The Assassination Of Major A. G. Hamilton

Louisville Courier-Journal, April 3, 1895

Major A. G. Hamilton, of Libby Prison fame, was assassinated near Morgantown, at about 2:00 this morning, by Sam Spencer and Alfred Belcher. His body was found lying on the side of the Bowling Green Road, about 200 yards from the town limits, about 6:00, by Dr. Cherry.

An investigation was at once commenced, and by 10:00 the authorities had secured sufficient evidence to cause the arrest of Spencer and Belcher. Spencer denied the charge, but Belcher confessed and told the following:

"Spencer and I were together last night most of the night. We were here attending court as witnesses and live in Warren County. At about 12:00 last night, we left the barbershop and went to our boardinghouse and went to bed. In an hour or so Spencer and I got up and started to the 'booze pen.' Before we started, Spencer took a pistol from Frank Easley's pocket; a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson. I had Frank Smith's .38 caliber Smith and Wesson. We left for the whiskey house just outside the town.

"We saw two men sitting near the roadside. One of them asked us where we were going. We replied that it was none of his ____ business. The man started toward us, and I told him to stop.

"The second man raised up and called to his companion to come back. He did not do so, but came on to me, and I knocked him down.

"As I knocked him down, Spencer fired at the other man, who fell on his face. Spencer ran. I followed and brought him back. Spencer and I, assisted by the friend of the wounded man, helped the wounded man up, but he could not stand and could not speak. We laid him down and left.

"The man we found with him was drunk and did not give his name. He said the wounded man was Major A. G. Hamilton. I did not know that Spencer was going to shoot. The pistol found there was the one I had.

"We were drunk. I am 22 years old. Spencer is 21."

The postmortem examination developed that Hamilton was killed by a pistol shot of a .32 caliber, and Spencer was known to have had such a pistol. The shot took effect between the second and third ribs in the left breast and ranged downward and backward, breaking the ninth rib near the spine on the right side.

There is great indignation, but no fear of a mob. The accused are in jail. Hamilton's body will be buried by the O. P. Johnson G. A. R. post tomorrow afternoon at Reedyville.

How Hamilton Became Famous

Maj. Hamilton became famous by his escape from the Confederate Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia, through Col. Rose's tunnel during the Civil War. The story is impressed upon the minds of the people by Frank E. Moran's interesting narrative in the Century Magazine for March 1888.

It was on the night of February 9, 1864. In all, 109 Union officers made their escape, and of these 48 were retaken. Col. Thomas E. Rose, of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was the engineer and leader throughout. He discovered that water often flooded the cellar of Libby, and also that a sewer just outside connected with the canal close by the James River.

In going into the cellar one day, on an inspection with a view to escape, Col. Rose suddenly encountered a fellow prisoner, Major A. G. Hamilton, of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry. A confiding friendship followed, and the two entered at once upon the plan of regaining their liberty. They agreed that the most feasible scheme was to tunnel from "Rat Hell," as the cellar was known. Without further ado, they secured a broken shovel and two case knives and began operations.

That portion of the cellar was later closed up by the Confederates, and a change of tactics was rendered necessary. Col. Rose set about studying another plan, and one very dark night, during a howling storm, again unexpectedly met Hamilton in a place where no prisoner could be reasonably looked for at such an hour.

In the darkness each thought the other an enemy and were about ready to spring at each other's throats, when a flash of lightning revealed their identity. Rose now spoke of an entrance from the south side of the street to the middle cellar, having frequently noticed the exit and entrance of workmen from that point and expressed his belief that if an entrance to this cellar could be effected, it would afford them the only chance of slipping past the sentinels.

With a wedge whittled out of a piece of pine wood, the floor in a dark, vacant kitchen directly over this cellar, was pried up for a space large enough to admit a man's body. Rose descended, leaving Hamilton to keep watch. The cellar was thoroughly explored.

The next day a piece of rope was secured. It came about several bales of clothing. It was 100 feet long and an inch thick.

The next night Rose and Hamilton descended to the kitchen, and when all was quiet, both men used the rope to slide into the cellar. This was repeated for several nights, only to find sentinels ever watchful just outside the cellar wall.

During one of these trips to the cellar, a box of tools, including a broadax, saw, two chisels, several files, and a carpenter's square were found. On one of these nights the guard on the outside was aroused, and a search of the cellar followed, but Rose and Hamilton had gotten safely into the kitchen and replaced the flooring.

Hamilton and Rose had almost made up their minds that the only means of escape was by force and had planned to overpower the two sentinels outside the cellar. It was decided to arrange an escaping party.
Col. Rose, the recognized leader, swore them to secrecy, and the party consisted of about 75 men. This was later increased to 420, at the suggestion of Hamilton, the nightly movements having given rise to suspicions and anxiety by the other prisoners.

After several fruitless attempts, all made without creating any alarm, the project of escape by force was abandoned and talk of it died out.

This was Rose's opportunity. He sought Hamilton and told him the plan to escape by a tunnel through "Rat Hell" must be revived. There was, however, but one way in which "Rat Hell" could be reached without detection, and the conception of this and its successful execution was due to Hamilton. It was to cut a hole in the back of the kitchen fireplace. This must be in the shape of the letter "S" and must not break the wall on the hospital side above the floor, nor the carpenter shop side below it.

Work was only possible between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. A jackknife and a chisel were the implements used. Hamilton did the work, cutting the bricks out whole. Rose stood guard outside the fireplace.

Night after night, these two men worked, and every morning at 4:00, the dislodged bricks were put back and covered with soot. After many nights an entrance to "Rat Hell" was affected.

Then the work on the tunnel was begun. A wooden spittoon, a piece of clothesline, several bits of candle, and two chisels were taken into the cellar. The two worked alone for many nights. The air was so vitiated in the tunnel the light would go out.

Thirteen men were carefully selected. Among these were Capt. John Sterling, 13th Indiana; Capt. John Lucas, 5th Kentucky Cavalry; and Capt. Isaiah Johnson, 6th Kentucky Cavalry. The men were formed in squads of five, giving them two nights off duty and one night on.

Hamilton had no equal for ingenious mechanical skills in contriving helpful little devices to overcome or lessen the difficulties that beset almost every stop of the progress.

Water of the canal finally broke into the tunnel, but this was after much labor obviated. Reverses again came, and hope was abandoned by all, save Rose and Hamilton, and for nights these two worked alone. Up to this time 39 nights had been spent on the work of excavation.

The first tunnel was abandoned, as the oak boards of the sewer could not be penetrated. The new tunnel was through the east wall of the cellar. No longer harassed by water and timbers, the work was renewed with more energy. Five men now worked, day and night. Their absence was concealed at roll call by a device of "repeating," some of the men stepping farther down the line.

On the night of February 8th, the tunnel was completed to a point inside the enclosure, a neighboring warehouse. At 7:00 the next evening, the break was quietly made. Rose led, followed by Hamilton. As the sentinel who passed by the entrance of the warehouse went by, one man stepped out and walked briskly away in an opposite direction. The rest followed at intervals.

During the World's Fair, Major Hamilton visited Chicago and went to the Libby Prison Museum. He told the superintendent that he was the second man to escape from it and had not seen it since. He at once became a hero of the day at the museum and made a trip through the fireplace and into "Rat Hell."

This was on September 17, 1893. The Chicago papers made a feature of it, and the next day the hero of Libby Prison was lionized.