1857 — Bradenburg, Meade County, Kentucky
- THE BRANDENBURG AFFAIR -HEROISM OF HORACE BELL
Slaughter and Gresham were the attorneys for the New Albany & Corydon Plank Road Company, the only corporation operating in the county. In 1859 the firm of Slaughter and Gresham was dissolved. This became necessary because Mr. Slaughter was commissioner in so many partition suits and administrator of so many estates, that he could not attend to his share of the firm's business. My husband continued alone in the practice. He had all kinds of litigation, and much of it in volume. He had suits on notes, foreclosures of mortgages, mandamus proceedings, and was employed to assist the Democratic prosecuting attorney in much of the criminal business. He succeeded in convicting one defendant who feigned sickness and was brought into court on a cot. He defended successfully another defendant under indictment for murder. In the Crawford Circuit Court, representing some creditors, after a long contest he got a judgment on a verdict of jury for $30,000 against the silent partners of a firm which owned a line of steamboats; but during his absence in the army it was reversed by the Indiana Supreme Court and the claim was lost. There were Kentuckians on both sides of that lawsuit. In those days there were scarcely any business corporations. The steamboats on the Ohio River were owned and operated almost entirely by individuals. During the special session of the legislature in the Spring of 1861, my husband came home long enough to bring a number of lawsuits, all of which he turned over to Mr. Slaughter. During the first year of the war Mr. Slaughter sent him a statement of his business, from which it appears he had two score Kentucky clients scattered along the river as far down as Cloverport and back into the country to Elizabethtown and Hardinsburg, the county seats respectively of Hardin and Breckenridge counties.His most dramatic case was one which grew out of the ever present slavery question, which was known as the "Brandenburg Affair." It was an extreme example of the peculiar conditions then existing along the border, and was so serious that for a time fear existed that it might bring on war. It was so notorious that it was subsequently dramatized and staged. That it was finally settled without bloodshed was largely owing to the conciliatory spirit in which Walter Q. Gresham conducted his client's case.This client, Horace Bell, the hero of the "Brandenburg Affair," was the son of David W. Bell, who in 1839 had purchased the "Brandenburg ferry" and the farm in Harrison County, Indiana, on the Ohio River opposite Brandenburg, the county seat of Meade County, Kentucky. From the earliest times there had been a ferry at this point and a highway thence via Mauckport to Corydon. Most of the people of the southern part of Harrison County, as the saying was, "did their trading" at Brandenburg.David W. Bell and his wife were of good Revolutionary War stock and were born and raised in Washington town, then a part of Virginia but thrown into Pennsylvania by the final location of the Mason and Dixon line. The operation of the constitution and laws of Pennsylvania freed the slaves of Mrs. Bell's father, who was a Wright. Another of the daughters, Julia Wright, became the wife of Doctor Jones of Corydon, and the mother of Doctor Mitchell Jones, my husband's most intimate friend. David W. Bell left Pennsylvania and settled first at Wheeling; thence in 1829 he moved to New Albany, where in 1830 Horace was born. Oswald Wright, one of the former slaves of the father of Mrs. Jones, followed "Miss Julia" to Corydon and became one of the free negroes of the town. He lived in a small house that belonged to the elder Doctor Jones. The Bell children, better educated than was the custom of that time, went to school in Brandenburg, except the youngest boy, Charles. He had lived most of his life with his Aunt Julia. By 1857 Charles Bell's head was completely turned by the anti-slavery agitation of the time and by the stories his Aunt Julia told him about what the boys had dared in the early '50's. Had "Aunt Julia" lived in these days, she would have been a " militant." And her sister, Mrs. David J. Bell, was certainly a Spartan if ever a woman was one. In 1851, when Horace Bell was twenty years of age, his father sold a negro boy he had "indentured," to a relative in Meade County, Kentucky, and with the purchase price, five hundred dollars, equipped Horace for migration to California, where John, the senior brother, had gone with the "forty-niners." Up to this time the elder Bell was not an Abolitionist, and he never afterwards admitted that he was one; neither did Horace Bell, although he lived right in the midst of the greatest activities of the Underground Railroad in the late '40's and early 'so's. I use the term Abolitionist in the technical sense of that time, an advocate of forcible resistance of the law. From California, Horace went to Nicaragua with the Walker Expedition. He served under Walker for two years, rising to the rank of major. Reports came back of his gallantry in battle, of his affairs of honor and of the heart. The fact that Walker's purpose was to establish slavery in Nicaragua satisfied some of the Kentuckians that the Bells were not Abolitionists, and they were not without friends and partisans among the best people and largest land and slave owners in Meade County. But many of the Kentuckians in 1858 believed and claimed that the Bells not only assisted but had even encouraged the Kentucky slaves to leave their masters. I still share some of the prejudices of that time against the Bells. On the Indiana side it was the belief that no runaway negro was ever denied assistance by the Bells. David W. Bell had aided in capturing Levi Sipes after he had murdered my husband's father, and Horace Bell knew the Gresham boys, especially Walter.At this time there lived in Brandenburg a negro blacksmith named Charles, who was the property of Dr. C. H. Ditto, a large slave holder who lived in Meade County nine miles back from the river. Charles had a wife, Mary Ann, who belonged to A. J. Alexander, one of the merchants of Brandenburg. The pair lived near the river in a small house belonging to Alexander. Charles was a skillful workman, a valuable slave, and so trusted that he was permitted to have a skiff in which he was allowed to cross the river to fish and to shoe horses for people on the Indiana side.On Friday evening, the 26th day of September, 1857, Charles Bell, a seventeen-year-old boy, and the negro Charles were seen in Brandenburg at the blacksmith shop. Later, about ten o'clock, Charles Bell started from the Brandenburg wharf boat in a skiff for the Indiana side. Early the next morning, Saturday, the slave gave it out he was going to the Indiana side to fish. This was the last ever seen of him in Brandenburg. On the Monday following, as he was not in the blacksmith shop in Brandenburg, the cry was raised that he had run away. It happened that on the same Saturday, starting early, the elder Bell rode on horseback across the country to New Albany, and thence by ferry to Louisville, for the purpose of cashing a draft Horace Bell had sent him from California. Returning home, he remained over Sunday in New Albany. On his journey back on Monday, when near home late in the afternoon, he was met by a party of Kentuckians, or "slave hunters," as the Bells afterwards called them, hunting for the missing blacksmith. They stopped the old man and proceeded to ask him where he had been and for what. He returned the curt answer, "It is none of your business." One night two weeks later, a party of Kentuckians sur¬rounded the Bell house, which stood just above high-water mark facing south towards the river, and by force removed the father, Charles Bell, and the free negro, Oswald Wright, to the ferry boat that lay at the Bell landing. Before the boat swung out into the river a Kentucky constable read a warrant, charging the Bells with having stolen the negro, Charles, and commanding that they be brought forthwith before a magistrate in Brandenburg. Kentucky had always claimed jurisdiction over the Ohio River to low-water mark on the Indiana side, and as the river was then low and the boat lay below the low-water line, the pretext was afterwards made that the apprehension was under the warrant. From the Brandenburg wharf the Bells and Wright were taken direct to the Brandenburg jail. The next day there was a preliminary heariijg before the magistrate who issued the warrant. At this hearing it developed from the testimony of C. B. Johnson of Brownstown, Jackson County, Indiana, and Mrs. Withers of the same place, that after Johnson saw a reward offered in the newspapers for the return of the negro, Charles, he visited Corydon and the Bells at their farm under the guise of a horse trader; that Wright confided in him that he had conveyed the negro, Charles, from the Bell farm to Brownstown on the Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad; that Charles Bell told him that they had planned the escape of the negro, as Wright said he had done, and that Wright had loaned his free papers to Charles to help him along, should his right to freedom be questioned, and that they proposed next to carry off Mary Ann. But Mary Ann lived and died in Brandenburg. Charles escaped to Canada. Mrs. Withers identified Wright as a negro who came to her house in Brownstown on Monday morning, the 2Qth day of September, 1857, and said he had left a negro named Charles Ditto at the depot; and upon her agreeing to give them breakfast, Wright left and returned with the other, and she then gave them breakfast. That Wright should make this statement to a stranger—Mrs. Withers—as she admitted she was, the Bell attorneys afterwards claimed was most improbable. Wright denied he ever made such a statement. Both David and Charles Bell denied all complicity in the escape of the negro. They were remanded to the jail, and on the 25th of November the grand jury of Meade County returned six indictments against them.1The elder Dr. Mitchell Jones was greatly excited when he heard of the arrest. He employed Judge Porter and Samuel Keen to defend the Bells and Oswald Wright. Judge Porter and Mr. Keen in turn employed T. B. Farleigh and John Coale of the Brandenburg bar to appear in court. This the Kentucky lawyers did with fidelity and ability. They took advantage of all the technicalities that due process of law afforded in defending their clients.Horace and John Bell immediately started for home from California when they heard of the kidnapping of their father and brother. They came back by way of Panama and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. John got off the boat at Tobacco Landing, the first landing above Brandenburg on the Indiana side, and went to his mother, who had remained in the meanwhile on the farm. This was in May, 1858. Horace went on to New Albany, then to Corydon, where he walked into Mr. Gresham's office and insisted that his boyhood friend should be his lawyer. At this time Horace Bell was a tall, handsome man. Stories told of him, many, no doubt, the product of the imagination, did much to excite the popular mind. One was that he had twice appeared on the field of honor, and that while he had lived to tell the tale it was not so with his opponents, for he was a dead shot.Colonel William C. Marsh, soon after the kidnapping, raised a large force of armed men with the intention of crossing the river and releasing the prisoners. But the expedition miscarried because the boats that were to transport Colonel Marsh's forces failed to reach Leavenworth, the meeting point, at the appointed time, There were on guard in Brandenburg, the Meade County Rangers, a company of militia, and several companies of the Kentucky Legion ordered there by the Governor of Kentucky to prevent the release of the prisoners. All were under the command of Captain Jack Armstrong, who had served with Horace Bell in Nicaragua. At first the return of Horace and John Bell added to the excitement. They were tendered the aid of five hundred men to invade Brandenburg. But acting on the advice of my husband, they publicly declined this offer. Then Horace Bell, although notified by letter that he would be promptly shot if he came to Brandenburg, went there with my husband and endeavored to secure a release of his father and brother on bonds. Alanson Moreman and Olie C. Richardson, both slave holders and two of the largest landowners in Meade County, offered to become sureties for the Bells in any reasonable amount, but the penalties named were so high that they refused to qualify. Bell was taunted on the streets of Brandenburg with being a coward. He afterwards claimed that but for the advice of his counsel, he could not have borne this. One day after an adjournment of court a crowd followed them to the hotel. Here Bell made a short speech. He said he did not propose to involve the States in a border warfare; that he had declined the aid of armed men; that he had come to Kentucky to get justice in the courts and, failing in that, he and his brother alone would come there in daylight, break the jail, and take the prisoners out. This, contrary to my husband's fears, the crowd regarded as a joke, and said that a man who talked as big as Horace Bell did would not attempt anything.Two weeks later my husband came home from Brandenburg greatly distressed. He had gone there about the Bell matter and while he, Horace Bell, and Colonel Marsh were standing in front of the Brandenburg Hotel talking, Stanley Young, from a balcony above, shot Marsh dead. They stood so close together that some of Marsh's lifeblood spurted on my husband's clothes. Colonel Posey was greatly excited and thought it strange that Stanley Young would risk shooting his own lawyer and friend in order to kill an enemy. Stanley Young was my husband's schoolmate and one of his first clients. In my first chapter I described him and how Colonel Marsh killed his father. It was erroneously supposed that this was an incident of the Brandenburg affair, but it was not, Stanley Young merely took advantage of the excitement of the Bell kidnapping to kill the slayer of his father. He immediately escaped. He was indicted by the Meade County grand jury, but was never apprehended. His lawyer settled his father's estate and remitted to him his portion of it. He came back to Brandenburg and Corydon in 1863 with Morgan's Raiders, and died in southern Illinois a much respected and prosperous citizen, but under another name.Among the efforts my husband made looking to the release of the Bells, he led a party to Governor Willard and demanded that he, as Governor of Indiana, demand of the State of Kentucky the return of the abducted men. But Willard refused to interfere.One day at noon Horace Bell walked into the office of Walter Q. Gresham. He had just ridden up from the Bell farm. My husband and his client were alone. Bell told Mr. Gresham his plan was to disappear and have the rumor go out that he and his brother John had gone back to California. The quiet that would follow, he said, he thought would cause the Kentucky authorities to decrease the number of guards and relax their vigilance. Then, when the excitement was allayed, Horace Bell said, "My plan is for John and me to cross the river, surprise the jailer, release father and Charles, arm them and get back to the Indiana side without firing a shot, if possible; otherwise, to fight." The only answer received was, "The audacity of your plan will almost warrant its success." Without another word Bell left the office and went back to the river.There was to be a picnic up the river, and Horace and John Bell calculated that many of the Brandenburg men would attend it. Meanwhile the report had gone forth that they had left for California. Horace, although the younger, was the leader. John doubted the success of the plan, but Mrs. Bell, who was at home sick, sided with Horace.On the 27th of July, 1858, just before noon, Horace and John strapped on their revolvers, and with a carpet bag loaded with six-shooters and ammunition, got into a skiff, with a fourteen-year-old mulatto boy as oarsman, and rowed over to Brandenburg. The boy was indentured to the elder Bell. He was the son of a distinguished Kentucky lawyer.In order to attract as little attention as possible, Horace took one street and John the other, south to the jail, which stood on the south side of the public square about one-quarter mile back from the river. Between the jail and the river, on the north side of the square facing south, was the court house in which were the arms and ammunition of the guards or minute men, who were the county officers, the lawyers, and the merchants of the town. The lawyers' offices lined the west side of the square. On the east side were the stores. As the Bell boys had calculated, most of the people of the town were at their noonday meal and the surprise was perfect. Horace reached the jail first. The jailer and his wife and two guards were at the dinner table. At the point of the revolver the dinner party was driven into one corner of the room; but not soon enough to prevent one of the guards from jumping out of a rear window and giving the alarm, which created an awful din. Meanwhile John came in, got the jail keys from the bureau drawer, sprang upstairs, unlocked the jail doors, armed his father and Charles and locked the other prisoners in. Temporarily Oswald Wright had been removed from the jail. Years afterwards I asked Horace Bell what he would have done with Oswald Wright had he found him in the jail with his father and brother. His answer was, "I don't know, he was no kin of mine." As the three came downstairs, Horace ran to the court house where the arms were stacked, before the minute men could assemble, and held them off as the others retreated to the river. The mulatto boy had proved faithful and was there with the skiff. As the Bells were descending to the levee, the crowd opened fire on them, but as the firing was from an elevation, the bullets passed over them. They returned the fire, purposely shooting high, which was enough to cause their pursuers to retreat. Then they rushed to their boat and without further molestation, except a few straggling shots, crossed safely to the Indiana side. No one was hurt.Horace Bell was the hero of the hour, and, as he himself afterwards said, did too much exulting and drank too much "John Barleycorn." On October 25, 1858, while quietly walking the streets of New Albany during the State fair, he was seized by three men, who pounced upon him from behind and rushed him to one of the ferry boats of the New Albany and Portland ferry, which, as had been previously arranged, immediately put off to the Kentucky side. That night he was driven under strong guard to Brandenburg, and there locked up on the charge of having broken jail. Upon the report that expeditions were organizing at New Albany and Corydon to release him, he was removed next morning to Big Springs, a small town ten miles south of the river. Here, under guard, he was kept in the hotel until the next night. Meanwhile a large body of men from New Albany came down the river on a steamboat with two cannons on its deck, and anchored in front of Brandenburg. Part of the men from the steamboat joined a party from Corydon, who landed on the Kentucky side and camped upon the farm of Alonzo Norman above Brandenburg. The next night Bell was removed farther back into the interior to a schoolhouse.Meantime, as Captain J. M. Phillips, afterwards a successful member of the Chicago Board of Trade, then a merchant in Brandenburg, put it, " Walter Q. Gresham made overtures for a settlement, which was promptly sanctioned by the leading slave holders of Meade County, as they deprecated the actions of the hotheads on their side and feared the complications that might ensue if Bell was detained too long. ... At that time Judge Gresham, although a young man, was well known and popular on the Kentucky side of the river, and when he came campaigning through the river townships of Harrison County, many Kentuckians always went over to his meetings."The agreement was that Bell was to have a preliminary hearing before the town magistrate of Brandenburg and be held to bail to appear at the November term of the Meade County Circuit Court, in bonds of $750. From the school-house, still under an armed escort, Bell was taken to the farm of Olie C. Richardson, where a sumptuous breakfast was served, and thence by a guard and escort of three hundred men to Brandenburg, where after a semblance of a hearing before two justices of the peace, he was released. Alanson Moreman and J. M. Phillips of Meade County, both slave owners, and John R. Conners of New Albany, were accepted as sureties on his bond. But instead of appearing at the November term of the Meade County Circuit Court, as it was understood he would, Horace Bell returned to California. The bond was declared forfeited, and at the May term in 1859, a judgment was rendered against the sureties. This judgment was subsequently satisfied by the executive branch of the Kentucky government in accordance with the understanding had at the time that they would never be required to pay anything by reason of being Horace Bell's bondsmen. "But," said Captain Phillips, "we could not get the prosecuting attorney to remit his fees and we had to pay him."The indictments against David and Charles Bell were stricken off the Kentucky dockets, but were never dismissed. A civil suit in attachment, which had been begun on the 27th day of October, 1857, in the Meade County Circuit Court under a pretense of jurisdiction against David and Charles Bell and Oswald Wright, to recover the value of the slave, and had passed into a judgment by default against the Bells and Wright In the sum of $2,000 and $100 respectively, was never attempted to be enforced in Indiana. Of course, in those days of discrimination in every State in the Union against the freedman, it was a difficult task for the Kentucky lawyers to free Oswald Wright. But "Tom" Farleigh, my husband's friend, whom we will meet again in a great emergency, came up to the best traditions of the American bar. It was agreed in advance it would not do for any lawyer from the north side of the river to appear for Wright. At the May term, 1859, Oswald Wright was placed on trial for stealing the negro Charles, and although the jurisdiction of the court was properly questioned, he was convicted and sentenced to the Kentucky penitentiary for five years. But so well had Farleigh and Coale done their work in their objections to the jurisdiction of the trial court, that Wright was soon released and returned to Corydon, where he lived until his death. He was a good negro, industrious, and saved his earnings. By his last will he left his property, which consisted of two houses and lots, to Mrs. Julia Jones.Soon the Bell farm was sold, and David and Mrs. Bell went to Ohio and then to Missouri to live. John followed Horace back to California. "Charlie" Bell returned to Cory don and remained there until he enlisted early in 1861 in the 20th Indiana Volunteers. He was killed before Petersburg in 1864, being then a captain but in command of his regiment. Seven regimental commanders ahead of him had met his fate. He was a gallant soldier, and the commission which would have still further promoted him never reached him.It was the belief in Corydon that David J. Bell knew nothing of the plan to "run off" the negroes Charles and Mary Ann, but there never was any doubt in the minds of the people that Charlie Bell planned and executed the escape. Horace Bell said he never inquired as to exactly what had happened before he returned from California. My husband uniformly said he was not called on to express an opinion, except that Kentucky had not acquired jurisdiction over the persons of the Bells and Oswald Wright. Considerate and deferential as he was, when the time came to act he never hesitated. In 1886 Horace Bell entered the newspaper field at Los Angeles. It was not long until he was sued for $300,000 damages for libel by "Lucky" Baldwin. In the prosecution of the suit, Baldwin assailed Bell on account of his record in the Brandenburg Affair. Bell appealed to United States Circuit Judge W. Q. Gresham at Chicago. The answer was: '' Your conduct from beginning to end in the Brandenburg Affair was praiseworthy and honorable."There was great exultation among the anti-slavery people along the border over the Brandenburg Affair. This my husband deprecated all he could. On the other hand some of the good people of Meade and adjoining counties in Kentucky approved the action of Horace and John Bell, and rejoiced in their successes. Doctor Ditto's brother, himself a slave holder by inheritance, publicly commended Horace Bell for his gallantry. Captain Phillips afterwards told me: "I admired Horace Bell's nerve and was glad to go on his bond. Besides," he said, " I never was much of a 'nigger man.' My father left me a few slaves; I could not free them under the Kentucky law without giving a bond for their support. It was cheaper for me to keep them and support them than to enter into a bond with the State of Kentucky which might involve liabilities I could not foresee."Captain Phillips was a fine type of Kentuckian, as well as a man of means and a far-sighted, clear-headed business man. When he was an operator on the Board of Trade the big men could not lower or raise the market too fast to catch him. He, as other men in 1861, saw the economic if not the moral side of slavery. At that time there were only 100,000 slave holders in the United States. Ten years later, under the workings of the system their numbers would have been less. "The proposition to arm the slaves never found favor with the rich men of the South," as an old ex-Confederate once said to me. "A young able-bodied negro was too valuable an animal to be made the target for Yankee bullets." "A rich man's war and a poor man's fight," is a misnomer. It was not the large slave holders who rushed Mississippi into secession, and it was the large slave holders who helped to hold Kentucky back.