Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

By Boynton Merrill Jr. | Go to book overview
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IN THE MONTHS following the murder there was scarcely one hour when the earth did not tremble. Near the end of January, on the twenty-third, there was another shock, which over a five minute period increased to tremendous intensity. It was equal in force to the first upheaval that collapsed the kitchen chimney at Rocky Hill.1 In Louisville houses were badly damaged and boatmen on the river found themselves in great danger. “This is a disastrous time for navigators of the Ohio who happen to be hereabout upon the river, seven Boats have been seen passing on the falls to day; some with and some without crews on board; no human power can afford relief to the sufferers, nor can they help themselves but drift on until chance may decide their fate; …much howling and lamentation were heard from a boat entering the falls this night, voices of men women and children.”2

Nine days of comparative quiet passed and then, during the first week of February, the tremors rose gradually in a slow crescendo to a climax of violence in the dark early hours of the morning of the seventh. It was the most severe disturbance of the year-long span of the earthquake, the worst single shock ever recorded on the North American continent.3 Lilburne's kitchen chimney probably fell in again.

At the end of January, in the time between these two great disturbances, there was a period of relative calmness, during which Letitia gave birth to her first child. It was a son, whom she named after her father, James Rutter Lewis.

Those weeks must have been a period of numbing horror for Letitia and the children. It seems inconceivable that the knowledge of the murder could have been hidden from them for longer than a few hours. They learned of what the two brothers had done and fear settled over them; fear for their own safety, and fear for their futures if Lilburne were tried and taken from them. Without doubt Lilburne kept the slaves in strict isolation on the plantation. At least one of the legends reports that he also kept Letitia confined and under close observation.4 Lilburne could have controlled the people at


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Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy


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