The code of the mountain was always an eye for an eye. The men believed it and lived it. Many lives were changed or lost because of the ancient code of honor. An excellent example was a needless murder that happened after a disagreement on Old Buck spiraled out of control in 1896. Two men were severly wounded when this bloody affair was over, and another was buried in the family cemetery.
No one knows precisely when the argument started, or the cause but the dispute had lingered for more than a year. It resurfaced on February 17, 1896. Hiram Combs and Carey Holly got into a yelling match that turned violent. Hiram Combs knocked Holley to the ground in the middle of the road on Old Buck. Holly got up and fired a single shot that struck Hiram Combs in the shoulder. Newspaper reports described Hiram Combs’ shoulder wound as “a painful though not serious wound.” He was taken to his parent’s home, and his wound was treated.
Angered by the shooting, Hiram Combs’ brother, James Combs, and their cousin, Nick Combs, made plans to “trade eyes.” Nick Combs and James found a spot on Old Buck Road that offered them a view of the path Carey Holly would travel the following day. They planned to kill Holly the next morning.
Early on the morning of February 18, 1896, James and Nick Combs found their spot and awaited the opportunity to waylay Holly as he walked to the farm of Ike Gilbert, where he worked as a hired farm hand. Just after daybreak, they spotted Holly walking down the road. When Holly came into range, the Combses opened fire, one with a rifle and a shotgun. None of the shots aimed at Holly found their mark as Holly dove for cover at the side of the road. From a secure spot, Holly returned fire with his Winchester rifle.
After exchanging several shots, the firing stopped as Nick Combs dropped his shotgun and ran down the roadway. Nick Combs ran to this home, trailing blood from the single gunshot wound that passed through his hand and another wound to the body. Through the smoke, the body of James Combs could be seen lifeless on the ground in the roadway.
Carey Holly waited for some time until he saw others coming up the roadway toward the sound of the shooting. He walked out into the road and went home. Holly sent word to the local magistrate that he would be at home when they wanted to come and arrest him. He said that he would not resist as he had fired in self-defense.
News of the shooting reached Sheriff William Bryant, and he and a small group of men started for Old Buck. Information given to Sheriff Bryant indicated that James Combs was dead and Nick Combs was most likely mortally wounded. Bryant found the body of James Combs at his parent’s home on Greasy Creek, where he had been washed and prepared for placement in his coffin. The Sheriff noted three wounds to the chest from a rifle.
The Sheriff’s party proceeded up the creek and found Carey Holly sitting at his kitchen table. He surrendered peacefully and left with them, crossing over to the mountain to avoid passing the Combs home. Bryant lodged Holly in the Breathitt County Jail under the charges of murder and two counts of malicious shooting and wounding.
County Judge Nathan Boone Day heard the initial details of the case on Saturday, February 22, 1896. He quickly found probable cause to hold Holly over for trial. He set his bond at $1,500 and set his trial for the March term. After a long, drawn-out trial, with numerous delays, a Breathitt County jury found Holly guilty of one count of murder. In agreement with the jury’s recommendation, Judge David B. Redwine sentenced Holly to 18 years for murder and ordered him moved immediately to the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Frankfort. Under heavy guard, Holly walked through the prison’s gate on June 24, 1896.
By 1900, Carey Holly, age 26, was listed as a prisoner employed at the prison’s Chair Factory in Frankfort. In the following years, an intense letter-writing campaign brought hundreds of letters asking for a pardon from every Governor from 1896 until 1908, except William Goebel, whose term was too short for a note of appeal. By 1906, jury members that convicted Holly and Judge Redwine had joined forces to call for a review of the case. No governor chose to review the case until 1908.
After looking at the case for some time, Governor Augustus Willson pardoned Carey Holly on August 4, 1908, after Holly served 18 years for murder. The Governor wrote that he believed the proof showed that it was “practically impossible” for Holly to get a fair trial due to the conditions in Breathitt County at the time. The Governor also wrote that new evidence discovered after the trial was completed could have impacted the jury’s decision. Carey Holly walked out of prison at Frankfort on the afternoon of August 4.
Nick Combs, despite his wounds, lived several more years after the shooting. He died on January 26, 1909, and was buried in the cemetery, which bears his name, across the Middle Fork from the mouth of Old Buck. He was 50. James Combs was buried the afternoon following the Sheriff’s visit. His wife, Dorcus (Gross) Combs, followed close behind the coffin and was inconsolable at the grave. He rests today near his parents in the Hasley Combs Cemetery near the head of Greasy Creek at Shoulderblade.
What happened to Carey Holly? Where did he go when he left the penitentiary at the age of 35? His only known child, Burnett Holly, died in 1970 and is buried in Fayette County. No further information is known about the life and death of one of Breathitt County’s feudists. The ultimate fate of Carey Holly may never be known.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling