Jacksonian Miscellanies, #39

November 25, 1997

Murder, Banking, and Kentucky Politics, 1824

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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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 replevying bonds.

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:

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 as follows:

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 his country.

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 full term.

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:

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