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The following, like the previous issue, is from Famous Kentucky Tragedies and Trials (pp34-45) by "L.F. Johnson of the Frankfort, KY Bar, Author of 'A History of Franklin County, KY'" (The Baldwin Law Book Company, Louisville KY, 1916).
The book was dedicated "To Judge Patrick U. Major, ... my preceptor and law partner, who was born in 1822 and died 1903".
This chapter of the book is about a bloody murder, and theft, of which the governor's son is convicted and sentenced to death. He was tried twice, both times with the same result, and prior to his execution, cut his throat and probably died, though the author offers some doubt about this. He begins by explaining the disastrous course of Kentucky banking, which was much involved with politics, in the years preceding the murder, leading up the the conclusion: "The Old Court, or AntiRelief party was using all means it could to destroy the influence of the Governor and this gave some color to the contention of Desha's friends that the murder was charged against Isaac B. Desha because of the political bitterness against the Governor."
It concludes with a sort of editorial by none other than Amos Kendall, soon to be "kitchen cabinet" leader in the Jackson Administration. Kendall makes the point that there was reasonable doubt that Desha was the murderer, though acknowledging the force of the case against him. It also praises the governor's rectitude and care for his son during the nearly two years between the murder and his death.
Query: How unusual, in this period, would a two year time span be between a murder and the scheduled execution?
The Assassination of Francis Baker
by Isaac B. Desha, in 1824.
IN order to understand the condition of affairs in Kentucky in the year
1824, it is necessary to consider a few things which caused the formation
of the Relief and the AntiRelief parties of that period. These two
parties grew out of the disturbed conditions of the financial affairs of
the country prior to the year 1818, which resulted in the withdrawal of
gold and silver, to a large extent, from circulation, and an inflated currency
having taken their places.
Kentucky had chartered about forty banks, with an aggregate capital
of more than ten million dollars. During the summer of this year the State
was flooded with paper of these independent banks, all kinds of speculation
were engaged in and the people became very extravagant in their manner
of living. Within the next two years nearly all of these banks had failed
and the pressure of debt was greater than was ever known before in the
history of the country. The legislature of 181920, passed a twelve
months replevy law; and that of 1821, chartered the Bank of the Commonwealth.
This bank was not required to redeem its notes in specie, though made receivable
for taxes and all debts. Lands owned by the State west of the Tennessee
river were pledged for the final redemption of these notes and if a creditor
refused to receive their paper for his debt, the law permitted the debtor
to replevy for two years. This new bank issued such an immense quantity
of paper money that it sank to less than half of its nominal value, and
creditors had to take it at its nominal value in full payment of their
debts, or wait two years and risk the bankruptcy of their sureties on the
The power of the Legislature to pass such an act was held by Judge Clark
of the Circuit Court to be unconstitutional. The Legislature was convened
in extraordinary session which resulted in nothing being done. The case
was then passed on by the Court of Appeals, and the opinion of the lower
court was upheld. The opinion of the Court of Appeals created great excitement
throughout the State The financial interest of almost every man in the
State was effected. This was the condition of affairs in 1824, when General
Joseph Desha was elected Governor. The election was in August and in the
following November his son, Isaac B. Desha, was charged with having committed
one of the most atrocious assassinations which was ever committed in the
State. Governor Desha was elected by the New Court or Relief party. The
Old Court, or AntiRelief party was using all means it could to destroy
the influence of the Governor and this gave some color to the contention
of Desha's friends that the murder was charged against Isaac B. Desha because
of the political bitterness against the Governor. The facts proved by the
Commonwealth were as follows:
"Francis Baker, the man who was murdered, was an educated and talented
gentleman, who formerly lived in New Jersey. He was educated for the law,
but in the year 1815, he went to Natchez, Mississippi, where he became
the editor of a monthly magazine. In September of the year 1824, he started
on a return trip to his old home for the purpose of marrying a lady in
New Jersey, to whom he had been engaged several years. There were no steamboats
or steam cars of that date and the only mode of traveling was on horseback
or on foot. Baker owned a beautiful gray mare which attracted general attention
and the facts concerning which led to the apprehension and conviction of
Desha. When the deceased reached Lexington, he was forced to remain there
several days on account of an attack of fever, and when he had recovered
from the disease to some extent, but still being very much enfeebled from
the effects of his illness, he concluded that he would spend a few days
with his friend Captain Bickley, who lived in Fleming county near the home
of Isaac B. Desha. He left Lexington on the first day of November and spent
the night at Blue Lick Springs. The next day he arrived at Doggett's tavern
where he met Desha. The deceased made inquiries in reference to his friend
Captain Bickley and Desha professed to be well acquainted with him, but
he said that the Captain lived some distance from the main road. Desha
said that he was going to ride that way himself and he offered to show
him where his friend lived. This offer was accepted, and they rode off
together, each of them on a horse; several men were present at Doggett's
tavern at the time the two men left. At that time Desha had on a jacket
with no coat or overcoat and with nothing about him except a horse whip
which was heavily loaded with lead. In about two hours after he left Doggett's
tavern, in company with Baker, he was seen in the possession of the gray
mare, saddle bags and pocketbook, of the deceased. A man by the name of
Lesborn Ball lived about two miles from the house of Desha. The horse of
the deceased ran up to Ball's residence and one of his sons got on it and
rode off in search of the owner. In a short time he met Desha, who was
walking and who was very much agitated, his hands and clothes were stained
with blood and he was carrying a pair of saddle packets on his arm. The
same were afterwards found in the woods with the ends cut open and it was
proven that they belonged to the deceased or were in his possession when
he left Doggett's tavern. Desha claimed the horse as his property and said
that he had just bought it from a man who owed him some money. He got on
it and took the boy up behind him and rode off. In a few moments after
he left his horse, the one on which he had left Doggett's tavern, ran up
to the same house, without a briddle. Another son of Ball's put a briddle
on it and went in pursuit of Desha, whom he knew to be the owner. He had
not gone far when he met him and his brother on the gray mare. A pocketbook
was in Desha's pocket; it dropped out and one of the boys got off the horse
and handed it back to him. This pocketbook was afterwards found in the
woods cut to pieces. The proof was conclusive that it was the same with
which the deceased left Doggett's and the same which had been seen in the
possession of Desha. When Desha left Doggett's tavern he had neither saddlebags
nor pocketbook. He had been married about one year to a fine young woman,
who belonged to a good family; she was so terrified at his manner and appearance
that she left him the next morning and she refused to live with him again."
The day after the assassination, one of the deceased's gloves was found
and the following day the saddle bags were found in the woods, empty and
the ends were cut open. This led to further search of the woods where the
pocket book was found, cut to pieces. In a hollow tree near where the pocketbook
was found, there were found eight shirts with marks or name cut out, a
vest, a hankerchief and four pairs of stockings. Desha's briddle was also
found tied to a tree where his horse had, evidently, slipped it. The spot
where the murder was committed was identified by the appearance of the
ground. The body was found six days after the killing, in a gully, where
it had been dragged about two hundred yards down a hill. The skull was
fractured by the repeated blows of a heavy instrument, supposed to have
been the loaded whip. There was a stab in the breast, two bruises on the
shoulder and the throat was cut from ear to ear; there was a deep cut on
the thumb from which it would appear that there had been an attempt to
ward off the knife thrusts; the body was stripped of everything except
the shirt which was marked "Francis Baker" with indelible ink,
a vest, stockings and one glove which was on his right hand. The next day
the trousers were found, very bloody, the watch was gone, and at the distance
of two hundred yards the coat and hat were found; the hat was broken and
near it was Desha's loaded whip, the butt end of which was shattered to
pieces. The discovery of the horse in Desha's possession led to his arrest
and the facts and circumstances which were proven as above set out, led
to his conviction. The verdict of the jury was "death." Desha
claimed that he was innocent of the charge and that his enemies and those
of his father had conspired to convict him, with the evidence, which, he
claimed, had been prepared by them.
Francis Baker was killed in Fleming county. Isaac B. Desha lived in
Fleming and his father, Governor Joseph Desha, lived in Harrison county.
On November 24, 1824, Judge John Rowan introduced a bill in the Kentucky
Legislature providing for a change of venue in the case. The bill provided
that the judge of the Fleming Circuit Court should hold a term of court
on the second Monday in December, 1824, for the trial of Desha, and it
further provided that on the calling of the case Desha should have his
election to be tried either in Fleming or Harrison. In the event he selected
Harrison it provided for the transfer of the papers, indictment and all
records; also for Desha under a sufficient guard, to the jail of Harrison
county. All of the original papers in the Fleming court were to be transferred
but the transfer was not to be made until after the grand jury brought
in an indictment in Fleming county. Governor Desha appeared before the
committee to which this bill was committed on November 26th, and asked
that the bill be favorably reported. The Act was duly passed and was approved
by Governor Desha on December 4, 1824.
Isaac B. Desha elected to be tried in Harrison county and the case was
transferred and set for trial at the January term, 1825. Judge John Trimble
was the Circuit Judge of that district, but he was appointed a judge of
the Court of Appeals and he thereupon selected Judge George Shannon to
try the case. Judge Trimble went to Lexington on Sunday, prior to the day
on which the case was set for trial. Judge Shannon at first refused to
preside. Judge Trimble went to see him again the next morning and Judge
Shannon at that time, consented to try the case. He rode horseback from
Lexington to Cynthiana that day, opened court at eight o'clock at night
and adjourned over until the next day.
The next morning after the jury had brought in a verdict fixing the
punishment at death, Judge John Rowan, senior counsel for the defense,
filed a motion and grounds for a new trial.
The grounds for setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial were
1. The jury had intercourse with parties not on the jury; both day and
night, some persons were in their room.
2. Threats had been uttered against the jury and a note was conveyed
to the jury room, in some way, in which there was a threat made in these
words: "If the jury do not bring in a verdict against the prisoner,
Isaac B. Desha, they shall be hung in effigy and burnt."
3. On a pole of the jury, one Joshua Jones, when called by counsel to
say if he entertained any doubt of Desha's guilt, answered that he did
believe there were grounds to doubt it, and that he thought there were
reasonable grounds to doubt his guilt.
4. The judge himself thought the evidence was calculated to raise a
doubt of defendant's guilt.
On February 10, 1825, Judge Shannon set the verdict aside and granted
a new trial.
Many charges were made against Judge Shannon by the press of the State
accusing him of partiality to the defendant. The second trial was held
in February, 1826. The proof was practically the same and the jury brought
in a verdict of guilty and fixed the punishment at death. At that time
there was no appeal to the Court of Appeals in a murder case.
The date for the execution was fixed for Friday, July 14, 1826. The
scaffold was erected and the arrangements were made for the execution.
The defendant insisted that he would never consent to his father granting
him a pardon, stating that he had rather die than to have his father do
anything for which his official conduct could be criticised; that he would
not accept a pardon, but firmly said that he would abide by the law of
A short time before the day fixed for the execution, the defendant undertook
to commit suicide by cutting his own throat. The windpipe was severed and
his death was momentarily expected and he was in that condition when the
Governor issued a pardon for him.
It is a tradition that the Governor pardoned his son and immediately
thereafter resigned. The archives of the State show that he served his
It is also a tradition that his son recovered from the severe selfinflicted
wound and that he went to Central America where he changed his name and
married a second time and that his descendants became and are now prominent
and influential citizens of Honduras.
Amos Kendall, in his issue of "The Patriot" dated Monday,
July 17, 1826, gives the defendant's side of this case. The article is
headed "The Governor's Son," and is as follows:
"This unfortunate young man has terminated his existence by cutting
his throat. The windpipe was entirely cut off with a razor. After he committed
the act, he made this declaration: 'I am innocent of the charge made against
me.' The writing was presented to him while struggling for life and breathing
only through the wound. He recognized the paper and signed his name to
it. He, in the same manner of communication, for he has never been able
to utter a word, expressed great anxiety with regard to the distress his
fate would give to his mother.
"Our informant who left him still breathing, stated, that but a
few days before he made way (sic) with himself, he had a conversation with
a gentleman of Cynthiana, to whom he said, that he never would consent
to leave the jail by a pardon-protesting his innocence, but admitting that
he was so involved by the artful management that he never would be able
to acquit himself satisfactorily to the public. He, therefore, intimated
an intention to end his existence, declaring that he would not live to
disgrace his friends. When the first verdict was given, he declared that
he would not allow his father to dishonor himself by granting him a pardon,
but firmly said he would abide by the law of his country. There have been
many cases in which all the circumstances have conspired to fix guilt on
a particular person. Many cases in which such innocent persons convicted
on circumstantial proof, have been actually executed, when after a series
of years, the real criminal who was never suspected, has, when about to
die, confessed the whole matter and exonerated the first sufferer from
the charge. Every country has furnished many instances of this sort. May
not young Desha's be one of these unfortunate eases? The possession of
the murdered man's horse is the strongest circumstance against him. He
had always declared that he bought it of a stranger. Is it not possible,
that if a conspiracy was laid to fix the guilt on young Desha that this
would have been one of the means of effecting it? Might not this account
for the careless way in which Desha rode this horse of the dead man about
the neighborhood? Might not the clothes of the unfortunate Baker have been
scattered on the way to Desha's house, half hid and half exposed, on purpose
to lead suspicion to the person who was put in possession of the horse?
Might not the persons have obtained possession of Desha's bridle and hung
it up near the dead body, and have got the whip and broke and cut it into
nieces, scattering it along the road for the same purpose, The body was
found eight days after Desha and the deceased left Doggett's, the throat
cut from ear to ear, a deep stab in the breast and five cuts upon the head;
there was no blood in the road from whence the body seemed to have been
dragged about fifty yards; no blood even on the collar of the shirt; none
on the glove worn on the right hand, the fellow to which was found on the
way to Desha's; there was no blood along the trial and none about the body,
except a little that had oozed out on the shirt from the wound on body.
During the eight days, hunters and other persons had been by the place,
and had seen none of the signs that appeared afterwards when the body was
found. Is it not possible that this man was murdered elsewhere and brought
to this place, as that he should have been killed eight days before by
young Desha, should have laid in the woods for that length of time, three
days of which were sultry, Indian summer, and the rest frosty mornings
and hot suns; that he should be taken up yet quite limber, without bad
smell, without being swelled, without ever having been touched by animals
of prey, in a neighborhood full of hogs? The facts connected with this
case are stranger and inscrutable. They are doubtless exceedingly strong
against young Desha, as sworn to in court, and the jury were probably justified
in their verdict; but still, without a miracle, it is impossible that the
murder could have been committed on the day fixed in the testimony of Lisban
Ball. All human experience, proves that the condition of the body of Baker,
was not that of a person who had been dead eight days. Col. Sharp was killed
a few days later in November than Baker, and although his corpse was kept
in a cool apartment of his house, yet it became quite offensive to the
smell in two days, and all the appearances greatly altered.
"It is singular that Ball, the principal witness against Desha,
drowned himself a few weeks since. He went to a mill pond and was seen
to swim to the middle of it, where he sunk without a struggle. He was a
good swimmer and the person from the neighborhood, who brought the intelligence
to Frankfort, said that it was believed, it was his purpose to drown himself,
and a little while before this event, young Desha's houses were burnt by
some incendiary. Whatever be the sentence, which public opinion may fix
on the unhappy young man, who, even if guilty, has made atonement to public
justice by a long and dreary confinement, and inflicting the last of human
punishment on himself with his own hand, it is now to be hoped that political
adversaries will cease to persecute the wretched father on his account.
Never has any man's conduct been more exemplary than the Governor's under
the trying circumstances to which he has been subjected. With power to
put aside the law in favor of his son, he has bowed himself in humble submission
to their most painful exactions.
"At every court he has placed himself by the side of his unfortunate
son, to support him with his countenance and assist him with his counsel.
He believed him innocent, but instead of employing his executive power
to exempt him from punishment, he has spent thousands in employing counsel
to defend him, and in expenses incident to his confinement. During the
intervals of the court he has paid almost weekly visits to the prison,
riding the distance of forty miles to console and support his child in
his afflictions. When his public duties have prevented him from going,
he has made it a point to write to him, and to send him papers to amuse
him. No one has ever sustained, with more propriety than Governor Desha,
the duties of a magistrate and a father. The public can allege no charge
of delinquency against him and there never was a parent who gave stronger
proofs of tenderness and attachment than he has done to his wretched son.
In his intervals of absence at Frankfort, to his friends, he has made his
unfortunate situation the theme of his conversation, asserting his conviction
of his innocence and expressing the hope that some circumstances would
yet come to light to satisfy the world of it."
"P.S. From accounts brought yesterday, it seems that young Desha
is not yet dead, but the persons who attended him, and Dr. Dudley, the
most eminent surgeon, who has been consulted, declare there there are no
means to save him. The ends of his windpipe are contracted and stand apart
an inch and a half."