Judge Turned Novelist
Billingsley pens historical novel
set around real Civil War events
Some characters are based on
Carrollton residents of period
CARROLLTON, Ky. (July 2014) – When Stan Billingsley’s wife, Gwendolyn, read the story of slave Wheeling Gaunt, she knew the story had to be shared with others. Her husband, a former Kentucky District Judge for 19 years, decided to write an historical novel using characters based on real people such as Gaunt, who lived in Carrollton at one time.
Retired Kentucky District Court Judge Stan Billingsley said when he learned of the story of Wheeling Gaunt, it was “a story that had to be told.” So he wrote a historical novel about it.
“This is a story that has to be told,” said Billingsley, 71. “Wheeling Gaunt was a slave fathered by a white merchant, Alfred Gaunt, who also had a son born the same year by his white wife.”
Billingsley’s novel, “The Widows of Highland Ave.,” is set during the time of the Civil War. No one can dispute the effect the Civil War had on Kentucky and the United States. It was a time of unrest that brought the issue of slavery to the forefront, even in the quiet northern Kentucky river town of Carrollton.
Wheeling Gaunt was active in the Underground Railroad, and upon purchasing his freedom after the Civil War, he moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he helped to found Wilberforce College. Gaunt donated nine acres of land for a city park and “at his death was the richest black man in Ohio,” Billingsley said.
When Billingsley and his wife visited Gaunt’s grave, they realized his name had been left off of the tombstone. Proceeds from the sale of his book will be used to have Gaunt’s name placed on the stone.
Other local characters in the book include Gen. William Orlando Butler, a Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States in 1848; Alice Scott, original owner of Billingsley’s home and daughter of Kentucky’s fourth governor, Charles Scott; and George Nichols Sanders, a Confederate spy who was implicated in the plots to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Sanders was also involved in the Great Bank robbery of the Southern Bank on High-land Avenue in Carrollton. Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, Henry Watterson and Gen. Cassius Marcellus Clay all make appearances in the book.
“I think Cassius Clay was one of the most underrated heroes of the North. He was greatly under-appreciated,” said Billingsley. “When he started college, he and his brother freed all of their slaves.”
Billingsley said he probably read 30 books for background material and visited Civil War battlefield sites, such as Gettysburg. Through his characters, he has related the “different views of the time. There was a great effort in Kentucky to help slaves.”
Billingsley retired as a judge in 2006. He has the rare record of having served as judge in 26 Kentucky counties.
Early in his career, Billingsley in 1963 attended the White House Summer Intern program. He was employed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964-65. Prior to his career as a judge, he practiced law for 13 years in Louisville and northern Kentucky.
His family is originally from Oklahoma. He lived in Canada and Wyoming, coming to Kentucky his senior year of high school. “Two-thirds of my ancestors fought for the South,” he said.
He has written two novels relating to abuse of the Attorney Ethics and Discipline procedures. Billingsley is Senior Editor of LawReader.com, an online legal research library used by more than 1,000 Kentucky lawyers, county Law Libraries and Public Libraries.
Billingsley said his novel explores the Great Magnolia Myth, the idea that the Civil War was a romantic effort to uphold states’ rights. He said, “This myth is exposed as a marketing effort by the rich slave owners to preserve cheap labor.”
It is known that the Underground Railroad existed in Carroll County and that up to 200,000 slaves fled by using it. “There are 23 Confederate monuments in Kentucky and none to honor the sacrifices and contributions of slaves,” Billingsley said.
Billingsley credits his wife, who is originally from Lebanon, Ohio, with a lot of the research and ideas incorporated into the book. She said she had actually considered writing about Gaunt’s story herself. Gwendolyn is a former high school history teacher.
She said she loves the fact that “you can go to the places mentioned in the book. By using names of local people, you can make a connection with a variety of people.”
Billingsley has plans for another novel based on a river tragedy in the 1890s that took place near Warsaw, Ky. When writing a novel, “you first have to get a good story,” he said.
• “The Widows of Highland Ave.” is available at Carmichael’s Book Store in Louisville; and in Carrollton at Maguanna’s Gift Shop and Welch’s Riverside Restaurant.
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