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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“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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