The Death of James Cockrell

By Stephen D. Bowling

July 22, 1902 – In the history of the United States, one feud claimed more lives than any other.  Surprisingly enough, that played out its many twists and turns on the streets of Jackson and in the hills of Breathitt County.  By some estimates, the Callahan/Cockrell/Little/Hargis/Marcum/Jett/etc. feud killed as many as 320 people.  Many of these men and women have all but been forgotten in the annals of our history.  One of these men whose name has survived almost as a footnote is Town Marshal James Cockrell.

James Cockrell was the second son of three children born to Clifton and Sarah (Jett) Cockrell.  He was born on June 1, 1876, in the Cockrell home in Jackson, Breathitt County. His early life was spent on the dirty streets of Jackson.  His father was the descendant of a prominent and wealthy landholding family that had early ties to the history of the county and of Jackson in particular.

James Cockrell

On November 1, 1898, at the tender age of 22, James Cockrell volunteered in Jackson for a two-year term.  With other young men from Breathitt County, the company marched off and fought in the War with Spain (Spanish-American War). James Cockrell was appointed cook for Company D of the 4th Kentucky Infantry.  He later served as a Corporal in Company C of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry.  He and the company were mustered into the United States Army on November 22 at Anniston, Alabama.  They served part of their enlistment before an armistice was signed and the Jackson unit was mustered out on February 12, 1899, in Anniston.  They never heard a single shot fired in anger.

Cockrell’s military service was significant in one respect.  In the 2nd and 4th Kentucky Infantry was a “who’s who” of future feud leaders.  Tom White, Asberry Spicer, the Akemons, Whites, Neaces, and Nobles all got their first taste of firepower and military training alongside James Cockrell.   

After the long train ride back to Jackson after the war, James Cockrell settled down and used his military training to secure a job as Deputy Town Marshal for the city of Jackson serving under Tom Cockrell.  On the 1900 Breathitt County Census, he was living in a boarding house on Broadway in Jackson belonging to John and Betty Goff.

Anyone who wore a badge in Jackson during the early years of the 20th Century suddenly became a target for would-be assassins.  For James Cockrell, the events of the 1880s and 1890s only helped to deepen the resentment that was felt against him.

Town Marshal Thomas Cockrell

On February 19, 1902, Town Marshal Tom Cockrell and Benjamin Hargis met in Bailey’s “blind tiger” in Jackson.  A heated exchange between Ben Hargis and Tom Cockrell quickly lead to drawn revolvers, and Cockrell fired two shots into Hargis’ stomach at close range.  Hargis suffered and died early the next morning on February 20. Benjamin Hargis’ brother, Judge James H. Hargis immediately swore that he would have revenge and threatened the life of Tom Cockrell and his cousin James Cockrell. 

The Grand Jury returned an indictment against Tom Cockrell, and Governor J. C. Beckham appointed Allie W. Young to serve as special judge for the case.  Cockrell was relieved of his Marshal’s duties following the indictments, and 25-year-old James Cockrell was promoted to fill the vacant position.

On July 22, 1902, the bright, summer sky was cloudless.  James Cockrell went about his business as usual.  He no doubt ate breakfast and lunch at the boarding house where he was staying.  He walked a short distance up the street and began to talk with Herbert Spencer and several other friends on the corner of Court and Main Street in front of A. P. Cardwell’s Mercantile.    

At about 1:20 in the afternoon, as they talked, shots rang out from a window in the Circuit Courtroom on the second floor of the old Breathitt County Courthouse. James Cockrell slumped forward and exclaimed, “I am shot in the back!  My God!  They have got me this time!” Four more shots rang out as bullets flew from the courthouse and hit all around Cockrell as he ran down Main Street.  He attempted to draw his revolver and back into an alley near what is now the Hogg Building.  He slowly sat down on the ground.

The headline of The Lexington Leader on July 21, 1902, announced the shooting of James Cockrell at Jackson.
The military tombstone of James Cockrell in the Hays Cemetery at Wolverine.

Of the five shots aimed at Cockrell, three hit the young lawman.  The first shot passed completely through his right side probably collapsing his right lung.  The second passed through the side of his neck.  A third shattered his right arm between the elbow and shoulder.

He was carried into a store and later taken by train to Lexington for medical treatment.  He died shortly after arriving in Fayette County. The body of the 26-year-old Town Marshal of Jackson was embalmed and sent back on the afternoon train to Jackson on the Lexington and Eastern Railroad.  After a brief mourning period, James Cockrell was buried on July 24 in the Hays Cemetery on Wolverine. 

Thomas C. Cockrell, former Jackson Marshal and brother of James, was hit a killed by a freight train near the Kentucky and Indiana Railroad Yards in Louisville on September 26, 1908. He was buried near his parents in the Hays Cemetery.

Today, James Cockrell is remembered almost as a footnote to the more significant murders of James Hargis, J. B. Marcum, and Ed Callahan. His death is just one of the forgotten “little” men who lost their lives in the largest feud in American history.

© 2023 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, Jackson, Military, Murder, Spanish-American War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Death of James Cockrell

  1. My great Uncle Herbert Spencer! Wow, didn’t know he was there at the scene!!! Thanks for ALL of your stories- my sister and I really really enjoy your connection!! Keep sharing!


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