Sunday, April 11, 2010

More on the John Brown Hanging Rope

I was delighted to receive the microfilmed version of letters to Virginia governor Wise about Harpers Ferry on interlibrary loan from the Library of Virginia recently, and I was even more pleased to find a number of letters from Kentuckians expressing their opinions on the affair.

A letter that I was especially looking for was fortunately included; it was from Zeb Ward, "late keeper of Kentucky penitentiary." The letter was sent from Ward's home in Versailles, Kentucky on November 23, 1859, and formally addressed Wise as "His Excellency."

Here is the body of the letter:
"I send you by Adams Express [the UPS of this era] this morning a rope made expressly for the use of John Brown & Co. Kentucky will stand pledged for its being an honest rope - I had it made in her behalf and send it to show we are willing and ready to aid our mother State in disposing of those who may attempt to destroy & overthrow her government I hope you will use it.

The hemp of which it is made was grown in Missouri - a state that Brown had troubled much, and made at Frankfort Kentucky I had it made for the express purpose - & I hope you will pass it over to the proper authorities to be used"

A letter such as this is invaluable to the researcher. It clearly states at least this person's feelings on the issue and shows that this individual felt so strongly as to act on those feelings.

I found it interesting that Ward mentioned that the rope was made of Missouri hemp. Kentucky was just as well known, if not more so, for its hemp than Missouri. It would be fascinating to know if he used Missouri hemp solely due to Brown's previous association with that state as he seems to indicate, or if he used it just because that is what he had on hand. Since he mentions that the rope was made in Frankfort, it was most likely made at the state penitentiary. Ward was the former keeper of the facility, and one of their major prisoner manufacturing operations there during the antebellum era was rope making.

I will try to share a few other letters that I found over the next several posts; some of which are proving quite difficult to transcribe due to their author's poor handwriting, the condition of the microfilm, and the fact that copies were made from the microfilm machine. I prefer to transcribe whole manuscripts rather than bits and pieces, simply for the reason of gaining a better understanding the author's context and line of thinking. It is often easy to misinterpret a writer's intention by just picking and choosing passages that are the most legible.


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  2. I ask for comments and this is what I get? Sheesh!

  3. Tim-- I own Zeb Ward's home in Arkansas after he moved here. I would love to visit with you about Zeb, but I can't find a way to contact you.
    John T. Holleman
    Holleman & Associates
    1008 West Second Street
    Little Rock, AR  72201
    501.975.5043 fax

  4. Hi John,
    That's neat! I didn't know he had moved to Arkansas. You can reach me at