Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Prince of Jockeys

The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy

Pellom McDaniels
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 552
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Prince of Jockeys
    Book Description:

    Isaac Burns Murphy (1861--1896) was one of the most dynamic jockeys of his era. Still considered one of the finest riders of all time, Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, and his 44 percent win record remains unmatched. Despite his success, Murphy was pushed out of Thoroughbred racing when African American jockeys were forced off the track, and he died in obscurity.

    In The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, author Pellom McDaniels III offers the first definitive biography of this celebrated athlete, whose life spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the adoption of Jim Crow legislation. Despite the obstacles he faced, Murphy became an important figure -- not just in sports, but in the social, political, and cultural consciousness of African Americans. Drawing from legal documents, census data, and newspapers, this comprehensive profile explores how Murphy epitomized the rise of the black middle class and contributed to the construction of popular notions about African American identity, community, and citizenship during his lifetime.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4385-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[x])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [xi]-[xii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Isaac Burns Murphy was born in the midst of dramatic changes taking place in mid-nineteenth-century America. He lived through the “second American Revolution,” which gave people of African descent recognition as citizens, and he died at the end of the same century, when those hard-fought gains were shattered by the adoption of government-sanctioned Jim Crow policies of exclusion. Murphy, one of the most dynamic jockeys of his era, was a casualty of his own success. He lived at a time when former slave turned fiery abolitionist Frederick Douglass and bold yet wise President Abraham Lincoln publicly reproached advocates of the...

  4. Part 1: Roots

    • 1 Into the Bluegrass
      (pp. 15-42)

      Less than a century before Isaac Murphy was born, the institution of slavery was aggressively expanding beyond the borders of the Old Dominion of Virginia into what would eventually become the state of Kentucky. Prior to the Revolutionary War, explorers, frontier families, and land speculators pushed their way into the western boundaries in search of lush, fertile lands where they could cultivate crops, exploit the natural resources, and take advantage of the abundant wild game to feed themselves and their families. A decade after the war for independence, gentlemen farmers, the sons of planters and farmers, and former soldiers followed...

    • 2 America Bourne
      (pp. 43-68)

      On January 6, 1861, near the town of Winchester in Clark County, Kentucky, on the Pleasant Green farm owned by David Tanner, America Murphy gave birth to a baby boy she named Isaac.¹ Or at least this is what we can glean from the little hard evidence that exists. How America came to be on the farm, where exactly she gave birth to her son, who attended her, and whether the boy’s father, Jerry Skillman, was present will never be known. What we do know is that because of her status as an enslaved black woman, the particulars related to...

  5. Part 2: Rise

    • 3 Seizing Freedom
      (pp. 71-110)

      Almost immediately after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, the country split down the middle. Tensions had been building for nearly forty years, since the Missouri Compromise, and the Republican Party’s platform of limiting the expansion of slavery into the Federal territories sent a shock wave through the United States. Historians may argue that the causes of the Civil War were multiple, yet all would agree that the linchpin was the issue of slavery.

      Other than the radical abolitionists who believed the institution was morally and religiously wrong, white Americans in the North, South, and West became agitated...

    • 4 From the Silence and the Darkness 1865–1869
      (pp. 111-148)

      In the summer of 1869 the highly anticipated total eclipse of the sun enshrouded the earth in darkness for what seemed to some like an eternity. Scientists had foretold of the “startling and impressive” sight that would appear in the sky on August 7.¹ Still, this natural occurrence turned frightful and disconcerting to those who had a limited knowledge of the universe and therefore gravitated toward their religious roots to explain the darkening horizon. But on the day in question, few could turn away from the tremendous spectacle that resembled the colliding of heavenly bodies and, to the naked eye,...

    • 5 The New Order of Things 1870–1874
      (pp. 149-176)

      On the day after New Year’s 1870, three to four feet of snow blanketed central Kentucky—the heaviest snowfall in the state’s history. Whiteness enveloped the countryside, and in the clear, predawn sky following the storm, an aurora borealis was visible as far south as Lexington.¹ This was an unusual occurrence in the Bluegrass, and only those rising before the sun crested the Allegheny Mountains in the east would have witnessed the natural phenomenon.² On the morning in question, between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00, farmers in central Kentucky would have been starting their days, tending to livestock, milking...

  6. Part 3: Revelations

    • 6 Learning to Ride and Taking Flight 1875–1880
      (pp. 179-240)

      By his fourteenth birthday, Isaac’s apprenticeship in the stables of James T. Williams and Richard Owings began to pay off. In the beginning, no one could have imagined that the little boy from Lexington would become the greatest representative of horse racing the state—maybe even the country—would ever produce. What is even more amazing is that despite his greatness, Isaac remained humble and focused in a sport where dishonesty and treachery prevailed. Like most boys filled with potential, Isaac would have had little hope of achieving success without sponsorship and guidance, so the opportunity to demonstrate his talent...

    • 7 An Elegant Specimen of Manhood 1881–1889
      (pp. 241-328)

      In the early spring of 1881, Isaac found himself largely alone, having lost his mother in 1879, followed by the passing of J. W. Hunt-Reynolds, his mentor and employer, in the fall of 1880. Other than Eli Jordan, who had been a father figure to Isaac since childhood, he had no family connections. There is no evidence that his mother’s siblings kept in contact with their nephew after leaving Lexington sometime before 1873. Now twenty years old, Isaac would have sought female companionship among the young black women in the Frankfort community, near his home on the Fleetwood Stock Farm....

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 8 In This Peculiar Country 1890–1895
      (pp. 329-402)

      In January 1890 most blacks in Kentucky, as well as in the rest of the nation, were aware of the growing tensions between blacks and whites over the so-called Negro question. The Kentucky Leader carried a front-page article explaining the reasoning behind a Senate bill proposing that blacks be forced to emigrate to Africa. Essentially, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Mathew Butler, believed that blacks had become the political “foot-ball of contending factions and been made to suffer enough between the upper and nether millstones of opposing forces”—that is, white people. As a group, blacks could never find justice in...

    • 9 A Pageantry of Woe 1896
      (pp. 403-410)

      On the morning of Sunday, February 16, 1896, a veil of dread descended on the stylish two-story, red-brick Victorian home at 419 East Third Street in Lexington, Kentucky. Four days prior, in the liminal hours between night and day, Lucy Murphy wept as her husband, Isaac Burns Murphy, the famed jockey and hero of the turf, struggled to take his last breath and then died. He had been sick for more than two weeks with a flulike illness, but the possibility of death had not been entertained—at least not publicly. The overcast February morning was not unusual for the...

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 411-418)

    Putting a life into perspective in a way that is not only meaningful but also revealing of the choices and decisions made in the context of events, intended or otherwise, can be a difficult proposition. This is especially true when there are no personal papers or archives to consult. In this case, gathering the threads, shards, and jagged pieces of a life can be a painstaking task. Biography involves the exploration and clarification of the past in ways that may not fit traditional means of writing historical narratives. Revealing the world into which a person is born, lives, and eventually...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 419-422)
  9. Chronology
    (pp. 423-426)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 427-476)
  11. Index
    (pp. 477-506)