In January 2012, I published this non-fiction book about a murder trial that took place in Bullitt County more than a century earlier. We have decided to serialize the book here on the museum web site. Links to each part of it will be added to its table of contents here. You may also use this link to go back to the previous episode.
There was a chill in the Monday morning air as Ellen Taylor left her home for the Barbour home as she had in recent weeks. Old Mrs. Barbour's health had declined rapidly in recent days, and Ellen didn't know how she would find her this day.
According to several articles printed at the time in Louisville newspapers, Ellen Taylor was a seventy-year-old black woman who was working in the Barbour household, nursing his mother who was close to death. Ellen lived with her son, William Berry and his family in a cabin in the knobs west of the railroad tracks, and walked to the Barbour home each morning.
She was seen crossing the railroad tracks by several persons, but was not seen again until her body was discovered in a barn on the Huber farm four days later.
It was her habit to walk across the Huber farm, passing through the barn lot, since it cut many steps off her journey.
Earlier that morning John Barbour's mother died, and when Ellen Taylor failed to arrive, the Barbour's assumed that she had stayed home, perhaps ill. The next two days were busy for the Barbours as funeral arrangements had to be made in preparation for his mother's burial at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. At the same time, Ellen's family believed that she had remained at the Barbour home overnight when she didn't return home.
According to The Louisville Times, on Friday morning, "two Swedish farm hands on the place of Mrs. James H. Huber made the discovery of the crime. They had gone into a stable to attend to some work. One of them, whose name is Franz, saw in a stall a human foot partly exposed through a covering of manure. He and his companion proceeded to investigate and with a shovel and fork brought to view the body of Ellen Taylor."
The two farmhands were Franz Rubi and Fritz Brechbuhl. Franz had worked for the Hubers for several years; Fritz arrived on the farm earlier that year.
After they discovered the body, neighbors were called to the scene. Ellen Taylor had been killed by one or more blows to the head which crushed her skull. A scantling [a small timber such as a house stud or rafter], two to three feet long, was found nearby with blood on it, leading them to conclude that it was the murder weapon. Upon further examination, they discovered that she had been molested as well.
The two farmhands recalled that they had seen a young black man passing through the place early Monday morning. They described him as wearing a cap and sharp pointed shoes, and he became an immediate suspect.
Eight neighbors, including Richard Lewis, John Barbour, F. W. Bohne, J. J. Blankenship, Francis J. Hagan, Dr. W. R. Netherland, Dr. J. W. Fultz, and R. J. Finck, formed a citizen's committee and together offered a $250 reward for information leading to the arrest of her murderer. This was a considerable sum, being equivalent to over $6,000 a century later, and aroused interest in Louisville as well as Bullitt County.
In the community, neighbors began focusing their attention on the young Swede, Fritz Brechbuhl. John Barbour recalled seeing him on Monday morning, working in an asparagus bed a short distance from the abandoned barn where the body was found. It was known that he had shown an unusual interest in several other black women in the neighborhood which was considered a very strong point against him. Also, a blood-stained jacket and overalls were found in the barn, which, it was said, were worn by him.
The Louisville Evening Post reported, "His employers however are firm in their conviction that he knows nothing of the crime and is not guilty. There was an exciting scene Saturday night when the officers went to the Huber residence to arrest Brechbuhl. Miss Mary Huber, a daughter of Mrs. James Huber, who has charge of the place, at first refused to let the officers have the Swede, saying that he could be taken only over her dead body. She is a determined character, and it was feared that there would be serious trouble at that time, but she was finally persuaded to allow him to be arrested."
Meanwhile in Louisville, interest in the reward money prompted the relative of a police officer to call attention to a young black man who had shown up recently in the western part of the city, and who wore sharp pointed shoes. This man, named Robert Stevenson, was taken into custody.
Since they had no evidence against him, the police decided to leave him in jail overnight with other prisoners to see if he would talk about the crime with anyone there. According to newspaper reports, another man, who was in jail charged with housebreaking, told the police that Stevenson had admitted killing Ellen Taylor. This was after the informant had been released himself.
The police questioned Stevenson about the crime, and at first he would say nothing except that he had recently arrived from Memphis. Finally, however, he admitted the crime.
He told how, for three nights previous to the murder, he had slept in the old vacated barn on the Huber farm and how each morning and night he had seen her pass on her way to and from work.
He said that on Monday morning, as she drew near the barn door, he threw it open and leaped out. The old woman was badly frightened, but defended herself as best she could, and Stevenson struck her with his fist, he said. According to his story, he became frightened when he found that she was unconscious and ran to the Louisville and Nashville railroad tracks.
When he was taken to the scene of the crime the next day, he seemed to know how it had happened. He pointed out which barn it happened in, and demonstrated how he hid behind the door as she approached. He showed how he hit her first with his fist, knocking her unconscious. However, he then showed how he used his foot to crush her head. Following this, he told of digging a small trench and putting her in it, covered with straw and manure.
His right shoe was removed and, still clinging to the heel and staining the inner sole, were traces of blood. Then when he was asked if she carried anything, he said she carried a bucket which he threw into some old machinery, where the officers found it.
Despite the inconsistencies regarding the way she was killed, the officers were satisfied that Stevenson was the murderer. This would all change in the days to come.
With Stevenson's arrest, the circumstantial evidence against Brechbuhl seemed much less conclusive, and, at a hearing in Shepherdsville, the charge against him was dismissed.
Back in jail, Stevenson insisted that he was innocent, that the police had forced him to say he was guilty. While the newspaper reports are not completely clear, it appears that he must have claimed that he was still in Memphis when the murder was committed.
An officer was sent from Louisville to Memphis to investigate, and apparently it was determined that he was indeed in that city when the crime was committed. However, the Memphis police were interested in Stevenson as a suspect in a housebreaking, and he was held over in jail awaiting someone from that city to arrive and collect him.
Even that charge was dismissed, and Stevenson was released from custody. In a final irony, when he was asked why he had confessed to the murder, and how he knew so much about it, he said that another person had told him all about it, and that he just wanted to have some fun with the police. This seemed to agree with the general opinion that he was at least a bit crazy.
With charges dropped against Brechbuhl and Stevenson, the authorities had few clues to go on. The newspapers reported that the Bullitt County grand jury would take up the matter. However, an examination of the court order book does not indicate that any indictments were forthcoming. Indeed, nearly three years later, a newspaper reported that "the mystery of the murder of Ellen Taylor was never cleared up."
We can understand why John Barbour would have been upset by Ellen Taylor's murder. It came on the same day that his own mother died, and Ellen Taylor had been her nurse in those final days. It is possible that Taylor had been with the family much longer than that; even that she might have been with them as early as 1850 when Francis Barbour, John's father, was listed in the slave census with two females, one age 20, the other age 12. However, this is speculation.
What is more difficult to understand is why this murder would cause such a change in the relationship between John Barbour and Mary Huber Hagan.
When asked in February 1903 about their relationship, John Barbour said, "We were the best of friends until I quit speaking to her after her marriage." This marriage took place less than two months after Ellen Taylor's murder.
Did Barbour believe that Brechbuhl was guilty, and that Mary had somehow prevented the truth from coming out? Did he suspect Francis Hagan of having some part in the murder? Or was there some other reason?
It seems that Mary Hagan placed more emphasis on it as a turning point in their relationship than did John Barbour.
Copyright 2019 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.