Tom Eblen

A sheriff murdered. A woman hanged. A 200-year-old family mystery.

Eleanor Gillespie's arrest for killing her second husband, Bath County Sheriff John Hawkins, was reported in the May 19, 1817 Kentucky Gazette, published in Lexington. But the daughter of her descendant says there was no evidence of "a considerable sum of money." The real cause was likely domestic abuse.
Eleanor Gillespie's arrest for killing her second husband, Bath County Sheriff John Hawkins, was reported in the May 19, 1817 Kentucky Gazette, published in Lexington. But the daughter of her descendant says there was no evidence of "a considerable sum of money." The real cause was likely domestic abuse. teblen@herald-leader.com

When you shake your family tree, you never know what might fall out.

Roberta Newell, an avid genealogist, was researching her adopted mother’s great-grandmother when a distant cousin in Kansas dropped a bombshell: “Did you ever hear about her grandmother who was hung for murder?”

Well, no, she hadn’t.

“I didn’t believe her, to tell you the truth,” Newell said. “But I looked up Kentucky executions and there it was.”

Eleanor Gillespie, a mother with several young children, was sent to the gallows 200 years ago — July 26, 1817 — because she and her 13-year-old son killed her second husband, Bath County Sheriff John Hawkins.

Gillespie might have been the only white woman ever hanged in Kentucky. Records indicate there were 254 legal hangings in Kentucky between 1780 and 1911, when the state installed its first electric chair. Only 11 of the condemned were women, and at least eight of those were black. The race of the other two women isn’t listed.

“My mother’s grandparents were ‘salt of the earth’ people, as were her great-grandparents,” Newell said. “How could somebody like that be hung?”

What she discovered was competing narratives of domestic abuse and money lust; a deputy sheriff determined to avenge his father’s death; and an aborted jailbreak in which Gillespie almost escaped after switching clothes with a man.

The Kentucky Gazette in Lexington, the state’s first newspaper, reported the crime on May 19, 1817.

“We understand the deceased was in possession of a considerable sum of money and to obtain this they formed the design to murder him,” the newspaper reported. “The deceased being intoxicated, they took this opportunity of accomplishing their design by putting a rope around his neck and one pulling on each end until he expired. He was found with the rope round his neck, nearly bedded in the skin.”

Newell said the grisly details of the killing seem to be accurate, but she thinks the newspaper got the motive all wrong.

There is no evidence of “a considerable sum of money,” but Newell’s cousin said a very different story was passed down in her family. It held that Hawkins was a violent drunk who beat Eleanor and her sons, raped an older daughter and was attempting to molest her 7-year-old girl when he passed out from intoxication.

“She couldn’t go to the law for help, because her husband was the law,” Newell said. “Nobody would believe a woman in 1817 against the sheriff. So Eleanor and her son, Jacob, did him in.”

What few court records survived indicate charges against Jacob were dropped, possibly because of his young age. But Gillespie was convicted of murder, although at least one juror voted for acquittal, and sentenced to death.

Her prosecution seems to have been driven by Hawkins’ son, John, who was the deputy sheriff. But the story is that many in Owingsville sympathized with Gillespie, including all but one of the men hired to guard her in jail.

One of those on her side was Col. George Lansdowne, a prominent citizen and stepfather of Richard Hickman Menefee, who would later become a famous congressman and the namesake of Menifee County (despite the spelling discrepancy).

According to J.A. Richards’ 1961 book “A History of Bath County, Kentucky,” Lansdowne hatched a plot to visit Gillespie in jail and exchange clothes with her. All of the guards were in on the plan except for David Fathey, a friend of the sheriff. He recognized her as she tried to walk out in Lansdowne’s clothes and sounded the alarm.

Or, at least that’s what the book says. Some other details in Richards’ account seem to have been borrowed from literature. Richards, who didn’t seem aware of the 1817 Kentucky Gazette article, said Gillespie killed Hawkins by pouring hot lead in his ear, as in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” He also wrote that Gillespie sat on her coffin and knitted on her way to the gallows, a bit of color found in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

What is known is that Gillespie was hanged from gallows erected at what is now the intersection of U.S. 60 and Ridge Road west of Owingsville.

Newell said she applied to Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2006 for Eleanor to get a pardon on the grounds of domestic abuse, but “it never went anywhere.” She hasn’t tried again.

But Newell has continued researching her family history, both for the parents who adopted her as an infant and her birth parents, whose identities she uncovered.

“I thought nothing could top this,” she said of the Gillespie hanging. Then she discovered that her seventh great-grandmother on her birth father’s side was hanged for murder in Montreal, Canada.

“She and her second husband, who I am not descended from, killed their son-in-law because he was lazy and a drunk,” she said. But that’s another story.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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