When six of his slaves were spirited away from his Mercer County, Kentucky plantation in 1824, John Denny (1750-1834) gave his “trusty friend” John Guthrie power of attorney to track down, regain possession of the fugitives, and “dispose of them in whatever way he may think proper.” This grant of agency is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.
According to the power of attorney, the slaves were stolen by James Hall Denny, John’s own 21-year-old son, and James’s brother-in-law Asher Labertew. The younger Denny had become strongly opposed to slavery and, perhaps in defiance of his father, may have tried to escort the slaves to freedom in Indiana, where both he and Labertew settled soon after.
A testament to this family drama, the power of attorney was also evidence of the curious intimacy between slaveholders and the African Americans whose bodies they owned and controlled. In order to assist and support Guthrie’s authority to repossess the runaway slaves, Denny shared his knowledge of their physical characteristics. The group consisted of a woman, her children and grandchild. There was Nelly, a “heavy woman” with “foreteeth somewhat [in] decay” and a forefinger broken and “lyed down in her hand she cannot straiten it out,” a daughter, a “bright mollato [mulatto] named Mariah” with “a little man child at her breast,” and another, Milly, who was “middling Chunky.” Eliza was six or seven, and the youngest, three-year-old Mary, was “somewhat inclined to a yallow coulor.”
Whether John Guthrie recaptured the six is not known, but an ominous clue appears in the fact that the power of attorney was recorded in Mississippi ten months later. Perhaps Guthrie found his quarry and, in accordance with the authority granted him, “disposed” of the family by selling them down the river.