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Tom Chaney: The Dark Side of History

Of Writers And Their Books: The Dark Side of History. Thomas Jefferson's nephews and some dark and bloody history from which we have sprung. This column first appeared 27 March 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Margaret Truman Daniel

By Tom Chaney

The Dark Side of History

We used to be taught in Kentucky history classes that the state's name was Native American in origin and meant something close to "Dark and Bloody Ground." I am not so concerned about the linguistic accuracy of that statement as I am interested in some of the events on the dark and bloody side of our state's history and how those events have been used to help us to define or deny our past -- hence our present selves.

In 1811 and 1812 the world of the new nation was turned upside down. Thomas Jefferson [now ex-President] had acquired and begun the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. On the Mississippi River frontier, the nation was being challenged by Native Americans in league with the British who were not content to let the fledgling nation be.

In December in western Kentucky the looming portents were visible. The ground was rumbling; game was fleeing; the birds no longer sang.
The night of the 15th the first major quake struck. Centered at New Madrid, Missouri, more than 2,000 tremors struck between December 1811 and April 1812 - at least nine of them estimated to be equivalent to 7.0 and above on the later devised [Richter magnitude] scale. Three of them were probably larger than the 1906 quake that destroyed San Francisco.

Two brothers resided at Rocky Hill in Livingston County. Lillburn and Isham Lewis were the sons of Lucy Jefferson Lewis -- sister of the President. The family had settled in western Kentucky. Lucy died there and the father, Charles, returned to Virginia.

On the night of December 15 the brothers were well into their cups. A slave, George, had broken a pitcher on a trip to the spring for water for the brothers' refreshment. Lillburn summoned his slaves to the kitchen cabin of the property.

When the six slaves arrived they saw the seventeen-year-old George chained, face down, spread eagle on the floor. Lillburn had the slaves build up a roaring fire in the kitchen fireplace.

He picked up an ax; beheaded George, flinging his head into the fire; forced other slaves to chop up the body, throwing pieces into the fire; and threatened the other slaves with a similar fate if they told.

Less than an hour later the first earthquake struck. The chimney collapsed extinguishing the fire and preserving some of George's remains.

In the spring, the brothers were arrested on the strength of a human bone discovered by their own dog. They escaped jail, faced one another over their mother's grave in a suicide pact. Isham killed Lillburn whose shot missed his brother. Isham was arrested, later escaped, and was killed in the Battle of New Orleans.

Thomas Jefferson never referred to his nephews and their fate.

Robert Penn Warren, the Kentucky poet born a century ago this April in Guthrie, dealt with this event in his long, book-length poem, Brother to Dragons. In the poem, Warren forces the idealistic Jefferson to confront the reality of human evil within the complexity of humanity. Good and evil, Jefferson comes to realize, exist together in the human spirit.

The historian, Boynton Merrill, has written an extensive account of this Kentucky family in his study - Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy. An interesting new account has just been published - When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder and the New Madrid Earthquakes by Jay Feldman.

We all have a dark and bloody history from which we have sprung. The poet and novelist help us to deal with rather than hide the evil of our common heritage. During the Robert Penn Warren centennial month, I want to look at some of the ways that poet used Kentucky's history of violence and evil to arrive at a hopeful view of the world.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-04-14 03:37:40
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