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

Can Married Women Own Property in their Name?

While it is not surprising that 19th century European nations looked to the United States as a model for economic or political best practices, it is intriguing that the government of Bavaria should want to know the status of women’s property rights in Kentucky.

An unusual Civil War example of conversation between the Commonwealth and the sphere of foreign affairs appears in a letter from C. F. Hagedorn of the German state of Bavaria to Gov. James F. Robinson of Kentucky in 1863. In the letter, the consul requests that Robinson provide answers to two specific, enumerated questions about women’s rights in the state of Kentucky.  

Consul General Hagedorn inquires as to the rights of married women to hold property and make decisions based on said property, as well as to what actions they can take to “act without approval to or consent of their husbands!” The docketing of the letter indicates that Robinson did respond to the consul’s inquiries, though his response cannot be found. Governor Robinson’s response to the Bavarian consul’s request to know more “in short about womens rights in your Commonwealth” would undoubtedly provide compelling insight concerning the agency of women in the 19th Century.

While CWGK does not have Governor Robinson’s response we have the initial correspondence. Go here to examine the letter:
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-032-0007

It wasn’t until Josephine K. Henry successfully lobbied the Commonwealth of Kentucky for passage of the 1894 Married Woman’s Property Act that women were able to hold property after they were married.

CWGK Welcomes Dr. Chuck R. Welsko

The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK) is pleased to announce the addition of Dr. Chuck R. Welsko to the project’s editorial staff as Project Manager.


Originally from Pennsylvania, Welsko earned his Ph.D. from West Virginia University under the direction of Jason Phillips. He comes to the KHS and CWGK from the University of West Georgia, where he served as a Visiting Professor of Public History. Welsko specializes in the cultural, social, and political history of the Civil War Era, with a particular focus on Border States, loyalty, slavery, nationalism, and identity formation. He has published research in West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies, as well as reviews for H-Net, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, and West Virginia History. Welsko also has extensive experience with public history, with time spent at Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania National Military Park and the Remembering Lincoln Project at the Ford’s Theatre Society.

CWGK Welcomes Dr. Deborah J. Thompson

The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK) is pleased to announce the addition of Dr. Deborah J. Thompson to the project’s editorial staff.

Thompson’s position is funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission and is focused on preparing text and annotations for publication in the expanded CWGK web interface.

Thompson received her Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Kentucky in 2012 and an M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University in 1988. Prior to her arrival at CWGK in May 2019, she served on the faculty and as coordinator of Country Dance Programs at Berea College, and as faculty and director of the Appalachian Semester at Union College in Kentucky. She is a musician and dancer specializing in traditional art forms of the Appalachian region and is the author of articles on Appalachian music, race, and gender in GeoJournalSmithsonian Folkways Magazine, and Journal of Appalachian Studies. Thompson served as co-editor for Encyclopedia of Appalachia’s (UTP 2006) “Families and Communities” section, including a substantial entry on “Intentional Communities,” as well as a writer in the “Music” section. She contributed to the initial vision of  A Handbook to Appalachia (UTP 2006), also co-writing the chapter on “Folklore and Folklife.” Among her other experiences, she has led several international academic and cultural study exchanges and served as principal investigator for three county-level historic architectural surveys in North Carolina which resulted in publications such as Transylvania: The Architectural History of a Mountain County.

CWGK Welcomes the 2019 Graduate Research Associates— Melissa DeVelvis and Peter Thomas

Once again, with funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Civil War Governors of Kentucky (CWGK) recruited two Graduate Research Associates (GRAs) from premier history programs across the United States to help annotate 300 documents in 2018.

The GRAs underscore a core principle of CWGK and KHS, that how the work of history gets done is as important as the fact that it gets done. The GRA positions allow CWGK to nurture research skills in emerging scholars as well as exposing them to digital project startup and management, collaborative work as a member of a research team, the establishment and maintenance of project policies, and the production of historical knowledge in diverse forms for audiences beyond academia. Working as a GRA on the CWGK project not only builds these students’ digital humanities skills portfolios, it makes them better scholarly researchers by encouraging them to flip their engagement with the archive and to think seriously about how research collection are built and curated as well as how they are used by audiences beyond academic researchers like themselves.

The 2018 GRA class is as follows:

DeVelvis is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Carolina studying the nineteenth-century U.S. South under Dr. Mark Smith. Her dissertation examines gender and secession in South Carolina and the intersection of emotion and politics. DeVelvis also works as an interpretive guide for the Historic Columbia Foundation and as a graduate manuscript processing assistant at the South Caroliniana Library. Most recently, she processed the collection of the late Bishop John Hurst Adams, Civil Rights and religious leader.

Thomas is a history Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University studying Civil War-era America under Dr. Kenneth Noe. He received two degrees in Economics and History from Emory & Henry College and an M.A. in History from the University of North Florida  . While at UNF, he defended a master’s thesis that explored the Civil War soldier’s transition from citizen to soldier, and he also worked closely with the Jacksonville Historical Society. At Auburn, in addition to his duties as a graduate teaching assistant for the history department, Thomas has worked as an editor and author for the Encyclopedia of Alabama, a cultural resource specialist for the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, and a graduate research assistant for Dr. Elijah Gaddis, who co-founded Community Histories Workshop. Thomas’s dissertation research combines the methods of environmental and military historians in order to understand the relationship between Civil War soldiers and military encampments. Thomas plans to teach an upper-level Civil War and Reconstruction course this summer at Auburn, and in the fall and spring he is scheduled to teach World History survey courses.

Political Detentions in the Civil War

Throughout January 2019 we shared a four part series discussing political detentions surrounding Kentuckians. In case you missed a week or are just stumbling upon the blog for the first time here are the direct links to the series.