A new book published by the University Press of Kentucky examines two murders carried out on a steamboat that had Kentucky connections.
The Ohio Belle Murder, written by Kentucky author and historian Stuart W. Sanders, explores an 1856 killing and subsequent vigilante execution that took place on board the steamboat Ohio Belle, which ran passengers and trade from Cincinnati to New Orleans.
Sanders discovered the story while researching historic newspapers.
“I came across an 1856 article about a dead man found floating in the Mississippi River, tied to a chair,” Sanders said. “I wanted to know what had happened to him, so I immediately began digging.”
Sanders discovered that the drowned man’s fate was linked to the Ohio Belle.
In March 1856, the son of a Mississippi planter boarded the steamboat at Smithland, Ky. His presence quickly led to murder and revenge. The episode made one period newspaper proclaim that “the details are truly awful and well calculated to cause a thrill of horror.”
The first murder led to an additional killing as passengers or crew took justice into their own hands.
“There are some compelling twists to the story,” Sanders said. “The Mississippian, for example, had been traveling under a false identity, which added to the sensationalism of the case.”
In explaining the causes and consequences of the murders, Sanders’s book also examines 19th century southern honor culture, interpersonal violence, vigilante justice and the complexities of the antebellum Ohio River border. The Ohio Belle also had a notable Civil War history.
“Captured by southerners early in the war, the Ohio Belle was used by the Confederate and Union armies,” Sanders said. “The boat survived the war, but several of the crew members suffered greatly during the conflict.”
Among them was Louisville native John Sebastian, the captain of the Ohio Belle. Having lost his steamboat to secessionists, Sebastian joined the Union military. He later lost his arm in combat while piloting a Union gunboat. After the war he became a noted entrepreneur and cattle dealer in Kansas.
Dr. Anne Marshall, a historian from Mississippi State University, has called Murder on the Ohio Belle a “lively, insightful read.” She added that with Sanders’s “deft interweaving of historical context, he illuminates antebellum American attitudes about class, politics, slavery, southern honor, personal identity and war.”
Sanders is also the author of the books Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle, The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky and Maney’s Confederate Brigade at the Battle of Perryville. He has also written for a wide range of journals, magazines and newspapers.
Sanders is the former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association and now serves as the history advocate and communications administrator for the Kentucky Historical Society. In 2018, the James Harrod Trust presented him with their Clay Lancaster Award for Historical Research and Writing.