By Stephen D. Bowling
Politics! The last great feud in Breathitt County directly resulted from the 1898 school board election. Most accounts record that Republican James B. Marcum accused Democratic attorney James Hargis of encouraging a minor to vote in the election. This created a tense situation in the county and eventually led to an explosion caused by the election of 1902.
Hargis announced his candidacy for the office of County Judge and quickly assembled a Democratic ticket that included Edward Callahan for sheriff. Many Breathitt County Democratic party members disagreed with this ticket and defected to the Republican ticket. Hargis and the Democrats won by a narrow margin but regarded those members of the party that joined the Republicans as traitors.
From March 4, 1902 until March 23, 1903, violence ruled the day. J. B. Marcum wrote a letter telling of the threats on his life, “over thirty men” had been killed since Hargis took office, and “Lord only knows how many wounded.”
While standing near the Breathitt County Courthouse door talking with Captain Ben Ewen, Marcum himself fell to an assassin’s bullet on May 4, 1903. Ben Ewen testified to the Grand jury that he saw two men, Curtis Jett and Thomas White, in the hallway with drawn pistols. More directly, he testified that he saw Jett fire a second shot into the back of Marcum’s head.
Appalled by the catalog of violence, Democratic Governor J. C. W. Beckham sent General James Murray and seventy-five Kentucky Militia men to control the violence in Breathitt County. General Murray and the officers of the State Militia were charged with protecting the Grand Jury and the witnesses in the trial.
The lead elements of the troops arrived on May 19 and quickly took position around the Breathitt County Courthouse. On May 21, 1903, the protected Breathitt County Grand Jury issued indictments against Jett and White for the murder of J. B. Marcum. Jett and White were arrested.
Shortly after the arrest of Jett and White, a plot to assault the jail and lynch them was discovered. The Governor immediately increased the size of the Militia force to one hundred and ninety men. The men camped on the Courthouse Green and surrounding the jail. They led expeditions out into the county so that their presence might be felt. There were few examples of violence or attacks upon the State troops stationed at Jackson.
Jett and White were soon removed to Lexington for trial and for their own protection, yet the Militia men stayed in Jackson. Because of the high number of troops in Jackson, Governor Beckham decided it would be much easier to send the rest of the State Militia to Jackson for summer maneuvers than to bring them back to Frankfort. In June 903, troops from across the state stepped off the train in Jackson for summer drill.
These “troopers” found comfortable camps in the Hargis Fields near the present sight of Breathitt County High School. They drilled and trained all summer while keeping a close eye on the county’s population. The very presence of this large number of troops served to calm the shattered nerves of local citizens. The state maintained this large training camp until mid-October, when it was decided that the county was “stable.”
Judge D. B. Redwine wrote a personal letter to Beckham informing him of the current state of the county and asking him to remove the soldiers. The withdrawal was conducted in two phases. The first involved the immediate withdrawal of all but twenty-five privates and two officers. This token force was left to conclude their dealings with the local merchants and citizens.
The last of the State Militia loaded a train headed for Lexington at six o’clock on December 4, 1903, having been in Jackson for almost seven months. With the withdrawal of troops, many concerned taxpayers in the state began to question the total cost of maintaining order in the mountains of Breathitt County.
A front-page article in The Lexington Morning Herald of December 2, 1903, stated that “the State’s first battle with lawlessness in Bloody Breathitt may reach and possibly go over $60,000.” The article also speculated that all this was in vain. It sights the many “unavenged assassinations and lesser crimes” that would cause further problems unless the “guilty men were punished.”
For the most part, the violence of these feuds ended. Strangely enough, John Hargis was killed by his son, Beech. There was a minor resurgence of violence related to the Hargis and Marcum feud as late as 1941.
Breathitt was “quiet” after the substantial round of violence in the early 1900s. Based on these tumultuous years, the county deserved the name “Bloody Breathitt.” The name remains today as part of the state lore thanks primarily to the widespread newspaper reports of the violence and the stories told by the men of the State Militia as they returned to their homes throughout the state after a summer of excitement in Jackson.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling