The Strange Case of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr.

It was a chilly morning on the 3rd of October. Dr. Abner Baker, Jr. rode through a crowd of people in a calm and stoic manner. As the wagon came to a stop, Dr. Baker stepped down and quietly made his way up the steps of the wooden gallows. At his perch upon the gallows, he repeated the charges he had made against Mr. Daniel Bates and others. He went on to refer the people to a history of the whole affair, one in which he had written out by his own hand and gave to his friends for publication. He appeared to embrace death rather than fear it. Once Dr. Baker read his statement, the executioner anchored the noose around his neck. Dr. Baker raised his hand, taking hold of the rope, with bitterness and scorn, shouted, “Behold the necklace of a whore!”

Notes: There remain many questions, regarding this case, that continue to go unanswered. Some have argued that the execution of Dr. Abner Baker was a lawful execution of a man who killed Daniel Bates in cold blood. Many others, however, have argued that Dr. Baker’s execution was nothing more than the judicial murder of an insane man. Little is left to question as to whether or not Dr. Baker shot Daniel Bates. What comes into question, however, is whether Dr. Baker was really insane. Many physicians, though not having personally examined Dr. Baker, examined the totality of written evidence from his trial and concluded that Dr. Baker was, indeed, insane at the time of the murder and that he was very likely insane for quite some time preceding the murder. Still, we are left with the question as to why the pleas from hundreds of people fell on the deaf ears of Governor Owsley. Why was Dr. Baker, adjudged insane and released, then re-arrested and tried for murder? Was it ethical for the prosecution to have private counsel, paid for by the estate of Daniel Bates? Just as Dr. Baker had much support concerning his sanity, Daniel Bates also had an army of supporters who were angry, and rightly so, that Dr. Baker killed the man in cold blood. You will notice that letters included in this article are exclusively focused on and representative of the preponderance of medical evidence supporting that Dr. Baker was insane. From a medico-legal perspective this case represents many issues that continue to be debated today. Were the friends and family of Daniel Bates acting out of respect for their fallen loved one or were they on a mission to make someone pay? Should Dr. Baker have paid with his life or spent his remaining years in an insane asylum? That conclusion, dear reader, is left up to you.

Dr. Abner Baker was the youngest son of Captain Abner Baker (sen.) of Lancaster, Kentucky. Dr. Baker was married to the sister of Kentucky Governor R. P. Letcher and had no children. Baker’s father resided in Clay County, Kentucky for some twenty-five years. It was noted by some that, “the people of the county had the character of being lawless and immoral, and indulging in every species of vice that their imaginations could suggest.” Baker (sen.) was the Clerk of both Courts in Clay County. As the youngest of his siblings, Baker, from a young age, was noted as having a thought disposition and good intellect; he was also very favorable amongst his peers. Baker attended the common schools in Kentucky until his transfer to East Tennessee College in Knoxville, Kentucky. It is unclear the precise time in which Baker remained at the college. Between the ages of 18-20 years, he was appointed as Midshipman in the United States Navy. He remained at sea in the Navy for about twelve months; during this time, while in service of the ship, the vessel landed in a foreign port.

Baker returned to Kentucky from the Navy in 1834 where he would become appointed as the Clerk of the Clay County Court and Clerk of the Circut Court in November of the same year. Baker “faithfully” kept this position until 1836; after which began the study of medicine. About a year later, Baker switched careers yet again and engaged in the mercantile business in Lancaster, Kentucky. He made purchases of “of the highest price and of the best quality.” This particular business was not going so well and a short time later, Baker shipped his stock to Louisville. Friends in that city would go on to recommend he travel to Arkansas to sell the goods and he did just that. He sold his goods to a single man, without securing the debt, on the good word of the gentleman that bought them. Baker would get the title to a tract of land in which the buyer owned. Facing bankruptcy, Baker sold the land and attempted to pay off his debtors. Yet again, Baker began the study and practice of medicine. After a short period of practicing medicine, Baker was able to satisfy all of the claims held against him by creditors.

In 1838, Baker attended lectures at the Medical Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. At the close of the second session in 1839, Baker received a diploma to independently practice medicine. Dr. Baker was named as Vice President of the Medical Society by his fellow students. It was, however, during the years of 1838-1839 in which Dr. Baker began exhibiting signs of insanity. His bizarre conduct and “abrupt deportment” as a medical student were frequently the talks of his fellow students and friends. While attending lectures, one of Dr. Baker’s friends stood near him in the Hall of the Louisville Medical Institute; out of nowhere, Dr. Baker attacked the student and threatened his life if he “attempted to look at [Baker’s] head again.” More specifically, Dr. Baker suspected the student of looking at a grey lock of hair in the front of his head. During late nights, Dr. Baker would become paranoid and alarm the family he lived with by crying out that some person(s) were in the house. “We would light a candle, and followed by Dr. Baker, who was armed with the tongs or shovel, would examine every apartment, even to the garret, and he would, after this, still insist that there were persons in the house, as he heard them whispering.”

Following the development of symptoms of mental illness, Dr. Baker moved south to Knoxville, Tennessee where he practiced medicine. It was noted that he was a “successful and scientific practitioner,” and he was esteemed for his manners, save for the occasional eccentric behaviors and deportment. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Baker moved back to Clay County, Kentucky, where he followed similar suit in Knoxville. Dr. Baker had a “capacious mind” and was able to communicate the nature and causes of disease in the human body, unlike many of the other practitioners of his time. This temperate and beloved man would then overshadow his accolades because of his “deranged state of mind;” it would change his true character and disposition. Under this “morbid derangement,” Dr. Baker formed a matrimonial connection with one Miss Susan White, the daughter of James White of Clay County, Kentucky, without a “charge against her chastity and virtue, except by Dr. A. Baker himself.” It was with his marriage and connection to the White family that he established a connection with people whose associates, character and disposition were the antitheses of his own manner of life. After the marriage to Susan White, Dr. Baker’s father would opine and express that his son was deranged.

After his marriage to Susan White, Dr. Baker’s behavior plummeted to an entirely different level. They moved in with a family, the Bateses and he began vehemently making accusations against his wife, Susan, that she was being promiscuous. Further, Dr. Baker would freely tell people that Susan was so promiscuous that she began having sex at the young age of nine with slaves, her family members, including her father and her uncles, and Daniel Bates. Dr. Baker alleged that Daniel Bates was conspiring to end his life; more so, he went on to allege that Daniel Bates would have sex with Susan while [Dr. Baker] was in bed with her at night. Additionally, Dr. Baker said that his own mother assisted these men and that she and his sisters operated a brothel. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Baker would move yet again to Knoxville and would return again on the 13th of September, 1844.

Back in Clay County, Dr. Baker immediately went to the saltworks, owned by Daniel Bates, and quietly approached Bates where Baker proceeded to shoot Bates once in the back. Though Daniel Bates lived for several hours; however, before his untimely death, Bates guaranteed some ten thousand dollars for the conviction of Baker for his murder; Bates got a promise from his son that if Baker escaped official punishment that the son would kill Baker. After shooting Daniel Bates, Dr. Baker hid in some nearby woods for a number of hours where he surrendered, on his own terms, to members of the Garrard family. On the 24th of September, the Garrards took Dr. Baker before two justices of the peace to determine the case eligibility of handing the case over to a grand jury. Dr. Baker and Commonwealth’s attorneys were not present for the initial hearings which would determine whether he was able to stand trial. Witnesses from both sides testified and Dr. Baker was ruled legally insane when he killed Daniel Bates. His custody was transferred to the care of both of his brothers who were also physicians. Dr. Baker’s family believed that he could make a recovery in Cuba and that is where he went.

However, friends and family of Daniel Bates were able to persuade the Commonwealth’s attorney to get an indictment for the Murder of Daniel Bates. Additionally, Kentucky’s governor, William Owsley, offered a reward for the arrest and return of Dr. Baker. The Bates estate also offered a reward for the sum of $850. Dr. Baker’s father made the plea that his son was not a fugitive from the law and that he would be promptly returned to face trial. Given the influence that the Bates family had in Clay County, Dr. Baker’s father was attempting to apply for a change in venue for the trial; however, Dr. Baker’s brothers, upon returned him from Cuba, failed to be informed of this and Dr. Baker was transferred to authorities in Clay County to stand trial.

The trial began on the morning of July 7, 1845, headed by Commonwealth’s Circuit Court Judge, Tunstall Quarles at the Clay County Courthouse. Dr. Baker was defended by two Clay County attorneys with an additional three attorneys from neighboring counties. The prosecution, headed by Commonwealth’s Attorney William B. Moore, consisted of a total of four attorneys. The jury of twelve contained eight small property owners and four who had no property of taxable value. There were no less than two jurors who were unable to sign their names. Clay County, Kentucky consisted primarily of farmers and laborers. The trial was salacious; witnesses testified that Dr. Baker shot Daniel Bates and resulted in his death. Some of the members of the White Family had argued that Dr. Baker married Susan in order to obtain some of the fortunes that the White family had accumulated over the years. Additionally, they argued that Dr. Baker lived with Daniel Bates in order to improve his own professional position within the community and as a means of getting hold of some of the Bateses money.

Many of the witnesses for the prosecution would proclaim that Dr. Baker was not insane yet physician Dr. Reid went as far as saying that if the defenses facts held true then Dr. Baker was insane. It was confirmed by both the Commonwealth and the defense that Daniel Bates threatened to kill Dr. Baker (after he left his wife) if he returned to Manchester. The defense presented a number of witnesses that testified to Dr. Baker’s pathological history and his wild behavior. Professor of medicine at Transylvania University, Dr. W. H. Richardson, noted Dr. Baker’s behavior as being “monomania.” Interestingly, Kentucky juries, up the mid-1850s, had the authority to determine not only the facts in criminal cases but also the law. After a short period of deliberation, the jury returned their verdict: guilty for the murder of Daniel Bates. Circuit Court Judge Quarles announced the “mandatory” death sentence against Dr. Abner Baker. At the time, there was no way to formally appeal a felony conviction in the Commonwealth. The trial judge also denied a motion for a new trial. The only option left for the Baker family was a last-minute plea to Kentucky’s governor to pardon Dr. Baker. Governor Owsley issues a brief and temporary Stay of Execution moving the date of execution from 13 September to 3 October.

In an apparent never-ending drama of this case, friends and family of Daniel Bates provided a letter to Governor Owsley which was allegedly written by Dr. Baker himself. Baker called upon his supporters to come together as an “army” and storm the jail in Clay County in order to free him. Governor Owsley immediately notified Kentucky’s Adjutant General, Mr. Peter Dudley, to travel to Clay County and investigate the charge. After Dudley’s investigation, he ordered the Madison County Militia to Manchester to stand as ‘special’ jail guards. Friends of Bates formed their own armed militia amounting to nearly two hundred armed men just to make sure that Dr. Baker did not escape. Accordingly, Dr. Baker’s family members were not permitted to visit him in jail. The Bates “militia” planted a large barrel of gunpowder under the jail; in the event that Governor Owsley pardoned Dr. Baker, the powder would be discharged.

A number of prominent citizens, businessmen, and physicians made pleas for clemency to Governor Owsley; however, these please would fall on deaf ears. Below are just a few of the recreated letters sent to Governor Owsley (text was taken verbatim). Prominent physicians Dr. Luke Blakcburn, Dr. Benjamin Dudley, and the highly esteemed Dr. Samuel Gross, all attested to Dr. Baker’s insanity. Letters and documents went into the hundreds of pages and we simply cannot include them all in this post.

Following his conviction, Dr. Abner Baker attempted to end his own life by cutting his femoral artery with a pocketknife. An incision of about two inches resulted in a significant loss of blood. Believing he was dying, Dr. Baker again reiterated his claims against Daniel Bates and his wife, solemnly sticking to his story. Upon hearing that his son had inflicted a mortal wound upon himself, Abner Baker (sen.) immediately went to the jail at Clay County and was promptly refused any entry to see his son. Before attempting to end his life, Dr. Baker penned a letter:

Kentucky law stipulated that an insane man could not be executed. Therefore, Dr. Baker’s father implored Governor Owsley to convene a panel of physicians in Lexington or Frankfort to examine his son’s mental state. This was quickly rejected by Governor Owsley. Fayette County Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Buckner was then petitioned to hold a lunacy hearing for Dr. Baker. Judge Buckner agreed to this but only if Governor Owsley would temporarily stay Dr. Baker’s impending execution. Governor Owsley would not do this nor would he pardon Dr. Baker. On the morning of October 3rd, Dr. Abner Baker was hanged for the murder of Daniel Bates.

The legacy of this case has been lasting and its implications spread far. Many have argued that the execution of Dr. Abner Baker is akin to judicial murder. Among the many issued that have been recognized by researchers and historians include the use of paid, private prosecutors during the trial. Commonwealth’s Attorney William B. Moore would later write a letter to Governor Owsley in which he posited that Dr. Baker was, indeed, a monomaniac and should have been pardoned. The three private attorneys for the prosecution, however, stuck to a campaign, which vehemently opposed the pardoning of Dr. Baker. One of these private attorneys made an unsubstantiated claim to Governor Owsley that supporters of Dr. Baker would present a forged letter of pardon when Dr. Baker made it to the gallows. For a number of reasons, this case will likely remain controversial.

Final Words

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. Crozier, C. W., A. R. M’Kee, and Abner Baker. 1846. Life and trial of Dr. Abner Baker, Jr., (a monomaniac) who was executed October 3, 1845, for the alleged murder of his brother-in-law, Daniel Bates: including letters and petitions in favor of a pardon and narrative of the circumstances attending his execution, etc., etc. Louisville, Ky: Prentice and Weissinger, Printers.

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