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The Way We Were

Murder of Fleming dentist remains a mystery today


The February 20, 1941 edition of The Mountain Eagle carried the news of the baffling murder of popular Fleming dentist G.W. Thornbury. The doctor’s killer or killers were never apprehended.

The February 20, 1941 edition of The Mountain Eagle carried the news of the baffling murder of popular Fleming dentist G.W. Thornbury. The doctor’s killer or killers were never apprehended.

On this week in 1941, Letcher County was still abuzz with the latest news about the unsolved slaying of a popular Fleming dentist nearly seven weeks before.

The March 27, 1941 edition of The Mountain Eagle carried a front-page notice from the father of murdered Dr. G.W. Thornbury offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any and all responsible for killing his son.

The reward offered by the father, E.M. Thornbury of Pikeville, would be worth nearly $16,000 today. The elder Thornbury said he had already put up $850 of the reward money, and that it was being held in the Pikeville National Bank in hands of agents A.O. Stump and Ann Thornbury. The Lonesome Pine Masonic Lodge added $100 to the reward and $50 was added by then- Kentucky Governor Keen Johnson.

Dr. Thornbury’s body was discovered in his Fleming dental office on February 13, 1941.

“He was found shot to death, three bullets piercing his body near the heart and two in the temple of his head,” the February 20, 1941 edition of The Eagle reported. “His body [was] lying half-dressed on the floor of his dental office adjacent to the Fleming Hospital. Officers and authorities have worked on the case all week, but no clues have developed and the case remains a mystery.”

 

 

Dr. Thornbury, 36, had practiced dentistry at Fleming for several years and was said to be a very handsome man popular throughout much of Letcher County. Survivors in addition to his parents included his wife, Pearl C. Thornbury, and two children.

The funeral for Dr. Thornbury, which included Masonic Rites, was held at the Pikeville Methodist Church and attended by more than 1,000 people, many of them from Letcher County.

“The gathering was estimated at around 1,300 people, around 300 of which were Masons,” wrote then-Eagle editor W.P. Nolan, who attended the funeral with his wife, Martha. “It was one of the most beautiful and impressive ceremonies ever to be seen in the mountains of Kentucky. Immediately following the funeral services the body was accompanied by the Masons and friends to the cemetery overlooking Pikeville for the final resting place. At the grave, the Masons also conducted beautiful and impressive ceremonies appropriate to a friend and brother.”

THROUGH THE HILLS — This photo provided by state government was taken just a few months before the Eastern Kentucky Turnpike (now known as the Mountain Parkway) was open to public use in March 1963. Visible here in Powell County are the two deepest cuts on the project. The large side-hill cut is in Slade Mountain. Structures visible at lower right were the last two to be completed on the toll road.

THROUGH THE HILLS — This photo provided by state government was taken just a few months before the Eastern Kentucky Turnpike (now known as the Mountain Parkway) was open to public use in March 1963. Visible here in Powell County are the two deepest cuts on the project. The large side-hill cut is in Slade Mountain. Structures visible at lower right were the last two to be completed on the toll road.

Editor Nolan ended by writing that he “sincerely hopes that the murderer or murderers will be caught and punished for this dreadful act.”

More than seven decades later, the murder of Dr. Thornbury still remains a mystery. Other than the father’s reward offer, The Eagle mentioned the case only four other times — twice in community correspondence columns and twice in public notice advertisements. The public notices were placed by Mrs. Thornbury as administratrix of her husband’s estate. The ads requested that anyone still owing dental bills for services performed by Dr. Thornbury pay the bills at the office of Dr. Skaggs in Fleming.

Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb said the investigation into Dr. Thornbury’s murder was probably handled by the sheriff ’s office, but he knows of no “cold case” files pertaining to the shooting. Webb pointed out that the Kentucky State Police agency was not created until July 1, 1948, more than seven years after the murder. Before then the agency was known as the Kentucky Highway Patrol but did not have investigative powers in 1941.

Letcher County’s record keeping was so bad in 1941 that Dr. Thornbury’s death isn’t even listed with the Kentucky state Office of Vital Statistics.

Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1908

April 1, 1943

Mr. W.O.B. Wright has sold his interest in the Pine Mountain Hotel and Sky Line Tavern. The Sky Line Tavern is now operated solely by Albert Peters.

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“The Jenkins High School senior class play, ‘Antics of Andrew,’ was a wonderful success — a scream from start to finish,” Mrs. O.O. Parks wrote in her Jenkins News column.

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A girl is wanted to drive a gas and oil delivery truck. Women interested should contact J.S. Nicholson at the Daniel Boone Hotel in Whitesburg.

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Army Pvt. Earl Napier writes that he has arrived for duty in Northern Africa and likes it there very well. “We have lots of mountain here but they sure aren’t like the mountains of good old Kentucky, where I long to be,” Napier writes. “I used to be a coal miner at the Elk Horn Coal Company at Cromona, and I sure would like to be back with all the old boys.”

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The movie “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingid Bergman, will be showing at the Kentucky Theatre in Whitesburg on Sunday and Monday, April 4 and 5.

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A “liberal reward” is being offered for the return of a ladies’ pocketbook lost on Main Street in Whitesburg on Saturday night. The pocketbook contained seven dollars in money, including one silver dollar, a coin purse and other items.

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Anti-liquor forces led by Rev. Joe T. Sudduth of the Graham Memorial Church in Whitesburg have published a statement blaming the “disaster at Pearl Harbor” two years before, which Sudduth calls “America’s Weakest Hour,” on the “traffic of liquor.” Calling of its abolishment of its sale in Letcher County, Sudduth says, “Liquor is a traitor. Let us drive him from the land.”

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The Kentucky Distillers’ Association is advertising another reply to Letcher County’s anti-liquor forces. “I can’t figure out why, at a time like this, some folks insist on raising a question like prohibition,” a character named The Old Judge says. “We’ve got a he-man’s job on our hands to win this war and we can’t be wasting our minds, our money and our strength fighting about something we tried for nearly 14 years and found couldn’t work.”

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Ned Day of the community of Day is advertising that he has 30 bushels of Irish Cobbler potatoes for sale.

April 2, 1953

Young Durward Banks has accepted the position of manager of the Craft Funeral Home at Neon. Junior Day is assisting him at this time. Mr. Banks has been employed at the Craft Funeral Home in Whitesburg since 1947.

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A Jeep stolen from a Perry County deputy sheriff was recovered at Belcraft by Letcher County Sheriff Hassel Stamper and State Trooper Champion. A 15-year-old boy was found driving the vehicle at 2 a.m. on March 26. It was stolen from Hazard at 11 o’clock the night before.

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Driver’s licenses are due on July 31, 1953 and will arrive in Letcher County around the middle of June, reports Letcher Circuit Clerk W.L. Stallard Jr. Persons whose last names begin with the letters A through K will not have to report. Those whose names begin with the letters L through Z will receive licenses that will cover a period of two years. The cost is $2.

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Students at Doty Grade School who didn’t miss a day of school during the previous year were brought to Whitesburg Monday, where they visited The Coca-Cola Bottling Company, The Mountain Eagle, and WTCW radio. A teacher accompanying the group said 18 deserving students had to be left behind because the person who was supposed to bring them to Whitesburg didn’t show up.

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The Dairy Dream operated by Mr. and Mrs. Jack Blair opened for business in Whitesburg on Wednesday. It is located near the Elinda Ann Drive-In Theatre.

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Mrs. Sarah Bowen is opening her tearoom in her home located below Craft Funeral Home in Whitesburg on Monday, April 6. Mrs. Bowen is well known and considered one of the town’s best cooks.

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Kingdom Come High School student Cinda Sparkmon won first place in the school fair for her essay about the poor conditions at the Linefork high school that has an enrollment of less than 100. “Why shouldn’t Kingdom Come have a few things that other Letcher County high schools have a lot of?” Miss Sparkmon writes. “… Our library is insufficient. As one student put it, ‘We haven’t enough information to define grasshopper.’ That is almost true.”

April 4, 1963

More than 36 forest fires burned over 1,252 acres in Letcher County in the previous two weeks, according to fire warden Bennett Mullins of McRoberts. Mullins said the upper end of the county was the hardest hit. There has been no rain for 10 days, and winds and high temperatures have accounted for many of the fires.

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The Presbyterian Church has been released from its pledge to give the Stuart Robinson School property at Blackey to the state for use as a junior college. Jack Burkich, head of a committee that had worked for several years to get a college on the property, released a letter from the University of Kentucky saying there is no longer a possibility of locating the proposed junior college at Blackey.

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Country ham is 69 cents a pound at the A&P grocery store, and coffee is 70 cents a pound.

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Beulah Caudill reports that the bad road is causing several families to move away from Cowan.

April 5, 1973

Bernard Banks has retired after working 30 years in the Whitesburg Post Office. Banks began work at the post office on March 23, 1943, after previously serving in the Dongola Post Office. Before that, he’d taught in the Letcher County schools.

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Sherrie Breeding, an eighth-grade student at Colson School, is the 1973 spelling champion of Letcher County.

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Millstone correspondent Mabel Kiser reports that James and Shirley Hall of Craft’s Colly were successful in keeping birds out of their pea patch with artificial snakes — until the snakes were stolen.

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Photographs of the Craft’s Colly road after a heavy spring rain show water blocking the road. One resident, who had worked all night in a Stonega, Va., coal mine, is pictured as he walked four miles to reach his home. Another photograph shows water covering a bridge leading to the Harvey Stallard residence.

April 7, 1983

Blue Diamond Coal Co. of Knoxville, Tenn., has pleaded guilty to two criminal counts and no contest to three other counts in connection with the March 9 and 11, 1976 explosions at the firm’s Scotia Coal Co. The company pleaded guilty to failing to train its miners in the use of rescuing devices, and falsifying mine records about pre-shift mine examinations. It also pleaded no contest to charges that it knowingly falsified ventilation maps, did not follow approved ventilation plans, and did not have a certified person check idle areas of the mine for methane and oxygen deficiency before the miners went to work March 9.

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Kentucky State Police Lt. Danny Webb, a native of Letcher County, has been assigned to the Elizabethtown state police post where he is to serve as assistant post commander.

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Jenkins Clinic Hospital has changed its name to Jenkins Community Hospital after being purchased by US Health Corporation of Clearwater, Fla.

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Whitesburg High School junior track star Monick Wampler finished first in the girls’ division of the school’s annual 10.2-mile Jenkins-to-Whitesburg run. Wampler turned in a time of 1:15:12 for the event. In the boys’ division, Jeff Collier, a WHS junior, finished with a time of 56:02, a new record for the event.

April 7, 1993

Two groups of investors, both of which include Whitesburg Mayor James D. Asher, have purchased the old Whitesburg industrial site. The 14-acre site was sold in two parcels by Hazard businessman James Hall and wife Frances. The sale came nearly two years after the Whitesburg City Council made a controversial decision to give the property to the Halls in exchange for a 200-acre abandoned mine and coal tipple site nearby.

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Seco native Debbie Tuggle is scheduled to appear at all elementary schools in the Letcher County school system to present environmental awareness programs of songs, many of which she wrote.

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Letcher County’s official unemployment rate fell by an estimated 3 percent from January to February, but remained in double figures. The Cabinet for Human Resources’ figures for February showed Letcher County’s unemployment rate at 10.7 percent, down from 13.4 percent in January.

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Ellis and Callie Bentley Tolliver, both 85 years old, celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary March 7. Both were born at Millstone in 1907, and they were married in 1925.

April 9, 2003

American Electric Power has not cleared power line rights-of-way properly, has not budgeted enough money for maintenance, and has cut back on repair crews while service has gotten worse in Letcher, Knott and Perry counties, a management audit of the company prepared for the Kentucky Public Service Commission says.

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Members of the Hemphill Community Center want to build a memorial to the hundreds of miners who have died since coal mining began here in the late 1800s. They’re asking residents of Letcher County to check a list of coal deaths sent to them by state officials and add any names they know about that aren’t on the list.

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The Whitesburg High School baseball team is undefeated after five games. The Jenkins High School baseball team started its season off with a win over Cordia April 3 at Cordia’s home field. The score was 9-1.

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Potholes caused by winter weather and heavy trucks should disappear within the next week or two. That’s when asphalt plants are scheduled to open for the spring paving season, said Jimmy Bates, maintenance supervisor of the Kentucky Department of Transportation’s Letcher County Highway Garage.


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