Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sometimes Luck Helps Solve History's Mysteries

Back on June 5 I posted about a pamphlet that I had found in the University of Kentucky's Special Collections that Henry Clay Pate had published in late 1859, and that gave Pate's history of John Brown. Pate's version claimed that peddler John Brown was a Kentuckian and had served time in the Kentucky state penitentiary for helping slaves run away.

I must admit that this incorrect version was a conundrum to me. Although not sure, I assumed that Pate was not trying to make things up, but had apparently received some incorrect information or interpreted something incorrectly somewhere along the way. He said he got his information from the editor of the Evansville (Indiana) Enquirer. Now, I think I have found out where he got his lines crossed.

It is often said that "doing history is like solving a mystery." While this is true, sometimes as happens in solving a mystery on CSI, a little dumb luck can provide a clue or two. While randomly searching on the Library of Congress' American Memory database the other evening for Kentucky primary sources, I came across a document (actually a pamphlet) near the end of the list titled "Brown's Three Years in the Kentucky Prisons." Of course I was curious, so I pulled it up and read it.

The story, published in 1857, was almost exactly the version that Pate had described in his 1859 pamphlet. Only this Brown wasn't John, it was Thomas Brown. But, the similarity between this story and Pate's is too close to not be where the editor of the Evansville Enquirer, and thus Pate, got things confused.

The pamphlet is only 21 pages, so I won't ruin a good story that you can read for yourself. But, Thomas Brown and his family moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Henderson, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Evansville, Indiana) and while Brown's wife made a living as a seamstress and milliner, Thomas peddled from town to town. On one of his trips to Evansville and back across the river, Thomas Brown was accused of helping slaves escape and was arrested and convicted (the author claims on a bribed conviction from Kentucky United States senator Archibald Dixon). Brown was first placed in the jail at Morganfield in Union County. About a year later he was transferred to the Kentucky state penitentiary in Frankfort where he served for two years (just as the Pate pamphlet said).

According to this account Thomas Brown's stay at the state penitentiary was harsh. It mentioned that Brown worked the hemp rope walk while incarcerated, and how being labeled an abolitionist was hazardous to his health with both the authorities and other prisoners. It said, "The term 'Abolitionist,' in Kentucky, is considered more opprobrious than thief or murderer. While Mr. B. was in Union County Prison, the horrors of which have been but faintly depicted, a man was arrested for murder. He was not put in the Prison at all, but kept in the jailor's house, and then bailed out for two thousand dollars. Mr. Brown's bail, it will be remembered, was put at five thousand dollars. The man [the murderer] was never brought to trial."

Penitentiary keeper Zeb Ward, who sent the hemp rope to Virginia Governor Wise to hang John Brown, (see my post on April 11, 2010) is also mentioned in this pamphlet. "On his [Thomas Brown's] arrival at the State Prison, the head keeper [Ward] was extremely glad to get another 'Abolitionist,' as he called him, in his power, expressing with an oath, a wish to be permitted to hang all such." Brown even had a short conversation with Ms. Ward that is included in the work. Also mentioned was Calvin Fairbank who was kept in the same prison for helping slaves runaway on a 20 year sentence.

Interestingly no author is given for this short work with the full title of Brown's Three Years in the Kentucky Prisons, From May 30, 1854 to May 18, 1857. I suspect that Ms. Brown may have been the author of this work just by the way she is presented in the account. Also on the last page it is explained that to get a copy of the pamphlet to send her $.25 per copy or $2.00 per dozen to her address in Indianapolis.

If you wish to read this short work you can go to: and search for Thomas Brown.

Conundrum solved in my humble opinion.

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