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Into the Fiery Furnace:
Anti-Slavery Prisoners in the Kentucky State Penitentiary 1844-1870

(Part 1 of 2)
by James M. Prichard

        Released from the Kentucky State Penitentiary in the spring of 1864, Reverend Calvin Fairbank fell to the ground as soon as he reached Ohio. "I kissed the dirt of my adopted State," he later recalled, "and rising to my feet, and throwing my hands high in (the) air, I shouted: Out of the Mouth of Death! Out of the Jaws of Hell!!"1

        A convicted felon, Reverend Fairbank had served two separate terms for the same offense. In all, he spent over seventeen years and four months behind prison walls. During one eight year period alone, Fairbank claimed he received over thirty-five thousand, one hundred and five stripes from the lash. Although confined with murderers and thieves, Fairbank lost his youth and his freedom for the "crime" of helping Kentucky slaves escape to freedom.2

        The ordeal of Calvin Fairbank represents one of the best known incidents in the history of the Underground Railroad in Kentucky. However, he was only one of forty-four men and women of both races who were sent to the Kentucky State Penitentiary between 1844 and 1864 for "Assisting Slaves to Runaway." Over eight of these forgotten heroes died during their confinement. Incredible as it sounds, the last anti-slavery prisoner did not leave his cell until 1870 - over five years after slavery was swept from the land.

        Although virtually forgotten today, each prisoner represents a story of courage and sacrifice. Their plight illustrates how determined pro-slavery Kentuckians were to preserve and protect the "peculiar institution." More importantly, their stories shed further light on resistance to slavery in antebellum Kentucky.

        In 1847, a party of Kentuckians attempted to seize six fugitive slaves in Marshall, Michigan. Driven off by local citizens, one of the furious "slave catchers" threatened to return with a regiment of Kentucky militia and reclaim his "property."3 In reality, the first line of defense for Kentucky slave-owners was the criminal justice system. In 1801, Kentucky's penal code was amended to provide for a penalty of from two to nine years imprisonment for anyone convicted of "Slave Stealing."4 As anti-slavery agitation increased in the early Republic, the law was further amended in 1830 to provide for from two to twenty years confinement for those found guilty of "seducing or enticing any slave to leave his lawful owner. . ."5

        Under the law of 1830, persons found guilty of persuading a slave to run away were required to give security for good behavior.6 However, in 1845, this section of the law was repealed and those found guilty of this "crime" in the future now faced from one to five years in the state penitentiary.7

        Kentuckians, therefore, chose to strengthen their laws rather than the militia in response to the growing threat from "fanatical Northern abolitionists." Historians have since debated whether their fears were truly justified. In his classic, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (1898), Wilbur H. Siebort described a highly organized, widespread alliance of freedom fighters who waged a successful secret war against the "Slave Power."8

        However, since the publication of Larry Gara's The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961), many historians have challenged the traditional accounts of this militant aspect of the anti-slavery struggle. Gara's study argued that the Underground Railroad was not the widespread, highly organized entity of legend. Furthermore, he contended that most fugitive slaves escaped to freedom through their own efforts.9

        In his brief sketch of the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Encyclopedia (1992), Dr. Marion Lucas noted that "very few whites or blacks in fact entered Kentucky to lead slaves to free soil." Indeed, he continued, the majority of Kentucky's runaway slaves generally struck out on their own, "without the aid of abolitionists."10

        While historians continue to debate the extent and activities of the Underground Railroad, the deeds of those imprisoned in Frankfort for anti-slavery activities symbolize real sacrifice in the name of freedom. While over forty-four have been identified thus far, the number was unquestionably higher. Indeed, many prison register entries merely use the term "felony" to describe the offense in question.11 The tendency to denigrate and convict anti-slavery zealots as "Slave Stealers" poses further challenges, making it difficult for researchers to separate true abolitionists from mere criminals.

        Published in 1860, William C. Sneed's history of the Kentucky Penitentiary reveals that at least fourteen men served time for stealing or kidnapping slaves between 1798 and 1834.12 However, further investigation is needed to determine which of these were prisoners of conscience or mere criminals like the legendary "Land Pirate," John A. Murrel of Tennessee. Many Southerners would afterwards compare abolitionists to men like Murrel, who would lure slaves away from their masters with promises of freedom only to sell them for their own profit.13

        However, by 1844, the annual reports for the penitentiary began to differentiate clearly between those confined for "Slave Stealing" and those confined for "Assisting Slaves to Run Away." The latter represented a clear minority of the prison population between 1844 and 1859; ranging from as few as four in 1849 to as many as eleven in 1853.14

        A review of the original prison registers provides considerable data on the forty-four men and women who served time between 1844 and 1870. Of the twenty-four white anti-slavery prisoners confined during this period, only seven were born in Kentucky or other slave states. The remainder included ten natives of free states and seven who were foreign born. Not all of their occupations could be identified; however, at least six were common laborers, one a farmer, and three tradesmen. Isaac Barter, a native of Ireland who was convicted in Simpson County, was a physician while Calvin Fairbank was a man of the cloth.15

        Of the nineteen "Free Persons of Color" confined in Frankfort for anti-slavery activities, only one, John Russell, was born north of the Ohio. The occupations of seven included five common laborers. The remaining two were a cooper and a blacksmith by trade. Occupations were not given for the seven women, both black and white, who were incarcerated during the same period.16

        Original prison records also reveal that most of the forty-four were in the prime of life. Over a dozen were in their twenties with an additional ten in their thirties. It is surprising to note, however, that six were aged sixty or older. Indeed, Doctor Perkins, a African-American from Bracken County was seventy-six years old.17

        As previously noted, eight of the forty-four died in their cells. Of the remainder, twenty served out their time, while fourteen were pardoned. One, sixty-one year old William H. Davis, who was convicted in Logan County, escaped. According to a terse entry in the prison register, he "went a fishing" and never returned.18 Yet another, William Dixon, had his sentence overturned by a decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals.19

        An examination of available court records, petitions for pardon filed with Governors Papers, contemporary newspapers and other sources indicate that these men and women were motivated by strong anti-slavery convictions, compassion for the enslaved or, as in the case of some African-Americans, their desire to liberate family or loved ones. It should be noted, however, that some may have been motivated by purely mercenary motives.

        In 1848, Edward James "Patrick" Doyle was sentenced to twenty years at hard labor by the Fayette Circuit Court for leading the largest mass escape attempt in Kentucky history. However, the Irish youth had been previously charged in Louisville with attempting to sell free blacks into slavery. This incident, coupled with the fact that he required payment from each slave for his services as a guide to freedom explains why Doyle is excluded from this study.20

        William Green, a thirty-seven year old laborer from Germany, represents the majority of those prisoners who were inspired by purer motives. On or about July 3, 1859, he attempted to lead Hagar and her two children, the property of Lloyd Kirby, and Amy, the property of Henry Ellis, to freedom. Bound for New Richmond, Ohio, the fugitives never made it out of Pendleton County. Green was arrested and jailed in Falmouth, while the runaways, discovered hiding in a tree, were returned to their owners.21

        Whether a militant abolitionist like Calvin Fairbank, or simply a man moved by the plight of his neighbor's "property," Green was undoubtedly regarded as a dangerous fanatic by the pro-slavery element in Pendleton County. His trial record included a crude sketch of what may have been Green himself with the caption "Abolitionist" scrawled beneath.22 Sentenced to twelve years, Green was among a work detail captured by Confederate cavalry during John Hunt Morgan's attack on Frankfort in the summer of 1864. Although paroled by his rebel captors, Green chose not to escape and returned voluntarily to his cell. For this act, and his overall good behavior, Green was pardoned on February 2, 1867.23

        A native of Tennessee, twenty-two year old Tom Johnson, a "free man of color" who was raised in Lexington, sacrificed his freedom for the love of a woman. Determined to marry Amanda, the property of F.B. Merriman of Marion County, he persuaded her to run away with him on August 2, 1863. Both were captured and Johnson was sentenced to two years for "Unlawfully Enticing, Aiding & Assisting a Slave to Leave Her Owner."24

        Leading members of Lexington's Free Black community apparently requested Leslie Combs, a prominent Kentucky Unionist, to intervene in young Johnson's behalf. Although staunchly devoted to the old flag, Combs, like many Kentucky Unionists, did not support Lincoln's measures against slavery. In a letter to Governor Thomas Bramlette dated March 21, 1865, Combs bluntly declared, "I am no Abolitionist." However, he continued, "while the whole state, county, & town & village is filled with white men in the constant habit of running off slaves. . . without the motive of feeling influencing this colored man . . . I respectfully urge that it is a cruel mockery to keep this man longer confined." Johnson was accordingly set free on April 25, 1865.25

        Sixty-two year old Lydia A. Parks of Louisville and Mattie Johnson, her twenty-seven year old house servant were, along with the noted Delia Webster, among the seven women who served time in Frankfort. On September 15, 1863, both were brought before the Louisville Police Court and charged with "running off John and Amy, slaves of Mrs. Gaithright." Both Parks and Johnson were found guilty and sentenced to two and three year terms respectively.26

        Johnson, a poor widow from Indiana, claimed that she was innocent of any crime. In a petition for pardon submitted to Governor Bramlette, Johnson claimed that she was in route to visit relatives in Indiana at the time she was arrested at the riverfront landing. Upon learning of Johnson's travel plans, Mrs. Parks had persuaded her to wait for two veiled women. It was only when the hack reached the landing, Johnson claimed, that she discovered her mysterious companions were fugitive slaves.27

        Bramlette pardoned the distraught woman on January 27, 1864. However, Mrs. Parks remained in prison until she was pardoned on March 1, 1865.28

        Given the serious friction between Kentucky and the Lincoln administration over the slavery issue, loyalty to the Union was no shield against Kentucky law. When Gooden Smith, a discharged Federal soldier, persuaded the slave of a local Southern sympathizer to run away, he was sentenced to a two year term by the Butler Circuit Court.29

        On December 3, 1862, David C. McDonald, a discharged Union soldier from Ohio, was indicted by the Breckinridge Circuit Court for "Negro Stealing."30 Sentenced to seventeen years at hard labor, McDonald was still in confinement five years after the close of the Civil War. The Cincinnati Commercial learned of his plight and launched a campaign to secure his release.31

        On April 7, 1870, while African-Americans across the land were celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment, McDonald was pardoned by Governor John W. Stevenson. Generally, entries of this type in a Governor's executive journal consisted of one or two brief lines. Such was not the case in this instance. After referring to McDonald's date of conviction, the entry read:

Since that time the Negroes have all been emancipated, Slavery no longer exists any where in the Union, the negroes have been even invested with the electoral franchise, and as they are now free to go wheresoever they may choose, it would appear somewhat singular to see a man imprisoned for seventeen long years for attempting to take one negro from his master when the government has taken & freed them all since the conviction of McDonald took place.32

In a brief reference to the event, the Louisville Courier-Journal observed on April 11, "This may be set down as the last of the immediate consequences of slavery in Kentucky."33

Into the Fiery Furnace (Part 2)

James Prichard is a senior archivist at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. The author is always hopeful that the descendents of one of the individuals mentioned in this paper will surface with photos, letters or oral histories. To contact the author, please email to: jprichard@ctr.kdla.state.ky.us

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