James Hargis- the Victim?

By Stephen D. Bowling

Newspapers are funny things. Reporters and editors write about today’s events to preserve them for the readers of tomorrow. As the Editor of The Jackson Times for about five years in the late 1990s, I learned from veteran newspaperwoman Louise Hatmaker that a newspaper has two primary roles. The powerful words printed on those thin paper pages perform the dual roles of informing the public about and preserving the events that occur each week in a small community. It is difficult to determine what is essential and balance that with what will sell newspapers.

An image of a grim-looking Judge James Henderson Hargis was published in The Washington Times in 1906.

In the early 1900s, the newspaper industry was riding a wave of popularity following the American victory in the Spanish-American War (a largely newspaper-manufactured conflict). The newspaper business slowed in the post-war years, and their focus soon turned to domestic excitement. Jackson and Breathitt County, with its violent feuds, caught their attention again. Newspapermen from across the nation flocked to the area to report on the events in “Bloody Breathitt.”

Thousands of articles were filed about the mess and the mob in Breathitt County, with a myriad of blames, stories, excuses, and outright sensationalism printed for readers across the nation and occasionally other parts of the world.

Most reporters took a very dim view of the bloodletting and quickly identified several men they would utilize as the villains in their tales. James Henderson Hargis, Edward Callahan, Mose Feltner, Jesse Fields, and many others made great caricatures against which they could deliver a story with a hero and a villain. Few reporters and newspapers chose to defend the Hargis machine and his many supporters.

One of those sympathetic newspapers, The Adair County News, published a short but flattering biography of Judge James Henderson Hargis two weeks after his death. The article, which appeared in the February 26, 1908 edition on page 6, provided a brief outline of the significant events of Hargis’ life. The author may have stretched the truth slightly by portraying Hargis as a self-made man who rose from poverty to power.

Hargis From Boyhood To Grave

Struggling through boyhood poverty, James Hargis amassed a comfortable fortune attained high rank in the Democratic party, and was a leading citizen of the mountain district.

Embittered by the killing of two brothers, he became a mortal enemy of Jim Cockrell, Dr. B. D. Cox, and J. B. Marcum, who were assassinated in 1902, 1903, and 1904 respectively.  Hargis was accused of hiring their assassinations.

Fear made him a virtual prisoner in his own store six months.

He was the backbone of the defense of Jett-White in trial at Jackson and Cynthiana in June, July and August 1904.

In December, 1905, a Clark county jury assess an $8,000 judgment and about $3,000 costs against him and Ed Callahan for the murder of Cockrill.

He was formally acquitted of Marcum’s murder in Lee county, in the summer of 1906, of Cox’s murder in Breathitt county, and was subsequently acquitted by a Scott county jury in Fayette county for the murder of Cockrill.

More recently the Cox heirs sued him for bringing about the murder of Dr. Cox, but the case was compromised and dismissed.

He was an enemy of his son Beach, his brother, Alex, and Curt Jett, Jim and Tom Cockrill.

He was shot to death by his son Beach in his store on the afternoon of February 6, 1906.
A newspaper view of the Hargis Broshter’s Mammoth Department Store on Main Street, where fear made Hargis a prisoner for six months.

The vast majority of this article is true. James Henderson Hargis did have his share of legal issues. He did live in fear for much of his life and died at the hands of his son. Mixed in with these truths are a series of misinterpretations and exaggerations. So intermingled are the stories and legends that absolute truth is complicated and may be impossible to discern.

A cartoonist produced this depiction for newspapermen at Jackson for The Louisville Evening Post in May 1903. The caption read: “CORRESPONDENT: “I don’t think anybody’d wanted to read about this “little killin” anyway.”

Judge Hargis is buried in the Hargis Family Cemetery near the new Breathitt County Elementary School. The entire truth of his life might just lie there with him, far from the grasp of historians and written history.

History is, in truth, an art- not a science. It is based upon analysis written from the perspective of another who will learn only a tiny portion of the essence of a person or event no matter how much research is completed. History is recorded, preserved, and transmitted to the next generation, usually with unintentional bias communicated through the stories we tell, how we tell them, and, more importantly, why we tell them.

The real question is: What will history say about you?

© 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, Industry, Jackson, 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