Justice? Or not?

In the year 1817, back to the beginnings of Barren County, KY, in a part of the county that now belongs to Metcalfe, a man named Dr. Alexander Sanderson was murdered in cold blood on a back country road. John C. Hamilton, a wealthy citizen of the neighborhood was tried, convicted, and hung for Sanderson’s murder – on wholly circumstantial evidence.
Hamilton’s remarkable character convinced the jury, and the whole population, of his guilt, even though Sanderson was an intimate friend, fellow traveller, and a guest in his father’s home. Hamilton came from a wealthy, proud, and aristocratic family, and it has been stated that his case may have been prejudiced somewhat by prevailing envy toward the social position of his family.
Hamilton was a trader by profession, and had in recent months leading up to the incident, drove some stock to Mississippi for sale there. On return from a successful trip, his companion was Dr. Sanderson, a wealthy planter who lived near Natchez. Sanderson came to Kentucky with Hamilton to purchase slaves for his plantation. He brought with him a large sum of money, of which Hamilton was made aware.Their route on horseback lay through a wild and sparsely settled portion of the “Indian Territory,” in modern day Tennessee. For the greater part of their journey, Dr. Sanderson was gravely ill, and Hamilton played nursemaid.
Once they arrived in Barren County, they proceeded to the home of Hamilton’s father, where Dr. Sanderson stayed for several weeks recovering from his illness. Once recovered, the two left the house in company, Hamilton taking Sanderson for 9 miles, to a point where the road forked, one branch going to neighboring Green County, where Sanderson was heading off to a public auction of negroes. The two were last seen together at various points along the route they took, the last sighting about 3/4 mile from the forks, near present day Randolph. Shortly after that, Hamilton was seen returning alone, and the next night, Sanderson’s horse returned to Hamilton’s father’s house.
Several days elapsed, and people were suspicious that Sanderson had met with foul play. The neighborhood began searching, and found Sanderson’s body near the road, covered with brush and briars. His hat was found in a hollow stump, and under a log close by, a brass horse pistol with the hammer broken. In the murdered man’s skull was found a number of shot, and a piece of the hammer from the pistol.
Under the hat’s lining was a list of 33 $100 Mississippi bank bills, the numbers thereof, and to whom payable.
When Hamilton was arrested, the bills corresponding with the list were found in his possession. He had borrowed the pistol from Col. Gorin of Glasgow, and the shot in Sanderson’s head corresponded in size with the shot purchased a few days previous by Hamilton. Hamilton’s overhauls were found concealed in his father’s barn with blood all over them. These were identified by his sister. This was the evidence introduced by the State.
In Hamilton’s defense, it was alleged he and Sanderson had been intimate friends for years. They had travelled together for many days through some wild country, and that a little neglect during Sanderson’s illness would have insured his death.
As for the money, Mississippi money was at a discount in Kentucky, and vice versa. Hamilton was about to return to Mississippi where he could use the money of that state, while Dr. Sanderson had been planning to buy some negroes in the Green County auction. Hamilton stated that they traded the money for mutual accommodation and profit. He proved he borrowed $1,000 at a bank in Glasgow, to make up the sum required for the exchange. As to the pistol, he borrowed it from Col. Gorin to lend to Dr. Sanderson, who desired it for protection, and that in parting with him at the forks of the road, he had given it to him.
Hamilton alleged his negro servant had stolen his overhauls and gone to a dance, where he had gotten into a fight, and he concealed them in the barn until he could clean the blood from them. His statements were supported by other evidence yet he was convicted, and hung.
The celebrated John Rowan was his chief counsel, and defended the unfortunate man with marked ability; but the evidence was so strong that he had felt he presented a hopeless case. Solomon P. Sharp, who was murdered himself a few years later in an unrelated incident, prosecuted Hamilton, was thoroughly convinced of his guilt, and showed him no mercy. Hamilton’s family believed him to be the victim of circumstance, and he died protesting his innocence.
The murder itself occurred about 1/2 mile south of the small community of Hensonville in a somewhat isolated spot, in June of 1817. On Thursday, the 17th of May 1818, John C. Hamilton was taken from the Barren County Jail by the Sheriff, and taken to a gallows erected in the hollow near the present triangle park between Cleveland and Leslie Avenues in Glasgow, and thereby hung until dead. His remains were taken to the cemetery at Old Liberty Church about 1/2 mile west of Cave Ridge in present Metcalfe County, where he was interred. The grave is now marked with a military headstone for his services in the War of 1812, and any local resident can point visitors in the right direction.
From C.C. Simmons’ Historical Trip Through Barren County, p. 74 is quoted:
“Dr. Fidell Edwards spent his boyhood on a nearby farm. The spot where the crime had been committed had been pointed out to the doctor when a lad by his father and grandfather. In 1941, the forest had never been cleared away, and the seldom traveled road still followed the same course it did 125 years before. One could almost identify the place from the descriptions given by various witnesses at the trial. In his reminisces, Dr. Edwards could vividly recall that in his youth it was often necessary for him to pass the spot about dusk. The acceleration of his feet, over which he appeared to lose temporary control, was quite noticeable. He expected every step to see the ghost of Dr. Sanderson spring up to pursue him.”
On a parting note, there are at least two accounts in years following the tragedy that lends credence to Hamilton’s possible innocence.
In the year 1869, the honorable Richard H. Rousseau of Kentucky was U.S. Minister to Central America. In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, he was visited by Col. Gibson, a rich planter from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Gibson told Rousseau that, some 30 or 35 years before, a man was executed for murder in eastern Mississippi, and while at the gallows, he confessed that he and a comrade hid at the head of the ravine where Sanderson was found. They dashed out on Sanderson, dragged him from his horse, and proceeded to beat, shoot, and rob him. They then concealed his body and fled. They had afterwards heard that Hamilton hung for the crime. Mr. Rousseau was requested by Col. Gibson to make known these facts – that they might reach Hamilton’s relatives, and wipe out the stain which rested on them, living and dead.
I have also read an account of the death bed confession of an old man who claimed, as a youth, to have happened upon the murder of Dr. Sanderson as it was committed. Accidentally making a noise, the murderer discovered the youth. The lad was threatened with death if he ever revealed the identity of the murderer, who was none other than Paschal Craddock, the Sheriff of Barren County, who executed Hamilton. He was known as “one of the most pernicious scoundrels Kentucky ever produced.”


About Gclee

I am a long time genealogy and local history hunter from Barren Co., KY. I have many stories to share that may be of interest to other local genealogists and history buffs. I enjoy this as a hobby and hope I can be of encouragement to others. I also hope everyone enjoys my stories as much as I have enjoyed learning about them.
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