A Walk to Remember

February 7, 2012

Several years ago on my birthday, a son asked me to recount the greatest changes in my lifetime.

Changes that I never expected to see.

The answer was easy.  The end of the Cold War, and Civil Rights.

I grew up in the segregation days of the Jim Crow south.  Whites and blacks were segregated, always separate. Separate public rest rooms and water fountains; separate seating at public events; separate schools. I remember the “Whites Only” signs, separate entrances and seating. Mixed marriages were forbidden by law. A mixed couple was ostracized, were seen together at their own physical risk.  And we had separate schools. In old Eddyville, the blacks lived in a section of town called “Freewill”.  Its name derived from the days of emancipation of the slaves, when the slaves were at liberty to live where they chose of their own “free will”.   The descendants of former slaves went to their own little shabby school up at the end of the hollow.  There they matriculated  through the first eight grades.    I remember seeing inside my own textbooks, issued by the county Board of Education, a stamp which allowed a check mark for either “white” or “colored”.  When my “colored” contemporaries finished the eighth grade they faced a hard choice. They could quit school and go to work. Or if they wished to continue with their education—and few of them did—the Board of Education would send them to Lincoln Ridge High School in Louisville.   They would be given a bus ticket to the big city in the fall and a return ticket for Christmas.  The school board paid for their lodging there.

It is all true.  Yet today it seems unreal—like something I dreamed.  To my children, it is incomprehensible.

Of course all that changed, after Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived on the scene and began his grand march for civil rights.

A few years ago, as we commemorated Martin Luther King’s birthday, I went to Paducah to walk in the MLK March sponsored by the local NAACP.  It was a cold but brilliantly sunny day.  We marched from the Cherry Civic Center to the cemetery and placed a wreath on a monument. There were over 100 people on that trek.

I met and marched with a person I had known all my life—from a distance.

Mary Kate McHenry and I were born six weeks apart in old Eddyville.  We grew up together, only a long fly ball apart. But we were separated by the invisible wall of racial segregation and the ancient code of Jim Crow. I remembered Mary Kate. She remembered me. At a distance. I recall her as a pretty little black girl with pig tails and a sparkle of merriment in her eyes.  I knew her brother Richard, who played with me when my parents were not watching.  They lived in Freewill. She and her friends with ebony faces would pass our house on the way to the picture show. There at the theater they would buy their tickets at a separate window and climb the steps to the balcony for “Blacks Only”.  They seemed to always be full of life, talking and laughing. They were a happy people. As a child, I found them alive, vibrant, joyous, soulful, mysterious and remote.

Mary Kate was one of the brave ones. She had the spunk to take the school board up on their offer. She went to Lincoln Ridge, graduated, and went to nursing school.   This black girl–against all odds, and disadvantages from the rundown little settlement of Freewill in the rundown little river town of old Eddyville– beat the odds. She finished up a stellar and productive career in the healing profession.  At the time of our walk together she had just recently retired.

So there we were, walking shoulder to shoulder, as old friends should, on this cold, but sunny winter day.  A man and woman, almost exactly the same age, hewed from the same stone, nurtured in two separate worlds in a dirty old river town in a time and way of life which is hard for us even  now to imagine.   We talked of people and places we shared. She remembered me as a devilish little white boy who would sometimes run my little wagon out in front of them as they walked down the sidewalk.(Here Mary Kate  may have confused me with some other little pale faced hellion; I do not remember ever having a wagon.) I confessed that we always envied her group and their balcony seats at the picture show.  She gleefully reported that  the thing they enjoyed most about sitting up in those lofty seats was throwing debris—popcorn, wrappers, cardboard containers, pieces of candy– down on the white kids. We both laughed, with shared merriment in the knowledge that kids always find a way—a way to adjust, to survive, to make the best of the situation.

A short time after our walk on that Martin Luther King Day, Mary Kate was diagnosed with incurable cancer. With sadness and concern, I followed her declining health through her sister Betty. In a few months my black friend from old Eddyville was gone.

Now the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. is honored each year. Undoubtedly, he is an American icon. But to most all of us, his legacy is remote, relegated to old news clips and history books.  But Mary Kate was my friend. A real live human soul, flesh and blood, whom I knew. Someone I knew who walked the walk, and talked the talk. She overcame.  So, now each year as we commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I think of Mary Kate.  Two old friends who had  traversed the gaping abyss of racial divide and lived to see it closed. Together we had that one last walk to remember.   Not on the cracked and ancient sidewalks of old Eddyville. But on the clear and sunlit smoothness of another time.

Joe Fulks

February 7, 2012

Joe Fulks 

Kentucky winters are brightened by the game of basketball.  The full force of fan hysteria arrives at its annual crescendo in early spring of each year.

March madness.

It’s then that basketball comes crashing down the stretch through the rushing flume of tournament action.  In Kentucky, at least, it becomes larger than life.  While college and high school teams battle on the hardwood, fans talk of the game at country stores, coffee shops, and church socials.

Ultimately, great names of basketball lore are cast about.  Hagan and Ramsey.  Unseld and Givens.  Rupp and Diddle.  “King” Kelly Coleman and Clem Haskins.  Cotton Nash and Kenny Walker.  On and on the names are legendary and endless.  From the glittering roster of winters past, stars will be compared and enlarged.  Most likely, and inexplicably, one basketball giant will never be mentioned.

In his day, he was the best.  Joe Fulks, the Kuttawa Clipper.

Maybe it’s the passage of time or the drastic change in the nature of the game since he played.  But for some reason, “Jumping Joe”–the lanky, good-natured star from the Tennessee River bottom–has faded into the gray, forgotten wasteland of yesteryear.  Even his hometown has been erased from the face of the earth.  Like the legendary continent of Atlantis, little Birmingham, Kentucky has sunken beneath the waters.  Only “Birmingham Island” can be seen today arising out of Kentucky Lake.  Most of the dead, who once slumbered there, have been removed from their resting places to Birmingham Cemetery several miles away.

Birmingham was in Marshall County on the Tennessee River some twelve miles from the county seat of Benton.  A ferry ran back and forth, connecting the community with Lyon County and the towns of Eddyville and Kuttawa.  It was there that Joe was born to Leonard and Mattie Fulks on October 26, 1921.  The small river town of less than 400 residents did have a high school–a substantial brick building in the middle of town.  And the high school had a basketball team.

Joseph Franklin Fulks fell in love with the basketball early in his life.  On cold winter nights, this dreary little shanty town would brighten as the lights at the high school gym, generated by the school’s own gasoline dynamo generator, glowed through the darkness.  Old cars, pickup trucks, and even a few mule drawn wagons from up and down the valley surrounded the school on ball game nights as crowds packed the cozy gymnasium.

Joe gazed upon it all through wide, young eyes of wonderment.  He went to the games and silently admired the older boys who performed under the bright lights on the shiny hardwood floor.  It was a fantasy land where young, strong athletes–mere mortals by day–transformed into something heroic at night under the thunderous approval of the friendly crowd and the adoration of pretty girls.

But in the early impoverished years of Joe Fulks, a basketball was a rare luxury–one which he had to do without.  So he improvised.  The high school varsity team practiced on an outside court when the weather allowed.  But every morning they would find the nets on the goals riddled to pieces.  The coach of the little school, Robert Goheen, was baffled by the mystery of the disappearing nets.  So after practice one evening, Goheen decided to solve the mystery.  He hid in the weeds beside the ball court and waited.  Around dark, a tall, ambling youngster came upon the scene, playfully tossing half of a brick up in the air and catching it with the greatest of ease when it came back down.  The trespasser then walked onto the court and began shooting the brick through the basketball goal with uncanny accuracy.  The coach watched in amazement as one net was demolished and the hoopster moved on to finish off the other one.  With both nets in shreds, he nonchalantly walked off the court, still tossing the brick in the air.

It was Joe.  The next day Coach Goheen gave Joe a basketball and told him to keep it up.  And so he did.  Joe became a star at Birmingham High School.  But drastic change and upheaval were enveloping the town and the entire lower Tennessee River Valley.  In 1938, the construction of Kentucky Dam began just a few miles downstream.  The village of Birmingham was doomed to be torn down and flooded by Kentucky Lake.        With the town going down the tubes around him, Joe became a star on the Birmingham five.

Then, just before his senior year, he moved with his parents to Kuttawa.  For the Lyon County team, it was manna from heaven.  But it led to allegations against the school for illegal recruiting.  A full blown investigation was conducted by the Kentucky High School Association Board of Control.  The school was charged with securing employment in Kuttawa for Joe’s father in order to lure the high school star away from Birmingham.  The evidence was deemed insufficient to suspend the school, but the final report “deplored a tendency of schools to build up winning teams through use of imported athletes.”  A concern that is still with us today.

Fulks led the Kuttawa Lions to a brilliant 22-2 record and included a trip to the state tournament.  The Lions were beaten there by Morganfield in overtime. The slender youngster was a pure shooter–inside, outside, right hand, left hand.  A terrific rebounder, the 6-foot-3 center could do it all.  In the little river towns of Birmingham and Kuttawa, Joe Fulks developed a shooting technique that would revolutionize the game of basketball.  He explained it later: “People were shooting on the run during those days.  But I discovered that by stopping and jumping, I was much more accurate and able to get open more for better shots.”  The World Book Encyclopedia reported years later that “the one-handed shot was the most popular shot in basketball until Joe Fulks popularized the jump shot . . . it became the most popular shot in basketball and greatly increased scoring.”

Legendary Coach Ed Diddle of Western Kentucky University practically spent the summer of 1940 with Joe Fulks.  Diddle was competing with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Indiana coach Branch McCracken in the recruiting war for the Kuttawa Clipper, as Fulks was now being called.  He fooled them all and went to Murray State.  At Murray, Joe played varsity ball for two years and was named All American.  While there he acquired the label that would follow him the rest of his days–“Jumping Joe.”

As good as he was, Joe Fulks was about to enter a phase of his life which would propel him into the superstar range.  World War II came along and he was drafted out of college and went into the Marine Corps. He had grown to six-feet-five-inches without losing any of his grace and agility.  He was assigned to a Fleet Marine Force basketball team which toured the South Pacific entertaining the troops. The military rosters were filled with some of the top basketball players of war time America.

It was a great recruiting arena for professional teams back home.  Eddie Gottlieb, coach and owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, headed out that way on a scouting trip.  Gottlieb–the premier basketball guru of his day–was primarily interested in All American Andy Phillip of the University of Illinois.  But he quickly learned that across the broad South Pacific, the basketball player everyone was talking about was a skinny kid from Kentucky with wavy hair.  Joe was playing circles around them all.  Gottlieb was impressed and signed Fulks to the tune of a $10,000 bonus–a gargantuan sum in those days.

The slender and likable country boy from Kentucky exploded upon the professional scene.  In his rookie year of 1946-47, he led the league in scoring with a 23.2 point average.  These were the fledgling years of the National Basketball Association when there was no shot clock or three-point line and the game was played at a much slower pace.  Consequently, teams scored far fewer points.  During his initial year, for instance, the Warriors averaged only 68.6 points with Joe scoring a third of them.  The New York Knicks had no player to average in double figures.  Four of the league’s teams couldn’t match Fulks’ output with their top two scorers.  It all makes his performance that much more remarkable.

In short, the shy and soft spoken cager with the southern drawl was an overnight sensation.  He almost single-handedly propelled professional basketball into national prominence.  His Warrior team was the first to utilize air travel for road games.  “If it hadn’t been for Joe,” Hall of Famer and former Warrior Paul Arizin put it, “I don’t think pro basketball would have made it those first few years.”  Just as he was at Birmingham, Kuttawa, Murray State, and in the wide Pacific, Jumping Joe was a winner.  In that first year, he led the Warriors to the championship.  In the first game of the playoffs against Chicago, Joe scored 21 points in the final quarter.  Five men guarding him throughout the game accumulated a total of 20 fouls.  The single quarter scoring record stood until Isaiah Thomas broke it forty-one years later.

During his first season in the pros, Fulks hit 49 free throws in a row.  He missed and then hit 49 more in a row.  The Warriors gave Joe a brand new Buick as a bonus for leading the league in scoring.  That summer, he proudly drove it home to Kuttawa to show it off to his friends.  But Joe was the same old Joe–quiet, friendly, and unassuming.  Success did not go to his head.  For three straight years, Joe was the leading scorer in the NBA.  On the cold winter night of February 10, 1949, in Philadelphia, the few fans who had braved the raging blizzard were rewarded with an epoch-making performance.  From the same hands that had shredded nets with a half brick in tiny Birmingham came an incredible barrage of baskets.  Before the night was over, Joe had scored a whopping 63 points–a record held in the NBA until broken by Elgin Baylor in 1959 after the advent of the shot clock. Joe left the game with two minutes to play. This modest boy from Kentucky with his winning ways took Philadelphia by storm.  Fans adored him and he was the toast of the town.  Due in large part to Joe’s popularity and his draw at the gate, the city began construction of a new basketball arena.  A cartoon in the local newspaper showed a caricature of Joe shooting basketballs into a concrete mixer.

The Kuttawa Clipper was hailed as the “Babe Ruth of basketball.”  In 1948, the prestigious Sporting News acclaimed him as “Athlete of the Year.”  To place this honor in proper perspective, it should be noted that Joe beat out some heavy timber.  Such names as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Doak Walker, Ben Hogan, Pancho Gonzales, and Joe Louis were at their peaks.  Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, who performed just a few blocks away from the Sporting News office, batted .376, stroked 39 home runs, drove in 131 runs, and was selected the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1948.

Joe played in the NBA for eight years.  But personal problems–basically alcoholism–cut his career short and narrowed his heroics to a five-year span.  Joe closed out his playing days in 1954–a time of positive transition in professional basketball for which he was largely responsible.  He amassed a total of 8,003 points– an average of 1,000 per year.  His career average of 16 points a game is deceptive since his playing time was severely limited during his final two years.  “He was a great, great player,” says Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach.  “He could shoot them any way, from any place.”

As much fanfare as Joe received in the “City of Brotherly Love” and elsewhere, Joe never lost his love for his native west Kentucky.  He would return to the land of his birth in the off season.  Once, some of his old high school friends traveled to St. Louis to watch him play.  After the game, he threatened to go home with them.  That was Joe.  Sensational and yet simple, with his heart always close to home.

The name of Joseph Franklin Fulks has now been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.   At the 1971 NBA All Star game in San Diego, Joe was recognized for being selected as one of the ten members of the Silver Anniversary Team of the National Basketball Association.  The others were Paul Arizin, Bob Davies, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Bill Russell, George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit, and Sam Jones.

During the early morning hours of March 21, 1976, Joe Fulks died in Eddyville, just two miles from the site of the old Kuttawa gym.  How would Joe have fared in today’s game of muscled titans, three-point lines, and shot clocks?  Probably not as well. Too thin, too slow, and too polite.  But the giants of today may also not have fared as well in Joe’s day.  Too powerful, too undisciplined, and too erratic.

Greatness must be judged in the context of the times.  Lincoln may not have made a great television president.  Television made John F. Kennedy.  Suffice it to say, there was a time when Joe Fulks was the best basketball player in the world.

Ponder This Question

July 14, 2011

Please ponder this question seriously.

What do you think of the justice system of America?

I’d like for you to take the time to reflect and even respond at my website www.billcunninghamonline.com.  At the very least, I hope you take a moment and ponder the subject.  It is not only important that our system be just in this country.  It is also equally important that it appear just.

Your opinion of our justice system rests upon your own personal experience.  It depends in large part on whether you have been a party in a criminal or civil case; whether you have served as a juror or witness; and if you have not experienced any direct involvement in the justice system, whether you rely only on what you’ve read, seen, or heard through the media.

If you have been a person who has had a case in our Kentucky court system, the chances of you being satisfied with the system will depend in large part on the result.  But your impression of the process is also important to you.  When I visit the yard of a prison in our state and talk to inmates, I usually ask them point blank, “Did the judge treat you fairly?”  You might be surprised at how often prisoners who have been sentenced by a judge to incarceration will—in a manly way—profess that the judge was fair.  The jury may not have been fair.  The prosecutor may have been a rascal and his lawyer may have been deficient.  But almost always, they have no complaint with the judge.  Responses of inmates can be a little humorous and insightful.  One older convicted felon once told me: “Bill, I’m not guilty of what I’m serving time for.  But, I’ve done so much in my life and got away with it . . . who am I to complain?”

Do The Scales of Justice Always Prevail?

Unfortunately, the people who are the most dissatisfied with our justice system are the parties to civil lawsuits.  The case took too long.  The judge was prejudiced, or lazy, or curt and impolite, or did not give them enough time or listen to them.  Or all of the above.  Some complain of their lawyers.  Their attorneys almost bankrupt them with their fees, would not return phone calls, would not explain things, failed to talk to certain witnesses, or were incompetent.

Most of the lawsuits today involve divorce, property line disputes, contract enforcement, eviction, personal injury, litigation over an estate, personal injury, or any number of other possible private disagreements.  More and more of our cases are going to mediation.  People and lawyers are giving up on the court system.  It takes too long.  It’s too expensive.

Who’s to blame?  People like me.  Lawyers and judges.  We have our work cut out for us. We must strive to streamline our system and make it more affordable.  In short, it needs to be made more user friendly.

If you have served as a juror, your experience will most likely depend on where you served.  If you served in a heavily populated urban area, your time may have been unpleasant.  There, because of the size of the docket, there will be a large number of cases and numerous lawyers and judges involved in the process on a single day.  Jurors are likely to be given a cold and impersonal number and herded like cattle from one room to the next and spend much wasted time waiting in colorless rooms.

Almost all jurors I talk to in rural areas have had a good experience in serving on a jury. The judge and lawyers were courteous and considerate of their time.  The court started on time and the roles of the jurors were clearly explained.  Wasted motion and time were minimal. The cases were interesting and the experience positive.  Judges, lawyers, and clerks in Kentucky have made great efforts over the past 20 years to take better care of jurors.  In the final analysis, they are the most important people in the system.  With next to no pay, they are randomly summonsed from their busy lives to come and serve the thankless, but critical, job of passing judgment on their fellow human beings. I’ve often said that if you paid jurors what they are worth, it would bankrupt the state.

Judged By A Jury of Your Peers

Some of the most abused people in our justice system today are witnesses.  Sometimes they do not know why they are being summoned to court.  The lawyers have not talked to them.  They have to take off work and be at the courthouse at a precise time. They lose money by coming and, unlike jurors, do not even get a pittance for their time. Yet, they may sit there in a room with other witnesses for hours, even days on end, without being called.  Sometimes, when the trial is winding up on the third day, someone—a lawyer, bailiff, or clerk—will come and tell them they can leave. They will not be needed. This is shabby and inexcusable treatment.

Judges are responsible for running their courtrooms. But they have limited control over witnesses. The court, through the clerk’s office, is the authority which forces witnesses to appear through the summoning process.  But the responsibility of how witnesses are treated primarily belongs to the party who subpoenas them.  And that function is carried on by lawyers.  Good lawyers want happy witnesses testifying in behalf of their cases.  The summons must state a particular time. But when they will actually need to take the stand and testify varies greatly with how the trial progresses.  Considerate lawyers will   have their secretaries or investigators notify their witnesses of a more precise time closer to when they will actually be needed.  This will keep them from wasting a lot of time at the courthouse waiting to testify. The lawyers or their investigators will have always talked to their witnesses prior to trial and will have advised them as to what to expect.  In most instances, they will even discuss the questions expected on cross examination. They are sensitive to the witnesses’ job demands, their families, and their time.  Good lawyers will carefully nurture and take care of witnesses just as the judge does jurors.

At last, if your only impression of our justice system is what you’ve read in the paper, heard on the radio, or seen on television, I’ve got news for you.  You’ve got a lot to learn. The O.J. Simpson case and the most recent Casey Anthony trial kidnapped the country via television. The Simpson case went on for months and the Anthony trial for far too long.  In a Kentucky courtroom, these cases would have lasted for ten days at the most.  Good judges do not let one trial take over the docket, shouldering other important cases onto the back burner, simply because they may not be as sensational.  Neither the state nor criminal defendants with all their cherished rights have the right to commandeer a court system, calling an unlimited number of witnesses and asking an unlimited number of questions.  If Judge Ito had to be in the next county starting a case on Monday, the O.J. Simpson trial would not have turned into a circus.

Unfortunately, only the aberrations in our justice system—courtroom battles dealing with sex, violence or public figures with bizarre, maybe even ridiculous, results—get major network gavel to gavel television coverage.  For the most part, thousands of trials are conducted across this land without fanfare and, for the most part, with reasonable outcomes.

So, don’t trust your opinion of America’s justice system by what you see on television.  When trials have commercials, greed has stuck its uncaring hands into the justice jar.

So, I’m back to where I started.  What do you think about the American justice system?

The Buzzard Roost

July 1, 2011

Drive west on I-24 from Nashville, Tennessee toward Paducah, Kentucky. Pass Clarksville, Hopkinsville, and Cadiz. Some twenty-five miles out of Paducah, after crossing the Cumberland River, you can exit right onto Highway 453. Follow it for about six miles to a stop sign, where it joins Highway 93. Turn left and in about ten minutes you will arrive in Smithland. It’s one of the oldest towns in Kentucky. This ancient village, so much off the beaten track today, sits overlooking the Cumberland River where it joins the historic Ohio River.To get to the confluence, go straight through the caution light to the end of Court Street, which drops off into the river. In the summer, as you sit high on the bank, you can see a definite color line where the less muddy Cumberland joins hands with the more brownish Ohio.

The river brought life, commerce and sometimes even conflict to the people of Smithland.

On this precipice, overlooking the far reaching river valley and the Smithland Dam to the north is a wooden gazebo. It is named by a sign, “The Buzzard Roost.” It’s where old men—and not so old men—while away the hours. They are no longer on the benches at the courthouse. They are here all year long in all but the coldest days of winter—or when the rising waters of the Cumberland and Ohio are lapping at their feet. There they visit, whittle, and watch the waters of history literally flowing by just below their gazes.

If you are looking for company, you can almost always find it there. The best time is on languid, hot summer afternoons when they sit in the shade of a giant cottonwood towering over the gazebo. No one alive can remember when that stately old cottonwood did not stand tall and majestic on this river bank.

This is a special place. It is special for many reasons. I’m very fond of the old men who sit there. They are good people. Sit and visit with them on a slow afternoon in mid-summer. Bring a sack lunch. Engage them in conversation. Against a backdrop of mighty streams passing, you reconnect with a smoothing reality of life. Like these timeless rivers, nature moves us all at its own pace toward our ultimate end upon the ”shoal and bank of time.”

It is a special place which has seen an abundance of history. On a gray November morning of 1803, the flotilla of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition, known as the “Corps of Discovery,” silently slid by on their epic journey to the northwest.

In just a few years, this location of the Buzzard Roost would see a strange sight. There, coming down the Ohio River, was a vessel belching white smoke and pounding water from a rear paddle wheel. It was the New Orleans, the first steamboat ever to ply the rivers of America. It would make its maiden voyage down the long road of rivers from Pittsburg to New Orleans. Its group of passengers would not only make this historic voyage, but would see strange sites along the bank. It was December of 1811 and the momentous earthquake, with its epicenter at New Madrid, Missouri, would shake all of the mid-south. Passengers on the New Orleans at mid-stream were mostly free of the earth shaking ashore. But they could see swaying trees on the river bank even though there was no wind. They also watched in amazement as enormous chunks of the riverbank caved into the stream. It was such a violent upheaval that the Mississippi would actually run backwards for a time, creating what we now know as Reelfoot Lake in the northwest corner of Tennessee.

Sam Houston is one of the greatest Americans of all time. He is the only American to serve as Governor of two separate states—Tennessee and Texas. In the spring of 1829, Sam Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee over a mysterious and heart breaking separation from his wife, Eliza Allen. Broken and demoralized, he passed this very spot at Smithland on his escape to the Arkansas territory to join a life with the Cherokee Indians. He would be back and forth to Tennessee and Washington D.C., however, over the next few years. Then once again, in 1832, he would pass the future home of the Buzzard Roost on his way to Texas. There he would win fame, fortune, and a lasting place as one of our greatest Americans.

The Frenchman Who Became An Honorary American

Although his name is fading now on the yellow pages of American history, no foreign personality has ever been so appreciated, so revered, and so loved by Americans as the French General Marquis de Lafayette. No, not even the hugely popular Winston Churchill. Churchill’s eloquence and courage inspired us in our war to save England and Europe from the Nazi menace. Lafayette helped us save America for ourselves. It was his daring leadership and French soldiers who came to our aid during the Revolutionary War. This young general possessed the endearing personality of a matinee idol. He became like a son to George Washington. (Lafayette named his own son George Washington Lafayette.) After he and his troops pulled our chestnuts out of the fire at Yorktown, he returned to France. He arrived there in the throes of the bloody French Revolution. Incredibly, because of his aristocratic background, this gallant soldier of democracy barely escaped the guillotine and was imprisoned for a long time. Finally, in 1824-1825, long after George Washington and most of the other founding fathers had died, he made a triumphant return to America. He was feted and wildly acclaimed by huge crowds and sumptuous banquets all over the eastern United States. There is hardly a town of any size that does not have a street named after him. There are even cities named in his honor. At precisely 8 p.m. on the night of May 2, 1825, General Lafayette and his entourage arrived at Smithland on the steamboat The Mechanic. The vessel turned its nose up the Cumberland and continued to churn its way to The Hermitage in Nashville to spend a couple of days with Andrew Jackson. On May 7, General Lafayette returned to Smithland, turned right onto the Ohio, and headed towards Louisville and Frankfort. Had the old men of the Buzzard Roost been sitting in their positions on that day, they could have exchanged waves with the legendary General as he slid past them into history.

The people of west Kentucky loved Andrew Jackson. We voted for him for President over Kentucky’s own Henry Clay. His plantation, The Hermitage, is a little over 100 miles up the Cumberland River from Smithland. He and his hearty group of Kentucky and Tennessee boys most likely traveled by this very site of the Buzzard Roost on his way to the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. We know for sure that as a bereaved husband saddened by the recent death of his beloved Rachel, he passed this spot in January of 1829 on his way to Washington, D.C. to take office as our seventh President of the United States.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the little village of Smithland was pivotal. Union forces, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, came ashore to capture the critical river town. It was about the same time the Union forces had captured Paducah. From these points, the Union forces would control the movement of their gunboats and troops into the heart of Dixie. Past this location of the Buzzard Roost went a flotilla of gunboats heading to Fort Donelson. Back past this point, on the way downriver to the hospitals in Paducah and Cairo, would pass the pitiful site of steamboats laded with the Union dead and wounded.

I’m out of space. And I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Charles Dickens, Aaron Burr, Clara Barton, Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay, James Polk, Florence Nightingale, Jenny Lind, and many others who not only turned the corner here at the historic confluence, but actually spent the night just down the street from the Buzzard Roost.

In 1962, some way or another, Hollywood learned of this little scenic village of Smithland. Such silver screen legends as Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, and Walter Brennan made their way here that summer to film the beginning scenes of “How the West Was Won.” The little village and all of west Kentucky was abuzz with the attention of such stars. The scene on Court Street, as well as where the large Cottonwood still stands, were so authentic and picturesque that they had to be altered very little for the movie. Since then, most of the historic buildings of Smithland have been torn down. Sadly, they are still being torn down.

Hollywood Comes To West Kentucky

But even with most of the historic buildings now gone from Smithland, I make this boast with pride. Outside of our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., there is no real estate in the United States that has seen as much history as the site of the Buzzard Roost in Smithland, Kentucky. And unlike Washington, D.C., the nice old men at the Buzzard Roost won’t charge you a dime

A Martyred Judge

May 10, 2011

Judge John Elliott of the Kentucky Court of Appeals wrote the opinion of Buford v. Guthriein 1879.  At that time, the Court of Appeals was Kentucky’s highest court.  When he authored that case, little did he know that he was signing his own death warrant.

Old KY State House in Frankfort

Just a few days later, on March 26, 1879, he and fellow judge Thomas Hines were making their way back from the court room in the Old State House to their lodging at the Capitol Hotel in downtown Frankfort.   As they approached the hotel on Ann Street, a deranged Thomas Buford stepped up to him with a loaded shotgun.  There was a quick, cordial exchange of conversation and then Buford shot him.  Judge Elliott fell dead upon the sidewalk.

By all accounts, Judge John Elliott was a very good man.  He was born in Floyd County, Kentucky and had served in both the state legislature and U.S. Congress.  He was one of only a hand full of people to have served both in the U.S. Congress and the Congress of the Confederate States of America when he served in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War.  Before reaching the state’s highest court, he had been circuit judge of Bath County.  His family was plagued with an incredible amount of violence.  Judge Elliott’s father had killed another man; one of his brothers was killed during the Civil War; another brother was killed by another brother; and yet another brother had gone insane and shot himself.

Just a couple of weeks before the murder, Judge Elliott had issued an opinion wherein the state’s highest court had ruled against Buford.  Elliott had written the opinion.  Actually, it was against the estate of his dead sister.  Buford had been acting as the administrator.  It was a complicated land deal in which his sister lost her property.  Although his sister had died during the action, Buford still perceived the adverse ruling as being directed against her.  Apparently, he believed that the stress of the litigation was what had killed his sibling.  In explaining the killing of Judge Elliott, he said that his sister had been robbed and murdered by the decision of the court.  A short time before he shot Judge Elliott, he had gone to her grave and sworn to avenge her cause.

In his meandering written confession to the crime, the disturbed Buford proclaimed how his first intention was to kill Court of Appeals Judge William S. Pryor.  He decided against killing Pryor “because of his children.” He had hard feelings towards Pryor because he thought that judge “knew how my sister had been wronged and could have controlled the decision.”  In truth, because of Judge Pryor’s prior knowledge about the case, the jurist had appropriately and ethically recused himself from sitting on the case.  He wasn’t even involved in the decision.

After the shooting, Buford immediately gave up his weapon and peacefully—even cordially—surrendered to the sheriff.  In fact, he had taken his hat off of his head and placed it under the head of the dying judge on the ground.

It soon became apparent to all that Thomas Buford had serious mental problems.  He “wasn’t right.”  Although quite educated and a solid citizen before, he had become so possessed by his sister’s lawsuit that he had lost his reason.

View from Capital Cemetery Overlooking Frankfort

Frankfort and the entire state were shocked by the tragedy.  Governor James B. McCreary issued a proclamation declaring both Elliot’s virtues and the profound sadness felt by his loss.  All state offices were closed the afternoon of his funeral.

The killing of Judge John Elliott on that gusty March afternoon created one of those staggering tragedies from which we as a people are left bewildered and frustrated.  A very good man and dedicated public servant had been savagely and senselessly struck down in broad daylight on a public street.  Yet, when the dust had settled and we reached out to grab the guilty culprit, we were staring at a lunatic—a person who was babbling both hatred and kindness toward his victim; making sense of it all and yet not making sense of it all.

In the trial of Thomas Buford, the Commonwealth of Kentucky was faced once again with the enduring question of what we do with people who do terrible things, but who have lost their senses to the point that it is not really the person’s own free will but the demons within the bubbling cauldron of his diseased mind.  When is a person crazy or when is that person just evil?  Or more perplexing, when is he both?

The murder case was moved to Owen County and finally went to trial in January of 1881. Numerous witnesses, including many prominent men, testified that they thought the defendant was insane.  Forty-four witnesses in all were called by the defense, almost all going to his insanity.  His lawyer, George Curtis, made a magnificent closing argument on behalf of his client.  He reminded the jury of the law of insanity at that time, which is basically unchanged to this day.  “You must remember, also, gentlemen of the jury that the legal test is ability to comprehend the moral character of the act committed and the power of will to govern one’s action in obedience to the judgment.”

The jury found Thomas Buford not guilty by reason of insanity.  The judge ordered that he be taken to the asylum in Anchorage, Kentucky.  Totally disconnected from reality, Buford airily protested that it was a waste of time and that he had “rather be out hunting and fishing.”  Not long after he arrived, Buford escaped from the mental institution and fled to Indiana.  That state refused to recognize our extradition efforts since he had not been convicted.

Today, the martyred judge lies sleeping in the Capitol Cemetery which overlooks the Kentucky River and the picturesque city of Frankfort.  The words on his monument proclaim his lasting legacy: “Assassinated for having done his duty as a Judge.”

Boundary Line

December 27, 2010

Take out a map of Kentucky with the counties identified.

Going west to east, proceed across our southern line to Simpson County, Kentucky.  There, in the otherwise straight boundary, you will see a tiny gig which cuts down into Tennessee like an inverted triangle.  I’ve wondered about that oddity in our southern boundary all my life.

I’ve heard lots of stories about it.  One is that there was a wealthy plantation owner in Kentucky who wanted all of his land to remain in Kentucky.  So, when they came to survey the boundary, he put a barrel of hard cider underneath a tree on the southern tip and told the surveyors if they would survey out to that point and back as part of their work, they could have the cider.

I never really believed that story.

Now I know what happened.  Sometimes truth is more interesting than fiction.  And sometimes it’s not very interesting at all.  In the case of the gig—it’s the latter.

As in Kentucky's case, boundaries sometimes occur by nothing more than chance and/or mistake.

The deviation in the straight line was caused simply by faulty surveying equipment.  According to compilation of the historic surveys and reports by James W. Sames, III, “there was a heavy iron deposit in that area which threw off the reading of the compass.”

So much for that.

What about the variation in the boundary line of the Jackson Purchase from the rest of the state?  The Jackson Purchase is that far western part of Kentucky west of the Tennessee River.  That portion did not become a part of Kentucky until 1818 after a negotiated purchase of the land by Governor Isaac  Shelby and General Andrew Jackson from the Chickasaw Indians.  Thus, it is called the “Jackson Purchase.”  The rest of Kentucky had been carved out of Virginia into a state in 1792.

I’d also heard some stories about the deviation in the southern line of the Jackson Purchase.  One was that the surveyors started from the Mississippi River going east instead of from Virginia going west, and—oops—the lines didn’t match up.  Too bad Tennessee.

This account is basically correct.  But the rest of the story is both complicated and interesting.

In 1779, with the War of Independence in full throttle, the expectant states of Virginia and North Carolina had their western boundaries surveyed to the Tennessee River.  It was a joint effort with Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith chosen by Virginia, and Colonel Richard Henderson and William Smith selected by North Carolina.  The accepted latitude was to be 36-30.  Almost from the start, the two groups grumbled and complained with each other until finally the line was established across the two states.  It was known as the Walker line.  Almost from the outset, it was believed that the line was in error and should have been further south—which would have put about 2,500 more square miles of territory into Kentucky.

These critics were proven right when—forty years later using better surveying equipment and techniques—the Jackson Purchase line was surveyed out from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River.  The Walker line was off by 9 miles.  Surveyors of the Purchase line were Robert Alexander and Luke Munsell.

Needless to say, this created quite a controversy between the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky wanted those nine miles.  Trying to be good neighbors, the two states negotiated the discrepancy until a compromise was reached in 1820.  In retrospect, it appears that Kentucky “got taken to the cleaners.”  Tennessee agreed to the more southern Kentucky line across the Jackson Purchase, and Kentucky agreed to the more northern Walker line across the rest of the state.  There seems little dispute today that the Alexander-Munsell of the Jackson Purchase line would have stood up in a court of law, causing it to run from the Tennessee River to Virginia.  In other words, Kentucky ceded 2,500 square miles of territory to the Volunteer state.

A survey in process

Still got that map?  Draw a straight line from Kentucky’s southern boundary west of the Tennessee River across the rest of the state.  In that so called compromise, we gave Tennessee the cities of Clarksville, Springfield, and Kingsport.

And they still insist on beating up on us in football.  No gratitude at all.

Read more about Justice Bill Cunningham, news, and info about his many books at:

Jefferson’s Nephews

April 26, 2010

Several years ago, a friend of mine and I took advantage of some gorgeous weather to go on a little field trip to Livingston County.  We proceeded across the Cumberland River Bridge at Smithland, and traveled three miles up the Ohio River near the settlement of Birdsville.  We pulled into a narrow lane, got out of our car, and climbed up to the top of a heavily wooded summit called Rocky Hill.

We both stood and looked out over the beautiful, sunlit Ohio River Valley.  The wilderness around us was peaceful and serene.  With the exception of the chirping of the birds and the breeze rustling through the large oaks, it was quiet.  There was nothing at this spot to remind us of the sheer horror which had taken place on that hill on the night of December 15, 1812.

On that night and at that place there stood a plantation house.  And it was in the kitchen of that mansion that Lilburn and Ishman Lewis, nephews of Thomas Jefferson, bound a sixteen-year-old slave boy by the name of George and proceeded to hack him to pieces in front of other slaves who were frozen with terror and shock.  Lilburn and Ishman threw the pieces of the dismembered body into the blazing fireplace there in that kitchen.

It appears that George, who was somewhat of a troublesome servant, had run off the day before and had either been recaptured or had come home on his own.  The young slave had gone down to the spring below the hill to fetch water in an heirloom pitcher.  Unfortunately, he had dropped the vessel and it had broken.  This apparently caused Lilburn, who had undergone tremendous financial strain as well as other personal problems, to completely lose it.

The unspeakable murder ensued at the same time that a series of earthquake tremors were spasmodically afflicting all of western Kentucky, rippling out from the epicenter near New Madrid on the Mississippi River.  As if by some divine design, a major tremor struck that night, causing the chimney of the fireplace to cave in.  One of the plantation dogs dragged the decapitated head of the young slave away from the chimney ruins and down to the roadway which ran between Salem and Smithland.

A few days later, a neighbor passing by discovered the grisly evidence and took the head to Salem, the county seat at that time.  An investigation followed and some months later, both Lilburn and Ishman were indicted by a Livingston County Grand Jury for murder.

Even though George was a slave, his murder occurred in a community of slave owners who mostly believed in treating their human chattel with compassion and care.  Consequently, there was outrage among the people over the barbaric butchering by the Lewis brothers.  Lilburn’s former substantial status in the community plummeted.  His beautiful wife, Latisha, deserted her husband and took their infant child to live with her father in Salem.

Wracked with depression, Lilburn and his brother, Ishman, entered into a suicide pact.  They proceeded to the small cemetery where Lilburn’s first wife was buried.  There, they planned to stand a few paces apart, direct the barrels of their muskets at the other’s chest, and then fire on the count of three.  But in showing Ishman what to do in case his weapon did not discharge, Lilburn accidentally shot himself.  Aghast and horrified at the scene of his brother bleeding and dying, Ishman fled.  He was subsequently jailed, but escaped and was never heard from again.  There was speculation that he proceeded down the river to New Orleans where he died with Andrew Jackson’s forces in the Battle of New Orleans.  No one knows for sure and it all remains a mystery.

My friend and I found the little cemetery where Lilburn had met his end.  There is a tombstone there reported to be that of his dead mother, Lucy Jefferson, the sister of the third President of the United States and author of America’s Declaration of Independence.  We also searched the grounds for any evidence of the location of the old plantation house, but were unsuccessful.  Then, just before we descended down the narrow lane we spotted a clump of stones near the crest of the hill overlooking what is now an abandoned rock quarry.  On closer inspection of a huge tree that had been blown down, we discovered sandstone blocks matted in the tree’s root system.  These stones had once made up part of the old plantation house.  The fallen tree had actually unearthed and excavated the old root cellar of the mansion.

We stood there somewhat mesmerized by our discovery.  Also, we were absorbed in the dark irony of it all.  Just as an act of nature had uncovered evidence of this brutal crime that had occurred almost two hundred years ago, nature had also uncovered evidence of where this terrible crime had taken place.

This is just a smidgen of the wide breadth of history that sweeps across west Kentucky.  Some of this history is heroic and uplifting.  And some of it, as this episode reflects, is bloody and sad.

Mary Lou

April 26, 2010

If you travel to Pickneyville, Kentucky, on the Cumberland River in Livingston County, you will find a scenic, sleepy little hamlet with an attractive church and cemetery. One tombstone in that cemetery has a rather unusual inscription, which provides a clue to one of the most dramatic stories in Western Kentucky history. It is the grave marker of Mary Lou Hollowell, wife of Robert Hollowell, originally from Caldwell County. However, the inscription reads, “Mary Lou Eastland, wife of Robert Hollowell.”

            Mary Lou Hollowell was married to Robert and they had a young son named Price. They lived in the McNabb School area of Caldwell County during the time of the Tobacco Night Riders, who roamed the hills and hollows of that area at night. The Night Riders were the militant arm of the Dark Tobacco District Planters Association. That organization was formed for the farmers to pool their tobacco in order to get tobacco prices up, which were controlled by the American Tobacco Company, known to the farmers as the “Duke Trust”.

            For some reason or another, Mary Lou did not get along well with the Hollowell side of the family. They were all Night Riders and Night Rider sympathizers. She took the other position, and proceeded to lambast the Night Riders at every turn.    

            She attempted to have Night Riders indicted for their raid upon Princeton in 1906. For her trouble, the Night Riders scraped Mary Lou’s plant beds. Mary Lou proceeded to reciprocate by hiring two of her tenants to scrape the plant beds of her brother-in-law, John Hollowell. This caused the Night Riders to pay a visit upon her family, beating her and her husband, scaring the daylights out of their son, and running the family out of the county.

            Mary Lou rebounded quickly and hired a lawyer to file a lawsuit in the Federal District Court in Paducah. She ultimately obtained a $35,000 verdict against the Night Riders, which was the first successful litigation against their actions.

            Mary Lou took the judgment money and moved with her family to the Salem area of Livingston County. Over time, their son Price was a successful farmer; and when he died in 1975 without children, he left a large sum of money to the Livingston County Hospital.

            So, Mary Lou, Robert, and Price are buried there in the little Pickneyville cemetery. The fact that she took her maiden name back for the inscription on her tombstone is proof positive that the bitterness lingered toward the Hollowells until the date of their death.

            The Night Rider Movement—like the Civil War—divided families and turned neighbor against neighbor. There was both right and wrong on each side of the issue. Only recently, a hundred years later with the recent burials of the last survivors, have the intense hard feelings and bitterness been to rest.

            If one travels just a short distance up the Cumberland River to the little river town of Dycusburg, the full picture of the dangers Mary Lou stared down is graphically illustrated. High on the hill overlooking Dycusburg is the cemetery. In that cemetery is the tombstone of Henry Bennett. The inscription on that grave marker includes the words, “Killed By The Night Riders.”