Who Was John Lehman?

An unknown artist who made a lasting impression on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. Read about the life and career of one of Alabama’s most famed potters.
By Melanie Albanesi

During ANTIQUES ROADSHOW’s 2001 event in Miami, Florida, a guest named Cathy brought in an intriguing face jug that once belonged to her great-grandmother’s sister, who resided in Sylacauga, Alabama. Folk Art appraisers Ken Farmer and Carl Crossman were able to discern the identity of the jug’s maker through a small detail on the figure’s lapel buttons — the letters L-E-H-M-A-N. According to Farmer and Crossman, the letters were a hallmark of John Lehman, a relatively unknown German-born itinerant potter who lived and worked in Alabama in the latter half of the 19th century.

Little was known about John Lehman until 2016, when Joey Brackner, the leading authority on Alabama Folk Pottery at the Alabama State Council of the Arts, published an article titled “The Search for John Lehman.” Through Brackner’s article, ROADSHOW learned that Lehman was a German immigrant who came to the United States on June 4, 1847, and was naturalized in Daviess County, Kentucky, on April 14, 1859. In 1860, Lehman traveled south from Kentucky to Randolph County, Alabama, where he met his wife, Mary, while living in the home of her father, a fellow potter. In order to find work, between 1860 and 1880, Lehman traveled through the South finding work occasionally in New Orleans and Georgia. But Lehman always called Randolph County home.

Family and Travel

There is no known record of Lehman’s life or family in Germany prior to his arrival in the United States, and his whereabouts between 1847 and 1859 are largely unknown due to lack of census records and other documentation. Having arrived in the United States in his early 20s, it is more than likely that Lehman picked up his craft in the northern states or even New Orleans, where he lived briefly before marrying and starting a family in Randolph County. Further evidence of this lies in the style of his pottery — though he made his living making utilitarian pottery, many of his decorated pieces have survived and these differed greatly from more native Alabama potters. Although Lehman traveled throughout the South between 1860 and 1873, his and Mary's 11 children remained in Randolph County until the 1880s when they moved to Clinch County, Georgia.

Civil War and Reconstruction


It is difficult to say whether John Lehman saw combat during  the Civil War, yet records indicate that Mary filed for a pension several years after his death, leading historians to believe that the potter had probably enlisted in the Confederate Army. Brackner discovered through Confederate records that at some point, Lehman was deemed “unfit for service” and so spent the majority of his military service making bedpans for local hospitals. While Lehman may not have had an active military career as a Confederate soldier, it seems his racial attitudes were generally in keeping with those of most Confederates and Southerners during the post-war Reconstruction era.

Due to the racial and political tensions in the South during the years following the Civil War, historians believe that John Lehman was most likely a Democrat who opposed the Reconstruction efforts of the Republicans in the North. According to Brackner, the figural jug that was brought to ROADSHOW is likely a politically inspired, derogatory depiction of African American leaders and “corrupt Republican legislators dressed as ‘pirates.’”

It is unknown exactly who would have purchased this jug when it was crated, probably during the 1870s, or how much it would have gone for at the time. Brackner speculates that the jug could have been commissioned to be displayed at political meetings, or even possibly to hold liquor. In any event, he believes all three known “face jugs” of this type were likely made at about the same time during the Reconstruction period.

Lehman's Death

On the night of Tuesday, September 4, 1883, in Columbus, Georgia, John Lehman died of what was described as “congestion of the brain” in the September 11th edition of the Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun. According to Lehman family lore, however, the potter was robbed and murdered while working in the city. With no documentation of a murder or any discovery of a robbery report, it is difficult to conclude Lehman was murdered, when there is written evidence that he died a more natural death. In a recent phone call, Brackner explained why the family story may have held weight at the time:

"This was a real working-class kind of guy, the family did not have a lot of political or economic power; having just made it through a violent period, Reconstruction, they were probably suspicious of everything. [That’s] kind of a vague notion I had. He went away but who knows what really happened to him. It's all speculation.

Speculation or not, it is curious that if Lehman was murdered, it was not described as such, for other entries in the Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun used more detail when reporting on other known deaths and human-interest stories.

Despite the very little that is known about Lehman, he is still considered to be one of the South’s most celebrated potters of the 19th century. In May 2018, a group of Alabama residents, including Brackner, gathered together to unveil a marker that celebrated Pottery-Making Families of Randolph County; John Lehman’s name is among them.  


See another John Lehman piece below!

 

Lehman utilitarian churn; Photo credit: anonymous owner

Related

To read more about John Lehman, and learn more about Joey Brackner, visit: 

Special thanks to Joey Brackner, director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Joey is also the host of Journey Proud, a production of Alabama Public Television. 

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