Remembering Breathitt’s Sheriff

By Stephen D. Bowling

March 18, 1962 – On a Sunday afternoon on March 1962, Breathitt County lost one of its most beloved local politicians. James Carl Back rose to prominence in the Breathitt County Democratic party with his bright smile, genuine personality, and agreeable manner.

James Carl Back was the son of William Davis Back and Emma Lee (Herald) Back. The Back families, some of the earliest settlers in the Quicksand section of the county, lived in the area since the early 1800s. Carl was one of 20 children born to W. D. Back and his two wives, Emma Herald and Esther Turner. Carl Back’s political interest was natural and came from his father, who served Breathitt County as Sheriff, Tax Commissioner, and three terms as Circuit Court Clerk.

News of the sale of Back’s interest in the White Flash was printed on page 1 of The Jackson Times on September 3, 1953.

On August 6, 1938, Carl Back married Ethel Marie Spicer. The couple had four children over the next few years.

Carl Back operated the White Flash, a popular local restaurant, for many years with Vince Noble. Back sold his interest in the restaurant to Charles Brown Noble in August 1953 in preparation for a run for sheriff.

Back’s campaign announcement from April 1953.

With the help of his father and many loyal friends across the county, Back launched his campaign. He fought hard against Grover Anderson. He campaigned on the promise that he would “render prompt, courteous and efficient service” with a staff of deputies that are of “unquestionable moral character,” capable, and, most importantly, sober.

When the tallies were counted following the August 1, 1953 election, both sides disagreed with the numbers. Carl Back lead in the preliminary counts by three votes- 2,240 to 2,237. The races for sheriff and jailer were very close. Legal motions were filed for recounts in both races, and Circuit Judge Irvine Turner wanted nothing to do with these cases. He recused himself.

Judge John A. Keck was appointed Special Judge to hear the cases and conduct the recounts. After the first round, Carl Back gained two votes from the more than 4,400 that were cast in the election. In court filings, Anderson alleged bribery and intimidation of voters. He claimed that more than $15,000 was spent purchasing votes by some of Back’s supporters. The allegations were never proven, and Judge Keck named Back the Democratic nominee for Breathitt County Sheriff on August 24, 1953.

Back was sworn into office in January 1954 and served until December 31, 1957. He was replaced in January 1958 by Benton Howard after Back chose not to run for a second term. He would run again for Breathitt County Sheriff in 1961 and was elected to serve a second term. Sadly, he would not see the end.

Carl Back (third from the right) was among the slate of candidates who won the May primary in 1961.

Heart Attack Claims Sheriff Carl Back

James Carl Back

Hundreds and hundreds of friends and relatives filed into VanMeter Auditorium Wednesday afternoon to pay tribute to Carl Back, Breathitt County Sheriff and Jackson restaurant operator who died at 1:15 Sunday afternoon after suffering a heart seizure several minutes previously. 

News of the untimely passing of our popular young Democratic leader sent waves of sadness and shock the length and breadth of Breathitt County.  He succumbed at his home near Jackson before medical aid could be summoned.

Carl assumed the office of Sheriff in January for his second term, having served in that capacity from 1954 to 1958.  He played a key role in Breathitt’s political life and was on a first name basis with almost the entire population. 

He maintained a keen interest in sports and following the fortunes of the Breathitt High Bobcats for many years, rejoicing when they won and suffering when they lost.  He was a member of Breathitt Lodge 649, Free and Accepted Masons.

He is survived by his wife, Mrs. Ethel Spicer Back, three daughters Misses Beverly and Sharon Lynn, both at home; and Mrs. Phyllis Green, Jackson; a son, Billy, at home his mother, Emma Herald Back, Jackson; four sisters, Mrs. Edna Mae Combs, Simpson; Mrs. Louise Calhoun, Jackson; and Mrs. Dorothy Make, and Mrs. Pauline Hensley, both of Dayton, Ohio and five brothers, Woodrow Back and Leonard Back of Jackson; Ed Back, and Raymond Back, both of Dayton, Ohio, and Robert Back, Franklin, Ohio.

Rev. William Jaggers and Rev. Virgil Fryman officiated at final rites in the Lees College auditorium which was filled to capacity with those paying the last respects.  Burial with full masonic rites was in the Jackson Cemetery, with Breathitt Funeral Homes in charge of arrangements.

The Jackson Times, Thursday, March 22, 1962, Page 1

News of Sheriff Back’s untimely death was published in newspapers across the state. The popular Democratic leader was a favorite for the next State Representative race and was likely to have won, but fate chose otherwise.

James Carl Back was buried in the Jackson Cemetery. His wife, Ethel (Spicer) Back, lived until 2001 and was buried beside her beloved husband, who the county lost in 1962 to a sudden heart condition.

© 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, Elections, Jackson, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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