Sunday, April 27, 2008

The History of Lyon County Kentucky - Part 6

Twenty years following the construction of Kentucky Dam, in 1964 the Vice President of the United States, Hubert Hump[h]rey, dedicated Barkley Dam and Lake. Lake Barkley did not come about painless[ly]. Ninety percent of the old and established towns of Eddyville and Kuttawa had to be relocated. That is the reason in the narrative I have referred at times to old Eddyville, new Eddyville and the same for Kuttawa. In acquiring the necessary private property both in the county and in the towns, and in bringing about the relocation of the towns, the following words give some description of the upheaval and turmoil that came about. There was surprise, disappointment, excitement, anger, hate, controversy, prejudice, shock, disagreement and dissatisfaction.

Lyon County survived this ordeal and had not recovered from the shock when the Land Between the Lakes was proposed and implemented. This again required thousands of acres of private property and the relinquishing of this property brought stronger protest than the Barkley Lake project.

Thousands of acres of land and property were taken from the tax base. Many prominent and influential citizens who were stripped of their property moved outside the county. Because of the loss of tax base and population, for a period of time it was questionable if Lyon County could survive as a county entity.

Historically, Lyon Countians have faced difficulty with courage and have received good fortune with humility. Perhaps we have been made stronger by our tribulation and wiser by our experience.

At present, good fortune smiles on Lyon County. Progress has been slow and painful, but at present our tax base is solid and our population continues to rise. The economy is good and greater things appear over the horizon.

Kentucky State Penitentiary
By Bill Cunningham

The Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville is over 100 years old.

In the untamed days when pathfinders were leading early settlers into the vast and rugged western portion of Virginia, law and order was a personal concern. The area that became Kentucky was governed by the criminal code of the Old Dominion, but as a matter of practice the code had a very limited influence.

Whether a malefactor was hanged most times depended upon the character of the accused and the temper of the crowd, rather than the formal dictates of law.

With Kentucky statehood in 1792 came a more meaningful attempt at establishing and enforcing some type of uniform criminal sanctions. Jail houses and stockades sprang up but no prisons. With no penitentiary in which to incarcerate the more serious offenders, the Commonwealth adopted a very practical, if draconian, approach. It simply made the death penalty the punishment for most felonies.

[Picture on this page: “Kentucky State Penitentiary in the 1890’s” shows several well dressed men, women and children dressed in long skirts, hats and suits under a canopy at the front doors and at the top of the steps to the prison. Also on this page is the following: “A Special Thanks… Thanks to the Lyon County Historical Society, Odell Walker, Bill Young, Mrs. Maxine Jones and Shirley Greene for supplying the old photos used in this special section. Also a big thanks to all of the writers for this special product. We hope you all enjoy and treasure this piece of Lyon County’s history. – The staff of the Herald Ledger”.]

Capital offenses included such relatively minor crimes as perjury, forgery, destroying a will and larceny. Needless to say, with such extreme penalties being extracted, there was little need for prisons in which to stow felons.

That changed in 1797, when Kentucky revamped its criminal penalties and all but did away with the death penalty, reserving it for only one crime – murder.

Almost immediately there was a need for the first Kentucky prison, which was constructed in 1799 in Frankfort near what was then the governor’s mansion.

Our penal system received little attention the next 80 years.

By 1875, the prison was a disgrace. The unheated bathhouse contained only two large tubs in which several prisoners bathed together in the same dirty water.

The prisoners suffered from a terrible diet of clammy cornbread and salted meat, uch of it rancid. Rain-soaked clothing of the inmates often froze stiff in the unheated cellhouse. Frostbite and respiratory diseases were common. Punishment for inmates was harsh, brutal and inhumane.

This festering sty of squalor and suffering was terribly overcrowded. Many inmates died from “natural causes.” It was, in the words of a prominent politician of the day, Kentucky’s “black hole of Calcutta”.

Upon this scene of human misery arrived one of Kentucky’s more unusual and resourceful governors – Dr Luke P Blackburn.

Blackburn was born in Woodford County in 1816 and studied medicine at Transylvania College. He was practicing medicine in New Orleans when the Civil War began, and he spent the war years administering to the suffering citizens and soldiers of the Confederacy.

He returned to Kentucky in 1873, and helped wage war against the yellow fever epidemic that swept the South in 1878. His selfless and courageous efforts made him a hero to many Kentuckians and though he was completely untutored and inexperienced in politics, he was pressured by pro-southern Democrats into running for governor in 1880. He won by an overwhelming margin.

Upon moving into his official residence in Frankfort, this humanitarian chief executive was appalled at what he saw across the street in the penitentiary. The new governor quickly began to use his pardoning power to help reduce the prison’s population, offering his first act of clemency on the day of his inauguration.

Within the week, seven more inmates had been freed because of poor health. By the time the legislature convened in late December, 52 prisoners had been pardoned.

Throughout the state, a loud and bitter outcry arose against Blackburn for his action. There were scathing editorials in local newspapers and citizen demonstrations. Undaunted the courageous chief of state laid for the legislature a bold and imaginative plan for prison reform.

[picture on this page: “The electric Chair of the Penitentiary in Eddyville”.]

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