Dateline CWG-K: A Homicide in Harrison County
By Matthew Hulbert, assistant editor, Civil War Governors of Kentucky
Early in January 1864, several dozen residents of Harrison County sent up a plea for clemency to Gov. Thomas E. Bramlette. The subject of the petition, one Garrett Whitson, had been found guilty of murder; a rendezvous with the hangman loomed in February.
I’ve been an assistant editor working on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition for roughly two months. The hundreds of documents we wade through on a daily basis include myriad pardon requests for all manners of criminal behavior – but most are relatively minor infractions: gambling, tippling, failures to appear in court or to procure a proper license, and so on. By comparison, the narrative of Garrett Whitson reads as though it were ripped from the script of “Dateline,” “48 Hours” or another investigative news magazine program dealing in murder, betrayal and family drama.
Virtually everyone in Harrison County who knew anything about the case appreciated that Whitson was guilty as charged. Even Whitson himself made no secret of the fact that, on the evening in question, he’d discharged the contents of a shotgun into the chest of a man named John Spikard at close enough range to make imaginings of the aftermath rather unpleasant. Even so, part of what makes the story so interesting is that no one seemed to care.
One evening Whitson arrived at the home of the Albright family and informed Elizabeth Albright that her husband was sleeping off a bottle of liquor on the roadside. The Albright’s daughter, Mary Francis, was also present. As they went to roust Mr. Albright from his stupor, the group happened upon John Spikard, a cousin of the two Albright women. Spikard doubted the story; he insinuated that Whitson had tricked Elizabeth and Mary into the woods with other, more deviant purposes in mind. Spikard twice called Whitson a liar – a much more serious charge in 1864 than today – and the latter responded with the aforementioned salvo of buckshot.
On the technicalities of the law and the merits of the case (Whitson all but conceded the above version of events to preserve his own honor) the jury had little choice but to convict. But my favorite part of this case is that they likely did so while already planning to have Whitson spared by a higher authority. Thus when the petitioners wrote to Gov. Bramlette, they didn’t refute that Whitson was “technically” guilty, but rather assassinated the character of the other parties involved. No man, they offered, “ought to suffer the death penalty upon the sole and exclusive testimony of such persons as the witnesses for the prosecution against this poor man.”
As it turned out, the Albright women, Elizabeth and Mary, were actually a mother-daughter duo of “notorious prostitutes.” (Perhaps now we understand why Spikard doubted Whitson’s motivation for leading his female cousins out into the night…) The governor was also informed that Spikard was “a man of the most vicious and bloodthirsty character.” He had recently been released from state prison on an attempted murder conviction for trying to gun down a couple after they discovered him plundering their melon patch.
In other words, the petitioners implied that the Albright women had almost undoubtedly told the truth of Whitson shooting Spikard, but on account of their impure occupation, even the truth couldn’t be trusted if it came from the wrong source. And even if the Albright women had been morally acceptable to the jury, hadn’t Whitson had essentially done the Commonwealth a favor by disposing of a ne’er-do-well like Spikard?
Should the testimony of the Albright women hold up? Did Spikard’s past justify his murder? Will Bramlette intercede at the last instant to save Garrett Whitson from the gallows?
To find out what happened to Garrett Whitson, you’ll have to check out the original petition for yourself.
If you’re interested in more 1860s’ drama involving Kentucky’s Civil War governors, keep checking the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition for updates.