The Pennington Family of Christian County, Kentucky

In the north part of the county lived a family named Pennington, who were quite early settlers. The father, Col. Francis P. Pennington, was a man of considerable wealth, and intelligent beyond the majority of his neighbors. He owned a large farm, and some fifteen or twenty slaves; was long a Justice of the Peace, and as such under the old Constitution of the State, succeeded in regular rotation to the office of High Sheriff of the county, in 1829. In this capacity, so far as is now known, he discharged his duties well and faithfully. In those days he was looked upon as a man of undoubted integrity, and of unsullied honor. No shadow of suspicion touched him, until in later years, when the denouement which sent his son to the gallows directed attention to facts hitherto deemed of no significance, but now magnified into matters of serious consequence. There was nothing absolutely wrong known of him, or traceable to him, yet when troubles came upon his house, then it was that many little things were remembered against him; how strangers often came through the country, mounted on fine horses, and inquired for Col. Pennington, sought out his home, remained no one knew how long, and left no one knew when, as they traveled over by-paths, little used by anybody else, and held no communications with others in the neighborhood. These semi-occasional visits of unknown men excited distrust of Pennington, and aroused suspicions, and caused threats to be indulged in against him, but no violence was ever offered, and the old man was allowed to die in peace.

Col. Pennington had two sons, Alonzo and Morton, and possessing considerable wealth, as he did, he gave them good educations for that early day. They grew to manhood respected throughout the neighbor-hood, and were considered fine young men. ” Lonz,” as he was familiarly called, was the younger of the two boys, and in many respects a very remarkable man. He was intelligent, shrewd, of fine appearance, well educated, and with his natural faculties trained almost to the perfection of the scent of the Siberian bloodhound. He was a good judge of men, and energetic enough to carry out any undertaking with money at the end of it. Had his talents been directed into the right channel, and his qualifications and accomplishments turned to the accomplishment of good, he might have become an ornament to society and a benefactor to his race, instead of a victim to the insulted laws of his country. Many crimes were attributed to him of which he was, perhaps, innocent, while no doubt he committed many the public generally knew nothing of. But his nefarious acts were found out, and his crimes brought home to him with vengeance.

Alonzo Pennington married when quite a young man, and settled down upon a farm in the northeastern part of the county, in what is now Wilson Precinct. He was a great lover of horses, passionately fond of racing, and soon became a large dealer in fast horses; he constructed a ” track ” on his farm, which became a general headquarters for that kind of sport, and of a class of men whose morals were not of the highest order. Pennington would make frequent trips, sometimes remaining absent from home for weeks, under the pretext of buying horses, and as he al-ways returned with a number, no one doubted the honesty of his trans-actions then. He managed to get hold of many fine racers, and, as they accumulated on his hands, he drove them South, where they were sold to planters and traders: He would then make another trip over into Illinois for a fresh supply, and thus he kept the business up for several years. But eventually rumors began to arise of questionable transactions in which Lonz” Pennington bore a prominent part. He often had a number of strange men about him, shrewd and unscrupulous as he him-self proved to be, who looked after his horses and took them South for him. None knew who they were or whence they came, for they held aloof from the people. It was not infrequently the case that about the time a drove of horses was taken South, a few likely negro boys would be missed from different sections of the country, and who were never heard of afterward. Southern Illinois was known to be infested with the most lawless characters, with a rendezvous about Cave-in-Rock, who operated in defiance of the Government and the courts to dislodge them. They counterfeited, stole horses, robbed and murdered with impunity, and the whole Western frontier was flooded with their spurious gold and silver coins and bank bills, until it became known far and wide as ” Cave-in-Rock money.” It was soon noticeable that every time Pennington returned from Illinois with horses, a shower of counterfeit money followed. Though suspicion was rife, it was not easy to find a man sufficiently reckless to publish his convictions, and Pennington was shrewd enough to cover his trail. He was very quiet, a man of much dignity, held no communication publicly with the men in his employ, and acted as though he scarcely knew them. He was a great trader, and borrowed money largely from the farmers, who regarded him as a safe speculator and thriving business man, but who were not smart enough to discover any irregularity in his transactions. He was often involved in litigation, but his keen ability and knowledge of the law, in furnishing the ” right kind of evidence,” usually won him an easy victory. It was his questionable dealings, and his numerous entanglements in the courts, that attracted the attention of those already on the alert. Then, too, there was the palpable fact that with every drove of horses from beyond the Ohio, counterfeit money increased, and that as the horses went South, negroes mysteriously disappeared. Of these negro disappearances the following incident is related: There was a man named Brown living in Hopkins County, three or four miles from Madisonville, who lost a negro man, and whom he supposed had ” run away.” Some time after the negro had disappeared, Brown was told by a man, suspected of being a tool of Pennington’s, that for $100 he would show him his negro, but that he (Brown) would have to take him, as he could only show him where he was to be seen. Brown consented, and one night was conducted by the fellow to a certain place, a shrill whistle was given, and presently some one was heard approaching. A few moments, and the negro appeared sure enough, but when he saw them he leaped back exclaiming, Massa Brown!” At the same time Brown discovered three men with guns in their hands, and, divining his danger, sprang away into the darkness and made his escape. He believed, and no doubt he was correct, that he had been lured there for the purpose of being murdered. The man claimed the $100, on the ground that he had performed his part of the contract in showing him the negro, and Brown paid it. Not very long afterwards his tobacco barn was burned, and still a little later he was assassinated on his own premises, by the gang, as was supposed. These negroes that mysteriously disappeared were lured away from their masters under the promise of being sent across the Ohio to freedom, but were kept concealed by the gang until a drove of horses was ready for market, when they, too, were taken South and sold on the cotton and sugar plantations; a fate looked upon by the negroes here with as much horror as the Russian criminal contemplates the mines of Siberia.

Sharp Practices

To illustrate Lonz Pennington’s crooked transactions, the following incident is related as one out of many of which he was said to have been guilty: An old farmer, Williams by name, one day thoughtlessly, in the presence of Lonz, or one of his satellites, mentioned the fact of having a thousand dollars in money, and Lonz determined he would have it. So he went to his brother-in-law (named Oates), gave him a note which he had drawn, payable to Williams, bearing ten per cent interest, and signed by Oates, who was worth nothing, and himself as security. This note Oates was instructed to take to Williams and get the money. Williams, on seeing the name of Lonz Pennington on the note, made no hesitation in letting Oates have the money. When the note became due, Oates had nothing to pay with, and Williams went to Pennington, who coolly informed him that he had warned him long before that Oates was wasting his property, becoming bankrupt, and he had notified him to attach and make his debt; if he had not done so it was his own fault, etc. Williams denied ever having been notified to make his debt out of Oates, and brought suit against Pennington. The latter notified Williams’ lawyer that on a certain day he would take the deposition of one T. Black at a town in Illinois. Williams and his attorney were on hand at the time and place, but Black could not be found, and Pennington said he had moved to Tennessee, and as soon as he could find where he was he would give notice again. Soon they were notified that the deposition would be taken at a certain town in Tennessee, but when they arrived he was not there. Williams was worn out in the fruitless hunt, and finally consented to let the deposition be taken before a Commissioner whenever Black was found, whether he was present or not. This was just what Pennington wanted, and shortly after he filed Black’s deposition duly taken and authenticated. To those who mistrusted Pennington already it was evident that Black was a myth, and that it was but another of Pennington’s sharp practices,’ which were now becoming notorious. The transactions of Lonz and his gang were getting bolder and more frequent, and every day the people getting their eyes opened more and more to the true state of affairs in the community. Mysterious whispers as to the organization of a new court, a court hitherto unknown to the legal luminaries of the county, were heard, and Judge Lynch was momentarily expected to take his seat upon the bench, and mete out to these offenders stern justice.

Pennington’s Last Game

But we will give the remainder of Pennington’s career in the words of Hon. James F. Buckner, now of Louisville, but long a resident of Hopkinsville, and the attorney who defended Pennington when tried for his life. His description of the crime, the trial and execution, was detailed to a reporter of the Courier-Journal, who wrote and published it in that paper January 13, 1884. No one should be more familiar with the circumstances than Col. Buckner, and his version of the affair, or the greater part of it, is vouched for, in all of its essential features, by old citizens of the county. It is as follows:

There was a man living in the upper part of the county named Simon Davis, a stonemason of good character. He married a young lady who was one of three orphans raised by a Baptist Minister in the neighbor-hood. She inherited a farm and five egroes. Davis stocked the farm, and was just getting started in life, when she died, leaving no children. Of course her inheritance returned to the other two children, leaving Davis none of his wife’s property. Pennington saw the situation at a glance, and resolved to play a bold hand. He told Davis that his wife’s word would not permit him to keep the farm and egroes, because by law they belonged to the other children, but if he could turn the egroes into money and sell him the farm he would undertake to law the old minister out of it. He said he was not afraid of lawsuits, and could beat them every time, but he did not like to see a man compelled to give up property that had rightfully belonged to him because his wife died. His plausible argument had its effect on Davis, and he agreed to take the friendly advice. He sold four of the egroes, and collected the money for them, $1,500, at the May muster at Fruit Hill in 1845. It was under the old constitution that the regimental musters were held, and I was Muster Colonel. I had been Pennington’s lawyer in a few cases, and he had been to see me several times just before the muster to inquire about the writing and acknowledgment of a deed. I supposed he was making a trade in another county, and told him how the document should be drawn up, signed and acknowledged, or witnessed. After the muster was over, Davis was seen leaving the grounds with Pennington to go to the latter’s father’s to get the money to pay for the farm. A part of the programme was for Davis to leave the county as soon as the trade was made, so as to be out of the way in case suit was brought against Pennington to recover the farm, and that he must tell some of his friends that he was going away. Davis was never seen alive after he left the muster grounds with Pennington. They started to take a near cut through the country, and the first thing the neighbors knew Pennnigton was working the Davis farm and Davis was gone. Everybody was anxious to know what became of him, and the suspicions of the entire county were aroused, and in a few weeks some one mustered courage enough to ask Pennington where Davis was. He replied that Davis was in Illinois building a saw-mill, and that he saw him the last trip he made after horses. His explanation lulled suspicion for a while, but there was a strong belief prevalent that there had been foul play. Pennington bought all of Davis’ stock except a bald-faced horse with a glass-eye, which he said Davis took with him.

At this point in the affair, the best authenticated accounts in the county disagree with the statement of Col. Buckner, though in no very important particulars. In several conversations held with those who participated in all the proceedings, in fact, who belonged to the regulators, organized for the purpose of ridding the county of the robber gang, and who should be thoroughly conversant with the matter, it appears that the bald-faced, glass-eyed horse ” of Davis’ was never found at all, instead of being discovered in a pen in Fruit Hill, as Col. Buckner gives it, but that he was ” heard of,” or a horse suiting his description, at the house of one Sheffield, some twenty miles or more distant from Fruit Hill, and in Muhlenburg County.

The depredations of the lawless gang had become so frequent, that the people were at last aroused to action. Regulators had already been organized in some of the adjoining counties, and expelled from their midst many suspected characters. After the disappearance of Davis, a suspicion took deep root in the minds of many that he had been murdered, and notwithstanding Pennington’s assertion that he was in Illinois ” building a saw-mill,” some of the best men in the county, under the leader-ship of Col. James Robinson, one of the most respected citizens in the north part of the county, had formed themselves into a band of Regulators for the purpose of searching for the body of Davis, whom they did not doubt had been foully murdered by Pennington or some of his tools, and of punishing the perpetrators of the deed. When they heard of the horse at Sheffield’s, up in Muhlenburg County, two of their number were dispatched to the place to see if it was Davis’ horse. A man named Cessna, a tool of Pennington’s, was already in the hands of the Regulators. Sheffield was captured, but the horse was gone, and from descriptions received of it, they became convinced it was the horse they were in search of. Neither Cessna nor Sheffield was whipped by the Regulators, but every preparation had been made for such a performance; the rope had been produced, the hickories cut and trimmed and brought forward, when Cessna, who had not been tied, but was closely guarded, stepped back a pace, opened his shirt front, and without the tremor of a muscle exclaimed, ” Shoot me, but for God’s sake don’t disgrace my back by whipping.” Col. Robinson told him that nothing but a full confession would save him from that disgrace, that they were satisfied Davis had been murdered and that he (Cessna) knew it, and knew where the body was concealed, and if he would lead them to it, they would then put him into the hands of the law, otherwise they would whip him until he did tell. He called a parley with three or four of them-there were some two hundred present-and agreed to take them to the spot. He saw none but determined faces about him, and decided that he had no alternative but to tell the whole story or take the threatened punishment. We now resume the statement of Col. Buckner as published in the Courier-Journal:

He (Cessna) said that Pennington had killed Davis and thrown his body into a sink-hole. He was told to conduct them to the sink-hole, and they started. He led them through the woods to a long hill-side in heavy timber, where was a deep cavern almost, or apparently, bottomless, as a rock dropped into it could not be heard to strike any impediment. The bottom could not be seen, but one of the Regulators went down, and sure enough there lay Davis’ body, where it had lodged on a shelf of rock. Had it missed that, it would have gone no telling where. Cessna said that Pennington and Davis had stopped by the opening and sat down on a log to talk about the deed, and that they had a dispute and Pennington hit Davis on the side of the head with a hickory club, killing him, and had thrown the body where it was found. Cessna was taken to jail and the excitement spread over the whole country. Pennington’s house was visited, but he was not there. His wife said he had gone to Paducah to get some horses and a party started after him, but they missed him. He came back by way of Princeton and Hopkinsville and thus avoided them. As he was riding along the road before reaching Hopkinsville, he met a man he was acquainted with who was more communicative than wise. Pennington asked him the news and he replied: ” Haven’t you heard it? they have found Davis’ body and they say you killed him, and they are hunting for you.” This was a tip for Pennington and he rode on avoiding the town and thence home. He told me afterward that he would not have gone home sat all, had it not been that the animal he was riding was jaded and he wanted a fresh horse. He said he had a blooded horse at home named ” Walnut Cracker,” and he wanted to get on him to get away. It was in the night when he got home, and he discovered that there were some horses hitched to the fence, and he made up his mind not to go in. He was thirsty, and started to the spring to get a drink of water, and just before he reached it he heard some one talking and hid himself to listen. Three men passed him with guns and he knew there was no time to lose. Old Walnut Cracker was in the pasture and he went back and got on his horse and rode around the barn to the pasture. He soon found his favorite horse, and after transferring the saddle and bridle to him, mounted and left the country. The search for him was kept up several days, but as no trace of him could be found it was finally abandoned.

The deed from Davis to Pennington had been lodged for record in the County Court, duly drawn, signed and witnessed, in one of Penning-ton’s peculiarly disguised styles of handwriting. He had robbed Davis of the $1,500 the latter received for the four egroes, killed him and forged his signature to the deed and made Sheffield and Cessna witness it under assumed names. Old man Williams forced his suit to a trial about that time, and as he had no trouble in throwing out the deposition of T. Black, he collected his money. This was in June, 1845, and during the following winter, Col. James Bowland, who had removed from Christian County to Texas several years before, returned home. He had been a candidate for the Texas Congress and was defeated just before his return, and one day he mentioned to his brother, Dr. Reece Bowland, that during his canvass he spoke at a little town in Texas, and during his speech he noticed in the crowd a familiar face. He studied it closely, and then recognized the man as Lonz Pennington, whom he had known in Kentucky. After he got through speaking, he hunted the man up, and, calling him by name, extended his hand, but the man declined it and told him be was entirely mistaken in the man. The Colonel was greatly surprised, but apologized for his mistake and he was forgiven. He had not heard of Pennington’s work in Kentucky, and when his brother narrated the circumstances to him, he was satisfied that he was not mistaken in the man he offered to shake hands with in Texas. A large reward had been offered by Christian County for Pennington, and after the brothers talked the matter over, Col. Bowland said Pennington was still in Texas and could be caught without any trouble, and they determined to undertake his capture. They started the next day on horseback, but when they reached the place Pennington was not there, but had gone up into the Indian Territory. They followed him and found him playing the fiddle at a camp dance. He was captured and brought back to Kentucky, just a year after the murder of Davis, and his return in the hands of the law officers was a great surprise to the people, who never expected to hear of him again. When the news came that the Bowlands had him at a point on the Cumberland River and wanted a guard to escort him to Hopkinsville, nearly every man in the county volunteered for the service. It was the intention to re-organize the Regulators, and, after escorting Lonz to Hopkinsville, take him to the place where Davis was killed and hang him. This plan did not meet with general approval, however, and the law was given full scope. I was attending court at Cadiz when they passed through, and everybody made a rush to see the prisoner. The escort stopped, and as I was standing on the court house steps, Penning-ton beckoned me to him. I responded, and he asked me to defend him, and I accepted the offer and told him I would call at the jail to see him when I reached home. When I got home, his wife was waiting for me, and I started with her to the jail. The greatest excitement prevailed, and the town was full of armed men who were really anxious for an opportunity to take Pennington out and hang him, but their wrath was divided against me for offering to defend him. They had boldly announced that no lawyer should take his case, but that the testimony should be given in brief, so the jury could return a verdict in order that the form of law might be carried out. As I walked down the street with Pennington’s wife, who was a lady above reproach and knew nothing of her husband’s free-booting proclivities, I was halted on every side and warned to keep out of the case. I paid no attention to the warning, but proceeded to the jail, where I found an excited crowd, who boldly informed me that if I had anything to do with Pennington’s defense, they would take both of us out and hang us. My family and relatives were frightened, and beseeched me to keep out of it, but I felt that I could not stand to be terrorized in that way, and turned my attention to the mad crowd. I .told them that any criminal was entitled to a trial, and if Pennington did not employ counsel, the court would appoint some one to defend him, and that I was not going to ask the public for permission to defend a man in a court of justice. I saw in a few moments that I had adopted the only plan to sustain myself, and in a short time Uncle Jimmy Robinson, who had made the first move in all this work, came to me and said: ” I reckon we are wrong; it is best to let the law take its course, but we can’t have any acquittal or hung jury in this case. If the evidence is not strong enough for a jury, the Regulators will administer justice.” After a great deal of persuasion he got the men to consent, and I went into the jail and had a conference with Pennington. I told him to tell me the truth, and I believe he did in many points, but when he would get to the killing, he would only say that he did not touch Davis. I reached the conelusion that he made Cessna or Sheffield do the killing and hiding, and that he took the money and gave them some of it. I demanded a continuance of a few days when the case was called, which aroused the people again, and I was accused of trying to give Pennington a chance to escape. I was warned that I need not expect any support in my next race for the Legislature, but I told them that I owed a duty to my client, and was going to perform it. Of course there was no defense to be made, and the jury were not long in deciding to inflict the death penalty, and in May, 1846, Edward Alonzo Pennington, the successor of the robber chief, John A. Murrell, was hanged before the largest gathering of people ever seen in Southwestern Kentucky. Cessna had made his escape be-fore the arrest of Pennington, and a great many men left that section of country quietly but permanently.

The Regulators

It is still believed by many people of the county, that Cessna was taken from the jail by the Regulators and hanged. But from all information collected concerning the affair, it does not seem at all probable that he was. From the nature of his escape, he was no doubt assisted from without by friends. This, however, has been construed into arguments to show that it was the work of the Regulators; that they purposely left such signs to divert suspicion from them, and make it appear that his friends had assisted him to escape. The truth, pure and unadulterated, may never be known, but there seems really no just grounds to charge his execution to the Regulators. The man Sheffield, though held for several days, was not imprisoned, nor was he whipped, but was finally liberated on condition that he leave the State and never return. He was glad to escape and the county was troubled with him no more. The Regulators, though not a lawful organization, did the county good, and succeeded in doing what the law had failed to accomplish-the breaking up of a desperate band of outlaws, and banishing them from the country. They submitted to the depredations of the gang until ” forbearance had ceased to be a virtue,” and the law had failed to protect them; then they took it into their own hands and protected themselves. Mob violence should be condemned, and it is condemned by all good law-abiding citizens, but there are cases where it maybe exercised with beneficial results to a community. The Regulators of Christian County, who comprised many of the very best citizens, did nothing rashly, nor did they punish any man without a trial; though it may have been but a drum-head court-martial. Sometimes they whipped a man, but that was as a last resort. Suspected characters were warned to leave the country, and if they did not go, when sufficient evidence was accumulated against them, they had to submit to their fate.

After the execution of Alonzo Pennington, and the expulsion from the country of some of his known followers, the county was troubled no more with the species of lawlessness that had for years prevailed to a greater or lesser extent. Counterfeit money passed out of circulation, likely young Negroes ceased to disappear with systematic regularity, horses were seldom stolen and society generally changed for the better. This was not wholly due to the Regulators, but no one can deny that they contributed their mite toward it, and, together with the law, accomplished the grand result. There are a great many persons who still believe that Pennington and his gang had conceived the bold project of robbing the bank in Hopkinsville, and of murdering Mr. Rowland, the Cashier. Others scout the idea, and believe it to have originated through the fears and timidity of some of the more weak-kneed citizens. There is a tradition that some one to whom the Regulators administered a liberal dose of ” hickory oil ” had “confessed ” that there was a move on foot to rob the bank; how it was to be accomplished, and when, and where some of the tools with which the deed was to be performed might be found. The tradition goes on to say, that search was made, and the implements found according to the man’s story. The skeptical, however, deny the whole matter, and say the man’s confession was made merely to save his back from further torture.

Morton Pennington, who escaped from the county when the ” hue and cry ” was raised against Alonzo, returned some years after the latter’s execution. The Regulators told him he might visit his father’s family, and stay for a reasonable length of time, but he would not be permitted to remain permanently. But he loitered around the neighborhood, principally at the house of Alonzo’s widow, until at last she went to the Regulators and requested them to drive him from the country, as she did not want his influence upon her children. They arrested him and tried him according to their rules and regulations, sentenced him to be whipped, executed the sentence, and ordered him to leave the country and never return, an order he promptly obeyed.


Perrin, William Henry, ed., Counties of Christian and Trigg, Kentucky, Historical and Biographical, Chicago : F. A. Battey Publishing Co., 1884.

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