Hazard, Kentucky was the cradle of a feud which raged from 1887 to 1894, filling newspaper columns and furnishing sensational reading. Many of these stories had no foundation except for the lively imagination of the writers who were anxious to fill space and please the readers, and in this they succeeded admirably.
The leaders of the feud, Joseph C. Eversole and Benjamin Fulton French, resided in Hazard, Kentucky and were both fine successful merchants and business men. Both men were prominent lawyers, and were in easy financial circumstances.
Benjamin Fulton French came from North Carolina to Kentucky, married Susan Lewis, daughter of John Lewis, and lived on Cutshin Creek in Perry County. This area later became part of Leslie County, and Mrs. French was related to many influencial families in both counties.
Eversole had many relatives in and around Perry County also. Prior to the difficulties the two men were good friends, and it seemed that the break came for several reasons. A misunderstanding over a business transaction led to a disagreement and quarrel.
At the time large land lease companies were buying timber in Perry County, and Mr. French represented one of these companies. Eversole thought the mountain people were treated unfairly and being underpaid for their land. At every meeting this quarrel was always renewed, and each time with increased bitterness.
Each man showed much courage and bravery, but began trying to outdo each other in business matters which led to much distruction later on. When parties get involved in that manner, they really become afraid of each other.
When the feud reached the fighting stage they hired other people to go to market for the merchandise they needed. Once a woman was hired, or volunteered, to carry the merchandise from market, and on her way back as she was approaching the place where the enemy waited, her horse sensed the danger and ran up a hill into the woods saving the womans life.
A clerk who worked in Mr. French's store told Mr. Eversole that French sought his life, and that he intended to get rid of Eversole so that he would have a clear field for his business. The clerk also told him tha hired assassins were to be used, and that he, the clerk, was to do the hiring with the promise of a nice sum of money and a partnership with French in the business.
For some reason the clerk had become intensely jealous of French over a woman, and sought some revenge by relating the tale to Mr. Eversole. Eversole was in doubt about the truth of the statement, and requested that a sworn affadavid be made. This was readily prepared with much detail and skill, dismissing all his doubt and Eversole at once prepared to meet his enemy.
French saw the gathering of the fully armed force and surrounded himself with an equally strong force. Both belligerents kept busy recruiting their friends and relatives in and around Perry County. Some joined the clan simply because of kinship or friendship, but most were attracted by promises of good steady pay and an opportunity to violate the law as they would never dare to do single-handed.
The first murder accured when one of French's staunchiest friends, Silas Gayheart, was shot and killed from ambush. Killing by ambush puts the slayer out of danger, and makes it almost impossible to fasten the guilt on the proper person. In this murder at least a dozen white men and some negros participated, but nobody was indicted although the perpetrators were well known throughout the county.
It was contended that the Gayheart killing was not connected with the feud, and Eversole's controversy was that the man had fallen victim as a result of a quarrel with persons not members of his clan. This may have been true, as it is difficult to get the truth in such situations.
Mr. French, however, believed Gayheart lost his life as a result of his friendship with him, so he sent out more recruiting officers. The increase in French's army caused Eversole to do the same.
Hazard, with a population of 100 families, was in a state of excitement which continued through the winter of 1887. Although no battles were fought, extreme caution was taken by both sides as they watched each other.
Early one morning Eversole learned that French and his army had invaded the town during the night and thinking that French intended to sweep his forces, he gathered his men together. They retreated to a section of the county peopled with sympathizers, leaving a small force behind in Hazard which he hoped French would attack, so he could in turn strike french from the rear. French did not strike and Eversole scouted the country for him, frequently on his trail.
One night in June, when shadows are long and the call of the night birds are sweet and clear, Fulton french and his men entered the village of Hazard. They took possession of their fortified places where most of them remained, while the more daring of them walked the streets. Next morning they bantered the Eversole clan that had been left in town.
Joe Eversole was notified and he and five of his men started for town, and selecting positions they opened fire on the housed-up enemy. The French clan replied with equal spirit, and hundreds of shots were fired. Night brought the fighting to a close, leaving one man severely wounded on Mr. French's side while Eversole admitted no casualties.
This kind of warfare lasted throughout summer, both sides grew weary and friends interceded trying to stop the feud. They held a conference on Big Creek and an agreement to stop the war was reached, articles drawn up duly signed and witnessed. French surrendered his arms to the county judge of Leslie County, and Eversole placed his in charge of Josiah Combs, county judge of Perry County.
Although the feud was supposed to have stopped, the grudge went on with the leaders on both sides showing no regard for the welfare of the comunity. They were seeking to avoid financial outlay, and French again accused Eversole of repossessing his guns. When Eversole was asked about it, he accused French of never dismissing his men or arms and that his surrender was a blind.
The ink was hardly dry on the treaty when the feud began all over again. The court officers, in part, were partisans who used their influence and powere to protect the outlaws.
In September of 1887, Joe Eversole and Bill Gambrial, a French sympathizer and minister of the gospel who entertained rather independent ideas on the duties of a preacher, met in the streets of Hazard. They quarreled and a duel followed, with Gambrial being fired upon and mortally wounded by a hidden friend of Eversole. Staggering and reeling, he turned upon Eversole who shot him again through the head.
Several persons were indicted, but only one was tried. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and the second in acquittal. It was an open secret in the town that the man who fired on Gambrial was never indicted and had also been an officer of the law at the time.
This killing created tense feelings so the clans reassembled and for several months roamed at will, terrorizing the inhabitants. Little fighting accured, however, and furnished nothing heroic about the campaign.
The calm was short lived and on April 15, 1888, Joseph Eversole, who was (35) years old, and a young man named Nick Combs, who was (21) years old, were assassinated at Big Creek while on their way to Hyden to attend court.
News of the tragedy aroused the people to instant action, and John Campbell quickly took the place of Eversole. He surrounded the town with guards and ordered them to shoot anyone who dared pass into town without first giving the password. This rigid order resulted in his own death, when a half asleep sentry shot him accidently.
Shade Combs conceived the idea to end the war by killing certain obnoxious members of the French clan, but word of his plan got around and he was shot from ambush while saddling his horse. This was followed by the death of Elijah Morgan, a brother-in-law to Eversole yet he was a French adherent, He was also shot from ambush on the morning of October 9, 1888, as he and Frank Grace were going to a tavern to try to bring the two sides together in an agreement to stop the war.
By this time the governor and Judge Lilly requested that state troops be sent to Hazard. The judge's letter read: "French has 13 or more men well armed and he admitted the cowardice of the entire population." Actually, the authorities had never put the law-abiding citizen element in a position to show what they would do.
On October 29, 1888, Governor S.B. Buckner ordered troops to Hazard, and Adjutant General Sam E. Hill in a letter to the governor gave the report which follows: "Left Frankfort October 31, 1888, went by train to London, Kentucky, then wagon on to Hazard, very hectic journey with roads full of mud and water. Hazard contain 100 families when people are all at home, but only 35 were at home when we reached there. Ten men have died during the past two years and county authorities have failed to act with any degree of promptness or vigor. What this is all about I cannot say. Some say it was a business rivalry, others said there was a woman in the case and I think its attributable in part to both causes."
Capt. Sahan's report to the Adjutant General on November 3, 1888 says: "We camped on hill back of courthouse, 200 yards distance, offered protection to court. I noticed that in charging the jury the judge passed lightly over murder."
Perhaps the most important event of the trip was the formation of a military company in Hazard, made up of men involved in the feud. The expedition impressed the people that the state was truely determined to assist her power, and that those involved would no longer defy the law. Police power of the state was feared.
In his letter to the governor, the adjutant general went on to say," There are no churches of any kind, few schools, and half the murders are never made known to the public. Many people live in poverty. More than 20 men have been killed in this feud, most from ambush."
After the troops left Hazard, the same caotic conditioned returned. A number of indictments were made against the lawbreakers, but without the troops to protect them it was useless. At the November term of court, Judge Hill requested Hon. W. L. Hurst to act as special judge.
The battle of Hazard Court House occured Novermber 7 and 8, 1889. On the fourth day of court much disorder was observed, and on the fifth day a valley of shots rang out and the whole courtroom was vacated. People left the streets and went into taversn and other places of protection.
Most of the shooting was done by a man named Campbell, who was assembled with a group of his friends on Graveyard Hill. The incident started in the spirit of hilarity and was caused from over indulgence of drink.
Mr. Davidson, who owned a store nearby, saw Campbell waving his smoking revolver in the air, went to get his gun and shot and killed Campbell. The fight continued and the Eversoles took possession of the courthouse. Two of French's men, Jess Fields and Bob Profitt, who were isolated in a jury room, jimped from a window and ran to the jailer's house for protection.
There was plenty of ammunition and the fight between the courthouse and the jail, both brick buildings about fifteen feet apart, continued until dark.
Jess Fields and Bob Profitt finally reached Mr. French's headquarters. Tom Smith and Fields then took a position on Graveyard Mountain, and when daylight came they opened fire on the courthouse. The men inside were trapped and laid on the floor for protection.
Tom Smith stationed himself in a sunken grave, rested his gun on a tombstone and killed one of Joe Eversole's men by the name of McKnight as he crossed the street. The rest of his men tried to escape by retreating to the river, and Green Morris concealed himself under the river bank to wait for Fields and Smith who were in pursuit. Morris wounded Fields severely, allowing the Eversole clan time to escape.
Court was adjourned very unceremoniously following the battle, and a special term of court was called for August. Somehow, on the night of July 4, 1890 the courthouse was burned but most of the records were saved.
Some of the feudists began to tire of scouting, and Robert Cornett, one of Eversole's men, returned home and seemed safe enough. One morning he and his brother went to the woods to peel logs, and came upon a tree that had been cut and was lying across the ravine. He jumped upon it with his ax and was instantly shot to death. The murder had been planned and executed with skill, like many others during the feud.
Judge Lily appeared for the special term of court and was immediately surrounded by a detachment of state troops, commanded by Adjutant General Garthers from Louisville. A large tent served as the courthouse and in a few days so many prisoners were brought in that the jail became overcrowded, and they were kept in strongly guarded tents.
The cases were called quickly and accused presented to court, while some were transferred to Clark County for trial. The last day of court was commonly called "Blanket Court". The backbone of the feud was finally broken and a strange and welcome calm to the little mountain town.
Some of the men were disarmed and sent to prison where they had plenty of time for reflection and sober reasoning. They often thought of revenge but they knew that would just open another cell door for them. The idea of conviction and punishment accomplished more effort for reconcilliation and in later years some of the enemies became friends.
With the removal of French and the others peace reigned, until 1894 when Judge Josiah Combs returned to spend his declining years. His friends tried to keep him away but he wouldn't listen. One morning as the judge stood talking to a friend of his in front of the courthouse a shot rang out, coming from the direction of the cornfields across the way. The murderer kept his position while the judge staggered across the street where he sank down and died at the door of his home.
The assassin deliberately walked to the back of the field and joined a confederate while a third man opened fire across the river in pretense of sounding like a large force. In a few minutes pursuers went after the tree men and an exchange of shots followed. Two of the men were indicted, Jess Fields and Joe Adkinds, but the third, Boone Frazier, was never caught.
Tom Smith was at the time under sentence of death in Breathitt County for the murder of Dr. John R. Roder. While he was on the scaffold he gave a full account of his part in the feud, also that he killed the doctor at the home of a Mrs. McQuinn. Smith said that he was so drunk at the time that after he shot and robbed the doctor, he passed out.
He told of other persons involved in the feud, this was the first time much of the truth had been told. Smith was hung on June 28, 1895 in the courtyard in Jackson, this being the first and last public hanging in Breathitt County. The widow of Joe Eversole helped care for his wife and five children.
Joe Adkins left the United States and never returned. Fulton French, often referred to as the "Von Moltko" of the Kentucky Mountains, was tried and acquitted. He left Hazard, spent some time in Jackson and later went to Clark County.
He wore a bullet proof jacket after the feud was over, and years later as he started through the door of a hotel in Jackson he met Susan Eversole, widow of Joe, and her son, who was a small fellow with only one arm. Mrs. Eversole was old and feeble now and always wore black since the murder of her husband.
Mr. French stepped back and said "good morning Mrs. Eversole", when the son drew a gun and shot him through the spleen as he knew that French wore the bullet proof coat. A year later Mr. French died from the effects of the wound.
The bravery of some of the people involved in the feud was remarkable. Serena Eversole lived 12 miles from Hazard on the North Fork of the Kentucky River, and when she heard that one of the men was shot she rode all night in the rain to see him before he died.
Another lady, 90 years old, related a story of how she kept her brother from being killed. The old lady pretended to send her son fishing, and when he got out of town he changed his clothes and ran to notify his uncle that he was marked for murder.
Thus ended the war that took the lives of 74 persons, left behind orphaned children, wrecked many homes and caused chaos and destruction to a small mountain town for seven years. It seems that the mountaineer again displayed his love for his kinsman, partly contributing to the state of anarchy in Perry County at the time.
Notes taken from Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies by Charles G. Mutzenburg
Published by Fenno Company, New York, N.Y.
Interview with Hiram Brahear, now 97 years old
Other sources collected by many people