A Caroline Chronicles Update: A Research Journey Through the Louisville Daily Journal

By Tony Curtis

Just when you think that you have gathered all of the available information on the Caroline Chronicles (read all the documents on Early Access) you stumble across a digitized collection of the Louisville Daily Journal on archive.org. I am particularly interested in how news of the Blanche Levi murder was revealed to the public and how the ensuing case was covered by a prominent Louisville newspaper. And what did a deep dive into this collection uncover about the Caroline Chronicles? I invite you—our readers—to join me on this research trip!

The Levi family appears at various points in the newspaper from August 1862 until September 1863. Willis Levi—a steamboat engineer—first appears listed as a survivor of the Steamer Acacia disaster on August 30, 1862:

Louisville Daily Journal, August 30, 1862

Louisville Daily Journal, August 30, 1862

And again with his brother Elias Levi in an auctioneer advertisement on January 30, 1863:

Louisville Daily Journal, January 30, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, January 30, 1863

The Levi’s are being mentioned regularly with this advertisement for their auctioning services, and Elias is even covered anonymously through a printed Jefferson County Sheriff’s advertisement for the sale of John West(ly)—Caroline’s husband. We see the original in the Jefferson County Court books in previously discovered documents. Elias Levi bought John West(ly), aged 25, on April 27, 1863 for $245:

Louisville Daily Journal, April 18, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, April 18, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, April 28, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, April 28, 1863

But what about the death of Blanche Levi—daughter of Willis and Anne Levi? The first mention of the death of Blanche occurs in the April 22, 1863 obituaries, her death occurring one day earlier. The obituary is brief, giving her age, when the funeral will occur, and a brief bible verse:

Louisville Daily Journal, April 22, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, April 22, 1863

The newspaper then falls silent for ten days. Not one mention of Blanche, the Levis, or Caroline—until May 2, 1863, when the newspaper prints, “For two weeks past we have withheld giving publicity to one of the most horrible and treacherous deeds ever committed in this city, in order to give the officers ample time to ferret out the guilty parties.” They announce “the wretch”—Caroline—was arrested and faced arraignment that same morning. Showing the inherent racial bias of society, the newspaper supposes that Caroline could not have committed without accomplice, stating, “It was believed that the girl had been instigated to this deed by some fiend in human shape, but diligent investigation has been made, and no accessory has as yet been discovered. There is something very mysterious about the crime, from the fact that no cause whatever had been given to the girl to prompt her to wreak her vengeance in this horrible crime. If she has an accomplice we sincerely trust that the wretch will be brought to justice.”

Louisville Daily Journal, May 2, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, May 2, 1863

This article also references Caroline’s status, they define her as “a contraband negro, from Tennessee, in the employ of Mr. Willis Levy.” Much like the previously discovered documents, Caroline’s status is constantly in flux. On May 2, 1863, the “Police Proceedings” section—the Civil War-era police blotter—announced “Caroline, a slave of James Deman, charged with poisoning a child of Willis Levi. The slave being too sick to be brought into court, the witnesses were recognized to go before the grand jury of the Circuit Court.” This gives us more insight into Caroline’s status, but it is also contradictory information. What was Caroline’s status—self-emancipated woman, contraband, slave, or a free woman of color (f.w.c.)? I am afraid newspaper coverage does not clarify Caroline’s status and as we concluded in prior research, her status remains inconclusive. It is unknown as to what the newspaper means by “too sick”.

Louisville Daily Journal, May 4, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, May 4, 1863

On May 6, 1863, the grand jury of the Jefferson Circuit Court returned an indictment against “Caroline (a slave)”.

Louisville Daily Journal, May 7, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, May 7, 1863

The June 10, 1863 Louisville Daily Journal announces the “Commonwealth vs Caroline (a slave)” case for trial as a part of the June 1863 docket of the Jefferson Circuit Court—the trial to be held on Wednesday, June 17, 1863.

Louisville Daily Journal, June 10, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, June 10, 1863

Further mention of Caroline’s case does not appear until June 19, 1863, when a guilty verdict is announced: “The negro woman who poisoned the family of Mr. Levi, of this city, some months since, from the effects of which one of his children, a sweet little girl, died, was yesterday convicted of murder in the first degree in the court now in session here. She will doubtless be hung.”

Louisville Daily Journal, June 19, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, June 19, 1863

The next mention of Caroline is not until August 14, 1863—almost two months later—announcing when she is to be hanged “at the corner of Eighteenth and Broadway streets” in Louisville. And again on September 8, 1863, following a month long respite.

Louisville Daily Journal, August 14, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, August 14, 1863

On September 11, 1863, Caroline is granted a second respite “for a few days” by Governor Thomas E. Bramlette “on account of some newly discovered testimony which may have some bearing on her case.”

Louisville Daily Journal, September 11, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, September 11, 1863

And the new evidence convinced Governor Bramlette in favor of executive clemency, as the final mention of Caroline occurs on September 25, 1863, under the headline “Pardoned.”

Louisville Daily Journal, September 25, 1863

Louisville Daily Journal, September 25, 1863

So what have we learned from the Louisville Daily Journal coverage? The Levis were active members in the Louisville business community. We have more concrete dates on the death of Blanche Levi and the chronology of Caroline’s case. We know that the newspaper purposefully withheld any coverage of the case to allow for time to investigate the facts of the case and to arrest any suspects. The newspaper coverage further complicates Caroline’s status for us—Caroline inhabited many different worlds depending on time and place. We also learn that there is no additional coverage of “one of the most horrible and treacherous deeds ever committed in this city”—no editorials, no letters to the editor . . . Nothing. So once again, a set of research questions has led us to more research questions—some of the questions remain, others have been developed. The search continues and we will update you as new evidence is uncovered.

Tony Curtis is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

The Caroline Chronicles: Curriculum Development Update

On Friday, April 8, instructors and students from the History Club at Hopkinsville Community College visited the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. As part of their experience on the KHS campus, club members became the first group to play out the classroom simulation of The Caroline Chronicles. And we’re thrilled to report that they—and the simulation itself—outperformed even our wildest expectations.

The simulation involves two sides—a defense counsel and a prosecution team—arguing for and against Caroline’s pardon using evidence drawn directly from the primary, secondary, and legal documents used to pen the blog series. The decision-makers in the case are a panel of Pardon Commissioners, who listen to verbal arguments from both the prosecution and the defense, are allowed to question the lead counsels of each side, and then issue a recommendation to the governor. (To ensure fair proceedings, all participants were given access to all of the documents prior to the simulation and then divided into roles randomly before the trial began.) After deliberating privately, Pardon Commissioners must report their recommendation to the rest of the group and offer three justifications based only on the arguments and evidence presented by counsels.

The prosecution at work.

With Jack McCoy-like gusto, the prosecution offered its arguments first, making a strong case for upholding Caroline’s conviction (listed below):

  1. Caroline believed she should have become a free citizen after arriving in Louisville as contraband with Buell’s army. Her service in the Willis Levy house constituted re-enslavement and gave her a strong motive to lash out at her new master’s family.
  1. On a personal level, Willis and Anne Levy had been abusive of Caroline, treating her cruelly, scolding her frequently, and even threatening physical punishment. Aside from her enslavement, this hostility also gave Caroline ample motive to punish Willis and Anne by hurting their only child.
  1. Not only did Caroline have the means to commit the crime—she had easy access to the poison that killed Blanch Levy—she was also seen smiling at the toddler’s corpse on more than one occasion and asked several times when the corpse would be buried. According to the prosecution, this indicated that Caroline was happy to see Blanch dead but also wanted the evidence of her crime buried before an autopsy could expose her guilt.

Following the prosecution’s oral arguments, the Pardon Commissioners threw a potential curve ball; they asked if it was possible that Anne Levy had actually tried to poison her daughter and herself as part of a murder-suicide plot (potentially rooted in lingering post-partum depression). The prosecution quickly replied that no evidence whatsoever existed to support such a conclusion.

The defense organizing its case.

Caroline’s defense counsel then took the floor and gave three core arguments in favor of reasonable doubt existing:

  1. Just as much of the evidence collected points to Willis Levy having accidentally poisoned Blanch as it does Caroline as the killer—and while this doesn’t totally negate any possibility of Caroline’s guilt, it does raise a reasonable doubt.
  1. Next the defense focused on the victim. Blanch Levy was a toddler; toddlers put things—everything—in their mouths. It’s very possible that Caroline was watching Blanch in the yard and that Blanch picked up poison put out by Willis Levy, and ingested the poison accidentally. In other words, the defense added a layer of complexity to the accidental death scenario in which Caroline was not criminally at fault.
  1. Lastly, the defense pointed to the consistency of Caroline’s story in the case record. Throughout the entire process, even following her conviction, Caroline never changed her narrative of Blanch Levy’s death—and in keeping with her purported affection for the child, the defense underscored that Caroline’s smiling at the corpse and her questions about the autopsy could have just as easily stemmed from genuine concern and her traditional role as a female slave on the plantation (tasked with the “work of death”).

The Pardon Commissioners did not have any questions for the defense and subsequently left the courtroom to confer in private chambers.

The panel of Pardon Commissioners listening to verbal arguments.

The panel of Pardon Commissioners returned to the courtroom and recommended that Caroline be issued a full pardon by the governor. Their reasoning included that (1) Willis Levy had a track record of carelessly using poison in the general vicinity in which Blanch was killed; (2) the prosecution had failed to properly establish a motive for Caroline to kill Blanch; and, (3) the Pardon Commissioners believed that Caroline did have genuine affection for Blanch and, as a result, that she would have lashed out at Willis and Anne Levy to protest her treatment while not harming the child.

The Pardon Commissioners’ recommendation aligned with the historical results of Caroline’s case; in turn, she was awarded a full pardon. So now the question is: how do you think your class would decide?

If you’re interested in finding out, drop us a line about adopting The Caroline Chronicles curriculum in your classroom. Included are primary and secondary reading assignments, low and high stakes writing assignments with instructor guidelines, and the script for the capstone in-class trial simulation.

To Own Life and Death: The Boundaries of Race and Mastery

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Early one evening in May 1859, an inebriated Jesse Williams handed one of his slaves—a young man named Wesley—a loaded musket. Williams commanded Wesley to take the weapon, under cover of darkness, and with it to assassinate Edmund Stevens. In other words, Williams instructed his African American slave to take a weapon he wasn’t legally allowed to possess and gun down a white neighbor in cold blood. Williams and Stevens had apparently been feuding for years. Now, sufficiently fortified by liquor and desperation, Jesse aimed to end their dispute once and for all.

This scenario constituted the ultimate “lose-lose” for a slave like Wesley. On one hand, if he obeyed Williams, it would mean committing murder and virtually guaranteeing himself a date with the hangman. On the other, if Wesley refused to heed his obviously deranged master’s word, it would mean, at the very least, a severe beating—and given Williams’s current states of mind and intoxication, possibly much, much worse. So with no good options laid before him, Wesley took the gun and half-heartedly trudged off to the Stevens farm.

Later that same night, Wesley returned home with the gun bearing its original load. Williams, still quite drunk and now irate, demanded an explanation; when he told a slave to do something, he expected results. Murder was no exception. But according to Wesley, it wasn’t his fault. He’d been thwarted by Stevens’s dog—the animal barked whenever Wesley got too close, so it had been impossible to sneak into range. Undeterred, Williams sent his would-be assassin back into the night, this time with a small cache of poison to silence the dog. Minus the barking, Wesley could presumably finish off Stevens. And if Wesley failed again, Williams promised “to cut his back all to pieces.”

Wesley did fail again. And as court documents later revealed, he’d failed many times before: the dog was just one item from a long list of excuses concocted to avoid murdering Stevens. Wesley harbored no animus against Stevens and had even less interest in committing murder on Williams’s behalf. In fact, on more than one occasion, Wesley never even left the Williams farm; he simply hid in the nearby woods and reported back to his master in the morning, as if he’d gone out after Stevens but a clear shot had never materialized.

Even when sober, Williams wasn’t particularly bright. (And as witnesses later told it, he wasn’t sober all that often.) But eventually even he caught on to Wesley’s stalling. So one day, as he prepared to “hunt” Stevens alone, Wesley must have been disheartened to learn that Williams would be tagging along as field supervisor. Together, the pair snuck within range of Stevens and, with an insistent Williams looking over his shoulder, Wesley pulled the trigger. The projectile found its mark. Edmund Stevens fell dead in his tracks.

wesley indictmentGiven his ongoing strife with Stevens, Williams was the prime suspect, but he had a built in scapegoat: he hadn’t technically killed Stevens. Rather, it was his slave, Wesley, who’d pulled the trigger and should be legally held responsible for the deed. Not surprisingly, Williams banked on the fact that investigators would inherently take the word of a white slaveowner over that of a slave, let alone one accused of backshooting a white man. Even less surprising, Williams neglected to mention that he’d commanded Wesley to commit the crime on numerous occasions. Not long after the shooting, Williams died—almost certainly the result of his drinking. So Wesley was forced to stand trial alone, and a jury convicted him of Stevens’s murder.

This is the point in Wesley’s story where things get a little complicated. Williams, as a white, male slaveholder, had literally owned Wesley. As his owner’s human property, Wesley was technically bound to follow orders or suffer terrible—even mortal—consequences. Unity between white slaveholders and white non-slaveholders played a major role in imbuing the institution of slavery with this absolute, race-based authority. In other words, Williams, Stevens, and even the men investigating the crime were all supposed to be complicit in maintaining the color line that justified mastery over commoditized (black) human beings. But Williams broke from that protocol when he exercised the absolute authority granted him by the institution of slavery and wielded it against a member of the very community vital to maintaining the institution in the first place. More simply put, Williams overextended his ownership of the life and death of a black slave by also making a claim on the life and death of a free white man.

wesley forced

“That he done it under the eye of his master and under the fear that he would be killed himself or great Bodily harm would be done him, if he failed or refused to obey the command of his master.”

Following his conviction, Wesley was condemned to death. A petition offered on his behalf to Governor Beriah Magoffin argued that Wesley should be spared the gallows because Williams had both owned him and ordered him to assassinate Stevens. Even Williams’s supporters, few as they might have been, couldn’t discount the fact that two, distinct sets of footprints were found at the scene of the crime. Interestingly, though, the petitioners did not seek a full pardon for Wesley—merely that he might escape execution to spend the rest of his life in prison. The request, which Magoffin granted, illustrates how irrevocably interwoven the legal system of Kentucky had become with ideas of race, slavery, and social power. The petitioners (and Magoffin, for that matter), likely still believed that, as a rule, Wesley was duty bound to do as his master commanded. At the same time, though, they were compelled to prevent future instances of white masters using black slaves to assault other white Kentuckians. Not to close this loophole was akin to allowing the color line on which so much of slavery’s power depended to erode from within.

This means that Magoffin had to concede that what Wesley was ordered to do was wrong. By implying that the command had been wrong, the implication was also made that Wesley should have known better, morally speaking, than to obey it—a line of thought that unavoidably called into question Williams’s absolute mastery over his slave property. But even as Magoffin seemed to understand that Wesley—again, as a rule—had no choice but to obey Williams and that Williams’s order had been morally wrong, the governor, who himself owned slaves, couldn’t take that reasoning to its logical conclusion: complete exoneration for Wesley. I.e., no prison time.

wesley commutedWhy not? Because to have consented to the ability of a slave like Wesley to only obey orders he found morally acceptable wouldn’t just have conceded a level of humanity among chattel that many slaveholders found discomforting, it would have utterly undermined a vital defense of the institution of slavery itself. (That is, the idea that slavery was a positive good for African Americans, a people otherwise incapable of thinking for themselves.) And to undermine the institution of slavery would have ultimately threatened the chief enforcement mechanism of a racial hierarchy that elevated white over black in matters social, political, economic, and cultural. With this in mind, to some extent, Wesley didn’t actually go to prison because he was a slave—Wesley went to prison to the preserve the very means of his enslavement.

 

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

SOURCES: W. H. Calvert et al. to Beriah Magoffin, 16 July 1861, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (hereafter KDLA); Edward P. Campbell et al. to Beriah Magoffin, 16 June 1861, KDLA; Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Wesley (a slave), Judgment, 15 June 1861, KDLA.

“Acquainted with the Value of Slaves”: The Commonwealth Invests in an Institution

By Tony Curtis

On April 8, 1863, the Hickman Circuit Court empanelled a grand jury to review an arson case against three enslaved, runaway men—John, Elijah, and James. The jury indicted the three men for, “maliciously willfully and feloniously, set fire to and burn the dwelling house of Wm Poore, the Said Slaves having conspired to-gether. . .with one [gap] Wheeler (a white man).” All pled not guilty to the charges with court appointed attorneys by their side, but the jury found all three “guilty as charged and Say by reason thereof they shall Suffer death, but we recommend that the Governor modify the Same to punishment in the penitentiary for life.”

Not all Hickman County citizens agreed. In a letter to Governor James F. Robinson, twenty-five citizens of the county maintained that “the crime of these negroes was committed with every circumstance of atrocity possible, and simple justice demands their execution under the law.” The petitioners claimed that the three defendants had been seen with the 21st Regiment of Missouri Volunteers while at Clinton (whose commanding officer appeared on their behalf at the trial) and that they are “a scourge and terror to the whole County. They obtain arms—United States muskets—whenever they choose and make nightly excursions into the country, bursting open the houses of citizens, robbing them, putting upon them and their wives & families every kind of indignity and insult short of actual murder and violation.”

Voicing the frustration of Kentucky slave owners in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, they stated that the military had taken no action to stop the alleged robberies and that the “citizens of this county have no hope except in the civil laws. If these afford them no protection and that immediately society here will be broken up and the negro become supreme.” They wanted a “stern but just” sentence to intimidate their “fellow marauders,” where “imprisonment would strike little terror to the negro.” Governor Robinson agreed, and the Court ordered all three men to be hanged on May 15, 1863.

As interesting as the politics of the case, historians should also pay attention to the procedures demanded by law when slaves were to be executed. The Revised Statutes of Kentucky (1852) specified that slaveowners be compensated for the execution of their slaves convicted of crimes. From Chapter 93, Article 7, Section 24:

§ 24. When the court shall sentence to death a slave, the value of such slave shall be fixed by the court, and entered on record. If the slave be executed, or die in jail, after conviction, before the day of execution, the value, so fixed, shall be paid out of the public treasury to the master or owner, upon a presentation of a copy of the record, and certificate of the sheriff of the fact of the death or execution of such slave. If a slave, imported into this state contrary to law, or passing through this state, by land or water, to any other state, territory, or country, be executed for crime, or die before execution, he shall not be paid for as above.

To obtain a value on each of the slaves, the Hickman Circuit Court reached out to individuals “acquainted with the Value of Slaves”—in this case two physicians (H. O. Earle & C. T. Seay) and a farmer (George B. Moss). Seay and Moss owned slaves, though the record is unclear as to whether Earle owned any slaves. However, it is interesting to note that they consulted two physicians and a farmer—assessing value in terms of both physical ability and skill sets. Was this a standard makeup of court appointed valuators of slaves? Was there a particular set of qualifications to fulfill this requirement? Was there a standard form used to evaluate each enslaved person? Whatever the answers are to these questions, they valued each man as follows, “John (the slave of C S Parrott) at One thousand & Sixty Dollars. James (the Slave of Quirus Beckwith) at One thousand one hundred & forty Dollars and Elijah (the slave of Quirus Beckwith) at Eight hundred dollars.”

The Annual Report of the Auditor of Public Accounts…for fiscal year ending October 10, 1863, confirms the payment of the aforementioned amounts to Beckwith and Parrott:

Excerpt from the Annual Report of the Auditor of Public Accounts…for fiscal year ending October 10, 1863

As the Caroline Chronicles reminds us, money flowed out of the state coffers and in some cases into the state coffers as a direct result of slaves being caught up in the Kentucky legal system. In this case, public funds were used to compensate slaveowners for their loss of human property.

Another twist on the state’s criminal laws and slavery documented in CWG-K collections occurred in 1862, when two enslaved men—Jordan of Scott County, Kentucky, and Abner of Graves County, Kentucky—were convicted of Manslaughter and sentenced to life in the Kentucky State Penitentiary. In these cases legislative action was sought to remove these men from the penitentiary and sell them back into slavery. The men agreed to this pardon and to the stipulation to be returned to slavery—with no say as to who and where they would be sold at public auction. Chapter 93, Article 7, Section 25 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes needed amended in order to give the Governor the power to sell Abner and Jordan back into slavery. This section already granted the governor the power to commute the sentence of a slave, but it did not give him the power to sell said enslaved men into slavery to the financial benefit of the state. The act only stipulated that the slaveowner “shall be paid for him as though he were executed, or take the proceeds of his labor in the penitentiary.” An act passed on March 17, 1862, entitled “An ACT to amend section 25, chapter 93, if Revised Statutes”, amended this section:

An ACT to amend section 25, chapter 93, of Revised Statutes

An advertisement for the sale was placed in the Frankfort newspapers , and Jordan and Abner were returned “to their original condition of servitude” by the governor and the state treasurer by public auction held at the Franklin County Courthouse doors on July 21, 1862. The proceeds were “paid into the public treasury, and the slaves delivered to their purchasers.”

These two documents offer insight into another way in which Kentucky was complicit in the perpetuation of the institution of slavery—by codifying and enforcing slave laws, collecting taxes on enslaved property, just to name a few ways—and in the instance of these two documents, by compensating slaveowners when the enslaved were executed and by collecting payment for enslaved persons sold at public auction from the Kentucky State Penitentiary. This is yet another example of how the entire white population of Kentucky—slaveowner or non-slaveowner, rich and poor—participated in and benefited from the fully integrated slave economy.

Tony Curtis is an Assistant Editor with the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

SOURCES: Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. John a Slave of C. S. Parrott Elijah & James Slaves of Q Beckwith, Indictment, April 11, 1863, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (hereafter KDLA); Thomas G. Poore et al. to James F. Robinson, Correspondence, April 11, 1863, KDLA; For more on the policy of the military and runaway slaves, see Diane Mutti Burke On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (2010), 284-287; Revised Statutes of Kentucky, 627-648; 1860 Federal Slave Schedule, Ancestry.com; Annual Report of the Auditor of Public Accounts…for fiscal year ending October 10, 1863, 18; Tri-Weekly Commonwealth (Frankfort, Ky.), July 4, 1862; Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 243; See also Tim Talbott, “Negroes for Sale,” Random Thoughts on History (blog), June 19, 2013, http://randomthoughtsonhistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/negroes-for-sale.html; and Abner and Jordan, Affidavit, July 21, 1862, KDLA.

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

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

Part VI – “Poison, Infanticide, and Female Slave Resistance”

Matthew C. Hulbert

We’ve left it to you to determine—based on what documentation survives—whether or not Caroline’s case warranted a pardon from Governor Thomas E. Bramlette. (In case you missed, she did receive one. Bramlette’s decision not only stayed her execution, but exonerated her completely.) This week, we’ll look more closely at the death of Blanch Levi itself, both victim and manner, to understand where it fit within an older American tradition of gendered assumptions about female slaves and resistance. Doing so will help explain some of the cultural baggage that white prosecutors, jurors, and observers brought with them into an urban, Border South courtroom in 1862–1863.

***

Despite the chronic fear of nineteenth century slaveholders that the morrow’s sunrise might bring with it a rebellion, large-scale slave uprisings didn’t happen often in the antebellum South. Logistically speaking, they were just too hard to pull off. And slaves—especially moving into the 1840s and 1850s—generally knew it.

After weeks or even months of planning, it took just one doubting, would-be rebel—looking to safeguard his or her own individual future by sabotaging those of the group—to inform and bring the conspiracy to a screeching halt. Even when slaves managed to kill their white owners or overseers and escape from immediate bondage, a sustained self-liberation movement (a la Haiti) simply wasn’t a viable option in the United States. Rebellious slaves needed somewhere permanent (and safe) to go. More important still, they had to reach that place, presumably on foot, poorly provisioned, and without the benefit of a well-traveled guide, before being hunted down by well-mounted, well-armed, and ill-intentioned white posses. The Stono Rebellion (South Carolina, 1739) and Nat Turner’s Revolt (Virginia, 1831) are illustrative of this fundamental difficulty. In both instances, insurgents initially managed to spill much blood, but in the end, were corralled and executed en masse.

Of course, this isn’t to say that slaves did not oppose their captivity with violence, only that such violence more frequently took the form of individual, localized acts of resistance. And, if we still subscribe the tenets of “resistance and accommodation” blueprinted by the late Eugene Genovese (and I think we do for the most part, regardless of how fashionable or not it might be to admit it), these acts of resistance were carried out with the basic understanding that they would not ultimately result in freedom. Instead, they would make life in the immediate more bearable. For enslaved women tasked with domestic responsibilities (in other words, for female house slaves as opposed to female field slaves) the nature of their work—as cooks, wet nurses, and nannies—put them in immediate proximity to the food consumed by their white masters and to the offspring of their white masters. As it related to resistance, this literal dual-proximity to matters of white subsistence and reproduction spawned a double-edged arrangement for enslaved women. Poisoning and infanticide gave some women the ability to resist by hitting white masters where it hurt most. On the other side of the coin, however, this relatively untapped potential also affixed to slave women a much broader stigma, or better still, an inherent “tradition of suspicion,” that had a very real ability to influence—or even poison, if you’ll pardon the pun—white perceptions of an individual like Caroline at trial.

For a detailed example of a slaveholder’s poison-related paranoia, we have to look no further than the prolific diarist Mary Chesnut, who recounted the gruesome story of a Dr. Keitt—brother to Lawrence Massillon Keitt, of Brooks-Sumner infamy.

Kate told a wonderful tale which I must set down. Laurence M. Keitt’s brother—a Dr. K that I knew full well was poisoned by his negroes—he was very indulgent. Spoiled them utterly—but was passionate & impulsive. Mr. Taylor, who married an acquaintance of ours, Miss Baker of Sumter, said to him, “Keitt, these negroes are poisoning you. Do not let them know you suspect them unless you take them up instantly, but I advise you to go away at once, say to say–& see if this extraordinary disease will not stop.” He promised. Just after Mr. Taylor left the house a woman brought him a cup of coffee & as he stirred it—it was so evident some white powder was at the bottom of the cup—that in a passion he dashed the cup in her face without drinking it. That night his throat was cut. Afterwards, by their confession it [was] provided they had been giving him calomel for months every morning in his coffee. Thre[e] were hung—but two suspected men escaped because a bother of his believed them honest and guiltless.

Other instances aren’t hard to find. According to historian Deborah Gray White, “as early as 1755 a Charleston slave woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her master.” In 1850, a family of Missourians headed by Wade Moseby was poisoned when a female slave laced their coffee with arsenic. And, two female slaves kept at Fort Riley were accused of poisoning an ordnance sergeant—though interrogation (that bordered on torture) later convinced authorities of the duo’s innocence. Despite their eventual exoneration, the idea was fixed: when unknown or unfamiliar ailments suddenly struck white slave-owners, enslaved cooks would be suspected from the outset.

Cases of infanticide are also fairly common, though the discussion is complicated by the fact that the best-known of them typically involved female slaves killing their own children as a way to not only rob white owners of future labor, but also to spare the children themselves a lifetime of emotional trauma, physical abuse, and involuntary servitude. The plot of Toni Morrison’s Beloved immediately comes to mind. The book is based on the real-life plight of Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave who fled across the Ohio River in 1856 with several small children in tow. Garner was eventually tracked down by marshals and slave-catchers, but managed to kill one of her youngest daughters with a butcher’s knife before being subdued.

Even so, the record does contain numerous instances of female slaves killing or being accused of killing their adolescent charges. In 1769, White notes that “a special issue of the South Carolina Gazette carried the story of a slave woman who had poisoned her master’s infant daughter.” In 1848, a female slave cook belonging to Joseph Parks was “sent away at once” after being accused of intentionally poisoning a white child. In Tales from the Haunted South, Tiya Miles unpacks the story of Chloe, a female slave at the famed Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana. According to popular lore, Chloe baked oleander into a birthday cake—only meaning to make her master’s children sick—but used too much of the poison and killed multiple members of the family.

Chloe’s story is interesting because it fuses fears of poisoning and of infanticide into a single narrative—the worst case or “double-whammy” scenario for white slaveholders who had created a counter-intuitive system in which their own survival and that of their children frequently depended on the obedience of slaves who despised them. Further still, as Miles eventually sleuths, Chloe was a complete fabrication; an apocryphal ghost created by site owners for the purpose of drumming up commercial notoriety and attracting tourism. (The book, not coincidentally, analyzes the rise of ghost tourism in the South.) For our purposes, however, Chloe’s ahistorical roots are particularly enlightening because they allow us to read backward into the extent to which the aforementioned stigma or “tradition of suspicion” was entrenched in southern culture prior to emancipation: easily deep enough to have been passed down into the present without a hint of doubt from virtually anyone, save for Miles.

None of this is to say that Caroline did not intentionally poison Blanche Levi—nor is it to say that Caroline did not also attempt to poison Anne Levi and simply failed. Murder isn’t an exact science, after all. Unfortunately, given the [lack of] surviving documentation and real evidence, we will probably never know what actually happened on the front lawn of Willis Levi’s home that September morning. But we should at least now have a better understanding of what cultural baggage strode into that Louisville courtroom with Caroline, a female slave charged with infanticide by way of poison. Guilty or not, to say the proverbial deck was stacked against her would constitute a gross understatement.

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

SOURCES: Special thanks to Kristen Epps, Joshua Rothman, and Carole Emberton for suggesting examples of poisoning/infanticide. Woodward & Muhlenberg, The Privary Mary Chesnut, 181-182; Miles, Tales from the Haunted South; White, Ain’t I a Woman?, 79; W. H. Mackey to George, March 26, 1902, in Slaves and Slavery Collection, KHS; Christopher, “Captain Joseph Parks,” 16; “Daring Attempt to Murder,” Liberty Weekly Tribune, April 5, 1850; “Family Poisoned,” Liberty Weekly Tribune, May 3, 1850.

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

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

“Part V – The Husband”

By Patrick A. Lewis

Once during Levi’s absence Mrs Levi reprimanded Caroline & her husband (a contraband who hired to Levi’s brother but slept at Willis Levi’s with his wife evry night) that they must not site up so late & keep a light burning

This passage has always been a frustrating one. In 6,500 words of documentary evidence about Caroline, her husband is only ever mentioned in this passage. Who was he? Did they run away together from Tennessee? Did she meet him on the road to Kentucky or in the streets of Louisville?

And, spoiler alert, I can’t answer any of those questions. But after looking for answers, we have a new appreciation for the bigger implications of Caroline’s story.

Let’s deconstruct that sentence. Who was “Levi’s brother”? The Willis Levi in whose home Caroline was a domestic servant was, in fact, Willis Levi, Jr. His namesake and father, a Virginia native, co-owned a “sale and exchange stable” that hired and sold horses and carriages on Market Street with an elder son, Elias Levi. There are other Levi brothers besides Elias in the picture, too. A 36-year-old Mordecai (in the family business of horse trading) and a 35-year-old James Levi (in the fascinating profession of lightning rod maker) live next door to the Levi patriarch in 1860.

So, knowing there were a number of potential Levi brothers to whom Caroline’s husband might hire, I went to the Jefferson County Court Minute Book to see what official county records might reveal. Elias was the only Levi who appeared on the record in 1862 and 1863. What was he up to?Levi

Monday May 4th 1863.

It is ordered that the Sale bond of Elias Levi for Two hundred and forty five Dollars taken for the purchase of a negro runaway Slave John Wesley, be and the same is hereby credited by the sum of One Hundred and eighty six & 30/100 Dollars Jailors fees, fifteen Dollars Physicians fees & thirteen & 31/100 Dollars Sheriffs Commission & costs of advertising as of 27 April 1863.

He is buying fugitive slaves from the sheriff of Jefferson County. Under Kentucky law, a sheriff was required to publicly advertise the capture of a fugitive and, if the owner did not come forward, to sell the fugitive to recoup the state’s expenses. Following that process, Elias Levi bid on and won John Wesley, “about 25 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches high, weighing 145 lbs; thin whiskers and mustache; round face and high forehead,” and Mary, who was not among the 18 people advertised in the Louisville Journal but was on a list of 29 people in the County Court minutes sold by the sheriff that day.

Could John Wesley be Caroline’s husband? Maybe. Of course, the testimony we have says that her husband hired to Levi’s brother, not was a slave of. But, then again, that testimony concerned events in February 1863, at which time we can say with certainty that Elias Levi did not own John Wesley (even if he may have controlled or coerced his labor under some other arrangement). And, frankly, without some new information we’ll never be able to know.

The (maybe) good news for John Wesley is that he was not the slave of Elias Levi for very long thanks to the United States Army. The day after Levi’s bond was entered, the County Court demanded to know why Captain Matthew H. Jouett “took from the custody of the Sheriff the runaways” sold on the block alongside John Wesley. Jouett punted up his chain of command to the Provost Marshall of Louisville, Colonel Marcellus Mundy, who had ordered the sales of fugitives in Louisville invalidated. Mundy had, to put it mildly, no especial regard for African American refugees in Louisville. In fact, he had complained directly to Lincoln about emancipation policy, pleading that Unionist Kentuckians—”masters for loyalty’s sake“—should be exempt from the hard hand of war.

Fortunately—and probably because of sentiments like the above—Mundy was being watched closely. Word of the sale in which Elias Levi had purchased John Wesley and Mary had reached Washington, prompting President Lincoln to clarify his Emancipation Proclamation and the Second Confiscation Act for any Kentuckians who—like Mundy, the sheriff, and Elias Levi—thought freedom didn’t follow individual refugees from the Confederacy when they entered the loyal slave state of Kentucky.

The President directs me to say to you that he is much surprised to find that persons who are free, under his proclamation, have been suffered to be sold under any pretense whatever; and also desires me to remind you of the terms of the acts of Congress, by which the fugitive negroes of rebel owners taking refuge within our lines are declared to be “captives of war.” He desires you to take immediate measures to prevent any persons who, by act of Congress, are entitled to protection from the Government as “captives of war” from being returned to bondage or suffering any wrong prohibited by that act. (OR series 1, volume 23, pt. 2, p. 291)

John Wesley and Mary weren’t sold, but were they subsequently freed? If so, where did they go after the army intervened to stop their sale to Elias Levi? Unfortunately, these are the same unanswered questions we have for Caroline after Governor Bramlette pardoned her in September 1863.

What we can say, though, is that executing Kentucky’s fugitive slave laws was profitable for sheriffs, local governments, and would-be slaveowners looking to purchase cheaply when supply was high, that the first waves of emancipation were a boon to the economies of slavery in Louisville and surrounding counties. As thousands of African Americans like Caroline and John Wesley escaped slavery in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they made perfect targets for reenslavement schemes run by law enforcement and local slave traders. Those individuals and institutions exploited the uncertainty about contrabands, confiscation, emancipation, and freedom in the fall of 1862 and spring of 1863 to flood Kentucky slave markets with Deep South slaves at bargain prices—this after Kentucky had been a net slave exporter to the cotton plantations of the Old Southwest for a generation. The very months when most Americans believe the Emancipation Proclamation freed tens of thousands of slaves proved to be the greatest slave market bonanza in Kentucky history.

While we can look ahead and see Caroline and John Wesley as the harbingers of emancipation in Kentucky, it may not have looked like that to Kentucky masters—and it certainly didn’t look like that to them.

Patrick A. Lewis is Project Director 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 IV

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

“Part IV – The Decision”

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Over the past three weeks, we’ve recounted the tangled saga of Caroline Dennant, a Tennessee slave brought to Louisville, Kentucky, by Union General Don Carlos Buell’s army as contraband of war. Charged in the death of an infant left in her care, Caroline was eventually convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death by hanging. In addition to a more detailed version of this narrative (Part I, found here), the fundamental arguments for executive clemency and in favor of a pardon for Caroline can be found here (Part III) and here, (Part II).

We also promised to reveal whether or not Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, himself a slave-owner and virulent white supremacist, granted Caroline’s pardon based on the multiple petitions authored on her behalf. The answer is found in an entry to Bramlette’s Executive Journal dated September 24, 1863. Following the remissions of a gambling fine against J. N. Cornell ($200), damages levied against J. M. Harper ($653.94), and an appointment as Notary Public for F. G. Robbins of Jefferson County, this item appeared:

“He Pardoned Caroline (a Slave) sentenced to be hung by the Jefferson Cir Court for Murder.”

caroline_pardonCaroline’s pardon from Bramlette not only released her from impending execution — it overruled the jury’s original guilty verdict and exonerated her of any and all charges. Problematically, at precisely moment Caroline appears to overcome a legal system rigged against both African Americans and women — and maybe doubly so against African American women — she seems to disappear from the historical record. We’re working right now to track her down.

So was Caroline actually innocent? In reality, we don’t — and probably never will — know the answer to that question. But luckily for Bramlette, he wasn’t tasked with determining ultimate innocence or guilty; rather, the governor only had to determine if reasonable doubt existed, in which case the execution could not legally be carried out. Considering the circumstantial nature of the case, even in spite of admittedly damning evidence, most of the CWG-K thinks Bramlette made the right call.

This leaves one final question concerning the pardon: what do YOU think? We’ve transcribed all of the surviving materials from the case and invite you to make up your own mind: Caroline Chronicles Documents

***

In the coming weeks, we’ll be analyzing Caroline’s story and the trial from various historical perspectives. Next on tap is a “think essay” about a man named John Wesley who may or may not have been Caroline’s husband and how the process of re-enslavement through contraband and fugitive slave auctions worked in Civil War Louisville. In two weeks, stay tuned for a survey of the cultural stigmas associated with female slave resistance, poison, and infanticide that almost certainly accompanied Caroline and her all-white jury into the courtroom.

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

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

“Part III – The Defense’s Case”

By Patrick A. Lewis

For those of you who missed previous installments, 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 Anne 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 and last week’s installments 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!).

As the prosecution alleges, there is little the defense can do to refute the circumstantial evidence against Caroline. She had been held to labor as a servant and nurse in the home of the Levys. Willis Levy did acquire, distribute, and store a large amount of strychnine. After the child’s death, Caroline was seen to have facial expressions and otherwise behave in ways to which sinister motives were later assigned by witnesses. While the defense concedes this circumstantial evidence, it entirely rejects the fanciful and conspiratorial theory of the (so-called) crime advanced by the prosecution.

Yet to secure the conviction in the trial at the May 1863 term of the Jefferson Circuit Court, the defense knowingly suppressed the extent to which Willis Levy “spread enough strychnine (or poison) to kill a regiment of men” in and about his premises. Evidence freely offered by the neighbors and family of the Levy family since the time of the trial now begs reconsideration of the case. The defense appeals to the clemency of the executive for a pardon on the following grounds:

One. That having resided in Louisville less than six months before the death of the child Blanch Levy, “in a strange place without any one to advise with” except defense counsel hastily assigned her case and without adequate time to prepare, Caroline was unable to secure witnesses for her defense at the trial.

Two. That the witnesses for the prosecution, namely Anne and Willis Levy, did not testify to the full extent to which Willis Levy spread strychnine about his premises. Only two occasions were established in evidence by Willis Levy, and Caroline could swear to no more. “Your petitioner will now state one important fact which was not developed on the trial, Mr Levy put out the poison on more than two occasions; he put it out many times to kill Dogs & Cats, & it was never taken up, & what became of it no one knows.”

Three. That the testimony of Raymond and Josephine Lynch—neighbors and in-laws to the Levys, uncle and aunt of the deceased Blanch Levy—establishes the true extent of Willis Levy’s indiscriminate and dangerous application of strychnine in and around his and his neighbors’ property. Josephine Lynch swears that “Mr Levy put out the poison every night for a great while I would think a hundred times” over a span of time “from fall to spring.” Moreover, Mrs. Lynch herself had been “very uneasy many time for fear that my children would get some of the poison I alwaise thought Mr Levy was very reckless about throwing out poison.”

Four. That the prosecution argues against accidental ingestion of the poison in the yard from the fact that no pieces of poisoned meat were found in the stomach of the deceased Blanch Levy.

Five. That testimony developed on the trial and that subsequently sworn to by Josephine Lynch establishes that a considerable amount of strychnine was spread in the yard and neighbors’ yards by means other than on meat, including but not limited to on grains designed to kill birds and loosely distributed in and around the privy.

Six. That Mrs. Levy grasped the extent to which her husband had indiscriminately spread poison in and around the Levy house. Immediately after the child’s death Mrs. Levy threw out a “bucket full of parched coffee that was bought from the soldiers,” believing it to be tainted with the poison.

Seven. That if Anne Levy was made sick by coffee on the morning the child died, this was from Willis Levy unwittingly contaminating the household coffee supply with strychnine as part of his campaign to eradicate vermin.

Eight. That if the true extent to which Willis Levy indiscriminately scattered strychnine in and around his own property and that of his neighbors had been known at the time of the trial, Caroline’s conviction would not have been sought by the prosecuting attorney. Louisville City Attorney William G. Reasor attests that “from strong circumstances made known to me since that trial, I feel that Executive clemency will have been worthily bestowed if she be fully pardoned.”

LevyNine. That if the true extent to which Willis Levy indiscriminately and dangerously scattered strychnine in diverse methods and in diverse locations in and around his own property and that of his neighbors had been known at the time of the trial, Caroline’s conviction would not have been secured by the jury. Nine of the gentlemen of the jury who tried her case—L. A. Civill, W. O. Gardner, John Sait, Joseph Griffith, Thomas Schorch, Samuel Ingrem, R. H. Snyder, William K. Allan, and E. P. Neale—have signed a sworn statement asking to overturn the verdict and sentence they rendered.

All this the defense presents as evidence for Caroline’s innocence in the death of the child Blanch Levy. The defense will not—as it believes it has grounds to do—pursue the argument that Caroline’s service in the Levy household was in violation of the Confiscation Act of July 17, 1862, which provides that “all slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States “shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves” and that “no slave escaping into any State, Territory, or the District of Columbia, from any other State, shall be delivered up, or in any way impeded or hindered of his liberty” regardless of the laws pertaining to enslaved persons and persons of African descent in that state, territory, or district.

The defense reiterates that given the circumstances of the defendant and her insecure position in Louisville, the evidence presented in this petition was unavailable to Caroline and her counsel at the time of the trial.

If all that were introduced in this petition were this new testimony, the defense would feel confident in their expectation of His Excellency’s clemency, but having in hand the sworn statements of the prosecuting attorney and the jury, the defense feels that the pardoning power would be justly used in the case of Caroline. The premises considered, the defense asks that His Excellency Governor Bramlette issue a full and unconditional pardon.

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.