Porter Sentenced to Life

By Stephen D. Bowling

January 3, 1922 – Thomas Kelly Porter stood silently and showed no emotion as Judge Sam Hurst sentenced him to life in prison on January 3, 1922. He said nothing but only stared ahead, uncertain of what lay in store in the decade to come. After nearly a month of legal wrangling, the Breathitt County Circuit Court had tried, convicted, and sentenced him for his part in one of the county’s most controversial and tragic episodes.

Porter was the 20-year-old son of Samuel and Polly (Campbell) Porter. He was raised by his mother and stepfather, Ashford Napier, in Perry County. Born on November 13, 1903, near the Breathitt/Perry County line at the mouth of Grapevine Creek, “Tommy” was educated at Lost Creek and was well-liked by both family and friends. He completed the eighth grade at Leatherwood School and went several days to a new high school at Riverside before leaving to work on the family farm.

A view of the Breathitt County Jail on College Avenue.

Porter and several relatives and neighbors found themselves at the center of an enormous national news story in December 1921. The group was accused of attempting to take over the Breathitt County Jail from Jailer Alfred A. “Smokey” Allen to free several prisoners being held there awaiting transfer to the state penitentiary. Several versions of what was actually planned that night have been told, but the whole story may never be wholly known.

In truth, few facts have not been argued by both sides. The brief outline includes these events:

Just after 1:30 a.m. on the morning of December 10, 1921, a group of men (the number varies depending on who is speaking) knocked at the door of the Breathitt County Jail. Someone opened the door and the group entered. The group asked for the keys to the cells, and when they were refused, someone fired. When the smoke cleared, Deputy Jailer Albert Roberts (age 17) and Margaret “Maggie” Allen (age 24) lay mortally wounded. Sarah (Hudson) Allen was severely wounded. Maggie Allen and Sarah Allen were taken to the Bach Hospital. Maggie died three days later, on December 13, 1921. Sarah Allen survived for two years, but she died from the lingering effects of her wounds on February 20, 1923.

The December 16, 1921 edition of The Jackson Times included advertisements for Christmas and the story of the Jail Raid as told by Jailer A. A. Roberts.

Several men, including Tommy Porter, were arrested quickly. They were held at the Hargis store and guarded by Kentucky State Troops. The threats faced by the “murderous marauders” from an outraged public were real and their safety could not be guaranteed in the Breathitt County Jail. Commonwealth Attorney William L. Kash asked that the prisoners be moved for their own safety. The Fayette County Jail was home to the defendants Samuel Grigsby, Luther Noble, William Penn Watts, Lewis Watts, Hagins Noble, Tom Porter, and others for the next few weeks. Several defendants were still at large, including Solomon “Soldier” Noble and others. State militia troops continued to look for other defendants, but the trials for those men who were being held started.

A reporter from The Lexington Herald attended and reported on the Thomas Porter trial at Jackson. This article from page 1 of the paper on December 29, 1921, announced the start of the trial.

The trial of Tommy Porter started on December 29, 1921, in Breathitt Circuit Court for complicity in the murder of Albert Roberts and Maggie Allen and the wounding of Sarah Allen.

The prosecution called Jailer Alfred A. Allen, who testified that Thomas Porter was at the jail because he saw and recognized him. He said that the men called at the door and said that they had a prisoner to be lodged in jail. Oscar Allen, the jailer’s son, was asleep on the second floor, and Jailer Allen called for him to bring down the keys. He testified that the men rushed past him when his son got to the top of the steps with the keys and a flashlight.

He said that the leader wore a “false face,” but he recognized and knew him to be Solomon “Soldier” Noble. He testified that he also recognized Bud and Beecher Noble, who also concealed their faces.

The Lexington Herald headline from page 1 of the January 1, 1922 edition.

Maggie and Sarah Allen rushed to the doors of their rooms and “begged the raiders” not to shoot. Jailer Allen said the men “brutally” shot them and left them lying on the stairs, and he broke down and cried as he told of his son and nephew’s bravery in the raid.

When Oscar Allen turned the flashlight on Soldier Noble as he came up the steps and made a grab for the keys, Allen threw them back into a dark room. Noble fired at Oscar Allen and struck him in the ear, knocking him to the floor. His wife, Sarah (Hudson) Allen, who was several months pregnant, rushed out and begged the men not to shoot him again. Jailer Allen testified that Soldier Noble turned, put the gun against Sarah’s stomach, and fired. Maggie rushed out. Two shots struck her, and she fell at the top of the steps. While she begged them not to shoot her again, two more shots were fired.

Jailer Allen’s nephew, Albert Roberts, was sleeping in a room just down the hall and ran out firing an automatic pistol down the steps at the potential jailbreakers. Roberts was hit in the chest and fell backward to the floor but emptied his gun as he fell.

Jailer Allen stated that the noise, smoke, and confusion forced the raiders to leave the jail without their prisoners and without killing Oscar Allen. Roberts was found at the top of the stairs lying on his side with dark blood bubbling from his chest. He was carried to his bed and died within minutes. Maggie and Sarah were taken to the Bach Hospital on Main Street, where Maggie died three days later.

The prosecution, led by William L. Kash and A. A. Byrd, introduced several more witnesses and established that a hat was found at the jail and a pistol located at the scene belonged to the raiders.

The article announcing the verdict from the January 4, 1922 edition of The Louisville Courier-Journal, page 3.

Thomas “Tommy” Porter immediately took the stand and was interrogated by the defense attorney. He admitted that he and Will Penn Watts went to Grapevine to borrow an “army rifle” as directed by Bud Noble. He said that he and Will Pen Watts came to the mouth of Quicksand with the gun as ordered but did not come on to Jackson.

Defense Attorneys A. S. Johnson and Grannis Back introduced witnesses who supported Porter’s version. After talking with William Penn Watts and Hagins Noble, the defense rested its case.

The jury got the case a few minutes before 10:00 a.m. on January 3 and deliberated for less than two hours before finding Tommy Porter guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Those who sat through the trial said that Porter received a life sentence and was spared the death only because of his “innocent and youthful looks.”

Thomas “Tommy” reported to the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort on January 12, 1922, and became prisoner #8969. He told jail officials that he was 16 years of age which got him placed in what would today be called the juvenile detention section. His time there was short. The Sheriff of Franklin County came to the prison and served a warrant of habeas corpus on Porter and moved him to the Franklin County Jail, awaiting the action of the Court of Appeals.

Thomas Porter’s World War II military draft registration form.

Porter never returned the prison. His exact release date was not recorded in the prison ledger, but by 1924 he was back in Breathitt County. After his release from prison, Porter continued to “court” Callie Watts, the daughter of Hiram and Polly (Noble) Watts, wealthy landowners on Leatherwood Creek. On September 19, 1925, Porter and Callie Watts were married in a ceremony at Jackson. A son soon joined the family on July 2, 1926, when Callie gave birth to Virgil.

Thomas K. Porter’s obituary from page 36 of the January 11, 1974 edition of The Dayton Journal Herald.

Porter settled into married life and continued to work on his farm. By 1940, the Breathitt County tax collector valued his farm and all of its improvements near Meadow Branch on Leatherwood at $500. He also reported some “other income” from the sale of timber and livestock but did not report income from the occasional “run” of processed liquid corn.

Soon after the 1940 census taker visited Porter, he and his family moved to Ohio and eventually settled in Montgomery County.

Tommy, Callie, and Virgil lived in the area for many years before his death on January 9, 1974, at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering, in Montgomery County, Ohio. He is buried in the Miami Valley Memory Garden in Centerville, Butler County, Ohio.

The Breathitt County Jail Raid remains one of the most controversial events in our community’s long history. Everyone that was an active participant has died. Many left different versions behind at their passing.

The grave of Thomas K. Porter and his wife, Callie (Watts) Porter in the Miami Valley Memorial Garden. Photo Source- Find a Grave Memorial #154270199

The only truth is that many families suffered because of their participation or alleged participation in this event. Several innocent men spent time in prison for their unwillingness to cooperate with authorities. Many lies have been told through the years. Most versions of the story are built on speculation and are embellished to protect one side or the other, allowing this event to take on an exaggerated life of its own.

Soldier Noble was eventually captured in Perry County in February 1932 (or gave himself up). He was tried and given life in prison for the murder of Maggie Noble. Soldier served 8 years and was released by the Parole Board on March 3, 1940, due to prison overcrowding. He died in Florida in 1974.

There are many versions of what happened early that morning, and none of them are 100% accurate. I have been told a more complete and plausible interpretation of the events that night. It has not been revealed yet and may never be shared, but I will not willingly walk into that debate. There are always three versions to every story- yours, mine, and the truth. It is important to remember these events and the stories that made “Bloody Breathitt” famous worldwide for all the wrong reasons.

© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling.


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Feuds, Jackson, Murder and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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