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Uncommonwealth: Dr. Coleman's Lexington History Walks showcase a grand and sordid past

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 1, 2014 


    Jonathan Coleman's downtown Lexington history tours

    The Grand Tour: 6 p.m. each Saturday; 1.3 miles, 75 minutes, family-friendly content

    Spirits! Scandals! Sordid Secrets! 8 p.m. each Saturday; 75 minutes, 1.3 miles, parental discretion advised

    Cost: $10, $5 ages 6-12. No reservations necessary. Meet outside Lexington Visitors Center, 401 West Main Street.

    Web: Drcolemanwalks.com.

Jonathan Coleman is standing in Gratz Park wearing a red cravat, top hat and monocle.

The red cravat means more than you might think. In the late 19th century, it would have marked its wearer as a dandy, a fop, someone up to no good — as Coleman says, "the sign of a degenerate — 19th-century snake oil salesman is what I'm going for."

Coleman is glowing on this late August afternoon from more than the heat. He is on fire with knowledge of Lexington history, which he dispenses weekly at his history walks, or as he advertises them, a chance to walk the city with "the be-all, end-all, know-it-all of Lexington."

Coleman, 31, with a recently minted doctorate in British history from the University of Kentucky, is from Belfry in Pike County. He got his bachelor's degree from the University of Pikeville.

While he is looking for tenure-track jobs, he teaches as an adjunct at the University of Kentucky and Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

And he gives history tours.

Coleman picked up a lot of Lexington history while volunteering at the Mary Todd House at 578 West Main Street. Also, he has been a part-time caretaker at Helm Place, a Greek Revival mansion where Mary Todd Lincoln's sister Emilie Helm lived with her children. The property, on Bowman Mill Road, is owned by the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation. There, Coleman initially amused himself by reading through the property's collection of books about Abraham Lincoln.

While walking past the Hunt Morgan House recently, Coleman noted that the ghost of Bouviette James, who was a nanny to the Morgan children, is rumored to haunt the house, wearing her distinctive red shoes. James became so close to the family that when she died, she was displayed in the parlor and was buried in the family plot at Lexington Cemetery, one of the first blacks to be buried there.

"She stays there and protects the house, even though she is departed," Coleman said.

The story Coleman tells of Madeline Pollard's legal case in 1893 is less ghostly and more titillating. Pollard sued Lexington congressman William C. Breckinridge for "breach of promise" for failing to marry her after his wife died.

She already had given birth to at least two of Breckinridge's children.

"He was a cad; there was no other word for it," Coleman said. "He was a notorious womanizer. ... It was the Monica Lewinsky case of their day."

Although the trial took place in Washington, it was the talk of Lexington, Coleman said. Three men showed up claiming to be engaged to Pollard, Coleman said with a hefty bellow of laughter, as if this 121-year-old trial had been going on just down the street yesterday.

After Pollard won her case and was awarded $15,000, she moved to Great Britain. Breckinridge was never elected to office again.

The case came four years after the Nov. 8, 1889, duel between Armistead Swope and William Cassius Goodloe. The two clashed at the Lexington post office, where Goodloe's mail box was directly above Swope's. Goodloe had a knife, Swope a gun. Both men died from their injuries.

Coleman calls the duelists a great story — "It makes the New York Times!" he exclaims — and adds that "There are a lot of great stories that Lexingtonians are, for the most part, unaware of."

Although he has been formally in the tour business for just six weeks, Coleman has given downtown informal history tours for UK students, domestic and international, and for a recent birthday celebration group.

"I feel sort of adopted by Lexington," he said in Gratz Park. "Every alleyway seems to have a story."

A history tour of downtown Lexington is seldom complete without a story about Belle Brezing, the town's leading entrepreneur of ill repute.

Before she became established in the prostitution trade, however, Brezing was linked to a suicide — or was it murder? — of one of three men with whom she was involved: Johnny Cook. He was found outside Brezing's back gate, Coleman said.

Brezing opened two bawdy houses on Upper Street before settling into her third brothel at what is now the southern corner of Wilson Street and North Eastern Avenue.

At Transylvania University's imposing Old Morrison building, Coleman discusses the famously disaffected faculty member Constantine Rafinesque, who allegedly cursed the school. For a more mature evening crowd, he might add the Betty Gail Brown murder — a long-unsolved 1961 murder in which Brown, a Transylvania student, was found strangled in her car.

"It's the most chilling I get in the tour," Coleman said.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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