By Stephen D. Bowling
Many years ago, I stumbled upon a short article during my research that has stuck in my mind because it lacked specifics. The small piece mentioned fourteen men in Jackson who had been fined for a friendly gambling operation at the Jefferson Hotel. The article was simple and short but respectful to the men who were caught by not printing their names.
Being curious, I kept a copy of this article and ran across it many times since about 1998 in my files without knowing the details. Sadly, I did not write the newspaper’s name on the microfilmed page, but I believe it to be The Winchester Sun. As the years passed, I thought about those men over the years. During my 2022 effort to write about the events of Breathitt’s past, I determined that I would finally solve the questions I had about this article.
The article was printed as:
14 Prominent Men Are Fined
Loser “Squeals” on Jackson Gamers and
Some of City’s Best-Known Men Plead Guilty
Special To The Sun
Jackson, Ky., February 20. — In the Police Court on Thursday afternoon, fourteen of the most prominent business and professional men of the city were each fined $20 and costs for gambling. It has been current talk for some time that high games were being played in the Jefferson Hotel, and one of the players, presumably a loser, gave the information which led to the charges being made. All the accused pleaded guilty and paid their fines.
That was all that was printed. There were no more details and nothing to support the information. That was all that historians would have to guide their search.
The “go-to source” for verification of these types of stories would have been the February 1914 editions of The Jackson Times. Sadly, those editions do not exist or have not been microfilmed. A search of other papers that usually reprint interesting articles from the Jackson area did not reveal another mention of the cases.
To solve this mystery, a strict search was made of the Breathitt County Courts and the Jackson Police Court records. There was no mention of the cases. Among the cases written in the City’s large ledger books were drunkenness cases, carrying a concealed weapon, speeding on horseback, breach of peace, and a wide variety of other criminal cases. There were occasional gambling cases, usually only two cases at a time during the years 1912 to 1914. No cases involving fourteen men were located in the usual places.
Then one afternoon, during a search for some replevin bonds in the old records, the beautiful handwriting of Judge Grannis Bach stood out in a ledger book on February 19, 1914. The cases had been hidden in another book and not recorded in the criminal proceedings where they should have been with the rest of the cases. There was no doubt- these were the fourteen gamblers mentioned in the newspaper article.
Judge Bach did all he could to protect the men, all of whom were his friends, by trying to hide the cases. However, his adherence to the legal right forced him to conduct the trials with the same rigor as any other. According to the court minutes, as they are recorded, each man appeared when his case was called on February 19, 1914, after the regular Court had adjourned. Each man had the charges against him read, and each entered a guilty plea.
Standing before Judge Back late that afternoon were some of Jackson’s most prominent businessmen and civic leaders. Several of them had been instrumental in passing the City’s “gaming ordinance,” which targeted gambling three years earlier. Now they stood accused and charged with the ordinance they crafted to punish others.
Roy Williams, Mitchell S. Crain, Green Haddix, Reed Williams, Leonard Spencer, Floyd Duff, James Brophy, Hannibal Hurst, William N. Cope, Albert Sidney Johnson, George Thompson, A. B. Short, Spencer Dobbins, and Tolbert Holiday were tried, and each was found guilty. Judge Bach gave each gambler the choice of a $20 fine or 1 day in jail for every dollar owed plus $4.50 in court costs. Most of the men paid their fines that day, although the last of them took five days to settle his case.
The men went back about their daily lives, and the incident was not mentioned around Jackson. The Jefferson Hotel “social club” continued two nights a week for many years. Judge Bach, as he had before the cases and after, occasionally stopped in “to check on” the men as to their health. Hannibal Hurst was shot and killed a short time later over something he allegedly whispered to a girl at a New Year’s Eve dance.
After nearly a quarter-century, I have put the case to rest in my mind- I think. My curiosity has always served me well when searching for historical events and people. The many people who influenced my love of history taught me to never give up on my search. I am certain the men were all in their seats at their respective churches that next Sunday and, I bet you a dollar, that each one went back to the Jefferson Hotel at some point.
But the only remaining question I have is- who was the squealer?
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling