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Bloody Breathitt

Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South

T.R.C. Hutton

Publication Year: 2013

The notorious conflict between the Hatfield and the McCoy families of West Virginia and Kentucky is often remembered as America's most famous feud, but it was relatively brief and subdued compared to the violence in Breathitt County, Kentucky. From the Reconstruction period until the early twentieth century, Breathitt's 500 square miles of rugged upcountry land was known as "the darkest and bloodiest of all the dark and bloody feud counties" due to its considerable number of homicides, which were not always related to the factional conflicts that swept the region.

In Bloody Breathitt, T. R. C. Hutton casts a critical eye on this territory for the first time. He carefully investigates instances of individual and mass violence in the county from the Civil War through the Progressive era, exploring links between specific incidents and broader national and regional events. Although the killings were typically portrayed as depoliticized occurrences, Hutton explains how their causes and implications often reflected distinctly political intentions. By framing the incidents as "feuds," those in positions of authority disguised politically motivated murders by placing them in a fictive past, preventing outsiders from understanding the complex reality.

This meticulously researched volume offers the first comprehensive narrative of the violence in this infamous Kentucky county, examining Breathitt's brutal history and its significance to the state, the South, and the nation. While the United States has enjoyed unparalleled longevity as a republic, Hutton's timely study reminds readers that the nation's political stability has had a tremendous cost in terms of bloodshed.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: New Directions in Southern History

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

When I first decided to write about Breathitt County, Kentucky, I expected I’d be writing a local study similar to most of the serious scholarship on Appalachia. What I discovered was a place where those in power needed violence in order to maintain their control, while those who refused to knuckle under to them saw violence as a tool themselves. ...

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Introduction: “The darkest and bloodiest of all the dark and bloody feud counties”

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pp. 1-10

This is a history of Breathitt County, Kentucky, in its first seven or so decades of existence, before and after it became known as Bloody Breathitt. I consider the county and its nickname two separate entities; Breathitt (pronounced “breath-it”) County is a political unit, founded in 1839 in eastern Kentucky. “Bloody Breathitt,” as I use it here, ...

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1. "To them, it was no-man's land”: Before Breathitt Was Bloody

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pp. 11-36

As an old man, George Washington Noble recalled watching a “pitched battle” when he was a child in Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the 1850s. It was a semiofficial Court Day event, a hand-to-hand tussle for money and prestige between various communities’ “champion fighters,” referred to locally as “Tessy Boys.”1 ...

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2. "Suppressing the late rebellion”: Guerrilla Fighting in a Loyal State

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pp. 37-72

Breathitt County native George Washington Noble became a lifelong believer in divine portent when he was sixteen, not long before he joined the Confederate infantry. One winter night in 1860 or 1861, he saw an enormous comet in the winter sky. His father (no doubt informed by current events) said that it was an omen of impending war between North and South.1 ...

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3. "The war spirit was high": Scenes from an Un-Reconstructed County

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pp. 73-112

By the end of 1865 Breathitt County had been thoroughly chastened for rebelling against the United States. The harsh measures that Union captain William Strong used against his own neighbors, and the wellspring of support he had from Unionists in neighboring counties, ended what was probably already a lost cause: ...

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4. "The civilizing and Christianizing effects of material improvement and development"

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pp. 113-140

On Christmas Day 1884, Louisville’s Courier-Journal printed an unsigned letter from Breathitt County touting “the richest undeveloped timber, coal, and iron district in America.” In the last three years “Northern parties” had bought nearly twenty-five thousand acres of forestland (Breathitt County’s average land value was estimated at 92¢ per acre).1 ...

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5. Death of a Feudal Hero

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pp. 141-152

After Jeremiah South’s death in 1880, his family experienced a number of setbacks. Barry, his most enterprising son, replaced him as penitentiary executive but, like his father, ran afoul of the reformers who sought to humanize Kentucky’s appalling penal system.1 ...

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6. "There has always been the bitterest political feeling in the county": A Courthouse Ring in the Age of Assassination

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pp. 153-206

“Republicanism,” Henry Watterson envisioned in late 1888, “is simply an epidemic. Like Federalism, cholera, Know-Nothingism and yellow fever, when it has run its course, it will pass away.”1 It was an oddly sanguine appraisal of incumbent Grover Cleveland’s recent electoral defeat ...

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7. "The feudal wars of Eastern Kentucky will no doubt be utilized in coming years by writers of fiction": Reading and Writing Bloody Breathitt

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pp. 207-254

In 1898 the Reverend John J. Dickey interviewed Edward Callahan “Red Ned” Strong to find out what the elderly Breathitt County native knew (or had heard) about his grandfather’s role in the “Clay County Cattle War” between 1805 and 1807. The violent events that comprised the cattle war had begun and ended just over ninety years earlier, but Strong felt it had a much longer longevity. ...

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pp. 255-258

The offending old building was eventually torn down and replaced by the structure that serves as Breathitt County’s court building at this writing (designed by a Lexington architectural firm—fitting, since the men from the relatively distant Bluegrass city had long claimed a shepherding role in Jackson).1 ...


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pp. 259-364


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pp. 365-414


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pp. 415-430

Other Works in the Series

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pp. 444-445

E-ISBN-13: 9780813142432
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813136462

Page Count: 444
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: New Directions in Southern History