William Henry Pratt (1811-1883) was a cotton factor, sugar plantation owner, Confederate agent, president of the Bank of Mobile, president of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and owner of the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion. Active in Mobile business life and a prolific traveler, Pratt and his family were well-connected socialites who either witnessed or contributed to several defining moments of the era
Pratt was born in 1811 in New York City to Noah and Mary Pratt (some sources say Abby). He had two brothers, Noah Pratt (1806-1889), Alexander Pratt (1815-1846), and one sister, Mary Pratt Harrison (1818-unknown). In 1832, at the age of 22, Pratt moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to work for merchant E. Spencer Cotton. Four years later, Cotton sent Pratt and his business partner to Mobile to operate his new cotton firm, which would initially be known as Cotton, Stewart & Co.
In 1838, Pratt married Annie Obedience Tartt (1825-1879), the daughter of Thomas Tartt, a successful Mobile businessman originally from Philadelphia. Annie’s half-sister, Gertrude Tartt, married Confederate naval officer Catesby ap Roger Jones, who supervised the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry in Selma, Dallas County. Gertrude and Catesby lived in the house that would become known as the Mabry-Jones House (ca. 1850) in Selma, Dallas County. Albert Gallatin Mabry was a doctor who was instrumental in creating the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.
William and Annie Pratt had at least six children born in Mobile, five of whom survived to adulthood. Thomas Tartt Pratt (1839-1891) served as a surgeon in both the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Thomas married Eliza Theresa Sims, the daughter of infamous obstetrician J. Marion Sims, who performed experimental surgeries on enslaved females, sometimes without anesthesia. The marriage was not a happy one: his wife lived in Paris, and Thomas died in London from a morphine addiction. Harry Ruthven Pratt (1852-1924) worked as a lawyer in New York City and married Florence Matthews, one of sewing-machine inventor Isaac Singer’s many children and heirs, in 1883. Edward Spencer Pratt, who went by Spencer (1856-1925), unsuccessfully courted scandalous authoress Amélie Rives (later Chanler and Troubetzkoy) whom he had met at the home of Augusta Evans Wilson. Spencer served as minister to Persia and was minister to Singapore as well. Both Pratt daughters married European nobility and became known as (Mary Jane) Madame De Roissard de Bellet and (Annie Vera) Viscountess de Vercelli-Ranzi.
Prosperity and European Travel
After Cotton died in 1840, Pratt’s father-in-law Thomas Tartt took over the business, and renamed it Tartt, Stewart & Company, with Pratt as a partner as well. With his new partnership and various investments, it is most likely at this point in his professional life that Pratt began to amass a great degree of wealth and possibly some from Tartt who left Pratt in charge of his estate. At least by the early 1840s, Pratt and his family, including his younger brother Alexander, began travelling back and forth to Europe for long stretches of time. Alexander had followed his older brother to Mobile and like William, he would be an unnamed partner in his firm, Barrow, Mead & Co. He died in Paris in 1846.
In 1847, Pratt made some investments that would change the course of his life as well as the evolution of modern Mobile. Notably, he and Lewis Judson, the first president of the Bank of Mobile, built and sold the property that would become known as the Madame and Dr. Le Vert House and Office for Henry Strachey Le Vert and his wife, Octavia Walton Le Vert. He helped form Mobile Medical Society with Josiah Nott and William B. Crawford. The house was demolished, but the office still stands and serves as the headquarters for the Mobile Bar Association.
Pratt also purchased 27 acres that are now in midtown Mobile but were three miles from the city center at the time. The previous owner, Lewis Judson, had most likely built a small cottage on the property, and so the Pratt Family either lived in the old Judson cottage or built a new house, and remained on the property until 1855. Later, the property was sold to Judge John Bragg, who either built a new house or improved on a house built by Pratt. Bragg later lost the mansion and property to the Bank of Mobile. Today, that home is now a historic house museum and event center known as the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion.
Bank of Mobile
Bank of Mobile In 1848, the year following his two major land investments, he became the president of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. In 1852, Pratt retired from his cotton firm and began spending more and more time in Europe, but kept his ties to Mobile and his investments in the Bank of Mobile. In May 1861, Pratt took his family to Europe. He had been assigned by Christopher C. Memminger, Confederate States’ Secretary of the Treasury, to covertly raise $50 million dollars for the Confederacy. He had laid out his intentions in a letter to the president of the Bank of Mobile that was intercepted by the Union. Subsequently, Pratt, his son Thomas, and his father-in-law, Marion Sims, were all persons of interest to the Union. No evidence has so far ever shown that Pratt was successful securing any funds.
After the war, Pratt returned to the United States and settled in Louisiana to raise sugar cane. The family remained there until 1873, when the board of the Bank of Mobile called him back to the Port City. The Panic of 1873 had weakened the bank, and its president, Charles Walsh, had borrowed more money than his newly bankrupt firm could pay back. Pratt became president of the Bank of Mobile in January 1874 and called for investigations that uncovered bookkeeping irregularities and missing funds. In 1880, Pratt repurchased the mansion on his former property on Spring Hill Avenue from the Bank. Pratt’s wife had died of meningitis in Paris, France, a year earlier, and the three elder children had already left home, so only Pratt, Spencer, and Annie moved into the 13-room mansion.
Meanwhile, the Bank of Mobile recovered under Pratt. Unfortunately, this was not to last. On March 3, 1883, at approximately 9:00 in the morning, Pratt was run over by a train in Birmingham, Jefferson County. Pratt’s funeral was held in Christ Church in Mobile. Pratt was supposed to be buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, where he had purchased a plot for his family and where his wife, his brother, and two of his children are buried. But instead, he was interred in Church Street Graveyard, next to his son and his father-in-law. His grave is unmarked. The Bank of Mobile failed the following year after 66 years.
Bragg-Mitchell Mansion The antebellum Bragg-Mitchell mansion stands on Spring Hill Avenue and is a popular tourist attraction as well as an event venue in Mobile. The builder of the mansion is a mystery, as it could have either been Pratt or Bragg, and there is little evidence to support either theory. Even the architect and date are unknown. Both the Historic American Buildings Survey (1935) and the National Register for Historic Places (1972) claim that the house was built by William Pratt, with Thomas James as the architect. However, both documents have factual errors, including the widely repeated mistake that Gen. Braxton Bragg, John’s brother, owned the home. In the chain of title for the house, Braxton was never listed as owner for the mansion. Most likely, Pratt hired James to build a house on the 27-acre plot in 1847, and Bragg altered or added to the house with the assistance of his brother when he bought the property in 1855.