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

(Part 2 of 2)
by James M. Prichard

        These random profiles only tell part of the story. Indeed, the seven men and one woman who died during confinement symbolize the ultimate sacrifice of those who dared defy the law in the name of freedom. Conditions within the prison were primitive by modern standards and evidence indicates that "abolitionist fanatics" were singled out for brutal treatment.

        Published in 1857, Thomas Brown's Three Years in Kentucky Prisons chronicled his confinement in Frankfort. Convicted of "Abducting Slaves" in Union County, the sixty year old Irish native entered the "gloomy portals of the State Prison" on May 18, 1855. Brown related that the warden was "extremely glad to get another 'Abolitionist' . . . in his power, expressing with an oath, a wish to be permitted to hang all such."34

        When the old man, already weakened by a year's confinement in the county jail, failed to perform a task properly, word spread that "Old Brown has worn himself out stealing negroes and would not work." Brown was stripped and "flogged with the 'cat' till his blood ran upon the floor."35 When he complained of his punishment to another prisoner, the same guard struck him a blow with his fist that knocked out two of his teeth and left him unconscious on the floor. Less than a month after the beating, Brown was flogged again for failing to eat the crust of his bread! The old man served out his time and was finally released on May 18, 1857.36

        Calvin Fairbank's 1890 autobiography is filled with similar accounts of brutal treatment. His first term of four years and ten months ended in 1849 when he was pardoned by Governor John J. Crittenden. When he began his second lengthier term in 1852, the Abolitionist heard the warden snarl, ". . . take Fairbank to the hackling house and kill him."37 The hackling house was part of the prison's hemp production area where conditions were so brutal that during one fifteen month period three inmates deliberately chopped off a hand in order to escape the hated task.38

        To Fairbank there was "very little difference between the condition of the prisoner and that of an actual slave."39 As previously noted, the Abolitionist was flogged repeatedly during his second term. During the fall of 1863, Fairbank was struck by a club with such force that he was temporarily blinded.40 The end finally came in the spring of 1864 when Leslie Combs, the staunch Unionist who intervened on behalf of young Tom Johnson, sought a formal pardon for the long suffering prisoner.

        In a letter dated April 14, 1864, Combs wrote:

        I have learned with some surprise recently that a minister of the gospel named Fairbank is still confined in the penitentiary upon the charge of stealing a negro . . .
        Now while high officials of the U.S. Government with the sanction of the president or by his orders are doing the same thing or much worse under the tyrant's state plea of "military necessity" - without containing any such conscientious opinions as influenced Fairbank, I think it a most cruel farce to keep him in penal confinement & hope you will pardon him.41

        The petitions of Combs and others fortunately came before Lieutenant Governor Richard T. Jacobs, who had promised to pardon Fairbank at the first opportunity. On April 15, 1864, Reverend Calvin Fairbank walked out the prison gate a free man.42

        Both Brown and Fairbank survived their walk through the fiery furnace, but others did not. Brown himself related that another anti-slavery prisoner, a "colored man of Evansville, Indiana" died "after receiving a severe blow from one of the keepers."43 This was probably a reference to German Pin, a sixty year old African-American convicted in Henderson County. According to prison records, he died on March 30, 1857 of "Congestion of the Lungs."44

        Other deaths included George Carter, a twenty-two year old African-American convicted in Scott County, Dr. Isaac Barter sent from Simpson County, and William Jeter, a forty-five year old carpenter sentenced in Jefferson County.45

        The conviction of Doctor Perkins by the Bracken Circuit Court was virtually a death sentence. The seventy-six year old African-American baker was sentenced to a three year term in 1853. On February 3, 1854 several residents of Augusta petitioned Governor Lazarus Powell for executive clemency. In "consequence of his old age," they pleaded, and because of "the sympathy we have for the old man, we petition your excellency to pardon him on condition he will leave the state with his family. . . "46

        Unmoved by their pleas, Powell rejected the petition. Perkins died behind prison walls on September 23, 1854.47

        In August of 1856, several slaves belonging to Dr. James E. McDowell of Mason County slipped across the Ohio River to freedom. Pursuing whites failed to overtake them, however, they happened upon George Williams, a thirty-three year old "Free man of Color" in the hills of Brown county, Ohio. Convinced that Williams had guided the fugitives over the river, one of the Kentuckians drew a knife and threatened to "cut his guts out" if he didn't confess.48

        Williams had pistols drawn on him twice during the journey back to Mason County and, as he later stated to the court, was forced to confess against his will. His plea for a new trial was overruled and on October 31, 1856 he walked through the prison gate at Frankfort. Detailed to the dreaded Hemp House, Williams died of "Consumption" on December 29, 1858.49

        Whether an agent on the Underground Railroad or a scapegoat, Williams was still a victim of the system.

        Although she gained her freedom in 1847, Julett Miles of Bracken County still had several children and grandchildren held in slavery for years afterward. Their owner - her former owner - was the father of noted Kentucky abolitionist John G. Fee. Young Fee was so devoted to Julett, his former nursemaid, that upon learning that she was about to be sold, he purchased her freedom. Father and son clashed bitterly over the transaction, however the latter prevailed.50

        Julett subsequently married, started a new family and moved to Ohio in 1854. However, in the fall of 1858 she learned that the elder Fee planned to sell the children and grandchildren he still owned down river to New Orleans. Julett slipped across the Ohio, gathered her little family group of ten, and made a desperate attempt to reach free soil. The entire party was overtaken and captured before they reached the river.51

        Fee was heartbroken when he learned of her arrest and confinement in the Bracken County jail. When efforts to raise bail money failed, he hired two attorneys for Julett's defense. The Abolitionist was reportedly threatened by pro-slavery mobs but refused to withdraw his support. Fee's wife boldly visited Julett who was confined in an underground cellar that served as the local jail. However the two women were forbidden to meet face-to-face and Mrs. Fee was forced to speak to Julett through a crack in the floor. Found guilty in February of 1859, the forty-eight year old woman was sentenced to a three year term for the "crime" of "stealing" her own children.52

        Fee and his daughter visited Julett later that summer and found her employed as a cook in the warden's home. She seemed in good health and high spirits at the time. However, shortly afterwards, Fee received word that she was dead. According to prison records she died of "Stomach inflammation" on August 29, 1859. The prison physician noted that the symptoms were so sudden and violent that he suspected she might have taken poison.53 She had lost her own freedom and knew her children and grandchildren were sold "down the river" during her confinement. The fact that her loved ones were lost to her forever could well have broken her spirit.

        The tragic fate of Elijah Anderson symbolized the risks taken by those "Underground Railroad agents courageous enough to operate on Kentucky soil. A daring member of what Benjamin Quarles termed the "Black Underground," Anderson was born free in Lynchburg, Virginia around 1808. A skilled blacksmith, he settled in the booming river town of Madison, Indiana in the late 1830's. He prospered on free soil, and in time was able to acquire a fine brick cottage.54

        During the 1840's, Anderson emerged as one of the most active members of the "Underground Railroad" within Madison's free black community. On more than one occasion, he entered Kentucky to guide runaways to safety on the Indiana shore. Driven out of Madison because of his anti-slavery activities, Anderson settled in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1850's.55

        Anderson continued to remain active during the years after his forced exile from Madison and was termed by one Abolitionist as the "General Superintendent" of the Underground Railroad in Northwestern Ohio. According to Rush Sloane, an anti-slavery activist of Sandusky, Ohio, Anderson had led over a thousand fugitives to freedom by 1855.56

        However, in late 1856 he was betrayed by an African-American for the reward money offered by Kentucky slave owners, and was arrested by Louisville police officers. Convicted of "Enticing Slaves to Run Away" in Trimble County, Anderson was sentenced to an eight year term in June of 1857.57 Anderson's daughter later claimed that his skills as a blacksmith were so appreciated by the warden that he was not subjected to harsh treatment.58

        However, on March 4, 1861, the day Lincoln delivered his inaugural address, the fifty-three year old Anderson was found dead in his cell. The official cause of death was given as "Hydro-pericardium," an inflammation of the membrane enclosing the heart.59 While his contributions to the anti-slavery cause may have been exaggerated, Anderson's courage and sacrifice were genuine. He sacrificed his freedom and his life in an effort to deliver others from the ordeal of slavery.

        The stories of Anderson and the others who served time in Frankfort reveal that in Kentucky, slavery was attacked both from within and without. Northern born Abolitionists such as Calvin Fairbank and Delia Webster as well as African-American "abductors" such as Anderson dared to enter the state and lead slaves to freedom. While many slaves escaped entirely on their own, others were assisted by Kentucky residents, many of them Northern or foreign born, or members of the Free Black community. Not all were part of a secret underground network of abolitionists and their motives varied. Indeed some "Free Persons of Color" fought a personal war against slavery in an effort to free family members or loved ones held in bondage.

        This study also reveals the determination with which pro-slavery Kentuckians fought to preserve the institution. Union men who dared to persuade the slaves of Southern sympathizers to flee during the Civil War found themselves treated with the same severity as any ante-bellum "Negro Thief". The stories of Doctor Perkins and Julett Miles reveal that the law, which spared neither age nor gender, could indeed be merciless. Evidence also indicates that Free Blacks and white "outsiders" may have served as convenient scapegoats as the slavery controversy intensified. Thomas Brown claimed to be innocent of all charges. So did Oswald Wright of Indiana and George Williams of Ohio, two African Americans who were seized north of the Ohio and brought back to Kentucky by force. The "troublesome" presence of these free blacks near the slave community and Brown's open hostility to slavery could well have been the true cause for their punishment.

        Razed in 1937, little remains of Kentucky's first prison today. The names of most of the forty four men and women who served time have been largely forgotten. With the exception of Elijah Anderson, the names of the dead themselves have vanished from the pages of history. Buried alive behind the cold, gray prison walls, their suffering and sacrifice has been ignored by historians. However, each in their own way, should be remembered as casualties in the anti-slavery struggle. Their story forms the heart and soul of the legacy of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery struggle in Kentucky.

Into the Fiery Furnace (Part 1)


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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