Letter Showed the Power of the “Hargis Machine”

By Stephen D. Bowling

Judge James H. Hargis

A faded and wrinkled letter written from Kentucky Governor John C. W. Beckham to a powerful Breathitt County Judge-Executive was discovered more than twenty years ago in the collection of the late James Stephen “Penny” Hogg of Florida.

The letter dated May 5, 1903, was written to Hogg’s grandfather, Judge James H. Hargis by Governor Beckham the day after U.S. Master Commissioner James Buchanan “J. B.” Marcum was gunned down on Main Street at the Breathitt County Courthouse.

In the years following the murder, several trials were held after both Judge-Executive James H. Hargis and Breathitt County Sheriff Edward Callahan were accused of conspiracy in the Marcum murder.  Neither was convicted of the criminal act of murder even though the Marcum family won several “wrongful death” lawsuits. Two of Hargis’ “henchmen,” Thomas White and Curtis Jett, were convicted, and each spent time in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort.

Governor William Goebel

Governor Beckham’s 1903 letter was crafted very carefully so as to not offend the powerful Hargis machine that had been very influential in Beckham acquiring the office of Governor. Judge-Executive James H. Hargis was a very powerful man.  His influence and strength were felt throughout the state and in some instances as far away as Washington, D.C.

Born on October 13, 1862, James Henderson Hargis was the son of John Seldon Hargis and his wife Evaline Brittain, who lived on the Panbowl farm. He grew to manhood in one of the wealthiest homes in Breathitt County and claimed much of the power and status that his father had worked years to bring the family.

In the years before Marcum’s assassination, Hargis was the chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and used this great influence to sway voters for candidate William Goebel during the 1899 election. 

Governor John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham- The “Boy Governor”

Judge David Bowling Redwine, a Hargis crony from Jackson, presided over the Democratic Convention in Louisville and wielded his power in a way that stopped any attempt by other delegates from removing Goebel’s name from the ballot. Goebel narrowly lost the election to Republican rival William S. Taylor, but through a series of political maneuvers, he won the election after the Legislature reversed the election.

Owing much of the reverse of the election results to the powerful Hargis machine and its influence in the Kentucky Senate, William Goebel promised favorable railroad laws that would benefit Hargis, Fulton French, and Ballard Howard of Clay County.  He soon sent word to the men of the mountains that his political intentions had changed and that three important railroad bills would get his approval.

Shortly before he was to take office in 1900, William Goebel was shot and killed on the grounds of the Capitol Building in Frankfort.  His murder was never solved but the primary suspect was a Clay County man with definite Hargis-Howard-French ties.

The shooting of William Goebel in Frankfort on January 30, 1900. – Source

Lieutenant Governor John C. W. Beckham, age 31, ascended the “throne” following Goebel’s assassination and maintained, for the rest of his term, an unofficial “Hands-Off Breathitt” policy. The following letter is a perfect example of what lengths Beckham was willing to go to not offend Hargis and continue his hands-off policy:

Judge James Hargis
Jackson, Kentucky

Dear Sir--

The unfortunate assassination of Marcum in Jackson yesterday calls for prompt and vigorous action upon the part of the officers of the law to discover if possible and punish the guilty party or parties.  I know it is your desire to do this and it is my desire to do everything in my power in aiding you to bring the guilty party to justice. 

Under Section 1932 of the Kentucky Statutes, the Governor has the power to offer a reward in such cases as high as five hundred dollars, but he cannot do so unless officially requested by the Circuit or County Judge. 

No effort should be spared in this matter, and I will therefore gladly offer the full limit allowed by law if authorized to do so, either by your request as County Judge or by the request of the Circuit Judge. 

I hope you will give this matter your prompt attention, and if the local officers have no clue as to who the guilty party is, that you will apply to me for the reward authorized by the law.

Very truly yours,                                                     

/s/ J.C.W. Beckham

No record of a request for a reward from Hargis exists in the official papers of Governor Beckham.  No second offer was made– maybe Beckham could remember that the event that first thrust him into power in 1900 could have also taken him out of the spotlight in 1903.

Regardless, the letter is a priceless artifact from the feud era and a classic example of the power and influence that Judge James H. Hargis possessed from the 1890s until his death at the hand of his own son on February 8, 1908.

A scanned image of the original letter in the possession of the Hargis family.

Special thanks to Jane Hogg for sharing this letter with me many years ago when I was a young newspaper reporter looking for information related to the feuds and Judge Hargis.

© 2022 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, Murder and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s