Sword Cane Murderer Escapes Justice

Sentenced to prison, social connections set James Montgomery free.

January 1862 was a time of great turmoil in Kentucky.

The Civil War was still in its infancy — approximately nine months old — but wartime violence in the Bluegrass State was on the rise. Skirmishes and small-scale engagements erupted as northern and southern soldiers fought to control the commonwealth. On January 19, more than 800 men were killed and wounded at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky. That early Union victory boosted northerners’ morale and helped push the Confederates out of the state.

The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky. Library of Congress.

That month, Kentucky’s future remained uncertain. Yet, crime among civilians continued. On January 28, for example, one man killed another with a sword cane in Louisville during an argument about a dog. Ultimately, this altercation details how influential social connections can disrupt justice.

The dog was, in fact, a terrier, and today the animal’s name remains lost to history. The two Louisville residents who fought over the canine — James H. Montgomery and G. D. Gibbs — were then considered to be “of good standing in the community.” Despite this reputation, their dispute led to murder.[1]

Born in Ireland, the thirty-two-year-old Montgomery was a “well-known tailor” who ran a clothing store on Jefferson Street. He was a successful business owner, having $10,000 in real estate and a $1,000 personal estate. His wife, Elizabeth, had also been born in Ireland, and their marriage was blessed with a ten-year-old daughter named Mary. While Montgomery seemingly lived in domestic bliss, Gibbs’s life was more subdued. Born in Ohio, the thirty-eight-year-old Gibbs was an unmarried former printer who lived at the City Hotel on Louisville’s Wall Street. Called “a quiet, generous, inoffensive man, and universally esteemed by his acquaintances,” he worked as a bartender at another hotel.[2]

Although their lives differed, the argument over the dog pulled the two men together. On January 28, Montgomery and Gibbs met at the office of Joseph Clement, a local magistrate, to determine who owned the animal. At the time, Louisville was booming. Located on the Ohio River across from Indiana, the city was fast becoming a major Union supply depot. Steamboats like the Star Gray Eagle, Izetta, Mariner, Golden State, and Lancaster № 3 delivered goods and passengers to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and smaller towns up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Downtown businesses were also vibrant. Samuel Schwing’s Gallery on Main Street took photos for patrons “in superior style and at prices to suit the times.” Shops sold cheese, beef, pigs’ feet, sausage, almonds, sardines, herring, sauerkraut, beans, bacon, hams, flour, potatoes, and other sundries. The March 28 issue of the Louisville Daily Journal, an important newspaper that was read widely across the South and Midwest, advertised dental services, coal, books, insurance, foods, blankets, carpets, hay, clothes, prints, wine, whiskey, and brandy. The newspaper also advertised Madame Isabel Snell’s astrology and a book written by Professor S. D. Baldwin that touted the “fulfilment of prophecy” and the approaching “Armagedon.”[3]

Ohio troops disembark from a steamboat n Louisville during the Civil War. Image from “Harper’s Weekly.”

Advertisements also reflected the Civil War. Sales of buckskin gloves, military uniforms, gum blankets, and pistols ran in the newspaper. The firm of “Green & Green” announced that they were producing military caps as rapidly as possible, promising to “furnish any quality, trimmed or plain.” Another called for “able-bodied unmarried men” to join the 19th Kentucky Infantry Regiment.[4]

Among these notices for food, whiskey, dishes, combs, blankets, and weapons were also advertisements for people.

Kentucky was a proslavery state, and the Daily Journal included announcements from residents wanting to purchase, lease, or recapture enslaved African Americans. In 1860, enslaved people comprised nearly twenty percent of the Bluegrass State’s population. Kentucky also had the third-highest number of slave owners of any state in the nation. In Jefferson County (Louisville), there were 2,258 slave owners and 10,304 enslaved African Americans out of a population of 89,404.[5]

On March 28, 1862, Louisville resident Willis Ranney sought to lease and enslaved African American to be a “house servant.”

Although not all Kentuckians owned slaves, many participated in the institution by renting them. Robert Atwood from the Union Printing Company, for example, sought to lease “a Negro girl as a nurse,” he wrote. “For one coming well recommended I will pay a good price.” In that March 28 issue, Willis Ranney also hoped to hire an enslaved woman, “19 to 25 years old, an experienced house servant, without incumbrance.” The firm of Crittenden & Gantt, who were primarily coal dealers, offered a twelve-year-old boy for hire.[6]

Luther Howard, who worked in real estate, also sought slaves through the pages of the newspaper. “I have a constant and large demand for Negro Women as cooks . . . a moderate demand for Men, Boys, and Girls, also for medium sized Houses to rent,” he explained. He added, “I want to buy two Girls from 11 to 14 years old. I have for sale a young Negro Man.” Howard’s notice, which advertised enslaved people as casually as it did rental property, showed that African Americans were simply commodities to be bought and sold. This held true across the newspaper. Advertisements for runaway slaves ran next to a notice about a “strayed or stolen” bay horse and yellow buggy. The owner of the vehicle was offering a “liberal reward” for the return, just as incensed enslavers offered compensation for their runaway slaves.[7]

Real estate entrepreneur Luther Howard sought enslaved African Americans to help him with his businesses. He also had a young enslaved man for sale on March 28, 1862, the day of the sword cane murder.

Fugitive slaves were advertised in Kentucky newspapers frequently, and the March 28 issue of the Daily Journal included several. On the day that Montgomery and Gibbs walked into the magistrate’s office, notices offered rewards for recaptured escapees. A. F. Bottorff, a wealthy, Indiana-born farmer who lived near Louisville in Oldham County, Kentucky, was searching for two teenage runaways named Nelson and Harrison, who had absconded with two of Bottorff’s horses. To further illustrate the dehumanizing nature of enslavement, Bottorff described the horses in more detail than he did the enslaved young men.[8]

Isaac Chaplin of Hart Co., Kentucky, advertised a runaway slave in the March 28 issue of the “Louisville Daily Journal.”

In that same issue, Isaac Chaplin, a sixty-nine-year-old farmer from Hart County, Kentucky, offered a $100 reward for the return of a twenty-one-year-old runaway named John. Chaplin described John as being five feet, six inches tall, 175 pounds, and having a scar on his wrist. “He is a sprightly boy,” Chapin remarked, “rather pleasant in his manner. He has a heavy head of hair, which he takes great pride in keeping well combed and plaited.” With the daily degradations of enslavement, John sought individuality over something that he could control: his hair.[9]

On the morning of March 28, as readers in Louisville scanned these advertisements, Gibbs and Montgomery walked into the office of magistrate Joseph Clement at 502 Court Place. Clement had been appointed to decide who would keep the dog, and the hearing quickly degenerated into violence.[10]

Before Clement gave his ruling, Montgomery took matters into his own hands. He grabbed the terrier and walked out of Clement’s office. Gibbs jumped up and tried to grab the dog. A scuffle ensued, and Montgomery pulled a hidden sword from his cane. He then stabbed Gibbs in the chest.[11]

Gibbs stumbled down the street, trying to escape. Montgomery, presumably with the dog in one hand and the sword in the other, followed. Before Montgomery could again strike Gibbs, an attorney named Moses Fields, who had his office on Court Place, stopped Montgomery. The wounded man, his life ebbing away, shuffled back to Clement’s office. There, he told Clements “that Montgomery, being unable to gain the dog by law had killed him . . .” Gibbs then fell and died. Constable Charles Roberts arrested Montgomery at the scene. Shortly thereafter, a coroner held an inquest and determined that Gibbs had died “from a stab in the left side of the breast with a sword-cane in the hands of J. H. Montgomery.”[12]

Surprisingly, Montgomery’s deadly use of a sword cane was not an isolated incident. In the early 1860s, there were multiple attacks made with these deadly weapons.

In Richmond, Virginia, James Walsh offered weapons for sale, including sword canes.

Vendors offered sword canes alongside other arms. In March 1861, a salesman in Richmond, Virginia, advertised “life and property preservers,” that included sword canes, pistols, bowie knives, and more. Those who purchased sword canes also used them. In February 1861, two feuding men in Muscatine, Iowa, “drew weapons” on each other. One had a pistol while the other had a sword cane, but the fight was broken up before blood was drawn. In late November, W. W. Holden attacked William Robinson in Raleigh, North Carolina, with a heavy cane. Robinson drew a sword cane to defend himself. Holden later claimed that “Mr. Robinson made effort after effort to stab me with the sword cane, but failed. I held his sword arm with one hand, and punished him with the other, and I would have thrown him instantly, but for the apprehension that, in falling on him, the point of the sword cane might be turned upwards and run through me.”[13]

While those fights ended without serious bloodshed, the use of sword canes, as Montgomery’s murder of Gibbs attests, could have deadly consequences. In New York in November 1861, Dr. Moses Loewenberg killed Samuel Huffman with a sword cane. Convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang, New York’s governor eventually pardoned Loewenberg.[14]

Although some Americans did carry sword canes, others detested the practice. In March 1861, Howard Glyndon of Missouri complained, “As to a sword-cane, I think it a mean, cowardly, treacherous weapon; it reminds me of some pretty, inoffensive looking animal concealing somewhere about it a deadly venom. I’d much rather see a man carry a knife or pistol at once, without prevarication or concealment.”[15]

While assaults with sword canes were rare compared to the use of pistols and knives, Montgomery’s murder of Gibbs was just one of many in Kentucky that was perpetrated using a concealed weapon. Local court dockets frequently included cases where men were charged with carrying hidden arms. In 1861, the year before Montgomery killed Gibbs, dozens of these cases were heard in Louisville. That March, for example, James W. Colvin was charged with illegally carrying a hidden gun. Later that month, William McCorkle was arrested for “assaulting Ed. Wilkins and carrying concealed weapons.” Defendants like Isaac Newman and W. H. Campbell (who had shot at a man named William Williams), often claimed that “their lives had been threatened and they carried these weapons for self defense.”[16]

Although Kentuckians frequently complained that concealed weapons caused additional crimes, the state legislature considered bills to legalize the practice. This was attempted during the May, September, and December sessions of 1861, but none of the bills gained traction. Today, however, it is legal in Kentucky to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.[17]

The “Louisville Daily Journal” reported on Montgomery’s case being continued.

Three days after Montgomery killed Gibbs, he was bailed out of jail for $2,000 (approximately $52,0000 today). The trial was scheduled for the Jefferson County Circuit Court in mid-May, but it was continued until the next term because a witness was absent. Montgomery’s attorneys claimed that the witness could show that Gibbs “threatened to kill the accused, and was in a menacing attitude when the killing was done.” Montgomery was also claiming self-defense. He was again required to pay bail — raised to $5,000 — and was free before the case commenced.[18]

Kentucky State Penitentiary, Frankfort.

On January 14, 1863, Montgomery went on trial for manslaughter. At first, the court had a difficult time finding a jury, possibly because Montgomery was a well-known businessman. That afternoon, however, jurors were seated and the trial began. The proceeding lasted nearly two days. Despite Montgomery’s claims of self-defense, the jury found him guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to two years in the state penitentiary in Frankfort.[19]

Justice, however, would not be served. As soon as the jury convicted Montgomery, some influential Louisville citizens circulated a petition asking Governor James F. Robinson to invoke executive clemency. “We know Montgomery to be a peaceable and quiet Citizen with a family and ask his pardon,” the petition said.[20]

George D. Prentice, the influential editor of the “Louisville Daily Journal.”

More than 250 people signed the petition, including Union Colonel C. D. Pennebaker; Marshal W. R. Hydes of the City Court of Louisville; Jefferson County Coroner James C. Gill; and policeman Henry B. Green. One of the most prominent signers was George D. Prentice, the editor of the Louisville Daily Journal. Another signee was magistrate Joseph Clement, who watched Gibbs drop dead in his office after Montgomery stabbed him. Clement added a note to the petition, stating, “This case took place at my office and I believe it to be a case in which Executive Clemency should be extended knowing all the facts as I do.”[21]

Thanks to this petition — and certainly because Prentice and Clements were among the signers — Governor Robinson pardoned Montgomery, who was released from jail on January 23, 1863, a little over a week after he had been convicted.[22]

An article from the “Louisville Daily Journal” noted that Gov. James Robinson had pardoned Montgomery for killing G. D. Gibbs with a sword cane.

While the historical record does not detail the “facts” that Joseph Clement knew about the incident (perhaps, for example, Gibbs was initially the aggressor), the killing of G. D. Gibbs teaches us about crime and justice in 19th century America.

First, the case confirms that concealed weapons were a problem throughout the Ohio River Valley during the 19th century. Although concealed weapons were illegal in Kentucky, light punishments for those convicted of carrying them failed to deter the practice. Montgomery had little to fear from a legal standpoint for carrying his sword cane. Likely expecting trouble from Gibbs during the magistrate’s hearing, he showed up armed. Moreover, because many cases were dismissed when defendants claimed self-defense — especially if the accused were white and well-connected — Montgomery likely did not fear prosecution for murder, either.

Perhaps most important, this case shows that social connections could abrogate justice. Although Montgomery was not particularly wealthy, as a tailor with a prominent business he had undoubtedly made connections with the right people, including the editor of the Louisville Daily Journal. With the outpouring of support from these prominent men and Joseph Clement, one of the main witnesses in the case, it is unsurprising that Governor Robinson freed him.

On the day that Montgomery was to be sent to prison, more than a dozen men convicted of crimes made the journey from Louisville to the state penitentiary. These men had been found guilty of larceny, burglary, murder, rape, and for helping slaves escape. They did not have prominent Louisville officials and editors appealing to the governor on their behalf. Instead, they traveled to Frankfort in shackles and under armed guard to serve out their sentences. Montgomery, who had killed an unarmed man with a hidden sword, instead went home.[23]

Because of the pardon, Montgomery avoided punishment for killing Gibbs. He continued to live in Louisville, and, by 1880, he was a “retired merchant” living at 191 South 3rd Street. On March 7, 1886, Montgomery died in Louisville at age 56 from a “blood clot of the brain.” It is unknown how often he thought of Gibbs.[24]

Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books. His latest, “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” examines interpersonal violence, southern honor culture, and vigilantism through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat.


[1] “Good standing” from “Homicide,” Cleveland Daily Leader (February 1, 1862): 3.

[2] 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Jefferson County, Kentucky, accessed online from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; “well-known tailor” and “a quiet, generous, inoffensive man,” from “Homicide,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 29, 1862): 3; Henry Tanner, Tanner’s Louisville Directory and Business Advertiser for 1861 (Louisville, 1861): 177; “Inquest № 325,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 29, 1862): 1.

[3] “River News,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 28, 1863): 3; Schwing’s Gallery from “Notices of the Day,” Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 3; various advertisements, Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2.

[4] Various advertisements, Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2; “Notices of the Day,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 28, 1862): 3.

[5] Various advertisements, Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2; Lowell H. Harrison, The Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975), 1; Kenneth H. Williams and James Russell Harris, “Kentucky in 1860: A Statistical Overview,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 103 (Autumn 2005): 751, 747.

[6] Notices from Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2; Crittenden & Gantt as coal dealers from G. W. Hawes’ Commercial Gazetteer and Business Director of the Ohio River (Indianapolis: G. W. Hawes, 1861), 256.

[7] Howard’s real estate career from Tanner, Tanner’s Louisville Directory and Business Advertiser for 1861, 126; and J. D. Campbell’s Louisville Business Director, for 1864 (Louisville: L. A. Civill, 1864), 167; notices from Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2.

[8] Notices from Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2; Bottorff information from 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Oldham County, Kentucky, accessed from Ancestry.com on December 3, 2020.

[9] Notices from Louisville Daily Journal (March 28, 1862): 2; Chaplin information from 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Hart County, Kentucky, accessed from Ancestry.com on December 3, 2020; and 1860 U.S. Federal Census — Slave Schedule, Hart County, Kentucky, accessed from Ancestry.com on December 3, 2020. In 1860, the sixty-seven-year-old Chaplin had $4,000 in real estate and $600 in his personal estate. Ibid.

[10] “Homicide,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 29, 1862): 3; Clement’s background from 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Jefferson County, Kentucky, accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; Clement’s office on Court Place from Tanner, Tanner’s Louisville Directory, 56.

[11] “Homicide,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 29, 1862): 3.

[12] Description of the murder and “that Montgomery” from “Homicide,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 29, 1862): 3; “from a stab” from “Inquest №325,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 29, 1862): 1; Moses Fields information from Tanner, Tanner’s Louisville Directory and Business Advertiser for 1861, 87. Fields was a successful attorney. In 1860, he had a personal estate valued at $10,000. 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Jefferson County, Kentucky, accessed from Ancestry.com on December 3, 2020.

[13] “Guns, Pistols, &c.,” Richmond Daily Dispatch (March 12, 1861): 4; “Editorial Fracas at Muscatine,” Davenport Morning Democrat (February 12, 1861): 2; “To the Public,” The Raleigh Weekly Standard (December 11, 1861): 1.

[14] Brooklyn Evening Star (December 13, 1861): 2; Hartford Courant (January 6, 1862): 2; “The Law of Murder,” New York Times (January 5, 1862): 3; Henry Lauren Clinton, Extraordinary Cases (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1896), 274.

[15] Howard Glyndon, “One of My Pet Dislikes,” Daily Missouri Republican (March 10, 1861): 2.

[16] “Police Proceedings,” Louisville Daily Journal (March 1, 1861): 3; “Police Proceedings,” Louisville Daily Journal (March 16, 1861): 3; “Police Proceedings,” Louisville Daily Journal (June 22, 1861): 3; “Police Court,” Louisville Daily Journal (June 24, 1861): 1.

[17] “Kentucky Legislature,” Louisville Daily Journal (May 15, 1861): 3; “Kentucky Legislature,” Louisville Daily Journal (September 24, 1861): 4; “Kentucky Legislature,” Louisville Daily Journal (December 14, 1861): 3.

[18] “Police Proceedings,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 31, 1862): 4; “Examined on a Charge of Murder,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 31, 1862): 4; “Admitted to Bail,” Louisville Daily Journal (February 1, 1862): 3; “Case Continued,” Louisville Daily Journal (May 14, 1862): 3; “Jefferson Circuit Court — Criminal Term,” Louisville Daily Journal (May 14, 1862): 3. $2,000 in 2020 dollars calculated from U.S. Inflation Calculator, 1635–2020, Department of Labor Data, accessed from www.in2013dollars.com, on December 3, 2020.

[19] “Jefferson Circuit Court,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 13, 1863): 3; Louisville Daily Journal (January 14, 1863): 3; Louisville Daily Journal (January 15, 1863): 3; “Jefferson Circuit Court,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 15, 1863): 3; Louisville Daily Journal (January 16, 1863): 3; Louisville Daily Journal (January 24, 1863): 3; “The Criminal Term of the Jefferson Circuit Court,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 24, 1863): 3.

[20] Louisville Daily Journal (January 22, 1863): 1; Henry Dent et al. to James F. Robinson, n.d., Office of the Governor, James F. Robinson: Governor’s Official Correspondence File, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites, 1862–1863, R3–238 to R3–238D, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY. Access via the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition, discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-001–029–0156, (accessed November 28, 2020). Hereinafter cited as Petition, CWGK.

[21] Petition, CWGK.

[22] “The Criminal Term,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 24, 1863): 3; Petition, CWGK.

[23] Convictions listed in “Criminal Term,” Louisville Daily Journal (January 24, 1863): 3.

[24] “retired merchant” from 1880 U.S. Federal Census, Jefferson County, Kentucky, accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020; “blood clot” from Kentucky-U.S. Death Records, 1852–1965, accessed from Ancestry.com on November 29, 2020.

Writes about history. Author of four books, including the new “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” published by the University Press of Kentucky.