Back before the new four-lane version of U. S. 49W was built through the Mississippi Delta, the old two lane 49W, now State 149, going south from Clarksdale, went through Indianola, Belzoni, Midnight, and Yazoo City, in that order, before reaching Jackson.
My father, who spent a lot of his life as a pastor of Methodist Churches in the Delta, as had his father before him, repeated the same old Delta joke almost every time our travels took us through the village of Midnight: “No matter how early you leave Belzoni, you can never get to Jackson before Midnight."
Nowadays you completely bypass Midnight when driving south from Belzoni on 49W, but the little town retains its place in Delta lore due to the manner in which legend says it got its name.
Tradition has it that a party of hunters played poker there one night in the 1880s in a bear camp on a plantation belonging to one of their group. The stakes were high, and as the night wore on, the camp host found himself with what he was certain was a winning hand but with no cash left with which to stay in the game. In desperation he put up his plantation as security and called for a show of cards.
Unfortunately, his hand did not live up to his faith in his bet, and his land passed to the winner of the pot. Glancing at his timepiece the victor realized it was the very witching hour:
“Midnight!,” he declared. “That is what I will call the place!”
And the rest is history.
Or at least it is purported to be.
Assuming that story to be true, and there is little reason to doubt it, a mystery remains: who was the lucky winner? At least two sources say he was James D. Hill, a multi-millionaire before the Civil War whose plantation near the intersection of Mississippi Highway One and U. S 61 is commemorated as the site of a raid by federal troops during Union Admiral Porter’s Deer Creek expedition.
I have found no documentation, though, that James Hill ever owned any Delta land other than his plantations along Deer Creek. (Another Hill family lived along Silver Creek, near the Midnight Plantation, which could be the reason James Hill has been credited with the winning hand. )
In her paper on “Placenames in Humphreys County,” Ann Holbrook Peden identified the lucky gambler simply as a “Mr. Bell, a pioneer landowner.” The earliest owner of Midnight Plantation found by this writer is a B. B. Parkham, of Natchez, who sold the place to Dr. R. V. Powers in 1890. Powers, in turn, sold the plantation in 1913 to a Mr. C. B. Box of Memphis. The old papers, though, make no reference to poker games. So the origins of the town of Midnight remain a mystery.
Meanwhile, over on U. S. 49W, is another plantation town Delta tradition says was named for the time the land was won in a poker game – Rising Sun. But that is a story for another day.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty