Hanging history may still haunt Henry County

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By Brad Bowman

Our past always comes back and haunts us.

For Henry County, or at least the courthouse yard, the past never left.

An apparition still ‘hangs’ around from an atrocity committed in 1868. Whether fashioned as a scapegoat or their fate was a true swift answer of unmerciful justice, Henry County once held the notorious record for executing the youngest person, a female, in the state.

According to historical records, the United States has executed nine females under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. History marked Eliza or Susan, as the girl has been called by some accounts, as one of those nine.

Susan or Eliza was lived and breathed until Feb. 7, 1868. According to both the New York Times and the Savannah Daily News and Herald, the black teen had killed a child she babysat. According to the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, she killed a 3-yearold son belonging to the Graves family. She stoned the child and hid the body.

Whether it was the Congressman, William Jordan Graves’ family, who lived near the  intersection of Sulphur Road and KY 146, is unknown. One could conclude if it was William Graves’ family, perhaps karma and justice turned an eye toward his famliy for killing Rep. Jonathan Cilley in a duel in 1838 just 30 years prior.

A correspondent from the Louisville Courier wrote an account published by the New York Times on Feb. 14, 1868. It is the only surviving document that gives insight to the person, Eliza or Susan, who at the age of 13 was hanged in the backyard of the New Castle courthouse grounds.

“I went to her cell and had a few moments’ conservation with her. I asked if she knew she must die. She answered yes… she was sorry she killed the child, but hoped that God would forgive her and let her come to heaven. She didn’t know why she had murdered the child, but somehow she couldn’t help it.”

The correspondent, whose name hasn’t survived history, wrote that the girl implicated another black girl named Lucy, but recanted her story saying it was a lie.

The correspondent’s account conflicts with the University of Kentucky Libraries entry stating that she had killed a white girl, but the correspondent doesn’t name the victim or the victim’s family. All accounts in the database and the correspondent’s agree that she had been tried in the Henry County Circuit Court and was scheduled for execution in December of 1867. An appeal delayed the execution for two months, the appeal was denied and the rest remains history.

“The scaffold was erected upon the commons behind the courthouse. On the ground several hundred men, white and black, impatiently awaited the appearance of the prisoner,” the correspondent wrote, “while in the surrounding windows ladies and children were congregated to witness the execution.”

At 2 p.m., the teenager appeared in a plain black gown accompanied by guards. They escorted her to the scaffold. The Rev. Dr. Cox gave a prayer while she sat.

All accounts agree that the child was left on the rope for 20 minutes after the trap door dropped her between life and death. Doctors Furman, Mathers and Oldham examined the body and pronounced her dead. After the body was removed, the correspondent wrote that a Dutchman asked to be given a piece of the rope, “This was the incentive and in two minutes not a particle of rope remained, but was divided equally among the recipients.”

It is the void of mercy and the darkness of such inhumane times that may fuel the girl’s haunting. Oddities that can’t be explained within the courthouse and sightings in the backyard have been attributed to her ghost. Personal accounts claim that a teenage apparition in a black gown can be seen wandering the backyard. The girl only known as Eliza or Susan still pleads for mercy.