Breathitt County Genealogical Society Website
Captain Bill Strong (1825-1897) — Old picture shows Captian Bill Strong near the end of the Civil War just as the many family feuds were about to begin in the mountain section of Eastern Kentucky.
Ambush Ends Career Of Captain Bill Strong, Famed Feudal Chieftain
Young Grandson Was Witness To Brutal 1897 Killing
Editor’s Note: Just after the Civil War many parts of Kentucky suffered through long and bloody family feuds. Old scores from the war days had to be settled and the feuding raged fairly unabated. No where in the nation was this more true than in Breathitt County. It is a fact that after the war no less than six major feuds took place in this outlaw county of the Cumberlands. Scores met death, often from ambush along the lonely trails of the deep forestland. Others were shot down in the streets of Jackson, the capital of Bloody Breathitt, or even in their homes. A county judge (Burnett) was assassinated in 1878 and the courthouse was burned in 1873. Mobs often ruled and at least two men were lynched from the courthouse tower. Bad Tom Smith was hanged there in 1895 and Marcum, Cox, Cockrell, Hargis, Callahan and others were gunned down. However, when the feud days are recalled one name springs to the forefront; for he led his faction for over thirty years and certainly may be blamed for many of the infamous happenings of those deadly wars. This honor belongs to William Strong, known to everyone in those days as Captain Bill, a title he earned from his command during the Civil War. It is told that Strong and his men made widows of over 100 women through the years. Thus, he had many enemies and it came as little surprise that some of them paid a call of revenge to his section of the county on a lovely May day in 1897. Once again, as it had often done, his named leaped into the headlines of the nation’s newspapers. This time, however, the old chieftain’s story was an ending. He had met death in the same manner in which he had, no doubt, dealt it out many times over the years. This then, is the account which appeared in Kentucky’s leading daily newspaper, The Courier-Journal of Louisville, the day after his ambush murder. (Strange to say that the death of Captain Bill Strong did little to end the feuds of Breathitt County since the last feud which ended in 1912 was not to start in earnest until 1902.)
Reliable news has just reached Jackson that Capt. William Strong, well known in the history of mountain feuds, was waylaid and assassinated near his home in upper Breathitt. This afternoon, May 9, 1897, at the time of the killing Capt. Strong and a little boy were leisurely riding along the road on Lick Branch. when three shots were fired from the adjacent wooded hillside, breaking Capt. Strong’s leg and killing the mule which he was riding. Afterward, the assassins came down upon Capt. Strong as he was lying wounded on the ground and fired seven shots into his body, leaving him stone dead.
The little boy escaped, and, it is said, is not able to identify any of the perpetrators of the deed.
Capt. Strong was well known in the mountains as the leader of the “Red String,” one of the organizations which have made a great deal of trouble in the past twelve months in the George’s Branch section of Breathitt County. The “Red Strings” was a rival body to the Ku Klux, and the unpleasantness between the two has caused the loss of several lives in the past.
Only about two weeks ago the leaders and a number of members of the two hostile factions came before the court and at that time all parties concerned agreed to lay down their arms and go to their homes in peace. It was thought that the agreement was made in good faith, that all difficulties were settled, and that peace would prevail in a community long sundered by factional enmities. The assassination of Capt. Strong, however, will probably reopen hostilities. Capt. Strong was popular with his faction, and the “Red Strings,” it is believed, will avenge his death.
It is highly probably that the assassination will inaugurate another reign of terror on George’s Creek.
–Capt. Strong’s Turbulent Career–
Had Been A Mountain Fighter For A Quarter Of A Century.
Capt. Strong had been known as a successful mountain fighter for twenty-five years. He was one of the most picturesque characters in Breathitt County. He was seventy-two years old, five feet, eight inches high, cold blue eyes set wide apart under a full strong forehead; black hair and full beard sprinkled with gray; had an erect carriage and weighed about one hundred and forty-five pounds. He had remarkably small hands and feet and wore a No. 6 shoe. He was active as a man of thirty-five and moved with a springy step like a well-trained athlete.
Capt. Strong was the son of Col. Edward Strong, of Virginia, who immigrated to Kentucky early in the century and settled in Breathitt County. Col. Edward Strong died in 1869, aged eighty, while his widow died in 1874, aged eighty-seven. Capt. Strong’s great-grandmother, Susan Callahan, was one-fourth Cherokee Indian by blood and the Indian characteristics cropped out largely in the Captain. He had high cheek bones and a slightly reddish color of the skin, and the straight, erect form of the Indian. His courage was phenomenal. He did not know fear.
He enlisted in the Federal Army at Irvine, Ky., early in the war, joining Company D Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, Col. Munday. He served as Corporal in that company in the Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee campaigns of Gen. Geo. Morgan and was with that commander when he captured Cumberland Gap. He was discharged on March 24, 1864, at Camp Nelson, Ky., but immediately returned home and recruited, with others, the Three Forks Battalion of Kentucky state troops. He was then made Captain of Company K of the Fourteenth Kentucky Cavalry, Col. H. C. Lilly, this being a part of the Three Forks battalion. He served with distinction under Gen. Wolford, and was mustered out July 17, 1865.
The Beginning of the Trouble.
Returning to his home near Crockettsville, in Breathitt County, where he had bought a little farm, he began the mining of cannel coal, which he shipped by flat-boat down the Kentucky River to Clay’s Ferry and Brooklyn, and he sent several cargoes to Frankfort. While engaged in this business, in which he earned enough money to pay for his farm and to buy adjoining lands, he became involved in a dispute with a family called Amis, several members of which had been his companions in the war, belonging to his companies. Wiley Amis was the father and his grown sons, John, A’ and Robert, incurred Strong’s displeasure by stealing, so Strong alleged, several shoats from the Strong hogpen. The Captain’s friends say that during the war Amis and his sons were noted poachers and when the Captain found that they had stolen his shoats he is said to have made some very caustic comments as to the honesty of the Amis family. This was in the spring of 1870, and a few days after Strong had charged them with stealing the hogs, Amis and his sons accosted the Captain in his field while plowing and began firing on him. The Captain ran to his house, got his gun and shot John Amis through both thighs, inflicting dangerous wounds. John did not recover until late in August, and then he and his father and brothers began a warfare on Capt. Strong. They got a number of their friends and armed them with old-fashioned Colt revolvers, Ballard, Smith & Wesson and Spencer rifles, and one night, early in September of that year, they surrounded Capt. Strong’s house and the next morning began firing on the dwelling.
The only persons in the house besides wife and little children were two Negroes, one a mulatto, who had served with him in the war, and the other a seventeen year old boy, who was assisting on the farm. The Amis crowd shot the house to pieces. One bullet struck Hiram Freeman, the mulatto, in the thigh, badly wounding him. Capt. Strong was not well armed at that time, and was unable to make a successful defense, as the Amis party kept behind trees and knolls. After the Captain had been besieged about three days and his provisions and ammunition were get ting low, he concluded to put his little boy, Jim, on a horse and send him to Jackson for help. Accordingly, the boy started early one morning and rode rapidly to this place, where he called on Edward Marcum, who was then Circuit and County Clerk, and who had been Capt. Strong’s Lieutenant in the army. Lieut. Marcum was also a nephew of Capt. Strong, and when he heard that his uncle was besieged by the Amis party he quickly got together a company of twelve or fourteen determined men and rode to the scene of the conflict. They arrived on a high hill about half a mile from Capt. Strong’s house about 11 o’clock in the morning. There was a large corn field lying between them and the house, and as it was in the height of roasting-ear time the foliage of the corn stalks was luxuriant, so that the men marching through the field could not be seen by those who might be on the knolls around Strong’s house.
Capt. Strong was watching from a window for the re-enforcements, and when they appeared on the hill he signaled them to come through the cornfield. Lieut. Marcum deployed his men so that they would make as long a line as possible and they dashed into the cornfield yelling like Comanche Indians and firing their revolvers. Amis and his men, seeing the long line of fire, naturally supposed that the rescuing party numbered a hundred men or more and they beat a hasty retreat. When the re-enforcements arrived Capt. Strong let them in and early next morning his entire party evacuated the place and went to his mother’s house, some ten miles distant. After recruiting a few more men, Capt. Strong placed him self at their head and went to look for the Amis party, but they had all taken to the woods and he disbanded his forces.
A few weeks later Capt. Strong and two or three of his friends were standing in his yard, when Amis and his gang fired on them, several bullets barely missing the Captain and lodging in the door of the house. The next day the Captain received word from the Amis family that they intended to kill him. He came to Jackson and advised with the Circuit Judge and county officials as to what he should do. They told him they were powerless to protect him, and it would be better for him to try to protect himself. Accordingly the Captain secured twelve or fourteen men on whom he could fully rely, and arming them well, he set out to meet his enemies.
They met one moonshiny night in October and the Amis faction outnumbered the Strongs two to one, and nearly half of the Amis men were old soldiers. The same could be said of Strong’s men, as nearly all of them had served under him in the war. They began firing on each other at a distance of 300 yards. For awhile both parties advanced until the firing became so heavy that each side retreated slightly. Then Capt Strong rushed out in front of his men and urged them to come on and charge the Amis forces. They responded quickly, and in the charge which followed Al Amis fell dead, shot through the heart; Robert Amis fell with a broken leg, and William Sandlin was shot through the hip. Several others belonging to the Amis party were slightly wounded. Capt. Strong’s oldest son, Flint, who was the best marksman in Eastern Kentucky, was the only one on the Strong side to receive a bullet. He suffered a flesh wound in the thigh. Two years later he was killed by a flat-boat he was trying to turn over, falling on him.
After this battle the Amis crowd dispersed and as several of them were found dead at different times with bullet holes in them, the others came to the conclusion that Breathitt County was not a healthy locality for them, and they went West Capt Strong then bought the old home place with the proceeds derived from the sale of cannel coal, and had lived there ever since. He was never indicted for any of the killings, as it was plain to the authorities that he was fighting to save his life.
It is true a number of killings which occurred from time to time in Breathitt County were laid at Capt Strong’s door by those who were at enmity with him, but there was never enough evidence against the Captain to cause a grand jury to indict him, and he lived in peace for many years until the trouble between him and Callahan broke out two years ago. It seems that shortly after the war, and after Capt Strong had gone to work to pay for his home, the Ku Klux began to terrorize the community. It was generally conceded that the clan was composed chiefly of young men who were not old enough to enter the army at the breaking out of hostilities between the States, but who had grown up with a deep-seated prejudice against the Unionists. Capt Strong was considered a leader among the ex-Federal soldiers and a strong Republican. He was outspoken against the depredations of the Ku Klux, and is credited with having organized an anti-Ku Klux party, which did much toward putting down the clan.
The Latest Outbreak.
About two years ago some of the new men who had come into Breathitt since the advent of the railroad, organized a band of Regulators patterned somewhat after the old Ku Klux Klan. Again Capt. Strong was outspoken against the methods of the mob and denounced the Regulators in unmeasured terms. The Regulators committed outrageous depredations. They whipped and robbed an old man named Ed Spicer, they hung Joshua Neace to a limb, allowing his toes to barely touch the ground, and kept him in that position for hours; they robbed Wiley Morris and, going through farms, shot stock to death, and on Capt. Strong’s farm tore down fences, and shot his stock, wounding several head. The Captain was loud in his condemnation of these acts of vandalism, and when he was told by persons who pretended to be his friend that Ed and Sam Callahan were at the head of these Regulators, he denounced them. Then tale-bearers went to the Callahans, who were strong Democrats, and told them what the arch Republican, Capt. Strong, had said about them. This brought on the feud between Capt. Strong and the Callahans, and when Tom Barnett, who was known to be a friend of Strong, was murdered, Strong’s friends declared the Callahans were responsible for Barnett’s death, and not long after that Tom Sizemore, a friend of the Callahans, was found on the roadside dead with a bullet through his heart.
Realizing that Breathitt County was about to be plunged into another of its feuds, and knowing they could not afford to send their children away to school, Judge Day and several of the lawyers and citizens of Jackson decided to use their influence toward bringing about a settlement of the trouble between Strong and Callahan. Accordingly warrants were sworn out by them against Capt. Strong and four or five of his leading friends to make them keep the peace and similar warrants were sworn out for the Callahans and several of their friends. Both sides were cited to appear here on the same day, and two weeks ago they came in, each side under heavy guard summoned by Sheriff Tom Deaton. The men met in Judge Day’s office and on comparing notes Capt. Strong and the two Callahan brothers found that they had all been victims of tale- bearers and they shook hands and promised to bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones.
Capt. Strong, when last seen by the Courier-Journal correspondent, appeared to be in a most cheerful mood. Shortly after the settlement of the difficulty with the Callahans, Judge Barr of the United States Circuit Court at Louisville, handed down a decision which confirmed the Captain’s title to a half interest in 400 acres of fine cannel coal land valued at $600 per acre. As the suit had been pending since February, 1893, Capt. Strong was highly elated over the, to him, important legal victory, especially as it was won by his nephew, James B. Marcum, a rising young lawyer of this place.
It has been stated that Capt. Strong was a desperate moonshiner, and that he had made a great deal of money by distilling whiskey surreptitiously and by selling logs from the lands of other people. A full investigation showed these reports to be without foundation in fact.
Captain Strong’s Funeral
Jackson, Ky., May 11, 1897. (Special.) – A large concourse of people followed the remains of Capt. William Strong to their last resting place, and dire forebodings were ex- pressed on every hand as to the probable outcome of his death, many going so far as to say that it meant a reign of terror in the George’s Branch precinct by a renewal of hostilities between the “Red Strings” and “Ku Klux.”
The “Red Strings” have no definite idea as to who killed their leader. It is true that charges and counter- charges have been made, but a hot-headed man like Capt. Strong always has lots of enemies, and his death was as liable to come from one class of these as the other. The leading men of the “Ku Klux” disclaim any knowledge of the killing, and even assert that they can prove to positiveness that none of their men was in the neighborhood at the time of the killing.
Whoever did the deadly work committed a foul crime. Capt. Strong was an old, white-headed man, past sixty-five years of age. On the bright Sabbath morning of the killing he and his aged wife, accompanied by a little grandson, a wee tot, who rode behind his grandfather, went over to a neighboring country store, about one mile from home, to do some shopping, Sunday being the regular shopping day in that locality. They reached the store in safety, made their little purchases, and then left for home. On the way back Mrs. Strong stopped to have a conversation with some neighbor women at the mouth of Lick Branch, while the Captain, accompanied by a young man named Tall Turner, rode leisurely along up the branch discussing the neighborhood gossip. The day was fine and pleasant, and no danger seemed to lurk in all the bounds of nature. But ere the pair had gone more than three hundred yards, three shots from Winchesters rang out on the still mountain air. The neighborhood was immediately wild with excitement, for instinctively everyone knew that the report of the guns meant bloody work. At the first fire Capt. Strong’s mule was killed. A bullet pierced the animal’s brain, while Capt Strong’s leg was broken by another bullet, which rendered him incapable of flight. Tall Turner’s horse, thoroughly frightened, carried his rider out of reach of danger, while Strong’s little grandson slipped from the dead mule and screamed. But the assassins, not satisfied with their fiendish work, marched down from their places of concealment and in the presence of the terror-stricken child emptied seven loads from their Winchesters into the body of the “Red String” chieftain, leaving him dead by the wayside, as they fled to the woods. The little boy was scared so badly he could not recognize any of the men, while Tall Turner, in rapid flight, could only distinguish the outlines of three human figures.
In the search which was made afterward for traces of the assassins, a camp was found where it seemed they had spent some time. Near this spot a half emptied flask of “moonshine” whiskey was picked up. Near the bottle some empty cartridges were found.
The place selected by the assassins was one which seemed to have been designed by nature as a suit able place for such work. In the narrow valley of a little mountain streamlet a number of large rock shad slipped down in the course of time from the adjacent cliffs until they had settled down within only a few feet of the roadway. It was from be- hind these huge boulders that the first shots were fired, and it was up the path left by them long years ago that the murderers made their desperate escape into a country so rugged and wild that a hasty pursuit was practically impossible.
It was fortunate for Mrs. Strong that she stopped to talk to her neighbors at the mouth of the branch, for in all probability had she gone on she would have shared the fate of her husband. Capt. Strong leaves, besides his wife, four sons and two daughters. His wife is a half-sister to ex-Chief Justice Thomas F. Hargis.
(Editor’s Note: Strong was buried near the spot he felL Today, his old Civil War tombstone is all but unreadable as it stands on a lonely hilltop amid other old graves. As was the case in many of the ambush killings of feuding days the names of the killers were known by many. Yet nobody was ever charged or convicted of Strong’s murder.)