Behind Kentucky's bloodiest feuds

Film about more than 100 killings shows tonight

By Kevin Wheatley Published:

A picture of the first Breathitt County man killed in an infamous 42-year period of bloodshed still hangs in the cabin where he was killed, now owned by Jerry Deaton’s family.

Deaton had no idea the violent feuds that engulfed his home county began and ended within a half mile of his family’s farm until he started work on a self-funded documentary called “The Feuds of Bloody Breathitt: Kentucky’s Untold Story.”

More than 100 were killed in the feuds, which lasted from 1870 to 1912, Deaton said. That’s far more than the dozen who died in the Hatfield-McCoy rivalry, and the grisly Breathitt County deaths attracted far more statewide and national media attention.

“This, I think once you see it, is one of the most incredible stories that Kentucky has ever had,” he said. “It’s largely forgotten.”

The 50-minute film, which has been accepted in the Louisville International Film Festival, will premiere 6:30 tonight at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. Admission is free, and a reception will be at 6 p.m.

Deaton, a retired lobbyist who also worked for the state Legislative Research Commission, has been interested in the violent past of Breathitt County since he discovered his great-great-grandfather’s name in a book about the feuds several years ago in the Capitol’s law library.

Bob Deaton allegedly gunned down his cousin over stolen logs in 1895, Deaton said.

“Nobody in my family had ever talked about it,” Jerry Deaton said. “Sure enough, I talked to my dad and asked him, ‘What’s up with Grandpa Bob?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we always heard he killed somebody.’”

As Deaton researched, his great-great-grandfather’s name kept surfacing, including as the prosecution’s witness during former Sheriff Ned Callahan’s murder trial.

Callahan and James Hargis, the county’s judge, had been battling another faction after allegations of a fixed school board election in 1898, but the rivalry ended in 1912 with Callahan’s shooting death in his rural convenience store – carried out by a Deaton family member.

The Breathitt County feuds, like others at the time, stemmed from unrest following the Civil War, but other factors like money and power also played roles, Deaton said.

Jackson, the seat of Breathitt County, had the only railhead into Eastern Kentucky until 1907, and Quicksand, a city in the county, was home to the largest sawmill in the U.S. at the time, he said.

A complete lack of law and order created a ripe environment for skirmishes between opposing factions.

“There was no central police force,” he said. “You had 120 counties, and they had their own little foothold there and their kingdom, and they did what they wanted to.

“So, if something happened to you, you pretty much had to just take the matter in your own hands.”

The state militia was called to Jackson four times during the 42-year stretch, Deaton said.

Residents were afraid to keep lamps lit during the night, and the Lexington newspaper, known then as the Lexington Morning Herald, called on the legislature to divide Breathitt County into four different counties to quell the violence.

But the documentary is about more than gunfights and ambushes. Deaton wanted the film to dispel some stereotypes about Eastern Kentucky, some of which originated from reports of Breathitt County slayings during the violent feuds.

“In one particular scene, I actually shot down and showed a guy with shoes on because I want people to see the average Breathitt Countian is not a savage and an ignorant hillbilly,” Deaton said.

“I wanted to give a fair account of it. … I just found your average people, and I interviewed them sitting on their front porch.”

Deaton, with the help of Pinnacle Productions in Lexington and John Jabrowski of Lawrenceburg, started shooting the documentary in Breathitt County May 4, the same day Callahan was shot 100 years ago.

Deaton interviewed a number of residents, some of whom had heard numerous tales of the bloodshed growing up.

One, Daniel Bryant, basically recited the entire timeline of events, Deaton said, calling him “a storyteller’s dream.” He said of the six minutes filmed with Bryant, almost four and a half were used.

“Other people I filmed for 40 minutes and used 30 seconds of them,” Deaton said. “… He had such a presence and such a voice, and every community probably has one of them, but he was Jackson’s storyteller.”

Still, some wouldn’t talk about the feuds on camera. Deaton’s 82-year-old cousin told “hair raising” stories about the feuds as told by his father the day before filming, Deaton said.

“The next day when the camera started rolling, he would not say a word,” Deaton said. “His dad actually ran the dogs in 1912 that chased the guys that had killed (Callahan), but he was not willing to say anything on camera about it 100 years later.”

The documentary also features state Supreme Court Justice Mary Noble, a Breathitt County native, as narrator.

Deaton, who has also authored a book titled “Appalachian Ghost Stories: Tales from Bloody Breathitt,” wove his personal story into the documentary as well.

Aside from shots inside his Franklin County home and his family’s Breathitt County farm, Deaton filmed his first visit to the Crockettsville Cemetery, the final resting place for practically every Deaton in Breathitt County.

He had never seen his great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Deaton’s grave, and Deatons involved in the high-profile feuds, like Bob Deaton and Thomas Deaton, who supposedly shot Callahan, are buried there. The grave of John “Buck” Deaton, the first Deaton to settle in Breathitt County and a former state representative, can also be found in Crockettsville.

While he couldn’t work much of the footage into the documentary, Jerry Deaton was personally impacted by his first trip to Crocketsville Cemetery.

“It was a moving experience to just see these relatives, and they were that close too,” he said. “I just never thought about it.”

Deaton’s attachment to Breathitt County hit him during filming, he said.

“You just never feel like you left,” Deaton said. “You always feel like you’re a part of it.”

For more information on the documentary or to order a copy, visit www.jerrydeaton.com.

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  • By chance are you related to Polly Stidham Deaton, 1877-1945?