The Execution of Lonze Pennington, a slave trader
Lonz Pennington was a son of Francis P. Pennington, an early settler of means, a slave owner and a man of sufficient prominence and popularity to have been elected sheriff in 1829. Nothing was known to reflect on the honor or integrity of the old man. He had two sons, Morton and Edward Alonzo, commonly called Lonz. Morton Pennington was not involved in the alleged operations of his younger brother, so far as known. Lonz Penning-ton was given a liberal education by his father, who employed a private teacher named Thomas V. Morrow. After Morrow ceased to live at Pennington’s, there was a “whispering campaign,” based on his reports that strangers were in the habit of visiting Pennington, who did not make known their business except that they were supposed to be traders in negroes, horses and other property. The supposition is that Lonz, as he approached manhood, became interested in this sort of business. He married a young woman of good character and established a home near where his father lived, and his place became the rendezvous of the horse traders. Lonz was a young man of good appearance, had an alert mind and was better educated than most of his neighbors, and soon became noted for his sharp trades that frequently involved him in litigation. There were some who openly charged him with swindling, and he became unpopular in his neighborhood. He was a lover of horses and owned the best horse in his neighborhood and made frequent trips to Illinois and other states to trade in horses. He had a track on his place, where he claimed to train horses he bought, and later would take them to the South and sell them. He was apparently doing a prosperous business. He moved over into Hopkins County and stayed a while, and then moved back to another place, all of the time devoting more attention to trading than to his farming operations. He attracted about him a following of men known as traders and sports, some of whom had bad reputations. There came a time when the county began to be troubled with horse thieves, and even negroes were frequently reported as having “run away”; stealing of negroes being a crime incident to the period.
Pennington’s associates were men not above suspicion, and soon he was suspected himself of being implicated in the lawlessness that increased. The impression grew that an organized band was responsible for the crimes, and Pennington was believed to be the brains of the organization and to be in league with horse thieves and slave dealers in other states. This was the unsavory reputation he had among his own people when a brutal murder occurred, May 9, 1845, that eventually brought about his conviction and execution. Pennington’s career was published in a novel, which gave an exaggerated story of a very ordinary crime. In 1884, Col. James F. Buckner, who had moved to Louisville, published an article in the Courier-Journal of January 13, 1884, which was written nearly forty years after the occurrences in which Colonel Buckner took part, and doubtless from the treacherous memory of a man advanced in age. Many statements as he remembered them were far from correct and were altogether misleading. Among other mistakes was the position assigned to Pennington of a man of wealth, culture and high standing in the community, and the magnified amount of the estate of the man he murdered. Colonel Buckner’s story also reflected upon Christian County —which he had long since left—as seething with mob spirit and threats of personal violence to him as attorney for Pennington. His story was incorporated largely into the history written by W. H. Perrin, of Louisville, in 1884. Before accepting this publication as correct, this writer, whose ancestors lived in the immediate vicinity of the Pennington home and who took part in the law and order organization formed at the time, determined to get at the facts from records. There was found in the hands of a very old lady, 95 years of age, a pamphlet issued in 1846, giving a history of the crime for which Pennington was executed and of his pursuit and capture, the correct names of the people involved, a copy of the indictment, a record of the testimony in detail at the trial, and the speech of Colonel Buckner himself as furnished for publication. This pamphlet has been carefully preserved by Mrs. Mary W. Robinson, a daughter of Rice Dulin, and will be used as the basis of this history, the court records corroborating the facts. The pamphlet was issued by the Hopkinsville Gazette and was reprinted by the Pembroke Review in a second edition in 1896.
Somewhere about 1838, or 1839, an Irish stonemason named Simon Davis appeared in that part of the country and married a girl referred to as “one of the heirs of Nicholas Pyle, deceased.” She had been reared by a preacher named Williams. Davis settled on a little piece of ground, his wife’s part of a small estate, and at the time of his murder his property was described as a few acres of corn and oats just planted, a sorrel mare and two other head of stock, some farm tools and a negro girl slave valued at $300. The account states that his entire estate was not more than $800. The “four negroes” alleged by Colonel Buckner to have been “cashed in” for $1,500 were one girl, sold for $150, only $75 of which was paid in money, the rest in note. And, so far as the record shows, Davis never had at one time as much as $100 in money. In the indictment itself Pennington was referred to as “Alonzo Pennington, laborer,” the indictment being a matter of record. In April, 1845, Davis’ wife died without children, and the ground upon which they had lived would by law pass to his wife’s legal heirs. A few days after Mrs. Davis died the negro girl ran off and went to another claimant, and there came to be unfriendly contention between Davis and his wife’s relatives over the slave girl and the farm. Davis, living alone, held the farm, but was in town May 8, 1845, and tried to dispose of all of his holdings, saying he was going to leave the county and work at his trade. The land deal was questionable, but he found a man named Bradley who agreed to pay him $150—about half her value—for the girl whose ownership was disputed. Bradley paid $75 and agreed to give a note for the rest, less some little offsets. Davis and Pennington left town together, both stating that they would attend the muster for that part of the county, to be held at Pleasant Hill Church the next day. Both attended the muster and were seen together, and it developed afterwards that Pennington had agreed to pay Davis $300 for all of his property, saying he would go to law to hold it. He saw Bradley, who agreed to take $20 profit and give up the girl. “An hour and a half by sun,” Davis and Pennington started together from the muster, Bradley and others testifying that Pennington told Davis he would have to go to his father’s to get the money to complete the trade to let Davis leave the country at once.
Pennington’s father lived a mile or two beyond the cave where the body of Davis was found, six miles away. Davis never was seen alive again. Pennington took charge of the farm and everything on it. It is not said what became of the girl. He told numerous witnesses that Davis had gone to Illinois, to Clarksville, to Eddyville and other places. These stories, when compared, excited suspicion, but Pennington explained that Davis was going about working at his trade and that he had seen him on one of his trips. Two months passed when some one who knew Davis’ blaze-faced sorrel mare, that Pennington had said Davis rode away when he left, reported that he had seen the mare in possession of B. F. Cisney, over in Todd County. Pennington had been seen with Cisney and another of his followers named Sheffield, or Shuffle, as the ancient record has it, at the muster, and when Cisney turned up with Davis’ horse, suspicion was no longer whispered. Col. James Robinson called a meeting of his neighbors at Antioch Church and decided to make an organized investigation. Committees were formed and one sent to arrest Cisney. He was found in the county and arrested and taken before a magistrate in Hopkinsville and searched. Nothing being found on him, he was taken to the Pond River neighborhood to explain things to the committee. He was kept under guard for two days, but made no confession. Colonel Robinson was active during these two days. Another meeting was held at Antioch, attended by many citizens from Christian, Muhlenberg, Todd and Hopkins Counties. At this meeting, July 12, the Safety Society, as it was called in the trial, was organized, with Colonel Robinson as chairman. This society was afterwards called the Regulators. I have talked to men who were there and have had first-hand reports of their purposes. They were organized to enforce the law and not to encourage the mob spirit. There was a membership fee of one dollar, to provide a fund for pursuing criminals where necessary.
Cisney’s guards brought him before this meeting. There were no spectacular or melodramatic proceedings, as narrated by Colonel Buckner, with Cisney baring •his bosom and, asking to he shot rather than to be whipped. He still refused to talk, and the same committee who had brought him left with him, In a wooded section the party dismounted to rest, all but two seated on the ground. These two went into the bushes and returned with some stout hickory switches and, securing a rope, laid them at Cisney’s feet. Not a word was spoken. Cisney broke down, tears rolled down his pallid cheeks, and voluntarily he agreed to talk.
The committee had conducted him to the vicinity of the muster grounds, believing that Davis’ body had been disposed of near by. The trembling wretch confessed to three of them, whom he named, and who went aside with him, that he had been with Pennington when he killed Davis, but had only held their horses while they got down to talk. He said Pennington had killed Davis with a heavy stick and had thrown his body into a cave not far from the Greenville road, in a wild, hilly forest. He conducted them to the cave, the body was found, and Cisney was taken to town and lodged in jail on a warrant.
The committee sent to get Pennington found him away from home. They sent members to meet him on the road as he returned from Lyon County, but they missed him. Pennington came by a different road and met a man named Gordon, who told him they had found Davis’ body and Cisney had laid the murder on him. Pennington went on in the night to his home, found it guarded, but went to his pasture and caught his favorite horse, turned his jaded horse in the field and left for the Mississippi river, where he caught a boat and went to the wilds of western Texas.
On July 26, 1845, Pennington was indicted for the murder, with Cisney accessory. Soon afterwards Cisney broke jail and was never recaptured. The Regulators maintained their organization, but found little to do. It became a law-abiding community and the reign of lawlessness soon gave way to order and quietude. Governor Gabriel Slaughter offered a reward for the capture of Pennington, and thus matters were when the location of Pennington was discovered. The Bourland family of several brothers had scattered. William and James Bourland had moved to Texas, and Dr. Reese Bourland was a physician in Ballard County, in a river town. In January, 1846, William Bourland, who was a member of Congress in the republic of Texas, visited his brothers in Kentucky. Stopping to visit the doctor, he learned of the Davis murder and was reminded that while canvassing in a remote county he had seen Pennington, whom he had known, and had spoken to him, but the man told him he was mistaken in the man. The brothers came to Hopkinsville and the doctor arranged to return with William. They went to Lamar County, Texas, where James Bourland was sheriff, and began a chase that led to Pennington’s arrest near the Indian Territory. He was brought back by boat to Canton, where the Regulators had a committee to meet him. They furnished guards throughout the trial. Court was near at hand and, with much excitement, but no threats of violence, the trial was held almost immediately, under the indictment returned the year before by the grand jury, of which Zachariah Glass was foreman. The jury empaneled was as follows: Jas. Perkins, R. G. Henry, E. B. Richardson, Wm. Durrett, 0. C. Smith, Reuben Settle, G. W. Harry, John W. Walker, Sam’l Greshani, Robt. Foard, H. G. Abernathy and Jos. A. Brown. The jurors were nearly all from the southern part of the county. The commonwealth’s attorney was John McLarning, and Col. J. F. Buckner was Pennington’s lawyer. The Gazette pamphlet gave the evidence in rather tedious detail.
W. S. Compton said he was at the cave when Davis’ body was found. He identified the body. He described the cave as 15 miles from Hopkinsyule, about a quarter of a mile from the Greenville road. It is a perpendicular hole 15 or 20 feet deep (not a bottomless pit, as claimed). It is narrow at the top and has a rock platform about 12 feet down. On this the body was lodged. He described the muster, saw the men together, commanded a company, called their names, both answered. Saw Davis’ property the following week at Pennington’s, who said he had bought out Davis and that he had gone to near Clarksville. He said the body was found July 12. He was at the organization of the Safety Society. There were no threats against Pennington. The purpose was to catch him.
David D. Myers was at the cave, so was E. M. Robinson; both corroborated Compton and identified the body.
Wiley Robinson was first to enter the cave and said the body was partly concealed with leaves and sticks. Philip Gregory was also at thc cave and identified the body. John Kelly, Thos. J. Edwards, Emsley Henderson, James Vaughan, Alfred Younglove, Richard Vaughan and David H. Harrison testified. The latter, Pennington’s brother-in-law, said he told him Davis was below Paducah working on a mill. Others said he had told them he was in Illinois and Georgia. Richard Bradley told about buying the negro girl for $150 in Pennington’s presence. Zach Glass said Pennington told him he left the muster alone and was innocent.
Jas. McFadden said Pennington came to his mother’s the night of the murder, two hours in the night, and spent the night. Mrs. Cooper corroborated McFadden’s testimony. Davis Compton said Pennington came to his fence where he was plowing and asked if he had heard tales about his killing Davis, a week before the body was found. Told him he had, and Pennington said Davis was well and sound and he had seen him building a chimney near Clarksville.
Rice Dulin (father of Mrs. Mary W. Robinson) was at the cave. Also met Pennington at Canton, who told him Gordon informed him of the finding of the body. He went on home and found his home watched. Said he was not afraid of a fair trial. Langley Bell said Pennington told him Davis was keeping out of the sheriff’s way on account of the trouble with his wife’s relations.
George Bradley saw Davis at the muster. Fed a colt and a calf for Davis after the muster. Said he would be away that night but would return the next day. Franklin Webb bought corn from Pennington at Davis’ place. Heard him say he was going to leave.
Dan S. Hays said Pennington told him he was returning from the iron works when Gordon told him Davis’ body had been found. Said no attempt was made to take Pennirigton until after the body was found. Other corroborative witnesses weie Dr. W. H. Hopson, John W. Grissom and Oliver Meacham.
Those who were called by the defense, most of whom testified about unimportant details, were Wm. Wicks, Wm. Harkins, James Robinson, John McFadden, Wm. West, A. Cooper and some of the state’s witnesses were recalled. Pennington did not testify. The argument then proceeded. McLarning reviewed the chain of circumstantial evidence, quoted the law, and asked for conviction. Col. Buckner expressed his embarrassment at being in a case so unpopular, spoke of the excitement and prejudice against his client, spoke of the danger of convicting on circumstantial evidence alone, reviewed the evidence, pointed out some discrepancies in it, quoted Latin phrases, charged that Cisney may have killed Davis himself, asked for sympathy for Pennington’s good wife who sat by him and concluded by saying, “If you err let it be on the side of mercy.” McLarning replied briefly, complimented Col. Buckner for doing his duty by his client, declared he wanted no man convicted contrary to law, denounced any thought of lynch law, declaring: “I am bound to interpose my denial that any spirit of subordination to law has been manifested. I am aware that false reports have gone abroad to the injury of our county, that its citizens in disregard of law, were disposed to take vengeance into their own hands. I repel with indignation the slanderous charge that such intentions and feelings ever did exist to any extent in Christian County.”
The case was given to the jury by Judge Shackelford and in a short while a verdict of death was returned. He was sentenced April 6th and hanged May 1. J. Milton Clark was the acting sheriff. He was hanged to the limb of a post oak tree near the city. When the trap dropped the rope broke. While the rope was being readjusted, Pennington, it is said, declared that Cisney killed Davis. The second fall was effective. Pennington was 35 or 40 years old, tall and slender, with dark hair, beard and eyes. He died bravely.