Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

“This morning I registered at the College”

Gordon Wilson

Before beginning his 44-year teaching career at WKU, student Gordon Wilson (1888-1970) witnessed some of the most significant events in the school’s history.  In February 1911,  he participated in “Moving Day,” when the furniture, books, and equipment of the Western Kentucky State Normal School were carried by hand and wagon from its location on College Street between 11th and 12th streets to its new home on the Hill. 

But in January 1908, Wilson was, like so many others before and since, a new arrival to campus.  In his diary, he recorded the experiences of his first semester at Bowling Green and the State Normal School.  Here are a few annotated excerpts:

January 20:

This morning I registered at the College and secured Room No. 16 Cherry Hall. My roommate is Mr. Corbett McKenney of Logan County.  This afternoon we took a walk to Reservoir Park and other noted places of town. We also visited the Book Store and bought books for the term.

[“Cherry Hall” was not the building we know today.  Located at Twelfth and Center streets, it was rented by school president Henry Hardin Cherry for use as a dormitory.  No campus bookstore existed until 1920, and Wilson is likely referring to a retail outlet in town.]

Reservoir Park, 1908, where Wilson strolled with his classmates

January 21:

School opened today. The chapel was very crowded and after chapel exercises all adjourned to the classrooms.

[A hallowed institution that dated back to the State Normal School’s days as a private institution, chapel gathered students together each day for announcements, speeches, musical performances, and other spirit-building exercises. Wilson’s classes consisted of Rhetoric, Physical Geography, Physiology, Drawing, and “Mental Arithmetic.”]

January 28:

Tonight I attended a musicale at Vanmeter Hall, which was well rendered and very fine. . . . This afternoon Burnett Craig and I took a walk to the old fort on College Hill.

[Rather than the building we know today, “Vanmeter Hall” was the name given to the Normal School’s first home on College Street.  It was named for Captain Charles J. Vanmeter, who had helped capitalize the construction company that built it in 1901.  The remains of the Civil War fort built on the Hill and located behind the current Van Meter Hall are still visible today.]

January 31:

Tonight I attended a debate at the College, the subject being “Resolved, That millionaires are a benefit to our country.” The affirmative side won.

February 15:

I attended a meeting of the Kit Kat Club [where the debate topic was] “Resolved, that ministers should take part in political affairs.” (The affirmative won.)

[One of three literary societies (the others being the Junior Society and Senior Society), the Kit Kat Club came to represent those in the lower academic ranks of the school.]

February 21:

Prof. Cherry returned from Frankfort at midnight and about 300 of the pupils met him at the train. He was carried into the depot amid wild cheers.

[President Henry Hardin Cherry lobbied on behalf of the “Whirlwind Campaign” that culminated in the passage by the General Assembly of several bills in support of public education.  One in particular made an appropriation of $150,000 (about $5 million today) to the Western Kentucky State Normal School for buildings, grounds and equipment, and increased its appropriation for operating expenses.  Arriving at the railroad depot that night, a startled Cherry wielded his umbrella at the mob of students before they explained their good intentions.]

March 13:

Tonight I attended the Junior Society at the College.  The program was well-rendered and was as follows.  Debate, Resolved, That the resources of the south are greater than those of the north. (The negative won.)

March 19:

This morning we received the news that Gov. Willson had signed several of the bills that shall influence education in Kentucky in the future. We soon gathered in the chapel and after cheers for the Governor, Prof. Cherry, the Normal, etc, we formed in line, and led by Prof. Alexander marched to town and around the park. Here we halted for a while, several songs were sung, and after many cheers had again rent the air, we marched back to the College. . . . Lessons were dismissed until afternoon and many of the students played games on the campus.

[Like Wilson, Professor J. R. Alexander’s relationship with the State Normal School began when he was a student.  He taught mathematics until retiring in 1930.]

March 20:

Tonight I attended the regular meeting of the Junior Society. The program was as follows: Debate, Resolved; That a college education is essential to success. . . . . The negative won.

April 13:

This morning at chapel period, Miss Flora Stallard, teacher of the fourth grade in the Model School, received the first Life Certificate given by the Western Kentucky State Normal.

[The State Normal School established “model school rooms,” where its students could receive hands-on training under a supervising teacher.  Stallard’s Life Certificate, which entitled her to teach for life in any county of the state, was the highest academic credential then granted.  After receiving authorization to grant degrees in 1922, the Western Kentucky State Normal School added the phrase “and Teachers College” to its name.]

On April 19, after a period of illness, Wilson left Bowling Green for his home in Murray, Kentucky.  His first semester was now behind him . . . but he would return.

Gordon Wilson’s diaries are housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Am I full of dirt today?”

Howard Greer

India Early Minshall (1885-1965) was a noted collector of Fabergé and other Imperial Russian art objects, many of which went to the Cleveland Museum of Art after her death. This rarefied pursuit put her in the company of other wealthy collectors and even some minor Russian royalty, but it also created a bond with a less conventional enthusiast. Howard Greer (1896-1974) was a well-known fashion and costume designer who created wardrobes for celebrities, socialites and actresses during Hollywood’s “golden age.” He designed wedding gowns for Shirley Temple and Gloria Vanderbilt, and dressed the stars in movies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940) and Lady on a Train (1945).

When he became friends with India, Greer was nearing retirement from the “rag racket,” a calling that had given him a close-up look at the good, the bad and the ugly of celebrity culture and wealth. It may have been their shared love of Russian literature, art and history that first brought them together, but in some 350 letters to India, Greer shared details of his home life, travel, reading, literary endeavors, social engagements, fashion showings, and experiences with the glitterati, both past and present. In expertly typed text over an outsized signature, Greer unleashed his keen memory and acid wit on the high, the mighty and the fallen of his personal and professional acquaintance. Honey, to say he dished is an understatement.

Here are a few morsels:

On seeing actress and longtime William Randolph Hearst companion Marion Davies at a party:

I thought I was seeing a spook. The spook turned out to be Marion Davies, falling-down drunk! If you want to know what her face looked like, just break an egg on a plate!

On seeing socialite and Washington political hostess Perle Mesta at another party:

Perle Mesta looked like a sausage wrapped in rhinestones, but of course Perle doesn’t drink so she still looked the same at the end of the evening.

On the décor at yet another party:

The party was given in what’s called “the penthouse” atop Mr. Romanoff’s restaurant and I walked up the stairs and came into a room so full of flowers I thought I was attending a gangster’s funeral. [Celebrity gossip columnist Hedda Hopper evidently agreed:] “Good God, where’s the body?” she yelled.

On attending a dinner at which film icon Bette Davis was also a guest:

Miss D’s arrival was a little like the sudden appearance of a hurricane. She whizzed in with enough voltage to set fire to an electric chair. . . . The face is still Bette Davis (if you forget a few pouches) but from her shoulders to her navel she’s ALL GUT! . . . . She fell in a heap upon a sofa, asked for Scotch on the rocks, lighted a cigarette and so help me, for a minute she was all the impersonators of Bette Davis rolled into one!

On seeing interior designer James Pendleton’s wife Mary Frances (“Dodo”) at a luncheon:

Dodo is very VERY rich; her money comes out of wood-pulp, and every time you go to the bathroom and use Kleenex or toilet paper, she grows a penny richer! She is so ugly I always expect her to whinny.

On Jacqueline Ford, the wife of avant-garde artist Gordon Onslow Ford:

. . . a frighteningly intellectual gal out of a Charles Addams drawing . . . and who also positively creaks with inherited money. . . . Mrs. Ford is a weirdie, but attractive in an old-fashioned Theda Bara way, and she never says anything except and until her husband has spouted something, when she rolls her eyes and moans “How teddibly true!”

On the funeral of Irene Lentz, a costume designer who committed suicide:

. . . some minister gave a completely impersonal and uninspired service and he mentioned the name of Jesus Christ so many times that I kept wondering when all the Jews would get up and walk out!

And on Marilyn Monroe, who only weeks after this letter would be found dead in her Los Angeles home:

. . . a sick girl. . . whose meteor shot up too fast and now she’s frightened to death of the world. . . She was so terrified the first time she took a screen-test at Fox that she had to be HYPNOTIZED.  [Screenwriter] Charlie Brackett says that now, to get what they want out of her emotionally, they have to keep a hypnotist on the set. . . . am I full of dirt today?

Howard Greer’s letters to India Minshall are part of the Harry Jackson Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library. (Jackson, a Warren County, Kentucky native, was married to India’s niece Evelyn). Click here for a finding aid. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“I am going to report myself”

The Allies called him “the most dangerous man in Europe.”  Vienna-born Otto Skorzeny (1908-1975) was an early convert to Nazism, a German Army officer, and a member of Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard regiment. A man of both considerable height (6 ft. 4 in.) and ego, he was easily recognized by the long dueling scar etched across his left cheek.

While recovering from battle wounds in 1942, Skorzeny became a student of guerrilla warfare and special operations.  His enthusiasm put him at the head of several daring missions, including an attempt to kill Yugoslav partisan Josip Broz Tito; the deposing of Hungarian regent and fair-weather Axis friend Miklos Horthy; the infiltration of Allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge by German troops dressed in American uniforms; and perhaps most famously, the 1943 rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini after he was bounced from power and imprisoned in a camp in the Abruzzi Mountains.  These and other exploits earned Skorzeny a reputation as “Hitler’s favorite commando.”

But in May 1945, with Hitler dead and the war lost, Skorzeny found himself holed up in the mountains above the Austrian resort of Annaberg.  Contemplating his inevitable surrender, he was determined to seek out the Americans rather than fall into the hands of the Soviets.  He prepared two notes dated May 10, one in German and the other in English, announcing that in six days he would “report” himself to the Allies at Salzburg, about three hours to the west.  Descending to Annaberg, Skorzeny handed the notes to Allied officers.  They were forwarded to Salzburg with the notation “this came through Annaberg.”

Skorzeny’s surrender notes were in English (front page shown) and German (back page shown)

On his arrival in Salzburg, Skorzeny was placed in the custody of Major John C. Perkins of the U.S. Third Army’s 30th Infantry Regiment.  A native of Webster County, Kentucky, Perkins was a graduate of Bowling Green High School and had joined the Army ROTC while a student at Western Kentucky University.  A communications officer, Perkins was a veteran of campaigns in Africa, Italy, France and Austria, but currently had his hands full with the new responsibilities of an occupying military force.  So it was not surprising that, according to Skorzeny’s biographer Stuart Smith, Perkins was initially unaware of “just what a valuable haul the Americans had landed.”

But Perkins, a capable record keeper by any standard, was careful enough to retain Skorzeny’s two surrender notes, and these unique and historically significant documents are now housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  They are timely and exciting donations in light of the 78th anniversary of VE Day on May 8.

Click here for a finding aid to the John C. Perkins Collection and scans of the Skorzeny notes.  For more of our extensive World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Courtz and Sealz

Kentucky had been a state for ten years when the Judiciary Act of 1802 reorganized the federal court system. Together with a local district court judge, each justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (there were then six) was tasked with hearing cases in one of the nation’s six circuits.  The justices heartily disliked “circuit riding” for legal reasons, but also because of the difficulties of early nineteenth-century travel.  In fact, so intolerably distant were the judicial districts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, and the territories that the Act did not even include them in any of its circuits. Not until 1807 did a newly created Seventh Circuit comprise Kentucky and its fellow outliers, Tennessee and Ohio.

Meanwhile, recognizing that its district courts were overloaded, Kentucky enacted legislation in 1802 establishing its own circuit court system.  Some circuits were comprised of more than one county, but Warren County alone made up the Warren Circuit.  Convening on the first Monday in March, June and September, the court succeeded to the powers of the old district and quarter-sessions courts, and had trial jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters except those involving less than five pounds in money or one thousand pounds of tobacco.

But amidst all the administrative details of establishing the new courts, one was overlooked.  In 1804,  recognizing that “each of the circuit courts of this commonwealth should possess a seal of office, and no provision hath heretofore been made for that purpose,” the General Assembly directed each court to procure a seal for not more than ten dollars, to be paid out of the money collected from fines and costs. 

A few early court records in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library bear this seal.  In a design reminiscent of the Great Seal, the center shows a bald eagle bearing in its talons an olive branch and arrows.  Encircling the eagle are the words:

Oh dear. What happened?  Do we have a mistake resembling the “Inverted Jenny,” the 1918 U.S. postage stamp showing an airplane upside down?  Did the engraver become confused, thinking the “N” had to be reversed in order to appear correctly when the seal was applied?  Or do we just have an unschooled engraver trying to extrapolate the appearance of the uppercase letter from a lowercase “n”?  Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gravestones sometimes bore reversed letters – “s” and “z,” in particular, as well as “n” – but an official seal? 

In any event, the backwards “N” doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone, perhaps because another ten dollars would have been required to fix it.  The seal stayed in use until at least 1839.  By 1860, another seal carried the correct lettering, together with a more pastoral image in the center.  We see that one in use until at least 1902.

Warren Circuit Court seals

Click here to access more information about locating these seals, along with a little history on Warren County’s early courts and the subjects of some early indictments.  Click here for a finding aid to some of our early court records.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A guest of that “Austrian pest”

James “Jimmie” Stewart

On May 14, 2016, the Bowling Green Daily News ran a story about James Minor “Jimmie” Stewart, a 99-year-old World War II veteran who spent more than two years as a prisoner of war in Germany. The story highlighted Stewart’s “wartime log,” a journal issued by the Red Cross that invited POWs to document their experiences with diary-style entries, drawings, poetry, and keepsakes. The objective was to create a “permanent souvenir” that would serve as a “visible link” between the soldier and “the folks at home.”

While we are sorry to report Jimmie’s death on April 26, 2017, we are very pleased that his wife Ruth has recently donated his wartime log to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of  WKU’s Special Collections Library. It is both a poignant and inspiring record of Stewart’s life behind barbed wire.

These hardcover journals were somewhat bulky, and many soldiers shed them as unwanted baggage when they, like Jimmie, were moved around from one prison camp to another. But Jimmie took the volume’s instructions to heart. Included in his wartime log were poems, drawings, lists of his fellow prisoners, envelopes from home, German banknotes, and even an official military ballot from the 1944 presidential election. 

Some of the content was created by Stewart in his meticulous hand, while some was added by fellow prisoners.  In “Poems by P.O.W.’s,” contributors dream of freedom and of those waiting at home (especially mothers), mourn lost comrades, and warn draft dodgers to “keep away from my girl.” One poem recalls the aftermath of Sidi Bou Zid, a battle in Tunisia that saw a smackdown of American soldiers by more experienced German troops. Its author nevertheless mocked Hitler by using the name of his father, the born-out-of-wedlock Alois Schicklgruber, and promised revenge: So now we’re the guest / Of that Austrian pest / “Shickie” The boy with my heart / But our buddies are coming / To fix up his plumbing / Or maybe to take it apart.

Mail from home in Stewart’s wartime log

Perhaps most surprising to see are the many photographs in the journal: of camp buildings, Stewart’s fellow prisoners, two young ladies of  his acquaintance, and camp activities. When they were not put to work, the men found time to stage musical performances and South Pacific-style theatricals featuring comely fellows in wigs, dresses and five-o’clock shadows. 

A loose flyer in the journal told of the approaching end for the Nazis in April 1945: stand your ground, it ordered soldiers who were thinking of putting down their weapons and scattering. For Stewart, fortunately, liberation came in May, then repatriation to Bowling Green, where his wartime log survives to tell his story to the “folks at home.”

The Red Cross brought food packages to Stewart and his fellow POWs

Click here for a finding aid and full scan of James Minor Stewart’s wartime log.  For more World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Land of Five-Footers

Harry Jackson; Stella White’s letter

Born in Virginia, Stella Godfrey White was educated in New York and Cleveland.  A schoolteacher and social worker, she served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.  After the war, she moved to Cleveland and married Charles W. White, a Nashville native.  Both were civic servants and community activists.  Stella was the first woman appointed to the board of the Cleveland Transit System and her husband, a Harvard law graduate whose career began slowly because no law firm would hire him, became Ohio’s first African-American common pleas and appellate judge. 

Warren County, Kentucky native Harry Jackson also found himself in Cleveland after his war service.  As director of public relations for a chemical manufacturer, he became involved with many community boards, cultural organizations and other beneficiaries of his employer’s charitable foundation.  It’s likely he and Stella White regularly crossed paths in the course of their community work and at Trinity Cathedral, where they both attended church.

In 1969, White was beginning a four-year stint as a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, writing on race and class issues.  She and Jackson got to talking about race relations, and he related an incident in Chicago, where a young man once told him “You can’t understand how it feels to be a Negro.”  Puzzled, the 62-year-old Jackson had wished for some “enlightenment as to the real truth of the statement.” 

“I have thought quite a bit about just how I could try to help you understand what that young man meant,” White wrote Jackson in a letter dated November 19, 1969.  She offered this example:

You are a tall man and I’d like for you to try to imagine waking up one day in a strange place where everything was scaled to accommodate only people who are five feet tall.  Every doorway is too low for you to pass through without stooping.  Every table is too low . . . .  All of the clothing is made to fit the people who live in this hypothetical place.  You get a jaywalking ticket so you must appear in court.  The judge is prejudiced because you are not the same height as all of the rest of the people. . . . You draw a jail sentence and all cells, etc. are to the five foot scale . . . .

During this prolonged period of utter frustrations, you find yourself unable to find anyone who will listen to your complaint . . . . You were made to feel that you mattered so little to others that you began to matter not at all to yourself . . . . When you finally escaped you had to begin to lift yourself from the depths of self-hate which had engulfed you because you had been so blatantly hated. . . . You had to begin to find yourself. . . so that you could establish for yourself dignity and respect. . . .

No matter how hard you tried, other people found it hard to understand your predicament. . . . Not a soul, no matter how sympathetic could understand how you felt, because none had experienced being a tall man in a land of prejudiced, discriminating five footers.

Thank you for being my friend.  Sincerely, Stella G. White

Click here for a finding aid to the Harry Jackson Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Too Late

Cartmell Huston; Clarence McElroy

It was a September day in 1880, and 20-year-old Cartmell Huston was bored.  Her brother had asked her to keep him company at his dull bank job in Uniontown, Kentucky, and after passing the time poking through desk drawers and watching customers enter a next-door restaurant, she grabbed some counter checks and started filling them out in “fabulous amounts to see how folks feel who have bank accounts.”  She wrote one for $25,000 and enclosed it in a letter to her friend, Clarence McElroy of Bowling Green.

It’s unclear where or when, but Cartmell, the daughter of a prominent Morganfield, Kentucky judge and banker, first laid eyes on McElroy, a 31-year-old lawyer and state legislator, from across a ballroom where she stood trapped by a “dreadful bore.”  They struck up a kind of courtship—one which, not unusual for the time, was carried on largely through correspondence.  We don’t know if Cartmell kept his letters, but McElroy kept hers, secreted among a large collection of his legal files now in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  They offer an intimate portrait of Cartmell: perceptive, wryly intelligent and literate (her sister was the novelist Nancy Huston Banks), yet a restless young woman who found herself with nothing much to do except wait for someone to propose marriage.

In the meantime, Cartmell puttered about at home, read widely, learned music, helped entertain her parents’ friends, visited, walked with her sister, went to picnics and dances, observed the courtships of her girlfriends, and devoured McElroy’s letters.  When he would not match the frequency of her correspondence or its emotional openness, she complained—“You are so unkind to me, I do not see why I want you to like me or why I do not accept the utter indifference you are at no pains to conceal”—but when a “pleasant letter” arrived afterward she found it hard to maintain her resentment. 

Then the clouds would gather again: “I do not deserve that you think so well of me,” she told McElroy.  “For when I think of the sameness of my life, I feel disinclined to take up a belief in its sacredness, or that it has any responsibility than to laugh at its own failure.  At some times I have felt within me the capability for higher things—but mostly I feel—nothing—save a slow discontent—a dull dislike of the duties of my quiet home.”  Nevertheless, she wrote, “it is the one great relief I have, to bring all my disappointments and cares and moods to you, and to be always sure of your sympathy and a patient hearing.”

When that fateful proposal did come—but not from McElroy—Cartmell conveyed the news with barely concealed anguish.  Having previously dropped hints about the matter, she finally informed McElroy in December 1880 of her marriage “the last of this month to Mr. Bishop of Cincinnati, with the provision of course, that I’m not dead before then.”  Was McElroy surprised? she asked.  “I don’t mind confessing to you, that I was myself, a little—just at first.”  She had known Bishop for four years, however, “and I always half way believed I would marry him.”  It was a daunting prospect—“I am giving up all control of my life and happiness,” she declared—but he was a good man who loved her despite knowing she was “impractical and unreasonable,” and she was going “to try as far as is in human power to make him happy.”

But then regret flooded over her, unconcealed from the friend who knew “so much of my inner life.”  She admitted that the home that had wearied her with its “quietness and sameness” was not, in fact, “the cause of my disquiet”; rather, it was that she had not summoned McElroy there to talk about her deepest feelings—“about that subject that I could not write to you of.”  But time had run out.

McElroy’s reply threw Cartmell into utter despair.  Why didn’t you write this letter to me two months ago—or why in God’s name did you write it at all? she cried.  If I had believed you cared—now, when it is too late to affect our lives, when it will be a confession of no moment to you, a confession of shame to me—still I brave all things—dare all things—and tell you the truth—that I love you I love you.  I would lay down my life for your happiness—I never have loved any one but you—I never shall—and now it is too late—too late.  God help me.

On December 29, 1880, Cartmell married Roland P. Bishop.  In 1887, they moved to Los Angeles, where Bishop, as a principal of Bishop & Company, a food and confectionery manufacturer, would become one of the leading businessmen of southern California.  The move, however, may have been originally prompted by Cartmell’s health, for she died in 1891, aged only 30.

Click here for a finding aid to the Clarence Underwood McElroy papers, which include Cartmell Huston Bishop’s letters.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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1/116th of a Sheep

From William Coolidge’s 1822 journey to New Orleans to Josiah Ware’s 1837 Ohio River odyssey, the perils of nineteenth-century travel by water are well represented in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Here’s another incident featuring Keturah “Catherine” Ward of Newport, Kentucky and husband Charles, whose journey to a new life in Georgia took a wrong turn off the coast of North Carolina in 1836.

Charles Ward’s children and thirty-six-year-old wife had followed him through military postings in Delaware, New York and Vermont.  Returning to his family at Fort Hamilton, New York after service in the Second Creek War, Charles, to Catherine’s surprise, resigned from the Army.  Increasingly unhappy with the military’s disruption of his family life, he had decided to relocate to Marion County, Georgia and try his luck in a mercantile partnership.

On October 8, 1836, the Wards left New York aboard the William Gibbons, a packet steamer carrying 140 passengers.  Its captain, recently called out of retirement, was happy to leave command in the hands of the first mate and navigator—a careless choice at the best of times that would, under the conditions of this voyage, prove disastrous. 

Visibility was poor the next night when, spotting Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the ship turned west to round the Cape toward deeper water.  Unfortunately, the lighthouse was not at Cape Hatteras, but at Bodie Island some 50 miles to the north, and the ship was now on a collision course with North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  Early in the morning of October 10, she ran aground.

Most of the passengers—116, according to later accounts—were ferried to land, but without their baggage.  They were deposited in two abandoned houses while the rest of the passengers stayed aboard to ride out an approaching storm.  Catherine described the conditions on shore in a letter to her sister. Since the trip began, everyone had been “very seasick” and unable to eat, and the failure of the captain to deliver provisions extended their time without food to some four days.  The only victuals came courtesy of an unlucky “small sheep” captured nearby, “cooked and divided into one hundred and sixteen parts.” 

After the storm, the feckless captain finally came ashore to help, and the Wards obtained respite in Norfolk, Virginia.  The crew, however, was even less heroic.  Fortified with liquor, they had proceeded to cut open the baggage left behind on the William Gibbons, taking money, jewelry and clothing, and even rifling through the mail bags on board.  “While we were on shore,” wrote Catherine, “our trunks were broken open and robbed mine had all my spoons and tumblers in it but were at the bottom and [the plunderers] were satisfied with taking my gold watch.  We suffered no little I assure you.”  Miraculously, no lives were lost in the wreck, but husband Charles estimated that he was “a loser by it to the amount of between three and five hundred dollars.”

Charles and Catherine Ward’s letters about the William Gibbons wreck are part of the Sumpter Family Collection.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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John’s Case

The crime scene (arrow indicates the privy)

She was found in the privy.  There were signs of a scuffle, during which she had been choked by a strong pair of hands, then stabbed in the neck and chest.  The murder of Harriet Porter took place around midday, February 8, 1858, on the Allen County, Kentucky farm where she resided with husband Uriah, five children, and perhaps twenty enslaved persons. 

As word spread, locals converged on the farm and tried to determine what had happened.  Suspicion fell on one of the slaves, Jack, who was ultimately charged, found guilty, and hanged.

Jack, however, had implicated another slave, John, as his co-conspirator in the deed.  A grand jury indicted John and he was likewise found guilty, but in April 1858 he successfully petitioned for a new trial.  He claimed that not only was the jury’s verdict contrary to the evidence—the testimony of some of his fellow slaves had made clear that he could not have participated in the crime—but he had learned of Jack’s confession to “two gentlemen of high standing” that he, John, “had nothing in the world to do with the murder of Mrs. Porter.”  Because of local prejudice and the notoriety of the case, John also asked for the trial to be moved to neighboring Warren County, and prayed that the court might give him a chance to “be saved from an unmerited and horrid Death” at the hands of the hangman.

The record assembled and forwarded to the Warren County Court documents a complex but meticulous effort to uncover the truth about John’s role in the murder.  Interviewed by a Scottsville physician, Dr. Algernon S. Walker, John explained that he had performed his morning chores and cut oats in sight of the privy, and noticed nothing unusual.  He went to the servants’ house for dinner, then out to the orchard, then to the shop to offer help in a wagon repair.  At some point he thought he heard a commotion at the privy, but thought nothing of it. 

Unfortunately for John, the two gentlemen who had supposedly heard Jack’s confession declined to make oath to that effect, so circumstantial evidence became critical.  Numerous other witnesses, both slave and free, gave testimony in an attempt to determine John’s movements and demeanor on the day of the murder.  When was he at dinner?  Who saw him there?  Where was Jack during this time?  In an effort to construct a timeline, a sketch of the farm buildings was prepared showing the distance, in steps, between privy, orchard, shop and servants’ quarters.

Instructions to the jury in the Warren County trial, at which prominent lawyer Henry Grider defended John, betrayed the difficulty of their task.  Should they convict on the basis of Jack’s accusation alone, in the absence of other corroborating evidence?  Should Jack’s story be discounted if it had been given in expectation of reward, or contained inconsistencies?  And just how much circumstantial evidence was necessary to raise—or exclude—a reasonable doubt as to John’s guilt? 

After considering all this, the jury reached a verdict.  John was acquitted.

John’s case highlights a curious aspect of the institution of slavery.  While he was chattel—“the property of Uriah Porter,” read the indictment—John was, for the purposes of criminal law, to be treated as a human being responsible for his actions.  As one historian of slavery has observed, a lesser offense would have subjected John to swift “plantation justice,” but for a capital crime he was more likely to receive the same procedural protections as those given to accused free persons. 

The record of John’s case is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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What’s mine is mine

“Whereas a marriage is contemplated”: Sarah Thomson’s marriage contract

A recent donation to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library offers a glimpse of the complex family affairs of the Thomsons of Fayette County, Kentucky, including the legal position of women in this well-off and propertied family.

In 1849, Sarah Thomson, a widow of 48, decided to marry Samuel Salyers, a farmer almost 20 years her junior.  Sarah’s first husband had bequeathed her several hundred acres of land and 28 enslaved persons – all of which, under the laws of Kentucky, would become her new husband’s property in exchange for his obligation (real or imagined) to support her.  Even if the couple had disowned this state of affairs by agreeing that “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours,” the law could still operate, for example, by seizing Sarah’s assets to satisfy Samuel’s debts, by nullifying a contract entered into by Sarah under her own name, or by ignoring her attempt to devise her property by will.

The workaround – as wealthier and better-informed families knew – was for the woman first to divest herself of legal title to her property by conveying it to a trustee, who would hold it for her use and benefit free of the claims of her husband-to-be.  Accordingly, Sarah, Samuel, and Sarah’s son Patrick Henry Thomson signed a deed of trust appointing Patrick as trustee.  The document acknowledged the status of Sarah’s acreage as a working farm, obligating her to consult with Patrick on the cutting of timber and sale of enslaved persons, but otherwise made clear that her control of the property, including the right to devise by will, was to be “absolute, sole & exclusive.”

As some of our other collections show, these marriage contracts could do the job they were intended to do, or precipitate litigation when the messy business of marriage economics intervened.  In 1836, Ann and Samuel Winder had simply agreed in their contract that Ann could, at any time after their marriage, elect to have a trustee hold her property separate from her husband’s.  When she exercised the option seven years later by nominating her son-in-law, her husband raised no objections, and the Warren County Court held that that their contract to agree on a trustee later was valid and binding.

Things were rockier in 1845, when Ruth Wheeler appealed to the same court to complain that her husband William had ignored their contract and that her trustee had failed to stand up for her rights.  William, she charged, had dealt with her property as if it was his own, selling assets, using funds to buy an enslaved young boy, and collecting notes and rents in his name rather than in the name of Ruth’s trustee.  When she proposed selecting another trustee, William had become “excited, irritable & unkind,” suggesting some collusion between the two.  For his part, William took a position more commonly associated with a wronged wife: his personal services throughout their marriage, he claimed – building a “comfortable brick dwelling” on Ruth’s farm, supervising their enslaved labor, and managing income and expenses – had all gone unappreciated and uncompensated.  He denied Ruth’s claims that his treatment of her had forced her to abandon their home, but also denied that “by entering into said marriage contract” he had intended to make himself “a slave.”  Fortunately for his case, William produced receipts, and the parties settled on an amount for his services, ending the litigation – and presumably, their cohabitation.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these materials on marriage contracts.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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