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.

Wanted, Dead or Alive: The Fugitive Jim Brown and the Price of Loyalty

By Matthew C. Hulbert

On Monday, April 1, 1861, a Henderson County physician, Dr. Waller Norwood, emerged from his home and matter-of-factly ordered a waiting slave to fetch his mount. The unnamed servant obeyed Norwood’s command; in the stable, however, he found more waiting than his master’s horse. Encamped in the hay loft, with little intention of coming down, was an African American man owned by Mrs. Saraphine Pentecost. Here were two men in different stages of enslavement—one still in a state of submission, at least physically, as the other waged a one-man revolt for emancipation—brought face-to-face by a fluke encounter. However random, or harmless, it might appear at first glance, the events set in motion by their meeting would drive the paranoia of Kentucky slaveholders to new heights and raise serious questions about the mortality of their Peculiar Institution as civil war engulfed the nation.

Puzzled by the news of a squatter in his stable, Norwood went to investigate for himself and did, indeed, find a man encamped in the hay loft. When asked to state his business, “the Negro replied that he had run away some days before from his mistress.” This declaration seems to have angered the doctor; he immediately ordered the runaway to climb down and surrender himself. According to an account of the incident later sent to Beriah Magoffin, then governor of Kentucky, the “negro replied by sundry threats” and refused to cut short his escape. Further enraged by this show of defiance, Norwood “then ordered the servant who was holding his horse to bring him his gun.” If the runaway wouldn’t come down from his perch peacefully, the doctor was determined to capture and return him to the Pentecosts by force.

The resolution would prove fatal.

As Norwood waited for a firearm, “the negro sprang towards him” and “at the same time shot him through the left breast, with a large dueling pistol.” The doctor “fell dead in his tracks.” Having heard the report of the gun, Mrs. Norwood came to investigate. She shrieked and sobbed hysterically at the sight of her slain husband—but his killer quickly pulled yet another pistol and she fled the scene. Norwood’s killer, who was eventually identified as Jim Brown, briefly admired his handiwork and “after leisurely viewing the dead body of the murdered man,” he “made for the woods.”

Norwood Reward

Citizens wrote to Governor Beriah Magoffin requesting a hefty reward for the capture of Jim Brown.

News of the assassination swept through Henderson and into surrounding counties. A well-respected white man—himself a slave owner—had been gunned down by an escaped slave. Posses formed, bloodhounds were summoned, and a coterie of outraged citizens convinced Magoffin to authorize a $500 bounty on Brown’s head. It could be earned dead or alive. Odds seemed to favor dead. As one spectator noted, “it is the universal opinion, that if taken, he will be immediately punished, without a moments hearing” as “those in search of him are armed with double barrel shotguns and will in all probability shoot him down upon sight.”

After a burst of activity, Brown’s trail went cold. For days, posses hunted the surrounding counties and turned up nothing. Varying descriptions of the fugitive circulated widely. One listed him as “about 5 feet 9 inches tall … weighs one hundred and fifty pound … quick spoken and fond of talking.” Another added that Brown had “a bushy head,” “whiskers under the chin,” was “of very dark brown color,” and distinguished by “eyes rather prominent.” With $500 on the line and so many men on the hunt in and around Henderson, Brown’s sole chance at permanently escaping bondage seemed to lie across the border in Indiana. But for reasons never fully explained, he actually stayed within a few miles of the scene of the crime, traveling by night and hiding in lofts and outbuildings during the day.

Eventually, the pursuers caught a break: they stumbled across an elderly slave woman who confessed to feeding Brown and pointed the posse in the direction of his last known hideaway—a nearby hayloft. Brown’s options quickly went from bad to worse. On one hand, he’d be returned to his master and made to stand trial. He’d be executed, no doubt, but might live for a few weeks in the meantime. On the other hand, he might throw down his gun and simply be killed on the spot. So as armed men surrounded the farm and cut off all routes of escape and then began searching the barn, Jim Brown decided to die fighting and initiated a skirmish he knew he couldn’t win. Very shortly afterward, he was dead.

In hindsight, the reaction to Norwood’s death shouldn’t surprise us. In any state that allowed slavery, the shooting of a white man by a runaway slave was going to elicit a thunderous response, especially from the slaveholding community. But in Kentucky, the skies were particularly volatile.

For his part, Magoffin tried to keep Kentucky “neutral” as other Upper South and Border West states slipped from the Union. And while Kentucky did ultimately remain within Lincoln’s grasp, the main impetus for doing so came from Conservative Unionists—men who weren’t necessarily interested in Unionism or sake of the Union itself, but simply because they believed the Union would be better suited to protect their investments in human chattel. This positioned Magoffin squarely between the proverbial rock and hard place.

The public had branded Jim Brown a “desperate and bloodthirsty villain” from the start. So the fact that sentiment skewed toward a swift, terrible, and if need be, extra-legal, brand of justice for Norwood’s slaying, shouldn’t much surprise us either. One petitioner, writing a day or so after the murder, went so far as to caution the governor not to be cheap with his reward amount, lest important constituents start to consider him weak on the issue of slavery and find support elsewhere. “Exercise your discretion in offering a reward,” the letter stated, but “considering the character of the offense, and the excitement of the country on the slavery question, I think the larger the reward is the better.”

Jim Brown poster

“The above reward will be paid immediately upon his arrest.”

As we already know, Magoffin offered a sizable $500 bounty and didn’t require that Brown be taken alive. Put another way, based almost entirely on the word of people involved in the situation (and hopelessly biased), the governor issued posses a license to lynch the fugitive on site and to be paid for their services as vigilantes. These terms, along with Brown’s demise, temporarily reassured Kentucky slaveholders that their wealth was still safe under the umbrella of the Union—but they also set an exceedingly dangerous precedent concerning what future concessions masters would expect in exchange for their loyalty and good behavior.

Taken in a much broader context, covenants such as these were partly responsible for the chaos that enveloped Kentucky in 1863–1864. When it became necessary for Abraham Lincoln to close the loophole that allowed the state to avoid fulfilling its quota of black troops for the Union Army, men who’d become accustomed to swapping their political loyalty for sake of maintaining a preferable social and economic status quo learned a hard lesson: by the time Lincoln changed the terms of the deal, their greatest bargaining chip—the threat of secession—had lost its power. The temper tantrum that ensued came in the form of guerrilla warfare.

 

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

SOURCES: Alex H. Major to Beriah Magoffin, 3 April 1861, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY (hereafter KDLA); L. W. Trafton to Beriah Magoffin, 9 April 1861, KDLA; Robert Glass to Grant, 4 April 1861, KDLA; F. A. Cannon, Reward Notice, 4 April 1861, KDLA; Robert Glass to Beriah Magoffin, 4 April 1861, KDLA; Jim Brown Fugutive Slave Reward, 12 April 1861; Beriah Magoffin, Executive Journal, 12 April 1861, KDLA; Edmund L. Starling, History of Henderson County, Kentucky (Henderson County, KY: 1887), 558-561.

For more on the history of Henderson and Henderson County, Kentucky, check out Volume 113 (Autumn 2013) of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, available through Project MUSE.

KYR-0001-004-0787

Be sure to read the glossary for this document as well as Part One and Part Two of the analysis.

KYR-0001-004-0787-001

To His Excellency Thomas E. Bramlette

Your Petitioner William Brockman says that at the present term of the Jefferson Circuit Court he was tried on an Indictment for the murder of one Adolph Logel. found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to serve ten years in the penitentiary of this commonwealth. He did not deny on the trial and does not deny now that he struck Logel a blow which unfortunately proved fatal but he asserted then and still asserts that he struck said blow in self=defense and under circumstances that justified it He says that he lives in the suburbs of Louisville not far from the old Oakland Race Course at which point the general government Keeps stabled a large number of horses and mules &c the chief part of which have been worn out in the military service of the government, considerable numbers of these animals die daily and the persons having them in charge were in the habit of hauling them to a strip of woods near petitioner’s House and there leaving them to rot. Your Petitioner had obtained leave to take the skins off of these carcasses on the condition he would remove or burn sathe carcasses to avoid having a nusance to the detriment of the health of the neighborhood The deceased Logel without having obtained leave as petitioner did, to take the skins, was in the habit of taking the skins and leaving the carcasses on the ground neither removing or burning them This created a nusance for which petitioner was indicted and fined Petitioner apprised Logel of the facts and told him he must not skin any more of the animals without burning the or removing the carcasses but Logel insisted that he would skin them without removing the carcasses and continued and persisted in so doing. At the time the difficulty occurred Logel had just skinned ^one^ of said animals ^a cow^ when your petitioner approached him and requested him to remove the carcass Harsh language and a quarrel ensued, Logel had a Butcher Knife with which he had just skinned the animal, in one hand and a stick in the other Your petitioner had only a stick in hand but it was pretty heavy one. Logel struck your petitioner twice with the stick and cut him on the hand with the Knife before petitioner struck at all whereupon your petition struck Logel with the stick which was in your petitioner’s hand a blow which knocked him down and unfortunately proved fatal Your petitioner had no idea that the blow would prove fatal and had no intention of killing Logel and struck him only in self=defense. Your petitioner insisted that he did not have a fair trial in the circuit court and that the verdict was obtained only by a conspiricy on the part of somethe principal witnesses for the commonwealth He states that the prinicpal witness for the state Donheimer not only testified differently in very material points from what he did in the examining court butand far more unfavorably to the [unclear]accused than he there testified but also as is showen by the accompanying affidavits of John Shrader Augusta Shrader and Charles Samuel Baker, procurred the witness for the commonwealth Huber, by bribery, to swear falsely on the trial of the case in the circuit court and thereby to make statements corroberating his said Donheimers, false testimony, all of which your petitioner was not made aware until after said trial.

Joseph Clements one of the justices who composed the examining court testified ion the trial in the circuit court that the witness Donheimer stated in the examining court that the deceased had a stick with which he was punching accused at the time accused struck him, whereas Donheimer testified on the trial in the circuit court that accused approached and ordered Logel to put down the skin and thereupon without anything further struck deceased upon the back of the neck a blow which produced his death. The witness for the accused Frend also testified that Donheimer attempted to procure him by bribe to swear against accused and that said Donheimer had said in his, Frend’s hearing that he wanted to have accused hung or sent to the penitentiary, Cathrine Barbarer testified that Donheimer sayed he would have accused hung The witness Semms who with the witnesses Huber and Donheimer was the only witness for the commonwealth who pretended to have seen the difficulty contradicted Donheimer by stating that the accused and the deceased “quarrelled” and fussed and contended over the skins for some time, and although he Semms then testified that he did not see but heard only one blow struck and thereafter looked and saw deceased lying on the ground, he is there in contra^dicted^ by Mr L A Wood an atty at law who testified on the trial in the circuit court that he was present as a spectator at the examining trial and that Semms there stated that deceased had a knife in his hand with which he struck at accused and L. A. Wood further testified that accused in the examining trial had a cut on the back of his hand.

The court refused a continuance applied for by accused at this present term on the ground of the absence in Tennessee of accused’s principal witness whose name is Rudolph Chrisler and who is a soldier in the Federal army and was so at the time of the difficulty and by whom accused could have proved on the trial in the circuit court as he did prove by said witness in the examining court that he Rudolph Chrisler saw deceased strike at and strike accused with a stick before accused struck deceased and that deceased had a Knife in his hand during the difficulty with which he cut accused on the hand Your petitioner had a subpoena for this witness and it was returned by, the sheriff “not found” and petitioners counsel asked leave of the court to introduce evidence of what the witness Chrisler had testified in the examining court which the court refused to do Your petitioner says that if he could have obtained the testimony of Chrisler it would have fully corroborated, and supported the testimony of DeFlour in the trial in the circuit Court and established the innocence of the accused of the charge Your petitioner states that he has a large family depended on his exertions for support

KYR-0001-004-0787-007All of which your petitioner would respectfully submit and implore the exercise in his behalf of your Excellency’s clemency

[unclear] [unclear]
translation William Brockman

We the undersigned citizens of Louisville join in the prayer of the foregoing petition and aske that William Brockman be pardoned

Nat. Wolfe
R. H. Rousseau
I H Hornsby
Chas Kahnt
Dr. V. Donhoff
F. Bender
Byron Bacon
F Gorin
A M Gazlay,
Jack Fry
S. A. Atchison
Jeff. Brown.
W. W. Fry
James A. Beattie
Thos W. Gibson
W A Meriwether
Jno. Hanna

Jos. Clement
W. C. Wood
W. P. McDowell
Lewis N Dembitz
Martin Bijur
S. S. Bush
H. C. Shivell
L. A. Wood
Isaac P Miller
Franz, A, Kramur
E S Craig
W, B. Hoke
Sam B. Smith
C. Ormsby
R. J. Ormsby

Wm. F. Wood
Hamilton Pope
Alfred T. Pope.
M S Fields
James Harris
J. P. Gailbreath
John N. Mattingly
Jno. K. Miller
John G. Barbon

F G Dannecker
H. S. Burkhard
T. Jack Conn
R H Woolfolk
Z, M, Sherley
Thos. J. Griffiths

Jefferson Cir Ct
vs
Wm Brockman

This is a case which demands Executive clemency and a pardon is ordered

Tho E Bramlette
Govr
Apl 29th 1864

10 years
Manslaughter

William Brockman to Thomas E. Bramlette, n.d., Office of the Governor, Thomas E. Bramlette: Governor’s Official Correspondence File, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites 1863-1867, Box 10, BR10-213 to BR10-213A, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort.

Translation: William Brockman

“William Brockman says that at the present term of the Jefferson Circuit Court he was tried on an Indictment for the murder of one Adolph Logel”

Two German immigrants got into a deadly fight over a pile of animal carcasses in the suburbs of Louisville. Read the full transcription of Brockman’s pardon petition here, or browse the highlights to see why this is one of the most fascinating documents in the Civil War Governors of Kentucky collection.

“[Brockman] lives in the suburbs of Louisville not far from the old Oakland Race Course at which point the general government Keeps stabled a large number of horses and mules &c the chief part of which have been worn out in the military service of the government”

Though Oakland, one of thoroughbred racing’s popular early venues, had ceased to hold meets by the beginning of the war, its old stable facilities were perfect for the U.S. Army’s program to refit broken down cavalry, artillery, and draft animals. As the map of the southern suburbs of Louisville shows, the course sat astride the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line, affording military transport trains easy access to the large complex of stables and corrals around the old track. LouisvilleDefenses1865Brockman zoom

“considerable numbers of these animals die daily and the persons having them in charge were in the habit of hauling them to a strip of woods near petitioner’s House and there leaving them to rot”

Using the 1860 census and city directories, we can determine that Brockman lived in the circled suburb near South Gate Street, just barely inside the expanded Louisville city limits. The carcass pile (understandably not marked on the map) was nearby, perhaps in the lot behind Fort St. Clair Morton or the stretch where the military road runs next to the creek near the Salt River Turnpike.

“Your Petitioner had obtained leave to take the skins off of these carcasses on the condition he would remove or burn the carcasses to avoid having a nusance to the detriment of the health of the neighborhood The deceased Logel without having obtained leave as petitioner did, to take the skins, was in the habit of taking the skins and leaving the carcasses on the ground neither removing or burning them This created a nusance for which petitioner was indicted and fined”

This tells us some important things about Civil War Louisville, specifically how it was a city spatially, demographically, and economically dominated by the war. Waves of German and Irish immigrants — presumably including  Brockman and Logel — had settled in suburban rings outside the core of the old river town in the decade before the war. So when the war brought U.S. soldiers posted to garrison duty and, later, African American refugees fleeing slavery, the human geography of the city pushed out to and beyond the ring of forts on the map.

Sanitary conditions, we might well expect, were horrible as tens of thousands of soldiers and freedpeople crowded together into hastily built barracks, tents, and improvised shelters on poorly drained stretches of Jefferson County farmland. As with laws concerning fugitive slaves, the Louisville civil authorities applied existing public health laws to a human crisis far beyond the reach of local and state legislation to manage. Brockman had been fined for Logel leaving the carcasses to rot, but could Brockman really be blamed for a pile of dead animals the army dumped on near a creek? Bringing charges shows that the city was aware and concerned about the water supply but had no way to do much about the situation.

But what about Brockman’s agreement with the army itself? Other documents in the CWG-K collection suggest that Brockman may have been related to a family of German tanners in the city, which explains his job skinning the dead animals. His “contract” was one of the smallest interactions between the army and merchants, railroad corporations, and river men in the boom-town military micro-economy that sprung up in wartime Louisville. Brockman got horse carcasses, while the L&N — which shipped the poor animals to their final stop — raked in millions in wartime profit and limitless infrastructure work on bridges and tunnels paid for at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.

KYR-0001-004-0787 WB sig“All of which your petitioner would respectfully submit and implore the exercise in his behalf of your Excellency’s clemency
[signed]
translation William Brockman”

Even Brockman’s name needed to be translated and anglicized from its German fraktur script. Only at the end are we clued into the fact that while the petition is written in Brockman’s voice, these are far from his own words.

Moreover, while he is fascinating for scholars today, Brockman’s was probably one of the least important signatures on this petition to Governor Bramlette. William Brockman’s petition carried the weight of some of the leading former Whigs — and, therefore, former anti-immigrant Know Nothings — in Louisville politics and society. Stay tuned for a later post which will explore some of these men and why they would write on behalf of a German tanner’s assistant.

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

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.

Thomas Bramlette and “Guerrilla Law” in Civil War Kentucky

By Matthew C. Hulbert

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

“Where you find the word Guerrilla, may be understood murder, rape, arson, or robbery…”

– Major Gen. John M. Palmer, U.S.A.

By winter 1864, Kentucky’s homefront was drowning in irregular violence. Pro-Confederate guerrillas like Jerome Clark (alias Sue Mundy), Henry Magruder, Bill Marion, Samuel “One-Armed” Berry, Jim Davis, Hercules Walker, and untold others terrorized Unionists throughout the state. In turn, Unionist bushwhackers and guerrilla hunters—men such as Edwin “Bad Ed” Terrell and his band of “Independent Kentucky Scouts”—wrought their own brand of havoc on suspected Rebel sympathizers. Raiding, murder, retaliatory assassinations, and arson quickly became commonplace as Union authorities struggled, and largely failed, to find a solution. Such was the perilous environment into which two brothers from Taylor County ventured one December morning in search of a stolen mule. This unfortunate duo, Merritt and Vardiman Dicken, wouldn’t survive the day.

The Dickens first stopped at the farm of a known horse thief named Rinehart; he wasn’t home, but while the brothers conversed with his wife, two strangers appeared on horseback. The unnamed men volunteered to help Merritt and Vardiman find Rinehart, and possibly their lost animal with him. Not long after departing, however, “the two Dicken brothers, having become suspicious of the intentions of their two guides, refused at this point to go with them any further.” The situation quickly turned violent.

They [the strangers] quickly turned upon the two Dickens, took from them their pistols—shot one of them (Merritt Dicken) through the body, and the other turning to flee was also mortally wounded through the back. Merritt Dicken also turned to run, and he and his brother made all speed in the direction of a point on the extension of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad where some Irishmen were at work, about ¾ of a mile from where they were shot.

At the rail junction, things did not improve for Merritt and Vardiman. Because they approached “in a wild and excited manner on horseback at full speed” and both wore calico shirts with pistol belts, the rail men mistook the pair for guerrillas. And despite their story—and vows of Unionism—Michael Foley, a former private in the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, took it upon himself to arrest the Dicken brothers. They again fled for help, this time to the home of Charles Prewitt, where Foley caught up. With Vardiman resting inside the Prewitt house, Merritt twice refused to turn himself over to Foley peacefully, “whereupon Foley shot and killed him.” (Vardiman succumbed to his wounds a few days later, but not before relating the Dickens’ entire story to at least one witness.)

Foley was promptly arrested, charged with the murder of Merritt Dicken, and held on $5000 bail by Judge R. A. Burton of the Marion County Court. Before the trial had even concluded, area Unionists took to Foley’s defense; they argued that the circumstances of the case warranted full executive clemency from the governor, and told him as much in an official petition. After all, they claimed, the Dicken brothers had looked very much like guerrillas—heavily armed and thundering down on the rail junction at full gallop—and Foley only did “what he conceived to be his duty as a good citizen” to protect the community from marauders. Better still, the petitioners contended that the circumstances of the shooting, combined with “the impulsive nature [sic] characteristics of his race” should render Foley automatically innocent by reason of inferior genetics. In other words, who could really blame a stereotypically hotheaded Irishman for killing a guerrilla look-alike in a region infested with real guerrillas?

Even with such “creative” defenses, Foley’s prospects with the jury looked bleak. That is, until Governor Thomas Bramlette granted him a full pardon without even waiting to hear the jury’s decision. Perhaps even more remarkable than the act itself was the logic behind it:

The warfare of guirillas upon citizens of Kentucky and especially upon discharged soldiers justly condemns every guerrilla to outlawry and death whenever wherever & by whomsoever taken. It is a matter of self defence upon the part of every citizen who slays a guerilla at any time as well as defence of society … the facts in this case could not have justified any other belief in the mind of Foley … no man who kills a guerilla should suffer it I can prevent it and when an honest mistake like the present is superinduced by the imprudent conduct of the slain Executive Clemency is equally deserving.

Two points concerning Kentucky’s guerrilla war emerge from the Dickens’ story and Bramlette’s pardoning of Foley, the first explicit, the second inferred.

1. Irregular violence had become such a hopeless quandary by December 1864 that for Union authorities, it was safer to kill any potential guerrilla—at the risk of murdering innocent civilians like Merritt Dicken—than to chance any actual guerrillas escaping a just execution. (A little more than a week later, Governor Bramlette would issue a proclamation calling on Military Commandants to take “the most prominent and active rebel sympathizers” as hostages “in every instance where a loyal citizen is taken off by bands of guerrillas.” The “Summer of Burbridge” that followed was a disastrous misstep for anti-guerrilla operations.)

2. Though it probably didn’t dawn on Bramlette when he issued the pardon, in doing so, he effectively conceded that irregular violence had become so problematic as to necessitate still more irregular violence—in the form of vigilantism—to combat it. A vicious cycle, indeed.

Excerpt of Pardon from Gov. Thomas E. Bramlette

Spelling troubles aside, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette had very strong thoughts on Kentucky’s “guirillas” – see them in this excerpt from Foley’s pardon.

In this light, it really isn’t a stretch to say that the inability of Bramlette and the Union military to stamp out guerrilla activity simultaneously killed the Dicken brothers and justified freedom for one of their killers. Ambrose Bierce would have appreciated this irony on behalf of the murdered Merritt Dicken—especially considering Thomas Bramlette’s profession before ascending to the governorship: judge.

 

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


SOURCES: J. M. Fiddler and F. B. Merrimec to Thomas E. Bramlette, 18 Dec 1864, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter cited as KDLA); Hill and Knott to Thomas E. Bramlette, 16 Dec 1864, KDLA; Proclamation by Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, 4 Jan 1864, KDLA; John M. Palmer to Thomas E. Bramlette, 18 Oct 1865, KDLA.