Outsiders’ View of Breathitt County – Tom Eblen
Outsiders’ View of Breathitt County
by Tom Eblen
J.D. Vance is hardly the first person to focus on Breathitt County when writing about what’s “wrong” with Appalachia. He follows a well-worn path of writers with more narrative and political agenda than local knowledge. They have shaped America’s perceptions of Breathitt County for a century and a half, and rarely for the better.
Many people now want to shape a new narrative for Breathitt County by creating a more healthy, prosperous and sustainable community. But envisioning a better future requires both coming to grips with the present and understanding the past — not only the realities of history, but the stories we tell ourselves and the stories others have told about us.
One good window into outsiders’ views of Breathitt County is the archive of The New York Times, long one of the nation’s most influential newspapers. Most of its reporting was based on actual events, but it offered readers little context, few Breathitt County voices and plenty of opinion that reinforced stereotypes of mountain people and their culture.
Times readers first heard about Breathitt County in September 1871. A one-paragraph story reported that Kentucky’s governor was sending troops to “clear the town of Jackson of outlaws.” The headline: “Lawlessness in Kentucky.”
Violence made headlines again in 1874 and 1878. An 1878 headline called it, “The War in Kentucky.” A story told how Jackson was “in possession of an armed mob, divided into factions, who are shooting and killing each other as opportunity offers.” The county judge had been murdered, and the sheriff and Circuit Court judge were barricaded in the courthouse.
“There is very little hope that the murders and outlaws will be brought to justice in a regular way,” The Times’ correspondent proclaimed. “Not one man in 10 who commits murder in Kentucky is hanged.”
By December 1878, the headline above a lengthy and colorful Times story uses a word that would become synonymous with Breathitt County in the national imagination: “Kentucky’s Bloody Feuds.” A few days later, another story was headlined, “Breathitt County Lawlessness.”
“They are a class of men who think they have a right to settle all disputes with the bowie knife, the revolver, or the rifles, and they have supreme contempt for the officers of the law,” readers were told. The correspondent speculated that some of these feuds among families may have been sparked by events as trivial as a boy stealing a watermelon.
Feudists were described as being “armed to the teeth, and most of them were under the influence of whisky.” There was a second-hand “eye-witness” account that “bullets flew as thick as hailstones in the vicinity of the courthouse. … Men crazed with whiskey charged through the streets, afoot and on horseback, brandishing their revolvers and carbines, and threatening to kill every person who came in their path. Women and children ran through the yards and gardens screaming with fear, and some of them fainted. Blood flowed freely.”
Breathitt makes The Times again in 1899 with a story about election fraud at gunpoint — “the worst blot on a county already stained with the blood of many feuds and murders.”
In May 1903, Breathitt County was back in the news. “Hunt for Kentucky Feudist,” the headline said, referring to a murder suspect as “one of the desperate characters who have terrorized Breathitt County.”
By 1909, The Times reported that Lexington’s Evening Gazette had proposed “wiping Breathitt County off the map” to “abolish bloody feuds in that state, to restore Kentucky’s good name, and establish brotherly affection and forbearance.” The Lexington editor suggested dividing Breathitt’s land among six neighboring counties so “Breathitt would pass into history as a mere word, signifying bloody lawlessness.”
A 1936 story told how a “mountain woman” opened fire in a Jackson courtroom, killing a man about to stand trial for murdering her son. In the process, she wounded two bystanders. The story noted that other men had previously been tried there for “feud killings.” This was an Associated Press story, so it also would have appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the country.
By the 1970s, The New York Times narrative about Breathitt County had changed from violence to poverty. A Times’ correspondent wrote about how a religious organization was creating jobs in Breathitt, then the nation’s 17th poorest county. By the 1990s, the narrative had shifted again, to drugs and corruption, as sheriffs in and around Breathitt were convicted of taking bribes to protect drug dealers.
Breathitt County received some positive national attention during World War I, when so many men volunteered for military service that nobody had to be drafted. Yet, a 1930 Times story about the courthouse monument honoring those men couldn’t help but refer to “Bloody Breathitt, Eastern Kentucky erstwhile feud county.”
Stereotypes are hard to overcome, because they often grow around and are nourished over time by kernels of truth. Breathitt County probably will always be associated with feuding. Maybe the best thing to do is capitalize on it as a tourist attraction the way Pike County, Kentucky, and Mingo County, West Virginia, have with the Hatfields and McCoys.
But, as the writer William Faulkner reminded us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Unflattering aspects of Breathitt County’s history — and the stereotypes that have grown up around them — hold some important lessons for those willing to learn.
Only a handful of Breathitt County residents were ever outlaws or feudists or crooks; the percentage was probably no higher than in any other Kentucky county. So why Breathitt? Were its people more tolerant than those in other counties of lawlessness, corrupt politics and ineffective local government? If so, have those attitudes persisted in less-violent forms? Are those attitudes still at work today, and how might they stand in the way of creating a more healthy, prosperous and sustainable community?
Tom Eblen is a journalist, writer and photographer recently retired as metro/state columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He is descended from Samuel Haddix, one of Breathitt County’s earliest settlers.
This column is brought to you by Our Breathitt, a community arts and health experience bringing together artists and Breathitt Countians from across Kentucky. Project is organized with IDEAS xLab (an artist-led nonprofit), and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Starting in August 2019, five collaborating writers, each with their own perspectives and ties to the county, will offer weekly columns and audio stories for radio and podcasts. Contact us at 859-397-1317 to join this conversation by leaving a voicemail with your response to the questions we raise and adding thoughts of your own! You may hear your responses incorporated into future posts and narratives! You can also email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope you will mark your calendars and join us at the Our Breathitt Summit, October 11-12 in Jackson, Kentucky. Information at www.ideasxlab.com/ourbreathitt.