Murder among the earthquakes

the true story of Lilburn and Isham Lewis, Thomas Jefferson’s murdering nephews

-Robert Penn Warren, “Brother to Dragons,” 1953. A long poem recalling events leading to and resulting from the 1811 murder of a young slave by Thomas Jefferson’s nephew.

On an evening around February 9, 1812, as a farmer named Hurley rode his horse through the earthquake-damaged settlement of Smithland, Kentucky, he noticed a stray dog carrying something black in its mouth. The dog seemed unsteady, and Hurley worried it may be rabid.

The stray dropped the object on the edge of the road and started gnawing on it. Curious, Hurley approached and to his horror saw it was a charred human head.

The town of Smithland, as well as Kentucky, the entire Ohio valley and much of the central United States, was still reeling that day from the latest of three massive earthquakes and over an estimated 2,000 lesser tremors centered around Northern Arkansas and New Madrid, Missouri.

These remarkable seismic events rocked an enormous area stretching from Mississippi to as far away as Boston and Montreal, Canada over an excruciating seven-week period. The third major quake on the morning of February 7, 1812 is estimated today to have been a magnitude of 8.1 and is listed as the ninth worst earthquake in the history of the United States. Even President James Madison reported the shocks from the White House. “There was one [earthquake] here this morning at 5 or 6 minutes after 4 oC,” Madison wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville on that same day. “It was rather stronger than any preceding one, & lasted several minutes, with sinister tho very slight repetitions throughout the succeeding hour.”

Wondering if the blackened skull was the result of the earthquakes or some other nefarious reason, Hurley continued through the ruined settlement to try to locate Sheriff Robert Kirk. Finding him alive and uninjured, they returned and examined the head. Recognizing what seemed to be a large scar over one eye, Sheriff Kirk recalled that a 17-year-old house slave named George, who belonged to a local man named Lilburn Lewis and his brother Isham, had disappeared the previous December. He thought it was odd, too, that Lilburn had never reported George missing or advertised for his recapture. He remembered George had a similar scar.

A once-prominent citizen, Lilburn Lewis had recently acquired a ruinous reputation in his Smithland community. Although his mother Lucy was Thomas Jefferson’s sister, and her husband Charles was the brother of Meriwether Lewis’s grandfather, this connected family was beset with financial misfortune and just plain terrible luck that manifested itself in Lilburn’s asocial behavior.

Charles, Lucy and their six children had moved from near Albemarle, Virginia to Smithland in 1807 to escape financial problems and start fresh. Unfortunately, Lucy died soon after arriving, leaving three young daughters under her feckless husband’s charge. Their oldest son Randolph and his wife and their eight children tried to raise Charles’ and Lucy’s younger children but he and his wife soon also died, leaving only Lilburn, who was recently widowed with five children of his own.

Lilburn had reluctantly remarried a woman named Letitia and although she was 8 months pregnant, their marriage at their farm “Rocky Hill” was a sorrowful one. Crushed with medical bills from a malaria outbreak, the additional family responsibilities and obsessed with the memory of his first wife, Elizabeth, Lilburn and his younger and equally ne’re-do-well brother Isham had spent years trying to cash in on their relationship with Uncle Thomas by hanging around St. Louis and Natchez, boasting of their connections.

Despite the family ties, they were unable to find good work. Isham even sent a letter to his uncle on April 27, 1809, complaining of his cheated birthright and imploring Jefferson to assist him in finding a vocation:

Dear Sir.

The great desire which I feel to be placed in some employ whereby, I may secure to myself the happiness derivable from the idea of enjoying the fruits of well spent industry and the difficulty I find in attaining this object unassisted by any influential friend has induced me to beg the favour of your endeavours in my behalf, I am in hopes you will be less disposed to think hard of this request when I assure you it is produced from necessity, brought on not from my own imprudences but those of an unfortunate father whose promises of wealth and neglect to bring me up in any useful pursuit has brought on me the want of the former and occasions me to deplore his inattention to the latter …

On May 1, 1809 Jefferson responded to his nephew with not very encouraging news:

Dear Sir

It is with real concern that I learn the disagreeable situation in which you are for want of employment, & the more so as I do not see any way in which I can propose to you any certain relief. As to offices under the government, they are few, are always full, & twenty applicants for one vacancy when it happens. they are miserable also, giving a bare subsistence without the least chance of doing anything for the future. The army is full and, in consequence of the late pacification, will probably be reduced …

He did, however, in the same note offer to teach Isham surveying if he came back to Virginia. There is no indication Isham took him up on the offer.

Spiral and murder

By 1811 Lilburn’s debts, frustrations, business failings and genetic propensity to depression exacerbated by excessive drinking made him moody and overbearing. He frequently took out his anger and disappointments on the family slaves — especially a 17-year-old named George.

Surely, the inexplicable meteorological and natural events of 1811 may have also played a significant role in Lilburn’s fragile mental health. That year is considered even today a “Annus Mirabilis” — or “Year of Miracles.” The landscape across most of the United States at the time was gripped in suffocating drought, and in September a solar eclipse darkened the mid-western U. S. sky, including over Smithland. During the summer and fall of that year a great squirrel migration saw millions of squirrels flee south, with hundreds of thousands of them drowning en masse in the Ohio River. Also that year, America’s passenger pigeon population exploded, and people reported the sky and woods darkened by flocks of literally billions of the now-extinct birds as they stripped bare oak, chestnut and hickory trees.

Also that year a huge twin-tailed comet, called “Tecumseh’s Comet,” covered the sky for almost 17 months, with optimal viewing in October until it finally disappeared in April, 1812. In fact, it was “reckoned” by citizens and native Americans that the Tecumseh Comet had crashed into the Ohio River, triggering the great series of subsequent earthquakes and foretelling war with the Indians at Tippecanoe.

Tecumseh’s Comet is not scheduled to return until the year 3775.

Little is known of slave George. He was considered “ill-grown” and “ill-thrived,’ with a scar over one eye and of “an independent nature.” In mid-December of 1811 he disappeared and upon his return a few days later on the evening of December 15, as he was carrying water from the spring, he tripped and broke the heirloom pitcher, which had belonged to Lilburn’s mother, Lucy.

In a drunken rage, Lilburn and Isham dragged George into the kitchen house near the main residence, bound him in ropes and lay him, apologizing and crying, on the chopping block. Lilburn then ordered all the other slaves inside, bolted the door and had them build a roaring fire in the fireplace.

According to the book “Jefferson’s Nephews” by Boynton Merrill Jr., the fire was casting suffocating, jagged lights and shadows in the small, unlit room as Lilburn told his assembled slaves that he was going to teach them a lesson about disobeying orders. He then raised a double-edged axe and with both hands slammed the blade down into George’s neck, nearly decapitating him. As George’s life bled out in torrents onto the floor, Lilburn then ordered one of the other slave men to dismember George’s body, starting with the feet, with each piece thrown into the fire so as to completely conceal the appalling crime.

There are other even more sensationalized accounts of this murder although considered less reliable. In 1824 the Lewis family Pastor, Rev. William Dickey, described the crime in a letter as much more horribly deliberate, with Lilburn chopping off the boy’s feet, then his legs, thighs and arms, in a much more torturous manner. Many researchers believe however that as an abolitionist, it was in his interests to portray the crime as gruesomely as possible to sway sentiment against slavery.

Another writer named William Courtney Watts in a heavily fictionalized account titled “Chronicles of a Kentucky Settlement” also records that George was dismembered alive in a similar manner, although he claimed the axe was wielded by another slave, at Lilburn’s orders and at gunpoint.

During this atrocious act, however it was committed, Lilburn lectured the other horrified slaves to keep the incident quiet, lest the same thing happen to them. The grisly chore was completed around midnight, the door was unlocked, and the terror-stricken and traumatized slaves returned to their quarters.

Sand boils and tar balls

Then, two hours later at 2:00 a.m. the first massive earthquake — with an epicenter in northeast Arkansas — struck at an estimated magnitude of 8.1, jolting everyone out of their beds. On his hands and knees on the quaking ground, Lilburn was mortified to see the kitchen chimney collapse on top of the fire, extinguishing it and exposing George’s mutilated and half-torched body. The next morning, after an aftershock estimated at magnitude 7.4, he ordered the slaves to quickly rebuild the chimney. Tremors every ten minutes roiled the ground like ocean waves, making the work of the seasick slaves almost impossible.

The intensity of these ungodly earthquakes cannot be underestimated. Watermen who survived reported that the Mississippi River actually ran backwards for several hours and two new waterfalls were formed. The force of land upheavals south of New Madrid created Reelfoot Lake while drowning several dozen unaware inhabitants of an Indian village. The quake devastated thousands of acres of virgin forest as trees were swallowed by the pitching and churning ground. “Sand boils” up to a mile long spewed pressurized sandy dirt and hot water out of the ground like geyers, while golf ball-size tar chunks shot out of the fissures like cannonballs. The intense squeezing of quartz crystals in the shifting tectonic plates produced peculiar flashing lights from ground fractures in a phenomenon called seismoluminescence. Deafening thunderclaps and impenetrable black smog caused by a storm of dust particles intensified the hellish experience, possibly leading those barely-educated rural mid-western frontier citizens to believe the world was coming to an end.

An eyewitness named Eliza Bryan wrote in the 1849 “Lorenzo Dow’s Journal” that

“On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o’clock, a.m., we were visited by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating, which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the atmosphere, with sulphurious [sic] vapor, causing total darkness. The screams of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to go, or what to do — the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species — the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi — the current of which was retrograde for a few minutes, owing as is supposed, to an irruption [sic] in its bed — formed a scene truly horrible.”

Finally that same day Lilburn’s chimney was rebuilt, and for five straight weeks the earth never stopped trembling. On January 23 another immense earthquake, estimated at 7.8, rocked the area. Then after a gradual weeks-long buildup of ever-increasing tremors, the final and most devastating earthquake ever recorded on the lower North American continent east of the Mississippi struck in the early morning hours of February 7, destroying Lilburn’s chimney a second time and again exposing the remains — including the charred head — of slave George.

Of that period between January 23 and February 7, Miss Bryan wrote:

“… the earth was in continual agitation, visibly waving as a gentle sea. On that day there was another shock, nearly as hard as the preceding ones. Next day four such, and on the 7th at about four o’clock A.M., a concussion took place so much more violent than those that preceded it, that it was denominated the hard shock. The awful darkness of the atmosphere, which as formerly was saturated with sulphurous [sic] vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with all the other phenomenon mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination …”

Due to the enormous expanse and rural nature of the affected area, property damage was confined to frontier homes and chimneys, and actual deaths are unknown. A record compiled by an eccentric but talented scientist named Jared Brooks in the appendix of Henry McMurtrie’s 1819 book “Sketches of Louisville” indicates mostly minor damage in outlying cities, from Georgia to Maine. For example, at 3:00 AM on January 23, 1812 in Richmond, Virginia he recorded that “books [were] nearly thrown from shelves” and “people stopped eating.”

A crime uncovered

Upon discovering the charred human head, Sheriff Kirk put two and two together and arrested Lilburn and Isham, charging them with murder. In western Kentucky murdering a slave was illegal, and circumstances surrounding the crime left little room for the brothers to claim the death was an accident. The discovery of the head proved that the crime was never reported, and that George had been decapitated and his body burned in an attempt to hide the deed.

It is unclear exactly when the brothers appeared in court, only that it was a Monday morning when the Circuit Court opened in between earthquake tremors, with the required 16 “housekeepers” (or homeowners) needed to compose a lawful grand jury. Judges Ford and Givens set bail at $1,000 for Lilburn and $500 for his brother Isham. While the prosecutor, a man named Delaney, petitioned the trial to occur immediately, the judges instead postponed it until the next session, three months later. After finding five men to sign bail securities, Lilburn and Isham returned home to Rocky Hill.

Lilburn’s wife Letitia dreaded the return of her erratic and short-tempered husband, so fearing for both her and their two-month-old baby’s safety, and worried she would be accused of aiding and abetting the murder of George, she fled the farm and went to her father’s house in Salem, about 16 miles away.

Lilburn was incensed by his wife’s abandoning him, as it reminded him of how Elizabeth has also left him by dying several years earlier, and he never got over her. Depressed and dejected, he talked his brother into scheduling a suicide pact for April 10, 1812.

On that day the two brothers carried flintlock rifles into the graveyard where Lilburn’s beloved Elizabeth was buried. The plan was for the two of them to face each other across the cemetery, raise their guns to each other’s chest, then fire simultaneously at the count of three. Lilburn brought a copy of his will and a note to his “beloved but cruel Letitia” informing her he had no malice toward her.

Just prior to the shooting Isham allegedly asked that if one of the unreliable flintlocks didn’t fire what would the other one do? Lilburn then was demonstrating to his brother how to point the gun at his chest and use a stick to pull the trigger when the gun accidentally discharged straight into his chest from inches away, blowing his torso open and killing him instantly. Horrified by the accident and all the ensuing blood, Isham ran from the cemetery.

The next day news of the shooting reached coroner John Dorroh, and after certifying the death he located and took Isham to a Justice of the Peace and former fellow Virginian known as William “Baptist Billy” Woods in Salem. He acquitted Isham as an accessory in the death of his brother, but Woods was overruled and Isham was re-arrested and held in jail as an accomplice in both George’s murder and Lilburn’s suicide.

By this time the earth was calming. Jared Brooks wrote in his journal in late April that “this is the 120th day of the continuance of the earthquakes, and, from the manner of moderating, it is to be hoped they will soon cease and let the earth repose again.”

Then, on May 5, Isham Lewis somehow escaped from the Salem jail and left the county.

For many years Isham’s fate was unknown, but in 1986 records were found that documented his final years. Six weeks after escaping the Salem jail, and the day before the United States declared war against England to start the War of 1812, Isham turned up and enlisted for five years in a U.S. infantry company. On July 8, 1813, he transferred to the 9th Company of the 7th Regiment, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. He was killed in action at the battle of New Orleans on December 31, 1814 and was buried somewhere on the battlefield. His widow, also named Elizabeth, was granted $6.50 per month in pension for five years.

Thomas Jefferson was aware of the “melancholia” that ran in the Lewis family that he believed may have contributed to Lilburn’s state of mind. In 1812, three years after Meriwether’s mysterious death along Tennessee’s Natchez Trace and a year after his nephew’s horrific crime and accidental death, Jefferson wrote “Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family of his name, and were more immediately inherited by him from his father …”

No direct reaction by Jefferson to the murder committed by his nephews seems to be available.




Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 12 books. More at

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Dale M. Brumfield

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 12 books. More at