By Stephen D. Bowling
April 4, 1963 – It could very well be the most significant weapon in Breathitt County. Without question, it was the most infamous. More newspaper stories have been written about the terrible results this weapon produced while in the hands of a feudist than have been written about any other weapon. But where is it? What happened to this important symbol of the terror and murder that earned Breathitt County its “bloody” sobriquet?
Several years ago, while searching old copies of The Jackson Times, a discovered article related to one of the greatest artifacts of the feud period in our history started a quest to locate this artifact. In 1963, the Smith and Wesson .45 caliber pistol used by Curtis F. Jett to kill James Buchanan Marcum was donated to the county to sell at auction, with the proceeds intended to help build our current courthouse. Was it sold? Who bought it? Where is it now? All remain unanswered questions. To date, that search is ongoing.
At about 8:30 on the morning of March 4, 1903, Breathitt County’s most famous murder occurred in front of hundreds of witnesses, in broad daylight, and on the steps of the Breathitt County Courthouse. James Buchanan Marcum, a Republican attorney, talked to Belvin James Ewen on the steps of the courthouse. For several years, Marcum had been one of the only voices of opposition to County Judge James H. Hargis and his regime and their control over the politics of Breathitt County.
Two young men, Curtis Jett and Thomas White up the hallway of the courthouse behind Marcum as he stood facing Main Street. Thomas White walked past Marcum muttering something and out into the street. Curtis Jett walked quietly up the hallway and shot J. B. Marcum in the back of the head.
After several changes in venue and much legal wrangling, Jett and White were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort. But the story did not end there. The murder sparked another round of feuds in Breathitt, and reporters from across the United States came to Jackson to report the news. The Marcum murder and subsequent events assumed international notoriety.
More than 60 years after the murder, the name of Curtis Jett and the events of the darkest days of Breathitt’s past were still common knowledge. So much so that a certain pistol used in the killing became headline news. The following is the article from the front page of the April 4, 1963 edition of The Jackson Times:
“The weapon thought to have been used in an early Breathitt County assassination that triggered a wave of feuding and slayings has been presented to the county J. W. Billitter, a resident of Burnside in Pulaski County.
Mr. Billitter delivered the pistol, a .45 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, to Judge Sam P. Deaton here Saturday. The gun is thought to have been the one used by Curtis Jett in the May 4, 1903 assassination of U.S. Commissioner James B. Marcum, who was shot down in broad daylight as he visited the Breathitt County Courthouse in Jackson.
Jett and an accomplice, Thomas White, were convicted of the slaying and netted life sentences in the State penitentiary.
Mr. Billitter came into possession of the pistol from his father, a former warden at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, who attended the trials of Jett and White in Winchester and acquired the weapon in a rather unusual fashion. The story is told that several officials desired possession of the “death gun” and it was decided to roll high dice for the weapon. Warden Billitter became the owner by casting the highest number.
The Burnside resident has kept the pistol in a remarkably fine state of preservation, and Judge Deaton said it was in perfect operating condition. Mr. Billitter, in donating the weapon, expressed the wish that it be sold to the highest bidder and the proceeds be added to construction funds for the new Breathitt Courthouse Judge Sam P. Deaton expressed the appreciation of Breathitt Countians for the gift and assured the donor that his wishes would be complied with.”
A careful examination of the many subsequent issues of The Jackson Times did not reveal the date of the auction or the ultimate owner of the historic relic. We can only assume that the historical treasure was sold to a Breathitt Countian and that it more than likely remains in the county. I, for one, would simply like to see this link to Breathitt’s wild and woolly past.
Curtis Jett served his time in prison and was released. He spent his remaining years as a minister preaching across the region. He published his life story to help others avoid the pitfalls he overcame. Curtis F. Jett died on February 3, 1956, at the age of 81, in Richmond, Kentucky. His body was cremated, and his remains were scattered at the Doylesville Cemetery in Madison County near his family. At his request, no stone was erected in his memory.
© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling.
Thank you so much for this posting. I was born in Breathitt County Kentucky & I love reading of Breathitt County Kentucky gidtory.
Thank you. I appreciate the feedback about my little stories.
So interesting. Now I wanna go search for it.