Feb 7, 1812: Murder and Earthquakes
On February 7, 1812, the last of the main earthquakes occurred of what are referred to as the New Madrid Earthquakes. The first earthquake had occurred on December 16, 1811 continuing with a further main shock on January 23, 1812. See my earlier posts here and here.
The earthquake of February 7 was probably the largest with a possible magnitude of 7.7. It destroyed the town of New Madrid. In St. Louis, many houses were damaged and their chimneys collapsing. There was also general ground warping, severe landslides and caving of stream banks.
The earthquake of February 7 was felt in western Kentucky leading to the circumstances that resulted in the discovery of the murder of George Lewis, a seventeen year old African American slave. George Lewis was owned by Lilburne Lewis. Lilburne and his brother Isham Lewis were the nephews of Thomas Jefferson. Both brothers had become increasingly volatile and violent as a result of deaths in their family, financial troubles and heavy drinking.
Isham was with Lilburne on the night of December 15 to 16, 1811 drinking heavily. They became angry with George after he had accidentally broken a pitcher that belonged to their mother. They tied George down in front of other slaves. Lilburne then picked up an axe and swung it at George's neck, nearly decapitating him, and killing him.
The brothers then ordered the other slaves to begin to dismember the corpse and throw the body parts into the fire.Their plan was to burn the body and thus destroy any evidence of the murder. Lilburne warned the other slaves that they would suffer the same fate as George if they they told anyone what they had seen. This horrible scene was interrupted by a massive earthquake that hit at about 2:15 in the morning. This was the first of the New Madrid Earthquakes of Monday, December 16, 1811. The shocks caused the chimney to collapse on top of the fire that had been burning George's body parts.
The earthquake shocks continued throughout the day. It was said that there was "only ten minutes during all of the day of Monday when the earth was still."* The brothers, however, had the other slaves rebuild the chimney to hide George's body parts.
George's remains continued to be interred in the chimney when the earthquakes of January 23 and February 7 further damaged the chimney. The second earthquake led to the collapse of the chimney with George's remains being exposed and George's severed head being thrown into a field.
In early March, a neighbourhood dog retrieved the head and brought it to a neighbour's home. The investigation that followed determined that the head belonged to George Lewis and that he had been murdered by Lilburne and Isham Lewis. The brothers were arrested on the charge of murder but released on bail on April 9, 1812. The brothers then entered into a suicide pact, but Isham backed out, with only Lilburne committing suicide. Isham was again arrested, this time as an accessory to the suicide, but later escaped from jail. He was never found but it is believed that he died in the Battle of New Orleans.
Source: The facts of the murder retold in this post are derived mainly form Boynton Merrill's Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy (Princeton University Press, 1976) pages 251 to 260.
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