Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Combative Cassius Marcellus Clay

I just finished reading a couple of books on Kentucky emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay, and instead of providing a standard summary and overview of the books as I usually do, I thought I'd share a few of the stories I found especially interesting on this unique man.

Clay was a distant cousin to famous Kentucky statesman Henry Clay and was born in 1810 and grew up in Madison County. He was educated at St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Transylvania in Lexington, and finally at Yale in Connecticut, where he heard famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and first developed his antislavery stance. When Clay returned from his studies in the North and entered law school (again at Transylvania) he proposed to Mary Jane Warfield. Although her family was opposed to their union he prevailed, but not before having and "affair of honor" with another suitor.

Dr. John P. Declarey had also desired the marriage of Mary Jane Warfield and had not made it a secret to Clay. Finally things came to a boil and Clay went to Louisville to settle the matter man to man. The two combatants brawled briefly on the steps of the doctor's hotel then Clay offered Declarey a chance to duel. The two met, but for some reason were unable to complete the duel. Clay returned to Lexington and married Mary Jane. The doctor did not drop the business though even with losing his desired bride. During the Clay couple's honeymoon Declarey circulated stories of Clay being a coward. At first Clay let it go, but finally he had had enough and went again to Louisville to settle the issue once and for all. Clay went to the doctor's hotel and waited to see him. When Declarey arrived and saw Clay waiting he did not address Clay and quickly went to his room. Clay waited in Louisville a couple of days, but Declarey made no appearance, so Clay returned to Lexington. Clay soon learned that the doctor had committed suicide by severing his wrist arteries.

Clay was a firm believer in the freedom of speech and he defended that right to the fullest. In 1843 while he was attending the Robert Wickliffe and Garret Davis debate at Russell's Cave Spring he was attacked by a hired killer, Samuel Brown of New Orleans. Brown fired at Clay at close range and hit him in the chest, but Clay, who never went anywhere without one of his trusty bowie knives, fiercely defended himself and seriously injured Brown. Clay was carried from the scene by friends to check his wounds. When his coat was removed it was discovered that Clay's bowie knife scabbard had stopped Brown's bullet; Clay was left with only a sore red spot on his chest.

In 1849 Kentucky was moving toward another constitutional convention. One of the hot topic, as it was throughout the nation, was slavery. Clay attended a meeting at Foxtown in Madison County to stump for antislavery delegates to the convention. After speaking Clay was dismounted the stage when he was called a liar and was stabbed deeply in the chest by Cyrus Turner, the son of a pro-slavery delegate candidate. Clay attempted to draw his own knife, but the closeness and hostility of the crowd limited his movements and his knife fell to the ground. Clay was finally able to wrest the knife away from one of the throng, cutting his fingers to the bone. Clay gathered up the strength to finally get at Turner and stabbed him. Clay's 14 year-old son Warfield tried to had his father a pistol, but Clay's loss of blood caused him to lose consciousness. Another member of the Turner party tried to shoot Clay in the head but the pistol misfired on several attempts. As he passed out due to loss of blood, Clay reportedly said, "I died in the defense of the liberties of the people." Clay wouldn't die that day, although his attacker Turner did die a few days later.

C.M. Clay appears to have been somewhat of a ladies man for practically his whole life. His successful campaign to have Mary Jane Warfield as his own despite her parents and her other suitor's objections shows his determination and a romantic side that otherwise was seldom on display by this seemingly rough and independent individual. But, it appears that Mary Jane was not the only woman that caught Clay's eye over his lifetime. Clay's participation in the Mexican War did not bring him the martial honors that he had hoped for. Rather he and a number of his men were captured and spent the majority of their time in the country incarcerated. While being held captive Clay was allowed a liberal stay. He was often allowed to venture out at his leisure. He met a Mexican woman on one of these ventures that he later explained was one of the most captivating and beautiful women he had ever met. Later while serving as Minister to Russia during the Civil War he allegedly had an affair with a Russian ballerina. The relationship produced a son that he called his "adopted" boy and that came to live with Clay in Kentucky in the 1870s. Clay's relationship with Mary Jane obviously suffered from his extramarital liaisons and they were finally formally divorced in 1878. Clay's last romantic adventure was in 1894, when he was 84 years old. The old man married 15 year-old Dora Richardson, daughter of one of the tenant farmers on his property. The relation was short lived though as Dora left after a couple of years and Clay granted her a divorce. He later bought her some property in Woodford County where resettled and married a man much closer to her age. Cassius M. Clay lived a lonely existence his last years in his White Hall mansion until he passed away in 1903.

In an age of intriguing individuals, Clay is one of the most interesting personalities I have come across. If you want to learn more about this unique Kentuckian, read Lion of White Hall: The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay by David L. Smiley, or Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Liberty by H. Eward Richardson.


  1. Wonderful stuff, thank you. Any way to find out if Clay's wife was related to Ethelbert Warfield, who became President of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio?

  2. Good question. I am not even sure where to start to find the answer though. If you find out I would be interested in learning more.

  3. I'm writing a research paper on the divorce of Cassius Clay to Mary Jane Warfield. Do you know where I could find some good information?

  4. Google Books has Mr. Clays Memoirs. That's one of the best sources for information. Here's a brief overview.

    Somewhere around 1872, Mary Jane left Cassius and moved to Lexington, Ky. She lived with her sister for a short time and then purchased a house for $10,000 cash (money from a trust fund that had been set up with money she had inherited from her parents.)

    Cassius divorced Mary Jane for abandonment in 1878, after 45 years of marriage. He allowed her to take her dowry, and any items she had purchased with her own money.

  5. Thanks Tim! What a great site. I've skimmed Clay's autobiography looking for details on Mary Jane and her family. I daresay Mary Jane would have divorced him if the times had allowed for it. Cassius and Mary Jane's daughters, Mary Barr, Anne Warfield and Laura, went on to become leaders in the suffragette movement. I find this very interesting and think it indicates what the girls must have thought about their father and the outcome of their parents' relationship.

  6. It unlikely that Cassius Clay's Memoirs can be classified as 'one of the best sources for information.' They are revisionary and always serve to place the author's actions in the best light. With regard to Cyrus Turner (1819-1849), Clay does not state Turner stabbed him. After disemboweling Turner, as both men lie in the same boardinghouse (Clay expected to die and Turner to live), Clay initiates contact. Other accounts have Clay - understanding that he had come to no harm at Turner's hand - apologizing. It is my thesis that Turner's acceptance of Clay's apology provides the reasoning for Squire Turner's subsequent forebearance: Turner was a highly competent lawyer with solid political backing, he was skilled enough to have sought Clay's prosecution (as he had been prosecuted for his earlier attacks on other political foes). That Turner did not initiate legal action is likely due to the forgiveness his son had extended to Clay.

    1. While Mr. Clay’s memoirs are undeniably biased, they remain one of the very few primary resources written by one of the individuals involved in his divorce. I have worked as a tour guide at White Hall, the home of Cassius Marcellus Clay for almost 20 years. I’ve had the opportunity to read Clay family letters obtained from collections scattered around the country, and to my knowledge any letters that may have been written by Mary Jane mentioning the divorce or the circumstances leading to the divorce are not among them. So even though Mr. Clay’s view is biased, it still remains the “best” available resource.

      HardHonesty's analysis of the Foxtown Fight makes a good deal of sense.

      The circumstances of the fight lead me to believe that Mr. Clay's actions were seen as self defense. Turner struck Clay first,in the face. As Clay drew his knife he was then held by the Turner brothers, beaten over the head and shoulders with hickory walking sticks, stabbed (presumably with his own knife that had been taken away from him) in the right side, just above the lowest rib which severed Clay's breast bone and punctured his lungs. One of the brothers held a pistol to the back of Clays head. The pistol misfired...three times before one of Mr. Clay's supporters disarmed him and took him out of the action.

      I think that HardHonesty's explanation is certainly valid and takes into consideration why the Turner family didn't take legal action.

      Just as an interesting side note, White Hall has the pants purportedly worn by Cyrus Turner the day Clay killed him at Foxtown. They are linen pants definitely from the 1840's and are laundry marked in ink with Turner's name on the inside of the watch pocket. There is a hole in the front of the pants in the location Clay is reported to have stabbed him. There is no evidence of blood stains however, so they may not have been the pants that he was wearing that day, but probably did belong to him.

      I encourage anyone who has an interest in Mr. Clay's long and fascinating life to visit White Hall near Richmond, Kentucky!

    2. Clay was took to court for killing turner. Richmond was afraid to convict him. he was insane and a murderer. clay stabbed himself with his bowie knife when he jerked his arm away from turner.

    3. Anonymous, please provide source(s) that back up your comment, otherwise it can not be taken seriously.

  7. Cyrus Turner was my gg-grandmother's 2nd cousin. This is interesting, as I have read many versions of this fight. I do not have any family stories or inside knowledge, just an interest. Several versions say Turner definitely did not forgive Clay. Lots of variations! Here are a few varying details I have read. Clay made disparaging remarks while Squire Turner was speaking. Cyrus Turner confronted him, and Clay pulled a Bowie knife. Turner managed to take it from him. Friends of the Turner family hit Clay with canes as they struggled (some versions say that didn't happen). Clay managed to get the knife back by grabbing the blade, severally cutting his hand, but then disembowleled Turner. There is mention of a pistol that misfired, not clear who fired, sometimes says a cousin of Turner. Some say emphatically this did not happen.

    Often in those times, if both men were armed, a fight resulting in a killing was ruled self defense. I have never heard that any legal action was taken. That is my guess why.


  8. My soon to be 99 yr old mom is a direct descendant of the Clay family. Her grandma Clay was his cousin. My mother was born in 1918 (Cash died 15 yrs prior in 1903) Her mother, my maternal grandma, was still a girl then.

    What I do know is that Cassius was often attacked as well as threatened, both verbally and physically due to his unpopular and outspoken anti-slavery activism and decision to remain residing in the South. He was also evidently exceptionally large in stature.

    I believe he was attacked and that it took several men trying to take him down. The incident with Brown did not end well for the attacker(s) either. Cassius seemed a man who could be verbally antagonistic in stating his impassioned beliefs, but not one who was reduced to initiating violence over it. He believed the pen mightier than the sword and was hated for writing his truths as well! However he was by all accounts still, an alpha-type male intimidated by no one.

    I have located some newspaper articles of the time. The couple that I have found are interesting and amusing and they certainly create him as quite the colorful character! Being more interested in other aspects I've never actually researched the attacks. Perhaps I can find out more. I've really just started reading on this fascinating ancestor whom I always did know Muhammad Ali was named after. His suffragette daughters seemed to inherit his activism, a continuous theme right down to my own family and mother, but I don't think they felt their mother (or women) treated well in the divorce.

    1. Merrily, Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Cash Clay was certainly "one of a kind."

  9. not a thing you said was true. Clay was a COWARD !