The Caroline Chronicles: A Story of Race, Urban Slavery, and Infanticide in the Border South – PART II

The Caroline Chronicles:
A Story of Race, Urban Slavery, and Infanticide in the Border South

“Part II – The Prosecution’s Case”

By Matthew C. Hulbert

For those of you who missed last week’s installment, we’ll begin with a very brief rundown of Caroline’s story to this point. (A full accounting of the events that led to her trial for infanticide is still available here.) In 1862 Caroline Dennant, a Tennessee slave, was brought to Louisville, Kentucky, as war contraband by Don Carlos Buell’s army—she was subsequently arrested as a fugitive slave and placed in the home of Willis and Annie Levy—a few months later, Blanch, the Levy’s toddler-aged daughter died of strychnine poisoning—Caroline was soon after charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to death. This week’s installment—and next week’s—are written from the perspective of the prosecution and the defense in the matter of Caroline’s petition for executive clemency (and may or may not reflect our actual positions on her case!).

The charge against Caroline revolves around a web of evidence, the majority of which is deemed circumstantial. On the surface, this would appear to weaken the state’s case. However, in instances where such a preponderance of circumstantial evidence points to the guilt of an individual, such as in this instance, logic will not allow us to be swayed by the unreasonable possibility of coincidence. When Caroline’s case is dissected, thread by thread, you will see that she not only committed an act of premeditated murder against a defenseless and innocent child to punish her temporary guardians—but that she potentially did so as part of a broader, though admittedly poorly-conceived, plan to escape from the Levy’s care and to circumvent the possibility of a return to bondage in Tennessee.

Here are the main pillars of the state’s case, laid out as individual items:

One. We know based on the autopsy performed by Dr. Jenkins (a professional chemist) that Blanch Levy died as the result of strychnine poisoning, with significantly more than a fatal dose of the substance found in her stomach. Both the location (stomach) and quantity of the person underscore that the substance was ingested directly and not absorbed through skin contact, accidental or otherwise.

frog stomachTwo. We know based on her own petition for executive clemency that Caroline knew the whereabouts of the strychnine kept in the Levy household and that through the testimony of Annie Levy—that the trunk containing the poison was not locked—that Caroline had ready access to the substance whenever she pleased. The defense does not dispute either of these points.

Third. Caroline had double-motive for killing Blanch Levy: revenge and personal gain. On one hand, Willis Levy became increasingly critical of Caroline’s poor behavior. The record indicates that through negligence, Caroline was responsible for damaged fruit trees and for the fouling of a newly-washed fence. On at least one occasion, the defendant reports that Willis Levy noted that he would like to whip Caroline—but the defendant did not testify to any instances of physical abuse taking place in the Levy household. Moreover, so long as she remained under the Levy’s roof, Caroline ran the risk of being returned to permanent bondage in Tennessee. As she had been declared a fugitive slave and arrested, the Levy’s were essentially providing her with a temporary home until her former master claimed her or until she could be sold at auction by local authorities.

Four. Annie Levy testified that on the day preceding the death of her daughter, she arrived home to find that the trunk containing the poison had been clearly disturbed. Caroline denied having opened the trunk, but did not deny that the trunk itself had been moved and its contents shifted.

Five. We know that in conjunction with the trunk having been disturbed, Annie Levy mysteriously fell ill with very mild symptoms indicative of strychnine poisoning—no doubt after consuming a dinner prepared by Caroline—and was still ill the next morning when she and the victim arrived late for breakfast. Caroline’s testimony does not dispute that for the first time in her entire tenure with the Levy family, she prepared and poured Annie Levy’s morning coffee. The defense does not dispute that Annie Levy noted that the coffee had an off taste and she did not finish it.

Six. We know from multiple lines of testimony that the victim, Blanch Levy, was in the sole care of Caroline in the moments preceding her death and that, for the time before she was given into Caroline’s sole care, she exhibited no signs of illness or poisoning consistent with the consumption of strychnine.

Seven. According to the testimony of Annie Levy, when Caroline entered her bedroom to state that Blanch was acting strangely (read: convulsing and choking to death in the front yard), the defendant did so slowly, without any hints of emotional distress or surprise at the events then unfolding. In connection to this lack of emotional distress, on more than one occasion, witnesses saw Caroline look at the child’s corpse and smile.

Eight. Immediately following Blanch’s death, witnesses report that, in the evening, Caroline walked to the gate of the Levy’s front yard and looked around. She had not previously been known to visit the gate in the evenings. The importance of this point will be brought to light later in the prosecution’s case.

Nine. When Caroline realized that Blanch had not been immediately interred, she became increasingly anxious concerning whether or not an autopsy would be performed, reportedly even asking Annie Levy several times when, precisely, the girl’s body would be buried.

Ten. Court documents show—and the prosecution concedes—that Willis Levy did, shortly before his departure on a freight trip, distribute small pieces of beef tainted with strychnine poison to kill local dogs and birds. However, as is also noted, Levy put this poisoned bait under the homes of his neighbors—while Caroline’s petition for clemency highlights that Blanch died just three feet from the kitchen door of the Levy’s home.

With these statements in mind, the prosecution’s theory of the crime is as follows:

While living in a constant state of paranoia—fueled by her fugitive status—Caroline quickly grew tired of working for Willis Levy and for waiting for her former master to materialize at any moment with the intention of dragging her back to bondage in Tennessee. As such, with knowledge of how to use strychnine poison and knowledge of its location in the Levy household, Caroline waited until Willis Levy had left for extended business trip and first targeted Annie Levy. Annie’s dose wasn’t fatal—though it might have been had she finished her coffee—but it was enough to induce sickness. With the child’s mother sick in bed, Caroline had sole control of Blanch. The timing of Willis Levy’s absence, the disturbance of the trunk, Annie’s sickness, the coffee incident, and Blanch’s demise in Caroline’s custody are simply too damning to write off as a coincidence. With no other adult witnesses present, Caroline fed the toddler significantly more than a fatal dose of strychnine. Following Blanch’s death, with didn’t seem to phase Caroline emotionally, she behaved with increasing strangeness; first, concerning the autopsy and burial and the child; and, second, checking the Levy’s gate in the evenings.

The defense will likely raise two primary points of defense on Caroline’s behalf. One: that she was abused and mistreated by the Levy family and killed to protect herself. However, it is well-known that the Levy family actually allowed Caroline’s husband, a contraband slave who lived with their in-laws, to spend the night with Caroline and that she, herself, did not testify to any abuse mistreatment from Levy other than harsh words. Two: that Blanch was poisoned through the negligence of her father, known in the neighborhood for poisoning animals, and that Caroline, as a homeless, African American slave, and as a defenseless woman, became Levy’s scapegoat. The logistics of the case, however, mainly the quantity of poison found in Blanch’s stomach (and the absence of the beef cubes used by Willis Levy) and the physical location of her death discounts this possibility. Furthermore, the sheer quantity of poison found in Blanch’s stomach by the attending physician means that Caroline would’ve had to watch the child ingest multiple pieces of poisoned animal bait and done nothing.

Much more likely is that Caroline waited until Willis Levy—who was more observant of her misbehavior and thus much harder to poison—had left home for an extended period of time. She then attempted poison Annie, who would presumably have died in her sleep that first evening. When that didn’t work, she again tried to poison Annie and also successfully poisoned Blanch. Caroline then checked the gate each evening because, in all probability, she was waiting for her husband to join her in an attempt to flee to permanent freedom. He never came and she was eventually found guilty following a trial in complete compliance with state and local procedures.

In closing, the state is aware that Caroline has doggedly refused to admit guilt and that a number of local citizens—including attorney’s and members of the jury—have joined her plea for executive clemency despite sentencing her to death immediately following the trial. All the state will say concerning this sudden wave of support is that Caroline’s “new friends” are more likely to be using her as a tool to advance their own political causes than to advance the cause of justice. Otherwise, where were they with aid and assistance before she was found guilty and sentenced to hang?

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

The Caroline Chronicles: A Story of Race, Urban Slavery, and Infanticide in the Border South – PART I

The Caroline Chronicles:
A Story of Race, Urban Slavery, and Infanticide in the Border South

“Part I: Incidents in the Life of a Contraband”

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Early in the fall of 1862, an African American woman named Caroline Dennant arrived in Louisville. This wasn’t a happy homecoming, for she had no family in the city. Nor was it the endpoint of a successful escape from bondage. Because despite its official pro-Union position, Kentucky remained a slave state that would honor its obligations to the Fugitive Slave Law if at all possible. So at approximately twenty years old, she’d come in with General Don Carlos Buell’s army, from Tennessee, not as a newly-made freeperson, but as contraband. She was homeless, completely alone, and without a penny in her pocket. Even Caroline’s surname had been borrowed from the planter who still technically owned her—and who could, at any moment, arrive in Louisville to claim her as one might any other piece of lost property.

Caroline bannerIn the meantime, Caroline was arrested as a fugitive slave and sent to live in the home of Willis Levy, a river freighter, his wife, Annie, and the couple’s toddling daughter, Blanche. According to Caroline, “for this kindness she was grateful” and “she endeavored to pay for this kindness by being attentive to her duties as a servant … watchful of their interest & in all things to be faithful and trustworthy.” Her duties included cooking for the family, cleaning their small one-story house in a working class Louisville neighborhood, and serving as a nanny for Blanche. As noted by onlookers, Caroline was “a good servant & seemed to love the child … [she] was very fond of Blanche.”

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Caroline’s former master never appeared to drag her back to the plantation. She met, and apparently married, another contraband slave who lived across the street with the family of Raymond Lynch. Lynch had married Annie Levy’s sister and, owing to proximity and familial ties, Caroline’s husband was typically allowed to spend nights with her at the Levy house. Though still a servant—and still trapped in fugitive limbo—it looked as though Caroline had left the worst of slavery behind in Confederate Tennessee. That is, until everything changed in February 1863.

***

Willis Levy was not a well-liked man. In fact, for reasons that will soon become obvious to animal-lovers, he was more or less despised by all of his neighbors and extended family. Luckily for Caroline, work kept him away from home for months at a time—but even this proved not to be long enough. In December 1862, Levy “purchased strychnine for the purpose of killing some cats and pigeons that had been annoying him.” As Caroline watched in the kitchen, he applied the poison to small cubes of beef, even remarking that he’d used enough to “kill a regiment of men,” before throwing the toxic bait under the homes of his neighbors, unbeknownst to them and without their permission. Then Levy poisoned grains of wheat and left them in a tin can in the backyard to attract and kill birds. When he was through, Caroline watched Levy’s wife put the container of poison back in a small, unlocked trunk in the kitchen.

In subsequent weeks, tension rose and the “honeymoon period” seemed to end; Willis and Caroline clashed repeatedly. In one instance, he blamed her for leaving a gate open. As a result, a cow had wandered into the yard and destroyed several small fruit trees. Another time, Caroline threw kitchen trash onto a fence just a few hours after Willis had finished whitewashing it. In the latter case, he reportedly told her “for two cents he would give her a thousand lashes.” The morning following the fence debacle, Willis left for a boat trip to Tennessee. During his absence, Annie Levy also took issue with Caroline’s behavior, this time for wasting candles by staying up late in the evening with her husband.

A few days later, Annie arrived home from a walk with her sister and noticed that a trunk in the kitchen had been moved from its usual spot. She questioned Caroline, who immediately denied having disturbed or opened the trunk. That evening, Annie didn’t sleep well; she “awoke several times during the night & on one occasion had a singularly strangling or suffocating sensation about the lower part of the throat.” Due to her sickness, Annie and Blanche came down late for breakfast, whereupon the former was surprised to find that Caroline had poured her a cup of coffee. The presence of coffee wasn’t in itself unusual. She drank coffee every morning—but this was the first time in the entirely of Caroline’s tenure with the family that she’d poured it for her mistress. Almost immediately, Annie noticed something different about the taste of the coffee but chalked it up to her restless night. Shortly thereafter, she retired for a nap, leaving Blanche in Caroline’s care.

Not long after Annie Levy laid down, Caroline came into the room and said “Miss Anne come out & see Blanche she acts so strangly [sic].” The pair rushed outside to find the toddler “lying on the ground in convulsions … about three feet from the kitchen door.” According to court documents, “the child frothed at the mouth, became livid under the eyes, around the lips & about the finger nails & on the feet.” Blanche died quickly—and “professional men,” likely a mix of doctors and policemen, determined that she’d been killed by a fatal dose of strychnine. An autopsy was performed in which Blanche Levy’s stomach was “bottled, sealed up & carried by two persons to an experienced practical chemist.” The contents of the stomach were analyzed; all tests pointed to strychnine ingestion and accompanying asphyxiation. For final verification, the chemist even fed a bit of the stomach contents to a frog. It died immediately while exhibiting symptoms of strychnine poisoning.

Caroline was charged with murder. At first glance, the pieces seemed to fit together. She’d watched Willis Levy use strychnine before and at least vaguely understood what doses would kill animals of different sizes. She knew where he kept the poison and had easy access to it. This was all circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but black men and women in slave states had been found guilty under far less precarious circumstances. Moreover, her recent clashes with both Willis and Annie Levy constituted clear enough motive for an all-white jury hell-bent on avenging the death of a white child. Within the span of a few months, Caroline Dennant was convicted of infanticide and sentenced to hang from the neck until dead. Her execution was scheduled for the morning of September 11, 1863, roughly one year to the day since she trudged into the city with Buell’s men.

***

This opening salvo of The Chronicles of Caroline represents just the first installment of several to come, penned by myself or fellow CWG-K editor Patrick Lewis. In the coming weeks, we will not only reveal Caroline’s fate as a date with the hangman loomed—we’ll also add contextual commentary. These future installments will address both sides of Caroline’s legal case in deeper detail (that is, we will analyze the cases for and against her); the broader logistics of contraband hiring and fugitive slave keeping in urban settings like Louisville; white-led abolition movements in Kentucky and the social networks that spearheaded them on behalf of fugitives like Caroline Dennant; and, how Caroline’s story—whether she was guilty or not—fits within a much wider, interconnected corpus of academic scholarship and popular mythology concerning slave resistance and rebellion in both the antebellum and the wartime South.

 

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

SOURCES: Affidavit of Mrs. Josephine Lynch, 17 September 1863, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY (hereafter KDLA); Caroline Dennant to Thomas E. Bramlette, KDLA; J. G. Barrett to Thomas E. Bramlette, 2 September 1863, KDLA; Affidavit of Raymond Lynch, 19 September 1863, KDLA; Testimony in the Case of Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Caroline (a slave), KDLA; John L. McKee to Thomas E. Bramlette, 3 September 1863, KDLA.

Who are “We the undersigned”?

We recently featured the case of William Brockman, a German man appealing his murder conviction to Governor Bramlette (read the full transcription here). Our previous post pointed out the fascinating diversity of topical subjects CWG-K will bring to the attention of scholars — the immigrant experience, violence and public arms bearing, micro-economies of military posts, and the environmental and urban history of the Ohio River.

KYR-0001-004-0787But who signed the petition to pardon William Brockman? Why did they do so? What can we learn about a war-torn and refugee-swelled Ohio River city from analyzing the actors in William Brockman’s world?

Each of the document’s 65 glossary entries contains a list of associated documents (Read the full glossary here). In those 65 entries, this document makes 4,353 connections across the CWG-K corpus. Excluding the four best-connected entries (Thomas E. Bramlette, Louisville, Jefferson Circuit Court, and Tennessee), the remaining 61 entries yield 441 connections to a web of 248 unique documents spread across 25 unique collections in 3 separate archival repositories. The glossed people, places, and institutions in this document link to a median of 5 other records.

Though these appear to be no more than numbers on the page, this is the raw data of a complex series of geographic, economic, social, personal, and political networks that bound 1860s Kentuckians to one another, to the nation, to the war, and to the world. The patterns in these accession numbers suggest fascinating research questions which the user can further explore through documents themselves. What shared interest led twenty of the signers of this petition to appear in another document KYR-0001-004-0121? What political or personal factors inclined the individuals named in this document to appear more frequently in collections associated with Bramlette (145 documents) than Magoffin (50 documents)? What does the appearance of Zachariah Sherley and his business partner Richard Woolfolk in documents from all three repositories suggest about the breadth of their interaction with state institutions? Might this suggest ways in which their steamboat-supplying firm benefited from military mobilization?

The entries from this document also highlight what CWG-K can do with even the most fragmentary information. A man named Donheimer, for example, testified in the case related to Brockman’s petition, but we know nothing further of him—not even his given name. CWG-K will, nevertheless, create a glossary entry for him and include what information can be gleaned from the document. Even though what we know of Donheimer is limited now, the open-ended nature of a born-digital project allows CWG-K to expand the entry as new documents are identified and transcribed and as the CWG-K universe becomes populated with more interconnected historical actors. The point is not that we know very little about Donheimer now. Rather, it is that we may learn more about him in the future, and, even if not, scholars will use the networks of which he forms a part.

This document reveals how researchers will be able to visualize and study the interactions Kentuckians had with their neighbors, their governments, and their enemies, linking an untold number of individuals—enslaved and free, men and women, Union and Confederate—together in an interconnected web of relationships. CWG-K will be an unimaginably powerful tool for studying the whole of a society under the strains of civil war.

Patrick A. Lewis is Project Director of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

CWG-K’s “Best of” – 2015 Edition

2015 was an eventful year for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition. Numerous fellows utilized the power of the ever-growing database (you can apply to be one here), we are steadily approaching the launch of an Early Access edition of 10,000 documents and transcriptions and a Beta prototype. Governor’s Day — an interactive open house introducing the project to other departments at the Kentucky Historical Society — was a major success.

To recap the year, we’ve organized a series of “Best of” lists that chronicle everything from our individual takes on the most powerful people of Civil War Kentucky to the most memorable deaths to time travel (more on this anon). We hope you’ll enjoy reading these lists these as much as we enjoyed creating them.

POWER RANKINGS: Based on their own criteria, each member of the CWG-K editorial staff was asked to rank a “Power 5” group of figures found in the database.

Tony

  1. George W. Johnston – Powerful Judge of the Louisville City Court, a Louisville/Jefferson County pardon application was never complete and rarely received a positive reply without his signature.
  2. John B. Huston – Besides competing for the worst handwriting award for Civil War Kentucky—stiff competition from James F. Robinson and James Guthrie—Huston was a power broker, attorney and state legislator from central Kentucky, whose endorsement of a pardon application carried a lot of weight with multiple Kentucky governors.
  3. John B. Temple – Attorney, banker, and president of the Kentucky Military Board—Temple exerted a lot of power in all Kentucky military matters. He and the Military Board of Kentucky were de facto Commander-in-chief of Kentucky, slowly whittling away Beriah Magoffin’s military authority with the aid of the Kentucky General Assembly.
  4. George W. Norton – President of the Southern Bank of Kentucky, he was a Magoffin ally, made sizable loans the Commonwealth of Kentucky to support Magoffin in his efforts to purchase arms early in the war. Other banks made similar investments, yet Norton appeared to have the ear of the governor.
  5. C. D. Pennebaker – Lawyer, politician, Colonel of the 27th Kentucky Infantry, and Kentucky Military Agent in Washington, DC. He served in the legislature, commanded troops in battle, and served in a civilian military post for Kentucky in DC. In addition to this he wrote the more thorough letters and reports. Kudos Mr. Pennebaker!

Matt

  1. W. T. Samuels – Not unlike Matt Damon’s character in The Good Shepherd, Samuels had the dirt on everyone following his stint as state auditory. Given his knowledge of everyone’s finances and his legal prowess, he was a potential kingmaker in the Blue Grass. (In other words, there’s a reason he’s one of the few through-and-through Unionists to remain powerful in state government post-1865.)
  2. D. W. Lindsay – He commanded a crew of paid guerrilla hunters under the heading of “secret police”; these men, like Edwin “Bad Ed’ Terrell, were paid to track down and kill Kentucky’s most notorious bushwhackers.
  3. Stephen Burbridge – Though he technically fell under the authority of Thomas Bramlette in Kentucky, Burbridge more or less did as he pleased, which included deeming other powerful Union officers (like Gen. John B. Huston) disloyal and having them arrested on behalf of President Lincoln.
  4. Thomas Bramlette – As governor he oversaw nearly all of the state’s wartime activities—and was still expected to keep civil government afloat.
  5. E. H. Taylor, Sr. – Taylor was a member of the influential Military Board (which oversaw military purchases for the state) at the same time he helped run one of the state’s major money-lenders. If you needed a loan—and Kentucky always needed a loan—this was the man to see.

Whitney

  1. Thomas Bramlette – He takes first place by virtue of holding the highest office for the longest amount of time, evidenced by almost 3,000 documents.
  2. John W. Finnell – As Adjutant General, principal military advisor to Gov. Bramlette while a war was raging, he was in a very influential role.
  3. Samuel Suddarth – Serving as Quarter Master General, Suddarth was tasked with keeping the troops supplied by managing the ordering & distributing of supplies essential to the war effort.
  4. James F. Robinson – Though he served as Governor for a short time, he was part of a compromise wherein the Confederate-leaning Magoffin agreed to step down and let Robinson, a moderate, take over. Interestingly, since he never resigned his Senate seat, he technically filled both rolls simultaneously.
  5. James Garrard – He served as State Treasurer throughout the war, and as Mayer Amschel Rothschild allegedly said, “Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who makes the laws.”

Patrick

  1. James F. Robinson – Don’t let his one-year term as Governor fool you, Robinson played state politics as adeptly as Frank Underwood could have done. While we can’t know if he pushed anyone in front of a train, Robinson adeptly turned down the senate speakership before having a cabal of Lexington friends arrange Magoffin’s resignation and his convoluted ascension to the Executive Mansion. As George Washington showed, the best way to accrue power is to look like you don’t want it. More astonishingly, Robinson refused to vacate his senate seat, leaving him free to return to harassing the Lincoln administration via the Committee on Federal Relations after Bramlette took office.
  2. Hamilton Pope – Louisville politics ran through Hamilton Pope. An old-Whig and former Know-Nothing, Pope was undoubtedly part of the closed-door decision that cut Louisville German and Irish immigrants out of independent regiments and elevated his brother, Curran Pope, to a Colonelcy. In addition to being an invaluable petition signature for anyone hoping for a pardon out of the Jefferson Circuit Court, Pope also runs point on using city government and the police department to enforce (increasingly irrelevant) fugitive slave laws.
  3. Rufus K. Williams – A fiercely Unionist circuit judge from the overwhelmingly Confederate Jackson Purchase, Williams raised a military unit and used his recruits to broker a deal for himself. When the time came to muster his troops into federal service, Williams traded a permanent military commission for a seat on the Kentucky Court of Appeals (the forerunner of the state supreme court) vacated by rebel sympathizer Alvin Duvall—ditching a hostile local electorate for a secure post backed by the statewide Unionist majority.
  4. Madison C. Johnson – His brother, rebel governor George W. Johnson, gets all the headlines in the family, but Madison Johnson controlled most of the available credit in the Bluegrass via the Northern Bank of Kentucky in Lexington. Johnson arranged hundreds of thousands of dollars in military loans to the Commonwealth in 1861-62—and was never hesitant to hold up the next installment to ease along a friend’s military commission. His loans to the state, backed by eventual federal repayment, helped his bank weather the collapse of many borrowers’ fortunes after slavery ended in 1865.
  5. Sherley & Woolfolk – This Louisville corporate duo of Zachariah M. Sherley and Richard H. Woolfolk often appear together in documents. Their firm ran a number of steamboats along the Ohio River and operated an outfitting business that sold supplies to others. Consequently, whether the state needed to move a battalion from Maysville to Paducah or buy a few barrels of ships biscuit to feed a hungry regiment, Sherley & Woolfolk were ready and willing to profit. That they signed insider political petitions under their corporate name shows an awareness of the importance of their business to the management of the war and, perhaps, some intuition for hammering home a branding message.

MOST MEMORABLE NAMES: Our editors have compiled a list of the most memorable names encountered in the CWG-K database in 2015.

  • Greenberry Tingle
  • Swift Raper
  • Wam Timbar (involved in a hatchet-throwing case, if you can believe it)
  • Green Forrest
  • August Worms

MOST MEMORABLE DEMISE: If you’ve followed the CWG-K blog over the past few months, it’s readily apparent that the database has no paucity of unusual and/or gruesome deaths. Each editor has selected the most memorable demise.

Tony

  • Jane Doe Murder Victim – In October 1865, evidence was presented concerning the corpse of a woman, approximately twenty-five years old, found on the outskirts of Louisville. The following is a description of her condition: “Her wounds are as follows a cut over each Eye one on forehand Forehead one just in front of Right Ear. Several Bruises on inside of right thigh and a wound which looked as though the flesh was twisted out her intestines was puled from her body through the Fundament Showing an act of the moste Diabolical rufianian the intestines cut or pulled loose from her body. Her cloths were all torn off of her not a Partickel remaining on her except one garter. Her right arm had been amputated just below the shoulder. the Evidences was plain of a sever strugle with some one from all I can learn I think a Negro did it.”

Matt

  • Ewing Litterell – An uninvited Litterell drunkenly barged into the home of James Savage, proclaimed himself “a stud horse” and boasted that he’d had sexual relations with all of the women in the house (and that he would do it again whenever he pleased). Savage let a full load of buckshot — which he fired into Litterell’s chest — serve as a “no you won’t.”

Whitney

  • Philip Medard – In January 1864, Philip Medard of Jefferson County died of cold and starvation after his son, Jacob Medard, “did confine & Starve his said father in an out house & kitchen & did starve and freeze him the said Philip by refusing to provide meat & food & clothing for him, & by thus exposing him to the weather.” There are definitely more violent deaths in the CWG-K database, but to date, only one happened in the out house.

Patrick

  • Colonel Francis M. Alexander – In what seems to have been an un-diagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder, Alexander drew a pistol on and killed a good friend without any motive or memory of the incident. His pardon petition is a moving account of a man coming to grips with his actions and his state of mind. “The exciting circumstances of the rebellion and its fearful consequences…which in rapid and mournful succession swept over his native, and beloved State, have Come upon his anxious and troubled mind with such force, that many events have transpired in his history during the last four years of his country’s trial, which appear to him almost as a dream.”

MOST OUTRAGEOUS PARDON: A major component of the CWG-K archive is requests for executive clemency. Each member of the editorial staff was tasked with identifying the most memorable pardon of 2015.

Tony

  • Otha Reynolds – In May 1862, Peter Gastell jumped bail and caused his bondholder, Reynolds, to forfeit $1000 to the court. That is, until Reynolds petitioned Governor Thomas Bramlette for clemency. Bramlette gave no legal justification for issuing Reynolds a remission, but said this: “Being in a merciful mood Ordered that this forfeiture except costs & fees be remitted.”

Matt

  • Michael Foley – An Irish rail worker and former Union vet, Foley believed that Merritt and Vardiman Dicken were pro-Confederate guerrillas on the run. In reality, the Dicken brothers were themselves fleeing from an attack by pro-Confederate bushwhackers. Foley attempted to detain the brothers and killed Merritt in the process. Governor Thomas E. Bramlette granted Foley a full pardon on the logic that it was better to accidentally kill men who might not have been guerrillas than to let any potential guerrillas escape unharmed.

Whitney

  • Garrett Whitson – Supporters of Garrett Whitson successfully requested his pardon for murdering violent melon thief, John Spikard. In the petition, they do not claim his innocence, but rather report that Whitson was convicted on the flimsy evidence of two notorious prostitutes, relatives of the deceased. That, combined with his ill health and large family, was enough to procure his release.

Patrick

  • Lawrence County Lynch Mob – In KYR-0001-004-3193, the members of a lynch mob on the Kentucky-West Virginia border preemptively write to Governor Bramlette late in 1865 after they have caught and summarily executed members of a pro-Confederate guerrilla band which had murdered many men in their community. “In getting Rid of them People Did not think that the act was unlawful & might get those Engaged in it in Trouble They only felt that Each man woman and child in our Valley was safer than before.”

TIME TRAVEL MEETING: Finally, we’ve asked each editor to select one character from the CWG-K archive that they would most like to spend an hour with when the Flux Capacitor becomes a reality.

Tony

  • Richard Hawes – Mostly to ask, where were you? What did you do for three years after you were installed as Provisional Governor of Kentucky?

Matt

  • Joseph Swigert – In a word: bourbon. The Swigert family owned the Leestown Distillery (which would later become E. H. Taylor’s O. F. C. Plant, then the George T. Stagg Distillery, and today Buffalo Trace).

Whitney

  • Sarah Bingham – It’s safe to say that upon moving to Grant County in 1866, Ms. Bingham did not receive a warm welcome from the neighbors. The women of the area “were of the opinion that the morals of the neighborhood would not be improved by having in their midst a common prostitute.”  When her cabin burned down, nine local men indicted for arson. The petitioners claim these men were honorable, respectable citizens who would never commit such a common crime and accuse Sarah Bingham of burning her own house down with the intent to disgrace these men. Their petition was refused by Bramlette, who, like myself, must have realized there was more to this story.

Patrick

 

 

The Moral of a “Christmas Frolic” in the Commonwealth

By Matthew C. Hulbert

(Thomas Nast, 1864)

Lincoln inviting Confederate soldiers to dinner on Christmas. (Thomas Nast, 1864)

Popular narratives of the Civil War—and of World War I and World War II, for that matter—are replete with stories of soldiers putting aside their martial differences to celebrate Christmas. We hear of men setting down their arms and leaving their breastworks to be “normal,” if only for a single, special day. Then, once the holy day has passed, they return to the business of killing each other with gruesome efficiency. A precious few of these tales are actually true, while many more still are wishful thinking at best and entirely apocryphal at worst. In either case, though, they illustrate how our most basic inclination is to understand wartime holidays in romantic fashion; that is, through the hearts and minds of gallant, civilized soldiers from the regular rank and file—men serving far from home and hearth, but still managing to muster a little holiday spirit.

How did we develop this inclination? In part, it was to forget episodes of Yuletide degeneracy like this one from the Civil War Governors of Kentucky DDE database:

On Christmas Eve, 1863, John Cole approached his friend R. E. Finch and, for reasons unexplained, “pulled Finches whiskers.” Seeing as both men were “considerably under the influence of Liquor,” this affront to Finch’s mustache quickly escalated and—not surprisingly in Civil War Kentucky—would end with an attempted homicide. After having his whiskers pulled, a stunned Finch attempted to retreat, but Cole followed him outside and threatened to cut his throat. Cole then allegedly reached into his pocket in a menacing fashion. Now fearing for his life, Finch remarked that “if Shoot is your game here goes” before drawing a concealed pistol of his own and shooting Cole in the groin. As Cole fell to the ground, he theatrically announced the obvious to onlookers: he’d been shot!

At first glance, the sad saga of Cole and Finch doesn’t make for a very festive or heartwarming vignette. But then again, is the mistake all ours to expect the homefront of a war-torn border state to have been festive or heartwarming in the first place? After all, Kentucky wasn’t just at the center of a broader struggle between civilizations—as a microcosm of that conflict, it was also a place seemingly at war with itself. Citizens on the homefront, men like Cole and Finch, were well armed. (Parents in the 1860s weren’t nearly as worried about children shooting an eye out…) They had easy access to copious amounts of alcohol. (Art Carney would approve...) Moreover, they seemed to have absorbed something of the explosive, violent temperament inherent to the guerrilla conflict that raged all around them. (If only guerrillas bounced like Bumbles…)

Despite all of these negative factors working against the passing of a Merry Christmas in Civil War Kentucky—and just when you thought all hope was lost and a visit from the Krampus imminent—Cole and Finch actually became the exception that helps prove the rule. When the pair had a chance to sober up and think about how they’d embarrassed themselves on one of the holiest days of the year, Cole apologized for pulling Finch’s whiskers, Finch apologized for shooting Cole in the crotch and agreed to pay his medical bills, and the two wrote their dispute off as nothing more than a “Chistmas Frolic.” In light of their return to friendly terms, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette remitted all fines associated with the case.

 (Gods and Generals, Turner Pictures, 2003)

Christmas pals? You betcha. (“Gods and Generals,” Turner Pictures, 2003)

So no, we shouldn’t have expected a happy holiday in a place where life was generally filled with bloodshed and terror. And yes, lives having been filled with bloodshed and terror is one of the major reasons we collectively choose to re-remember the war and focus on bright spots—like soldiers temporarily coming together to celebrate Christmas (whether it really happened or not). But Cole and Finch both survived their fight, they both learned a moral lesson, and both were rewarded with a remission of fines. In the archive of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, this is about as close to a Christmas Miracle as it gets.

 

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.


SOURCES: R. S. Crumpton to Thomas E. Bramlette, 29 October 1864, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter KDLA); W. M. Fisher et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, n. d., KDLA; C. D. Reeds et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, 24 May 1865, KDLA; S. T. Crowdus to Thomas E. Bramlette, 13 July 1865, KDLA; B. R. Walker, Affidavit, n. d., KDLA; W. H. Roper et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, n. d., KDLA.

It’s a Hard Knock Life for… Everyone: The Laws of “Universal Adulthood” in Civil War Kentucky

By Matthew C. Hulbert

spencer1In 1865, a jury of Covington (KY) residents slapped William Spencer with a 3 ½ year sentence for stealing a pair of pants from a fellow boarder. Now, if you’re at all familiar with previous CWG-K bloggings, you know that convicted murderers, rapists, and rampaging guerrillas frequently found themselves on the business end of far lighter sentences than Spencer (and sometimes without any sentences at all). What makes this case all the more compelling, however, is that by modern standards—that is, by contemporary, western ones—William Spencer was still a child at the time of his trial. According to affidavits, he was “left an orphan at two years of age and was tenderly reared by his Grandparents who were worthy members of the Methodist Church.” His grandparents died soon after and, while living with an uncle, young William fell in with “bad associations.” At roughly fifteen years of age, he quit “Sabbath School,” ran away from home, found a job, lost it, and was induced by poverty to steal the aforementioned pair of trousers.

At first take, sending a fifteen year old boy to the state penitentiary—a facility brimming with much older, more violent inmates—for stealing a pair of pants seems unthinkable. Even more so when we recall that the pants weren’t even new and couldn’t have been worth more than a few dollars. In reality, though, this wasn’t all that unusual of an occurrence in Civil War Kentucky. To put things mildly, perceptions of adolescence and understandings of how the law should be applied to children was a combined mess.

turman1Take for example the legal woes of James L. Turman, a tavern owner in Boyd County, who was fined $50 for “selling liquor to an infant.” The legal drinking age in Kentucky was twenty-one, then as now, and Turman fully confessed to having sold spirits to Sobble Burgess in spring 1863. The barkeeper defended himself, however, owing to the facts that at the time of the sale, Burgess was twenty years old and representing himself as twenty-one, but was also “well grown,” “doing business for himself,” and had permission from his father to drink. Perhaps most strikingly of all, in May 1863 when he bought the drink, Burgess was a candidate in Catlettsburg’s mayoral election, which Turman assumed could only be so if Burgess was “in his majority.”

Then we have the case of John Watson, a fourteen year old boy who enlisted in the Provost Guard as a drummer in 1861. A couple of years later, when part of his battalion was mustered out of service, Watson “reenlisted in Capt Flares Mounted company 34th Ky Vols.” This move prompted Colonel W. Y. Dillard of the 34th Kentucky Infantry to write Governor Thomas E. Bramlette with a request to have John transferred to his command; apparently the Colonel had “promised his [Watson’s] widowed mother to take care of him So long as I remain in the service.” In other words, with the Union not facing troop shortages like the Confederacy, Dillard understood that Watson was still a child and believed that he didn’t belong in combat service. (Once under his purview, Dillard could have Watson put back into his role as a drummer boy.)

Around the same time Dillard was trying to secure a transfer for Watson, a “free man of color” named Peter Yager was being convicted of larceny. According to petitioners on his behalf, Peter “was charged with stealing Tobacco, which was tied up in large hands & handled indifferently, and upon the trial, the proof introduced established beyond a doubt, that said Boy Peter, raised & cured just such Tobacco.” They also argued that “the Boy Peter proved a good character from his youth up to said trial, for industry and honesty his age was also proven to be from 15 to 17 years.” Translation: Peter’s (white) defenders believed that a farmer had carelessly lost his own tobacco and then blamed Peter for stealing it to cover the loss, despite proof that the young man had raised his own crop. Even the town marshal who’d originally arrested Peter and the prosecutor who’d convicted him signed the plea for executive clemency.

akin1Finally, we come to the October 1863 saga of Graham Akin, a fourteen year old boy from Danville. Described as “very delicate & slender,” Akin was swinging in the gymnasium of the Frankfort-based Waterman School when Thomas Davenport, three or four years Akin’s senior and billed as “heavy & stout,” stood in front of the swing and refused to move. Akin tried to ignore the bully; “he continued his exercises and slightly brushed against Davenport, where-upon Davenport Choaked and otherwise maltreated Akin.” In response, Akin snapped: he “rushed into the house of Mr Waterman, sized his gun and shot Davenport with small shot.” A grand jury in Frankfort indicted Akin on a charge of “shooting, in sudden heat and passion … with intent to kill.” Despite being held on $6000 bond, when Akin pled guilty to the charges, he was found guilty and fined just $50.

So what happened to all of these “child criminals?” And more importantly, what sense can we make of their stories?

  1. In September 1863, John Turman had his fine remitted for selling liquor to a minor and, while it appears Sobble Burgess lost his bid for the mayor’s office, he was never legally disciplined for misleading Turman.
  2. In December 1863, William Spencer was pardoned after serving only about a month of his prison sentence; he went to live in New York with relatives and, as far as we can tell, stayed out of trouble.
  3. Unfortunately, we aren’t sure if John Watson was transferred to the care of Colonel Dillard—or if he survived the war.
  4. We do know, however, that freeman Peter Yager had served half of his prison term by the time his petition was rejected by Governor Thomas Bramlette and that he spent another six months in the state penitentiary. (This isn’t a major surprise: by 1863–64, Governor Bramlette did little to hide contempt for his African American constituents.)
  5. And, lastly, there’s Graham Akin, who pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was fined a whopping $50. Upon appeal to Governor Bramlette, his fine was remitted. Davenport, now sporting a nasty scar, presumably stopped picking on Akin.

As their cases collectively illustrate, from regulations on drinking and firearms to military service and everyday criminal offences, the law in Kentucky generally failed to take a consistent stance on children. On one hand, the state enforced a mandatory drinking age, which clearly transmitted the idea that some citizens (those under twenty one) were not yet considered “legal adults” by the law’s reckoning. But the state also allowed boys technically under the legal enlistment age to serve in the military, which immediately weakens the notion that mandatory age limits were strictly enforced across the board and calls into question how the state could justify not allowing a twenty year old citizen to drink whiskey on account of his age but saw no issue with handing him a rifle and sending him into Napoleonic combat. (A question many still ask of current drinking and enlistment laws in the United States.)

On the other hand, though, we see numerous instances of children either being punished as adults for petty crimes, such as stealing worthless pants, or being pardoned due to their youth and inexperience for very serious crimes, such as attempted murder. This indicates that to some extent, the legal code in Kentucky blanketed all of the state’s residents, regardless of age, with a “universal adulthood”—while at the very same time the people who supposedly made and maintained that legal code (the governor, judges, lawyers, town marshals, etc.) understood more often than not that children ought to have been afforded unique treatment by the justice system.

Why they didn’t take the time to update the books and infuse stability into the juvenile sector of the justice system is anyone’s guess, though being trapped in the middle of the bloodiest military conflict in American history probably had something to do with it. Regardless, Kentucky was the epitome of contradiction when it came to legally dealing with children in the 1860s. Then again, given the state’s penchant for Conservative Unionism, its self-injuring methods for combating irregular violence, and the peculiar, even counter-intuitive legal hoops it jumped through to protect slavery, when wasn’t Kentucky a contradiction during the Civil War?

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.


SOURCES: Richard Areson, Affidavit, n. d., Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter KDLA); Richard Areson to Thomas E. Bramlette, 24 Nov 1865, KDLA; James L. Furman to James F. Robinson, 4 May 1863, KDLA; Charles B. Cotton to Thomas E. Bramlette, 6 Jan 1864, KDLA; P. U. Major, W. H. Sneed, and John M. Hewitt, Jr. to Thomas E. Bramlette, 23 Oct 1863, KDLA; S. D. Delaney et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, n. d., KDLA; H. M. Pierce to Beriah Magoffin, 28 May 1861, KDLA; W. Y. Dillard to Thomas E. Bramlette, 9 March 1864, KDLA; W. L. Jermane to Thomas E. Bramlette, 28 Nov 1865; KDLA.

Protecting Slavery in a Union State: The Letter vs. the Spirit of the Law

By Matthew C. Hulbert

In October 1863, the Mason Circuit Court (based in Mason County, Kentucky) hit Peter Miller, a legally licensed tavern owner, with maximum fine of $50 for tippling. If this strikes you as odd, it’s because by its very definition in 1863, tippling meant selling alcohol or operating a tavern in which said spirits were sold without a license. Miller balked at the ruling. “I have kept a Bar in Maysville for a number of years,” he noted confidently, “and have always endeavored to comply with the strict letter and spirit of the law.” The fundamental hang-up in the Commonwealth v. Peter Miller, however, was that in this case the letter and spirit of the law actually veered in wildly different directions at the crossroads of slavery.

Chapter 212 of the Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Passed, Volume I, published in 1856, dealt specifically with the sale of spirituous, malt, or vinous liquors to both slaves and “free negroes.” (Note: the law more or less assumed that all slaves would be African American and thus did not label them “enslaved negroes.”) The statute read as follows:

It shall not be lawful for any person or persons in this commonwealth, either with or without a license, to sell, give, or loan to any slave or slaves, not under his or her control, any spirituous, malt, or vinous liquors, unless it is done upon the written order of the owner or person having the legal control of the service, for the time being, of such slave or slaves; and the written order here meant shall clearly specify the quantity to be sold, given, or loaned, and name the slave or slaves, and shall be dated and signed; and such order shall only be good for the one sale, loan, or gift; and the persons violating the provisions of this act shall be liable to pay the owner not less than twenty nor more than fifty dollars, or to be confined in the jail of the county, where such conviction is had, not less than thirty days nor more than six months, or may be both fined and imprisoned, at the discretion of a jury, for each offense, and also be liable for any actual damage sustained, to be recovered by suit in any court having jurisdiction.

The circumstances of Miller’s case aren’t all that complicated. In fall 1863, a “free negro barber,” Nathaniel Oldham, rented “the negro boy Ed” from a local slave-owner named Samuel W. Wood. And, according to undisputed court testimony, “while thus hired to Oldham, the boy and Oldham his master for the time, drank at Peter Millers bar and purchased from him at the County of Mason upon one occasion, the whiskey & beer drank having been furnished for & paid for by him in the presence of and at the instance of Oldham the free negro to whom he was hired.” So Miller was charged with tippling not for selling without a license, but for selling to someone who wasn’t allowed to be drinking alcohol, licensed or not. The bartender had a sturdy defense: Oldham temporarily owned Ed by virtue of the labor deal with Wood and that as Ed’s temporary master, Oldham held final authority over his chattel’s ability to consume alcoholic beverages. Miller further contended that Ed’s permanent owner, Samuel Wood, “cared nothing about the matter” and that the conviction had only been delivered because “political excitement was bitter at the time.”

Peter Miller on his Indictment

“Political excitement was bitter at the time and I was indicted…”

The law clearly favored Miller, especially on two points. First, As Ed’s temporary master, Oldham had legal control of Ed’s services and was in a position to legally purchase him liquor (re: “unless it is done upon the written order of the owner or person having the legal control of the service”); and, second, Miller clearly stated that the drinking only occurred once and it doesn’t appear that anyone disputed the assertion in court (re: “and such order shall only be good for the one sale, loan, or gift”).

The elephant in the room, then, is how Peter Miller was ever convicted of anything in the first place?

Our answer here lies not with the letter of the law—but with its spirit. The “political excitement” Miller referenced revolved around the increasingly-tenuous position of slavery in Kentucky. Lincoln’s war aims were changing; the demise of the Peculiar Institution had become a real possibility if the Confederacy faltered now and Conservative Unionists in Kentucky weren’t particularly pleased about it. (If slavery in the Confederacy went, what chance did it have in the nominally-loyal Border States?) So while he’d technically broken no laws in the Commonwealth, by serving two black men in his tavern—one free and openly exhibiting mastery over a slave, just like his white counterparts might do—Miller had violated the social and cultural mores that governed his own local, white community. In turn, the offended members of that community chose to ignore (that is, completely misappropriate) the particulars of the statute and punished Miller for his breeching of racial protocol.

Upon receiving Miller’s petition for executive clemency, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette quickly reversed the decision and remitted the $50 fine. In the process of interpreting the law, Bramlette exposed an ironic weakness within the institution’s white supremacist foundation: the spirit of slavery in Kentucky was unquestionably based on race (white > black) and constituted a pillar of the state’s social hierarchy (white slaveholders > white non-slaveholders > any African Americans).

But to protect the integrity of the legal codes which were intended to govern the behavior of slaves and how white Kentuckians interacted with them, Bramlette was forced to concede that, according to the letter of the law, a black master (albeit a temporary one in Nathaniel Oldham) could exert the same authority and claim the same legal rights as a white master. In short, Bramlette was forced to reckon with an unanswerable question: which was a higher priority, maintaining the racial hierarchy, or maintaining the institution (slavery) that enforced the racial hierarchy? Luckily, for thousands of men and women like Ed, before Governor Bramlette left office, President Lincoln and the Union army made his decision a moot point.

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.


SOURCES: Peter Miller to Thomas E. Bramlette, 12 Nov 1863, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter KDLA); Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Peter Miller, Judgment, n.d., KDLA; Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Passed, Volume I (Frankfort, KY: A. G. Hodges, State Printer, 1856), 42-44.

The Conundrum of Gun Control in War-torn Kentucky

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Gun control—particularly when it concerns the ability of private citizens to carry concealed firearms in public—is one of the most controversial and hotly-contested political issues twenty-first-century America has to offer. Conceptions of the past often play a major role in how the debate is framed. When we imagine the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, there’s a tendency to envision everyone (minus slaves) legally carrying a weapon whenever, wherever, and perhaps most importantly, however, he or she wished. From frontiersmen (see Jeremiah Johnson [1972]) and quick-drawing shootists (see The Outlaw Josey Wales [1976]) to gamblers and their belly guns (see Maverick [1994]) or even Jim West’s spring-loaded Derringer (see The Wild West [1965-69]), pop culture has done much to reify that America was, in its “frontier days,” a gun-toting nation. What most observers don’t realize, however, is that this seemingly modern debate over the right to bear arms has actually been raging since the 1860s—and nowhere was it more intense than Civil War Kentucky.

In May 1866, John L. Peyton was indicted in the Hopkins Circuit Court for carrying “concealed deadly weapons,” which essentially meant that he’d left home with a revolver tucked under his coat or hidden in a pocket. The law in Kentucky that regulated concealed weapons dated back to March 1854:

Sec. I. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky: That if any person shall hereafter carry concealed any deadly weapons, other than an ordinary pocket knife, except as provided in the next section, he shall be fined on the first conviction not less than fifty nor more than one hundred dollars, and on any subsequent conviction not less than one hundred nor more than five hundred dollars.

Sec. II. That the carrying of concealed deadly weapons shall be legal in the following cases:

  1. Where the person has reasonable grounds to believe his person, or the person of some of big family, or his property, is in danger from violence or crime.
  2. Where sheriffs, constables, marshals, and policemen carry such weapons as are necessary to their protection in the efficient discharge of their duty.
  3. Where persons are required by their business or occupation to travel during the night, the carrying concealed deadly weapons during such travel.

Sec. III. This act shall be given in charge by the judges to the grand juries.

According to his supporters, Peyton had good reason not to travel in Hopkins County without a gun. In February 1866, he’d been appointed the Superintendent of Freedman’s Affairs there and charged with overseeing the transition from bondage to citizenship of the area’s African American population. Neither task nor title won Peyton many new friends among local Conservative Unionists (those who’d remained loyal to the Union for sake of protecting the institution of slavery) or among Rebel guerrilla bands (some of whom hadn’t yet called it quits in 1866).

Peyton’s defenders dispatched a petition to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette requesting that the charge be dropped. Their plea was based on two mitigating factors. First, that “being an officer of law, duly appointed, and acting and believing it to be his [Peyton’s] right and that the circumstances eminently justified it, did carrying a Colts Navy Revolver about the country for protection, during a part of his term of office.” And second, “that it would have been unsafe for said Peyton or any one else in the discharge of a similar office in said county, to have gone unarmed in the country, owing to the presence of late Guerrillas and lawless characters, who would have delighted to murder the ‘Nigger Bureau’ as he was decisively and maliciously called by them.” In other words, Peyton’s circumstances adhered to the letter of the law; carrying a concealed weapon was a de facto requirement of his job and to condemn a man in his line of work for doing so was like asking him to commit suicide.

This was a problem Noah Allen faced a county away while defending himself against an identical charge in the Crittenden Circuit Court. Though not an agent of the Freedman’s Bureau, Allen was a discharged Federal soldier (formerly of the 17th Kentucky Cavalry) and, like many of his ilk, had been allowed to retain his sidearm for purposes of personal protection. Petitioners on his behalf noted that the “country was filled with desperate men, and Union soldiers were being murdered everywhere.” Worse still, while the law appeared to favor Allen’s case, the men doing the murdering seemed to control the justice system. “Our Rebel jury,” Allen’s supporters continued, “were not satisfied until he [Allen] was indicted” even though “Rebels carry their arms every where and not one have they ever been indicted.”

A few years prior to the petitions from Peyton and Allen, Bramlette had been asked to intervene in the legal proceedings against Richard Murray (1863) and Brutus J. Clay (1864). Murray, of Munfordville, Kentucky, was convicted of possessing a concealed deadly weapon and fined $100 when a revolver he was apparently hiding in his pants discharged and resulted in a serious injury. According to a petition penned on Murray’s behalf, he was unable to pay the $100 penalty for carrying the weapon because “he is now a cripple and will be for life” as a result of his self-inflicted wound.

skein imageClay, the son of noted Kentuckian Cassius M. Clay (and the namesake of Cassius’s brother, Brutus), was walking along the road one afternoon and stopped to throw a rock at a pigeon; he missed, and the stone projectile struck a bridge house. The bridge keeper, a Mr. Gale, became enraged and threatened to assault Clay—but retreated when the young man produced a revolver that had been concealed in his clothing. While their situations seem far more trivial than former Union soldiers being hunted by pro-Confederate guerrillas or a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg—and while neither seemed to meet the justifications for concealed carry as stipulated by state law—Bramlette granted each a pardon because he believed that “in a time of Civil War when every loyal man ought to be armed for defense; I think none should be fined for being armed.”

The cases of Peyton, Allen, Murray, and Clay underscored a set of deep, interconnected problems that plagued Kentucky—and its governors—during the war and its immediate aftermath. Though the state had remained loyal to the Union, many Kentuckians had only done so to protect their hold on slave labor and white supremacy. When war broke out in 1861, they couldn’t have imagined Lincoln or his Republican allies in Washington D. C. punishing their loyalty; even so, the Peculiar Institution was eradicated and, in response, violence against newly-freed African Americans and their supporters—that is, men like Peyton—exploded. (So much so that Kentucky became one of only two non-Confederate states to elicit the presence of Freedman’s Bureau agents.)

And then there were the guerrillas. Bramlette and his top commanders had struggled mightily to control them during the war and fared little better during Reconstruction, as irregular activity took on a decidedly pro-white, as opposed to anti-American hue. In turn, ex-guerrillas found more generalized support among white former Unionists. This alliance, combined with restrictive gun laws in the Commonwealth, made life exceedingly precarious for the likes of Peyton and Allen. On one hand, statutes against concealed weapons existed to protect civilians from guerrillas and outlaws—but did little to help former soldiers and current government agents when those civilians turned on them, formed terror organizations, and became guerrillas and outlaws. On the other hand, the “shenanigans” performed by Murray and Clay underscored that even in times of war, loyal men with concealed weapons could often do more harm than good—and made it difficult to justify officially loosening the reins on concealed carry during the war or afterward.

At first glance, the solution seems so obvious: to openly carry a sidearm. It was, after all, perfectly legal to do so in Kentucky during and after the war. In reality, though, there wasn’t a solution outside of carrying concealed weapons for Peyton and Allen, and both seem to have known it. To go totally unarmed meant certain harassment and potential assassination. To go armed so brazenly, however, essentially invited a fight; more to the point, it invited a fight with men who’d spent the war perfecting the art of killing and evading capture—and who had the ability to influence when and how juries enforced the 1854 statute. For lack of a better, more formal description, this scenario was simply a “lose-lose” for Peyton and Allen, a direct and unavoidable consequence of Kentucky’s unique Civil War and Reconstruction experience.

In the bigger picture, it was also a systemic problem for Thomas Bramlette and the state’s pro-Union government. Bramlette’s chief task as governor was to protect his loyal constituents—but as the nature of Kentucky’s war created a necessity for citizens to arm themselves in self-defense from guerrillas run amok on the homefront, it simultaneously created a necessity for Bramlette to more strictly enforce extant guns laws to protect certain citizens (read: Richard “the leg shooter” Murray) from themselves. It simply wasn’t possible for Bramlette to assuage both needs at once and the consequences of this inability continue to echo: the conundrum of self-protection vs. protection from self has been debated for 150 years since and shows no signs of abatement.

 

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.


SOURCES: J. A. Skein to Thomas E. Bramlette, 6 Nov 1863, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter KDLA); G. T. Wood et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, 10 Nov 1863, KDLA; Brutus J. Clay Affidavit, 19 March 1864, KDLA; R. J. Littlepage et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, n.d., KDLA; Richard H. Stanton, The Revised Statutes of Kentucky, Volume I (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1867), 414.

Mental Health and Criminal Justice in Civil War Kentucky

By Matthew C. Hulbert

In 1862, Thomas Edrington shot and killed his wife at point-blank range. A murder trial ensued — the verdict of which hinged largely on the matter of Thomas’s sanity and the court’s consideration of his health…

To find out what happened to Thomas Edrington and how CWG-K documents can help us understand the intersection of mental health, crime, and legal justice in Civil War Kentucky, please check out this week’s dispatch from the CWG-K archives graciously hosted by Nursing Clio.

One Time in Civil War Kentucky…: Intemperance and Crime on the Homefront

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Within the database of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, cases abound of alcohol-related crimes: gambling, vandalism, larceny, tippling, rape, and even murder. This shouldn’t land as much of a surprise: law enforcement distracted by a war on the homefront, hard economic times, easy access to deadly weapons, and even easier access to liquor all tended to mix as poorly in the mid-nineteenth century as in the present. In the simplest terms, as the following four cases will underscore, Civil War Kentucky was a stage set for tragic—and oft-times bizarre—intersections of intemperance and crime.

The last words of an inebriated Ewing Litterell.

The last words of an inebriated Ewing Litterell.

We begin with the booze-fueled demise of Ewing Litterell. On a spring evening in 1858, he arrived—intoxicated and uninvited—at the Savage household. There, James Savage lived and cared for his elderly parents, while also providing for his younger sisters. According to court testimony, Litterell burst into the house “with a pale of whiskey” in hand and “declared his intention to have a frolic.” James vehemently protested the intrusion and commanded Litterell to leave. In response, Litterell “exposed his person in the presence of the family” and proclaimed that “he was a stud horse and had had intercourse with all the family both mother and sisters and would do so again when it suited his convenience.” To this final insult, James Savage responded not with his mouth, but with his rifle; Litterell fell dead in his tracks. Savage was charged with manslaughter and imprisoned for five years before receiving a pardon in September 1863.

Now consider the plight of 70-year-old John Branstetter, once an upstanding citizen, but by June 1864, a virulent alcoholic. As described by men petitioning Governor Thomas Bramlette to remit a gambling fine on his behalf, Branstetter had generally been known as a “sober & discreet man.” That is, until an encounter with Confederate guerrillas derailed his life. In addition to being robbed of “a great deal of his property,” Branstetter’s two sons “joined an independent company called the ‘Metcalfe Tigers’ for the purpose of hunting down guerrillas & were exposed to many dangers.” The thought of his boys gunned down in the bush by heartless marauders drove John Branstetter straight into the bottle. To be fair, he certainly wouldn’t have been the only father to cope with a son’s military service by drinking. But, as the petitioners also revealed, Branstetter wasn’t your average drunk—liquor made him “delirious and wild.” He became so untamed, in fact, that he literally had to be “guarded” by neighbors once a drinking spree ensued. His plea for clemency was rejected.

Next, we have the account of Mary Doolin, who was “shot & died from Effects of same, by a gun in hands of one Thomas Kinsloe.” Supporters of Kinsloe alleged that he’d come home one day in October 1864 to find Doolin drunk in his house. The two had always been friends, but on this day, for reasons unexplained, “he & her had a fuss” in which “she tried to scald him.” Kinsloe grabbed and aimed a shotgun at Doolin, though, if we believe his side of the story, he believed the gun unloaded and only intended to scare her. Regardless of what Kinsloe believed, when he pulled the trigger, smoke and lead shot erupted from the barrel, the latter striking his stunned target in the hip. The wound proved quite serious and the rest of Mary Doolin’s life would not be pleasant. “She was taken to the hospital” where, after several days of agony, a group of “unskillful surgeons amputated her leg.” Doolin died soon after and Kinsloe went to prison—though he always claimed the surgeons had done more to kill Doolin than he had.

And, finally, we come to the legal troubles of Lafayatte Brafford and John Mullins. In spring 1862, a Kenton County jury found both men guilty of manslaughter following their roles in the death of a man named David McCullough. Everything had started a few weeks earlier when Brafford and Mullins, both “having indulged in drink too freely,” jumped into the carriage of a passing meat wagon. In the process, “Brafford by accident sat down in a bowl of sausage meat.” The wagon’s owner, the aforementioned McCullough, briefly scolded Brafford and Mullins. The pair of drunkards then followed McCullough back to his butcher’s shop, where a general melee ensued. Mullins attempted to enter the shop, but McCullough refused to let him in and blocked the doorway. In turn, Mullins shouted “You won’t do me that way!” to which McCullough responded by hitting him in the face with a two pound weight. Though staggered by the blow, Mullins managed to drag McCullough to the floor with him—at which time Brafford ran forward and stabbed McCullough three times with a small pocketknife. According to testimony, the wounds were only superficial, which explains how McCullough kept fighting.

A few minutes later, all three men were winded; they sat staring at each other on the steps of McCullough’s shop. Mullins asked McCullough if his nose was bleeding. McCullough informed Mullins that it was, in fact, and Mullins retorted that McCullough’s nose was also bleeding—just as he landed a brutal sucker punch to McCullough’s jaw. This ended the fight, but not for sake of the punch itself. Almost at once, all three men realized that their brawling had splintered a barrel and that one of the shards had punctured McCullough’s abdomen. The wound bled profusely and the butcher died twelve days later, almost certainly from infection. Despite their initial convictions, both Brafford and Mullins requested pardons from Governor Beriah Magoffin after only a few months in the state penitentiary. Their supporters alleged that “both Brafford & Mullins were intoxicated greatly” at the time of the assault and could not, therefore, truly be held responsible. (In other words, the liquor made them do it.) Moreover, Mullins apparently promised that “after the lesson of the past few months”—in which he’d drunkenly vandalized a man’s property and then helped kill him—he would “forever abandon intoxicating drink, & adhere to those habits of industry & sobriety for which he has been so uniformly noted during the years of his youth & early manhood.” Magoffin granted both pardons.

The sagas of Ewing Litterell, John Branstetter, and Mary Doolin are not recounted here to suggest that good things didn’t happen to people who drank excessively in Civil War Kentucky. (After all, it’s no great secret that the same booze that got Brafford and Mullins into trouble in the first place also formulated the grounds for the clemency they received from Magoffin. Occasionally, it seems, drunkenly committing a crime trumped committing it soberly.) However, it would also be incorrect to assume that bad things didn’t happen to non-drinkers. On that issue, look no further than James Savage, Thomas Kinsloe, or the unfortunate David McCullough who, when all was said and done, had essentially died over a man sitting in a bowl of sausage meat.

In the end, the flood of intemperance-related paperwork that crossed their respective desks should have made one thing abundantly clear to each of the state’s Civil War governors: between 1861 and 1865, the odds of finding oneself wild and delirious, arrested and fined, assaulted, stabbed, imprisoned, under the knife of incompetent surgeons, impaled by a barrel stave, or otherwise dying an unimaginably horrible death increased exponentially when distilled spirits entered the equation. But learning that lesson was one matter; attempting to force sobriety on a populace equal parts armed, enraged, and skeptical of government was another altogether. The smartest play any of the Civil War governors could make was probably to stick with the devil they knew—to let the people drink. And drink they did.

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.


SOURCES: M. P. Buster to Unknown, 28 Sep 1863, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter cited as KDLA); Robert Miller et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette, n. d., KDLA; Affidavit of George Shirley and E. Wilty, 13 June 1864, KDLA; John L. Sallee to James F. Robinson, 20 May 1863, KDLA; Benjamin Fink et al. to Beriah Magoffin, 30 July 1862, KDLA; A. J. Gray to Beriah Magoffin, n.d., KDLA.