An Accident Claimed Garfield Francis

By Stephen D. Bowling

It was a terrible accident. A young married man with a pregnant wife, Garfield Francis, shot himself accidentally with a rifle while standing on the porch. He died two days later.

James Garfield Francis, the son of Seldon and Cora (Campbell) Francis, came into the world on the morning of February 20, 1918, at the Francis home at Leatherwood Creek at Watts. The second of seven children, Garfield was a bright boy who excelled at school but enjoyed the hills and creek more than his days at the Leatherwood School. He was very popular and was well-liked. He grew to manhood among generations of cousins and extended relatives on Leatherwood.

James Garfield and Ethel (Combs) Francis

He met and soon started to visit the youngest daughter of William “Billie” and Mathat (Combs) Combs, who lived on Leatherwood not far from the Francis home. After a brief courtship, he and Ethel Combs were married on Plughat Branch of Leatherwood on June 10, 1935, with William Noble presiding.

Garfield Francis’ marriage to Ethel Combs was announced on page 3 of the June 13, 1935 edition of The Jackson Times. It seems they got a little creative with their ages on the application for permission to marry.

The couple was feted at a large wedding dinner and a mountain chivaree, including the required “liquid corn accelerants,” which flowed freely among the wedding celebrants. (My grandmother, who was 7 at the time, could remember the men beating on pots and pans, shooting into the air, and walking around the outside of the house for most of the night.) As was the mountain custom, the business of living started the following day, and Garfield went to the field to hoe corn.

Five days into their marriage, tragedy struck on Saturday, June 15, 1935. Precisely what happened has been debated. The Jackson Times reported that Francis dropped a rifle while walking on the porch of his home, and it fired, striking him in the thigh and abdomen. Another source said that he was talking and spinning the rifle on the toe of his shoe when it fell off and fired. Regardless of how it happened, a single .22 caliber round passed through Francis’s abdomen and perforated his intentions in seven places.

Francis was carried into the house and laid on the bed where treatment was started. Once the severity of his wounds was learned, the family made him comfortable until he could be moved to a doctor. The next day, Sunday, June 16, 1935, Francis was taken to Dr. Wilgus Bach’s hospital on Main Street in Jackson, where Dr. Bach operated on the wound. He found and closed all seven perforations in the intestines, but Garfield Francis continues to grow weaker.

James Garfield Francis’ Kentucky Death Certificate with the information provided by his mother, Cora (Campbell) Francis.
The announcement of the death of Garfield Francis from the June 27, 1935 edition of The Jackson Times, page 3.

The family took the body back to Leatherwood Creek, and the mountain custom of a family funeral was performed. He was buried on Tuesday, June 18, 1935 in the Willie Campbell Cemetery on Little Leatherwood Creek at Watts near the grave of his father, Seldon Francis, who died in 1928. James Garfield Francis was 17 years, 3 months, and 28 days old.

His widow, Ethel (Combs) Francis, would remarry and have several more children. Garfield Francis’ only child, Myrtle, never knew or saw her father. She married Clell Watts in 1953 and made sure she showed her four children the love she missed because of an unfortunate accident in 1935.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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