It’s going to be an intriguing story when the 1860 news report from the Ohio River port town of Hawesville, Kentucky begins “Dr H.A. Davison, it will be remembered, was one of the persons who entered the jail and shot Thomas S. Lowe about a year ago…”
First up, murdering Lowe in his cell did not seem to attract much of a penalty. The good doctor, well, perhaps not so good, was a free man a year later — a not so surprising fact of life of twisted and lawless Kentucky immediately before the Civil War. But the story is more intriguing than that.
In February 1860 the papers were reporting that Davison was America’s first recorded suicide bomber.
Dr Hardin Aurelis Davison attempted his revenge on some men who had, with some justification, suggested that his shooting dead of an already wounded man when he was lying on his jail cell bed, was cowardly. With a misplaced sense of aggrieved honour of a sort that we now denounce among those from the sub-continent, Davison went to correct this with an honour killing. To use a phrase from the Cleveland Leader at the time of Lowe’s murder: “Kentucky used to boast of her chivalry — it has culminated in assassination and mob-murder”.
Davison who always wore a cloak, went to the store of a Mr Charlie Duncan, where he and two or three of the fiercest critics of the murder were passing the time sitting around the stove. Davison’s target was a local lawyer named William Sterrett, “against whom he [Davison] has entertained a deadly animosity since the death of Lowe”. Animosity was right. Beneath his cloak he had a willow egg basket and in that basket hidden by a few eggs he had what the newspaper called an ‘infernal machine’ — a shrapnel pipe bomb of the kind which is nowadays all too familiar.
Davison had a tinner specially construct the device. An inner pipe held about six pounds of powder, while the outer compartment was filled a further 12lbs of bullets and lead shot.
Davison got within feet of the startled Sterrett. The last thing they heard before the explosion was a loud click as Davison triggered the bomb. It blew out a whole wall of the building and lifted the roof from its rafters.
As a suicide bombmaker Davison was an amateur. Though Sterrett was seriously burned and some of the balls from the blast entered his face, he lived. The shopkeeper Duncan pulled through, though he too was seriously wounded. Most grievously injured was Davison. One side of his body and one arm torn to shreds, he ran from the building begging for someone to kill him.
Once the mobocracy of Hawesville found out what had happened they were more than willing to oblige, but they were thwarted by the mad doctor himself, who overdosed with morphine and saved them the trouble.
And what of the Lowe murder a year before? It too was the consequence of yet another blood feud. Lawyers, doctors and prominent merchants with pistol, shotgun and knife settled things the western way. It is a story in itself. It is incomparably told, like a shooting script for a Peckinpah movie, by a local reporter who was undoubtedly an eye witness to most of what happened and who went notebook in hand to question others about the bits he did not see.
Coming soon on Acton Books: If you thought Dr Davison was deranged and cruel, wait until you meet his sons…