Smithland


April 11, 1895


SMITHLAND.

 

One of Kentucky's Most Picturesque Towns,

 

Interesting Stories of Good Old Old [sic] Days Before the War.

 

ITS DISTINGUISHED SONS.

 

There is not a more interesting or picturesque town in Kentucky than Smithland, Livingston county.  Its population once numbered 3,000.  At that time the town boasted a foundry, several saw mills, three newspapers, a branch bank of the old South Bank of Russellville, of which George W. Norton was President, excellent boat building facilities and many elegant homes.  Steamboat travel was then in its palmiest days, and at the popular Gower House in Smithland there could be seen travelers from the East and the West, the North and the South.  Southern planters and wealthy steamboatmen brought their families to Smithland and spent the summer in the hospitable, hill-begirt town[.]  Palatial Mississippi steamers at that point gave up their passengers to go on their various ways up the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Ohio.  The building of the Louisville and Nashville railway, however, drew away the life current of the town, by diverting the course of travel.

The town of Smithland was laid off in 1806, but did not become the county seat until 1842, and the court house was not built until a few years later.  Prior to the building of the court house court was held under a gigantic elm that stood near the river bank.  The tree was known as "Judge Elm," and Judge Elm was party to many proceedings that are not chronicled in our court records.  Judge Lynch a few times invoked the aid of Judge Elm, in disposing of evil doers, and under his generous shade cards were played on cotton bales, and drinks were concoted [sic] wherein the fragrant mint and cooling ice were not parties of its first part.  Boats are proverbially slow upstream, but it but [sic] little difference to those thus waiting under Judge Elm.  The great Henry Clay once whiled away an entire day playing cards on a cotton bale with some jovial companions under this tree.

In those days whisky seems to have been a regular item of a man's hotel bill, and a record in one of the oldest books on file in the Smithland court house thus fixed the tavern rates:  "By order of the court, whisky, one-half pint, 12 1/2 cents; dinner 20 cents; supper or breakfast 19 cents; lodging per night 6 1/4 cents; oats or corn per gallon 12 1/2 cents; horse to hay or fodder 12 1/2 cents; pasturage one night 8 1/2 cents; by order of the court, July 23, 1799."  These records are covered with copies of the Mirror, published at Frankfort, Ky, September 3, 1796, by Hunter & Beaumont.  The London correspondence in that issue of the Mirror is dated June 25, and was received by the editor September 2.  An order of the court was filed by which James Iby received 41 1/2 cents for committing and releasing Chua, a Choctaw Indian charged with felony, and $1.44 for finding said prisoner 8 days, 8th of July, 1802."  Enoch Prince, the first clerk of Livingston county, in a clear, bold hand, still undimmed by time, chronicles that John Thornbury was married to Mary Barkhouse in a blackberry patch, in the presence of two slovenly girls, names unknown, by Reuben Marshall."

Aaron Burr once made a visit to Smithland for the purpose of interesting some of the prominent citizens in his plans.  Gen. Jackson made several visits to the town, and John Bell, the Tennessee statesman, was a familiar figure on the streets.  When in Smithland he made the bank his headquarters, and there his friends would gather to enjoy his society.  He had a large store of general information, was well read and highly companionable.  Mr. J. W. Cade, who is now one of the oldest citizens of the town, and who was for 26 years clerk of the circuit court, says that John Bell had the most winning smile he ever saw.  Mr. Bell owned extensive mines in Crittenden county Kentucky, which are still known as Bell's mines.

A memorable visit was made to Smithland in 1844 by the distinguished trio, John J. Crittenden, Judah P. Benjamin and S. S. Prentiss.  They were on their way to the great Harrison convention in Nashville.  It had been arranged that Prentiss should address the people of Smithland, but at the appointed hour Judah P. Benjamin rose in his stead.  The crowd was at first disappointed, but before Benjamin had spoken three minutes his hearers were completely captivated.  The flow of eloquence was never forgotten, and the little house on the hillside is yet pointed out by childrens [children of those who sat within its] walls that day.

It was about 1845 that E. Z. C. Judson, better known as "Ned Buntline," an adventurer and author, established in Nashville, Tenn., a sensational society paper called "Ned Buntline's Own."  Buntline soon got into trouble by recklessly attacking the character of some excellent people.  The community resolved to suppress the publication.  Finding it impossible to have his printing done in Nashville, Buntline removed to Smithland, where there were at that time several newspaper and job offices.  Immediately after his papers were out of press Buntline would carry them [i]n person to Nashville and dispose of them.  Buntline had served on board a privateer, and is said to have narrowly escaped with his life on more than one occasion.  He had married a beautiful Spanish girl, a native of one of the West Indies, who is said to have been devotedly attached to him.  She died in the Gower House, in Smithland, and is buried in the beautiful cemetery overlooking the Cumberland and the Ohio.  Ned Buntline afterward added to his miserable reputation by the killing of a Mr. Porterfield on the street at Nashville.

One Sunday morning Porterfield was informed that his wife was walking with Ned Buntline in the cemetery.  Porterfield at once bent his steps toward the cemetery.  As he approached Buntline cried out:  "Stop, stand off, or I'll kill you."  Porterfield glanced at his wife and continued to approach the couple.  Buntline fired and Porterfield fell dead at his wife's feet.  Porterfield was a well known and popular citizen, and the outraged community lost no time in seizing the murderer, carrying to the old Nashville Inn by the bridge and there hanging him from a window.  Buntline was saved from strangulation by the daring of a comrade, who from a lower story cut the rope from which he was dangling and thus enabled Buntline to escape.  Buntline lived in Smithland about two years, and was while there the associate editor of one of the town papers.  It is claimed that he was the organizer of the old Know-nothing party, and that the first lodge of this body was at Smithland.  Ned Buntline was a prolific writer.  He gave to the world about two hundred volumes of yellow back literature, besides numerous shorter stories.  His "Mysteries of New York" is on the order of Eugene Sue's "Mysteries of Paris."  Buntline wrote most of his novels in New York.  He is said to have turned out his longest serials in five or six weeks.  With the proceeds of his work he built a palatial home in Connecticut, but the last year of his life was spent in a beautiful villa in Delaware county, New York.  It is said that a few hours before his death he stood up in bed and with streaming eyes and uplifted hands gave utterance to a soul-stirring prayer, after which he peacefully fell into the sleep of death.

Among the early papers published at Smithland was the Bee, which was edited by Mr. Gibbon.  It was while party feeling was at its highest between Whigs and Democrats that a barbecue was gsven [sic] at Smithland, at which speeches were made and a flag presented to the Whig leader.  Miss David Ella Northern, a noted beauty, and belle, made the presentation speech, to which Dr. Snyder responded.  In the next issue of the Bee Gibbon made a caustic criticism of Dr. Snyder's speech.  Dr. Snyder at once sent Gibbon word to arm himself, that he intended to kill him at their next meeting.  A few days later, as Gibbon was crossing the street with his little daughter's hand clasped in his own, Dr. Snyder approached to within a few feet and fired upon him.  As Gibbon staggered he drew out his knife, but the sheath came with it and rendered it useless.  As he fell his little daughter fled horror stricken from the spot.  Snyder was arrested, and imprisoned.  He procured change [of venue and was removed to the Marion] jail.  The trial caused intense excitement throughout the State.  George D. Prentice, who had then but recently taken charge of the Louisville Journal, warmly espoused the cause of the murdered editor.  It is said that Gibbon's daughter, who witnessed the murder of her father, never entirely recovered from the shock but was to the day of her death a sad eyed, sad hearted woman.  Snyder was finally released.  Hon. Samuel A. Kingman, now of Topeka, Kansas, lived in Smithland many years, and represented Livingston county in the Legislature.  After removing to Kansas he was made one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the state and afterwards became Chief Justice.  After fourteen years faithful service on the Judge's bench, he resigned his position crowned with honors.  The county of Kingman, Kansas, was named for him.  Judge Kingman was a profound lawyer and jurist, and was noted for his brilliant bon mots.  He is said to have borne a remarkable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln in physique, facial expression, and in a certain dry humor that he occasionally called into play.  His Smithland friends remember him with admiring affection.  He took pleasure in playing checkers and with his friends thus while away many an hour.  Several of Judge Kingman's children repose in the Smithland cemetery.

In addition to the prominent lawyers who had removed from Salem to Smithland upon the division of Livingston county in 1842, there were others who lent brilliancy to the Smithland bar.  John W. Crockett, whose original and forceful speeches had given him a state reputation, lived in the town.  H. Clay King, whose home was then in Paducah, attended the Smithland courts, and often acted as Judge pro tem.  The records show an indictment against H. Clay King for a difficulty he had with one Richardson, April 8, 1858, on which the bail is fixed at $300.  The circumstances which led to the indictment were as follows:  H. Clay King had been engaged to defend Duke Coker, who had been accused of stealing a rope.  Richardson was a witness against Coker and claimed to have seen Coker steal the rope.  Coker was well connected and some bitterness was stirred up by the trial.  Court continued until 11 o'clock at night.  H. Clay King, in his speech, called Richardson a "perjured scoundrel; and" continued the speaker, "the witness would but receive his deserts [sic] if the rope which he claims to have seen Mr. Coker steal should be worn out on his bare back."  Next day Richardson attacked King.  An indictment was sworn out against both men but both were acquitted.  In 1890 [?] H. Clay King visited Livingston county with a view of permanently locating there.  The clouds of misfortune were already hovering about him, and he wished to buy a home amid the scenes of his early manhood.  Conant's Hill, one of the most beautiful heights about Smithland, was the place chosen by Mr. King, but Mr. Conant could not be induced to part from the hill which there spreads on all sides a view that charms the beholder.

A short time after this visit Mr. King's troubles culminated in the killing of Judge Poston, of Memphis, and in the trial which followed Mr. King's own Digest of the Laws of Tenneisee [sic] was used against him.

John E. Newman, a distinguished lawyer, who was afterwards Circuit Judge in the Bardstown district, and subsequently a partner of Justice John M. Harlan, now of the Supreme Court of the United States, married in Smithland and lived there a number of years.  It was while practicing law in that town that he laid the foundation of his excellent law book:  "Newman on Pleadings," which is used generally in Kentucky practice.  Judge Newman married a Miss Olive.  The house in which the ceremony was performed and in which he subsequently lived is a large, old fashioned brick residence, directly opposite the side of the home of Congressman-elect John K. Hendrick.  Judge Newman was the father of Eugene Newman, the well know[n] newspaper writer, Savoyard.

On the Salem road, above Smithland, lived the Hon. Robert Ray, afterward one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Missouri.

Fidelio C. Sharp, a brother of Solomon P. Sharp, who was killed by Beauchamp at Frankfort, represented Livingston county in the senate from 1814 to 1816.  The Sharps were distinguished for their strong mentality.  It is said that when President Monroe was asked on one occasion who he regarded as the most intellectual man he had ever known, that he responded without a moment's hesitation, "Solomon P. Sharp."

Many interesting stories are told of the early courts held at Smithland, Robert Patterson bought a tract of land at the head of Bissell's Bluff and petitioned the court to grant a ferry across the Cumberland and a road leading to the same.  The motion was referred to the court of which 'Squire Larue was Justice.  The old man was better than he was wise, and always tried to compromise matters.  After listening to all the arguments in favor of the road, the Justice thus rendered his decision:  "If the court understands herself, and she presumes she do, the ferry am granted, but the road am not."  As Robert Patterson swelled with anger and stalked out of the court room he was heard to say"  "A hell of a court to grant a ferry and [no] road to get to it."

No resident of Smithland was ever more tenderly loved and universally respected than Judge Wylie P. Fowler, who for eighteen years presided in the Circuit Court of that district.  Though not a profound jurist he was a just, generous, whole-souled and lovable man, with a most remarkable memory and an inexhaustible fund of interesting reminiscences.

In the year 1832 Judge Fowler was engaged to defend one Shouse, who had murdered a Mr. Simpson at a farmhouse near Cave-in-Rock, Ills.  Shouse was one of the ringleaders of the notorious Ford gang of that section, and it is generally believed that Ford had deputised him to kill Simpson.  Shouse was sentenced to be hanged.  It was observed that Judge Fowler spent a large part of his time in the cell of Shouse after the latter had received his death sentence.  It finally leaked out that Shouse was dictating to Judge Fowler a history of the robber band, to which he had belonged, and that his statements implicated some of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of Livingston county.  At that juncture Judge Fowler received a number of anonymous letters in which the writers threatened his life in the event of his ever making public the communications made to him by Shouse.  By advice of the friends of Judge Fowler [he] spent the succeeding winter in Frankfort.  Upon his return Mr. J. W. Cade, the Circuit Clerk, asked Judge Fowler if the Shouse history had been destroyed.  He replied:  "No good could come of its publication.  It would cast a shade upon the reputation of some of Livingston county's most esteemed citizens."  Nothing further was ever heard of the manuscript, and it is believed that Judge Fowler destroyed it.  Many of the descendants of Ford, or James Wilson, as he is called in Collins' History of Kentucky, married into excellent families and became prominent and prosperous in their respective localities.  One of the grandsons of the notorious robber is now a wealthy shoe merchant in a western city.

Many incidents are yet told of Fowler's rulings.  He never failed to condemn the evil and commend all that was good in a man.

Harry Word, now of Marion, once had a case in the Smithland court, but Judge Fowler observed that every time the case was called the young [attorney] had just stepped out for a [minute and] after these exits Word would [enter] into the court and ask:  "Please [your] honor, have you yet called the case of Johnson against Smith?"  "Yes sir," was the invariable answer, "but you were out."  Determined  to teach the attorney a lesson, Judge Fowler at last ordered the case of Johnson against Smith to be placed at the end of the docket.  In the meantime a young ruffian was tried for striking an old man with brass knucks.  At the conclusion of the trial Judge Fowler rebuked the young man and showed him the cowardice of such an attack.  Elevating the offensive knucks he exclaimed:  "Here, Mr. Clerk, put these where they will never be heard of again."  Harry Word, who had looked disconsolate and abashed ever since learning of the disposition of his case, turned to the Judge and said:  "Sir, if it please your Honor, I would suggest that they be placed at the end of the docket."

No other town in the State has given, according to its population, so great a number of distinguished men as Smithland to serve the public weal in the capacity of Governor, Lieut. Governor, Judge and pleader at the bar.  She has furnished reason [Rezin] A. Davidge and Judge Caswell Bennett to the Supreme bench of Kentucky; Robert Ray to Missouri, and Samuel A. Kingman to Kansas, to serve in the same exact capacity.

The natural environments of Smithland are such that it would be well nigh impregnable in time of war.  The two Federal forts on the hills [overl]ooking the town controlled the Cumberland and the Ohio for miles during the late war.

The graveyard on the hill above Smithland is an ideal spot for a cemetery.  Gigantic oaks and elms spread their branches proctectingly over the mounds beneath.  No gay parterres of flowers, no sharp angles made by men mar the natural grandeur of the spot.  The green turf unbroken enfolds tenderly the forms entrusted to its care.  The wren and sparrow, the robin and the jay build their nests and rear their young as if in the security of a forest fastness.  The whippoorwill occasionally sends forth its mournful plaint from the great elm which bends over the grave of the Choctaw chief, Dick Marcy, while the red bird flits about in his gay coat and brightens the scene by a gleam of color and a strain of song.  The tangled ivy twines and intertwines over the graves of entire families, binding them together by innumerable ties that seem to say, "they were united in life, and in death they are not divided."  Below may be seen the sheen of the Cumberland and the Ohio, reflecting the glory of the rising or the setting sun.  The smoke ascends from the dreamy town, that spreads itself along the base of the encircling hills, a boat glides lazily around "the Point," the strife of the world is afar off, life and death no longer seem at variance, and the heart of the beholder is filled with peace akin to that which enthralls the sleepers in the silent city where he stands.--Atlanta H. Taylor Pool, in Women's Edition of Courier-Journal, March 27.

 

Source:  Crittenden Press. (Marion, Ky.) 1879-1907, April 11, 1895, Image 1 - Chronicling America - The Library of Congress.

 

[My comments are in brackets.]