Thanks for reading the synopses of my books (see below) and, hopefully, buying a couple dozen copies of each! My current project is a book much like Kentucky Book of the Dead, Forgotten Tales of Kentucky, and Forgotten Tales of Indiana—only covering the entire region of the south. For information on interviews, radio shows, book signings, etc., please e-mail me via the Contact page.
* Preposterous hat photo: Amy Hawkins
ABOUT THE BOOKS
CASSIUS M. CLAY, FREEDOM’S CHAMPION (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 2001)
Cassius M. Clay (1810-1903), not to be mistaken with Muhammad Ali, was an emancipationist who lived near Richmond, KY. He lived a life of such excitement, color and violence that it would require a separate website to tell it all in full. I worked as a tour guide at Clay’s mansion, White Hall, from 1995 to 2001. While there, I heard many interesting stories about him from descendants, many of which had never been in print; also, while doing research on other things I kept finding long-lost news items about and interviews with Clay, many of which complemented or contradicted material in extant books about him. I decided to write a new biography of Clay utilizing all of this new information, and the result was my first book.
In addition to strictly biographical material, the book includes information on the construction of White Hall, a room-by-room tour of the house, White Hall ghost stories, rare letters by and about Clay, and a section or two deconstructing myths and misinformation about Clay. Plus lots of photos, some never in print before!
Note to Cassius Clay fans: since the publication of the book, I have found even more new information about him, which will be appearing in some short articles written for the Madison County Historical Society’s newsletter.
Cassius M. Clay, Freedom’s Champion appears to be out of print. Your best bet is to find a copy on eBay. Better yet, write to Turner Publishing and tell them to reprint it.
Update! It is now available as an e-book: http://www.turnerpublishing.com/books/detail/cassius-m-clay
OFFBEAT KENTUCKIANS (Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan Publishing, 2001)
Around 2000, I considered writing a book about Jim Porter, the Louisville Giant (1811-59), whom I have long considered a fascinating character. To my dismay, I found that no matter how much research I did, there just wasn’t enough information to fill an entire book. Then a thought permeated my concrete skull: why not write a book about a wide variety of strange and unusual Kentuckians, and include a chapter about Porter? Thus was Offbeat Kentuckians born, not unlike a baby with a dozen heads. The book spotlights the following illustrious personages and sports delightful illustrations by my twin brother Kyle:
WILLIAM “KING” SOLOMON. The town drunkard of Lexington, who proved to be made of heroic stuff when he buried victims of the 1833 cholera epidemic.
RICHARD M. JOHNSON. Vice-president under Martin Van Buren, noted for behavior that got crazier as he aged. Since publication, I have come to believe that stories about the more scandalous aspects of Johnson’s life, as related in the book, may owe more to scurrilous campaign propaganda than fact.
JIM PORTER AND MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES. Two Kentucky giants, measuring 7’9” and 7’5” respectively. Bates married a woman even taller than he was.
JOHN BANVARD: Louisville artist who created the largest painting in the world, a panorama of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers on a canvas 3,000 feet long. Not a trace of it is known to now exist.
ALEXANDER McCLUNG. This grumpy native of Mason County loved dueling so much that before he committed suicide in 1855, he had participated in 14 duels and killed 10 men. But who’s counting?
Chapter six concerns various strange burials in Kentucky history, including a man who attempted to be buried in a stone sarcophagus full of whisky, a man who was buried standing up, and two gypsies buried in Madison County with many earthly goods, not unlike the Egyptian kings.
LEONARD “LIVE-FOREVER” JONES: I was very glad to accidentally uncover this forgotten story about a mid-nineteenth century Louisville lunatic who sincerely thought he was immortal.
SIMON KRACHT: This custodian at the University of Louisville Medical School also served as the college’s official body snatcher. Nice.
PHIL ARNOLD of Hardin County became legendary when he and a cousin went to California in the 1870s and swindled greedy investors by planting a few diamonds in an otherwise barren patch of land.
“HONEST DICK” TATE: A Democratic career politician who served as the Kentucky State Treasurer between 1867 and 1888. Then he ran off with $100,000 and was never seen again.
JOSEPH MULHATTAN: Traveling hardware salesman and journalistic hoaxer extraordinaire. Some of his wild tales were the great-grandfathers of modern urban legends and live on to this day. I spent three years writing a meticulously researched 600-page book about Mulhattan and his career, and then couldn’t get it published. Parts of it have turned up in a couple of my published books.
HENRY WOOLDRIDGE: This Graves Countian crowded his family plot in Mayfield with so many statues of friends, family members and animals that his grave is now a tourist attraction and on the National Register of Historic Places.
WILLIAM GOEBEL: In 1900 he attained the distinction, if you want to call it that, of being the only American governor ever to be assassinated while in office. The crime was never solved and remains a first-rate mystery.
CARRY NATION: Everyone’s favorite hatchet-wielding, saloon-smashing, gimlet-eyed temperance advocate came from Garrard County.
WILLIAM VAN DALSEN: This saga of a jealous Louisville lowlife who atrociously murdered his girlfriend in 1904 was my earliest attempt at writing in the true crime genre.
NATHAN STUBBLEFIELD: An inventor from Calloway County who invented wireless radio before Marconi—or did he?
JOHN SHELL: A mountaineer from Leslie County who was 134 years old when he died in 1922—or was he?
EDGAR CAYCE: Judging from the mail I got, this is the most controversial thing I ever wrote. I would not be so rash as to say that there is certainly no such thing as psychic ability, but Cayce, benign and well-meaning as he was, was merely a good guesser with industrious press agents and a cult following.
DEATH VALLEY SCOTTY: Until I started researching the book, I had no idea that the great California eccentric, moocher, treasure hunter and breathtaking liar was born in Cynthiana, KY.
SPEEDY ATKINS: A black vagrant who drowned in Paducah in 1928, embalmed, and then left unburied until 1994. This chapter inspired The Legendary Shack*Shakers’ song “The Ballad of Speedy Atkins.” (Thanks, Col. J.D. Wilkes!)
TOD BROWNING: Did you know that the director of Dracula and other classic horror films was from Louisville? Neither did I.
GEORGE BARRETT: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called this Depression-era slayer from Clay County “the meanest man I ever knew.”
“WANDERING BEN” WILSON: This diminutive horse expert from Anderson County attained a measure of fame due to his insistence of roaming America in his bare feet.
Offbeat Kentuckians may be purchased via the publishers website.
Or at Amazon.com.
Or via numerous other online retailers, and by special order at your local bookstore.
MORE OFFBEAT KENTUCKIANS (Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan Publishing, 2004)
Kentucky is such a breeding ground for rugged individualism that one book could never tell all the tales of the state’s eccentrics. The sequel—with a great cover by Jim Asher—appeared in 2004 and included these chapters:
DANIEL BOONE: In which it is suggested that Boone might not have been such a great frontiersman after all. The second-most controversial thing I wrote, just barely exceeded by the chapter on Edgar Cayce in Offbeat Kentuckians. I hasten to note that I am a fan of Old Dan’l, whether his reputation was exaggerated or not.
THE HARPE BROTHERS: The savage tale of two frontier murderers whose legend lives on. Worth reading for all the disembodied heads carried in sacks, stuck on poles, or used as tree decorations.
TOM JOHNSON, JR.: Danville’s Johnson was a drunkard and a poet—a very bad and vulgar one—but he also was the first published poet in Kentucky, possibly the first published poet in what was then called “the west.” Only two copies of his collected poetry exist; therefore his poems are seldom reproduced and exceedingly difficult to find, but I found them and gave them the first wide exposure they have received since the 1820s.
CONSTANTINE RAFINESQUE: The chronicle of a hard-luck scientist whose genius could not save him from being buried in an unmarked grave, despite having an ornate tomb at Lexington’s Transylvania University.
DAVID RICE ATCHISON: Politician born near Lexington who was alleged to have been President of the USA for only one day. I like this chapter.
GEORGE WATTERS: This Bourbon County resident craved the excitement of the big city, went to Civil War-era Cincinnati, got foully murdered for his trouble, and ended up with an attention-getting epitaph on his gravestone. This chapter was memorable to me for the amount of research it required, and it now seems a dry run for a later book, Murder in Old Kentucky.
TOM BOYD: A daredevil Irishman who made his living in 1880s Louisville by jumping off bridges and doing other very foolish things.
JOHN KLEIN: More material from my never-published biography of Joe Mulhattan surfaces here. Klein was an amateur astronomer in Ohio County who had an uncanny ability to predict approaching comets—in fact, he often beat professional scientists. But he was also a friend of the infamous hoaxer Mulhattan, who reported Klein’s findings to the press, with the predictable result that no one believed Klein.
HENRY KUIPERS: Kuipers was found dead in a Louisville pond in 1881—with his hands in his pockets! Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? This chapter is another dry run for Murder in Old Kentucky.
MARY SULLIVAN: Female bandit and gang leader, and the only woman to be hanged in the history of Caldwell County. Among other things, she may have hanged her cheating boyfriend.
WILLIAM CLAYTOR: An incompetent Louisville cemetery sexton on the take. Warning: Do not read this chapter just after eating.
REUBEN FIELD: The amazing tale of a gluttonous “half-wit” from Bath County who also happened to be a mathematical prodigy. This seems to be the favorite chapter for lots of people, including Ben Eshbach of the great band The Sugarplastic, who noted that short stories by Borges and Maugham feature characters reminiscent of Field, and punk-pop wizard Joe King (a/k/a Joe Queer), who said Field’s eating habits reminded him of his roadies.
WILLIAM SIDES: Perhaps you know a crazy person who resides in a house full of cats. If so, Mr. Sides was that person’s spiritual ancestor.
MR. AND MRS. JOHN FOWLER: An elderly couple of Spiritualists who lived on a beached flatboat in Louisville. When Mr. Fowler died in January 1887, his wife, unconvinced that he was dead, kept him aboveground longer than was absolutely necessary.
LINVILLE COMBS: This nine-year-old from Breathitt County became the youngest prisoner in Kentucky history—and for the murder of his little sister, at that. This is yet another true crime chapter that I enjoyed researching and writing so much that it convinced to write Murder in Old Kentucky.
DR. EVERETT WAGNER: A Metcalfe County physician who got fed up with his relatives’ greedy behavior as he was dying of tuberculosis. He left them a bequest in his will that must be read to be believed. Let’s just say he gave away some mighty personal possessions.
CHARLES KINCAID: Newspaper reporter who assassinated ex-Congressman Taulbee at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., in February 1890.
MARY STUCKENBORG: A Louisville woman who may have been the first reported stigmatic in the USA. Though she was never officially caught, she probably faked it. I am very fond of Kyle’s illustration for this chapter.
JERRY CONSTANTINE: When this Gallatin County native set out to collect a debt, he was serious about it. Hence the folly of a neighbor who promised Constantine that he could shoot him if he did not repay a loan by a certain date.
THE LYON QUINTUPLETS: The melancholy story of the first quintuplets known to be born alive in North America (Graves County, to be precise).
RICHARD TWENTE: Twente, of Pendleton County, apparently was something of an architectural genius. He moved his wife and daughters to the prairies of Minnesota. There he went crazy, as well illustrated by the peculiar notions about the proper burial of the dead which he displayed after the passing of his daughter Annie.
BASIL HAYDEN: Mr. Hayden, a Nelson County hermit, held such a grudge against God when the Confederacy lost the Civil War that he vowed he would “never put foot to the Lord’s ground again.” So far as anyone knows, he kept his word.
JOHN MILBURN DAVIS: Davis was born in Warren County, but he became a Kansas legend when he moved to Hiawatha in that state. After his wife died, this wealthy miser spent his entire fortune building a fitting monument on her gravesite. It is now a tourist attraction. Another great illustration by Kyle.
WILL H. JOHNSON: Is it possible for a semi-literate miner in post-World War Two Middlesboro to impersonate Adolf Hitler by mail, thus tricking unpatriotic suckers into sending him their heard-earned money? Yes!
THE MARTIN SISTERS: The tale of two deeply eccentric sisters who taught music in Knox County for decades, and who had strange ideas regarding home décor, dress, diet, makeup, personal hygiene, pets, death, and nearly everything else. I have been gratified to hear from many Knox Countians who remember the Martin Sisters well, and who tell me that my portrait of them is quite accurate.
More Offbeat Kentuckians may be purchased via the publishers website.
Or at Amazon.com.
Or via numerous other online retailers, and by special order at your local bookstore.
MURDER IN OLD KENTUCKY (Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan Publishing, 2005)
After writing Offbeat Kentuckians and More Offbeat Kentuckians, I realized that both books included plenty of chapters about criminals. Why not write a book that was entirely in the true crime genre, only combined with Kentucky history? Murder in Old Kentucky covers slightly over a century’s worth of Bluegrass mayhem. The book has inspired some controversy due to the pro-death penalty views expressed within. Chapter synopses are as follows:
“Kentucky’s First Great Murder” describes the events in the 1825 assassination of Col. Solomon Sharp by Jeroboam Beauchamp in Frankfort. Beauchamp had it in for Sharp when he heard rumors that the colonel had insulted his wife. The case proved to be of great national interest and has inspired various writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote a play loosely based on the crime.
“Richard Shuck Confesses All, and Then Some.” Shuck, a native of Owen County, was hanged in 1877 for committing one of the most lunkheaded, incompetently performed murders imaginable. While in jail, he alluded to an underground crime ring that operated in several counties; he named names, too, resulting in chaos and lynchings aplenty.
“A Mob Teaches Mr. Klein the Error of His Ways.” How were rapists regarded in Kentucky in the late nineteenth century? Read this chapter and find out, and be glad you aren’t Mr. Klein.
“Col. Buford Begs to Differ with Judge Elliott”—in the form of a double-barreled shotgun, that is. An infamous assassination from 1879 with an aftermath that made dear old Kentucky the laughingstock of the nation.
“An Argument for the Involuntary Commitment of the Criminally Insane.” William Padgett, a Meade County farmer, proved neighbors correct who thought him insane when he mistook his wife for a witch and remonstrated with her with an ax.
“Cold Case File, 1866.” Elderly Mary Bottom of Boyle County was murdered by four marauders as her granddaughter watched; one of her attackers got his comeuppance thirteen years later.
“A Question of Sanity.” Robert Anderson of Louisville, abuser and murderer of his wife, became in 1880 one of the first men to be executed privately in Kentucky.
“The Hanging of John Vonderheide.” In 1881, young Vonderheide, burglar, smart aleck and murderer, became the first white man in Kentucky to be executed for killing a black.
“‘A Little Fun:’ The Ashland Tragedy.” Undoubtedly one of the most infamous Kentucky crimes of the nineteenth century, this Christmastime 1881 murder of three Boyd County teenagers resulted in a lynching, two executions, and a militia firing into an excited crowd. A real criminal epic.
“Moses Caton, Family Man.” A tale of fearsome spousal abuse, murder and disembodied cow heads from Union County.
“Knox County Atrocity.” How Brice Mills and Parmelia Warren massacred nearly every member of the Poe family, plus two of their servants—and got away with it.
“A Possible Poisoner, and a Definite One.” Examines the cases of two women, Lucretia Mundy and Julia Higbee, both accused of poisoning their loved ones. In the book I noted: “The former woman was possibly innocent, and her case is humorous in a dark, cosmic sense; the latter woman was almost certainly guilty, and her case is entirely tragic.”
“The Smart Murders, or: Choose Your Friends Wisely.” The tale of Harry Smart and his prostitute wife Laura, who murdered their friends Meisner Green and his prostitute girlfriend Belle Ward on an island near Louisville in 1888.
“The Showers-Moore Tragedy.” William Showers’s young wife Lena was found shot to death in her hotel room quarters in Elizabethtown in 1889. Suspicion quickly formed against William, who eventually was acquitted despite considerable circumstantial evidence against him. A real puzzle.
“On the Benefits of Keeping One’s Temper.” Madison County historian French Tipton struck his enemy in the face without provocation on the streets of Richmond one day in September 1900, and soon wished he hadn’t.
“Two for the Chair.” Chronicles the exploits of James Buckner of Marion County and General May of Clay County, two of the first men to “ride the lightning” in Kentucky’s newfangled electric chair.
“Murder on a College Campus.” The sad tale of Opal Sturgell, who was shot to death by her jealous ex-boyfriend, George Elmo Wells, on the Berea College campus in 1937. Wells made tracks afterwards and has never been seen since.
“The Head on the Mound.” The bloated, headless corpse of a woman; a disembodied head resting atop a mound; a bloody corn knife; a ghost car. All of these elements combined to give Madison Countians bad dreams in 1936.
Murder in Old Kentucky may be purchased via Amazon.com.
Or via numerous other online retailers, and by special order at your local bookstore.
THE KENTUCKY BOOK OF THE DEAD (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008)
Ghost stories and tales of the supernatural are a special delight of mine. Elements of the same have appeared in all of my previous books, so it was inevitable that sooner or later they would be the focus of an entire book. The Kentucky Book of the Dead is my first book to be published outside the state of Kentucky and the fourth to feature illustrations by my twin brother Kyle. The chapters include:
“The Ghosts of White Hall.” White Hall, located in Richmond, may be the most notorious allegedly haunted place in Kentucky with the possible exception of Louisville’s Waverly Sanitarium. There is a section on White Hall ghost stories in my 2001 book Cassius M. Clay, Freedom’s Champion. I decided to expand on the theme and include some unnerving happenings that transpired after the former book was published.
“The Reaper Gets Creative.” Partially inspired by the internet’s Darwin Awards, this chapter details some of the bizarre and colorful ways Kentuckians have met their Maker over the years. One of the trickiest things a writer can attempt is to describe something horrible or gruesome in a light, amusing way. Whether I succeeded or not, I leave up to you.
“They Predicted Their Own Deaths.” This chapter appeared in truncated form in Clark’s Kentucky Almanac, 2006 edition. Some people, it turns out, are awfully good at predicting when the Reaper will be coming for them.
“Some Bluegrass Ghosts.” Several ghost stories from Kentucky’s good old days, emanating from locations all around the state. To the best of my knowledge, very few (if any) of these cases have been described in modern publications.
“Embalming in the Old Days.” When I was shopping the manuscript around, the acquisitions editor at one press told me that she liked the book, but felt she could never submit it to her board of directors because it was “too gross.” I think this may be the chapter she had in mind.
“A Ghost’s Disgusting Gifts and Other Louisville Hauntings.” More little-known ghost stories, all of which are centered in Louisville.
“A Morbid Miscellany.” A smorgasbord of graveyard lore ranging from the humorous to the horrific, including such wholesome after-dinner topics as grave robbery, premature burial, and—well, adipocere (“grave wax”).
“The Ghost of the Mother of a Druggist.” An account of a haunted house in Richmond. Pretty creepy.
“The Last Word: A Collection of Kentucky Epitaphs.” A gravestone with something funny written on it is one of the most sublime sights life has to offer. If there is a pretty sunset behind it, that’s even better.
The Kentucky Book of the Dead may be purchased via Amazon.com.
Also available from numerous other online retailers, and by special order at your local bookstore.
Also available as an e-book!
FORGOTTEN TALES OF KENTUCKY (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008)
This is the follow-up to The Kentucky Book of the Dead; in fact, both books were written at the same time. Hopefully, I will continue to find strange historical incidents while doing research. (Do you know of any stories I should look into? E-mail me about them!) There are only a few ghost stories this time around, because the weird tales in this book are of a more earthly type. Chapter synopses:
“Kentucky Monsters.” Lists a wide variety of hideous and unique critters who frightened our hapless ancestors in incidents occurring as long ago as 1795 and as recently as 1968.
“A Vegan’s Worst Nightmare Comes True.” A detailed account (I think perhaps the most detailed account) of a semi-famous event: a rain of a bloody meatlike substance that fell in Bath County in 1876. Many explanations have been offered, both scientific and supernatural, but none is truly satisfying.
“Light Beetle Showers This Morning, With a Chance of Knitting Needles This Afternoon.” Further accounts of unpleasant and unlikely things falling from the sky, including fish, insects, plums, and knitting needles. Most incidents can be explained as stuff being picked up by distant storms, carried through the atmosphere, and eventually dropped, but that doesn’t make the incidents any less bizarre and unexpected.
“They Might Be Giants.” When you find example after example of people uncovering giant human skeletons, after a while you have to wonder what was going on. Surely they weren’t all journalistic hoaxes? Surely our forebears had enough sense to tell a dinosaur skeleton from a human skeleton? Especially since, in most cases, a complete set of remains was found, not merely a stray bone or two.
“The Lexington Catacombs.” An enormous cave full of mummies lies under modern-day Lexington—or so it is said.
“Tales from the Graveyard.” More graveyard lore of the sort found in The Kentucky Book of the Dead.
“Treasure in Kentucky.” Pirates never resided in Kentucky, but the state housed plenty of eccentrics who buried their money instead of putting it in the bank. As these stories attest, sometimes lucky people found treasure years after its interment.
“Random Strangeness.” A potpourri of strange incidents that didn’t fit well anywhere else in the book, involving such matters as haunted windows, a manlike form seen flying over Louisville in 1880, mysterious shaking houses, people sold into servitude long after the Civil War, and—yes!—the delightful Tooth Vomiter.
Forgotten Tales of Kentucky may be purchased via Amazon.com.
Also available from numerous other online retailers, and by special order at your local bookstore.
CRUELLY MURDERED: THE MURDER OF MARY MAGDALENE PITTS AND OTHER KENTUCKY TRUE CRIME STORIES (Ashland, KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2008)
Kentucky history is an inexhaustible gold mine for those who would write in the true crime genre. Cruelly Murdered is the second serving, and I anticipate many more to come. Chapter synopses:
“How Isaac Desha Escaped the Noose Five Times.” The son of a Kentucky governor committed a hamfisted murder; his dad pulled political strings to have him acquitted after four trials; then the son moved to Texas and killed another man.
“Adventures of a Busy Young Man.” In the book, I describe the criminal career of Estill County’s Edward Hawkins as seeming like a “surrealistic novel.” He was a triplet with 36 siblings, for example. His murderous ways got him hanged when he had barely reached adulthood, but not before a career in bigamy and philandering that will excite the reader’s grudging admiration.
“Gore in Garrard.” In January 1882, Garrard County was horrified by two separate ax murder incidents by two separate perpetrators. The former, James Wilmot, most of his family due to insanity; the latter, William Austin, murdered his great-aunt out of sheer greed.
“Death of an Artist.” In which Clarence Boyd, up-and-coming Louisville painter, is shot by his dentist brother-in-law.
“The Best-Looking Man Ever Hanged.” That’s what Granville Prewitt of Wayne County called himself, for no good reason.
“The Murdered Maid.” Like the account of the Ashland Tragedy in Murder in Old Kentucky, this is a sprawling epic of criminality involving a brutal murder and race relations in the Louisville of 1887. In this chapter I follow one of my own inviolable rules for writing: never fail to work in a ghost story whenever possible. (Another inviolable rule: if an opportunity arises to bludgeon the vastly overrated New York Times, take it.)
“Never Tease an Angry Sheriff.” Sheriff VanArsdale of Mercer County was so angry at being voted out of office in favor of a Republican that he took it out on his old enemy, Dr. Harrod. Or was it self-defense, as he claimed?
“Sketches in Kentucky Murder.” This chapter consists of seven interesting murder cases that could not be turned into individual chapters, mostly because research failed to turn up sufficient details.
“Bad Tom Smith Entertains 5,000 Spectators.” Breathitt County feudist Bad Tom Smith, who more than lived up to his nickname, and his live-in girlfriend Catherine McQuinn murdered Dr. John Rader in their bedroom in 1895; in a rare triumph of mountain justice, Smith ended up “dancing a jig at the end of a rope.”
“What Came of Stealing Some Quilts.” In which a seemingly trivial Harlan County crime snowballed into the murders of the Loebs, two elderly married Jewish peddlers.
“The Fictitious and Real Ordeals of Robert Laughlin.” After Laughlin’s Bracken County home burned down and the bodies of his wife and young niece were found in the rubble, he told the authorities a thrilling tale of fighting two intruders who gave his throat a negligible cut and let him escape. For some reason, few people believed him.
“In Which Mr. Dever and Mrs. West Loses Their Social Standing.” A ghastly tale of murder, flagrant adultery, and mob vengeance in Marion County.
“The Case of the Killer Coroner.” Hugh McCullough, coroner in 1900 Louisville, drums up some business by shooting the son of his obnoxious neighbors.
“Four Murderers.” Another epic, describing the overlapping criminal careers of four murders in turn-of-the-century Lexington: Claude O’Brien and Earl Whitney, young vagrants who shot prominent merchant A. B. Chinn; William McCarty, whose jealousy and fondness for drink led him to kill his wife; and James Best, a wealthy married contractor who clumsily slew his mistress and tried to make it look like suicide.
“Perfect Monsters: The Murders of Lillian Patrick and Mary Magdalene Pitts.” Two horrifying cases of child abuse and murder that took place a generation apart and in adjoining counties, Boyd and Greenup. The 1928 murder of three-year-old Mary Magdalene Pitts still ranks as one of the most infamous crimes in Kentucky history.
“Hanging of the Mystery Tramp.” When John Owen was sentenced to be hanged for killing a fellow hobo in Illinois, he took pleasure in dropping vague hints about his real identity and his Kentucky heritage.
“A Picnic Spoiled.” An insane father’s overprotectiveness leads to a shooting spree in this Louisville case from the Roaring Twenties.
Cruelly Murdered may be purchased via Amazon.com.
Also available from numerous other online retailers, and by special order at your local bookstore.
Strange Tales of Crime and Murder in Southern Indiana (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009)
Strange Tales of Crime and Murder in Southern Indiana is a historical true crime book cut from the same cloth as Murder in Old Kentucky and Cruelly Murdered. Chapter synopses:
1. “Benson’s Butchery” is about a laborer who lived on the Mottweiler farm near Edwardsville in 1888. He wanted to marry a girl who also worked there, but felt that his efforts would be futile as long as the Mottweilers were still around. So, despite the kindness his employers had showed Benson, he sought to clear the path to marital bliss by means of shotgun and hatchet.
2. “A Rather Bad Neighbor” tells the remarkable story of a man who murdered an entire Daviess County family with a hatchet and a corn knife in 1893, then blamed a half dozen other men before he finally confessed.
3. The chapter “Oops!” has a sound moral to it, I think: If you are determined to shoot a stranger on your doorstep because you think he castrated one of your neighbors, make sure you have the right man.
4. “Music Hath Charms”: In 1894, William Artmann stomped his wife and one of his children to death at Tell City. Later he claimed a ghost instructed him to do it. Was he insane or just plain mean? As a bonus, this chapter demonstrates why it is not always merciful to commute a death row prisoner’s sentence.
5. In 1902, workmen at Evansville found “A Petrifaction” in a pile of gravel—that is, the petrified body of a never-identified murder victim. Many absurd events followed.
6. “Evansville’s Serial Killer”: Yes, staid old Evansville had one in operation in the early twentieth century. He strangled two women for certain, probably three, possibly four. Was he ever identified? Maybe—this chapter describes the arrest, trial, and acquittal of the most likely suspect. (On a note of personal triumph, I finally accomplished my longstanding goal of beginning a chapter with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night,” a la Snoopy.)
7. Suppose a guy had a long history of verbally and physically abusing his twin sister; suppose he made no secret of it; suppose she was killed with an unusual weapon that her brother was known to possess; suppose he stonewalled when the law came calling; suppose everyone in town knew he did the murder. This hypothetical man could not escape punishment, could he? Read “Brotherly Love at Rising Sun” and found out.
8. “Grand Guignol at New Albany” is a tragic tale illustrating what happens when an insane woman becomes jealous of her small daughter. I wonder if that house is still standing and if so, do the inhabitants know what happened there once?
9. “Name Your Poison:” As the case of New Albany’s Pearl Armstrong illustrates, it is best not to overdo things in a fit of zeal. For example, if you want to murder your husband, rely on just one poison and not four administered all at once.
As a bonus, don’t miss Kyle’s illustration at the very beginning of the book, a humorous parody of the Indiana state seal. It was intended to go on the cover but was turned down for being “too gory.”
Forgotten Tales of Indiana (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009)
The other new History Press book, Forgotten Tales of Indiana, contains several elements found in my other books: there are true crime stories as in Murder in Old Kentucky and Cruelly Murdered; accounts of monsters and buried treasure as in Forgotten Tales of Kentucky; ghost stories as in Kentucky Book of the Dead; short biographies of eccentrics as in the Offbeat Kentuckians series; weird little real-life stories and graveyard lore as in Book of the Dead and Forgotten Tales of Kentucky. Depending on your point of view, it’s either an apotheosis or a self-parody. A chapter rundown:
1. The longest chapter in the book, “Rufus Cantrell, King of the Ghouls,” relates the nearly unbelievable story of a professional grave robber and his gang, who appear to have emptied the contents of nearly every tomb in central Indiana and sold the bodies to Indianapolis medical schools. Whenever the supply of fresh cadavers was low, Cantrell and his men were not averse to drumming up a little business on their own…
2. “Monsters and Ghosts,” not surprisingly, includes accounts of Hoosier monsters and ghosts. I don’t think many (if any) of these stories are well-known.
3. “Tales From the Tombs” is a compendium of humorously-written true stories on unsavory topics ranging from bizarre deaths to epitaphs to skeletons turning up where they are least expected. Then there are the numerous people who narrowly missed premature burial; were they unusually unlucky or unusually lucky? You be the judge!
4. “Buried Treasure” in Indiana? Yes, mostly hidden by eccentrics and found by accident years later.
5. “Grave Robbers Galore”: Readers will notice that Forgotten Tales of Indiana is loaded to the rafters with stories about body snatchers. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the state was full of medical schools in competition for anatomical subjects. Resurrectionists were called upon to fulfill the need. This chapter collects many humorous and horrifying stories about Indiana grave robbers which I found while doing research, including the spectacularly gruesome tale “The Grave Robber’s Comeuppance, or: The Corpse’s Revenge.”
6. “Life Is Like That Sometimes.” Ain’t it, though? This chapter is full of odd little stories from real life, such as the one about the killer who was convicted by evidence found in a dream. Or the one about Isaac Perry, constructor of his own tomb. Or the one about “Marvelous Griffith,” mathematical savant. Or the one about the Draconian smoking ban enacted by Indiana a hundred years ago.
You can purchase either book, or both of them—hey, why not get both of them? That’s a great idea!—at Amazon.com.
You also may have them specially ordered at your local Mom and Pop bookstore. And they are both available as e-books.
THE GREAT LOUISVILLE TORNADO OF 1890 (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010)
This book tells the story of one of the worst American natural disasters of the nineteenth century—one which inexplicably been largely forgotten, even in Kentucky. On March 27, 1890, Louisville was visited by a tornado of such immense power that it cut a diagonal path through the city, crossed the Ohio River, struck Jeffersonville and New Albany, IN, then turned around, crossed the river again, and hit Louisville a second time. The official death toll was 76, but through the magic of backbreaking research, I have concluded that it was closer to 120.
The Great Louisville Tornado of 1890 is the first book-length account of the storm since—well, around 1891. It includes tales of death and destruction, rescues and close calls, and citizens’ determination to rebuild their city—which, remarkably, they accomplished with no help whatsoever from the federal government.
The book also includes accounts of pre-1890 tornadoes in Kentucky and is illustrated with many drawings from the Louisville Courier-Journal and astounding photos of storm damage. You can order the book at your local independent bookstore (they need the money!), or from Amazon.
Also available as an e-book.
THE AXMAN CAME FROM HELL AND OTHER SOUTHERN TRUE CRIME STORIES (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2011)
Another historical true crime book—this time covering entire south, not just Kentucky or Indiana!
1. “The Axman Came From Hell” is about the so-called Axman, a serial killer who terrorized the Italian grocers of New Orleans in 1918-19 (and possibly much earlier). Includes much original research on the Axman case, clears up errors made by earlier writers and uncovers overlooked evidence.
2. “A Sharp Retort for Professor Turner” concerns the gruesome unsolved 1925 murder of a Louisiana State University professor, probably committed by one of his students.
3. “The Servant Girl Annihilator” is about an unknown murderer who terrorized Austin, TX, in 1885-86. He was probably the first authentic serial killer in American history and set the basic pattern for the many which followed him.
4. “Mr. Flanagan Rings in the New Year”: Out of frustrated love for an underage girl, Edward Flanagan shot up a boardinghouse full of people near Atlanta, GA, on the last day of 1896. A number of trials, near-lynchings, and attempted jailbreaks followed.
5. “Blue Floyd’s Light Show”: For reasons he never revealed, in 1907 eighteen-year-old Floyd Frazier of Letcher County, KY, fatally beat and slashed a widow with three children. He was eventually hanged for it, but not before a protracted legal battle that made a mockery of the concept of swift justice.
6. “Henry Delaney’s Half-Hour Marriage”: In 1893 Delaney, of Sturgis, KY, found himself the guest at a shotgun wedding to Abbie Oliver, a girl he had impregnated. On the night of the wedding, Delaney, his bride, and her parents were shot at by highwaymen who allowed Delaney to escape unharmed. They turned out to be friends and relatives who tried to relive him of his troubles by means of a preplanned massacre. The plan went awry—yet the captured villains came out on top anyway.
7. “Psychopathia Sexu-Alice”: Why did wealthy Alice Mitchell slash Freda Ward to death on the streets of Memphis, TN, in January 1892? The reason may seem obvious to twenty-first century readers, but it made for a scandal of epic proportions in that more naïve era.
8. “The Two Mr. Rathbuns”: A clumsy murder-for-profit committed in 1901 by a native of Little Rock, AR, in a hotel in Jeffersonville, IN, turned out to have enough twists, turns and surprises to rival a plot from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
9. “Two Shopworn Legal Defenses for the Price of One”: In 1907, Judge William Loving’s daughter told him that Theodore Estes had drugged and molested her. Loving tracked down Estes and shot him to death without asking any questions first. When he went to trial his attorneys relied on two old, greatly abused legal defenses: the insanity plea and the so-called unwritten law. Would they be sufficient to get Loving off scot free?
10. “Rube Burrows Has His Portrait Taken” tells the story of the Deep South’s version of Jesse James. Mr. Burrows of Alabama robbed trains, hid out in swamps and killed at least two (possibly four) men. He finally made the mistake of taking on an armed citizen, resulting in a memorable photograph.
11. “A Farce in More Ways Than One” relates the tale of Julia Morrison, an actress who shot her leading man to death just before a performance at the Chattanooga, TN, Opera House in 1899.
12. “Christmas for the Sims Gang”: When Bob Sims’s gang set fire to the house of an Alabama storekeeper and shot everyone who ran outside, it set off a remarkable chain reaction of mayhem including a series of lynchings and the public display of dead gang members.
13. “Crime and Punishment on the Fast Track” recounts a Florida double murder from 1902, notable for the brutality of the crime and the speed with which the killers were captured, tried, and hanged.
14. “A Murder Ballad”: Seven years after his imprisonment for blowing out his girlfriend’s brains, Matthew Kelley of Louisville was turned loose on society. A little less than two years later, Kelley chopped two more women to death and spent the night sleeping next to their steaming corpses. Kelley was executed this time around. Twenty years later, a Cincinnati bluesman wrote a song about him. Lyrics included!
15. “The Reprehensible Mr. Powers” is about a cynical murderer of wealthy widows in 1931 West Virginia who has never quite achieved the notoriety he richly deserved. The Southern author Davis Grubb based his famous novel Night of the Hunter on Powers’s escapades.
Purchase it at Amazon or other fine retailers.
Louisville Murder and Mayhem (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012)
This book is an entertaining look at various crimes and criminals from the history of Louisville, KY. The chapters include stories about historic murders, scandalous vaudeville shows, violent prostitutes, seduction trials, and hometown pornographers. See below for a synopsis of each chapter, and click on these links to order your very own copy to treasure and place under your pillow when you sleep. Amazon or E-book
And available from many other online retailers and your local bookstore.
1. “The Hanged Butcher’s Fabled Rejuvenation”: William Kriel, a butcher and wife beater, shot his spouse Margaret to death in the days just after the Civil War. It was the average domestic abuse murder until William was executed—and then things got strange.
2. “The Dizzy Blondes Come to Town”: In 1877, a vaudeville act called the Dizzy Blondes came to Louisville and was considered so obscene they were pretty much run out of town.
3. “Chestnut Street’s House of Horrors”: Who knows what evil deeds might be lurking in the mind of an ordinary clerk? Charles Brownfield’s family found one day in 1887, and soon the rest of the city knew too.
4. “Carrie McBride, the Pugilistic Prostitute”: The story of Louisville’s most notorious nineteenth-century streetwalker: one-eyed, two-fisted, perpetually drunken Carrie McBride.
5. “Murder Will Not Always Out”: A real mystery! A madam and a prostitute died after eating a poisoned breakfast in a Second Street bordello in summer 1892; though it seemed like an open-and-shut case, the murders were never solved. Did a customer do it? Did the madam’s daughter do it to inherit money? Was the culprit an angry woman who wanted to eliminate her competition? Was it an accident? Or was it a murder-suicide?
6. “Your Friendly Neighborhood Pornographer”: Who was taking those filthy photographs—by the standards of 1893—that kept turning up all over the city?
7. “What Came of a Marriage Between a Murderer and a Prostitute”: Bert Wing, a killer and thug from a respectable background, married a prostitute—also from a respectable background—and the result was a miserable marriage, a gory murder, and several years of takin’ it on the lam.
8. “Louisville’s Bonnie and Clyde”: Howard Clark and Mattie Mahoney, criminal lovers, had a career that paralleled in some ways the later exploits of Bonnie and Clyde—including the hail of bullets that came at the end.
9. “The Course of True Love, Etc.”: The saga of a paternity case that made Louisville sit up and take notice back in 1897.
10. “Striking a Blow for the Workingman”: In July 1903 a discharged worker shot his former boss Pulaski Leeds, a man beloved by all his employees, right in front of witnesses. It was an open and shut case—and then the unions got involved.
Murder and Mayhem in Indiana (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014)
My thirteenth book, Murder and Mayhem in Indiana, has been released three months early by The History Press and is available at a bookstore near you or any number of online retailers! It includes seventeen stories of, well, murder and mayhem from Indiana history. The chapters include:
1. The Mystery of Dr. Knabe: Concerns the bizarre, still-unsolved 1911 murder in Indianapolis of Dr. Helen Knabe, an early American woman physician.
2. Picnic of Death: The young Simmons sisters were killed by a clumsy and unsubtle—but ultimately successful—poisoner at a family picnic at Lebanon in 1931. Their mother went on trial but was acquitted. The crime was never solved and is still considered one of Indiana’s most baffling murder mysteries.
3. The Farmhand and the Acrobat: For years Alice Martin was a successful circus acrobat under the pseudonym “Alice De Garno.” The she retired to a farm at Derby, near Tell City, and spent much of her time abusing the hired hands. One of them finally retaliated violently in 1934 and told an entertaining story after surrendering.
4. Mr. Wade and Mrs. Brown Hatch a Stupid Plot: Illicit lovers Mr. Wade and Mrs. Brown conspired to kill her husband at Irvington in 1880, resulting in a celebrated trial and some very bad newspaper poetry.
5. A Hoosier Makes a Spectacle of Himself in Cincinnati: In 1933, the police pulled over Charles Evans of Indianapolis and asked him about those hams in the back seat of his car. Problem is, they weren’t really hams….
6. Hazel Triumphant!: A man in Hammond accused his wife of murdering their twin babies in 1921. At her trial he got a surprise which was not at all to his advantage.
7. Pursued by a Monster: William Starbuck arrived at his Greensboro home one night in 1904 only to discover that some fiend had tossed his wife and baby down a well—but some theorized that she had actually done it herself.
8. Justice, Possibly: Nine-year-old Lizzie Buente was attacked and murdered on her family farm near Evansville in 1897. Her killer got away scot-free—or did he?
9. The Honeymooners: The Mastisons were married in New Albany in July 1901; scarcely more than a year later Mr. Mastison murdered his wife in a sufficiently clumsy and incompetent fashion to inspire amazement among all who beheld him.
10. With a Smile on Her Face: The tragic story of a Gary former high school football who went on trial in 1931 for participating in the gang rape of his own girlfriend, an act that may have resulted in her death.
11. The Stage’s Loss Was St. Louis’s Gain: Ada Owsley of Madison, Indiana, married her husband Benjamin, moved to St. Louis, and in 1914 shot him—in self-defense, she claimed, but her story didn’t exactly add up. The overly dramatic postures and whiny sentimentality she struck in court couldn’t possibly fool an intelligent jury, could it?
12. Otto Embellishes: Newlyweds Otto and Lucille Vest of Columbus did not get along. In 1917, after only a few weeks of marriage, she committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid. That’s the story Otto told the police at first, but his story got stranger every time he told it.
13. William Wants to Get Married: William Lee’s Boonville family objected to his getting married; he countered their objections with an ax and some coal oil one night in August 1911.
14. A Higher Venue: Dallas Bower of Clark County murdered his stepmother in November 1912 for reasons he never explained. He was duly arrested, but Fate conspired to cheat Justice.
15. Hypothetical Questions in Abundance: Why was Rev. Kayser of Gary murdered during the height of World War One? Was he a German saboteur? Or was the reason far more prosaic?
16. Thomas Hoal, Boy Bandit: Young Master Hoal of New Albany, fancying himself quite the dashing desperado, entered a bank one morning in November 1909 and riddled the place with bullets, two recipients of which were employees.
17. Three Ways to Escape Punishment: Rev. Saunders was shot dead in a car in Indianapolis in 1934. Four persons—including his wife and his embalming school roommate—confessed to a complex, and incompetently performed, murder plot.
Gothic and Strange True Tales of the South (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2015)
Highly recommended! My fourteenth book is out and full of hundreds of weird true stories from our Southern states as well as some fairly eerie illustrations! (I am working on three more “American Gothic” books that will cover the rest of the continental USA.) You can get it in print or e-book form at a number of places online including Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or your local bookstore will be glad to order it for you. Here’s a synopsis of its chapters:=
1. Graveyard Gossip: Includes much of the same kind of material from Kentucky Book of the Dead (and in fact contains some stories that didn’t fit in that book): famous last words, grave robbers, premature burials, peculiar epitaphs, rigor mortis, creative disposal of bodies, people who predicted their own deaths with uncanny precision, and many stories that defy easy description.
2. Distinctive Demises: Stories about the many droll ways people have found to meet their Maker, whether by accident or design. Darkly funny if you have the right sense of humor. A typical story starts with the line: “Is anything in human experience more fun than playing chicken on a railroad track?”
3. Murders of Egregious Atrocity: Several historical true crime stories from the South.
4. Tales of the Hangman: Stories about hangings with the to-be-expected “gallows humor.”
5. Judge Lynch Presiding: Accounts of lynchings with bizarre features. Includes a section on a phenomenon that has been overlooked by historians: black lynch mobs, including over 100 examples.
6. Gore Galore: Miscellaneous violence-prone weirdness—including stories about strange duels and much more to entertain and unnerve!
7. Ghost Stories in Which the Dead Return to Communicate and Annoy Us: Supposedly true tales of haunts, but as the chapter title implies, played more for laffs than scares. Includes previously unknown stories about Tennessee’s famous Bell Witch.
8. A Ghastly Grab Bag: Mondo bizarre true stories that admittedly didn’t fit well anywhere else in the book, including a few Civil War stories and repulsive anecdotes concerning snakes.
9. Southern Eccentrics: Readers of my Offbeat Kentuckians books know that biographies of peculiar individuals are among my favorite topics. Here is an assortment from around the South, including good ol’ Bill Jones, glass eater.