Feast Day of Saint Eleutherius of Nicomedia, Reverend Lovejoy counselor 1989: Moises Giroldi, Panamanian general

1845: Abner Baker, feudmaker

October 3rd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1845 — sneering at the noose with the words “Behold the necklace of a whore!” — Abner Baker was publicly hanged in Manchester, Kentucky.

He was the second casualty — the first was the man whom he murdered — in the Baker-Howard feud, or the Clay County War, a bloody interfamily conflict that would blight the Kentucky mountains into the next century.

Its headwaters were a man out of his head: just how much so would be the controversy of his case, and a foundational grievance of the feud.

Said head perched itself on the shoulders of our man Abner Baker, who — prior to his unfortunate turn towards derangement — was a respectable frontier striver, with an unsuccessful stint in commerce redeemed by a medical practice. He had also to his name a wife born Susan White, a woman — or rather a 14-year-old girl — from a wealthy family who was respectable in the eyes of all save he.

As Baker slid into lunacy, he leveled at his spouse the most lurid charges of concupiscence, of having committed gleeful incest, of having orgies with slaves, and of cheating on him with another wealthy man, Daniel Bates. Bates was married to Baker’s sister.

Testimony printed in an 1845 volume to capitalize on interest in the case, Life and trial of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr: (a monomaniac) features many acquaintances establishing a delusional paranoia about his wife’s intercourse with Daniel Bates — with Baker brandishing a Bowie knife around her to the extent that their mutuals feared for her life; ranting about his wife cuckolding him in his very bed while he slept beside her; fixing on his certainty that Bates designed to murder him. They also report acquaintances, and Baker’s own father, increasingly convinced that the man had gone mad.

On September 13, 1844, Baker presented himself at Bates’s salt works and shot Bates in the back. Bates lingered on for several hours, doing much to stoke the succeeding generations of clan vigilantes by bequeathing $10,000 to seek his murderer’s life and making his son promise to take revenge.

The subsequent legal drama pitted that quest for revenge against Baker sympathizers’ conviction that the man was too starkers to swing. The first magistrates to review the matter days after Bates’s murder took the latter view and released him, allowing Baker to decamp to Cuba to recuperate.

The Bateses were not to be balked this easily, however, and prevailed on Commonwealth attorneys to indict Baker for murder. At the urging of his father, the good doctor voluntarily returned to defend himself when he learned of this. The text of the trial comprises witnesses clashing over whether the killer suffered from “monomania”, but the subtext was the flexing muscle of the White family — that of Abner Baker’s poor traduced wife.

The Whites were Clay County royalty on the strength of their salt mining wealth, and allied to the Bates family. Their peers and rivals, the Garrards, were locked in tense economic competition and even came within a whisker of murdering Daniel Bates himself in a different standoff in 1840. They took a more sympathetic view of Abner Baker’s obviously unbalanced mental state and tried to shield him from his persecutors; the Garrard patriarch was one of the magistrates who had initially ruled Baker too crazy to prosecute.* It was the Whites who, in effect, outmuscled the Garrards by forcing Baker’s prosecution and execution.

“The BAKERS wept with rage for the WHITES helping the BATES to bring Abner Baker to trial when they knew he was insane,” this history of Clay County feuding observes. “The lines had been drawn and competition for salt hardened into hostility.”

Enjoy a podcast situating this affair in the regional economy and the resulting political rivalries, from American History Tellers here, as well as a successor episode on the resulting feud, here

* Baker thanked the Garrards in his last address from the gallows (“the Garrard family, on whom I had no claims, came up like noble-souled men, and asked the county to give me justice”).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Wrongful Executions

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