Hemp Hazards

Industrial hemp is being promoted as a wonder crop to help replace tobacco and coal in our economy, as well as provide fiber for clothing, organic matter for biofuels, and for the healing properties of CBD. Fears of the hallucinogenic properties of the hemp plant have been used both historically and currently to outlaw its growth in the U.S. (see the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, for example). Risk assessments for hemp today typically cite concerns over its economic viability as a crop, the safety and effectiveness of CBD to treat a variety of ailments, and overall lack of quality and pricing standards. Worker safety in processing hemp is not a popular area of concern today, and much of the process is now mechanized.

But behind the perceived risks of today’s hemp production is the shadow of a much darker past. Nineteenth-century Kentucky’s hemp industry was a dangerous—even deadly—environment.

This postcard from the Ronald Morgan Postcard Collection at the Kentucky Historical Society is a good example of the idealized landscape of hemp production.


Hemp production was extremely important to Kentucky for most of its history. As explained by the historical marker* pictured below, peak production was achieved in the decades before the Civil War, with 40,000 tons of hemp produced. The bluegrass region was the most productive area for hemp, and “it is not a coincidence that these counties also held the state’s largest slave populations. Hemp, like tobacco and cotton, was a labor-intensive crop… Historian James Hopkins writes, “Without hemp, slavery might have not flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves” (Tim Talbott in https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/108). *Seven of Kentucky’s more than 2400 historical markers deal with hemp.

Historical marker describing the history of hemp in Kentucky.

The reality is that working in hemp is hard physical work that is often dangerous, from cutting, drying, and transporting it from the fields to breaking the woody stems, and combing out the fibers using a hackle, or coarse comb. The hackling process was especially dangerous, because the air becomes filled with dust and particulates from the repeated flailing, beating, and scraping of the hemp fibers. For more information on hemp processing, see also the story behind Fayette County’s marker: https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/718 .


This photograph from the 1920s, while not taken at the penitentiary, gives a good representation of the hackling process, the main labor engaged in by prisoners at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in the 1860s.

Hemp processing was one of many industries at the Kentucky State Penitentiary for which inmate labor was used. In the 1860s, a keeper was elected by the General Assembly, charged a yearly rental fee, and was expected to provide for the needs of the prisoners, hire guards and other personnel, and keep up the buildings and grounds. He was allowed to employ inmate labor and keep the profits (Crawford, 19). The governor appointed three inspectors to provide outside oversight. In August 1863, these inspectors reported that much-needed improvements to the prison had been made, with the exception of the hemp house…”the inhaling of dust and minute portions of the fibre, inducing disease of the lungs…it is the testimony of physicians who at various times have attended the prison, that the cases of Pneumonia occurring in the hemp department of the institution, were of the most alarming and fatal character, the greater proportion of them being from the hackling room in the third story ” (Mills, Hayes, and Garrard, KYR-0001-030-0005)

Dr. William Sneed, the attending physician, found that “..many of the cases were rapidly fatal, some of them lasting not over thirty six hours from their commencement” (ibid.) .

Things were so bad that three amputations were reported at the Kentucky Penitentiary Hospital from Dec 1, 1857-Feb 28, 1859, inclusive: “These were cases in which the convicts cut off their own hands to keep from working at the bagging loom and spinning hemp” (Sneed, 567).

Read more about the penitentiary and its issues, including hemp processing, at
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-030-0005 ,
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-030-0002 ,
and
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-004-3432

For further reading:
Crawford, Robert Gunn. 1955. A History of the Kentucky Penitentiary System, 1865-1937. Dissertation, University of Kentucky.
Sneed, William C. 1860. A Report on the History and Mode of Management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from Its Origin, in 1798, to March 1, 1860. Frankfort, Ky.: Senate of Kentucky.

Symbols of Union

“United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” Kentucky’s state motto could not have been more relevant than it was during the Civil War.

Stationery and business letterhead were popular ways to show loyalty to the Union.
This letterhead is from the 1st Harlan County Battalion.

http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0002-022-0055

This letterhead from Laurel County, KY, gives Lady Liberty an active, war-like representation, but it was on a letter written by a Justice of the Peace on behalf of someone who wished a fine to be remitted.

http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-029-0428

References to the Revolutionary War or words such as “Freedom,” “Union,” and “Liberty” helped Civil War-era people look back to their past to understand events and prove their loyalty in their present. This inspiring logo came from Wolfe County, Kentucky. http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-031-0067

This seal was on a letter sent from Louisville. Its rays symbolize all the states of the union, but the letter was sent in 1863, when the promise of a strong union was still years in the future.
 http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-029-0163

These documents all contain images, poems, or logos in their letterheads that demonstrate devotion to the Union through patriotic imagery during the Civil War in Kentucky. The content of the letters, however, are not always reflective of such high ideals!

“A little two much licker aboard”

Should a man be punished for socializing with friends and enjoying a bit of Kentucky hospitality while doing so? Moses Washburn, a Shelby County resident, thought not. 

In 1861, he wrote to the governor asking that his fine – for keeping a disorderly house – be lifted, stating that he was “raised up under the old hospitable habits of Kentucky,” and while he may have had “a little two much licker aboard,” he was only drinking with friends at home–“as he had a right to do.”

Man drinking from a bottle by a homemade moonshine still

He argues that he did not mean to cause a disturbance, but simply “has never joined the new fangled temporance society.”

More than 100 men signed his petition. Clearly, Washburn was not alone in his cultural understanding of hospitality.


See how Moses defended his hospitable rights.

“Our Neighbourhood Turnpikes”

In this season of highway construction hassles, we can at least be grateful that we are not personally called upon to fix the roads ourselves. In the years before a system of state-funded roads, individuals were responsible for maintaining physical infrastructure. Men owed days of road crew service to their county each year, and property owners were liable for keeping the roads on their land clear and passable. Private turnpike companies frequently built and maintained roads, charging carriages, wagons, and riders for their use.

The Civil War tore up both Kentucky roads and the funding systems that maintained them. Owners of the Stanford & Shelby’s Meeting House Turnpike Company, “a neighborhood road” in Lincoln County which “pays nothing to the stock holders,” were fined by a cash-strapped circuit court for failing to keep up their road. They successfully appealed to the governor that “it is impossible to keep the Roads in repair during their use by the Federal Wagons” hauling supplies to the front.

Infrastructure repair and upkeep continues to be a pertinent issue. Who should bear the repair costs after natural or human-made disasters?

Road scene, drawing by Samuel Kaighn ca. 1875.
Kaighn served as a surgeon during the Civil War.

As you can see from this letter of appeal, the governor agreed that they should not be responsible in this case.
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-004-0069

“Delighted to Honor the National Banner”

A battle-torn Civil War flag tells a powerful story about the great sacrifices and the cost of preserving the United States.

Colors of the 22d Regiment Kentucky Infty after the charge on Chickasaw Bluffs near Vicksburg, Miss – December 29th, 1862.

Colonel George W. Monroe returned the battle flag of his 22nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry to the Commonwealth in 1864. “This Old flag is dear to us, for beneath its folds many of our brave comrades have fallen, and sealed their patriotism with their blood. It is dear to us for the victories won under it. It is dear to us because it has never yet been lowered before the enemy, and has never been polluted by traitor hands.”

The flags of the Kentucky regiments were hung in the capitol rotunda to remind legislators of the price of their freedom. When the new capitol was built in the 1900s, the flags stayed in the Old State Capitol and became the core of the Kentucky Historical Society’s museum collections.

This 242nd anniversary of the adoption of the Flag Resolution by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, is a fitting opportunity to read this letter, which eloquently expresses the emotions that may be evoked by this symbol of a nation that came so close to dissolution during the Civil War:
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-003-0064