In addition to being happy they’re not from Texas, which is soon scheduled to hold its 500th execution since 1982, Roger Dale Epperson and Benny Lee Hodge, the last two convicted killers sent to Kentucky’s Death Row from Letcher County, should also thank their lucky stars they were tried here in Summer 1986 instead of Fall 1937.
On May 23, 1938, convicted killer Troy Triplett was buried on Bill Moore Branch, three days after he was electrocuted for murdering Dolphie Hall near the headwaters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River on July 16, 1937. Triplett was convicted of the murder charge and sentenced to death on October 26, 1937, after a special Letcher Circuit Court jury deliberated for a “period of two minutes, a record deliberation in a murder case in Letcher County,” a story on the front page of The Mountain Eagle said two days later.
Triplett’s trial took place in Whitesburg only one week after he was captured after escaping from the Harlan County Jail, where he had been taken for safekeeping, and eluding arrest for a number of days “by roaming the woods of Letcher County,” the Eagle’s report said.
Triplett decided to plead guilty to the murder charge after his arrest, but the prosecution insisted on introducing proof in a trial setting. Whitesburg attorney John D.W. Collins was appointed to defend Triplett and a special jury called in. Triplett was transferred to the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville (which opened in 1889 and is still in use today), and his conviction was upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals on January 17, 1938. He was executed four months later.
Triplett was 22 years old when he murdered Hall, who had testified against Triplett in another murder case in October 1934.
In that case, Triplett, then 17, was accused of murdering Mose Webb outside Webb’s home at the head of the North Fork near Payne Gap in late December 1933.
According to testimony in the case, Webb was walking by the front porch of his home when he was shot in the leg with a shotgun. Webb’s neighbor, Maryland Bates, was arrested along with Triplett.
Bates was tried separately and was convicted and sentenced to life. While prosecutors claimed Triplett fired the shot that killed Webb, defense attorneys maintained Triplett was not with Bates when the shot was fired, but was six miles away.
Jurors were unable to reach a verdict in the case after two trials and Triplett was set free.
Triplett murdered Hall by shooting him three or four times after Triplett encountered Hall and another man, J.H. Addington, as they were walking down the North Fork of the Kentucky River after an afternoon of picking huckleberries.
“Along the way (Triplett) said he was going to fix Hall and perhaps Addington … and all at once he jerked his pistol and shot three times at Addington,” The Eagle reported in it July 22, 1937 edition. “But for a mule on which [another friend of Hall and Addington named Akemon)]was riding, he would have killed Addington as the mule was between them. Triplett then turned and shot the Hall boy three or four times. By this time the Akemon boy and Addington had gotten away.
“Triplett then shot some five or six times and turned and went back up the road telling the people that he had killed Hall and Addington’s mule.”
Another man at the scene of the shooting, Homer Rose, was charged with providing the pistol Triplett used.
Rose was later convicted of willful murder in the case and sentenced to life in prison.
Epperson and Hodge have been on Kentucky’s Death Row at Eddyville since June 1986, when they were convicted of murdering Tammy Acker of Fleming and attempting to murder her elderly physician father, Dr. Roscoe J. Acker.
The murder occurred after Epperson, Hodge and a third man, Donald Terry Bartley, robbed the bedside safe of Dr. Acker, who has since died, of $1.9 million.
Bartley was spared the death penalty after agreeing to testify against Epperson and Hodge, who have been able to dodge death by lethal injection for 27 years.
In the early 1960’s, Sarah Adams gathered news from the Hemphill area for The Mountain Eagle and let Alfred Adams put her findings into words. In the June 27, 1963 edition of The Eagle, Alfred Adams thought about the good times the Hemphill community experienced when Elk Horn Coal Corporation’s mining operation, where Mr. Adams served as payroll manager, was in full force.
The Hemphill mine was in the Elkhorn No. 3 seam, which had an average thickness there of 48 inches. In a 1937 report, the company said that in 1936, Hemphill miners used five cutting machines, 9 electric locomotives and 237 mine cars to produce an average of 850 tons of coal per day for processing at a wooden tipple there.
In 1937, the same year Elk Horn Coal Corporation filed for bankruptcy, the Hemphill coal camp consisted of 147 houses and two stores the company had built to serve miners.
Former Elk Horn Coal employee Jeanette Knowles wrote in 1990 that the Hemphill mine had been expected to last until at least the middle of the 1970’s, but instead shut down in the mid-1950’s.
By ALFRED ADAMS
It seems like a dream since the day I was transferred from the big Fleming office to take over the payroll at Hemphill, which was on the first day of January, 1930 — more than 33 years ago. I have seen this town go through hard times, and I have seen it reach the peak in prosperity. I have seen boards nailed over the windows of the big stores, and have seen them nailed over the windows of most of the dwelling homes.
However, we were fortunate enough to work for a good company like Elk Horn Coal Corporation. This great company was managed and operated by pioneer coal men who always had their employees at heart. They had a feeling for the men who dug their coal, and they would always manage some way to carry them through these depressions.
Ah! How happy it would make us when word would come to “open the drift mouth,” “get things in order,” “stock up the store,” “open the scrip office.” We were going back to work.
It was somewhere in the forties when she reached her peak. There must have been 500 men on the payroll, perhaps even more than that. It was literally a gold mine. Everybody had money. We thought hard times would never be hard again.
But this, too, must come to an end. Pretty soon the supply of coal was being exhausted and it became necessary to lay men off. She had reached the top and there was only one way to go — down. She was going this time for good — never to rise again.
People still live here in Hemphill, though. Nearly every house is occupied, and the people are happy. I would like to write more about this town, and especially about some of the old-timers. Perhaps I will some other time.
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1908
June 24, 1943
Union miners in Letcher County returned to work today after a three-day shutdown brought on when coal operators and the United Mine Workers failed to come to terms on a new contract. According to reports, a temporary agreement will permit the operation of all mines through October 31, 1943.
A community cannery has been started in Letcher County to help with the problems of the war-related food shortage and the need to put food up for the winter. The cannery will be operated by the Letcher County Board of Education. Instruction will be given in canning, drying and brining of foods. Tin cans will cost three cents each, with an addition three-cent charge to cover the cost of water, fuel and electricity. The cannery will be fully stocked with kettles, retorts, electric sealers, hand sealers, sausage grinder retorts, exhaust boxes, baskets, blanching vats and boiler. All items but the boiler will be provided by the War Production Board.
The Letcher County Clerk’s Office reports it has issued 63 marriage licenses between March 16 and May 31.
Mountain Eagle editor W.P. Nolan remembers these words from the Eagle’s founding editor and publisher, Nehemiah Webb, who spoke them some 10 years before, in 1933, on the subject of what will happen when all the coal is mined in Letcher County: “There will always be a way for making a living in these hills, and when the coal is gone there will be something else for them to work at.”
Five residents of Camp Branch are leaving the community for Detroit, Michigan. They are Ben Holbrooks, Alex Hall, Millard Morton, and Dana and Dorothy Caudill.
Seven Letcher County citizens and one business, Ford Furniture of Neon, have lost their gasoline ration books and posted classified ads asking for their return. The lost books belong to residents of Southdown, Carbon Glow, Ermine, Cromona, Farraday, Blackey and Jenkins.
Letcher County Extension Service Agent Hugh Hurst says he has visited 75 gardens in all sections of the county and found “insects doing a great deal of damage to such crops as beans, cabbage, cucumbers, melons and potatoes. The most serious of these are the bean beetle and cabbage worms.”
Former Little Colley residents Mabel Joe Collins and Bobby Jean Frazier have found employment at the Ford Bomber plant in Detroit.
Upset by United Mine Workers strikes that threaten the production of aircraft used by the U.S. and other Allied nations in the war effort against Germany and Japan, Army Staff Sergeant Edward H. Berry, a native of Jackhorn, writes from England to invite UMW President President John L. Lewis to accompany him on an air raid over France or Germany. “Maybe when he gets a taste of German fighters … with flak bursting all around the plane he won’t be so eager to call a strike that threatens to stop aircraft production,” Berry, a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, writes in a letter to the editor. “He can go with us anytime. I’m sure my would be glad if he went along.”
June 25, 1953
The new Cavalier Drive-In Theatre will begin operation tonight. It is located on U.S. 119, at the head of Potter’s Fork in a location formerly known as “the garbage dump.” The site is now an ultra-modern drive-in movie with 370 speakers, one of the largest screens in this region and a modern snack bar. Tonight’s double feature is “Purple Heart Diary,” a 1951 drama starring Fances Langford and Judd Holdren and “Kangaroo,” a 1952 Australian Western in Technicolor.
In an advertisement thanking voters for not having any opposition in the Republican primary election for Letcher County Clerk, Cora Frazier, wife of the late Troy W. Frazier, says she is running for the office of clerk to “right this wrong” she says occurred four years earlier when her husband had the office “taken away from him” after a close contest with Democrat Charlie Wright.
An automatic fire alarm system has been installed in the Daniel Boone Hotel in Whitesburg. A certificate of cooperation from the state fire marshal’s office has been awarded to the hotel, owned and operated by J.S. Nicholson.
The Jenkins Board of Education has defined requirements for the issuance of General Educational Development Test diplomas. GED diplomas will not be issued unless applicants have been enrolled in Jenkins High School, Grade 9 McRoberts Junior High School, or Dunham Colored High School for at least one year and earned at least four high school units. The board said the action is necessary because so many boys are dropping out of school to join the service.
A ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals has cleared the way for a local option election to be held Pikeville on June 27, but will not permit the same type of election to be held in Pike County territory outside of Pikeville and Elkhorn City. The ruling comes on an appeal from Pike County Judge Ervin S. Pruitt, who originally called the two elections on the basis of voter petitions presented to him, but then moved to set the elections aside.
Roads scheduled to be blacktopped for the first time by the state highway department are the roads from the mouth of Dry Fork to Premium, the road from Premium to Roxana, and five miles of the road from Roxana to Kingscreek. Scheduled to be resurfaced is the Pine Mountain- Cumberland Road (U.S. 119).
Pfc. Don Menken, 21, is reported as missing as action in Korea by the Department of the Army. The news came in a telegram to Mrs. Lola Menken Barb, the mother of Menken, who attended Whitesburg High School.
One of the largest crowds ever to assemble at the Elinda Ann Drive-In in Whitesburg gathered there on June 18 to see a concert by Martha Carson and other entertainers from the Grand Ole Opry of Nashville. Miss Carson has climbed high in the entertainment world by singing religious and spiritual songs with her rich, mellow voice. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R.H. Amburgey, formerly of Goose Creek and McRoberts.
June 27, 1963
The new ZIP Code has gone into effect in the national postal system. Whitesburg Postmaster R.C. Day says all mail users should learn their ZIP Code numbers and put them on return addresses on all correspondence. The ZIP Code was designed to cut mail delivery by as much as 24 hours.
Chester Sparks has been named superintendent of the Jenkins Independent School District. He served as director of pupil personnel for several years until 1961, when he resigned to move to Winchester. Sparks succeeds Lee Johnson, who resigned when the Jenkins Board of Education refused to grant him a four-year contract.
The Kentucky General Assembly has approved Gov. Bert T. Combs’s request for an appropriation of $700,000 for aid to people who cannot afford to buy their own medical care. The wording of the bill prohibits use of the funds except at a United Mine Workers of America hospital. The legislative action is designed to help prevent the closing of the five UMWA hospitals in Kentucky.
Hams are on sale at 59 cents a pound at the A&P food store in Whitesburg. Three pounds of Eight O’Clock Coffee are $1.39, and two loaves of Jane Parker white bread are 39 cents.
June 28, 1973
A heading was held in Floyd County in a congressional probe of inequalities in the federal black lung program. Rep. Carl D. Perkins told the standing-room-only crowd of 400, “We’ll hear everybody, if it takes till midnight.”
A Mountain Eagle editorial on the federal black lung program says, “The black lung mess is so hopeless that probably nothing short of a total, all-out, nationwide coal strike by the United Mine Workers against the bureaucrats who run the Social Security machinery will do any good. And maybe not even that will work.”
Speaking of the recent deaths of three local residents, McRoberts correspondent Madelyn Combs says, “Sadness is hanging like a cloud over our community.”
”The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” outdoor drama, based on the book by John Fox Jr., is advertising its opening date, June 29, 1973. The drama is to take place at the new amphitheater at Van.
June 23, 1983
Nearly half of Letcher County’s 1983-1984 operating budget is to be used to pay salaries and wages to county employees. Approximately $567,942 out of the budget of $1,379,604 is to be used to pay salaries and wages to elected officials and appointed county employees.
Jeremiah correspondent Hassie Breeding Helton says she enjoys selling tickets at the Cinema 7 Drive-In, owned by her son, Begie “Moose” Breeding II, while he is in Florida.
The children of Bill and Suzie Sparks are hosting an open house to celebrate their parents’ 57th wedding anniversary.
June 30 1993
Residents of Wolfpen Hollow on Thornton Creek were surprised to find a black bear in their neighbor’s yard. Thirteen-year-old Neal Woodworth, his brother, Phillip, 8, and a neighbor, B.J. Bates, also 8, and B.J.’s grandmother, Sue Bates, watched the full-grown bear as it scratched the bark on a tree in the yard of the Carl Hall family.
The City of Whitesburg has acquired property rights to the old L&N Railroad right-of-way from West Whitesburg to Premium. CSX Transportation donated the old rail line property to the city so it can be used for building new city water lines to the Whitco and Cowan areas.
Thirty-two people signed up to grow shiitake mushrooms commercially in Letcher County. The project is being promoted by James Caudill, who has been growing shiitakes for a year.
July 2, 2003
A Letcher County grand jury has indicted a Covington coal brokering company and its sole officer on charges that they bilked Cook and Sons Mining Company out of $250,000 worth of coal by writing bad checks as partial payment for the coal.
The U.S. Army has awarded the Bronze Star for Valor to Staff Sgt. Travis Roark, a Kingscreek native, for his actions in Baghdad, Iraq. Roark also received the Purple Heart for wounds received in the battle. Roark is the son of Larry and Patricia Roark of Kingscreek.
Thieves used a sledgehammer to break through the front door of an Isom pharmacy early Saturday morning and made off with an undetermined amount of narcotics and other prescription drugs. A security video shows two thieves, apparently men, breaking into the Community Pharmacy about 12:45 a.m. Saturday and then leaving after gathering up bottles of the prescription painkiller hydrocodone, the male sexual enhancement drug Viagra, and the antianxiety drugs Ativan and Xanax.
State Abandoned Mine Lands officials hope to use money set aside to repair damage from old mines to extinguish a coal seam fire that has been burning at Carbon Glow since May. The fire began in an abandoned mine drift mouth or airway at the head of Caudill Branch on Carbon Glow.