Who Killed Foch?

By Stephen D. Bowling

There he was in the headlights.  Lying there motionless beside the roadway, half in the ditch line and halfway in the road.  His arms and legs were obviously broken.  Foch was dead.

A few minutes after 2:00 a.m. on June 11, 1966, a driver headed east on the highway at Watts noticed the body of a man.  When the headlights found him, Marshall Foch Noble, 46, did not move.  

Marshall Foch Noble

He was born on January 27, 1920, at Watts, to Thomas and Mollie (Watts) Noble. Named for the French World War I leader Marshal Ferdinand Foch, he attended school at Leatherwood but was much happier in the woods.  Foch was one of twelve children born to the Nobles.   He was a rambler, people in the neighborhood said.  When he finished the eighth grade, with some help and the teacher’s desire to see him move on, Foch graduated and hit the road.

Foch was a popular man around Lost Creek.  Widely known as a “professional hitchhiker,” his rides around Breathitt County and beyond were legendary.  Many in the community joked that a person could stop for Foch’s raised thumb, drive home to Jackson, and turn around only to find the Foch had gotten another ride and was standing by the road where he was first picked up.  The neighbors only laughed and picked him up anyway.

 He was always going somewhere without any particular reason.  Foch just loved to ride, and he just loved the road.  He liked the excitement and would usually sit in the back of a truck letting the wind blow past him, rather than ride in the cab.  Several drivers reported that he would “grin as big as he could” as he rode from place to place.  

One funny story was told by one of Foch’s cousins. The tale goes that Foch was hitchhiking on Frozen Mountain when a car passed him without stopping to pick him up. Foch ran down the mountain and stood beside the roadway when the car rounded the next curve. He leaned out into the roadway to press his need for a ride when the man zoomed by for the second time. Not willing to give up, he ran down the hillside falling and rolling to the next level, where he righted himself and stuck out his thumb for the third time. His efforts worked, and the man told friends, “You can’t pass a hitchhiker for the third time in a mile and not pick him up.”

One free ride nearly cost Foch his life in 1940. Hargis Watts offered Foch and Ishmael Noble a ride on a trailer he was pulling behind his car. Watts and Matt Combs, his son, Kenneth, and another child were heading to Knott County. Foch and Ishmael accepted the ride.

Watts’ car pulled out of Lost Creek and turned south toward Perry County. On Highway 15 near Hazard, John Morris, a Perry County Deputy, attempted to stop Watts’ vehicle. The driver, Hargis Watts, refused to stop and sped away. Morris fired a shot to try and stop the car, but Watts sped down Highway 15 with Foch and Isamael hanging onto the trailer as the car hurried toward Jeff.

What followed was a dangerous, high-speed chase with speeds over 70 miles per hour. The result was a deadly collision with another car while they attempted to flee the police. Three people in the other vehicle were killed. Foch and Ishmael were thrown from the trailer when the two cars collided, but reports indicated that they were only slightly injured. Both were arrested and charged with public drunkenness. Hargis Watts was later indicted on three counts of murder.

This was not Foch’s first run-in with the law. One of the things he liked most (probably only second to riding) was alcohol- moonshine whiskey in particular. In Jackson, Foch was well known and was a “frequent flyer” at the City Jail and an occasional overnight stay at the bed and breakfast. The Jackson Police Court Books contain numerous entries for “Foch Noble- Drunk. Fine $10.”

Foch was fined $15 for being drunk in September 1947. He couldn’t pay and was sent back to the City Jail.

He was one of the “characters” from the Lost Creek and Watts communities.

It was all the more tragic when they found him that morning on the highway.  Coroner Ed Hollon estimated that Foch had been struck and killed by a driver who failed to stop sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m.  He sustained numerous severe injuries and was killed “either instantly or died within moments of the incident.”  

Hollon removed the body, and an autopsy was conducted. Based on the evidence at the scene, there were no indications of the vehicle’s make and model or any clue about the identity of the driver who hit Noble.  The Breathitt County Sheriff’s Department and the Kentucky State Patrol opened investigations, and the case went cold.  

The hit-and-run accident went unsolved. Officials knew the longer the time passed without a lead, the less likely they would be to solve the case. It never was.  The sad story of one of Breathitt County’s professional hitchhikers was never resolved, and Foch’s killer went unpunished.

His family buried him in the Nathan Noble Cemetery on the hill behind the home of Sol Combs at Lost Creek.  His small tombstone can be found there today.

Marshall Foch Noble’s death certificate lists a fractured skull and internal injuries as the cause of death.

I heard the story of Foch many times as I grew up.  My grandmother, Carrie Watts Combs, a cousin of Foch, remembered him fondly.  She told and retold stories about Foch as we sat in the swing on her front porch on Quicksand Road.  She would laugh as she recounted his many exploits, including people who would not stop and let him out to drivers who would pick him up, drive only about 50 feet, and make him get out.  She would laugh and slap her legs while covering her mouth with a handkerchief. It was stories about people like Foch that first made me love history.

In my grandmother’s final years, the ravages of age and Alzheimer’s robbed her of many happy memories.  There were fewer and fewer days when she could remember these tales from Big Meadow Branch and Lost Creek.  In the end, she even forgot most of our names.  She occasionally called me Hasdruble, another of her 125 Watts/Noble first cousins, when I entered the room, but would “come to herself” after a few minutes and smile when she recognized me and called my name.

Near the end, she did not remember much and did not know a lot of people, but she still remembered one thing.  During one of the last opportunities I had to talk with her before her condition deteriorated, she sat up and looked me straight in the eye.  She said, “Who killed Foch?” I looked into her weak eyes, hoping to hear her tell me who the community blamed for his death, but the faint light that had once shown so bright flickered, and she looked away.  Her mind moved on to something else.

Marshall Foch’s tombstone at the Nathan Noble Cemetery at Watts.

Foch rests today on that lonely hillside at Watts near hundreds of other Noble and Watts descendants.  He is gone, but I will ensure that Marshall Foch Noble is never forgotten as long as I remain. She never forgot him. As long as he is remembered and his name is spoken, my grandmother and her question will live on in Breathitt County. To me, it is just another way to keep them both alive.

© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling

About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Accidents, Breathitt County, Tragedy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Who Killed Foch?

  1. O.T. Watts says:

    Yes. Many had their theories and I often heard people talk about a few other events that were “dated” by referring to them happening “the night gotcha got killed” or the day they found ditch dead. And it never failed for the reference to pull a story about Fotch, himself. Keep up the writing cuz!


  2. O.T. Watts says:

    Auto correct changed “Fotch” in me. My apologies.


  3. So interesting! I am pretty sure our relation is going to become clear one of these days! I love reading about where my Dad grew up with the Childers/Taulbee families. I’m on Ancestry eblawrence092480 if you, or anyone wants to connect on Old Jackson.


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