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May 22, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: The Brandenburg Affair

NEW ALBANY —

Nowadays the only battles between Indiana and Kentucky are on the basketball court. But this hasn’t always been the case. In 1858, the city of New Albany became involved in an unusual incident between one of its native sons, Horace Bell, and some Kentuckians. In the end, an armed party of more than 100 Hoosiers essentially took on the city of Brandenburg and demanded the release of Bell who had been imprisoned in the river town. 

Filled with cowardly kidnappings, secretive escapes and heroic rescues, the true story of the Bell family reads like a novel. A complete history of the event was preserved in the 1919 book “Life of Walter Quintin Gresham” written by the namesake’s wife, Matilda Gresham. In it, she devoted an entire chapter to the conflict that her lawyer husband had helped quell. 

From early on, Gresham said the Bells were known around both Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky. In 1839, Horace’s father David Bell had purchased the Brandenburg Ferry and a farm in Harrison County. Only 10  years earlier, the family had lived in New Albany where Horace was born. 

Both sides of the river were suspicious of the Bells. Many believed them to be involved in helping slaves escape to freedom as a part of the Underground Railroad. 

“Many of the Kentuckians in 1858 believed and claimed that the Bells not only assisted but had even encouraged Kentucky slaves to leave their masters,” Gresham said. “On the Indiana side it was the belief no runaway slave was ever denied assistance by the Bells.”

On a Friday evening in 1857, those who suspected the Bell family of this “criminal activity” believed they had discovered proof. That night, Horace’s brother Charles was seen speaking to an enslaved black man, also named Charles, at a blacksmith shop in Brandenburg. By Monday, Charles had fled. Eventually he would reach Canada and freedom. 

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