Thursday, August 15, 2013

T.R.C. Hutton's "Bloody Breathitt"

T.R.C. Hutton teaches American History at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He received his PhD from Vanderbilt University in 2009.

Hutton applied the “Page 99 Test” to Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South, his first book, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains a flurry of surnames, but I think the essential narrative shines through. It describes the prelude to a deadly confrontation, a street fight very similar to others that had taken place elsewhere during Reconstruction and after. Demographically speaking, Breathitt County, Kentucky did not resemble some of the more embattled corners of the South. It was overwhelmingly white-majority, and the prospect of black male suffrage that defined politics in Louisiana or South Carolina was absent. But local Civil War veterans, both black and white, knew that an 1878 election for county judge reflected a crisis of legitimacy dating from the war’s end, a common condition wherever former Unionists and Confederates lived in close quarters. When the newly-elected judge, a young neophyte named John Burnett favored by Unionist/Republicans (known locally as “Red Strings”), tried to convene court for a controversial murder case his friends and enemies crowded the streets ready for a gunfight.

From Page 99 (endnotes omitted):
The weeks leading up to the August election were fraught with threats of violence, causing former county judge David Butler to withdraw from contention. Though considered “lawless” by Democrats, William Strong influenced an angry Republican minority, particularly those provoked a few years earlier by Edward Strong’s land sale. A brush fire that singed at least fourteen square miles of pasture in the northern part of the county the previous spring made the “wildlands” that the former judge wished to sell that much more vital to drovers. Edward Strong sought out his cousin’s endorsement through a third party, but William Strong instead endorsed Burnett and promised “to help protect him, no matter who molested him.” The young newcomer, the first electoral challenge to Breathitt County’s Democratic rule in ten years, won the August election by eight votes.

Before his election, Hagins had deputized Burnett to arrest Jerry Little (quite possibly the same Jerry Little involved in the “Jett-Little feud”). Burnett was said to have acted with particular brutality in carrying out the arrest, and after Little’s subsequent acquittal, Little’s family remained angry. When Little’s uncle, Jason Little, was arrested for murdering his wife, newly elected Judge Burnett had him transferred more than one hundred miles away to Lexington. Local Democrats interpreted the arrest and removal as politically motivated affronts or, just as likely, used the controversy as a stalking horse against Burnett.

Jason Little’s return for trial during late November’s circuit court session turned into a referendum on John Burnett’s legitimacy as an elected judge. A confrontation between Civil War factions developed on Jackson’s main thoroughfare before he could be removed from the jailhouse. On one side, a mob led by Confederate veterans John Aikman and Alfred Gambrel amassed, threatening to release Little. On the other, William Strong, Henderson Kilburn, Hiram Freeman, and Freeman’s sons Daniel and William as well as a dozen other Red Strings who had come to town, according to Strong, to see that Burnett’s (and circuit court judge William Randall’s) court authority was respected. As Randall instructed the grand jury, the two groups faced off down the street from the courthouse.
Within a day the young judge was one of at least three fatalities. In the end, the county remained under conservative Confederate/Democratic rule, but only after it was made plain that their party’s control depended upon force. Friends and colleagues have suggested that this chapter seems to illustrate what may have happened in the South if it had been left to itself without any federal attempts at political restructuring (after all, regardless of the level of pro-Confederate sentiment in Kentucky after the war, the state was never subject to federal military occupation). In fact, I think it’s exemplary of what did happen all over the South as voters and politicians lost their stomach for the struggle.

This was not the first deadly act of political violence in the county’s history, and it would not be the last. However, Breathitt County’s cycle of violence was rarely acknowledged it as a political struggle. Journalists and politicians instead framed it as a series of low-stake affrays caused by retrograde biology and cultural vestigiality; the word “feud” was deceptively applied over and over again. The result was one we see the world over, time and time again: when the motivations for political violence are ignored, when killing for power is recognized as nothing more than “senseless” killing, oppressors usually have the advantage.
Learn more about Bloody Breathitt the University Press of Kentucky website.

--Marshal Zeringue