Monday, January 6, 2014

Slave Jail Break in Lexington

I came across the above (spliced together) advertisement on the front page of the December 2, 1854, issue of the Lexington Observer and Reporter. It tells the interesting story of seven enslaved men held in notorious slave trader Lewis Robards's jail. It explains that they made their escape by way of sawing through one of the iron bars on a window.

The first enslaved man listed, Joe, was a blacksmith, who likely had knowledge of what it would take to get through the iron bar. Additionally, three of the men were owned by the same man, a Washington Bolton, and therefore one might speculate that they collaborated in planning the escape since they knew each other. The other four were all owned by different masters. One, George, was personally owned by Robards. The others came from Fayette and the surrounding counties of Scott and Woodford. All of the men were in their twenties.

Unfortunately, it is not known whether these men made good on their getaway or not.  

In that same issue, and in a different notice - this one on page four - Robards advertised his slave trading services. Here Robards mentions his jail from which the slaves on the front page evidently escaped. The jail's location was on Short Street, which was adjacent to the Fayette County courthouse, and as the notice explains, "a few doors below the 'Bruen House'" hotel. 

Robards specialized in the sales of "fancy girls" at one of his "pens." These young mixed race girls were gathered for sale to both local and distant buyers. The same year that this advertisement was run and the slaves made their jail break, former Kentuckian Orville Browning wrote in his diary of a visit to Robards's jail. Browning had moved to Illinois in the early 1830s and later was successor of Stephen A. Douglas in the U.S. Senate, but visited relatives in Kentucky occasionally. Browning wrote:

"After dinner visited a negro jail - a very large brick building with all the conveniences of comfortable life, including hospital. Tis a place where negroes are kept for sale - Outer doors & windows all protected with iron gates, but inside the appointments are not only comfortable, but in many respects luxurious. Many of the room are well carpeted & furnished,  & very neat, and the inmates whilst here are treated with great indulgence & humanity, but I confess it impressed me with the idea of decorating the ox for the sacrifice. In several of the rooms I found very handsome mulatto women, of fine persons and easy genteel manners, sitting at their needle work awaiting a purchaser. The proprietor made them get up & turn round to show to advantage their finely developed & graceful forms - and slaves as they were this I confess rather shocked my gallantry. I enquired [sic] the price of one girl which was $1,600." 

Also, in this same issue, another Lexington slave trader Pierce Griffin, who by way of his agent Asa Collins, advertised "NEGROES WANTED!" Griffin specialized in the Deep South trade, often sending his chattels to the Forks of the Road market at Natchez, Mississippi. Here, via Collins, Griffin notes that he has recently located in "the JAIL known as PULLUM'S in Lexington." Slave trader William A. Pullum had earlier operated a slave jail that was subsequently used by Robards starting in the late 1840s and then by Griffin in the 1850s, as this ad notes.

Interestingly, both Robards and Griffin use the virtually the same language to close their ads. Robards: "The highest cash prices will be paid for Young and Likely Negroes." Griffin: "I will pay the highest prices IN CASH for good likely young Negroes."    


  1. I believe one of the men in this ad (Jerry) is my great-great grandfather, Jerry Boler(ar). I found this ad myself just last week! Exciting!

  2. Asa Collins was my 2nd great uncle. I am researching his slave dealing and would like suggestions as to what type records are available.