Store Shootout Kills One

The Sheriff’s posse combed the hills looking for him. They checked the homes of family and friends, but they could not find Archibald “Arch” Crawford. Two men feared mortally wounded lay in grave danger in the Bach Hospital in Jackson, but Arch Crawford was nowhere to be found.  

An article from the August 6, 1916 edition of The Lexington Herald announced the news of the fight in Breathitt County.

The fight happened near Oakdale on August 5, 1916, but the exact cause is still unknown. It was well known in the community that the two men had supported different sides during the recent election. One version of events that day indicated that Arch Crawford killed a horse that belonged to Spencer a few days before the fight Newspaper accounts of the period remarked that the two families were related. Numerous family members were involved in the ongoing feud.

According to witnesses in the store, a verbal argument between Alex Crawford and George Spencer spiraled out of control. Spencer, the brother of Breathitt County Sheriff Matt Spencer, served as Justice of the Peace for the Oakdale precinct. 

A version of the fight as told by Robert Spencer, nephew of George, indicated that Arch and Alex Crawford entered George Spencer’s store at Oakdale. The account stated that Arch Crawford raised his pistol and shot George Spencer without saying a word Robert Spencer said that George Spencer reached for a shotgun that he kept behind the counter and was then attacked by Alex Crawford. 

A general melee ensued, and several men in the store produced weapons. While Alex Crawford and George Spencer wrestled over the shotgun, Thomas Spencer, a brother of George, pulled his pistol and handed it to George Spencer. George Spencer let go of the shotgun and fired several shots into Alex Crawford at close range. Arch Crawford ran out the front door, and George Spencer emptied his pistol at him as he ran into the woods. 

Alex Crawford and George Spencer were transported on the L&N Railroad in the baggage car of the late train to Jackson, where both were placed under the care of Dr. Wilgus Bach. Dr. Bach announced that both had significant wounds. Neither man was expected to survive. 

Alex Crawford was shot in both arms, in the head, and in the side just below the heart. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Bach and his staff, Alex Crawford died in the early morning hours of August 7 from complications of his wounds. He was twenty-five years old. His body was transported to Athol on the train the following day for a funeral. He was buried in the Oliver Crawford Cemetery at the mouth of Bryant’s Creek. 

Alexander Hamilton Crawford was buried in the Oliver Crawford Cemetery at the mouth of Bryant’s Creek. His brother, James Matthew Crawford, murdered in 1910, is buried nearby.

The bullet fired by Arch Crawford entered George Spencer’s lower chest and penetrated the stomach and liver before passing out his back. He lay in pain at the Bach Hospital, being treated for several weeks by Dr. Bach. Miraculously, he survived what was thought to be a lethal wound.

The Breathitt County Grand Jury heard the testimony from the case and indicted Spencer and Arch Crawford. The Grand Jury found that Arch Crawford had committed the offense of Malicious Shooting and Wounding when he fired the pistol into the body of George Spencer but had not killed him. The Jury also decided that a charge of murder was appropriate against George Spencer for the killing of Alex Crawford. Arch Crawford agreed to face the charges and surrendered to authorities in early 1917.

A series of legal maneuvers by both men pushed the trial back from early Spring to May 1917. On May 1, 1917, both cases were called. Attorneys entered their lists of witnesses which included John D. Turner, Evans Short, J. W. Taulbee, Zeke Spencer, William Gabbard, Edward Boggs, Boone Pelfrey, and many others for the Commonwealth. The defense listed Ezekiel M. Jett, Arch Miller, Ova Cundiff, Shelby Jett, Oscar Combs, Bruce Cundiff, Logan Little, Theo Gabbard, Clay Crawford, and about 20 others. The Commonwealth’s Attorney Kelly Kash asked that the trial be moved back until the October term, and Circuit Judge James P. Adams agreed.

What happened in the meantime is not fully understood or known. On October 15, 1917, both George Spencer and Arch Crawford appeared in Breathitt Circuit Court with a petition in hand. They presented a petition with 164 names of some of the most prominent men in the county, asking that the charges against both men be dismissed after a tentative peace was made. The text of the petition said:

WHEREAS, George Spencer and Arch Crawford are now indicted in the Breathitt Circuit Court as a result of the shooting affray which occurred at Oakdale on the 4th day of August, 1916; and whereas the said George Spencer and Arch Crawford are close kinsman and each member of prominent families of much influence and many friends in Breathitt County Kentucky; and whereas the other members of the Spencer and Crawford families are deeply sorrowful for this sad occurrence and have attempted to restore peace between the families, and in fact believe they have, and neither being desirous of a prosecution of either of the cases herein:  

NOW THEREFORE, we, the undersigned citizens and residents of Breathitt County Kentucky fearing that a trial and prosecution of the two cases now pending against the parties aforesaid would lead to disturb the peace restored, and also the peace of their many feirnds and companions in this county, and in the view of the fact that we believe the purpose of the law to be penitence rather than punishment; do hereby recommend to Honorable James P. Adams, Judge of the Breathitt Circuit Court, that we believe it would be in keeping with a just dispensation of the law and for the best for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Breathitt County and all parties concerned that the aforesaid indictments against the parties aforesaid to be filed away.  We therefore endorse and approve any such action of his Hone if he sees it within his duty to consider our recommendation.
The Clerk of the Circuit Court meticulously typed into the official court record the petition and the long list of names who signed the petition in support of dismissing the case. The list is preserved today on microfilm on page 135 of Breathitt County Criminal Order Book 14.
A blurry image of Judge James P. Adams of Magoffin County from October 29, 1915, edition of The Beattyville Enterprise during his campaign for Circuit Judge.

After hearing the arguments for the dismissal from both the defense and the prosecution in the case, Judge James P. Adams was quick to accept the agreement and avoid what could have been a hotly contested trial. He entered in both case files the same words: “it appearing to be the desire of those interested in the prosecution to compromise their differences, and dismiss the case. The petition of various leading citizens has been filed requesting this, and the case is now filed away subject to be re-docketed on motion of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.” With the stroke of his pen, Judge Adams ended both cases, and both men returned to their everyday lives.

Emotionally and physically, however, the case did not end that easily. In fact, Spencer lived 13 more years but never recovered fully from the wound he received during the Oakdale store fight. He was treated numerous times for complications related to the wound to his stomach. After years of living in pain, he died a few minutes after 8:30 a.m. on August 28, 1929, at his home near Oakdale after suffering a heart attack. The family brought the body to Jackson, and L. Porter Ray prepared it for burial. Rev. C. L. Bohon conducted a brief funeral service on the morning of August 30, and he was buried in the Sewell Cemetery near his parents on Marcum Heights in Jackson. George D. Spencer was 67 years old.     

The tombstone for George D. Spencer at the Sewell Cemetery on Marcum Heights.

Archibald “Arch” Crawford lived with the guilt of his brother Alex’s death and blamed himself and others. He died on January 19, 1950, at a Detroit hospital, where he received care for complications from a surgery he had a few days earlier. He is buried in his family cemetery at Athol.

This sad story of the mixing of family, tempers, elections, friends, and guns is just another account of a tragic event in the long history of “Bloody Breathitt.”

© 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, Tragedy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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