By Stephen D. Bowling
January 14, 1942- The shots came fast from the dark corner of the room. Constable Hiram Smith was hit in the neck and a second bullet passed through his heart. He fell on the edge of the bed and rolled into the floor. He was dead before he landed. Jackson Police Chief John E. Rice, who was standing near the door, was hit in the shoulder with the third .38 round that was fired. The shooter jumped out a window and ran down the street.
What started as a simple question led to the murder of one police officer and the eventual execution of a local man- the only known Breathitt Countian to die in Kentucky’s electric chair.
Chief Rice and Constable Smith had been on the lookout for a stolen car and a possible suspect in an auto theft case from Perry County. Reports indicated that the suspect might be a Breathitt County resident and who fled to Jackson after the crime. Smith and Rice patrolled the streets and spotted a “stranger” who fit the description of the accused car thief in a restaurant on College Avenue.
The officer approached the man and asked him a few questions. The man identified himself as “Cal Johnson” and offered to show the lawmen his identification if they would go with him to his rented room on Broadway near City Hall. The men followed, and Constable Smith stopped and searched the man for weapons before he started up the stairs to this room on the second floor at about 4:30 p.m.
Smith went into the man’s room while Chief Rice stood beside the door in the hallway. According to Rice, the man walked to the opposite side of the bed and placed a suitcase on the bed. With the pretense of looking for his identification, he started to rummage through clothing in the case and suddenly stopped. He raised a .38 caliber pistol and fired three shots; two striking Smith and the third hitting Rice who had turned his head to look down the hallway. (His death certificate noted that Smith had been hit in the head by the shots Trent fired, but court testimony disputed this as an error.)
The man turned and jumped out an open window and crossed a small roof. He slid down a pipe on the back of the building. He fired three more shots at Rice who rushed into the room and drew his weapon but could not get a shot at the man. The shooter disappeared up the street and went out of sight near the South Jackson Bridge.
Constable Hiram Smith, 45, lay on the floor in a pool of blood. The shooter fired so quickly and without warning that Smith never had a chance to defend himself. His pistol was still in its holster. Rice ran to the police station next door and sounded the alarm. Two doctors were summonsed but found there was no possibility of reviving their patient. Smith left a widow and several children.
The Jackson Police Department called neighboring counties to report the description of the shooter and searched for him around the area. Kentucky did not have a police force with state-wide jurisdiction until July 1, 1948, so local jurisdictions were forced to cooperate in their search for the suspect. The case soon went cold.
Governor Keen Johnson announced a $50 reward had been offered by the states for information leading to the “capture of Ernest Trent” who had been identified by investigators as the shooter.
Fifteen days after the murder occurred, Knott County Deputy Sheriff Alonzo Watts received a tip that the man wanted for the Breathitt County murder could be found at a home near Smithsboro. Watts and Deputy Isareal Amburgey went to the home and arrested, Ernest Trent. Trent was a twenty-five-year-old man originally from of Paxton, Kentucky on Frozen Creek. Trent had recently taken a job in a coal mine on Montgomery’s Creek and was living near the Knott-Perry County line.
Trent was wanted for several charges at the time of his arrest including store-breaking, escape from the Knott County Jail, and the recent warrants for the murder and wounding at Jackson. He was lodged in the jail at Hindman but soon transferred. Breathitt County Sheriff Johnny Grigsby told officials that he had hoped to keep Trent at Jackson until he was indicted, but there were rumors and threats from local citizens to not wait for the courts and deliver their own justice. Trent was taken, for his safekeeping, to the Fayette County Jail in Lexington.
While Trent remained safe in Lexington, the Breathitt County Grand Jury met and heard the evidence. They issued a murder indictment on February 3, 1942, and Judge Chester A. Bach set the trial date for February 12. he issued an order to have Trent returned to the Breathitt County Jail.
The trial proceeded in February 1942, and Trent testified that he acted in self-defense after both officers fired at him. Prosecutors refuted this evidence since Smith did not have an empty shell in his pistol. The first jury, who had been selected from Owsley County, heard the evidence but could not agree after hours of deliberation. Judge Bach declared a hung jury and set another trial date.
The courts contacted the Circuit Judge in Fayette County and “borrowed” a jury to retry the case two days later. On February 24, thirty-nine men stepped off the train under guard and proceed to the courthouse. The men were the “protective jury” pool that had arrived from Lexington to give a free and objective hearing of the case.
The Fayette County jury heard the evidence and deliberated. At 11:30 p.m. the night before the jury returned its verdict, Trent escaped from the Breathitt County Jail but returned a few hours later. He told officials that his conscience bothered him and he wanted things settled. He was locked in a cell and monitored 24 hours a day.
The next day the jury returned a guilty verdict on February 28 and set his punishment at death by electrocution. Trent was scheduled by the court to be executed on June 26, 1942. Trent protested the verdict. He declared in court that he did not receive a fair trial and that some of the Lexington men had been drunk during the case. He told Judge Bach that he believed that the jury had convicted him solely on his checkered past and not the merits of the case. He was transported under heavy guard to the Fayette County Jail to await his transfer to Eddyville State Penitentiary.
Court records revealed that Trent was the eleventh Breathtit Countian to be sentenced to death from Breathitt County. The sentence had only been carried out on Thomas ‘Bad Tom” Smith.
Trent sought a new trial in early March. His attorney R. A. Dunn filed a motion and grounds in a ten-point brief noting that Trent had not been in custody during the trial (he had escaped while the jury deliberated), that there were drunk jurors, and other allegations including an alleged biased statement from Earl R. Cooper, Commonwealths Attorney saying “If you are good citizens of Fayette County, you will return a verdict of death. Judge Chester Arthur Bach granted the request for appeal on June 6. The case was heard, and the Court of Appeals rejected his arguments on November 7, 1942. The Court upheld Smith’s conviction and the sentence of death.
Having exhausted his appeals, Ernest Trent was one of four inmates who were executed by the state at Eddyville State Penitentiary on February 27, 1943. He was 26. At his last request, the Warden allowed Trent to play “Lord, I’m Coming Home To You” on the harmonica after the was seated in the electric chair. He is the only known Breathitt Countian to be executed by the state after hanging was abolished as a legal method of death in 1911. His body was returned to Breathitt County and buried in the family cemetery on Johnson Fork of Frozen Creek.
Chief John E. Rice recovered from his shoulder wound. He left Breathitt County and worked for the Standard il Company for many years. He died of kidney failure at the Kentucky Baptist Hospital in Louisville on November 30, 1957. He is buried in the Louisville Memorial Gardens.
Constable Hiram Smith, the son of Thomas and Lou (Robinson), was taken to the Ray and Blake Funeral Home. The funeral was held three days later on January 17, 1942. Smith was buried in the King’s Branch Cemetery in South Jackson.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling
Ernest Trent was my papaw’s first cousin. Papaw was quite a bit younger than Ernest, possibly as many as ten years (We never knew Papaw’s real birthdate because he fibbed about his age and joined the U.S. Army to fight in WW II). When I was doing a lot of family research, some twenty years ago, I remember being told by family members that Papaw said he was scared of Ernest when he was young. Papaw said that Ernest was “really mean” and “had coal black eyes”, the eyes of the devil.
Ernest was my daddy’s half brother. Him & daddy are buried near their grandmother Rose .
Ernest was my dad’s half brother. Ernest & daddy are buried close to their grandmother rose .