Calvin Fairbank

A Methodist minister who had been connected with Oberlin, Fairbank (together with Delia Webster) aided in the escape of Lewis Hayden and family from Lexington, Kentucky, in 1844.1

After that escape, he was arrested and sentenced to prison for 15 years, but he was later pardoned in 1849 after Hayden raised enough money to compensate his former owner.2

He was imprisoned at the Kentucky Penitentiary when Zebulon Ward assumed control of the prison, and described Ward in his memoir, Rev. Calvin Fairbank During Slavery Times: How He “Fought the Good Fight” to Prepare “the Way” (Chicago, 1890), which is available on HathiTrust.

Fairbank claimed that in 1842 he helped an enslaved woman named “Emily Ward,” belonging to Zebulon Ward, escape from Kentucky to Ohio:

In April, 1842, I was in Covington, Ky., and while there was told of the case of Emily Ward, a handsome girl of 18, two-thirds white, who had been sold and was about to be taken south to become the mistress of her purchaser. She was kept in an attic facing the river. I went at nightfall and, attracting her attention by tossing pebbles against the window, threw up to her tied to a stone a note telling her I had come to help her escape. By the same means I got up to her first a cord with a bundle of men’s clothes fastened to it, and finally a stout roupe. She put on the clothes, and, crawling through a rear window of the room in which she was locked, slid down the rope to the ground. When we were a few feet away from the house we met her master, who apologized for unintentionally brushing against me in the darkness. The girl’s case was known to every one in Covington, and I did not dare to hire a boat to take us across to Cincinnati for fear of detection; so we got astride a sixteen-foot pine log lying half way out of the water on the river bank, and I paddled across, using a piece of board for an oar. Once in Cincinnati we were safe. I took Emily to the house of Levi Coffin, Superintendent of the Underground railroad in that department, and turned her over to him. He found her a comfortable home and she did well. She belonged to the family of Zeb Ward, with whom I afterward had occasion to become pretty thoroughly acquainted.3

For more, see Fairbank’s memoir, p. 20ff.

He describes Zebulon Ward very negatively:

Ward was a tyrant. He was called the ‘Blood Sucker’ of the county. He cared nothing for human life. Money was his religion (p. 116).

When Ward addressed the prisoners in March 1854, he said:

“Men, I’m a man of few words, and prompt action. Do your duties, or I’ll make ye! Go to your work.” That fell like hot shot. That was what it was. … [Later he said] “Men, I understand that some of you are dissatisfied with my time of working, I shall let no man hold a watch over me. I’ll not allow you to break me up. I came here to make money; and I’m going to do it if I kill you all. If any of you claim the ten-hour time of working, just get right up, and go to your cells!‘We all sat still and smiled. But it was like Shakespear’s smile—’When I smile, I murder.’ (p. 117).

Fairbank goes on to describe Ward’s system in chapter 17 of his memoir, describing it as a “rigorous, murderous rule” (p. 118) and the lease system as “virtually a sale” of the prison by the state to Ward, “with very little difference between the condition of the prisoner and that of an actual slave” (p. 119). Detailed descriptions of Ward’s regime follow.

In a later interview conducted when he was 80, Fairbank remembered Ward this way:4

Zeb Ward became warden of the prison in 1854. He leased it at six thousand a year and made one hundred thousand out of the lease in four years. To do this he literally killed two hundred and fifty out of three hundred and seventy-five prisoners. Ward was one of the strangest men I ever knew, physically handsome, socially magnetic, but utterly devoid of heart or conscience. He was a gambler, libertine and murderer under cover of the law. When he took the keys of the prison he said: “Men, I’m a man of few words and prompt action. I came here to make money, and I’ll do it if I kill you all.”

“He was as good as his promise. During his wardenship and that of J. W. South, who succeeded him in 1858, I received on my bared body thirty-five thousand stripes, laid on with a strap of half-tanned leather a foot and a half long, often dipped in water to increase the pain. All the floggings I received under Ward were for failure to perform the tasks set for me to do, generally weaving hemp—two hundred and eighty yards a day being what I was expected to perform, an utter impossibility. I was whipped, bowed over a chair or some other object, often seventy lashes four times a day, every ten blows inflicting pain worse than death. Once I received one hundred and seven blows at one time, particles of flesh being thrown upon the wall several feet away.

A slightly different account by Fairbank appears in the St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Caledonian, reprinted from the Independent, in 1865:

In 1855, this man [Zeb. Ward] came to keepership, and in the following winter obtained the prison by lease at $6,000 per year; and made, over all expenses, during four years, $100,000 by sheer physical force.

In the weaving, which was executed by hand, the task soon went up to 208 yards per day, mine standing for the first summer at 190 yards; then for the three following summers 208 yards; and whenever I failed, which I frequently did in 1855, and always during the summers of the three succeeding years, I suffered cruel torture, which I will describe—during the first year not more than three times a day; but the the three succeeding years often four times a day, sometimes for three months in succession; and locked in my little filthy, damp cell every Sabbath, while other men enjoyed the liberty of the yard.

The instrument of torture was one commonly used by overseers of slaves, and consisted of a strap of harness, or sole-leather, seventeen inches in length, two and a quarter inches in width, and half an inch in thickness, of the hardest, half tanned leather.5

  1. See kantrowitz2012.

  2. harrold2010, pp. 122-123.

  3. “Glorious Old Thief,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 29, 1893, p. 33, available on

  4. Norman B. Wood, The white side of a black subject : enlarged and brought down to date: a vindication of the Afro-American race, from the landing of slaves at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, to the present time (Chicago: American Publishing House, 1897), 216.

  5. “Twelve and a Half Years in Prison,” St. Johnsbury, Vermont, Caledonian, March 3, 1865, p. 1