Bierbower House, Maysville
Researching local history can lead to some explosive revelations. Such is literally the case in finding information about the humongous explosion in Maysville, Kentucky, on August 12, 1854, when nearly 800 kegs of gunpowder ignited, burned 33 houses, and demolished $100,000 worth of property (lots of money in those days.) It is a story sure to ignite your imagination … and, perhaps, it will also fuel your suspicious.
The Maysville Eagle reported on the blast in its August 13, 1854 Edition. It is online in its entirety for your inspection at http://www.nkyviews.com/mason/pdf/Maysville_Power_Magazine_Fired.pdf.
According to an officer of the U.S. Army, the explosion “was doubtless the heaviest discharge of gunpowder that had ever taken place upon this continent. No similar disaster is remembered, in the world’s history, where so little injury to life resulted amidst such immense and general danger.”
Allow me to draw a particular focus on the event with an emphasis on the probable cause.
On August 12, 1854, at 1:55 A.M., Maysville was rocked by “the most tremendous and awful explosion caused by the firing of the Maysville Powder Magazine, containing 800 kegs of blasting and rifle powder – and carrying desolation and destruction into every quarter of the city, of East Maysville, and of Aberdeen Ohio.” The Powder Magazine, together with three other magazines, was situated in the narrow hollow or gorge along which the Maysville and Lexington Turnpike ascended the hill back and south of the City, at a distance of less than a third of a mile from the Court House and the heart of the city.
The damage and confusion caused by the explosion were overwhelming as evidenced by this description:
“Some minutes elapsed before the citizens would venture into the streets—so dreadful and universal was the alarm created by the explosion and its incidents, the bursting in of doors, the crashing of windows and glass, the wreck of walls and other materials struck by the flying missiles, the feeling of suffocation produced by the close sulfurous atmosphere—all instantly succeeding the flash of almost unearthly like, the explosion, louder and more devastating than a hundred thunder-storms, and the tremendous heaving of the earth and jarring of houses scarcely less violent than the earthquake motions of Lisbon at New Madrid.”
Reports confirmed that “demolition and imminent danger were everywhere and in every house” – the local paper said the blast caused “many hardened sinners to have the conviction that Gabriel was blowing his horn and that the time had come for us all to go.” The explosion caused men to lose “their presence of mind” and “women to scream while children ran about in terror.”
Here is a vivid description of the damage:
“As the citizens sallied forth, they found the side-walks covered with stones and bricks from the foundations of the Magazine, with bricks and fragments of wood from the chimneys and walls and roofs of the houses, with broken glass and sash and doors—and in many places the sills of the doors and windows tops of fences etc., covered with powder or with the grit and sand and plaster scattered by the explosion. These last penetrated into many rooms covering the bedding, mantles, tables, etc. All realized at once that there had been a general and very serious destruction of property—but the great fear that animated all, was as to the killed and wounded.”
Consider these reports about the force of the blast:
“A stone weighing 102 lbs. was found by J. P. Lawell, where it was thrown by the explosion, in Aberdeen, entirely across the Ohio River and at least a mile from the place of its starting. Another stone weighing 43 lbs. struck a locust post of a grape arbor in James Helm’s garden, in Aberdeen, and completely shivered the post. The steamer Huron, the Cincinnati packet lying at her landing place at the lower grade, was pierced by a number of stones – of which one passed into the hull an inch above the edge of the water, one or more passed through the roof and cabin floor and then out into the river, and one passed entirely through the state room where the clerk, Rolla Cooper, and his wife were sleeping, only four inches from Mrs. Cooper’s head.
“The damage to property is immense-variously estimated at from $50,000 to $100,000. Every house developed damage of one sort or another, not previously discovered – walls sprung, roofs giving way, cracks in walls, door frames crushed partly in, doors, shutters, sash, and glass demolished, walls and roofs and partitions and flooring pierced as if by cannonading, furniture of all kinds, chinaware, etc. broken into fragments or greatly injured …
“Two gentlemen, who were standing at the north-west corner of Front and Market streets, were blown by the force of the concussion entirely across to the opposite corner, one of them rebounding into the middle of the street.
"The whole body of water in the River was urged towards the Ohio shore, suddenly rising on the on that shore several feet.”
Yet, in what was attributed to “the special providence of God,” no lives were lost in the explosion and “but a few sustained any bodily injuries.” William. P. Conwell. Esq. – “one of the ablest and soundest lawyers in Kentucky” – was horribly injured and described as “bleeding profusely, and to the confusion supposed to be greatly mangled and almost lifeless.” Conwell did recover.
Many people did suffer injury from the blast. Stones and other debris cut and bruised scores of local residents.
Who Fired the Powder and Why?
M.D.W. Loomis, the owner of the powder destroyed, offered a $500 reward for the apprehension and conviction of the parties who fired the Magazine – this was in addition to a $500 by the city and a $500 reward by the citizens.
Was There a “Target”?
Despite the rewards and the investigation, no record of the apprehension of a guilty party was ever reported. No suspects were ever brought to trial. Local lore implied it was the result of a lark by some of the young men of the city. The explosion is very suspicious to me considering the part of the city most affected and the population of that area. I make no claim to knowing the guilty party (parties); however, I believe the act may have been initiated by those opposed to abolition. This theory is purely speculative on my part, but let me develop some interesting support.
Old town Maysville was sandwiched on a thin strip of land between a steep hill and the river. The Maysville Academy was erected on Fourth Street ca. 1829. Two eminent scholars, Jacob W. Rand and W.W. Richeson, taught there.
Multiple neighbors moved in to surround the academy. All of them defended the rights of people of color. G.L. Corum, author of Ulysses Underground, writes “antislavery minds and hearts perched together.” Corum continues: “Such persons clustered around the Maysville Academy and fulfilled their responsibilities on the south side of the Ohio River. The common denominator in the January, Huston and Wadsworth families as well as the Bierbowers, Elisha Green, Peter Grant and other emancipators was a concern for the oppressed.”
Here is the newspaper description of the residences with major damage due to the blast:
“The following houses were entirely demolished, or so damaged as almost to require rebuilding: Jno. Smith’s frame dwellings and brick sausage-meat house; Jos. Frank’s dwelling, occupied by Ben Logan; the lower city school house, brick; the frame dwellings oh Jno. B. Gibson and J. A. Bierbower; the frame African Baptist Church; the brick dwellings of Father Spaulding, James G. Spaulding, Dr. Ambrose Seaton, Thos. Y. Payne, Alex. Maddox, and Jacob W. Rand, together with Rand & Rich[illeg]’s (likely William West Richeson) Maysville Seminary Building. The Presbyterian, Methodist, Methodist South, Baptist, Christian and African Christian Churches were damaged from $200 to $1,000 each, and the Court House probably $400.”
These churches were among those damaged in the explosion:
“The African Baptist Church (frame) on the Pike—the building owned by Father Spalding, and the furniture, etc. by the blacks—had one end torn to pieces, the pews thrown about, and was otherwise damaged to say $100. The African Methodist Church, in the hollow, (frame) we have not seen—but learn from others that it is damaged some $50.”
Let's examine some of the known victims.
(a) William Henry Wadsworth
The report stated, “The residence of Wm. H. Wadsworth, Esq., on second Street, near the Cotton Factory, was struck by six or eight stones, several very large. One of them pierced the shutter and window, and shattered the bedstead on which reposed Mr. J. J. Carson and wife and infant, who had reached here only four hours previously from New Orleans. They received no injuries.
William Henry Wadsworth defended those seeking freedom. He read law in the office of Payne & Waller. William Henry's father, Adna, and William both were outspoken advocates of providing liberty and justice for all peoples.
(b) The Bierbowers
The paper stated, “On the opposite side of 4th Street, Jonathan A. Bierbower’s residence, frame with a brick ell, was pierced by and battered by many stones – the former so much injured as scarcely to be worth repairing. Damage and loss some $300. Much of the fine shrubbery, etc., in his beautiful garden was sadly injured.”
The Bierbower roots originated in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a place with such a devoted antislavery reputation as to cause the Richmond (Virginia) Enquirer once to exclaim: “Our Southern people should mark the town of Carlisle, and be especially careful that none of their sons shall be sent to that place for their education.”
The Bierbower family built their Fourth Street house in 1841. The Bierbower home contained a false floor that served to hide escaped slaves waiting to cross the river safely.
More than twenty years later, Frederick Bierbower served as Colonel of the 124th Colored Troops in the Union Army. Frank Bierbower, a dentist, also served in the Civil War. Like many families on the north side of the river, the Bierbowers demonstrated a generation commitment to ending slavery.
(c.) Jacob W. Rand and William West Richeson
According to the paper, “The brick residence of Jacob W. Rand, adjoining the seminary, had the roof badly injured, the walls sprung, the partitions moved, and was otherwise damaged. It will require at least $1500 to repair it properly.”
Upon his arrival in Maysville in 1832, William West Richeson, in partnership with professor Jacob Rand, founded and operated Maysville Academy for several decades. Born in Massachusetts and educated in Ohio, Rand crossed to Kentucky to teach at the Maysville Academy. Ulysses S. Grant entered the academy in fall of 1836, at the age of 14.
Richeson was a graduate of the University of Virginia. His hero was Thomas Jefferson. He was an officer of the Presbyterian church in Maysville, who is said to have brought “an ethical dimension into the classroom.”
Elisha Green was a slave sold apart from family members. He had worked on Walter Warder's farm, three miles from Mayslick (a village south of Maysville). Elisha was then “hired to Leach & Dobbyns” in 1838 and brought to Maysville. He had to leave his wife Susan Young in Mayslick.
For sixteen years, Green worked as a sexton of the white Baptist church in Maysville. The elders recognized Green's spiritual gifts and encouraged him to preach and then organize churches for his race, which he did. His ministry was not limited to Maysville. He traveled widely and “frequently preached in Bracken, Lewis, and Fleming counties.
In 1844, Green established a black Baptist congregation in Maysville, erecting a sanctuary on a wedge of land across the street from the Maysville Academy. First African had the authority “to call a minister, elect officers, and administer religious ordinances, but only with the advice and approval of the white Baptist church.”
Knowing literacy would strengthen his ministry, Green sequestered himself in the windowless third floor of the Dobbyns' octagonal house (“Glen Alice”) and taught himself to read by studying the bible during the slack summer season.”
(e) Ben Logan
The report also told of Ben Logan: “Ben Logan – an honest and very industrious negro man – lost nearly every thing, and yet we have not heard a more cheerful voice or seen more willing hands. He had 10 Hogs in pens about 200 feet from the magazine, 4 of which were killed, and the balance it was supposed had been blown up into the air and carried to “the place where all good hogs go.” Two of them were found this morning, and seemed to have had their natures changed while absent in parts unknown. When corn was offered them, they did not seem to know what it was or why it was given them.”
(f.) Unidentified Casualties
Reportedly, “An old negro woman was considerably injured by the falling of her roof and the side of her house, in the hollow below the Magazine. Another negro woman lying ill at the time, had her system, so violently shocked by the explosion and preyed upon by fear, that she died yesterday afternoon.”
(g) Mary E. Wilson Betts
A later report said. “Mary E. Wilson Betts, born in Maysville in 1824 and married to Morgan L Betts, editor of the Detroit Times, died September 19, 1854 of congestion of the brain believed to have been caused by the great gunpowder explosion. Her husband died the following October within a quarter of a mile of where she was lying sick at the time.
The Maysville Eagle reported no one was charged with the crime. Yet, the main article claimed:
“More than 4,000 people were quietly slumbering, at the dead hour of 2 o’clock, within one mile of this powerful mine that was suddenly sprung upon them by the villainy and heartlessness of a few men – five, it is believed – and but for the elevation of the Magazine a hundred feet over their heads, at least a thousand human beings must have been killed or horribly mangled and cripples for life.”
The Maysville Eagle (August 17, 1854) also reported:
“As yet all efforts to ascertain the perpetrators of the outrage have failed. Some individuals, against whom suspicions were indulged, were proved to have been in no way connected with the horrible affair. Many circumstances are known which may aid greatly in the detection of the guilty persons.”
I wonder about those five suspects and what those “circumstances” that supposedly aided their detection may have been? Perhaps the perpetrators were Southern sympathizers with evil intent. Of course, I am taking the liberty of speculating about what is not said in the articles. However, there appears to be more to the story than meets the eye.
And, what about “the elevation of the Magazine a hundred feet over their heads”? Did the perpetrators target the homes and churches of the abolitionists while attempting to minimize damage to other areas of Maysville? My suspicion rests on the uneasy political climate of the 1850s, the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and the considerable resistance to the anti-slavery movement in the State of Kentucky. After all, enslaved African-Americans represented up to 25% of the population before the Civil War – Kentucky was a slave state.
I may be reading much too much into this. Still, I cannot fathom this act being a prank or an accident when signs point to deliberate intentions of harm and destruction.
We are certain great turmoil existed in the state. Slavery and anti-slavery tore at the fabric of the state. The “slavery was a necessary evil doctrine” allowed Kentuckians to construct a bridge between conflicting sets of values. In Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky, Harold D. Tallant states: “Antebellum Kentuckians faced a conflict between two opposing and strongly held values: the hope of maintaining slavery for the immediate future and the belief that slavery should eventually be eliminated from the state.”
“Kentucky maintained a policy of neutrality during the first months of the Civil War, refusing to join Confederates in a struggle to save slavery from all possible northern threats, but also refusing to join northerners in a struggle to save the Union from secessionists. When neutrality finally proved impossible after September 1861, Kentucky supported the Union war effort, arguing that loyalty to the Union was the surest guarantee of the preservation of slavery, even as it became abundantly clear that the Union war effort was destroying slavery in the South. After the war, the “necessary evil” stance supported the Lost Cause mentality, embracing hard racism.”
Bierbower Museum displays. Maysville, Kentucky.
G.L. Corum. Ulysses Underground. 2015.
Marion Brunson Lucas. A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891.
Elisha Winfield Green. Life of the Rev. Elisha W. Green: One of the Founders of the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute. 1888.
Maysville Eagle. August 13, 1854. http://www.nkyviews.com/mason/pdf/Maysville_Power_Magazine_Fired.pdf
Jacob Rand Obituary. The Maysville Bulletin. March 26, 1874.
Harold D. Tallant. Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky. 2008.
Ronald C. White. American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant. 2017.