Confessed On The Scaffold
Six Murders Acknowledged By “Bad Tom” Smith
Jackson, Kentucky, June 28, 1895
“Bad Tom” Smith is hanged. The terror of Eastern Kentucky has paid the penalty of his last crime. The execution was a success and everything went smoothly. There was no disorder. On the scaffold Smith confessed some of his crimes, each of a nature that would have warranted the death penalty.
When the bright sun rose above the hills of Breathitt County’s capital there was to be seen assembled in the picturesque little village some 4,000 or 5,000 people, dirty and weary from trudging through the mountains, citizens of Breathitt, Magoffin, Wolfe, Lee, Knott, Floyd, Perry, Owsley, Letcher, and other mountain counties. These people had traveled miles, some on horseback, some in wagons, some in buggies, and others on foot. Many of them were women and children, in some cases the husband, wife, and several children came in riding one mule. The men were in their shirt sleeves, while the women wore sun bonnets and many were bare-footed. The object of their curiosity or interest was the execution of Tom Smith, than whom no man known to the mountain counties of Kentucky has a bloodier history. These wandering people were uncertain of the hour at which the execution would take place, but one thing they knew was that Tom Smith would be hanged on Friday, and, owing to Sheriff Combs various contradictory statements regarding the hour, they came early in order that they might not be deprived of the object of their visit to Jackson.
The sky was clear, and at sunrise there was hardly a sound to be heard, except the cow bells on the mountain sides and the caw of the crow as he fitted from one mountain peak to another unaware of the sentence about to be carried out in his immediate vicinity. The weary people were sleeping or lying in watch near the banks of the river waiting for the hour to arrive at which the execution would take place.
The death warrant had been read to Smith by Sheriff Combs and the doomed man for the first time gave up all hope of being saved by his friends. He slept little last night. He wanted to make a confession, but his brother, Bill, and sister, Linnie, who were with him continually, pleaded with him not to do so until he had taken his place on the scaffold. Smith breakfasted about six o’clock, eating heartily of chicken, fresh meat, bread, and vegetables. He drank both milk and coffee, remarking that he enjoyed the meal better than any he had eaten in years.
About seven o’clock, Sheriff Combs and Jailer Centers, with the entire guard which had been put around the jail, accompanied by the Rev. Thomas Kelley, a Methodist divine, and cousin to the doomed man, and the Rev. Stephen Carpenter, of the Jackson Baptist Church, besides the Rev. J. J. Dickey, and other ministers, formed a line and conducted Smith to the Kentucky River; which is about 400 yards from the jail.
The party walked silently and mournfully to the edge of the water, followed by the thousands who had come to witness the events of the day. Before going into the water Smith’s relatives, of whom there seemed to be about 200 men, women, and children, knelt upon the ground and were led in prayer by Minister Carpenter. The minister prayed fervently, asking that the soul of the condemned man be saved from hell and that he might put away from his souls all secrets of bloody deeds, asking that God cleanse his soul, and, although it was the 11th hour, take it up to rest in peace through eternity. Smith wept bitterly at his words. The prayer lasted for 15 minutes.
Hundreds of people joined in the baptismal hymn, and when the ministers led Smith into the river he looked exceedingly pale. He was supported on either side and caught his breath while being immersed in such a manner that he was considerably strangled. He looked as though he would faint upon being raised from the water, but made no demonstration. He opened his eyes, clinched his teeth, and looked smilingly upon the thousands assembled on the river banks. Upon reaching the shore his friends gathered around and shook his hand. The guards cleared the way and the baptismal party began its march back to the jail. During all the while friends of Smith were passing near him, shaking his hand and bidding him God speed. The scene was the most affecting ever witnessed at an execution in Eastern Kentucky, and Tom Smith, was the first man ever hanged in Breathitt County.
Scene At The Scaffold
Smith Talked and Prayed and Confessed
Some Of His Crimes
Upon returning to the jail Smith was dressed in a nice new suit of black. He sang several songs with his spiritual advisors; his sister, Millie Smith; Jailer Centers; and others, after which he delivered a long, fervent prayer, supplicating God to forgive him for his many crimes. As the hour for the execution drew near Smith conceived the idea of trying to get a further lease on life. He told his brother, Bill, to send the following telegram to Gov. Brown:
“Would like few days’ time, as I am an orphan boy and have no friends.”
This was signed Tom Smith. In the meantime Smith gave out that he could not find forgiveness for having killed Dr. Rader, and asked Sheriff Combs for more time. The crowd, which was composed of fully as many women as men, was gathered around the scaffold to the number of 4,000 or 5,000. The scaffold being surrounded by slight hills on every side, the people appeared as if they were in a vast amphitheater. Fifty guards, armed with rifles, shotguns, and the largest-size revolvers, formed a ring around the gallows and prevented the crowd from approaching nearer than 50 feet.
When the sheriff decided to postpone the hanging it was 11:30 o’clock, and one of his deputies mounting the gallows exclaimed in a loud tone of voice to the assembled multitude: “The execution is postponed until one o’clock so that the condemned can save his soul.” This announcement caused the crowd to disperse for dinner. The people reassembled around the scaffold long before one o’clock, and so many men got on a shed roof that it broke down and about half a dozen were thrown headlong to the ground, but no serious injuries were received.
At 12:30 o’clock, the following telegram addressed to Smith was received, it being delivered to Sheriff Combs, who opened it in the presence of the condemned man and read:
“I must decline to Interfere. John Young Brown.”
When Smith heard this he turned pale and said in a low voice, “Well, I guess I will have to go, but I want all the time on the scaffold you can give me,” addressing Sheriff Combs. The sheriff assured him that he should have all the time he wanted and after another prayer with the preachers he announced his readiness to go to his doom.
Smith began the march to the gallows promptly at one o’clock, and although the sun was pouring down a flood of heat he remained on the scaffold three-quarters of an hour. He was accompanied to the floor of the gallows by his sister, Millie, who remained with him for half an hour.
He began by making a confession, which was taken down by the representatives of the press present. He told of the men he had killed in a manner which showed that he had but little feeling for the suffering he had caused. The first man he sent into eternity, he said, was Joe Hurt, who came to his house, above Hazard. Then he helped kill Joe Eversole and Nick Combs. He said Joe Adkins shot first with a shotgun and he shot at them as they fell off their horses, and then robbed Eversole’s body of $30. Then John McKnight was shot by Smith in the Hazard battle. Jack Combs and Smith killed Robin Cornett next, ambushing him while he was cutting saw logs.
He acknowledged also having killed Dr. Rader, saying that they had been drunk together and that Rader was very ugly that night and Mrs. McQuinn told him that if he did not kill Rader, the latter would kill him. “She told me to kill him,” said Smith, “and she would take the blame. Nobody told me to do it, except her. I did not do it for money. She took what money Rader had out of his pocket, but I don’t know how much it was.”
After making this confession Smith had a long conversation with his sister. She told him to tell nothing except that which was true, and to try to meet his God like a man. It seemed as if she was trying to keep him from telling too much, but when she finished talking Smith went on to say that he was at the house of Jesse Fields when B. F. French, Boon Frazier, and Joe Adkins made the plot to kill Judge Josiah Combs last summer. At the time Smith was suffering from a gunshot wound in the arm, received while trying to evade arrest, and could not, therefore, go on the raid to kill Combs. He said French had never hired him to participate in the French-Eversole feud, but that he had given him clothes, money, and other things whenever he had asked for them.
Smith said he wished to address the crowd, and stepping to the front of the scaffold, facing south, he made the following speech:
“Friends, one and all, I want to talk to you a little before I die. My last words on earth to you are to take warning from my fate. Bad whiskey and bad women have brought me where I am. I hope you ladies will take no umbrage at this, for I have told you the God’s truth. To you, little children, who were the first to be blessed by Jesus, I will give this warning: Don’t drink whiskey and don’t do as I have Done. I want everybody in this vast crowd who does not wish to do the things that I have done, and to put themselves in the place I now occupy, to hold their hands.”
As he said this the hand of every person in that great audience was held aloft, and the doomed man continued in his clear, musical voice: “That is beautiful. It looks like what I shall see in Heaven. Again I say to you, take warning from my fate and live better lives than I have lived. I die with no hard feelings toward anybody. There ain’t a soul in the world that I hate. I love everybody. Farewell, until we meet again.”
He then kissed his sister goodbye, and she left the scaffold and returned to the jail to await the coming of her brother’s dead body. Smith then knelt down on the trapdoor and prayed in a hysterical way for ten minutes. It was such a prayer as a religious-crazed Negro would utter, and he showed by his manner and voice that he was being buoyed up by religious fervor. After this prayer he was allowed to walk around on the scaffold for several minutes, the Rev. J. J. Dickey, editor of The Jackson Hustler, supporting him on one side, and George Drake, the detective, on the other. They made the circuit of the scaffold five or six times.
Then Smith knelt down and offered a short prayer, a song was sung, and Sheriff Combs manacled Smith’s legs, adjusted the noose, pulled down the black cap, united the rope that held the lever, pulled the lever back, and “Bad” Tom Smith shot six feet downward and his neck was broken. Just as the sheriff pulled the lever Smith cried out loudly in the most agonizing voice the people present ever heard: “Save me, O God, save me!”
In 17 minutes life was pronounced extinct, the body was cut down and taken by relatives, who will bury it by the side of his mother and father in Knott County.
Sheriff Combs and his guards preserved the best of order, and the execution passed off without any further incident. About 100 gallons of whiskey was shipped into Jackson last night, but the Lexington and Eastern Railroad authorities refused to deliver it and shipped it back to Lexington. Had they not taken this precautionary step, a great deal of drunkenness would have ensued and perhaps much shooting.
One of the touching incidents of the execution was the action of the widow of Dr. Rader, who was present with her three little children and Dr. Rader’s brother. Just before the drop fell she held her little ones up at arm’s length so they could look over the crowd and see the man who murdered their father.
Smith’s Bloody Record
Some Of The Crimes He Is Known To
The history of Tom Smith’s crimes, those he is known to have committed and those charged to him, reads like a chapter from the blood curdling border novel. He began his career of crime when a boy, by stealing nearly everything he could get his hands on. When only 20 years old, 11 years ago, he engaged in a terrible fight at Hazard, the county seat of Perry County, one election day. Several of his friends were being fired upon, and he rushed to their assistance with no weapon but stones. Knocking down one of his adversaries, he took his gun away from him and shot several of the parties, wounding them dangerously. Soon after this he stole a horse from Joe Eversole’s brother-in-law, and, as the Eversoles prosecuted him for this crime, he became their bitter enemy and joined the French faction. After getting cleared of horse stealing by false swearing on the part of his friends, he held up James Davidson, another Eversole man, and robbed him of his watch.
Davidson tried to bring him to justice, but failed, and shortly afterward his mother’s house was set on fire, and it burned down; Tom Smith being regarded as the incendiary. From this time on he was the principal leader of the French faction in the noted Perry County feud. In 1887, he was accused of killing Joe Hurt, and a year later he and three Confederates waylaid Joe Eversole and shot him to death. Nicholas Combs, a young man who was riding along with Eversole, was also struck by the volley that came from the bushes and was fatally wounded. Smith robbed the dead body of Eversole, and was in the act of robbing Combs when the latter, regaining consciousness, asked him why he shot them. Smith answered by shooting the boy through the temples, killing him instantly, saying as he pulled the trigger that he could not afford to leave any living witnesses. Smith was tried for these crimes before a magistrate, but having threatened the witnesses with death should they appear against him, there was no evidence to convict him, and he was released.
The next man to fall under Smith’s unerring aim was Shade Combs, who was killed while standing in his own yard, surrounded by his little children. Smith was arrested, together with several accomplices, but again justice miscarried and he went unpunished. Some time after this Tom and his brother, Bill, hid in a cellar of a house in Hindman, Knott County, and in daylight shot Ambrose Amburgy, an Eversole man. That fall the grand jury returned a number of indictments against Smith for his various crimes, but before they could be tried Smith and several friends one dark night set fire to the Perry County courthouse, and it was burned to the ground, destroying all official records of his crimes. He was indicted for this crime, but was never tried. After the courthouse was burned Smith and is henchmen became a terror to the inhabitants of Perry County, who were opposed to his lawlessness, and many of them who had been outspoken against him were compelled to flee the county in order to save their lives. The county judge, when at home, was obliged to disguise himself as a woman to prevent the assassins from shooting him down.
Ira Davidson, brother-in-law of Joe Eversole, was the circuit clerk, and he had to flee the county because Tom Smith threatened to kill him. Abner Eversole, the county school superintendent, had to leave to avoid assassination. In fact, all the friends of Eversole were driven out of the county by threats. Robin Cornett paid no attention to these threats, and one day, while cutting timber near his house, Tom Smith and two companions shot him to death from the brush. The grand jury indicted Smith for this murder, but the case was put off from court to court, and Smith finally forfeited his bond, which proved to be a straw affair. In the fall of 1839, while the Perry County Circuit Court was in session, the French and Eversole clans met at Hazard. For several days each party watched the other, and there were no hostilities. Finally Wesley Whitaker, one of the Eversole’s followers, and Henry Davidson, one of the French’s men, became involved in a dispute. Davidson ran into Jesse Field’s house, from which he fired on Whitaker.
The fight then became general, and that night the French forces were re-enforced, and for 18 hours the battle raged. Although, nearly 2,000 shots in all were fired, the amount of carnage was very small, only two men, “Jake” McKnight and “Ed” Campbell, being killed. McKnight fell from a bullet fired by “Tom” Smith, as he afterward confessed. In this long fight the French faction never lost a man, nor was any of them wounded. Circuit Judge Hurst, who had been holding court, was told by Smith and his men, that he would be killed if he did not leave town within five minutes. The judge left. The governor had to send militia to Hazard in order that court might be held. For the part he took in this fight, Smith was indicted, and the case removed to Pineville, where he was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to the penitentiary for life. The Courts of Appeals reversed the decision, and the case was never tried again.
Smith then went to Breathitt County, where he became acquainted with Mrs. Catherine McQuinn, whose husband is incarcerated in the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum. Mrs. McQuinn also has a history. One of Day Brothers’ clerks at Jackson became infatuated with her and she with him. Their love was discovered by McQuinn, and he became a raving maniac, and had to be sent to the asylum. This so preyed on the mind of the young man who destroyed McQuinn’s home that he committed suicide. Being kindred spirits, Smith and Mrs. McQuinn were soon in love with each other, and he lived with her a his wife, although he had a wife and two children in Perry County. When asked why he left his wife, Smith said to me: “She took up for the Eversoles and I had to leave her.” Early in last January, Smith complained to Dr. Rader, who was the leading physician of Jackson, that he was affected with something like fits.
He told the doctor that he wanted him to come to the McQuinn house, some four miles from Jackson, and stay there all night, so that he could watch his symptoms. Rader finally agreed to go, and one night he took a gallon jug of whiskey and went to the McQuinn house. Rader had not touched a drop of liquor for many months, and he was soon very drunk after arriving there that night. Smith also got drunk, while Mrs. McQuinn was considerably under the influence of the liquor.
The next morning Dr. Rader’s body was found in the bed of the McQuinn house, with a bullet hole through the heart. Smith and Mrs. McQuinn were arrested and tried for the crime. Dr. Rader had a number of warm friends, and they prosecuted the case vigorously. The speech of Commonwealth Attorney Col. Alfred Howard, of Salyersville, was a powerful and scathing arraignment, and the jury quickly brought in a verdict of guilty, and recommended that the punishment should be death. Mrs. McQuinn was tried immediately after, and, as in Smith’s case, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and fixed her punishment at imprisonment in the penitentiary for life.