The Feud In Breathitt County – 1903
(Thought to have been written by the president of the S.P. Lees College Institute in Jackson at the time of the feuds.)
For several months the gaze of the public press had been turned almost daily upon the little mountain town of Jackson, Kentucky, the county seat of “Bloody Breathitt” County, the scene during the previous year of three assassinations of increasing boldness and atrocity, and occurring within a 100 steps of the business center of the town. In the many newspaper accounts of the tragedies the word “feud” has been almost universally employed to denote the state of affairs in Jackson. “Feud” is a choice word for picturesque, romantic, and unique effects. It has a pleasant medieval sound, a distinct flavor of the antique, but in this instance it is misleading. An acquaintance of several years with the town and the people, including all these prominently connected with recent events in Jackson, leads me to think it necessary to look for other motives than those usually supposed to actuate participants in a family feud.
The three men who were assassinated were, it is true, in certain legal and business relationships to one another; but there was not among them any tie of blood so close as that subsisting between one of the victims of assassination and the man who according to the testimony of an eyewitness shot him deliberately from a well-selected hiding place. Personal feeling entered into the situation, as it must, but as will appear in the sequel political motives have been to all appearance at least as strong in their influence. And the so-called “other side” has not, so far as I am informed, fired a shot or attempted to fire a shot. If such a state of affairs constitutes a “feud,” it is, as regards active participation, a solitaire game.
The town of Jackson is by no means wholly outside the pale of civilization and progress. It is 90 miles by rail from the center of the “Bluegrass.” The whole country around is one vast deposit of coal, layer above layer, from one foot to 14 feet in thickness, while on the surface, in hollow and on hill, mighty poplars, oaks, and walnuts rear their heads. Capitalists from the East, the West, and the North are buying large tracts of this valuable land for early development. Two 20 or 30 miles leaders to the main railroad line are rapidly opening part of this great territory, and others are contemplated as soon as there is assurance of peace and order. Because of its central position and its railroad facilities, an immensely disproportionate volume of business flows through this little community of 12 or 15 people. It is a collecting and disturbing point for eight or ten counties. There are two department stores, sometimes doing a business of one 1,000 to 2,000 dollars a day each, a well-conducted bank, three hotels, five church organizations with four buildings, a public school, and a denominational school established 20 years ago, which now has an annual enrollment of over 300 students, and excellent collegiate, music, business, normal, and industrial courses. Students from this institution go into business or attend college, and compare favorably in appearance, ability, and character with those from any other part of the state. As two examples out of many, one of the most prominent and efficient preachers and church executive officers in one of the leading denominations, and the nominee for mayor of one of the largest cities of the state, are both Kentucky mountain boys. A graduate of this school was second in the oratorical contest to represent Central University against the state the first year he was at college.
There are many excellent people in Jackson, some of whom have come in from outside, but the native people of town and county are kindly, hospitable, shrewdly alive to their own interests, and ambitious for their children. Many believe, and have said to me sotto voce, that if a certain mere handful of men were in some way to be subtracted from the 15,000 population of Breathitt County, the present reign of lawlessness would be at an end.
It is perhaps impossible for anyone who has not lived among the people of these mountain hollows, to form a just conception of their intense individuality of feeling, thought, and action. The personal is all-pervasive, and the desires of the individual are often taken as sufficient excuse for what has been done. Public opinion is a growing force, but in many of the remoter parts of the region it is still a negligible quantity. Consequently, the views of life, standards of judgement, and aims are often unique. In some localities, for example, less open to the influences of the outside world than the town itself, it is thought a needless extravagance to pay the $2.50 necessary to procure a marriage license; nevertheless, the wife, or as they put it, the “woman,” is negotiable and is frequently exchanged for one judged at the time to be more attractive or more desirable.
Some of the departures from accepted proprieties seem almost incredible. One of the frequent visitors to the mountains told me that once in her travels she came to a house very remote from the influences and standards that are rapidly supplanting more primitive conditions at Jackson. The woman of the house was in the field hoeing corn, squaw-like, as is the frequent custom of the women in the remoter localities. She came promptly to the house, welcomed her guests with the unfailing hospitality which is characteristic of the people, and then paid what seemed in the light of that which followed, an unnecessary tribute to cleanliness by washing her earth-soiled feet in a common tin basin. She then proceeded, in accordance with her usual custom and with utter unconsciousness of impropriety, to mix the simple ingredients of the mountain cornbread, coarse-ground “grit” bread, in the same basin. But she did have her own idea of what was proper; she had rinsed the basin.
Another “furrier,” who had frequently penetrated to the heart of the most retired localities, told me of an old woman who had spent almost her whole life in one deep mountain hollow, from which she could see only the hills and the sky. She was sitting one October evening on the humble stoop of her cabin as the sun shone slant and golden on the gorgeous yellows, browns, and crimsons of the dying foliage. A friend she had known long and well who was spending the night at her house, sat beside her wondering when she would speak and what she would say. After a silence of an hour and a half, unbroken save by the puffing of her pipe, she slowly removed this boon companion from her lips, and said, “The trees air a ‘yallerin,’ ain’t they?”
An ailing husband of Jackson went to Florida in the hope of restoring his health. He died in a very short while, and his wife took upon herself the sad duty of bringing his body home for burial. She remained in Florida, however, for a week, which was the limit of time allowed by her round-trip ticket. She finally returned with the body, and when asked why she had stayed so long, replied, “Well, they’d fixed him up so he’d keep, an’ I didn’t see no sorter use in was ‘n’ thet thar ticket, so I thought I’d travel roun’ an’ see the kentry.” But she seemed to realize that there was some need of self-defense, and added: “Thar was a man at the deepo’ whar was setting’ fer me, but I wouldn’ look at him. I couldn’ have nothin’ ter do with no man while the corpse was above groun’.” Needless to say, she was not a widow for many months.
A son of this woman, a little fellow of six, perhaps, kept bringing sticks of wood into the room where lay the dead body of his father. “Thet thar kid ‘mos’ pesters the life outer me bringin’ in wood,” remarked his mother to a friend. “Why does he bring it?” was the reply. “He says his pa’s in thet box an’ can’t git out, an’ he’s goin’ ter bust it open. I’ve done whipped him fer it a ‘ready more time ‘n’ I kin count, but he won’t quit.”
It is not such aspects, however, of the typical as these that have at this time attracted the attention of the public to this little mountain town. The two following incidents throw a direct psychological light upon the Breathitt County reign of terror, the leading events of which I shall soon relate. They show in youth and image the mental attitude of which the recent assassinations are the outcome.
The hero of the story of the sticks of wood, when ten or 12 years old, was taken to Louisville by a friend. About the middle of the day he spied in front of a restaurant a bill of fare, which was to his liking. The cost of the dinner, read the legend, was 25 cents. He walked in, pulled out a long knife, and with a threatening air demanded the meal for 15 cents. Charmed by this exhibition of youthful independence, the proprietor accepted the cut in his rates. But the boy was in deadly earnest, and if he had not been satisfied, would undoubtedly have attempted a cut to which the proprietor would have had serious objection.
Barbaric criteria still appear here in age as well as in youth. An old woman in the county had made for her husband’s grave a wooden imitation of a tombstone. It was neatly painted white, and in order to do full justice to the virtues of the deceased, there was painted on the “stone” in black a hand gripping a .45, from which the bullets were streaming. So pleased was the widow with the realistic appearance of the tribute to the memory of her man, that she could not bring herself to the point of removing it to his grave on the other side of a neighboring hill, but kept it on her front porch where she could point out its merits to all comers with admiring pride.
The average number of deaths by violence in Breathitt County in a year used to be about 20. It is said that from November 1902 to June 1903, there were 30 or more. Most of these fatalities, have been the outcome of drinking, and many of them have resulted from open fights between town or county officials and those they were endeavoring to arrest. It is not unusual for friends or members of the same family to injure each other when drunk and armed. But assassinations, at least in recent years have been very rare. A large majority of the more serious offenses go scot free. There is either no indictment or the jury is friendly. Only one man has ever been hung in Breathitt County.
At the primary election in the spring of 1901 and at the final election in the fall of the same year there was a bitter political fight for the offices of Breathitt County. James Hargis, of the firm of Hargis Brothers, was elected county judge by a considerable majority, while Ed Callahan secured the sheriff’s office by a very small majority. The election of Callahan and of one or two other officials was contested by the opposing candidates, and Hargis supported Callahan and his other friends in their defense of their election. During the course of the contest there was an altercation at a conference at which Hargis, Callahan, their attorney, the opposing attorney J. B. Marcum, and one or two others were present. Serious trouble was averted only by the prompt action of one of the attorneys in taking two of the disputants out of the room. Warrants for Hargis and Marcum were sworn before the police judge of the town, Cardwell, a relative of whom had killed a brother of hargis some years before. This relative had been pardoned, but the feeling between the Cardwell and Hargis families had ever since been, to say the very least, unfriendly. Marcum was arrested by the town marshal, the local police officer, and paid his fine. The marshal, James Cockrill, with a brother, Tom, as deputy, then attempted to serve the warrant on Judge Hargis. The latter escaped by running into his store while the revolvers of the Cockrills were covering him. Judge Hargis asserted that he had surrendered to Sheriff Callahan, who was standing near, before Cockrill served his warrant. The Cockrill boys declared that he surrendered to the sheriff afterwards, and that they had not arrested him only because they saw it would precipitate a fight with the sheriff who had drawn his revolver. The sheriff and the town marshal both have power of arrest within the town limits, and such conflicts of authority are not rare.
This incident occurred in the spring of 1902. About a week later Tom Cockrill, who had aided his brother James in the attempt to arrest Judge Hargis, and Ben Hargis, a brother of the judge, and usually a pleasant, genial fellow, met in a wholesale liquor store. It is pretty certain that Hargis had been drinking, and thet they had had some words a few days before about the attempt to arrest Judge Hargis. Cockrill said that Ben Hargis sent for him. However this may be, they seem to have opened fire on each other almost simultaneously. The testimony as to this point is conflicting. Both were badly wounded, but Hargis much more seriously. He lived only for a day or two, while Cockrill recovered after a long and painful confinement. It is credibly reported that just before his death Hargis asked his brothers not to pursue the quarrel, as it had been an open fight and he had merely gotten the worst of it, and that they agreed. However this may be, Tom Cockrill was arrested and put in jail, where for one reason or another he stayed for many weeks before he was brought out for trial.
Owing chiefly to the efforts of Dr. Cox, one of the leading physicians of Jackson, and guardian of the Cockrill boys, Cockrill’s trial was transferred to an adjoining county. Judge Hargis declared over his signature that he would not prosecute the case against Cockrill there for fear of personal injury. Cockrill was acquitted.
Dr. Cox feared assassination after this, and told his friends he expected it. He said that he felt it was his duty to champion the cause of Tom Cockrill as he was his guardian and there was no one else to render the aid. One moonlight Sunday evening in May, during church service, two shots rang out, a pause, then a third. Dr. Cox, who had not only been working for a change of venue for Cockrill’s case, but had been active in the canvass against the Hargis ticket, was found dead with more than 20 buckshot wounds in his body. He had been called to his office by telephone, but found no one there and started home again. He was shot from the direction of the Hargis Brothers’ stable yard, which is just to the rear of their store and across the street from the Cardwell store, in the second floor of which Dr. Cox had his office. The intersection of this street between the Hargis and the Cardwell stores, and Main Street, is the assassination center of Jackson. The Hargis and Cardwell stores occupy the north and west corners, respectively, the courthouse the east corner, while on the south corner is the building which contains the office of John Patrick.
As I hurried to Dr. Cox’s house immediately after he was shot, and was just approaching the spot where he fell, there came behind me along the silent and deserted streets, a feeble old woman. She kept looking apprehensively around and said, “May I go along with you? I’m afraid they’ll shoot me.” It was the mother of Dr. Cox’s wife, going to the home of her bereaved daughter.
No apparent effort was made to find the assassins. No special term of the grand jury was summoned. No evidence was offered at the regular session in June. No one desired to take an initiative which everyone thought would be deadly. No one knew what to expect next. People talked with bated breath. There was not one public expression of condemnation of the dastardly crime, except from the pulpit. I walked through the principal streets of the town about eight o’clock in the evening a few nights after Dr. Cox’s assassination. The brilliant moonlight revealed no one beside myself. The streets were deserted at an early hour for a long time after this murder, the stores were closed at dusk, and blinds were drawn. Later, the streets were frequently patrolled by armed men who would stop every one on their own authority until satisfied of the peaceable intentions of each passer-by. The Hargis Brothers were for along time accompanied by guards when they went about or on their trips by rail. Their store was guarded night and day against the assassin they said they feared and the incendiary that never came.
About two months after the assassination of Dr. Cox, in July 1902, James Cockrill, the town marshal who had attempted to arrest Judge Hargis as already narrated, had an altercation with Curtis Jett, in which several shots were exchanged, but without injury to either. A few days later, about the middle of the day, as Cockrill was standing in front of the Cardwell store, he was shot five or six times from a second story window of the courthouse on the corner diagonally opposite. Several of the shots took effect, and he died the next day. It is said that no one was for a time allowed to search the courthouse, and that when the search was finally made, the assassin helped to look for himself. The same night the building in which Ben Hargis had been fatally wounded by Tom Cockrill a few months before, was burned to the ground.
John Patrick, a young lawyer of Jackson, had an office directly across the street from the window of the courthouse from which Cockrill was shot. Patrick told someone that at the time of the shooting he was in his office and saw the muzzles of three guns protruding from the window. He averred further that he recognized one of the assassins. He was warned to leave the town, and left very promptly. Some months later he was summoned to appear before the grand jury, but he refused, saying in an open letter to the judge of the circuit court, Judge Redwine, that he feared assassination, but would come if protected by troops. Sheriff Callahan was sent for him, but in spite of an apparently diligent search, failed to find him. Some months later, when the town was filled with troops during the trial for a third assassination, Patrick appeared before a special grand jury, and testified that he had seen Curtis Jett at the window from which James Cockrill was shot, but had not recognized his companions.
Public opinion connected Hargis and Callahan with the two assassinations. Curtis Jett is a nephew of Judge Hargis, and had been befriended by him in many ways. He was also for a time deputy sheriff under Callahan. He had been in jail under many indictments and several times was let out under circumstances mysterious to the public. On one occasion after he escaped in the night, there was a hole in the wall of the jail through which he might have passed. Dr. Cox was the guardian of Tom Cockrill who had fatally wounded Ben Hargis, and he was also actively opposed to the Hargis ticket in the election as well as instrumental in having Tom Cockrill’s trial removed from Breathitt County. Whatever may have been the reason, there was a notable falling off in the number of visitors to the Hargis store. For many weeks it had an air of desertion. The many wagons which ply from the county stores to town for supplies either went to other stores or did not come to Jackson. There was a large increase in the trade of the other department store at this time. Hargis and Callahan denied all connection with the assassinations, and professed themselves deeply grieved at the death of Dr. Cox, but so far as I am informed they expressed no such regrets in the case of James Cockrill.
A merchant of the town, C. X. Bowling, was after considerable delay appointed guardian of the remaining Cockrill boys in the place of Dr. Cox. During the winter, Mr. Bowling’s store was burned to the ground in the night. After the burning of the wholesale liquor store in which Ben Hargis was shot, mentioned before, the insurance companies cancelled, promptly, every fire insurance policy in Jackson, and no renewals could be secured for some months.
Mr. Marcum, as has been said already, was attorney for the contestants in the election cases, and participant in the original altercation which is supposed by many to have been the starting point of the series of calamities of which this is the story. He had left Jackson after the killing of Cockrill, and did not return until November, when he had business before the circuit court meeting then. He had been warned repeatedly that he would be killed if he did not go. He told me of one of these warnings at a chance meeting, and said he was going to his office to do his duty by his clients and by the town. He was president of the Board of Trustees, which is the governing power in small Kentucky towns. He had often complained of the impossibility of properly carrying on the town government and making needed improvements because of friction with the county authorities.
After Mr. Marcum returned to Jackson, he published a circumstantial statement of the information he alleged had been given him from time to time as to plots against his life. He asserted tat he had been able to escape on several occasions only because the man who had been hired to assassinate him had told him of each plot as it was made and had managed to put his fellow assassins off the track. Mr. Marcum would remain in his room all day and steal out in the dark, or he would slip down a back street in company with his wife or daughter, or would carry his baby in his arms for protection. Mr. Marcum’s informant also had published a signed statement corroborating Mr. Marcum’s assertions, and naming as the men who had hired him to assassinate Marcum; Hargis and Callahan. The latter promptly brought suit for libel against Marcum and also against the paper which published the statements just mentioned.
Marcum was vigorously preparing to reopen the election cases, which had been tried before a special judge who had declared the election void because of fraud on both sides. Meanwhile, the apparently successful candidates had been promptly appointed by Judge Hargis, the county judge, to serve until the next election. The libel case against Marcum was transferred to an adjoining county in order to secure a fair trial, as Breathitt County has long been notorious for its partisan juries. The trial was set for the 11th of May 1903. The contested election cases also were soon to be passed upon by the Court of Appeals, the supreme court of the state. On the fourth of May, while standing in the front door of the courthouse with his hand on the shoulder of B. J. Ewen, a deputy sheriff, Mr. Marcum’s attention was attracted by a man named Tom White passing by him out of the courthouse and scowling at him. Marcum remarked to Ewen that he was afraid of that man, he was a bad man. The words were hardly out of his mouth when he was shot from behind by someone in the hall of the courthouse. Ewen testified that he saw Marcum fall, then saw “Curt” Jett advance upon him with his pistol held in both hands. Then the second shot was fired at such close range that the powder burnt Marcum’s face. The ball penetrated the brain. Either shot would have been fatal, and Mr. Marcum died in a few minutes without being able to speak.
At the time of the shooting, according to their own testimony, Judge Hargis and Sheriff Callahan were just inside the Hargis store directly across the street. Hargis said he was not directly in front, and could not see the assassin. Callahan said he saw his form, but could not recognize him for the smoke. A number of witnesses testified that smokeless powder was used. Judge Hargis, the county judge, advised Callahan, his sheriff, not to go to look for the assassin for fear of personal injury. Some minutes elapsed, and Hargis finally directed Ewen to make the search, which was fruitless.
Many witnesses testified that Jett and White apparently had a conference just before the shooting, that they both entered the side door of the courthouse shortly before the shooting, that White came out of the front door as already narrated, while Jett was seen shortly after the shots to look cautiously out of the side door, and then come out and mingle with the crowd around the wounded man.
Ewen was called to a conference with Hargis, Callahan, and one or two of their adherents in a second story room of the Hargis store, and was there asked what he knew about the shooting. Ewen testified that he said he did not recognize the assassin, because he was sure he would be killed if he told the truth. He told a number of friends the next day or so that he had recognized the murderer, and named Jett as the man. Jett went about town as usual for a few days. No further attempt was made on the part of the authorities to ascertain the identity of the assassin. Judge Hargis did send a message to the widow of Mr. Marcum offering to have a warrant served on anyone she might desire. Jett finally went on a visit to his mother in one of the Bluegrass counties, and was there captured without resistance. He was anxious to be taken to Jackson for trial, and was finally taken there. White was captured later by a detail of soldiers from the 200 troops sent to preserve order, and to protect witnesses during the trial. While told his captors that if they had been a few minutes later he would have escaped. It was currently reported that a friend of Whites’ was sent to warn him before the special sheriff was notified of the order for his arrest.
After Ewen had given his testimony against Jett, declared that he was approached by a man who offered him $5,000 to change his testimony so as not to incriminate Jett, and who threatened that if he would not accept the bribe, Hargis and Callahan would kill him. He told the briber that he could not talk to him then in such a public place, but he would see him at his own house at a time appointed. Ewen and a witness, whom he had concealed in the room, both testified before the grand jury as to the repetition of the offer of the $5,000, and of the threat that he would be killed if he did not accept. Ewen promised another witness at the time of the trial. This testimony was brought out before the grand jury.
Ewen had refused to accept the bribe, and early one morning while he was in the camp with the soldiers for safety and his family were asleep, his large hotel was burned to the ground, and almost all the contents destroyed. This fire occurred during the Marcum trial, and Ewen’s friends thought it was an attempt to get him out in the open where he could be shot. Alex Hargis, one of the firm of Hargis Brothers, said he thought Ewen had had the fire started himself in order to throw suspicion on Judge Hargis. As the value of the property, and it was all Ewen owned, was about $10,000 and the insurance companies had canceled the insurance a few weeks before, because they feared incendiarism, this opinion of Judge Hargis’ brother did not find many adherents.
All the jury, but one, were for Jett’s conviction, but that one persisted in his opinion and the jury was discharged and a new trial appointed to be held at Cynthiana, 100 miles from the troublous town of Jackson. The discharged jury had been procured from the adjoining county of Magoffin, and a short while after the failure to convict and the discharge of the jury, the following item from Lexington appeared in The Jackson Hustler, one of the two weeklies published in the town:
“The report comes here from Salyersville that Burns Fitzpatrick, the man who hung the jury that tried Curtis Jett and Tom White at Jackson, has left Magoffin County, and returned to his former home on Jennie’s Creek, in Johnson County. It is said Fitzpatrick’s neighbors cut him, and the talk was so against him that he was forced to leave. Before leaving he stated that he did not think he would ever come back.”
The new trial of Jett and White resulted in conviction and a sentence of imprisonment for life. The jury in Kentucky fixes the sentence in such cases, and one juror held out against the death penalty. Indictments were found against two teamsters of Hargis Brothers for setting fire to Ewen’s Hotel, and against a man named Plummer for offering Ewen the $5,000 bribe. L. T. Bolin, who corroborated Ewen’s testimony as to the offer of the bribe, said he was warned by Plummer’s wife to leave Jackson. He left, saying he didn’t think he could live there after giving the testimony.
Such, in outline, is the story of what many believe to be a conspiracy on the part of those in official power to accomplish criminal ends.
Later Note From Newspaper Items
Jett was sentenced to be hanged for the murder of James Cockrill, secured a new trial, confessed the crime, implicating Hargis and Callahan, denied his confession on the witness stand, re-confessed his part in the murder at a subsequent trial, and was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of hanging. The “life” imprisonment lasted only a few years, whereupon Jett took to preaching.
Hargis and Callahan were sentenced to pay Mrs. Marcum in a civil suit for conspiring to kill Marcum the sum of $8,000, although acquitted in the criminal trial due to Jett’s withdrawal of his charge against them, it is said, an interesting legal anomaly.
Source: Clay County Genealogical Society, date unknown.