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.