Saturday, June 7, 2008

Murder on Christmas Day 1835

At a party on Christmas Eve 1835 in the home of Thomas McCormick in Smithland, Livingston County, Kentucky, Dr. Lewis Sanders made the mistake of stating that 18 year old Townsend Ashton was drunk. The words were spoken before “the ladies,” embarrassing Ashton and setting the scene for Sanders’ murder.

The next morning, Sanders and Ashton met again in Smithland. According to Jeremiah Minker, Sanders and Ashton were standing close together in the door of Olive and Martin’s store, talking loudly and quarreling. Ashton stepped out on the pavement and then Dr. Sanders stepped on to the pavement. Ashton stepped back off of the pavement and said if Sanders did not back off he would shoot him. Sanders “advanced as he wished to get near him, but he shewed no disposition to strike him.” Ashton, who was holding a pistol behind his body, instantly shot Sanders, who fell immediately to the ground. He died a few hours later.

Wm. Rodgers stated he was sitting on a bench on the street when he saw Townsend Ashton step out on the pavement and Sanders also stepped out. Ashton showed Sanders his pistol and said that if he pursued him, he would shoot him. As he stepped into the street, Sanders advanced rather quickly toward him with both hands open and raised when Ashton instantly shot him. Sanders fell in the direction where Ashton stood, probably against him, when Ashton said “There by God Gentleman I told you I would shoot him.”

Ashton was charged with the murder of Dr. Sanders and West Ashton and Dr. Gustavus A. Brown were charged with aiding and abetting him. Dr. Brown was no stranger to controversy and an incident a few years later would result in his own death - but we’ll save that story for another time.

Among depositions taken following Sanders’ death was that of Thomas McCormick, who stated that after the close of the Christmas Eve party, Dr. Gustavus A. Brown, came back for something he had forgotten and when speaking of the controversy between Ashton & Dr. Sanders, Brown observed there must be an apology or there would be bloodshed and that he would be Ashton’s second [in a duel]. If Ashton would not fight, Brown would & spoke harshly of Dr. Sanders for interfering in his practice of medicine. McCormick was convinced Brown hated Lewis Sanders.

D.B. Sanders stated that some time ago Gustavus A. Brown spoke to him of the impropriety of retaining Lewis Sanders with him [as a physician] that D.B. Sanders ought to dispense with him & take Brown into partnership; there was not more business than two could do and that Lewis Sanders should not take his practice and that a third physician could not live here.

Brown posted bond with Henry Wells and Stanley P. Gower, securities, to guarantee his appearance in court to answer the charges of aiding and abetting in a murder.

Townsend Ashton was arraigned and committed to jail to await his trial at the March term of the Livingston Circuit Court. The indictment states: “Townsend Ashton, yeoman, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and reduced by the instigation of the Devil on the 25th day of December 1835 ... did make an assault with a certain pistol of the value of 5 shillings against Lewis Sanders upon the left temple of the head ... one mortal wound of the breadth of an inch and the depth of 4 inches ... shot at 10 o’clock of the morning and languished until 3 o’clock of the evening when he died.”

The trial lasted six days. After an investigation of the facts and the arguments of counsel, the jury rendered a verdict of Not Guilty, acquitting the prisoner on the grounds of self defense.

Dr. Gustavus A. Brown was also indicted as an accessory, but when Ashton was acquitted, Brown’s acquittal and discharge followed.

Sources: Livingston County Circuit Court Equity, Ordinary and Commonwealth Cases August 1836-March1837, Box 33 of 142, Accession #A1986-289, Kentucky Dept for Libraries and Archives.

Nashville Banner and Nashville Whig, 8 Jan 1836,

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