As a youngster, I heard stories about the feuds in Breathitt County, Kentucky from my Dad.
Dad was born in Hazard in 1929. A short while later, they moved to some land the Riley family owned in the far southwest corner of Breathitt County.
It was a rugged land. They scraped a living out of the hills and valleys that spread out from the shallow banks of the Freeman Fork of Long Creek.
Sixty years ago, when we visited the small hillside home of my great-grandfather, Alfred “Pap” Riley, we veered sharply off the state highway and dropped down into the valley.
The deeply rutted, dirt and gravel road we drove down would often turn into the actual creek bed of the Freeman Fork. It was a rough undeveloped country.
Dad showed me the “bottom-ground” that was owned and farmed by the more influential families as compared to the hillside farmland that my ancestors plowed and farmed. Whether the farming was being done on the hillside or the bottom ground, it was a lot of hard work for both men and mules.
Dad would tell us stories about my great uncles who would often get themselves in trouble with the law. Rather than going to jail, they would head up into the hills. There, they could hide out from the law for months.
The sheriff would stop by Pap’s cabin and ask how the farm was holding up. Pap would say, “Well, it would be a lot easier if the boys were home.”
The sheriff would say, “Well Pap, get word to the boys that I’m going to be busy for a while and won’t be back down here for a few months.”
Sure enough, my great uncles would soon appear out of the hills and the planting or harvest would get done.
Before the sheriff made it back to Pap’s cabin, the boys would once more have disappeared into the remote hills of Breathitt County. Like hillbilly superheroes, there they would stay hidden away until they were needed again.
Then, out of nowhere, they would reappear. The farming would get done and the family could survive for another year.
Breathitt County was a rough place to call home.
Feuding hit the county hard in the late 1800s. It has been estimated that dozens of people died in the Breathitt County feuds. The county deservedly earned the name “Bloody Breathitt.”
The worst feud was known as the French-Eversole War.
These two men were not backwoods hillbillies. One was an attorney, the other an influential merchant. Some historians estimate that up to 74 people were killed in that feud.
It is claimed that the feud may have started over a woman. Others believe the killing began over a business-deal-gone-bad. These feuds were not fought face-to-face. Most of the killings were done by assassins who would stay hidden and disappear immediately after the killing was complete.
A shot would ring out of the dark and someone would fall over dead.
One of the most active assassins in this feud was a man known as Bad Tom Smith. He was the killer, the hit man for the Fulton French side of the feud. He would receive his assignment from Fulton French and another person would die from the assassin’s bullet.
Finally, after his ninth kill, Smith was arrested, tried, and found guilty. Toward the end of his trial at the county seat in Jackson, Kentucky, Smith spoke out to those attending the trial. He is reported to have said, “Bad women and bad whiskey have brought me where I am. Don’t drink bad whiskey and don’t do as I have done.”
Prayers were apparently answered when Bad Tom experienced a last-minute jailhouse conversion to Christianity. He was then concerned and frightened that he had not been baptized — and his death was just days off.
Local ministers spoke with the judge and sheriff and convinced them of the importance of honoring his last wishes.
The morning of his scheduled hanging, Bad Tom was walked from the courthouse to the Kentucky River. It was a 400-yard walk. Thousands of the people who had traveled to Jackson to see the executions, walked along with the sheriff and his deputies as they escorted Bad Tom to the river. There they saw Tom baptized in the frigid waters of the river.
Some observers said that Tom was held underwater so long they were afraid that they had decided to kill him by drowning rather than hanging. Finally, he was pulled from the water and walked back to the courthouse and directly up the steps to the gallows.
While standing on the gallows, it is said that Bad Tom confessed to many killings and crimes — some of which were unknown to law enforcement.
Bad Tom Smith’s death should have brought an end to the feudal killings in “Bloody Breathitt,” but not completely. The county’s reputation remains to this day.
Despite Bad Tom Smith’s final words, “Save me, O God save me,” Breathitt County will probably always be known by the name of “Bloody Breathitt.”
My father was always proud of his deep, deep roots in eastern Kentucky. He proudly wore the title of “Hillbilly.” It was a hard life. I’m glad my grandfather moved our branch of the Riley family to southern Indians in the mid-1940s and I’m glad that Dad brought his family to Germantown, Ohio in 1951.
Life was difficult for the people of eastern Kentucky during the bloodiest part of Breathitt County’s’ history.
It is still a hard place to live.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.