Bullitt County History

Murder and Mayhem
A Story of Murder in the 1850's


As prelude to our story, according to the 1850 census annotation for Bullitt County, provided in The Pioneer News by Mrs. W. V. Mathis, Wallace A. McKay and W. C. Barrickman in 1949, and amended in 1990 by Betty Darnell, George Joyce Sr. emigrated from Ireland and his wife was Delilah Chandler. They had at least two sons, Richard and George Jr., and a daughter Mahala who married Simpson Todd in 1840. We know that George Jr. married Deborah Myers in July 1823, and it is likely that Richard married her sister Lydia near the same time. Deborah and Lydia had another sister, Mahala Myers, who married William Green. Our story centers on the family of Richard and Lydia Joyce.

By the 1840 census, Richard and Lydia identified having five sons and four daughters. Of these, we are most interested in their sons William and Richard Jr., and their daughter Louisa.

It is not yet clear of the reason, but by the 1850 census, Richard and Lydia were living separately. Richard (68, farmer) was enumerated in household 312 along with three sons, William (23, cooper), Richard (14), and Wellington (12). Meanwhile, Lydia (50) and her daughter Louise (19) were listed in household 358 along with Lydia's mother Hannah (80), and sister Mahala (40). William Green was the head of that household, and Mahala's husband.

Louisa Joyce married Joseph A. Welch on 11 Dec 1851 in Bullitt County. They had a son they named John W. Welch who was born 12 Mar 1853. Joseph Welch died on 18 Mar 1854 of typhoid fever, leaving Louisa a widow with an infant child.

The Story

Sometimes history is ugly, and populated with people doing horrible things. This was one of those times.

In December 1856, William Joyce lived in far northwestern Bullitt County, in the Briar Creek watershed near Paulley's Gap. Living with him were his mother and his widowed sister with her child.

On Thursday, December 18th, William planned to attend a wedding that would take him away from home overnight, and he asked his brother to stay at the house with the women. Those present in the home that evening were Lydia Joyce, William's mother, his brother Richard, and their sister Louise with her child.

The home was two separate rooms, separated by a breezeway, all covered with a single roof. It was said to have a low roof and a large fireplace in each room.

When William returned home, he found his home burned to the ground. Within were the charred bodies of his brother, mother, sister, and the child.

An assumption that all four had been overcome by smoke and died in the fire was rejected when William examined the body of his brother and found that his skull had been crushed in on one side.

William had accumulated a tidy sum of money, and had the good sense to deposit it in a bank, but he may have bragged a bit too much about the money, as it was generally believed in the neighborhood that he had as much as a thousand dollars hidden away in his home.

Believing now that robbery was the likely motive for what had occurred, William and his close neighbors and friends focused their attention on some of the local slaves.

Slaves had little reason to respect the men who enslaved them, and slaveholders were aware of this, and were therefore uncommonly suspicious of them. This likely explains why William and his friends looked first at the slaves. It was also easiest to search them and their quarters, for slaves had no rights to privacy.

Later newspaper reports indicated that a Mr. Calvin was with them when they arrived at David Pendleton's place to search his slave quarters. This may have been L. G. Calvin who lived in the nearby Grassy Pond post office district (now Kosmosdale), and was a slave overseer. He testified that he and others were standing off at a distance while others were searching when he heard an outcry and saw Bill, Pendleton's slave, jump from a loft and run toward the woods. Calvin chased after him, threatening to shoot if he didn't stop.

As Calvin escorted the slave back to the others, Bill denied murdering the people, and claimed that some of the stolen property was given to him, and that he would tell all he knew about the affair.

When they reached the house, the others had discovered part of the stolen clothing and a watch belonging to Joyce.

Bill was roughly handled, and based on what he told them, they soon collected three other slaves: Hiram Samuels' slave Jack, Lewis Samuels' George, and Samuel Brown's slave, also named Bill, who all denied any knowledge of the murders.

The slaves were tied to stakes, and intense pressure was put on them to confess. Feelings were running high, and many called for their immediate execution. Calmer heads prevailed however, and the slaves were taken to Louisville.

Even though the murders took place in Bullitt County, the folks in this area felt more closely attached to Jefferson County since the roads to Louisville were much better, and more often used than those rougher ones that led to Shepherdsville, the county seat of Bullitt County.

It appears that the first official attempt to get at the truth occurred on December 23rd, when a Jefferson County deputy sheriff appointed ten men to examine the slaves and take their statements. This occurred at the home of Mrs. Alex Stewart who may have been Sarah (Stowers) Stewart.

The examiners included Simpson Todd, William Green, W. A. Nally, W. N. Brown, H. D. Maloney, L. G. Calvin, James Malona, William Kennedy, William Wright, and W. C. Kidd.

Of these, Simpson Todd was a Bullitt County neighbor, married to William Joyce's sister Mahala; and William Green was another close neighbor and husband of Lydia's sister. While less is known of the others, it was clearly a hostile panel that interrogated the slaves.

It doesn't take much imagination to picture this scene, and the fear the four slaves must have felt, guilty or not.

The report the men prepared for the court gave Bill's confession in detail, and we share it here. Note that slaves were often identified with the surname of their owners.

Bill Pendleton was recorded as saying, "George Samuels came to our house on Sunday, about, one or two weeks previous to the murder, and asked me if I had any Christmas money. I told him I had some. I asked him if he had any; be said no, but was going to have some soon. I asked him how he was going to get it. He said he was going to burn Mr. Joyce's house. That occurred on the day we made the plot. He (George) had been out gunning with his master's gun, and had killed one rabbit. On the night of the murder George and Jack Samuels came to the back part of our field about 8 or 9 o'clock and hallooed. I went out to them; asked if they were going down there; said yes they thought Mr. Joyce had money. We went down the hill near Joyce's house; there Bill Brown met us; then went to the house, looked in the window; saw the family all in bed and probably asleep; all had clubs; and Jack had hand-axe. George then went to the door, pushed it open a little, found a chair against it; put his hand in, and moved the chair. George first went in struck Richard once, killed him I believe.

"Jack followed, George turned and struck the old lady, Mrs. Lydia Joyce, one blow. She fell out of bed; she got up, went to the fire place and squatted down; Mrs. Welch woke up; Jack hit her with a club. She came to, went and sat down by her mother, Mrs. Joyce, at the fire place. George and Jack went to plundering. I and Bill Brown had been standing outside doors all the time to watch. Bill Brown then went in, went to fire place stood awhile, then commenced plundering. Mrs. Welch's child woke, who was sleeping between the old lady, and its mother; Mrs. Joyce went back and got in bed; Mrs. Welch called, 'Mother?' the mother answered, 'What do you want.' Mrs. Welch said, 'You know what I want.' Mrs. Joyce got up, went back and sat down by the fire place beside her daughter; the child asked we were making a fire, (no reply,) had got through plundering; then set fire to Richard Joyce's bed. Took lot of old newspapers, put them at foot of the other bed, in which the child was sitting up. The child smiled, as if it, appeared to be amused at the light; we then went out, as far as the yard gate, when George and Jack said, 'By God, boys, it won't do to leave them, they will tell on us.' George and Jack then went back; Jack went in first, had hand axe; struck Mrs, Welch on the forehead with it; George followed; struck Mrs. Joyce with a club on the head; she and Mrs. Welch both fell over as if dead. They then pulled the door after them and left.

"I got one pair pantaloons, one black cloth coat, velvet collar and black buttons, one black satin vest, one black silk cravat, with green spots in it., two silver watches and steel watch key, one pair kid gloves, two boxes gun caps, one music box.

"George Samuels got one silk dress, don't recollect what color, and some other articles, which he put in the sleeves of the dress, don't know what they were, and one dollar bill, torn half in two, out of a pocket book which was in the trunk.

"Jack Samuels got a dress, believe it was calico, [he said afterward it was] and other things which he put in the dress, don't know what they were, and about three dollars and fifty cents in money, out of Richard Joyce's pocket book which was in his pantaloons' pocket.

"Bill Brown got pair earrings and a breast pin, which were in a small box, and that was all he got, that I know of."

When cross-examined closely, he added, "I got the watches out of the same trunk that George got the one dollar bill from. It was setting to one side of the door, and when George commenced plundering he pushed this trunk out in front of the door first, then took the shovel and broke it open, took nothing but the money, and then went searching other places; appeared to be after nothing but money. I then stepped inside to the trunk and took the coat, pants, and things out of it. We went about sixty or seventy yards from the house and stopped, and the conversation was 'Keep secret boys — hide well, etc.'

"Jack and George went towards their homes and I and Bill Brown went towards ours. We went about a quarter of a mile before we parted. Nothing more was said between us. We threw the clubs in the fireplace. Jack took the hand-axe home with him.

"The plot was made about one or two weeks before the murder happened. We didn't know that William Joyce was gone from home; thought that it was him in bed until after Richard was killed. We had no animosity against the family whatever; we knew them all very well.

"I cut three hickory clubs some time before for the purpose. They were about two and a half feet long and about as thick as my arm. Bill Brown picked up a sugar-tree club after we got to Mr. Joyce's woodpile. I put the things which I got in a bag that I had taken along. When I got home I put them all under the floor of the cabin which I stay in, except the watch, watch-key, 2 boxes gun caps, and the gloves. The gloves and key I kept in my pocket."

As damning as this confession was, the other slaves refused to confess taking part in the robbery, arson, and murders.

George was recorded as saying, "On the night of the fire I was out coon hunting; treed an opossum; couldn't get it; went home, got Phil, and went back, but didn't get it then; we started home again; on the way we caught a coon; when we got home Jack Samuels was there in the corner asleep; I threw the coon in his lap which woke him; I asked him what he was doing there; he said he was not doing anything; he helped skin the coon, and then started home to Hiram Samuels'; this was about midnight."

He added, when cross-examined, "When I was arrested I said I was not going to say that I did or did not know who done the murder, and if Jack didn't mind he would catch himself. I saw Bill Pendleton on Sunday, about one or two weeks before the murder. I had been out hunting, and stopped there at Bill's house; I had master's double barreled gun, and had killed one rabbit and killed another one after I left there; Bill said to me that his master; David didn't want me nor Jack to come about the place; that Jack had taken a butcher knife from there once; he asked me if I had any money; I told him I had a quarter; I asked him if he had any, and he showed me three or four dollars in silver."

Jack was said to have stated, "I went from Mr. Steel's to Lewis Samuels' last Thursday night, sat down by the fire and went to sleep. I was woke up by George throwing a coon in my face. I helped skin the coon and started home to Hiram Samuels'. When I got within about one hundred yards of our house, I met Bill Pendleton and Bill Brown. We set down and talked awhile, and I asked them where they were going, They said that they were going down to tell George to keep them things he got from Bill Joyce's a secret until after Christmas, and then they would go to Canada. I went on home then. When I got in bed the clock struck one."

Cross Examined, he added, "I saw the light of the fire just before I met the two boys. I asked them what fire it was; they said they had murdered Mrs. Joyce's family and set fire to the house to hide the deed. Bill Pendleton said he had got the coat and pants of Mr. Joyce's. I never asked them whether George was in the scrape or not, nor said anything about the murder."

The committee also examined Bill Brown, but his statements were so contradictory that they concluded to make no note of his confession. He wouldn't or couldn't recollect any transaction that occurred at the time, until confronted with Bill Pendleton's confession. He then corroborated several of the statements of the other, but persisted in denying any participation in the murder.

After spending a week in the Jefferson County jail, the slaves were brought before two magistrates in the court house, who after hearing the testimony remanded them to jail to answer the charges in the Circuit Court in January. Bill Pendleton was represented by William Mix, a young lawyer recently graduated from law school. The other slaves were represented by Captain Lovell H. Rousseau who had earned his rank in the Mexican War, and who would become a Union general later during the Civil War.

According to a newspaper report, a great deal of excitement was exhibited in the court room, and along the road to the jail, which was densely crowded with people.

In the courtroom, William Joyce, who was highly excited, suddenly cried out, 'Whoever is in favor of burning them, come on,' and started towards the slaves. Captain Rousseau stopped Joyce's advance forcibly, and calm was restored in the courtroom.

The court ordered the arrest of Joyce, but immediately discharged him. On the way back to jail a few demonstrations were made against the slaves, and one person, armed with a pistol, was arrested. The excitement soon subsided and the slaves were safely lodged in jail, where they would remain until the trial.

On January 20, 1857, the slaves were brought before the court, and both Rousseau and Mix declared themselves ready for trial; however, the Commonwealth's Attorney, Mr. Craig moved for a continuance on the grounds that he had recently learned of new evidence implicating all of the slaves, and needed time to obtain it.

The case was continued to the March term which did not please the crowded courtroom, but order was maintained.

The newspaper reported that there was some concern that there was little evidence other than Bill's confession, especially against the remaining three slaves.

On Monday, May 11th, the trial began. The newspapers were relatively quiet about it until a verdict was rendered on Thursday. Then, to quote a familiar idiom, "All hell broke loose."

Little is known today about the trial proceedings leading up to the verdict, but we know that the case was concluded on Wednesday evening, and set to go to the jury the next day. There was one newspaper report indicating that a nolle prosequi (Latin for "we shall no longer prosecute.") was entered in the case of Bill who was made a witness for the Commonwealth against the others. This meant that the case against him was being dropped in return for his testimony.

It appears that the "new evidence" Craig had named in January either did not exist or was not as helpful as he had thought it would be; and now the prosecution of the other three was largely dependent on Bill's testimony.

Thursday, when court reconvened, the various lawyers presented their closing arguments which took most of the morning. Then Circuit Judge William F. Bullock read his charge to the jury.

Judge Bullock had a reputation for fairness, and was a strong supporter of education in Kentucky. As a Kentucky legislator in 1838, he had led the effort to establish the common schools of Kentucky. Then in 1841 he was responsible for getting the legislature to appropriate funds to establish a school for the blind in Louisville. Following that, he was for many years president of the American Printing House for the Blind.

Now he had the responsibility to apply the law fairly to men for whom fairness was generally ignored.

According to a newspaper report, his charge contained the following points:

  1. That it is incumbent upon the State to make out the guilt of the accused by competent and credible testimony beyond a reasonable doubt.

  2. That such a doubt in reference to any material fact or circumstance necessary to establish the guilt of the accused, entitles them or either of them to an acquittal.

  3. That it is the duty of the jury to receive the testimony of an accomplice with great caution, having reference to his moral character, to the circumstances in which he is placed, his condition in life, and the manner in which his testimony has been elicited.

  4. A conviction cannot be had upon the testimony of an accomplice, unless corroborated by other evidence tending to connect the defendants, or either of them, with the commission of the offense; and the corroboration is not sufficient if it merely shows that the offense was committed and the circumstances thereof. The corroborating evidence required by the law must connect the accused with the doing of the deed itself beyond a reasonable doubt.

  5. That if the jury find that Bill, the accomplice, deliberately and willfully swore falsely to any material fact upon the trial, his testimony upon the whole case should be disregarded. That, although they may believe that the statements heretofore made by the witness Bill, touching the murder, accord with his testimony against the accused, yet such agreement of his statements with his evidence is no corroboration of his testimony, and must not be received by them.

The courtroom had been packed all week with William Joyce's friends and neighbors, as well as many curious onlookers. Judge Bullock had managed to maintain order for the most part, but now that it was time for the jury to deliberate, the crowd's desire to see the slaves punished could be palpably felt throughout the room.

All eyes were on the jurors as they exited the room to begin deliberations. We have not discovered their names, but certainly each one had reason to vote guilty. Bill's testimony of the violence perpetrated on the Joyce family surely disgusted them. It would have been easy to believe that all of the slaves were guilty of the crime. And certainly, they understood how much the courtroom crowd longed for a guilty verdict.

And yet, if they followed the judge's instructions, how could they convict the slaves of what most of them believed had happened?

As the afternoon wore on without a verdict, the crowd grew even more restless. Then, about five o'clock, the jury returned to the courtroom and delivered a verdict of acquittal.

At first stunned, the crowd quickly exhibited strong indignation. If the slaves had not already been removed to the jail, they likely would have been attacked there in the courtroom.

The angry crowd poured into the street and headed for the jail. There they demanded that the slaves be turned over to them to hang.

It had been a bit more than two years since the "Bloody Monday" riots had swept the city in which Protestant mobs attacked German and Irish Catholic neighborhoods on election day, leaving more than twenty dead, many injured, and property burned. Though five were indicted, none were convicted, and the notion of mob action still prevailed amongst many of the population.

As the crowd gathered outside the jail fence, Mayor William S. Pilcher, himself a lawyer and slaveholder, attempted to reason with them. He would later testify that he talked with William Joyce and appealed to him that as he had invoked the law for justice, he ought not now to violate it; and not do anything which would add to the cries for vengeance being heard.

He also reasoned with Edward Randolph, who appeared to be one of the ringleaders, but it was obvious to him that Randolph was determined to have the slaves out of the jail to hang.

Captain Rousseau encouraged the mayor to address the crowd to quiet them, but his first words were met with yells and jeers. Then he was pelted with rocks, one striking and breaking his nose which led him to retreat inside the jail.

Meanwhile a number of the rioters rushed to the steam engine house on Sixth street, near the jail, burst the door and took possession of the brass cannon and the muskets of the arsenal. Loading it with pieces of iron, they dragged it in front of the jail door.

The mob tore down the fence before the jail, and pelted the jail itself with any objects they could find, angrily demanding the slaves, and threatening to use the cannon to blow open the jail door.

During the melee, one of the watchmen, Jack Weatherford had a finger shot off; Jailer William K. Thomas and his deputy were badly bruised; and Police Chief James Kirkpatrick was repeatedly hit with stones and bricks.

Deciding further resistance was futile, the authorities succumbed to the demands of the crowd, and Jailer Thomas notified the mob that he would surrender the slaves.

When it became obvious to the slaves that they would be given to the mob, Jack drew a razor from his pocket and cut his own throat rather than face the mob.

The other three were led out, seized by the mob, and dragged to the courthouse lawn where ropes were used to hang the first two on stout limbs while the third was forced to watch. The noose knot of one failed to slip and he struggled, half-choking, until finally someone adjusted it, finishing the job. He was cut down, and the third slave was hung to the same tree, dying without a struggle.

The deed done, the crowd slowly dispersed, leaving the bodies of their victims lying beneath the hanging trees.

Twelve men were indicted for the murders of the slaves. They included William Joyce, Henry Jones, Lawrence Prince, Edward Randolph, Nick Bemar, P. W. Bibb, Thomas. F. Bell, Tripp Estes, John Litzey, and Jeremiah Morris.

On Saturday, May 31st, Bemar, Bell, Litzy, Estes, and Bibb were granted bail by Chancery Judge Caleb Wallace Logan who felt the testimony before him seemed to indicate that they had little or no participation in the mob.

The following Monday, he heard additional testimony regarding bail for the remaining men, and determined that they too should be granted bail, but not before he had some strong words regarding what had taken place.

He declared, "All who were active participators in putting the negroes to death were murderers in the first degree, and all who were present aiding and abetting the doing of the act, were murderers in the second degree."

He condemned the process of identifying members of the mob, saying, "There is no doubt that hundreds of men were engaged in the common object of attacking the jail of Jefferson county, and forcibly capturing the negroes; and yet it seems that notwithstanding the most diligent investigation by the Grand Jury, only twelve men have been indicted and arrested."

That day's testimony had contradicted earlier statements about the participation of the remaining men, all except William Joyce himself.

The Judge said, "As to Joyce, whilst the testimony leaves no ground to doubt that he was urging on by word and deed the perpetration of the crime, it is equally conclusive to show such a frenzied and deranged state of mind in view of the horrible murder of his old and helpless mother, which he certainly believed to have been committed by the negroes, as to render it questionable whether he was legally responsible for his conduct."

Those indicted would sleep in their own beds for the next six months until their cases were set for trial in the January 1858 term. Then, the day before the trial was to begin, the prosecutor declared a nolle prosequi in all their cases, effectively ending their prosecution.

Once again, mob rule had prevailed.


While William Joyce waited for his own trial, he married Margaret Stewart in October. She was the daughter of Alex and Sarah (Stowers) Stewart. They would have six children, five that we can name: William Jr., Josephine (both of whom died young), Mary, John, and Joseph.

We know that they were living off of present-day Pages Lane, near Waverly Hills, in 1870, and were likely there in 1892 when the last tragedy in William's life occurred.

On August 1st, The Courier-Journal printed a conflicting report regarding William's death. The report began by suggesting that William had been killed by his son John in anger, due to William's refusal to loan the young man a mule and wagon to travel to Louisville. The suggestion was that William was trying to keep John from getting into trouble there. The first part of the article seemed to lay the foundation for John being rather wild, and William struggling to control his behavior.

However, deep into the article was a suggestion that the father had been drinking, and a claim by the son that "he awoke and heard what he thought was his father abusing his mother, and fired his revolver while yet half asleep."

Then a few days later, at the son's examining trial, his mother was called to the stand and testified that on the day in question her husband was drunk and very abusive. She said that all the other members of the family were absent from home except John, who was in the next room sleeping. She continued, saying that she was preparing supper when William came in drunk and began abusing her. When he attacked her with a chair, she screamed, awakening her son just as William raised the chair again to strike her. It was then that John fired the fatal shot.

Hearing this testimony, the judge acquitted the young man.

John would later become a mechanical engineer, and be connected with the construction of a number of sugar factories in Cuba and other places. He married Marguerite Raisbeck in Ohio in 1914. They had no children. They were living in Orlando, Florida when he died in 1950.

Neither Mary nor Joseph Joyce ever married, both living on the family farm with their mother until her death in 1917. They continued there until their own deaths, Mary in 1920, and Joseph in 1934.

With John's death came the end to the family line of William and Margaret Joyce, a line that had seen far more than its share of violence and death.


This story first appeared in the September and December 2019 issues of The Wilderness Road. It is copyright 2020 by the Bullitt County History Museum.

In researching this article, we made use of the following newspapers:
The Louisville Daily Courier: Dec 22, 24, & 29, 1856; Jan 16 & 21, 1857; May 14-16 & 23, 1857; Jun 1-2, 1857; Jan 25-26, 1858.
The Kentucky Tribune: Dec 26, 1856.
Daily Louisville Democrat: Jun 2, 1857.
The Louisville Weekly Journal: Jun 10, 1857.
The Courier-Journal: Aug 1 & 5, 1892.
Orlando (FL) Evening Star: 27 Jan 1950.

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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: 07 Mar 2020 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/mayhem.html