By Stephen D. Bowling
The county-wide election in 1921 was terrible, and a few weeks after voters made their decisions, the editors of The Jackson Times changed course. They were tired of the divisive politics (which they helped stir) that had enveloped the county over the previous months. Name-calling, slurs, political tricks, vote buying, intimidation, and outright lies set the scene for a tragedy. The fight between the Democrats and Republicans turned deadly on November 8 at several precincts, including, most infamously, Clayhole.
Shots rang out at the voting house on Troublesome Creek, and the blood of the Combs, Davis, and other families involved covered the porch and ground at the voting house. In the days that followed, funeral services were held for the victims, and a generation of grieving for the lost began.
The Jackson Times printed, in large bold letters, their assessment of the election the following week. They did not shy away from their support of Circuit Judge Samuel Henry Hurst and James L. Little; the first Republican County Judge elected in 50 years. The Republicans also won the Sheriff’s and Jailer’s races. The editors declared the election was a “Great Victory” for the people of the county and espoused the improvement that a change of leadership would bring. The paper printed a small, single-column story about violence at Clayhole and other precincts.
Away from Jackson, the negative attention had turned the tide of public opinion. While The Times was ready to continue as business as usual, The Lexington Herald-Leader, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and other papers across the state. Led by editors such as Desha Breckinridge, the state’s focus was placed on the political system in Breathitt County and its alleged corruption. They declared the return of “Bloody Breathitt” and started a state-wide appeal to aid the children of the Clayhole Massacre. The papers sent correspondents to town to follow the progress of the criminal cases and report the recovery or deaths of those wounded.
The negative light and the pressure from outside attention changed the thinking (if only temporarily) of the Times’ editors. On November 18, 1921, two weeks after the election, the editors published a front-page editorial to respond to all of the negatives.
Our Duty As Citizens
Now that the election is over, let us get down to business and see to it that the men elected serve the people as they should.
Nothing less than the best there is in them is sufficient, and in order that they may give to us their best let us get behind them and do our part to aid them in the enforcement of the laws and building up our county (and City) so that we may all enjoy the peace, happiness, and prosperity to which each of us is entitled to enjoy.
No man is performing his duty as a citizen unless he gives to the proper offices all the information he has concerning violations of the laws and helps to see to it that every man who does violate the laws receives a just reward in punishment for the offense committed.The Jackson Times, November 18, 1921, page 1
The words written in 1921 are still valid today. Now that the election is over, let’s get down to business. Sadly, the paper’s commitment to cooperation and unity in the support of elected leaders in 1921 lasted about one week. The November 25th paper returned to its old ways and back to publishing the news as usual.
The news media in Breathitt has changed greatly in the years that followed. Access to public records and the transparency that modern technology can bring has opened the eyes of many in the community. The community now has at their fingertips the ability to attend or watch meetings of their local leaders.
Breathitt County and Jackson have changed too. Our community is more polarized and less engaged. Many people express opinions about local, state, and federal affairs freely in private, but few are publically engaged, and even fewer choose to have their voices heard at meetings. In the words of the 1921 editorial, “let us get behind them and do our part to aid them” by attending meetings and speaking about the things that challenge us and the solutions we can reach together.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling
Thank you for this.
My mom’s father was shot and killed in this Clayhole election. She and some of her siblings were then sent to a children’s home in Tippen, Ohio. Their mother had a hard time, in every sense of the word, providing for her children after the death of her husband. The children caught the train for Tippen at what was then the depot at Haddix, Ky.
Mom liked it at the children’s home. Back then, this place had all the modern conveniences of the day, unlike living on Clayhole Gap. They had hot and cold indoor running water there, indoor plumbing, electricity, etc.
Each child had their own bed, bedding, washcloths, and towels. They were expected to wash up at certain times, brush their teeth and hair, and wear clean clothing and shoes every day. Their meals were at set times. They had no chores, as the staff did everything else for them. They were allowed to play and socialize with other children several times a day. The children of a certain age were allowed to go to the movies frequently. This is where mom not only learned a certain level of cleanliness, but also a love for the city life.
After a long while, her oldest brother who had stayed with their mother to help her out during the Depression years, came to Tippen and “stole” the children out of the home, and brought them back to Old Clayhole. Mom said she hated living back here again. There was nothing to do, according to her.
When she became a young woman, she left Clayhole and went back to Ohio, and lived with relatives for a while. She worked in restaurants at first. She later worked for a dry-cleaning company, and became the #1 steam press operator there. She liked her clothes neat and pressed. Even many years of no longer working, she still ironed a lot of our clothing.
A few years before she died, I had a college assignment to interview people from different age groups. I got one interview from her, and still have that article. She still remembered her cabin number and child number from the home, although the children were addressed by their given names. I laid several copies of that interview out at her funeral.
Some people were shocked at the things she was made to do while working restaurant work. When customers of different ethnic backgrounds came into the restaurant, the owner had to serve them, but instructed his staff to break the dishes and bend the utensils to make them unusable after they left. My mom would never be intentionally mean to anyone, regardless of race. None of us down the line were taught to dislike people in general, just because of the color of their skin.
In fact, her mother was very cordial to one such individual who was a train hobo. He got off the train at Old Clayhole where they once lived. He was hungry and asked her if she could spare some food for him. She sat him down and gave him a plate of food. She welcomed him to this area. He got back on the train after eating a good hearty meal. I do not know the follow up on him.
*Thank you again for a walk down memory lane. It just reminded me that it truly does take a village to raise kids. Mom’s father, Mr. Combs, was in a special society then where they took care of their own, including their children. He was the jailor in Jackson for a while, and his wife was the cook for the inmates. A piece of history…
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Sending you the article and related information on mom. Im thinking she said her dad’s name was Nathan Combs. She just always referred to her mom as Granny. Our bloodline goes back to Rebel Shade, (Shadrack) Combs and Ab (Absolum) Russell. Ab Russell owned all of the coal mine lands known as Trail Run, Flintridge, or Falcon Coal in the Clayhole area. The company men got An drunk and got him to sign over the whole area he owned. He sold the whole, including mineral rights for a few farm animals and some liquor. That was coercion, but everything was different back then. I do believe you and I are distant kin. Anyway, I attached these documents as above. There are 6 attachments. Let me know if they dont come through and Ill resend in a different way. Thanks Anna Hardin
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