Category Archives: Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

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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“The food they live on”

It was mid-April 1862, and word had reached Greensburg, Kentucky of the great battle at Shiloh.  Native son Edward Henry Hobson had commanded the 13th Kentucky Infantry through what he would mourn as “a terrible affair,” and his brother-in-law Archie Lewis was relieved to hear that he had survived.  Back home, Hobson’s wife Kate had just given birth, in Lewis’s words, to “a good ‘Union daughter.’”

Edward Henry Hobson

Throughout the war, correspondents had faithfully kept Hobson apprised of news from Greensburg, where both Union and Confederate supporters uneasily coexisted and waited for word of their side’s fortunes.  Initial reports from Shiloh were sketchy.  Friend Samuel Spencer wrote that “the papers give very meager accounts of the matter except that it was the most deadly strife that was ever seen or fought on this continent.”  An Army surgeon who had just returned on sick leave reported “various and conflicting rumors in relation to the matter” and was besieged with townspeople seeking information.  A niece described the sad sight of “old gray haired men, standing around the P.O. door evening after evening, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the mail, and when the papers are read, eagerly listening to, and catching every word, if perchance they may hear some tidings concerning absent loved ones.”

The news vacuum left room for bluster and misinformation, and secessionists took advantage.  Immediately after Shiloh, Archie Lewis assured Hobson, things remained fairly quiet in Greensburg “except the gass that is let off by the Secesh occasionally.”  Soon, however, details of the battle began to emerge, both from official reports and from local boys who had borne witness.  Sam Spencer told Hobson of his pride in the “Gallant 13th” and his relief that the “conflicting rumors and flying reports first received” about its heavy casualties had proven to be exaggerated.  As the Union’s victory in the battle became more evident, Southern sympathizers who attempted to “preach Secesh on the corners of the street” were attracting smaller and smaller audiences.  Ringleaders, however, persisted with their own version of events—“still trying to galvanize life into the thing,” remarked Spencer, “by lying and misrepresentation,” waving letters from the South “giving the most cheering account of the Grand Army of Beauregard and the Great victory” at Shiloh, and telling tales of Northern troops “now whipped to death” and falling back in panic.  “This is but a small specimen of the Gulliver’s tales that some great men now tell the people,” Spencer complained, “and this is the food that they live on.”  But, declared this passionate Union man, “a day of rec[k]oning is coming.”

Edward Henry Hobson’s correspondence, which vividly describes the Civil War tensions that afflicted Greensburg and Green County, Kentucky, is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  Click here to browse our other Civil War collections, or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“It is my will and desire”

Nineteenth-century Kentuckians commonly began their wills with a declaration of mental but not physical vigor.  I, [name], being weak and sick in body but of perfect mind and memory, or some similar phrase, was the usual prelude to a disposition of assets upon death.

Daniel Smith displayed a slightly different attitude when he composed his will in 1836.  Though the Warren County farmer would depart this earth less than two years later, he claimed to possess both “common understanding & memory” and to be “in my usual health.” 

In his will, he hinted at his prosperity and directed that “what earthly goods it hath pleased God to bless me” – cattle, sheep, horses, mules, household furniture, money, notes and bank stock – be used for the support of his wife Mary and “our two afflicted children Anna & Robert Smith.”  After the death of any two, the survivor was to receive $1500, then share the estate equally with three other sons and a daughter.  Small bequests also went to foreign missions in China and Burma. 

Smith’s instructions, however – all preceded with the phrase “It is my will and desire” – took up little more than half of his four-page testament.  The rest dealt with property to which he gave equally careful thought: his enslaved servants.

Smith set up a staggered schedule for their emancipation.  Moriah was to enjoy the rights of a “free white person” at the end of 1838, “provided she does not live within Ten miles of my family.”  Peter was to be “released from bondage” at the end of 1841; both he and Moriah were to receive aid from Smith’s estate if they were unable to support themselves.  Six others – Isaac, Peggy, Ellen, Jane, Charlotte and George – were to be freed between 1843 and 1850.  Children of the enslaved servants were not to be free until age 25, but if any of their freed parents should “desire to emigrate to Liberia,” the children could accompany them.

While emancipation by will was not unusual, Smith’s directives starkly illustrated the primacy of property rights over human rights.  In the case of Sam, an enslaved man who had “been accused of making some unwarrantable threats,” the promise of freedom at the end of 1848 would depend on his good behavior.  Any further misconduct, Smith instructed, and “he must be separated from my Family and sold as a common Slave.”  All of Smith’s enslaved servants, in fact, were subject to sale by his executors “up to the time at which they & each of them are to be free.” 

Smith’s control over his enslaved servants was most evident when it came to Moriah, due to be freed at the end of 1838.  Learning that Moriah “is inclined to use too much strong drink, & disposed to dissipation,” he revoked her emancipation in an 1837 codicil to his will.  Instead, she was to be hired out to “some good master who is Religious & pious” and who would treat her well and “furnish her with better & more comfortable clothes than common hired Servants is allowed.”  Part of the payment for her hire was to be put aside for her maintenance – the portion to increase “as she gets of less value” – and the balance invested for her benefit, to be used “as she may need it” or disposed of on death “as she pleases.”

Daniel Smith’s will – a remarkable document that arguably recognized some humanity in his enslaved servants, yet deprived them of agency even as his own power extended beyond death – is part of a collection of early Warren County Court records in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Mr. Coke Goes to Frankfort

J. Guthrie Coke; Laura Clay – who’s “pugnacious”?

I am agreeably surprised that of all the members of the house I have not seen a man who was drunk and only three or four who looked like they had drunk any.  If this continues it will be remarkable and will be a credit to the body.

When he arrived in Frankfort in January 1914 to take his seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives, J. Guthrie Coke found this and other reasons to be optimistic.  Following three earlier generations of his family into public office, the 47-year-old Logan County banker and farmer had resolved to “place one rule for measurement against all things and that is is it right.” 

In letters—he called them “journals”—addressed to his wife Carrie, Coke took careful note of his surroundings—Frankfort was “a pretty town” but the magnificence of the Capitol made its houses look drab by comparison—and tried to understand the peculiarities of the democratic body of which he was a member.  On the positive side, he found himself “favored far more than any new man has been” with assignments to seven committees.  He enjoyed making the acquaintance of his fellow legislators and resolved to learn all their names.  On the negative side, Coke found some of his colleagues “trying in their several and limited capacity to do good,” others paralyzed as they contemplated “the effect of each thing they do upon their constituents,” and still others consumed as much by “some trivial measure as upon one of great moment” purely on the grounds of principle. And then there were the pesky lobbyists for the school book publishers and the railroads; the latter, he wrote, “are the worst . . . they flood the legislature both Senate and house and give every executive officer we have all the passes they desire.”  In between the good and bad were the routine aggravations of a large deliberative body: the slow pace of work as it was farmed out to committees, and the squabbles over preliminary matters, such as payment for extra stenographers and messengers, before the “mill will begin to grind, turning out its grist of good and bad laws.”

On January 13, Coke’s own capacity to do good was tested when he voted to table a resolution inviting leading woman suffragists Laura Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge to address the House.  An opponent of woman suffrage, Coke nevertheless thought the brushoff “very discourteous” to these nationally known Kentucky women; he made a motion to reconsider, and the resolution was adopted. 

When the women appeared before a joint session on January 15, however, Coke’s gallantry seemed to fade.  Laura Clay, he sniped, “is a very large woman with a very flabby pugnacious face, in fact she would make a child hide under the bed if it did not know she would not eat it.  Mrs. Breckinridge is a very frail consumptive looking woman of 30 or 35 years who is a granddaughter of Henry Clay.”  They “made fine speeches,” he admitted, “but I do not think they changed anyone’s mind.”  Coke’s estimate that the legislature stood “about three to one” against suffrage might have been accurate, but Clay and Breckinridge, as they say, persisted.  Six years later, Kentucky became one of only four southern states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the vote.

J. Guthrie Coke’s letters from Frankfort are part of the Coke Family Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid and full-text download.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Cupidistic Affairs

Sir, the letter began:

The receipt of your letter occasioned me some surprise, especially as it treated on a subject to which I had not yet devoted my thoughts; neither did I imagine, from the general tenor of your conduct towards me, that you entertained the sentiment you have thus avowed.

Uh oh.  This foretold heartbreak for the recipient, who had obviously made the decision, sometime early in 1857, to declare his love for 22-year old Marie McCutchen of Logan County, Kentucky.  Her brief but masterfully composed rejection, however, let him down easy in the gentlest of terms:

Trusting you will suffer your natural and good sense to conquer a passion which can never need a due return from me.  I return to you my very grateful thanks for the honor you have done me, and at the same time assuring you that you will ever possess my faithful friendship.

Among the many courtship letters in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections are those chronicling relationships gone wrong, or, like Marie’s, nipped in the bud (perhaps wisely, in her case: her suitor was twenty years older and had already been married twice).  It’s not known if he replied to Marie, but some spurned lovers find that a letter back is the best forum in which to plead their case.  In 1918, a young WKU coed received a reply to what her (now) ex termed her “confidence jarring” break-up letter.  “We shall always remain friends,” he declared, giving himself good grades for his manly conduct.  While he wished her luck in her “Cupidistic affairs,” he laid on a little bit of a guilt trip, hoping that she wouldn’t regret her decision and vowing to fight hard for the hand of the next “Fair Lady” who came along.  Though gainfully employed, he also warned that he would likely be off to serve in World War I soon and . . . please, could she at least send a photograph? 

Similar face-saving appeared in the letter of a young Woodburn man to his sweetheart only a year later.  “I have got some good news for you I am going to leave Ky in September,” he announced.  Another suitor had intruded upon their two-year relationship, leading him to realize “that you don’t care anything about me.”  He admitted, nevertheless, that “I never expect to meet another girl that I could love like I love you.”  In 1882, Robert C. “Coley” Duncan had confronted the same dilemma when he wrote to Nellie Gates of Calhoun, Kentucky.  “You love someone more than you do me I feel sure of it and it would certainly be best for both of us to cancel our engagement.”  Robert, in fact, married someone else only a year later, while Nellie’s rather cryptic reaction was to save his letter – in eight torn-up pieces. 

If some courtships start as well as end with a letter, perhaps no finer specimen can be found in our collections than one lengthy, unsigned, undated appeal, perhaps drafted and then carefully rewritten – or hidden away by an author who lost his nerve.  Dear Miss, it began.  For fear that a conversation with her would arouse gossip, he had resolved to take this approach:

Feeling my situation to be a forlorn lonesome & unhappy one I have seriously considered the propriety of writing myself to some tender hearted female calculated to soothe my sorrows and to enjoy with me the pleasures this uncertain world is able to afford. . . .

And in considering where I could find one in whom I could have that confidence in their good sense and propriety of conduct necessary to a happy Union my mind seems involuntarily to center on you. . . . And I must acknowledge to you that I have existing within my breast feelings of a very tender and inexpressible kind for you that I do not feel for any other person. . . .

And now I would candidly ask you whether you could consent to enter into a matrimonial connexion and whether your affections are disengaged. . . . If you would condescend to answer me by letter it would meet my warmest approbation. . . .  let your answer be plain & candid if you could subscribe the following it is all that is necessary: “I will share your sorrows and you shall share my Joys.”

Let’s hope he got his answer.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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What Does Victory Feel Like?

“Photograph of a Young Nazi”

It was clear that it was May 8, 1945, but in his eagerness to reach out to his family in Bowling Green, Kentucky from “the Heart of Germany,” Captain Harry Jackson misdated his letter April 8.  “To-day is VE day in Europe!” he exclaimed, but rather than “a day of great revelry and excitement . . . the day has been spent in sober reflection and rest.” 

Casting his mind back on the struggle – which, for him, had begun at Normandy only days after D-Day – Jackson found it difficult to appreciate the significance of the occasion.  He and his men felt less like conquering heroes than “bewildered children contemplating something too powerful to comprehend.”  No one could quite believe that, all of a sudden, “there will not be any more guns, snipers, buzz bombs, rockets, mortar shells, blood, suffering, death, and devastating destruction. We cannot realize that the hour is free – that the fighting here is over.”  Overshadowing any relief Jackson felt were the ghosts of “our men drifting and driving through the maelstrom of battle endlessly, tired, weary, footsore, cold,” and of those “who have fallen along the roadside in the mud . . . awaiting the Graves Registration units to come pick them up.”  His reserves of emotion, he admitted, were empty – “and yet moist tears even now trickle down my cheeks.”

Three days later, Jackson took up his letter again.  Still unable to sort out his reactions, he had wandered the sunny streets of the medieval village in which he was staying, then tried to shake off his indolence and reenter the “world of reality” and resume his officer’s duties.  “I must finish this letter now,” he wrote apologetically, “although I have failed miserably to fulfill my intentions when I began it.” 

But if Jackson could not yet understand the meaning of victory he had, only a month earlier, contemplated the wages of hubris, aggression, and defeat.  Billeted in a house in Hanover, Germany, he had come across a photograph of a German soldier. The discovery had moved him to compose a poem “Written Upon Finding a Photograph of a Young Nazi”:

Oh!  Imperious young man – Thou!
Where lies thy destiny?
Has the pillars of thy philosophy withstood
The gamble of the conqueror’s game,
the fanatic’s creed –
Which leads blindly into hate?

Think! – when returning to the remains
of thy heritage,
Of what price you have paid
…….
Weep! and survey the ruin.

Harry L. Jackson’s papers are 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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Have something to say, then say it

Harry Jackson (tallest, at rear) with “my crew,” Kerkrade, Netherlands

When Captain Harry L. Jackson landed in France five days after D-Day, the special services officer with the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division had yet to encounter the worst of his war experiences.  His tour, however, was preceded by lengthy service in the National Guard and, after his unit was activated, by duty at stateside camps and by training at Officers’ Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia and Special Services School at Washington and Lee University.  His training groomed Jackson to be responsible not only for a variety of tasks but for coordinating the activities of his staff to best serve the needs of soldiers and civilians caught in the European theater of war.

Jackson learned that military life was more than the receipt of and obedience to unfathomable orders and meaningless procedures; rather, leading and motivating others required skills that were necessary in any well-functioning organization, military or civilian.  Included in his papers, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Library Special Collections, is a two-page list of 28 points summarizing the “Management of the American Soldier.”  Among the items of advice:

Treat the American soldier as a man; look him squarely in the eye when you talk to him and treat him justly.

Give short talks to men on subjects which they ought to know.  Be sure the talks are short.  Have something  to say; say it; then stop.

Be extremely careful about your manner in dealing with soldiers; they are entitled to a respectful and patient hearing.  Some officers seem to go on the theory that military efficiency consists in a loud voice and an impatient manner.

[Soldiers] respect and admire an officer who requires a strict performance of duty.  The true rule for handling soldiers is: Don’t nag them; don’t neglect them; don’t coddle them.

Look carefully after the company mess.  Much of the discontent in a company is founded upon dissatisfaction with the food and the way it is served.

Be an optimist; cultivate that habit.

Remember Napoleon’s maxim, that in war the moral is to the physical as three to one.

There is always something to be done; the efficient officer sets to work earnestly and loyally to do it, overcoming obstacles as he goes along.

Prohibit the use of dirty, vulgar language – Punish offenders and see that your instructions are carried out.

This last admonition was, perhaps, more honored in the breach than the observance, as indicated by the motivational techniques of another officer whose words were also preserved in Captain Jackson’s papers.  A week before D-Day, legendary General George S. Patton gave a speech to the men of the Third U.S. Army.  Here is some of what he had to say by way of motivation (edited for PG-13):

Death must not be feared.  Every man is frightened at first in battle.  If he says he isn’t, he’s a #&%@# liar.

All through your army career you men have bitched about what you call “this chicken$#&* drilling.”  That is all for a purpose.  Drilling and discipline must be maintained in an army, if only for one reason: INSTANT OBEDIENCE TO ORDERS AND TO CREATE CONSTANT ALERTNESS.  I don’t give a damn for a man who is not always on his toes.

An army is a team.  Lives, sleeps, eats, fights as a team.  This individual heroic stuff is a lot of crap.

Why, by God, I actually pity those son-of-a-$%&# we’re going up against.  By God, I do.

Every man in the army plays a vital part.  Every little job is essential to the whole scheme. . . . Even the Chaplain is important for if we get killed, and he was not there to bury us, we’d all to go to Hell.

Sure, we will all want to go home.  We want this thing over with, but you can’t win a war lying down.  The quickest way to get it over with is to get the #%&$#&.  The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we go home.

Thank God that at least, 30 years from now when you are sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you what you did in the Great World War II, you won’t have to say, “I shoveled #&$@ in Louisiana.”

Click here to access a finding aid for the Harry Jackson Collection.  For more World War II collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Tangling Up, 1920s-style

I had to get married right away and didn’t have time to get someone I really wanted so now I’m Mrs. James Clayton Newman.  Jimmie’s a sweet kid but I can’t understand how his own mother can love him, let alone me.

For this Women’s History Month, we bring you a tale of courtship right out of the Roaring Twenties.  Though it’s hard to imagine this same scenario playing out even a generation earlier, it’s likely it did; few, however, described it with more casual candor than 18-year-old Elizabeth Jolly of Stanford, Kentucky.

It started with a date with “Jimmy.”  They raised a pint . . . then two, then three (all presumably illegal, since this was December 1927).  Before long, Elizabeth wrote her girlfriend Emily, “I was absolutely wild and passed out once.”  It was almost midnight when Jimmy poured her into her Louisville rooming house and left her asleep, “with my hat, coat, shoes, stockings and everything on,” to fetch them something to eat.  On his return, Jimmy was spotted sneaking into the house muffling his steps with “soft bedroom slippers,” a scandalous infraction that led to Elizabeth’s eviction by her housemother.  “Call a taxi,” an angry Elizabeth told her amour the next morning.  Their destination: one of many “marriage parlors” in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  “Getting people married,” she reminded Emily, “is the chief business there just like bootlegging is in some towns.” 

On the train, Elizabeth noted, word spread quickly as to “what we were up to.”  Some fellow passengers happened to have a portable Victrola, which they pulled out and played for the entire trip (no wedding march, thankfully).  On arrival in Jeffersonville, another taxi driver efficiently connected the lovebirds with a license clerk and a magistrate, who was “up waiting for us and had a light on and everything.”  Elizabeth had “never seen a place where marriage is looked upon so commercially.”  When the magistrate “had finished tangling us up he gave us one of his cards and asked us to send our friends.” 

The bride and groom returned to Louisville, resolved to seal their union with a proper wedding ring.  “I was married with my class ring,” Elizabeth reported, noting with a mix of sentiment and practicality that Jimmy “wanted me to use his but I thought maybe we would get us a divorce sometime and I will always want the ring I got married with.”

Now came the really tricky part: breaking the news to the folks at home.  But Elizabeth had a plan.  She intended to go home for Christmas in a few weeks “and have dates just like nothing had happened.”  Then, on her way out the door, she’d share her secret with her mother. 

And what did the future hold?  On this, Elizabeth was hazy, but “this won’t interfere with all our good times,” she assured girlfriend Emily.  In fact, two young fellows that she and Emily had recently had their eyes on might still get the benefit of their company.  “I will still help you get Beecher and I am going to see Lawrence or tear up a couple of these Bluegrass towns,” promised our newlywed. 

Elizabeth’s letter to Emily about her hasty marriage (spoiler: it didn’t last) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid and full-text scan.  For more collections about marriage and courtship, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“There is nothing romantic about it”

Harry Jackson despaired at homes blown out “like the bowels of a butchered pig”

As a U.S. Army Special Services Officer during World War II, Warren County, Kentucky’s Harry L. Jackson (1907-1985) saw combat up close.  Landing at Utah Beach five days after D-Day, he and his men pushed toward Germany via France, Holland and Belgium.  Jackson’s duties included arranging recreation for the troops, writing a regimental history, distributing ballots for the 1944 presidential election, and preparing applications for decorations.  Before long, however, he found himself doing much more: burying war dead, helping to manage waves of refugees, and juggling pleas for favors from desperate civilians.  He experienced the far-away look in the eyes of exhausted combat soldiers, and the utter destruction that war brought to once-beautiful cities and villages across Europe. He also learned to cope with his own emotional tailspin after witnessing a vast panorama of human suffering that included a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in summer 1945.

So it was with much authority that Jackson reflected on the bitter fruits of war in an October 9, 1944 letter to his sister Juanita:

While I write this there is a terrible battle raging. . . you will never know (thank God) the terror of war – all evening long I have been listening to the artillery fire – the concussion of which shakes the building to its foundations – then there are the mortars and machine guns – then the tanks. . . the planes are over most every night. . . then to-morrow the casualty lists. . . . 

I went out today – all of the houses are torn to bits – everything blown from the inside with large holes blown through the walls – all the inside contents spilling out like the bowels of a butchered pig – there are no windows – just large gaping holes in the walls through which the wind and weather plays jauntily with the lace curtains – curtains hung by some proud hand to make a home. . . makes one feel ashamed to look into the intimate privacy of these houses as they stand stripped of their raiments and stand naked before you.  The people – the people that once called them home have been driven, helpless away . . . to make way for the mighty god of war and destruction. . . . .

No there is nothing romantic about it.  Beauty and the lightness of life is gone. . . . but we are winning – and there will be a to-morrow of a better world I hope whether I am here to see it or not. . . . My eyes have seen too much – and my mind is filled with revolt at the scene – but I must go on – for them that have gone and for those that are out there to-night and for you at home.

Harry Jackson’s letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  To browse our World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and Ken Cat.

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