Bloody Breathitt Finds Its Scapegoat

Posted by | August 7, 2013

Please welcome guest author T.R.C. Hutton. Dr. Hutton teaches American History at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University in 2009. His articles have appeared in Reconstructing Appalachia: The Civil War’s Aftermath and  Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia , both published by the University Press of Kentucky. Bloody Breathitt is his first book, and we’re pleased to present an excerpt from it here:


As Breathitt County’s population grew, so did juries’ willingness to punish homicides. For years reform-minded Kentuckians had blamed the timidity of the courts for their state’s record of white intra-racial homicide.


Their dissatisfaction fed the white fervor for lynching, as it did elsewhere, but it also increased demand for the state-mandated death penalty; in 1892 an unprecedented ten men (six black, four white) were executed in six Kentucky counties.

Breathitt’s citizens, many of them recently arrived from other parts of the state, also saw active law enforcement as the key to putting Bloody Breathitt to rest. The spring court term of 1895 produced an avalanche of guilty verdicts—including three murder convictions—evidence that “Breathitt” might “no longer be the synonym for crime.”

It also gave lowland Kentuckians a chance to self-congratulate for the good influence railroad connections to the outside world had on the county. “The good citizens of Breathitt are determined that murder and lawlessness shall cease in that county,” one Bluegrass editor crowed after one of the sentences was passed down. “The county,” another agreed, “seems to be inclined to wipe out its black record of such long standing.”

This new fervor for justice led to the famed public execution of Thomas “Bad Tom” Smith, the only legal hanging in Breathitt County’s history. Branded a “feudist,” Smith could more accurately be termed a ne’er-do-well willing to kill for money. Smith had been Fulton French’s primary assassin in Perry County, and he exemplified a growing population that warlords like French could easily exploit: rootless, profligate men under forty, victimized by recent economic developments that pushed them away from yeomanry and toward drunkenness, gambling, and whoring. His first five admitted murders, all ending in acquittals or mistrials, had been at the wealthy French’s direction.

"Bad Tom" Smith, in an artist's rendering from the Louisville Courier-Journal, June 28, 1895.

“Bad Tom” Smith, in an artist’s rendering from the Louisville Courier-Journal, June 28, 1895.

When he shot Dr. John Rader during an argument over a shared paramour in the winter of 1895, he had no patron, and he was no longer shooting for a faction that much of Breathitt seemed to sympathize with (for that matter, the death of the recently arrived Rader meant the loss of a physician in a growing town with measly medical resources). No longer part of a feud, Smith was on his own, and he received a death sentence.

While incarcerated, Smith feigned illness and unsuccessfully planned escape as his attorney fruitlessly appealed his sentence. But when it came time for his execution in late June, his gallows performance was the essence of meekness and resignation, a model of the repentant condemned convict, and a personification of the roguish county that was now enacting a cleansing justice in the form of his death sentence.

With an estimated four thousand men, women, and children swelling Jackson’s streets, Smith was baptized in the north fork a few hours before he ascended the scaffold (reporters noted the presence of Captain William Strong, John Aikman, Jerry Little, and other famed rogues). He tearfully embraced his sister, sang hymns to the crowd, confessed his life of murder and other sins, and implored all assembled to forgive their neighbors as Smith hoped to be forgiven. Confessing guilt, he also claimed victimhood to the archetypal Victorian rake’s progress.

My last words on earth to you are to take warning from my fate. Bad whiskey and bad women have brought me where I am. I hope you ladies will take no umbrage at this, for I have told you the God’s truth. To you, little children, who were the first to be blessed by Jesus, I will give this warning: Don’t drink whiskey and don’t do as I have done. I want everybody in this vast crowd who does not wish to do the things that I have done, and to put themselves in the place I now occupy, to hold their hands.

It was a presentation that mingled elements of the sacred and the profane, proclaiming Christian justice and redemption while also reaffirming the state’s moral authority (befittingly, a rail-delivered one hundred gallons of Lexington whiskey was immediately sent back, lest the solemn hanging’s wholesome atmosphere be spoiled).

Of all Bloody Breathitt’s storied killings, this one had the most witnesses and, by virtue of state sanction, the greatest blessings of legitimacy. Even, perhaps, more so than most public hangings; defying tradition, Sheriff Breck Combs did not bother to conceal his identity when he pulled the lever that opened the trapdoor beneath Smith’s shackled feet.

Breathitt County’s first (and it would turn out to be the last) legal hanging was cast as a triumph of state-sanctioned violence over feuds and all their antiquated connotations. It was the culmination of forces set in motion on Christmas Day in 1884, when an anonymous epistler requested assistance and investment in the Louisville Courier-Journal; next came missionaries and rail traffic and, finally, state-approved capital punishment.

“In Breathitt county, which by many people is considered to be beyond the pale of civilization,” the Democratic Hartford Herald remarked a few days before Smith’s death, “the day of reckoning which will mark an era in the history of Eastern Kentucky is near at hand.” Or, as a Missouri newspaper interpreted it: “Jackson built a school house and a railroad reached the town recently, and the ringing of the school bell and the whistle of the locomotive were the signals that told the hill country that the murdering days were over.” By demonstrating that violence could be used to punish crime rather than commit it, Breathitt County ingratiated itself to the outside world.

In the past, violent death had been a divider, but now it was a uniter. Bad Tom Smith had been a “feudist,” but as part of an affair in another county, and it was probably a relief to many that the crime of passion for which he was hanged was unconnected to past power struggles. Unlike so many killings before it, Bad Tom Smith’s execution was a civically consensual, apolitical killing. Almost no one questioned it as a legitimate form of violence. And, if it was to bring about an unprecedented peace accompanied by the riches of industrial growth, it reaffirmed the legitimacy of the local state (which, no doubt, many Kentuckians had come to doubt).

T.R.C. Hutton

T.R.C. Hutton

The same could not be said for the double lynching eleven years past. It is little surprise that Smith’s hanging is a buoyant bit of Kentucky folklore, while Henderson Kilburn’s and Ben Strong’s are largely forgotten (the Louisville Courier-Journal erroneously called Smith “the first man ever hanged in Breathitt County”).

One Kentucky Democrat inadvertently echoed the Reverend J. J. Dickey’s affirmation from eleven years past. “Whatever mistakes may have been made in the way of enforcing the law in the past, let us forget, and see to it that a healthy public sentiment is so openly expressed that it brings about a rigid enforcement of the law in the future.” For all of these reasons, paradoxical as they may have been, Smith made an exemplary sacrificial lamb, a final propitiation for Bloody Breathitt’s communal sins.

For a short time it seemed as if the act of atonement had worked. Then, a little more than a year later came the arrests of former Breathitt sheriff William Bryant and his mistress after they absconded to Arkansas with embezzled county funds. Crime in Breathitt County had graduated to a form less sanguinary and atrocious, and more avaricious and scandalous. It could only mean progress.

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