June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Alone in his empty mansion, the venerable Cassius Clay took unto himself a scandalously youthful bride; when the posse came for him, they met more than their match
Cassius Marcellus Clay was one of the most colorful, pugnacious, and irrepressible sons of that most colorful, pugnacious, and irrepressible state, the Kentucky of old-time blue-grass tradition. Son of a pioneer Indian fighter and frontier soldier, General Green Clay, and cousin of the great Henry Clay, he was born in 1810 and he lived until 1903, surprising everyone (including himself) by dying peacefully in his bed. That hardly figured; in his ninety-three years he never ran away from a fight, and he got into many fights in a time and place when most fights went to a finish.
For twenty years before the Civil War, “Cash” Clay was that rarity, an outspoken antislavery leader in a slaveholding state. He had inherited many slaves and he set all of them free, and once when he was making an emancipationist speech a heckler asked whether he would help a runaway Negro. Clay retorted: “That would depend on which way he was running.”
Founding an antislavery paper, the True American, in Lexington, Kentucky, he prepared for trouble. He lined the street door with sheet iron, installed two brass cannon loaded with musket balls and old nails at the top of the stairway, kept a stand of rifles and muskets handy, and put two barrels of black powder, in a corner of his editorial office. The staff was instructed that if a mob ever stormed the place and, against the probabilities, managed to reach the second floor, all hands were to flee via an escape-hatch in the roof: Clay himself would stay behind to drop a match in the powder and blow the place to fragments. The fact that it never became necessary to do all of this made no difference; the setup simply expressed the way Clay met life’s challenge.
By 1860, after surviving various personal encounters (in which, he established an enduring reputation as a bowie-knife fighter of vast capacity), Clay was so well known as an antislavery leader that he got 101 votes for the Republican vice presidential nomination in the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency. He stumped the Middle West for Lincoln in the campaign, and in the dark April of 1861, when Lincoln sat in the White House amid rumors that Confederate forces would march on the defenseless capital to dispossess him, Clay organized a battalion of young roughs to guard the White House and the Washington Navy Yard. To show his gratitude, Lincoln presented him with a massive Colt revolver—a weapon that Clay later put to good use. He also commissioned him a major general of volunteers, although to Clay’s regret he never actually commanded troops in combat. A little later Lincoln appointed him minister to Russia.
As a diplomat Clay probably was miscast, but his experience in Russia at least contributed an unusual chapter to the history of American diplomacy. It also, indirectly, led to a postwar episode which somehow expresses the essential character of this stormy Kentuckian; and in the following article this final portion of Clay’s career is depicted by a Kentucky biographer who has made an extensive study of Cassius Clay’s life.
When Cassius Clay resigned his diplomatic post, in his late fifties, and returned to Kentucky, he found himself in an atmosphere of extreme hostility. Plantation owners held him personally responsible for the loss of their slaves. His friends in the Republican party left him when in 1872 he came out for Horace Greeley, Democratic candidate for President. The Ku Klux Klan—then rampant in Kentucky—denounced and threatened him when he armed the Negroes and marched them to the polls to vote. But this was not all.
Launey Clay, his son by beautiful Anna Jean Petroff, a star of the Imperial Russian ballet, came from St. Petersburg to live with him. Mrs. Clay left him and moved to Lexington with her children and obtained a divorce. The Kluxers burned his barns, stole his livestock, and scared off his servants. With Lincoln’s revolver, Clay killed Perry White, who attempted to assassinate him. The Russian boy grew up shiftless and dissolute and ran away, leaving the “Old Lion of White Hall,” as Clay—with his shaggy white hair and full beard—came to be called, completely alone in his big, empty house. At times, on long summer evenings—hungry for some contact with life in any form—he would open his unscreened windows so that he might watch the bats flutter in and pick the flies off the walls.
It was about that time that people began to hear that the Old Lion, who was eighty-four, was going to marry Dora Richardson, the fifteen-year-old sister of one of his tobacco tenants. And, of course, everybody was very much up in arms about that. There is an account of all this in a contemporary newspaper story by a reporter who was destined to become one of Kentucky’s greatest authors, James Lane Allen. Dated White Hall, November 14, 1894, it reads as follows:
“The second childhood of Cassius Marcellus Clay, if this be his present state, does not prevent him from being a conspicuous figure of American history. While in his younger days he was a veritable gladiator in the exciting arena of abolition, while in his mature manhood he served his country in the halls of St. Petersburg as the American representative to that mighty nation, he is far happier today than he was receiving the plaudits of four million slaves whose shackles he had helped to loosen, or listening to the adulation of the courtiers in the American Legation at Russia’s capital.
“When I arrived at White Hall yesterday morning at about 9:30 o’clock, after a long, cold buggy ride over the hills and through the valleys bordering on the Kentucky River, I was met at the front door, which is of beautifully carved wild cherry with knobs of solid coin silver, by a handsome, dark-complexioned, spare-built young man of medium height [Clay’s illegitimate Russian son, who had apparently returned home for the wedding] who politely inquired who I was. And upon being told that I was a newspaper reporter and recognizing me from a previous visit some time ago, he conducted me down the wide hall to the library. As we entered the large, richly furnished room with shelves along one entire side, running to the ceiling and filled with books, with portraits in heavy gold frames and rare tapestries hanging on each of the other three sides, the old General was busily engaged in replenishing the wood which snapped and blazed cheerfully from the big fireplace. Laying down his poker, I was greeted by this white-bearded old man with as much cordiality as was ever extended a royal visitor. ‘You have met my son Launey,’ said he, waving to the young man who stood beside him. Nodding my head, I thought it time to explain my intrusion, so I quickly stated to the General that the American people, through me, their reporter and representative, desired to attend this wedding, which I understood was to take place that morning. I waited with my heart in my mouth as the old man hesitated a moment; but I immediately relaxed when he smiled and said, ‘Well, I will say to you what Blaine said to the committee that waited on him and asked him if he would receive the people who wished to see him. Blaine replied that if the people wanted to see him, he supposed he would have to see the people. If the people after all these years have that much interest in me, then I will have to be accommodating.’
“So saying, the old General walked over to a large walnut chest and brought old bourbon out. While he mixed himself a light toddy (despite other excesses, Cassius Clay has always been a most temperate user of alcohol), your reporter took a heavy straight, thereby stopping in their tracks the chills and shivers running over him from his twenty-three-mile ride. Mr. Clay said that his children, meaning his children by Mary Jane Warfield Clay, had placed every possible obstacle in the way of his marriage. He said, ‘They persuaded my old friend Judge John Chenault not to marry me. I then asked Squire Green B. Million, but he refused. Yesterday, I suspected my former friends and relatives might get an injunction restraining me from marrying Miss Richardson. They thought they had caught me like a rat in a trap.’
“‘So,’ he continued, ‘I determined to thwart their designs, and after dark last night, I armed McClellan Richardson, a brother of Dora, and Barlow Clark, one of my farm hands, and sent them eighteen miles into the foothills to Squire Isaac Newton Douglas, who is a good Christian, a kind-hearted gentleman, and one who sympathizes with me in my troubles. The Squire got up out of bed and rode all night on horseback over the roughest dirt roads and trails so that he might get here by morning. He has just finished washing up and scraping off the mud and is now having a bite of breakfast in the kitchen. When he is ready, the ceremony will then take place.’
“In a few minutes, Squire Douglas, a tall, slightly stooped mountaineer in butternut hand-woven jeans, a man of a good deal of unconscious, simple dignity, came from the direction of the kitchen into the room. With him was Doctor Smith, a physician of Richmond, Kentucky, and a collateral relative of the General’s, and McClellan Richardson, brother of Dora, a sturdy man about thirty years of age, obviously of the tenant class. Upon their arrival, the old General disappeared through the dining room door and immediately returned, leading pridefully his bride-elect by the hand.
“Several months past fifteen years of age, Dora Richardson, daughter of a deceased sawmill worker at nearby Valley View, tall for her age and decidedly mature in physical appearance, hardly looks the child she is. She wore no gloves, no orange blossoms, and carried no bride’s roses in her hands. She has a pleasant, rather striking face, but her cheekbones are too prominent for real beauty, and she is altogether rustic in her appearance and manner.
“The scene was a touching one, never before and probably never again to be equalled in American life. The strangely paired couple stood quietly expectant as the Squire thumbed awkwardly through his battered prayer book. A huge stick of wood burned in two, and the fire flared a little, lighting up the fine bindings of the books, the gilded picture frames, and especially the exquisite copper engravings of Grand Duke Alexis and his beautiful Princess, warmly inscribed by each of them and presented to General Clay on their own wedding day, at which he was an honored guest. Upon the death of Alexander II, which occurred quite a while ago, the Grand Duke had become Alexander III, Emperor of Russia, and his Princess, the Empress. Yesterday, across the thousands of miles of land and sea, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, which I carried in my overcoat pocket, the dead body of General Clay’s royal friend was passing through densely crowded streets of St. Petersburg to the Cathedral of Livadia, where his funeral was to be held with great pomp and ceremony. And his death, which I have since learned from the Telegraph, vies with General Clay’s marriage on the front pages of this morning’s metropolitan newspapers.
“The ceremony began, and the man who had led thousands to victory in a crusade for human liberty, who had joyously faced death in innumerable desperate and personal hand-to-hand encounters, who in his youth was a perfect Apollo in appearance if not a Napoleon in the cause of freedom, whose portrait then hung in the palace of a dead Emperor, stood as meekly as a little child, with an expression of unspeakable happiness upon his time-worn but still-fresh and almost youthful features. By his side stood that simple country girl, as shy as a gazelle, knowing as little of the great world in which her venerable husband had played so conspicuous a part as the most untutored daughter of nature.
“The ceremony was very brief, and when it was over, the General gave her a vigorous kiss, which she bashfully but willingly returned. In another moment she had disappeared through the dining room door and Dr. Smith and I sat down before the fire, listening with rapt interest to the General’s reminiscences of his days in Russia, which came floating back upon him when I showed him the newspaper account of the Emperor’s funeral. As I got up to go, I asked General Clay if I could take a picture of his young bride. His expressive face darkened up instantly, and he replied, ‘No, she is not dressed for that. Her hair is not fixed in a fashionable mode. You see, she has no mother; nobody to fix her up like others are fixed. She’s never had her picture taken,’ continued the General, ‘and when she does, she’s going to be fixed up with nice clothes and her hair properly dressed.’
“He readily assented to my request for his own photograph and obligingly stood against the large magnolias while the picture was being taken. He is in excellent health, erect and muscular as an Indian, and bids fair to live many years if he will only quit fighting.
“He walked with me to the door, talking in his agreeable and courtly way. My rather hefty hand was lost and helpless in the grasp of that enormous paw—now so gentle—which had laid such violent hold upon so many luckless adversaries. ‘Goodbye, my young friend,’ he said. ‘Tell all my friends and also my enemies’ … there was just a fleeting grimness in his smile … ‘that I love my little bride better than any woman I ever saw. She is a good, virtuous girl, and I believe she will make me a good and loyal wife.’
“Some think the old General is crazy, but I do not think so. His mind is as clear as a bell. I do not even think he is in his second childhood. But if he is, I shall hereafter have no fear of growing old. … [signed] James Lane Allen.”
As Judge Stephen Trigg Logan, Lincoln’s old law partner, used to say, there was a great “upscuttle” in Richmond and Lexington about this thing; so much so that Judge Chenault, the very judge that had been the General’s friend, concluded that the occasion required the summoning of what was then known as a posse comitatus. It must have had its origin back in the old days of the English common law when the ordinary machinery for compelling the observance of law had broken down. The sheriff, at the order of the county judge, could be directed to form a committee of the people to put down the disorder. Under the statutes, the county judge was the only one who had the right to direct the sheriff to organize it; then, under the statute, the sheriff was required to report to the county judge in writing and describe how the expedition for which it had been created had fared. It could not have been more than two or three hours after James Lane Allen had left the house that the sheriff and six of his posse comitatus, heavily armed, rode down the lane to White Hall. Hitching their horses, and taking proper precautions, they advanced under cover up to the front of the house.
The old General had been suitably warned, apparently, of their approach; because he stood waiting for them on the piazza. He had one of his cannon with which he had once so valiantly defended his antislavery newspaper—the True American —out there. He was a little short of the proper sort of ammunition, but he had done his best; he had loaded it with pieces of trace chains, horseshoe nails, and pieces of old horseshoes. He had his Winchester rifle with him, and he had his knife strapped across his chest, and he had the revolver that President Lincoln had presented to him. Then he spoke to these former friends of his as they peeped out from behind the trees.
He said that it had been a great pride of his through the years that White Hall should be a place of hospitality for all his friends, and he regretted that there should ever be an occasion when it was not such a place. But inasmuch as these gentlemen seemed armed to the teeth and very cautious about exposing themselves, he was bound to conclude that they were there upon a hostile mission. He was bound further to conclude that the mission had to do with his young bride.
“Now,” he said, “gentlemen, nobody, not even my worst enemies, ever accused Cassius Clay of ever detaining a woman against her will. And, of course, if I may be immodest, I can say this, that nobody can say that they ever took a woman away from Cassius Clay, either.” Then he said, “Mrs. Clay is up at the window. You are quite at liberty to talk to her. If she wants to go with you, instead of to remain with me, why, that is entirely all right. I’ll be very glad to place her in your charge, and you can take her. But if she doesn’t want to go, then I can only urge you gentlemen, in order to avoid the shedding of blood, to depart, and stand not on the order of your going.”
Nobody knows who fired first, but they got into a shooting match. At least sixteen bullet holes still remain in that piazza door and the columns and door frames. The old General fired his cannon and knocked down the tree that the sheriff was behind. He emptied his Winchester rifle and then charged down the steps with Lincoln’s revolver in one hand and his knife in the other. As to how that was viewed, consider the following copy of the report of the sheriff:
“Richmond, Kentucky—Wednesday, November 14, 1894. Judge John G. Chenault. Dear Judge: I am reporting about the posse, like you said I had to. Judge, we went out to White Hall, but we didn’t do no good. It was a mistake to go out there with only seven men. Judge, the old General was awful mad. He got to cussing and shooting and we had to shoot backl The old General sure did object to being arrested. Don’t let nobody tell you he didn’t, and we had to shoot! I thought we hit him two or three times, but don’t guess we did—he didn’t act like it.
“We come out right good, considering. I’m having some misery from two splinters of wood in my side. Dick Collier was hurt a little when his shirt-tail and britches were shot off by a piece of horseshoe and nails that come out of that old cannon. Have you seen Jack? He wrenched his neck and shoulder when his horse throwed him as we were getting away. Judge, I think you’ll have to go to Frankfort to see Brown. [That was John Young Brown, who was the governor.] If he could send Captain Longmeyer up here with two light fielders [field pieces] he could divide his men and send some with the cannon around to the front of the house—but not too close—and the others around through the cornfield and up around the cabins and the spring house to the back porch. I think this might do it. Respectfully, Josiah P. Simmons, High Sheriff.”
For two and one-half years, the Old Lion and his child bride lived quietly at White Hall. Then Dora grew homesick for her native Valley View, craved companions of her own age, and her venerable husband gently put her in his buggy and took her back to her humble birthplace—a little shack in a sawmill village on the Kentucky River. In further obedience to her wishes, he gave her a divorce.
The last romantic episode of the Old Lion’s long and tempestuous career was over. He was alone again at White Hall, reading the classics, tending his flowers and shrubs, feeding the birds, and watching the bats. Those who had known him in the bright noontide of his fame were dead. His children remained estranged. All that the countryside knew of him now, or cared to know, was that up there on the hill lived an eccentric old man who resisted fiercely any invasion of his rights.
One night, three denizens of the Kentucky River cliffs, seeking revenge and valuable silverware brought from Russia, broke into the mansion. The Old Lion was asleep, but he woke up and, with Lincoln’s revolver and his bowie knife, fought his last mortal combat. A terrified Negro boy from one of the cabins on the place galloped all the way to Richmond to report the violent “goings on” in the darkness up at the big house.
Law officers found the Old Lion sitting calmly, meditatively, before flickering embers in his library. Close gunfire had left him with a bullet-punctured bathrobe, scorched and smoking, and several body wounds, hardly more than skin deep but bleeding slightly. Two of the intruders were dead.
Some months later, the Old Lion—nearly ninety-three—took to his bed, suffering from the infirmities of age. A few days before his death, on July 22, 1903, he expressed deep chagrin that, by all signs, his earthly departure was to be so distressingly prosaic.