Bullitt County History

Ben Chapeze

In 1887, Lucius P. Little wrote a volume titled Ben Hardin: His Times and Contemporaries - with Selections from His Speeches that was printed by the Courier-Journal Job Printing Company. In that volume he wrote about a colleague of Hardin's named Ben Chapeze. His description of Chapeze is given below.

Among the leaders of the Bardstown bar in Mr. Hardin's time, for over twenty years, ranked Benjamin Chapeze. He was born at Trenton, N.J., March 27, 1787. His father, Dr. Henry Chapeze, was a native of France. He came to America during the revolutionary war, and held the post of surgeon in the American army during that period. After peace he married Sarah Kenny, a native of Ireland. At an early day he removed to Bardstown where he resided until his death, which occurred about 1810. His son was educated at the school of the noted Priestly. In his early manhood Ben betook himself to the occupation of a wagoner.

In these days of steamboats and railroads there is little conception of the large number of persons who pursued the business of wagoning in Kentucky in early times. From the general depots for goods on the Ohio river merchandise was transported by wagons to all the interior towns, many of which were busy centers of trade. On one occasion a company of five wagons started from Louisville to Lexington, one of which was driven by young Chapeze. The roads were bad and his load was top-heavy. In eight or ten miles of his destination his wagon overturned, injuring its contents to some extent. The merchant at Lexington, to whom the goods belonged, sued him for damages and levied an attachment on his team. Chapeze was about twenty-three years of age, and, though he had never looked into a law book, he had some character as a talker and reasoner. His fellow-teamsters had confidence in his defense and his ability to make it, but knowing his great diffidence they did not scruple to spur his courage with liquor. He argued his own case with such ability that he easily defeated his adversary. May 7, 1812, he married Elizabeth Shepherd, daughter of Adam Shepherd, one of the early settlers of Kentucky.

Shepherd was the first man who lived outside a fort in Bullitt County. He settled Shepherdsville, and for him the town was named. Elizabeth Shepherd proved a worthy helpmeet of a worthy man. She recognized that talent in her husband which his own modesty prevented him realizing. It is said, too, that he had no natural liking for books nor any inclination to become a lawyer. His wife was more enterprising and ambitious. She had great influence over him, and exerted it to turn him to the law. After his marriage he had settled on a small farm in Bullitt county, which he cultivated. He was doubtless not an altogether thrifty farmer, and from that or some other cause he became involved in a lawsuit. He was defendant in an action before Wilford Lee, Esq., a justice of the peace. Lee was a sensible man and a good citizen. and, as will be seen, was of exceedingly generous impulses. (Wilford Lee was the father of the late Colonel Phil Lee, a distinguished member of the Louisville bar.) As in the Lexington case, he again conducted his defense. He was without law books, and would have been ignorant of their use if he had had them. He seems to have intuitively appreciated the importance of precedent and authority. For this purpose he produced a Bible at the trial, from which he read, and quotations from which he incorporated into his argument. His argument won his case and deeply impressed Mr. Lee. After the trial the latter urged Chapeze to turn his attention to the law. He responded his poverty, that a family depended on him for support, that he had not even money enough to buy books. Lee asked how much the necessary books would cost, and being informed about three hundred dollars, he offered to loan the money. Chapeze was reluctant to incur so serious a liability, apprehensive of his ability to repay. Lee was, however, generously persistent, professing his willingness to take the hazard. Between the arguments of Lee and the persuasions of Mrs. Chapeze. all hesitation was finally overcome, the money was borrowed, the books were bought, and study begun.

So far as he had direction in his legal training, Judge John Rowan, of Bardstown, was his preceptor and friend. But his studies were chiefly conducted on a small farm on Long Lick creek in Bullitt county. Here he lived in a log cabin with his family and studied two years. He utilized his time -- working at his books of evenings and mornings, at the noon cessation of labor, and even in the field when stopping for his horse to rest. Of the profit from the cultivation of the Long Lick farm no record remains -- but the result of a two years' cultivation of a vigorous intellect was his admission to the bar. This was in 1815.

He located first in Shepherdsville, where he continued two years at practice. He then removed to Elizabethtown, where he remained about the same period. In 1820 he located at Bardstown. After removal to Bardstown his career was eminently successful. He rode the circuit -- practicing outside of Nelson, in Meade, Hardin, Bullitt. Breckinridge, Spencer, Washington, and Marion counties. He had a practice more or less extensive in all these counties, as well as a large and lucrative business in the Court of Appeals. The reported decisions of that court show not only his numerous retainers, but the curious reader will find evidences of his superior lawyership in his petitions for rehearing formerly published with the decisions. He was employped in many celebrated cases, in all of which he acquitted himself with distinguished credit. One who heard his argument in the noted case of DeParcq vs. Rice says his effort was surpassed by none of the counsel engaged -- among whom were Ben Hardin. J. J. Crittenden, C. A. Wickliffe, and John Rowan.

He was a man of great originality and strong natural powers. He was not extensively read outside of his profession. Of the law he was a painstaking, hardworking, and thorough student. The author has seena folio manuscript volume of five hundred pages in Mr. Chapeze's handwriting embracing a general digest of the law. It was formerly the mode for genius to conceal its debt to books -- undoubtedly a weakness. The impression was created, and tradition has carefully preserved it, that Mr. Chapeze owed little to books. In truth, however, he owed just as much as any equally, great lawyer. He possessed a rich. sonorous voice. A country boy, captivated by it, found no other way to describe it than that it sounded "deep as if coming up and out of a hogshead." His style of oratory was ornate and his tendency was to use words of Latin origin. In his last days his mind grew metaphysical and his public speeches lost some of their earlier fire and popularity.

He was remarkable for great integrity of character. He was very generally called the "honest lawyer," from his candor and honesty. He abounded in charity and magnanimity. One who knew him, and was qualified to judge, summed up by calling him a "splendid man." Another speaks of him "as a lawyer of great ability and a man of singular worth and purity of character. "He was an industrious lawyer," said Governor Wickliffe. "His oratory was diffuse, but he had considerable power before a jury, especially in cases where he could array the under-growth against the upper-growth of society. In this way he was a man of great effectiveness."

His dark complexion, long raven hair, and lustrous black eyes bespoke his French origin. He would have readily passed for a native of France, notwithstanding his moiety of Irish blood. He was a large man, of fine physique and presence. He was neat in dress and person, and courteous in manner. He was not much of a politician, having little inclination or ambition that way. He was twice an old court representative from Nelson in the Legislature -- the last session a colleague of Mr. Hardin. On the close of that struggle he joined the Jackson Republicans - about that time called Democrats -- who, for the most part, in Kentucky, had been new court men. In 1828 he was chosen elector on the Jackson ticket, and cast his vote for "Old Hickory." This was the limit of his political career.

In September, 1839, he attended his last court at Elizabethtown. He was engaged in defense of a man charged with murder. The evidence being concluded, Mr. Chapeze was engaged in argument. After speaking two hours he fell, overcome by exhaustion. He was carried to his hotel. and medical aid procured. A consultation of the physicians being held, blood-letting was agreed on. Mr. Hardin hearing of it very earnestly opposed it. "Don't let them bleed you, Ben," said he, "don't let them bleed you; you'll die if they bleed you. If you submit to it, I advise you first to have your will written." Mr. Chapeze replied that his was already written, but promised to resist the bleeding. This promise, however, he did not keep. He was bled, as the practice then was, and at the end of nine days he was dead. His death occurred September 26, 1839.

Mr. Chapeze's wife was a devout Catholic all her life, and reared her children in that faith. It was, however, only a short time before his death that he was received into that church. He died a recipient of its consolations.

This is a work in progress. It is copyright 2007 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.

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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 11 Sep 2020 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/benchapeze.html