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The Prince of Jockeys

The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy

Pellom McDaniels III

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-11


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pp. xi-xii

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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...

Part 1: Roots

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1. Into the Bluegrass

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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...

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2. America Bourne

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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...

Part 2: Rise

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3. Seizing Freedom

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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...

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4. From the Silence and the Darkness

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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...

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5. The New Order of Things

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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...

Part 3: Revelations

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6. Learning to Ride and Taking Flight

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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...

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7. An Elegant Specimen of Manhood

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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...

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8. In This Peculiar Country

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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

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9. A Pageantry of Woe

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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...

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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...

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pp. 419-422


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pp. 423-426


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pp. 427-476


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pp. 477-506

Image Plates

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pp. 520-551

E-ISBN-13: 9780813143859
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813142715

Page Count: 552
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 862822345
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Prince of Jockeys

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Subject Headings

  • Murphy, Isaac Burns, 1861-1896.
  • Murphy, Isaac Burns, 1861-1896 -- Influence.
  • African American jockeys -- Biography.
  • Jockeys -- United States -- Biography.
  • Jockeys -- Kentucky -- Biography.
  • Kentucky Derby -- History.
  • Kentucky -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
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