2017-11-29 / Columns

The Way We Were


Letcher County residents were greeted with troubling news — including the report of a prisoner being forcibly removed from the county jail in Whitesburg and lynched near Jenkins — when the December 1, 1927 edition of The Mountain Eagle reached homes and stores. Letcher County residents were greeted with troubling news — including the report of a prisoner being forcibly removed from the county jail in Whitesburg and lynched near Jenkins — when the December 1, 1927 edition of The Mountain Eagle reached homes and stores. Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1907

Thursday, December 1, 1927

Reports that a mob was forming in Virginia to lynch the alleged slayers of a Fleming mine foreman resulted in the removal Monday of three suspects from the Jenkins City Jail to the Letcher County Jail in Whitesburg. This week’s edition of The Mountain Eagle carries a report about the murder of 35-year-old Hershel Deaton, a foreman at Elkhorn Coal Corporation at Fleming. The report, which originated with The Louisville Times, says “Leonard Wood, 30, Susan Armister, 25, and Anna May Emory, 25, all negroes,” are accused of murdering Deaton. The Times writes, “According to reports here, the negroes, mistaking Deaton’s automobile for a taxicab on the road between Jenkins and Fleming Sunday night, hailed him. It was said the [suspects] became angry when Deaton informed them his car was a private one, not a taxicab. Susan Armister took a pistol from a pocketbook and handed it to Woods, who shot Deaton. Both women were on the running board of Deaton’s car when he was shot, it was said.”

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Mob rule took over Whitesburg Tuesday night as a group of about 300 armed men believed to be from the neighboring state of Virginia rode into town and overpowered Letcher County Sheriff Morgan T. Reynolds before taking a murder suspect Leonard Wood out of the jail and lynching him near the Kentucky-Virginia state line. Wood, a black man, and two black women were charged with murdering Hershel Deaton, a white mine foreman from Virginia employed by Elkhorn Coal Corporation at Fleming. Members of the mob arrived in 50 automobiles about 11 p.m., and parked near the edge of town before surrounding the jail and eventually forcing their way in.

The Mountain Eagle reports that Sheriff Reynolds had received a “telephone message from Jenkins stating that something was about to happen. He rushed to the jail and told Mrs. Manta Whitaker, jailer, to get her children out of the way. He left policeman Joe Stamper to guard while he went to get handcuffs [to use] to take the negro away before the mob arrived, but while he was in [his] office Mr. Stamper rushed in and told him it was too late. He went to the door and tried to quiet the crowd, but they overpowered him and went about their business.”

After scaling the jail fence and a failed attempt to shoot the locks off cell doors, members of the mob used hacksaws to cut through bars in the upstairs door, then “used hammers, saws and axes to break through the four other doors before they reached the negro,” The Eagle reports. “The two negro women who were with Wood when he [allegedly] killed Deaton were taken but later turned loose and allowed to climb back over the fence into the jail.”

Upon hearing the commotion, Wood told other jail inmates the mob was after him and began to get dressed. When the mob reached him and took him he said, “Oh Lord have mercy” as the mob looped “a running noose around his neck,” The Eagle reports. After firing 100 or more shots into the air in jubilation after Wood arrived at the front of the jail, the mob members loaded him into a car and drove him toward Virginia, “where they hanged him and riddled his body with perhaps a thousand shots. Afterward they poured gasoline on him and burned his clothes off.” Commonwealth’s Attorney Harry L. Moore is investigating the case and is expected to file a protest with the office of the Virginia governor. Six other prisoners escaped from the jail during the melee, but 31 remained in their cells.

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In an editorial headlined “The Reign Of Shame,” Mountain Eagle editor Karl E. Davis writes that he would have “held out for a death sentence” if he were a member of a jury that had convicted Leonard Wood, a black man, of murdering Hershel Deaton, a white man, here Sunday night, but adds “there is not justification” for “the lynching” of Wood, who was taken by mob force from the Letcher County Jail and hanged, shot and his body burned. “The act which was committed Tuesday night was inexcusable” and “a blot on the record of Letcher County and the state of Kentucky,” Davis writes. “That tense hour, from 11 until 12 o’clock, was a reign of shame; and it is the sincere prayer of this newspaper that it may never be repeated in the history of our people.”

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Whitesburg retailer Oscar Lewis can say he has made one sale he didn’t enjoy. Before trouble began at the Letcher County Jail on Tuesday night, two armed men arrived at Lewis’s door and ordered him to dress and open his store and sell them two hacksaw blades. “Not knowing what they meant to do and seeing their determined actions and deadly weapons must have felt uncomfortable” to Lewis, The Mountain Eagle observes.

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Letcher County Deputy Sheriff J.H. Maggard will appear at an “examining trial” Saturday to answer charges about the death of Knott County resident Willie Bowen, who Maggard shot and killed Friday on Thornton. Deputy Maggard claims he was acting in self-defense after Bowen threatened him while Maggard was trying to make an arrest.

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The Letcher County Health Department is warning residents that at least one case of smallpox has been confirmed here, and was brought into the county by a young man who “has been stirring about town for several days” without knowing he was carrying the highly contagious disease.

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A $1,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of Lewis Phillips, a Tennessee man accused of gunning down Knott County merchant Hobart Combs on Sunday at Combs’s home on Carr Creek. Phillips, who apparently was upset because Combs had garnished his pay, fled into the woods after murdering Combs. A nephew of Letcher Circuit Court Clerk S.P. Combs, Hobart Combs leaves behind his wife and three children. His father, John W. Combs of Isom, also survives along with brother Herman Combs of Whitesburg.

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The Sunday marriage of Delilah Day of Whitesburg and Nick Wright of Millstone took place that Sunday had one unusual feature —S. Tilden Wright, the father of the bridegroom and Old Regular Baptist Church minister, performed the ceremony. The bride is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Clark Day.

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Jeff Ison, age 74 and one of the pioneering merchants of Letcher County, drowned Sunday night in the North Fork of the Kentucky River at Blackey, the town to which he was returning after a visit with friends on Buck Creek. The body of Mr. Ison, the father of Letcher County Jailer Manta Whitaker, was recovered from shallow waters just below Blackey. He was well known throughout the county, having sold goods in Blackey for many years.

Thursday, December 2, 1937

A recount in the race for the office of Letcher County Judge between Democratic candidate Dr. B.F. Wright and Republican candidate James M. Crase has ended with Crase being declared the winner over Wright by 60 votes, 5,222 votes to 5,162. When the recount of Letcher County’s 43 voting precincts was finished Monday night it showed that Wright lost a total of 134 votes from the total he was awarded on Election Day. Crase lost a total of 215 votes, but still had enough to be declared the winner.

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Professional basketball player Joe Tolliver visited his native Letcher County over the Thanksgiving weekend. He plays professionally in Owensboro, Ky.

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Whitesburg’s new post office, which has been under construction on Main Street for the past several months, is now expected to be ready for occupancy by February 1.

Thursday, December 4, 1947

7th District U.S. Rep. W. Howes Meade has warned truck mine operators in Letcher County to work to “ship the best and cleanest coal available” to Europe during the Aid-to-Europe Program, which Meade says is unpopular with many in the region. “Nature has given us the best [coal] in the world, yet we are guilty of shipping some cars consisting of inexcusable amounts of rock, dirt and slate,” Meade says in a statement appearing in this week’s edition of The Mountain Eagle. “Every car of this extremely dirty coal that is loaded is with utter disregard not only in the welfare of the shipper, but to every man engaged in truck mining for his livelihood. … A loss of this business means, of course, a loss of jobs for miners, truck drivers and ramp men. It means a loss of business for every merchant in the area. It means an economic setback for every person in Letcher County.”

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Letcher County Jailer James Gose is believed to be leading the county when it comes to killing and butchering hogs this season, as he has already taken part in 15 of them.

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Twenty-two veterans from Whitesburg are taking part in a GI flight-training program being offered at the Cumberland Valley Airport in the Cumberland River area of Letcher County. Among those receiving lessons from flight instructor Charles Blair, also of Whitesburg, are Stamper Collins, Virgil Napier, Claude Webb, and Remous Day, all of who are expected to receive their pilot’s license soon. Those showing unusual progress are William Fred Gibson, H.G. Walls, Frank Majority, Glenn Hensley, Randall Polly, Ray Adkins, and Buford Adams. The airfield, owned by George Smith of Cumberland, is the only one in Letcher County approved by the federal and state governments. It also offers flying lessons for non-veterans.

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Kingdom Come High School has added the subjects of Shorthand, Economics, and Business Law to its curriculum.

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The Jenkins High School Marching Band was honored with an invitation to participate in the City of Norton, Virginia’s Christmas parade and welcoming of Santa Claus.

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Hellier High School defeated the Jenkins Cavaliers in a basketball game Tuesday, 36 to 27.

Thursday, November 30, 1967

Letcher County is one of 11 eastern Kentucky counties to be in a “demonstration health project” program that has been funded for $2.2 million by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Plans for the demonstration program were drawn up by the Appalachian Regional Hospital system, the Kentucky State Department of Health, and the Governor’s Area Development Office. The program was developed in great secrecy, with eastern Kentucky residents and their leaders excluded from participation. As a result, The Mountain Eagle has been unable to locate anyone who knows just what the money is for nor just how it will be spent, nor who requested it.

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”It’s bad for men to be laid off their jobs, but it seems worse around Christmastime,” writes McRoberts correspondent Madeline Combs. “There were 77 men laid off at Mine 23 of Beth-Elkhorn on Friday.”

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Col. R.R. Wessels finally made it to Letcher County this week to tell part of the citizenry that the Army Corps of Engineers would like to destroy about a third of the county with a dam. The proposed dam, already labeled “The Kingdom Come Dam”, would be located between Ulvah and Blackey.

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James B. Wise, 22, son of Mr. and Mrs. Nagey Wise of Neon, was commissioned an Army second lieutenant upon graduation from the Armor officer candidate school at Fort Knox Nov. 17.

Thursday, November 24, 1977

State mine inspectors crossed Stearns One man was shot and another injured during a “Democratic Victory Party” at the Neon American Legion Hall Saturday night. Tony Barker, 20, McRoberts, a bystander, was shot in the leg during a fight between United Mine Workers of America organizer Lee Potter, of Neon, and Letcher County Deputy Sheriff Charles Hall.

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Millard Oscar Hubbard, a member of the FBI’s top 10 wanted list, was arrested in Lexington after federal and state agents traced him from a hideout on Pine Mountain in Letcher County. Hubbard, who is wanted for five bank robberies, had been living on Pine Mountain for three months, according to State Police Det. Frank Fleming.

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Whole turkeys are on sale at the Whitesburg A&P for 49 cents a pound. Boneless hams are $1.99 a pound.

Wednesday, November 25, 1987

Eastern Kentucky officials are considering a rural water system that would serve five counties including part of Letcher. The proposed system would cover parts of Letcher, Knott, Perry, Leslie and Breathitt counties. The water plant would probably be located at Jeff in Perry County and would cost about $2 million.

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A two-vehicle crash at Isom left Anna Lou Ison, 53, of Isom, dead. Mrs. Ison was returning home from the Isom Presbyterian Church, where she had been practicing for the church’s annual Christmas play. She lived less than a half a mile from the church.

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Nearly three dozen volunteers play records at WMMT-FM (88.7), a community non-commercial radio station based at Appalshop in Whitesburg. The station’s signal reaches a potential 200,000 listeners in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, eastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina. WMMT listeners can hear a variety of modern bluegrass and country, oldtime rock ‘n roll, classic rock, Motown, new wave, punk, heavy metal, folk, blues, jazz, new age, Appalachian, contemporary pop and music from Latin America and South Africa.

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Western Kentucky University junior Bridgette Combs, who capped off a brilliant career at Whitesburg High School in 1985 with Miss Kentucky Basketball honors, is expected to play a major role on the 1987-88 Lady Toppers squad.

Wednesday, November 26, 1997

The owners of Golden Oak Mining Company are seeking offers for the purchase of the firm’s coal mines in Letcher, Knott and Perry counties.

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Can a deep mine which last saw activity around 1917 cause stabilization problems for a building that would be constructed 415 feet above it? That question must be answered before the City of Jenkins can continue with plans to develop a 75-acre industrial site near Payne Gap.

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Esther Craft celebrates her 102nd birthday Nov 26. She is a retired teacher and merchant. During World War I, she served in the Navy as a clerical worker, recording incoming and outgoing ships as a Yeoman-F. She says during drills, women used hoe handles instead of guns.

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All but four Letcher County schools have lost enrollment from last year to this year. Total enrollment has dropped 153 from 4,261 last year to 4,108 this year. Only two schools report a rise in enrollment, Arlie Boggs Elementary and Fleming-Neon Elementary.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A proposed $2.5 million sewage collection system and wastewater treatment plant to serve the communities of Blackey and Woodrock has passed an environmental assessment ordered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps plans to fund nearly half of the project, which was first proposed by the Letcher County Water and Sewer District in 2003.

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The Letcher County Fiscal Court has agreed on a 5-1 vote to solicit bids from waste management companies that might be interested in taking over the operation of the county’s sanitation department.

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Registered nurses in Letcher County and elsewhere in Kentucky and West Virginia continued their strike against Appalachian Regional Healthcare this week, more than five days after both sides in the bitter labor dispute announced they were mulling the possibility of an extended “cooling off ” period.

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