By Stephen D. Bowling
Information about slavery in Breathitt County is difficult to find. In October 1873, the Breathitt County Clerk’s office fell victim to the arsonist’s trade. Any records of slave sales, manumission, or marriages burned with the building.
The 1850 and 1860 Breathitt County Slave Censuses do survive, but they do not record the names of the enslaved persons, only their ages and who their owners were. The only hint about slave ownership can be found in the tax lists and other financial documents related to county taxes.
There is one exception. Breathitt County Circuit Court Book One was not in the Clerk’s office when the fire destroyed everything. Luckily for historians, the court minutes books were in the Courthouse and were not destroyed. A careful look at Order Book One reveals one case involving an enslaved person in Breathitt County.
Alfred, an enslaved black person owned by Jeremiah Cockrell, was arrested by Constable William P. Hill and charged with burglary for breaking into a barn and stealing several items. The Court paid Hill a total of $2.00 on March 18, 1845, for arresting Alfred and a total of .24 cents for summonsing two witnesses to testify at the trial.
Alfred was held in a cell at the Breathitt County Jail, a small log structure near the corner of Cross-Main (later Court) Street and Jockey (later College Avenue) Street, and evidence was presented to the Breathitt County Grand Jury on March 17, 1845. The Grand Jury indicted Alfred on March 18, 1845, on one charge of larceny. The Court set his bail at $100 cash and $100 security.
After a few continuations, the case was called for trial on March 20, 1845, by Circuit Judge John White. Alfred pleaded not guilty, and the court proceeded with the matter. Judge White administered the oath to Allen Moore, John Holbrook, Caleb Campbell, Joseph Spencer, John D. Noe, Charles McQuinn, William Tolby (Taulbee), Andrew Pense, Edward Spicer, Presley Howard, Andrew Couch, and William Noble and placed them in the jury box to hear the case.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney called a few witnesses and closed their cases. The attorney assigned to Alfred by the Court did not offer much of a defense. The jury retired and returned in a matter of a few minutes. Allen Moore, the foreman of the jury, stood and delivered the judgment of the jury:
We of the Jury find the Defendant Guilty as charged and assess his punishment to eight lashes on his bare back.
It is therefore considered and ordered by the Court, that the Sheriff of this County proceed forthwith to execute the judgment or finding of the jury as aforesaid, which is accordingly done, and Defendant is discharged.
The last mention of Alfred, the slave of Jeremiah Cockrell, and his larceny case allowed for William Hays and John Robinson to be paid .75 cents for guarding Alfred for one day each. The September 1, 1845 order required the County Treasurer to pay Hays and Robinson and close Alfred’s file.
Judge John White’s impressive career ended abruptly on September 22, 1845, twenty-one days after the Alfred case was closed. The Ottawa Free Trader, an Illinois newspaper, published a brief article detailing Judge White’s death on October 10, 1845. The article read:
“The Hon. John White, late speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States, on the 22, at Richmond, Ky, committed suicide. His health had been very feeble for some months, accompanied with great depression of spirits; yet he continued to discharge the duties of judge of the 9th judicial circuit, to which post he had been appointed by Gov. Owsley, until the 23d, when he returned home, and in the forenoon of the following day he told his family that he would retire to his room and wished to be private – not to be interrupted. He did so, and about three o’clock, the report of a pistol was heard, and upon going into the room, it was found that he had put an end to his existence by placing a pistol to his right temple and blowing a ball through his head. He has left an amiable wife and several interesting children to lament the loss of a husband, father, protector.”
Judge White was buried in the Frankfort Cemetery with his parents and other family members.
After his whipping on Court Street, he was returned to Jeremiah Cockrell, and no further mention of his case exists in the court records. Alfred is believed to be the 37-year-old enslaved person in the house of Jeremiah Cockrell in the 1860 Breathitt County Slave Census. If he escaped or left the county during the Civil War is not known. He was not listed on the 1870 Breathitt County Census.
What happened to Alfred will likely remain a mystery. The memory of one of Breathitt County’s early African-American population might be the one and only slave case recorded in Book One of the Breathitt County Circuit Court Order Book.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling