ECW welcomes guest author Stuart Sanders
More than forty years after the Civil War, workers found a hidden fortune in a crumbling Kentucky mansion.
In February 1909, two men demolishing an antebellum mansion near Paint Lick, Kentucky, uncovered a treasure trove from the Civil War.
Located less than forty miles south of Lexington on the border between Garrard and Madison counties, the home had been owned by Nathan Ross, a local farmer whom one newspaper described as “one of the richest slave owners in the South.” The house, the reporter wrote, had been “a magnificent bluegrass estate.”
Although it was hyperbolic to claim that Ross was a member of the top-shelf Southern elite, he was exceedingly comfortable. Born near Paint Lick in 1818, by the eve of the Civil War Ross was a farmer with $4,000 in real estate and a $4,000 personal estate. This included his ownership of six enslaved African Americans, four women and two men, ages eight to sixty years old.
This rate of slave ownership put Ross on par with other area enslavers. In Garrard County, 591 slave owners had 3,578 slaves (an average of 6.05 per owner), while in neighboring Madison County, 877 slave owners had 6,034 enslaved African Americans (an average of 6.88 per owner).
Although Ross led a life of comfort, the Civil War culled most of his wealth. By 1870, with his slaves emancipated after the conflict, his personal estate had dropped to $1,500 and his real estate was worth $4,500.
Ross, however, had hidden wealth away from the prying eyes of government tax assessors. Shortly after he died in August 1891, his home was abandoned. By the time it was demolished two decades later, a reporter noted, “the old house had not been occupied for years.”
Little did the men dismantling it know that a secret lay hidden in the abandoned structure. When the workers pulled a massive hearthstone out of a fireplace, they were shocked to find a cache of treasure.
Concealed in a tin box was $22,500 worth of gold and silver coins, $3,000 in diamonds, a pistol, and “several thousand dollars in Confederate money.”
Judging from Ross’s personal estate listed in census records, he may have hidden the valuables to avoid taxation. Some newspapers, however, guessed that Ross had stashed the items to protect them from guerrilla bands that had roamed the area during the Civil War. One journalist specifically pegged one irregular—“One-Arm” Sam Berry—whose guerrillas robbed, pillaged, and murdered throughout central Kentucky.
During the Civil War, Ross had reason to fear Berry and his gang.
Berry was a former schoolteacher who had once lived with a community of utopian Shakers at Pleasant Hill, a communal society located about thirty miles from Paint Lick. He earned his nickname “One Arm” the hard way. He “had his arm ground off in a cider mill,” one reporter explained.
During the Civil War, Berry became a pro-Confederate irregular who frequently rode with guerrilla captains Marcellus Jerome Clark and Henry Magruder. Based around Bloomfield in Nelson County, these guerrillas robbed Kentucky communities and murdered soldiers and civilians. When these bushwhackers once raided Perryville, Berry reputedly rode his horse into a local drug store.
Captured at the end of the war, authorities sentenced Berry to hang. The sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison with hard labor. He died as an inmate in New York in 1873. He was more fortunate than Clark and Magruder, whom Union authorities executed in Louisville.
Because of the frequency of guerrilla depredations in central Kentucky, it is no surprise that Ross or another family member hid the valuables under the hearthstone. When newspapers ran a story about the treasure in 1909, the Kentucky Advocate shared the reminiscences of other Kentuckians who had also hidden funds during the Civil War.
In one 1875 incident, the newspaper recalled that a “poor huckster” named George Miller found a kettle containing $8,000 buried under the hearth of a home that his wife had inherited. The reporter said that this money “gave Miller a start in the world.” His two sons later “sold their possessions” for $1,000,000.
The Advocate added that after guerrillas robbed the Bank of Columbia, Kentucky, and killed a cashier, people throughout the region withdrew their money from banks “and sought out a secret hiding-place for it.” This incident, and the threat of guerrilla raids, likely led to the proliferation of hidden cash during the war.
These stories show the prevalence of guerrilla violence in the Bluegrass State during the Civil War. In addition to outlining the fear and economic damage that irregulars caused, they also detail how memories of these attacks stuck with the public for decades after the conflict. “One Arm” Sam Berry may have been dead, but his memory cast a long shadow.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books. His latest, “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” examines Southern honor, vigilante justice, and the Civil War through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat. He is the former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association.