would build the church himself. With the assistance of two young men and nine slaves, the building was completed in 1853 and is still in use as St. John's Church. While still residing in Aberdeen, he also conducted services at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Columbus (1851-52) as that church was without a priest. In December 1853, Ingraham resigned his position as rector of St. John's and left Mississippi.  


He moved to Mobile where he became rector of St. John's Church Episcopal Church there. Ingraham's writings began to change from popular historical fiction to historical fiction with a biblical basis. While in Mobile, he completed "The Prince of the House of David," a novel of the life of Jesus, publishing it in 1855. The novel was said to be the first popular novel on the life of Christ and became the equivalent of a modern bestseller.  


In 1858, Ingraham accepted the position as rector of Christ Church, Holly Springs, and by September was residing there. He revised "The Prince of the House of David" in 1858 and also wrote "The Pillar of Fire," or "Israel in Bondage," a historical fiction novel about Moses. Both were published in 1859 with Ingraham identified as "Rector of Christ Church, and of St Thomas' Hall, Holly Springs, Miss." "The Pillar of Fire" was widely read, reprinted in multiple editions and remained popular into the early 20th century.  


Ingraham died in Holly Springs on Dec. 18, 1860, as the result of a shooting accident. On Dec. 9, he had accidentally dropped a pistol he had just had repaired and it discharged with the bullet striking him.  


Ninety-six years after Ingraham's death, Cecil B. DeMille in 1956 released the movie classic "The Ten Commandments." In the movie's credits, Ingraham's name appears as writer and the second name after DeMille's. Apparently much of the screenplay was taken from "Pillar of Fire." It may well be that the overly descriptiveness and detail that Edgar Allen Poe did not care for in Ingraham's work made it attractive many years later as a screenplay for a movie.  


Ingraham's son, Col. Prentiss Ingraham, became a noted 19th century soldier of fortune, novelist and the advance agent for Buffalo Bill Cody. He wrote more than 600 novels and served as an officer in wars or revolutions in six different countries. His "dime novels" helped make Buffalo Bill one of the most famous figures of the late 19th century but also created many myths about the Old West that still survive in movies.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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