The Mathews Flounoy Ward murder of William H.G. Butler in April 1854 grew out of a notorious affair of honor in Louisville on November 2, 1853.
Ward, the son of a wealthy and prominent Louisville cotton merchant, along with his brother Robert Jr., went to the Louisville High School to demand an apology from its principal, William Butler, who had on the day before, whipped Ward’s brother, William, for allegedly telling a lie. After Butler refused to apologize or explain the whipping before the student body, a scuffle ensued. Matthews Ward shot Butler at close range with one of his two concealed weapons. Butler died, and a Jefferson County grand jury indicted the Wards for murder.
Lawyers secured a change of venue to Elizabeth town, where Matthews Ward was tried in April 1854. To defend his son, Ward’s father secured the services of some of the finest lawyers in Louisville and elsewhere in Kentucky, including United States Senator John J. Crittenden. Students who had witnessed the shooting testified that Matthews Ward assaulted Butler, who only responded in self-defense. Robert Jr.’s contradictory testimony, plus Crittenden’s brilliant, albeit controversial, summary, persuaded the jury to acquit Ward.
In Louisville, a mob of nearly twelve thousand residents, convinced of Ward’s guilt, endorsed a series of popular resolutions calling for the banishment of Matthews Ward from the city and the resignation of Crittenden from the Senate. Part of the mob did considerable damage to the Ward mansion.
Popular indignation against Ward persisted, causing him and his wife to establish permanent residence at the Ward plantation in Arkansas. He was killed in September 1862 by a Confederate soldier who mistook Ward, dressed in blue, for a Union soldier. Crittenden survived the widespread disapproval of his part in the Ward trial and continued his distinguished career as a national political leader.
(Information provided by the Louisville Historical League, PO Box 6061, Louisville, Kentucky, 40206)
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