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.)

Long may our Land be Bright with Freedom's Holy Light

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