By AMANDA BEAM
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.
A group of Kentuckians within a month had surrounded the Bell house in Indiana, and had taken David, Charles, and a freed black man named Oswald Wright prisoner. The group escorted the three men back to Brandenburg where they would await trial for abetting runaway slaves.
At the time of the arrests, Horace was trying to find his way — and some gold — in California. After being notified of the situation, the son returned to Indiana with the hopes of freeing his father and brother from prison. For more than a year the three men from Indiana remained in jail with no trial. Delays were granted one after another until Horace could stand it no longer. Action, he thought, was needed.
During the afternoon of July 27, 1858, Gresham said Horace and his little brother John traveled to Brandenburg with the hopes of freeing their family. Armed with revolvers and a “carpetbag” of ammunition, the boys found the place virtually unoccupied just as they had planned. A picnic in a nearby town had emptied Brandenburg leaving only a few around to protect the jail from an assault.
Quickly, Horace freed his brother and father from the prison. According to Gresham, Oswald, the black man who was also captured in the earlier raid on the Bell house, was not housed at that jail. It is unclear if he had been there if Horace would have freed him too.
Under a volley of bullets, Gresham said the reunited family returned to the skiff and made their way back to Indiana where Horace was immediately designated a hero.
“Horace Bell was the hero of the hour, and as he himself afterwards said, did too much exulting and drank too much ‘John Barleycorn,’” she said.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Those Kentuckians didn’t take too kindly to being humiliated by a Hoosier. While Horace accompanied his mother and sister to the state fair in New Albany, a group of men grabbed the young man and extradited him to Kentucky where he was jailed for helping in the escape of his brother and father.
Now it was time for Indiana to seek revenge for what they considered not only a kidnapping, but also an affront to every Hoosier. According to a 1921 article written by Charles H. Money for the Indiana Magazine of History, 25 New Albany men went to the courthouse where they “provided themselves” with weapons.
“The whole city of New Albany and surrounding country was filled with indignation at the outrage which had been perpetrated upon a citizen of the commonwealth of Indiana,” Money said. “They immediately armed for his rescue.”
The next morning, Money said more than 75 protesters had found a ferry to take them across to Brandenburg so they could forcefully secure the release of Horace. Forty more armed fighters joined the company in Corydon for the assault.
When a portion of this group arrived in the Kentucky town, they found no Horace. Rumors of the armed group had spread rapidly throughout the area and the arrested Hoosier had been moved to another place. Still frightened of the angry mob, the town convened a special meeting. Representatives promised that Horace would immediately go to court and receive bail and that they would ask the governor of Kentucky to pardon the Bells of all their supposed crimes. Satisfied, the armed New Albanians left for home.
Horace shortly after pled guilty and was released on bail. A time later he forfeited the bail and left for California. All charges of his brother and father’s incidents were removed from the docket. Oswald, however, was convicted and sentenced to five years in a Kentucky state jail for “stealing slaves.”
Horace would return to Indiana for a brief time and go on to fight as a scout for the Union during the Civil War. Later he would return to California as a lawyer and journalist. His brother Charles also fought for the North but lost his life before Petersburg in 1864.
Songs and stories were written about the Brandenburg Affair. Even a play was penned and performed locally about the exploits.
“The feat of the brothers was heralded far and near by the papers and the whole river community jollified at their exploits, much to the chagrin and mortification of the Brandenbergers,” Money said.
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com