Aftershock: A Strange Tale of Murder, Rage and the Earthquake that Shook America

January 10th, 20147:42 am @


An earthquake fissure representative of what happened in the New Madrid Earthquake

The New Madrid earthquake was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded on US soil. It coincided with one of the strangest murders in US history.

In the months following the murder there was scarcely an hour when the earth did not tremble.  The sound of it was like distant thunder, which gave way to cracks and explosions like muskets being fired.  The smell of sulfur and brimstone hung over everything.

They said it was retribution from an angry god, punishment for the vile deed they had done.  But if that was true it put Isham and Lillburn at the center of everything, the whole world made to suffer for their transgression, like humanity deprived of paradise for Adam’s singular sin.  He had never been that important.

He was the lesser of four sons born to Colonel Charles Lewis.  His mother had been Lucy Jefferson, sister of President Thomas Jefferson.  Alone among his brothers he had been denied the birthright of land, his father having squandered the family fortune before his turn came due.  He had written to his uncle the president and gotten a job at Natchez but they had not treated him with the deference he felt he deserved and he had abandoned the position and returned to Smithland where the thing happened which had set the earth to trembling, or so they said.

Lillburne Lewis snapped and was screaming with rage.

He saw Lillburn in a drunken rage, teeth clenched, face red, the cords standing out in his neck. He was howling with rage.

A World Gone Mad

He awoke at the sound of riflery and thought the world had fallen to quaking again but it was only the sound of nervous infantrymen firing into the fog.  They would be reprimanded for that.  General Jackson deplored waste and sought to keep their position secret, although everyone knew the British had marked them and would be advancing on them at dawn.

He nodded off back to sleep and dreamed the dream that tormented him.  He saw Lillburn in a drunken rage, teeth clenched, face red, the cords standing out in his neck.  The slave George had broken the pitcher that their dear, deceased mother had given them.  George, that ne’er-do-well, sulky and impudent, stammering idiotically, trying to offer some excuse, but Lillburn knew it was deliberate, so he struck him, knocking him to the floor, and then everything went mad – in Isham’s dream, and in truth.

Passenger pigeons exploded across the sky, blotting out the sun.

He saw the passenger pigeons exploding across the sky, thousands of them, blotting out the sun.

He saw the passenger pigeons exploding across the sky, thousands of them, blotting out the sun, their droppings falling like rain.  He saw the squirrels descending the river bank like a flood, like a carpet of living creatures, squealing, frenzied, pouring into the Ohio like a blooming slick of mud, drowning in their thousands.  He saw the wild eyes of the panther among the reeds in the river bottom, the eyes of a demon, feral, crazed.

The world had gone mad and then Lillburn ordered George to be bound hand and foot – ordered the others to do it, jeered at them in their fear, told them he would teach them a lesson about running away and sulking and not obeying him.  They did it haltingly, reluctantly, and when Lillburn picked up the ax, they shrank back and begged.  Slave George wept hysterically, pleading for his life, but Lillburn only sneered, a gleam in his eye like that of the panther.  Then he raised the ax and brought it down with all his might.


A faint morning light invested the fog. When it cleared, the British would begin their advance. They would have to be ready to fight for all they were worth.

Optimism and Affliction

Isham woke with a start.  A faint morning light invested the fog.  When it cleared, the British would begin their advance.  Isham and his fellow soldiers would have to be ready and fight for all they were worth, especially since the British outnumbered them by at least two-to-one.  But a good many were eager, confident of victory.

Isham recognized their optimism, a disease that afflicted his countrymen, a belief in providence, a conviction that they must prevail, a sense that every success was foreordained and every failure a mere setback.  He had felt the same way once, years ago, back in Virginia in the years after the Revolution when his family had money, land and reputation, before his father lost it all, before they moved to Kentucky and everything came undone.

Lillburne and Charles Lewis and the family journeyed down the Ohio to Kentucky

They had come down the Ohio River leaving out of Pittsburgh in 1807. The trouble began almost at once.

They had come down the Ohio River leaving out of Pittsburgh in 1807, having sold the Virginia land to pay off creditors, eager to make a new start.  The trouble began almost at once.  They had left too late and gotten delayed at the mouth of the Kentucky River due to ice.  At the falls below Louisville they had to pay for a pilot out of their scarce resources yet nearly lost the boat in the rapids anyway.  Then they had to travel 310 miles through a wild, dangerous country infested with hostile Indians.

Having arrived at last at the mouth of the Cumberland, at the town of Smithland, they found their new home a rough, shabby, disease-ridden place populated by a strange mix of frontier ruffians and stern Methodists neither of whom had much use for high born easterners like the Lewises.  Within two years their mother had been carried off by illness, the whole family had been stricken by malaria, and Lillburn’s beloved wife Elizabeth had succumbed to disease and died.


Lillburn did what he could to retain ownership of his slaves. The slaves and the land marked him as a man of wealth and influence.

Farming was difficult.  The soil was good but birds and animals routinely devoured the crop.  Money became tight.  Lillburn borrowed profligately, buying medicine to stave off the sickness, sending his daughters away to school, wheeling and dealing to hold onto the land, doing everything in his power to retain ownership of his fourteen slaves, for the slaves and the land were what set him apart, marked him as a man of wealth and influence.

But the slaves were mostly useless.  They barely paid for their own upkeep.  Unlike the slaves of the Deep South, Kentucky slaves rarely labored in the fields and were mostly servants, status symbols.  To make matters worse, they were often indulged, treated like members of the family, and so got it into their heads to malinger and talk back, and because Smithland lay across the river from Illinois, free territory, they some times ran away for days at a time.

Slave George had run off, gone to Illinois to sulk for awhile over some perceived slight, and when he came back, Lillburn was furious, which was why he was on edge that night when they went down to the kitchen to get drunk and why he had snapped when George broke the pitcher.  But his reaction was out of all proportion to the crime.

Lillburne Lewis picked up an ax and prepared to murder Slave George

Lillburn picked up the ax. The slaves shrank back. George wept hysterically, pleading for his life.


Aghast at his brother’s brutal attack, Isham had reached out a hand to stay him but nearly got cut himself as his brother swept the ax back around like a woodsman and brought it down again on the groaning slave at his feet.  Blood splattered over all of them.  The other slaves wept and moaned.

Lillburn ordered them to take knives and dismember the lifeless body.  He stood over them supervising the enterprise and directed them to throw the limbs into the kitchen fire.  Isham sat in the shadows watching in a sort of daze.  Lillburn upbraided them for their ineptitude and stupidity and warned them that this would be their own fate should they breathe a word of this to anyone, and then, all of a sudden, the earth shifted.

The cabin collapses in the New Madrid earthquake

The ground jittered and convulsed. The logs cracked, the ceiling collapsed, and then the wall gave way, buckling inward.

The sound of it was horrifying, a thunderous boom that stretched out and seemed to grow louder.  The logs of the structure shook and creaked.  The ground jittered and convulsed.  The logs cracked, the ceiling collapsed, and then the far wall gave way, buckling inward.  The weight of it pulled the chimney over, spilling masonry, flaming logs and burning embers on the ground before them, all mixed up with the charred limbs of the mutilated slave.

As soon as the shaking subsided they fled in mindless abject terror.  But still the earth did not cease agitating.  The trembling went on, a low, rumbling vibration that continued for hours, relented, and then continued at intervals over weeks and weeks.

Chimney bricks

He instructed them to pick up the scattered body parts and seal them up behind the masonry. They did.

Two days later Lillburn gathered the slaves and told them they must rebuild the kitchen, beginning with the chimney.  He instructed them to pick up the scattered body parts of their friend and seal them up behind the masonry.  He again warned them not to breathe a word of what had happened.  They wept as they went about the task.

Isham never questioned his brother.  It was not his way to question his elders.  The resentment he felt toward his father was never voiced directly to the man.  People owed deference to those above them.  He believed this implicitly, which was why he never blamed his brother for what he had done.  Slave George had been insolent and rebellious and had paid for it with his life.  There was nothing particularly outlandish about this.  In Virginia a man could treat with his slave as he saw fit.  The fact that there were those in western Kentucky who would consider what Lillburn had done a crime – one worthy of the death penalty – registered only vaguely with him.

An aftershock tumbled it to the ground, spilling Slave George's body parts in the dirt.

Two days after the chimney was rebuilt an aftershock tumbled it to the ground, spilling George’s body parts in the dirt.

And the matter might never have come up if it weren’t for the aftershock.  Two days after the chimney was rebuilt an aftershock tumbled it to the ground, spilling George’s body parts in the dirt.  A passing dog discovered the skull and carried it away to a place beside a public thoroughfare where it set about contentedly gnawing on it.  A neighbor of Lillburn’s discovered the dog with its grisly prize and reported it to the authorities.  The skull still had enough flesh on it to identify it as that of Slave George.  Lillburn was arrested.

The Vengeance of an Angry God

As the dawn came on, Isham mustered with the rest of his company and took up his position along the barricades.  He propped the barrel of his musket against the crossed timbers of the parapet and waited.  The British would be approaching from the south.  They had landed below New Orleans near Lacoste’s Plantation.  General Jackson had hurried down to meet them and after a brief skirmish the British had withdrawn to regroup.  Soon they would be back.

San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was similar in intensity to the New Madrid earthquake

At an estimated 7.7 on the Richter scale the New Madrid earthquake was felt over 3 million square miles.

The fog was as thick as soup.  No man could see more than 30 yards in front of him.  The idea that the British might be marching through this fog seemed inconceivable.  Surely they would wait until the fog lifted, which meant they would be delayed for a couple of hours.  Isham relaxed and reflected on how he had come to be here.

Six weeks after the murder Lillburn was indicted.  During all that time the earth continued to tremble, scarcely an hour passed when it did not.  Mostly it was a low even vibration but sometimes it grew more intense like a man struggling to keep his anger in check.

The preachers claimed that God was angry with the sinners, with all the swearing, fornication and double-dealing on the frontier.  The Indians said it was because of the whites.  Some even suggested it was because of slavery – came right out and said it.

A dog discovered the skull of Slave George and began gnawing on it

A passing dog discovered the skull and carried it away to a place beside a public thoroughfare where it set about contentedly gnawing on it.

Isham thought God was angry at the impertinence of man, at his lack of deference and his pride.  Men refused to bow down when they should have, when they should’ve known their place and abided.  But everywhere there was impudence and unruliness, even among the women.

When he heard Letitia declare that it was because of what Lillburn had done, he was shocked.  Letitia was Lillburn’s second wife.  She had always been a feisty one, but this went beyond willfulness.  She should’ve been taken in hand.  He told Lillburn so.  But Lillburn had always had a soft spot when it came to Letitia so he’d only bowed his head and sighed.  Dejection was written all over him.

They released him on bond pending trial.  Returning home, he tried to explain things to Letitia but she shunned him.  He grew increasingly irritated with her.  One day her people came and took her away and Lillburn was left alone.  It was then he formed his plan.

Dejection of Lillburne Lewis

When he heard what Letitia had said he only bowed his head and sighed. Dejection was written all over him.


They would commit suicide together, he and Isham.  There was no reason to go on.  They were going to be convicted and hanged anyway, so they might as well take matters into their own hands.  They were not men to sit and let others take charge, they were Lewises, distant cousins of the great Meriwether Lewis who had explored all the way up the Missouri to Oregon, and nephews of President Thomas Jefferson.  They were men of consequence, not playthings in the hands of backwoods lawyers and yokels.

They met in the graveyard where Lillburn’s first wife Elizabeth lay.  They were to stand ten paces apart and aim the guns at each other.  At a signal they were to pull the triggers.

But Isham was not fully committed; he thought that he might yet avoid the death penalty, after all he had not committed the fateful act and men were not generally hanged for being accessories.  But he could not tell Lillburn that, poor, long suffering Lillburn who had endured poor crops, insolent slaves, pig-headed creditors, a vindictive jury and an ungrateful wife.  Should he have to endure a disloyal brother as well?  Never.  So Isham stalled.

Lillburne Lewis suicide

His body lay splayed out on the ground, the gun resting between his thighs, still smoking.

He said he was worried about a misfire. What if one of the guns misfired while the other went off?  One of them would die and the other would survive, ruining the plan.  Lillburn addressed the problem with that calm earnestness which had earned him the confidence of so many over the years.  He explained that if the gun misfired the survivor could complete the act by shooting himself.

When Isham expressed confusion about how this might be done when the muzzle was so far from the trigger, Lillburne directed him to cut a branch from a tree, and then propping the gun on the ground with the muzzle facing toward him, Lillburn demonstrated how, by reaching over and placing the butt end of the branch against the trigger, the gun could be fired.  The gun went off, blowing the top of Lillburn’s head off and scattering his brains in the grass behind him.  His body lay splayed out on the ground, the gun resting between his thighs, still smoking.

Isham Lewis escaped when the jail door was left open.

The door was left open. If Isham had thought for a moment that it was an oversight he would not have slipped off.

Shocked, Isham stumbled back, hands to his mouth, then turned and ran.

He ran and brought the authorities who for the most part believed what he said.  Most of them knew him well enough to know he would never have shot his brother.  But they held him anyway, regretful that things had come to such as pass, yet concerned for the peace of mind of the community they determined to keep him under lock and key until judge and jury could sort things out.  Isham did not resist.


As he waited in jail for the date of his trial two things happened.  First, Isham befriended his jailer, Thomas Champion, who, as a patroller and tavern keeper had known Lillburn and liked him, and second, the trembling subsided.  In fact, from the date of Lillburn’s death and with each passing day the rumblings grew less and less until on the day when Thomas Champion went off to collect some water and left the door to the jail open the earth had at last regained its repose.

Travels of Isham Lewis after the murder of Slave George

Isham fled south from Smithland to Natchez, and then to New Orleans where he joined the army.

If Isham had thought for a moment that Champion’s act was an oversight he would not have slipped off – he would not have wanted to embarrass him – but he took it as a signal that his jailers wanted to put shut to the whole ugly mess, so he slipped away and made for the south.

Two weeks later he made it to Natchez.  He wasn’t there long.  His creditors got wind of his presence and began breathing down his neck, so he headed to New Orleans.

As he arrived in that city the whole place was in a war fever.  Isham enlisted.  On June18th of that year war broke out against the British.  The year was 1812.

For thirty months the tides of war washed back and forth.  First the British gained the upper hand and then the Americans.  Then in late 1814 General Andrew Jackson, flush with victory over the British at Pensacola, marched his army west to reinforce New Orleans.  Isham was with them.

Suspicious soldier Battle of New Orleans War of 1812

When a fellow soldier pressed him, asking him if he wasn’t the nephew of Thomas Jefferson, he denied it.


They spent next 12 months building fortifications in anticipation of a British invasion.  In early January of 1815 it finally happened.  But as Isham was preparing to meet the enemy something occurred that reminded him of the injustice of the world.

A fellow soldier recognized him and asked him if he wasn’t the same Isham Lewis who had been messed up in that ugly business at Smithland, Kentucky, that business with the slave.  Isham denied it.  When the soldier pressed him, asking him if he wasn’t the nephew of Thomas Jefferson, he scoffed declaring that if he was the nephew of Thomas Jefferson he wouldn’t be lying here in the mud with a bunch of ignorant farm boys, would he?  He would be commanding a regiment, wouldn’t he?

Muskets firing at the British at the Battle of New Orleans

The order rang out. “Fire!” And the Americans poured musket fire and grapeshot into the confused British.

The soldier guessed that that was probably so but he seemed suspicious anyway and when he was gone Isham brooded over his sorry circumstances and rued the blithe optimism of the young soldiers around him.  They thought they were going to win the war and defeat the British.  They believed their cause was just.  To a man they thought they were going to win the upcoming battle.  They thought they were entitled to it.

Only he knew better.  They were outnumbered.  The British were better trained and better armed.  They were going to be defeated.  They were going to suffer and be vanquished.  Justice and merit had nothing to do with it.  The world was unkind.

Emerging from the Fog

The Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans was a surprising victory. Although they outnumbered the Americans, the British suffered ten times as many casualties and lost.

The fog began to lift.  The soldier next to him on the parapet nudged him and pointed.

Isham sat up and looked.  He could hardly believe his eyes.  As the fog lifted they began to make out vague forms moving toward them through the haze, marching toward them in long straggly lines.  The soldiers manning the parapet looked at each other and grinned.  They raised their guns and awaited the order.

The British kept coming, closer and closer, unaware of what awaited them less than a hundred yards ahead.  The order rang out.  “Fire!”  And the Americans poured musket fire and grapeshot into them.  The British fell by the dozens.  The survivors panicked and broke, running around frantically in the fog.  The Americans kept shooting, mowing them down.

Walking awayWhen it was over, the British had suffered 291 killed and 1,267 wounded.  The Americans by comparison had suffered only 13 dead and 39 wounded.  It was a miracle.

Among the dead was counted one Isham Lewis, or at least that was what was reported.  The counting of the casualties was attended by a great deal of confusion.  In the course of things rumors had spread that the war was over.  As a result some of the soldiers left their companies and headed home.  Among them was a man somewhat older than the rest, a man with deep lines in his face and a weary, jaded look in his eyes, a man struggling with the meaning of his purpose in this world, a man confused by justice, merit and fate, a man with no name.


Smithland, Kentucky today

Smithland, Kentucky today

Author’s note: 

This is a work of fiction based on historical events and real people.  Isham Lewis was indeed listed among the casualties at the Battle of New Orleans, yet some room still exists to speculate that this was a ruse by a fugitive to deceive his pursuers.

The events surrounding the murder of Slave George in 1811 by Lillburn Lewis in the company of Isham Lewis, as well as Lillburn’s subsequent suicide, have been thoroughly researched and recorded by Boynton Merrill, Jr. in his excellent book Jefferson’s Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy.  However, the motivations of the killers, their attitudes, opinions and reactions are speculative.

The New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 was one the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded on US soil estimated at a magnitude 7.7 on the Richter scale.  With its epicenter in the Missouri boot heel, it was felt strongly over 50,000 square miles and moderately across 3 million square miles.  Smithland, KY where these events took place was 85 miles from the epicenter.


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Image Credits:

Earthquake fissure 19th century, Public domain; Rage, Ana Rodriguez Avila; Passenger pigeons, Public domain; Fog, Holger Froese; Flatboat and Keelboat on the Ohio River, Public domain; Slave family, Public domain; Ax Murderer,;  Cabin in an earthquake, Public domain; Chimney bricks, Simon Bisson;  Collapsed chimney, Dogssaloon; San Francisco earthquake, Public domain; Despair, Ana Rodriguez Avila; Dog gnawing a bone, Lonnie Dunn; Dead man’s boot, Dave 77459; Jail door, Reivax; Isham’s travels, Malcolm Logan; Muskets, Matt Smeltzer; Suspicious soldier, One lucky guy; Battle of New Orleans, Public domain; Walking away, Jim Crossley