Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Killing of Joseph Beck

Around 9:00 a.m. on or about August 27, 1862, Champ Ferguson and his men returned to the home of my third great-grandfather, Elisha Koger, whom they had brutally murdered almost thirteen weeks earlier, on June 1st. Ferguson called out from beyond the fence that surrounded the home. No doubt, hearing his voice terrified Elisha's widow, Nancy. After all, Ferguson and his men had shot her husband more than thirty times. His body was a bloody mess by the time the shooting stopped. He took his last breath lying in the arms of his daughter, Sarah, who was covered in his blood.

Nancy sent her sister, Jane, to the door. Ferguson wanted to know if any other armed men had passed by that way that morning. Jane replied she had seen no one. As he turned to leave, Ferguson told her he and his band had killed a man near there. "I don't know him myself, but some of the men say it is Joe Beck," he said. Ferguson told her that Beck's hat and coat were lying in a little drain beside the road and his body was lying about thirty yards from there. He also said he had taken a Colt rifle from Beck after his death. The location was about a mile from the Koger home in the Oak Grove Community of Clinton County, Ky near the top of Poplar Mountain. Nancy, Jane and a young man who was at the Koger home, Marion Purcell, walked up the road and found the body just as Ferguson had described. Nancy would soon deliver the news to his wife, Elizabeth.

During Ferguson's trial at the end of the Civil War, both Nancy and Jane recounted what they saw when they found Beck's body, but no one outside the victim, Ferguson and his men witnessed the event. Even after his conviction, in interviews with reporters where he gave details about all of his killings, reporters forgot to ask about the killing of Joseph Beck, and Ferguson did not offer any details.

In his book, "Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War" (2008), Thomas D. Mays claims that Beck had been a daring Union soldier who had dogged Colonel John Hunt Morgan's command and showed no fear of Ferguson or his men, who were part of the forces under Morgan, but that his luck had run out when he was surprised on the road that day. I wonder about that because there is nothing known about his military stance or activities (at least I haven't seen anything), except that the army ruled that Joseph was killed in the line of duty, which qualified his widow, Elizabeth, for a pension. Beck, who was born in Wayne County in 1817, had enlisted at Camp Hoskins in Pulaski County on Oct. 15, 1861 and was assigned to Capt. Payne's company G, 12th regiment of the Kentucky Infantry.

Joseph Beck's brother-in-law, Jesse Rector, and his wife, Nancy, were the parents of Daniel Webster Clay Rector, whose wife, Laura, was the sister of my great grandmother, Hettie Huffaker Frost.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Jim Cumming and his Thievin' Deputies

In 1918, the United States Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 2.75%. In 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act and established the legal definition of intoxicating liquor, as well as penalties for producing it. Though the act prohibited the alcohol sales, the federal government did little to enforce it. In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect. It prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. In Appalachia, making moonshine and selling liquor was a way of life for many. My own great-grandfather was sheriff between 1926 and 1929. There is a photograph of him sitting in his office window at the courthouse. On the ground below are 24 moonshine stills he and his deputies confiscated during his term in office. Even though manufacturing and selling moonshine and liquor was prohibited, it was still a way of life. When he attempted to run for re-election he was threatened that if he won again he would be killed. Thankfully, he lost the next election. While Prohibition was successful in reducing the amount of liquor consumed, it stimulated the proliferation of rampant illegal liquor sales.

While making moonshine whiskey was a thriving business throughout Appalachia, the federal government's decision to tax whiskey caused moonshiners to go underground to ply their trade by night, especially in the secret confines of mountainous areas with plentiful streams.

Most moonshiners were just plain ordinary citizens carrying on a family tradition and making a little money to supplement otherwise slight incomes. Others fought with revenuers, outsiders and amongst themselves, with some of those scraps ending in deaths. Many went on trial for moonshining and related offenses including murder. Some were acquitted while others went to jail. Local police were often caught up in the trade, accepting protection money to keep their noses out of the business. Some may have themselves profited off confiscated whiskey.

This is a story of how the sale of illegal liquor caused a bad relationship between one family and the sheriff's office in Clinton County, Kentucky, where I live. Sometime prior to March 1920, probably around the time that the 18th Amendment went into effect, Gilbert Gibson and his brother-in-law, Whiz Lee, were indicted on illegal liquor and moonshining charges, but in court they were acquitted. Afterwards, they tried to get some of the confisated whiskey back from Sheriff James Cumming's office, but it had disappeared. The Gibson family was highly upset. Gilbert's father, Steve, went as far as to compose a song that ridiculed the sheriff and his deputies. It was entitled, "Jim Cumming and his Thievin' Deputies." They sang the song in public on several occasions. Obviously, relations between the Gibson family and the sheriff's office became strained.

In the late afternoon hours of March 6, 1920, two members of the Gibson family, along with Lee, were seen purchasing a quantity of gun cartridges at a store on the public square in Albany. A short time later, Marion Gibson and his brother, George, started through the courthouse via the north entrance, they would later claim, for the purpose of going to a barger shop on the southside of the square. The brothers entered the courthouse just as it was closing for the day. Two south doors and one door on the north side were already locked, and as he left, County Clerk John Granville Sloan, closed or locked the remaining north door. As the doors were closed, one of the Gibson boys was heard to remark, "He has locked them up!" Several witnesses testified about hearing a shrill whistle and a peculiar yell and then seing Steve Gibson running around the courthouse trying first one door, then another, before finally entering through a door on the northside. As he did, Whiz Lee and Gilbert Gibson, who had been standing in front of a store across from the courthouse, started in a fast walk or trot in the direction of the courthouse and followed Steve Gibson into the hallway of the courthouse.

At the same time, Deputy Marvin Cumming and two companions were sitting in the sheriff's office. Marion Gibson, who allegedly said he was only walking through the courthouse to get to a barber shop on the south side of the square, stopped in the doorway of the sheriff's ofice and asked to speak to the deputy. Cumming left his companions sitting in the sheriff's office and went with Marion to the south end of the hallway. In just a few short minutes, witnesses heard the depuy say repeatedly, "Don't crowd me!" In the meantime, someone had been ratling the doors and people were heard running through the hallway. The two companions ran into the hallway where they found Deputy Cumming with his back to the balustrade and surrounded by the four Gibson's and Lee, still calling out not to crowd him. Steve Gibson struck at Cumming, who then drew his pistol from his overcoat pocket and struck back at Steve. Both blows fell short of their intended victims. One of the companions from the sheriff's office grabbed Marion Gilbert and the other held Cumming, just as the deputy ordered the Gibsons and Lee out of the courthouse. They turned and started toward the north end of the building, proceeded a short distance, then stopped, and according to one witness, "they seemed to be mixing it up with one another." At that moment, Cumming fired first at Steve Gibson, then at Marion. Because of the darkness and smoke from the two shots, witnesses said it was impossible to tell who was doing the shooting, but in the course of about half a minute, 20-odd shots were fired, eight of which struck the deputy sheriff killing him instantly.

The Gibson clan managed to get away from the courthouse before authorities arrived. The following day, a posse surrounded their home and Steve, Marion and George Gibson, and Whiz Lee eventually surrendered.

Gilbert Gibson managed to get away, but was captured on September 19th at Bakersville, North Carolina. He had been using the aliases, Smith and King. He admitted to being in Kentucky recently but denied any knowledge of the murder.

All were indicted on a charge of murder and were found guilty by Wayne County jury. All were sentenced to 18 years except George Gibson, who was sentenced to two years.

In spite of this incident, and a few others like it, the 18th amendment seemed to work, at least at first as liquor consumption dropped, arrests for drunkenness fell and the price for illegal alcohol rose higher than the average worker could afford. Alcohol consumption dropped by 30 percent and the United States Brewer's Association admitted that the consumption of hard liquor was off 50 percent during Prohibition. However, as time progressed, the statistics would change. Prohibition proved hard to enforce and ultimately failed to have the intended effect of eliminating crime and other social problems. Instead, it led to a rise in organized crime, as the bootlegging of alcohol became an evermore lucrative operation. In 1933, widespread public disillusionment led Congress to ratify the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition. In the over 200 years of the U.S. Constitution, the 18th Amendment remains the only Amendment to ever have been repealed.

Marvin Cumming's cousin, Odell Cumming, eventually ran for sheriff and was elected. He added the letter S to the end of Cumming to, according to family history, distance himself from others in the family which might prevent him from winning the election. His son, Johnny Cummings, would be elected sheriff twice.

The 18th amendment was repealed in 1932.

(Taken from Kentucky Court of Appeals papers reprinted in the Southwestern Reporter, Vol. 224, 1921.)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Tecumseh's Great Earthquake Prediction

Prior to the War of 1812, white settlers were increasingly taking over Native American lands, cutting and clearing trees and building villages. The British capitalized on the resentment felt by many tribes. In an effort to get them to join their side, Shawnee leader, Chief Tecumseh, was given guns and ammo to fight the Americans. The chief then went a step further by travelling from tribe to tribe with his Tenskwatawa, known as 'The Prophet,' trying to unite the Indians into a fight against the white settlers.

He told the Red Stick Creeks that the Great Spirit was angry with their enemies. "He speaks in thunder, and the earth swallows up villages, and drinks up the Mississippi. The Great Spirit will sweep those who escape to the hills from the earth with his terrible breath, he said.”

Tecumseh said he would give them proof that the Great Spirit had sent him. "I leave Tuckabatchee (on the Tallapossa River in what is today Alabama) and shall go to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tuckabatchee.”

His message didn’t go over well. His audience was skeptical, but imagine their surprise when on December 16, 1811, exactly when he arrived in Detroit, that the first of three strong earthquakes shook the ground. The first one on December 16, 1811, produced a magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter scale; the second on January 23, 1812, registered 7.8; and the third on February 7, 1812, registered an 8.8 magnitude.The epicenter was around what is today, New Madrid, Missouri and were felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts, where it is said that church bells rang on their own. The earthquakes altered the landscape so severely, that the Mississippi River momentarily reversed its direction. Two thousand aftershocks occurred in the months following. The earthquakes, also known as the New Madrid earthquakes, were the biggest in American history.

The Red Sticks thought that this was Tecumseh’s signal to start war, to unite in resisting the white intruders intent on claiming their lands, but perhaps there had been a large number of mild or moderate tremors in the region leading up to the earthquakes and, since native peoples are more in tune with nature, that Tecumseh merely knew which natural signs to look for.

Was the Great Comet of 1812 part of Tecumseh’s prediction of a great fire, estimated to have been almost fifty percent larger than the sun, coming across the sky? The earthquakes arriving almost in conjunction with the fiery comet rushing across the horizon must have struck fear into many native peoples hearts.

It was in the fall of the year when the call for volunteers went out at the outbreak of the War of 1812. The soldiers would march to Lake Erie to assist General William H. Harrison in a fight with British troops and their Indian allies, including the great Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh. On October 5, 1813, American forces crossed over into Canada where they fought and won the Battle of the Thames. It was said Major WooTecumseh was killed during the battle.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Unseen Hand


In 2013, I went to see my cardiologist, Dr. Melissa Walton-Shirley, for a check up. When I arrived, I learned that she had to step away for an emergency. Filling in for her was her partner, Dr. Jim Whiteside. Since being diagnosed with CHF and Cardiomyopathy in 2003, I routinely had gone into the hospital every couple of years when the CHF would come back. That day, Dr. Whiteside did something that brought about a big change in my life. He convinced me that a pacemaker/defibrillator implant would cut down on my hospital stays, adding "That thing might not fire in 25 years and you'll say 'that blankety-blank Whiteside talked me into getting this thing and I didn't even need it, but there might come that one time that it will fire, and it will save your life." I made a decision that day to trust him and a few weeks later underwent a pacemaker/defibrillator implant.

I recalled his words soon after an incident that happened to me at approximately 5:32am on Saturday, April 21, 2018. As I stepped out onto the carport, everything within my vision started to spin really fast. The instant it happened, my device fired 30 cycles and I was slung backward, then forward, but I never did hit the ground, as I had always imagined I would. Zapped of all my strength, I managed to lean over and rest my body on the hood of my son's van, which was parked there. The instant I did that my device fired a second time, at 35 cycles, and it worked. My heart was back in rhythm. The entire episode lasted less than 10 seconds.

Later, I was transferred from our local hospital to Cookeville (TN) Regional Medical Center, where I met Dr. Mark Wathen, the former 20-year director of Arrhythmia at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who specializes in the study of heart rhythms. He is an expert in pacemakers, defibrillators and implanted monitors, has performed significant research in these devices and is recognized as a world leader in device treatment of fast and slow rhythms. The incident that happened to me on my carport is known as Ventricular Fibrillation, or as Dr. Wathen said, "(I) met sudden death face to face." 98% of those who experience V-Fib die. My implanted device had saved my life. I am so very thankful I listened to Dr. Whiteside.

My friend and singing partner at church, Kelly, did not know what had happened when she sent me a text a couple of hours later that Saturday morning in 2018, suggesting we work up a version of this 1930's hymn written by A.J. Sims and first made famous by The Singing Rambo's...

"There is an unseen hand to me
That leads through ways I can not see
While going through this world of woe
This hand still leads me as I go
I'm trusting to the unseen hand
That guides me through this weary land
And some sweet day I'll reach that strand
Still guided by the unseen hand"


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Dear Ancestor


Dear Ancestor
Your tombstone stands among the rest
Neglected and alone
The name and date are chiseled out
On polished marble stone
It reaches out to all who care
It is too late to mourn

You did not know that I exist
You died and I was born
Yet, each of us are cells of you
In flesh and blood and bone
Our blood contracts and beats a pulse
Entirely not our own

Dear ancestor, the place you filled one hundred years ago
Spreads out among the ones you left
Who would have loved you so
I wonder how you lived and loved
I wonder if you knew that someday I would find this spot
And come to visit you

(Walter Butler Palmer, 1906)


The photo is the grave marker of my 3rd great-grandfather, David Smith, who, along with his son Ahijah, were murdered by Confederate guerillas during the Civil War. The incident occured at their home in Fentress County, Tennessee.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Man, His Mule and John Barleycorn

Clinton County, Kentucky has had four courthouses in its nearly 200-year history. The first one was built in 1835-36, soon after the county was organized. It was burned by Confederate troops during the Civil War (1864). Construction of the second courthouse began in 1870 and was finished in 1873. The third Clinton County Courthouse was built in 1895. It burned on August 2, 1980, and the current courthouse was built shortly thereafter.

According to some who remembered it, soon after the third court­house was built in 1895, local resident Marion Gibbons, who coincidentally just happened to be the great-grandfather of the focus of my last story, Belknap Byers, Jr., loved his John Barleycorn. One day he consumed a little too much and rode his mule through courthouse from one end to the other. He was promptly arrested and taken before the judge, who fined him $10. Gibbons handed the judge a $20 bill. When the judge said he didn't have change, the man told him to keep the $20, that he enjoyed the ride through the courthouse so much he would just do it again. So, he hopped on his mule and back through the courthouse he went!

The late Eddie Lovelace, who was an eloquent speaker and always in demand at public events, loved to tell this story, and did so at many of his speaking engagements.

"From "Man Rides Mule Through Courthouse" (The New Era newspaper, 1952)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Things a Father Will Do

From the age of 14, I played a lot of gigs, traveled a lot of miles and spent a lot of time hanging out with Belknap Byers, Jr. Of all the music photos of him, my favorite one doesn't involve me, but rather his son, Andrew, who, followed in his dads footsteps and became a drummer himself. Andrew and his band were playing a gig in Cookeville. During the performance, Andrew's bass drum wouldn't stop sliding and there was no time to stop and make an adjustment. So, as Andrew explained, JR did what any good dad would have done, he crawled under Andrew and held on to that drum. "As soon as we kicked off the first song, my bass drum flew away from my foot. I barely could even grab it. The next thing I knew my dad slid in underneath me, grabbed that drum, and held it the entire set. He later told me that I have the right foot of John Bonham. I said 'no I have the right foot of Jr Byers.'" Thankfully, someone standing on the side of the stage took a picture of it.
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The Killing of Joseph Beck

Around 9:00 a.m. on or about August 27, 1862, Champ Ferguson and his men returned to the home of my third great-grandfather, Elisha Koger...