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NATIVE KENTUCKY BALLADS / 059
The Peddler and His Wife

clippings transcribed by Steve Green


Click here to hear "The Peddler and His Wife" sung by Blind James Howard, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937.

Click here to hear Ed Ward of Straight Creek, Bledsoe, Harlan County interview the widow of Blind James Howard. Ed sent this to me on a cassette in the early 1990s—I'm guessing the interview was done in the 1980s sometime but I don't have a date handy. I am very indebted to Ed Ward for information about Buford Overton and the case of the murdered peddler and his wife. Ed was very generous with his music collection, his humor, poetry, correspondence, outlook on life, and conversation.

Here is the ballad as sung by Blind James Howard with fiddle accompaniment in 1937:

Just as the sun was rising high
One day in merry June
The birds were singing in the trees
All nature seemed in tune.

A peddler and his wife were traveling
All on the lone highway
Sharing each others' toils and cares
They both were old and gray.

They were toiling, laboring hard
A living for to make
They did not know, nor did they think
That men their lives would take.

But alas for them a scheme was laid
By some treacherous men
Whose hearts were hard as any stone
And did not care for sin.

The men were hiding by the side of the road
With hearts like murderer Cain
With voices hushed and weapons aimed
To kill the weary twain.

Just then a wagon came in view
Shots rang out on the air
And as the echo died away
The beings perished there.

The horse—

Poor one fell out upon the ground
And [tossed her dying head?]
The men rushed up and took her gold
Poor lady she was dead.

The horse rushed on with the dying man
Til kind friends checked its speed
But alas, alas, it was too late
To stop that horrible deed.

How can those men expect to live
Who did this terrible crime
[Her head ...?... for the grave?]
[It's hard.....?...]

So now they're sleeping in their tomb
Their souls have gone above
Where thieves cannot disturb them no more
Where all is peace and love.

There is much more to this story, and quite a bit written about the case in various places. I will try to flesh out this entry more as time goes on. For now, here are some articles I transcribed from various newspapers.


Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) ~ September 27, 1893

EIGHT CONVICTS ESCAPE.

They Slip Through an Old Air Shaft and Must Have Had Help.

Knoxville, Tenn., September 26.—(Special.)—Eight desperate prisoners escaped from the branch prison at Big Mountain yesterday. They were Buford Overton, white, Greene county, larceny, six months yet to serve; Charles McElroy, alias Hodges, white, twice sentenced from Greene and once from Washington county, larceny. He had escaped several times before and had eight years unserved. John Hamilton, white, Decatur county, larceny, eight years unserved; Jim Snow, colored, Shelby county, manslaughter, nine years unserved. He escaped once before and was shot before being rearrested, making him a cripple. N. C. Cartwright, colored, Shelby county, larceny, eight years unserved; Jim Miland, colored, Davidson county, eighteen months left; Bell Peturney, colored, Shelby county, highway robbery, forty-two years unserved; Coal White, Shelby county, house breaking, thirty years unserved.

Their escape was effected by way of an old abandoned airshaft. It is thought that they were assisted in their escape either by trusties or civilians, otherwise escape would have been impossible.


Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, Nebraska) ~ June 24, 1895

Peddlers Murdered in Kentucky

Cincinnati, June 23—A Commercial-Gazette special from Barboursville, Ky. says: Word has been received here that Gus Loeb and his wife, Julia, Hebrew peddlers, were murdered in Harlan county by masked men. Robbery was the only cause for the crime. The murderers have not been captured. Gus Loeb has a good business in Philadelphia.

[Note the slight difference in the last line reported in the Salt Lake City newspaper below. —SG]


Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah) ~ June 24, 1895

PEDDLERS MURDERED.

Cincinnati, June 23—A Commercial-Gazette special from Barboursville, Ky. says: Word has been received here that Gus Loeb and his wife, Julia, Hebrew peddlers, were murdered in Harlan county yesterday by masked men. Robbery was the only cause for the crime. The murderers have not been captured. Gus Loeb has a brother now doing business in Philadelphia.
Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ June 25, 1895

A special to the Courier-Journal from Barbourville says: "News has been received here that Gus Loeb and his wife, Julia, Hebrew peddlers, were murdered in Harlan county Sunday, between Harlan Court-house and Harrogate, Tenn. by six masked men. Robbery was the only cause for the crime. The murderers have not been captured. Gus Loeb has a brother doing business now in Philadelphia."


Columbus (Nebraska) Journal ~ June 26, 1895

BARBOURSVILLE, Ky., June 25.—Word has been received here that Gus Loeb and his wife, Julia, Hebrew peddlers, were murdered in Harlan county by masked men. Robbery was the only cause for the crime. The murderers have not been captured. Gus Loeb has a good business in Philadelphia.


Hopkinsville Kentuckian ~ June 28, 1895

Gus Loeb and wife, Julia, Hebrew peddlers, were murdered in Harlan county, between Harlan courthouse and Harrogate, Tenn. by six masked men. Robbery was the cause for the crime.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ June 28, 1895

William Overton, one of the murderers of peddler Loeb and wife in Harlan county, who was shot while trying to escape from the Jailer's posse, has died of his wound. The two others implicated have been captured and are in jail.


Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ June 28, 1895

William Overton, one of the murderers of Peddler Loeb and wife in Harlan county, who was shot while trying to escape from the jailer’s posse, has died of his wound. The two others implicated have been captured and are in jail.


Hickman Courier ~ July 5, 1895 [same as Stanford paper, June 28, 1895.]

William Overton, one of the murderers of peddler Loeb and wife in Harlan county, who was shot while trying to escape from the Jailer's posse, has died of his wound. The two others implicated have been captured and are in jail.


Mount Sterling Advocate ~ July 9, 1895

Gus Loeb and his wife, Julia, Hebrew peddlers, were murdered in Harlan county, between Harlan Courthouse and Harrogate, Tenn. by six masked men. Robbery was the only cause for the crime.


Hickman Courier ~ July 12, 1895

Buried at Pineville.

Pineville, Ky., July 9.—The dead bodies of Gus Loeb and his wife, who were murdered in Harlan county about two weeks ago, were brought here and buried. The murder of the old people for their money was one of the worst crimes ever committed in this part of the country.


Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ July 16, 1895

The bodies of Gus Loeb and wife, the Jews that were murdered and robbed in Harlan county, were buried at Pineville. Overton and Scott, Claiborne county, Tenn. desperadoes, have been captured and lodged in the Harlan jail as the perpetrators of the foul deed.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ August 21, 1895

Overton Condemned to Die.

Pineville, Ky., Aug. 21.—Word was received here from Harlan Courthouse that the man Overton, Indicted for the murder of Peddler Gustav Loeb, was found guilty at his trial Saturday and his punishment fixed at death. Overton's companion, Scott, now under indictment for the same crime, will be tried shortly.


Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ August 23, 1895

If the court of appeals will keep its hands off and the governor will padlock his pardon mill, Harlan county will have a much needed hanging—possibly two of them. Overton, one of the men who murdered the peddler, Loeb, has been sentenced to death and his partner in the crime, Scott, will likely receive a similar sentence. The murder was peculiarly atrocious and the murderers richly deserve death.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ August 27, 1895

The Murderer Confesses.

Lexington, Ky., Aug. 27.—A special from Harlan Courthouse says that William Overton has confessed to the murder of Gus Loeb and wife, the Cincinnati people who were shot to death. He says the murder was planned to cover up the robbery of the Loebs. He implicates another man. The murder occurred June 22. Loeb was a peddler.

[Note—William Overton (brother of Buford Overton) was mortally wounded trying to escape from the posse. It’s possible he was able to talk to authorities about the motive for the killings before he died. —SG]


Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ August 30, 1895

Buford Overton, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Harlan county for complicity in the murder of Peddler Loeb and his wife, says, of course that he was the victim of circumstance and is not responsible for the murder. An effort will accordingly be made to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.


Hazel Green Herald ~ September 5, 1895

Buford Overton, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Harlan county for complicity in the murder of peddler Loeb and his wife, made a remarkable and touching confession upon the witness stand. It aroused general sympathy for the young murderer, who appears to have been led into the crime by others, and it is said that an effort will be made to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.


Hazel Green Herald ~ September 5, 1895

There will be gay times at Harlan Courthouse when the legal hanging of Gustav Loeb's murderer, Overton, will be executed.


Hickman Courier ~ September 6, 1895

October 18 has been set as the time for the execution of Buford Overton for the murder of Gus. Loeb and wife in Harlan county. It will be the first legal hanging in Harlan county. A change of venue has been granted Charley Hensley and Wils Scott, charged as accessories to the murder and they will be tried at Pineville.


Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ September 17, 1895

The jailer of Harlan county is a sweet scented shrub, who ought to be made to pay severely for his gross carelessness, if not his possible connivance, in the escape of Buford Overton, condemned to die for the cowardly murder of an old peddler and his wife. The prisoner not only got out, but took a loaded Winchester along, that he found in the hall, with which to defend himself. It is said that Virginia friends of Overton had offered $1,000 for his release and that may be the key to the escape.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ September 18, 1895

Reward for an Escaped Murderer.

Frankfort, Ky., Sept. 18.—Gov. Brown has offered a reward of $200 for the capture of Buford Overton, convicted of murder and sentenced to death, who escaped from the Harlan county jail last Friday night.


Stanford Semi-Weekly Interior Journal ~ September 20, 1895

Gov. Brown has offered a reward of $200 for the capture of Buford Overton, the Harlan county escaped murderer.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ October 19, 1895

Overton Didn't Hang.

Lexington, Ky., Oct. 19.—Buford Overton was to hang Friday at Harlan Courthouse, in Harlan County, for the murder of the old peddler, Gus Loeb, and his wife, but Overton escaped from jail several weeks ago and has never been captured.

[Same appeared also in the Richmond Climax on October 23, 1895. —SG]


Hopkinsville Kentuckian ~ October 29, 1895

John Scott has just been received at the Frankfort penitentiary and is under a life sentence. He is only sixteen years of age. He murdered a peddler and his wife in Harlan county last spring.

[The story below is the only one to mention a motive besides robbery. —SG]


Highland Recorder (Monterey, Virginia) ~ September 11, 1896

Buford Overton, a condemned murderer who broke jail and escaped from Harlan county, Ky, a year ago, was arrested at Chiltowie, and taken back to Harlan county. Overton's escape was made only a few days prior to the time set for his execution. He and his brother, Will Overton, and James Scott, a youth, formed a conspiracy and murdered an aged peddler and his wife in August a year ago as a means of shielding a young girl from prosecution, who was charged with stealing from the peddler's pack. Will Overton was killed while resisting arrest and Scott is serving a life sentence in the penitentiary.

[The case was reported as far away as Kansas City, Missouri. —SG]


Kansas City Daily Journal ~ October 11, 1896

TO RESCUE A MURDERER.

His Friends Have Gathered to Save Him From Hanging.

Middlesboro, Ky., Oct. 10.—Buford Overton, who murdered and robbed Gus Loeb and wife, will hang at Harlan Monday. Overton's friends, 100 strong, have gathered to release him, but Sheriff Smith has doubled the guards. Great excitement prevails and a bloody battle may ensue. Governor Bradley has refused to grant a petition for Overton's respite, so that the execution will take place on Monday.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ October 12, 1896

Overton Must Die.

Frankfort, Ky., Oct. 12.—Buford Overton, the Harlan county murderer, who is to be hanged Monday, was refused a respite of 30 days by Gov. Bradley. Overton had previously been refused a pardon and a commutation of his sentence. Gov. Bradley is absent on a speaking tour, but wired the secretary of state that the respite was refused.


Fort Wayne Sentinel (IN) ~ October 12, 1896

OVERTON HANGED.

A Great Crowd Witnesses the Execution

Middlesboro, Ky., Oct. 12— At 1 o'clock this afternoon Buford Overton was executed at Harlan, Ky., for the murder, June 21, 1895, of Gustave and Julia Loeb, two Jewish peddlers. The scene of the hanging is fifteen miles from a telegraph station, but latest advices say that great crowds from all the surrounding country gathered to see the hanging, which was in public. No effort was made by the condemned man's friends to prevent the execution, but to guard against trouble Sheriff Grant Smith had a large number of deputies sworn in.


Kansas City Daily Journal ~ October 13, 1896

A Murderer Hanged.

Middlesboro, Ky. Oct. 12.—At 1 o'clock this afternoon Buford Overton was executed at Harlan, Ky. for the murder, June 21, 1895, of Gustave and Julia Loeb, two Jewish peddlers. The scene of the hanging is fifteen miles from a telegraph station, but the latest advices say that great crowds from all the surrounding county gathered to see the hanging, which was in public.


Maysville Evening Bulletin ~ October 13, 1896

KENTUCKY HANGING.

Great Crowds Witness an Execution Which Was Done in Public.

MIDDLESBORO, Ky., Oct. 13.—At 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon Buford Overton was ececuted at Harlan, Ky., for the murder, June 21, 1895, of Gustave and Julia Loeb, two Jewish peddlers. Great crowds from all the surrounding country gathered to see the hanging, which was in public. No effort was made by the condemned man’s friends to prevent the execution, but to guard against trouble Sheriff Grant Smith had a large number of deputies sworn in.

Overton, with his brother Billy and John Scott, waylaid and murdered an old peddler named Gistave Loeb and also his wife. They were armed with Winchesters and shot their victimes literally to pieces. In a battle between a posse of officers attempting to arrest them the following day Billy Overton was killed and John Scott and Buford captured. Buford broke jail and Scott was sentenced to a life imprisonment and is now in the penitentiary. Buford Overton was recaptured in September.


Maysville Daily Public Ledger ~ October 13, 1896

Buford Overton Hanged.

Pineville, Ky. Oct. 13.—The news has been received here that Buford Overton, the young murderer, was hanged at Harlan C. H. Monday afternoon. Reports have been afloat that a mob of Overton's friends had organized to rescue him, but the Harlan county authorities swore in a large number of deputies. The county seat was crowded with mountaineers, who came to attend the hanging. Buford Overton assisted in the murder of an old peddler and his wife. With his brother and John Scott he waylaid the couple and shot them from ambush. Scott is doing a life term.


Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah) ~ October 13, 1896

Pineville, Ky., Oct. 12.—Buffard Overton, the young man convicted of murdering a peddler and his wife, was hanged this afternoon at Harlan Court.


San Francisco Call ~ October 13, 1896

Hanged at Harlanch.

Pineville, Ky., Oct. 12.—Buffard Overton, the young man convicted of murdering a peddler and his wife, was hanged this afternoon at Harlanch.

[Note: The San Francisco editors probably saw "Harlan C. H." and did not understand that it stood for "Harlan Court House." Instead, they wrote "Harlanch." —SG]


Richmond Climax (Richmond, Kentucky) ~ October 14, 1896

Overton Ready to Die.

Sergent, Ky., Oct. 7.—The gallows upon which Buford Overton will pay the death penalty next Monday, October 12, at Harlan C. H., is nearing completion, and preparations are being made for the execution. Fully 10,000 mountain people will witness the hanging. Overton is accused of the murder of Loeb and wife, Jewish peddlers, on Martin's Fork, in 1894 [sic]. He reads the Bible daily, and says he is ready to meet his God.

[Same date, another story]—

Overton Must Die.

FRANKFORT, Ky., Oct. 12.—Buford Overton, the Harlan county murderer, who is to be hanged Monday, was refused a respite of 30 days by Gov. Bradley. Overton had previously been refused a pardon and a commutation of his sentence. Gov. Bradley is absent on a speaking tour, but wired the secretary of state that the respite was refused.

The following is copied from a photocopied clipping sent to me in the early 1990s by Ed Ward of Harlan County. Unfortunately, it is incomplete. —SG


[Unknown newspaper] ~ October 15, 1896

HIS LAST DAY

BUFORD OVERTON HANGED MONDAY AT 1:57

Three Thousand People Present.

Last Monday being the day fixed by the Governor for the execution of Buford Overton, he was hanged by the Sheriff in accordance with the Governor’s warrant.

Sunday was a beautiful day and many people from other counties and from Tennessee and Virginia arrived here in the evening. After night it rained a shower then Monday morning about 7 o’clock the rain began and continued steady and hard until about 12:30 when it stopped and an hour later the sun was shining bright. Notwithstanding the heavy rain the people continued to come from all directions up to the time of the execution when it was estimated there were 3000 people present.

Everybody was quiet and good order prevailed generally. Several extra guards were on duty but there was no disturbance in the crowd. Overton rested well during the night; he did not retire until nearly 1 o’clock; he was up at his usual hour and [not readable] to the scaffold. He held up exceedingly well and mounted the scaffold almost without help; it was almost 1:10 when he reached the platform and his pulse was 108 per minute. After a brief rest he attempted to talk some to the large crowd around him but almost failed and what he said could not be heard very far away. He said he had been raised an orphan boy that he had gotten into trouble in Tennessee was what caused him to leave there and come here with his brother, “When I got into this sad trouble,” Here his voice trembled and failed for some time; he said he had always been treated badly; then again he wept very bitterly. He then said for all young men to take a warning from him [...missing section...] passed out of sight of the crowd except a few of those on the inside of the wall. In just 15 minutes from the time he fell he was pronounced dead by Drs. W. T. Nolen, N. S. Howard, G. P. Bailey and E. L. [Green?]. He was cut down and placed in the coffin; he was then taken to the grave yard about one mile up the Clover Fork and buried. Thus ends the life of Buford Overton, a young man of whom little is known in the past except what he has heretofore told of himself. He has said he was born in Hancock county, Tenn. and lived there until 13 years of age when he left in company with a woman and went to North Ga. that while on their way, they took a man’s horse and rode it at night, next day they were overtaken by the owner and arrested, he was sentenced to two years and six months in prison and served his time out; returned to Tennessee and had trouble there and was dodging from the officers in company with his brother, who had killed a man in Texas and was also dodging at the time this killing occurred for which he [Buford Overton] was hanged. His brother was killed while resisting arrest, and John Scott sent to the penitentiary for life. Buford Overton was not yet twenty years old and died without joing the church, but said his sins were forgiven.

It will be remembered that he was tried for the killing of Julia Loeb on June 22nd, 1895, her husband, Gus Loeb, was killed at the same time. Those two people were peddlers, traveling through the country peddling in a one horse wagon; they were very old and perfectly harmless and were killed without a cause. They were shot from ambush and but little is known of the motive of the murderers, except as testified to by Buford Overton, himself, on his trial in August 1895, when he said his brother and [...section missing...] The people here are somewhat divided in opinion as what his punishment should have been; a great many think imprisonment for life would have been justice to him, while others think that nothing short of the death penalty would have satisfied the law in this case, which they considered one of the worst crimes in the history of the State.

The people and officers of this county are to be commended for their actions in this matter whether the punishment was too severe or not, from the fact that the people killed had no friends or relatives here, but were strangers themselves, and the people prosecuting this case and the court and jury trying it could have had no possible interest in the case [...rest of clipping missing].


Spout Spring Times (Spout Springs, Ky) ~ October 17, 1896

Hanged.

Buford Overton, was hung at Harlan C. H. Monday for his part of the cowardly murder of a peddler named Gus Loeb and his wife June 22, 1895.

[Note: The story below appeared in the Maysville Ledger on October 13. —SG]


Richmond Climax (Richmond, Kentucky) ~ October 21, 1986

Buford Overton Hanged.

Pineville, Ky. Oct. 13.—The news has been received here that Buford Overton, the young murderer, was hanged at Harlan C. H. Monday afternoon. Reports have been afloat that a mob of Overton's friends had organized to rescue him, but the Harlan county authorities swore in a large number of deputies. The county seat was crowded with mountaineers, who came to attend the hanging. Buford Overton assisted in the murder of an old peddler and his wife. With his brother and John Scott he waylaid the couple and shot them from ambush. Scott is doing a life term.


The following is copied from a clipping sent to me in the early 1990s by Ed Ward of Harlan County. I don’t know the source or date, but I’m guessing it was written in the early 1970s. —SG

WERE YOU THERE?

The Buford Overton Hanging

He was hanged in the town of Harlan, (I want to say “HUNG”) on Monday, Oct. 11th 1896, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

The crime he commltted was helping to kill and rob a traveling peddler and his wife, Gus and Julie Loeb, on the upper waters of Martins Fork of Cumberland River. Participating with him was his brother Will (they were from somewhere near Taswell, Tennessee) and young John Scott of Pucketts Creek section of Harlan County. Overton and his brother were much older than Scott and it was presumed that they influenced him in participating in the robbery and killing. Anyhow, Scott turned state’s witness against Overton and thereby escaped with a penitentiary sentence.

After the killing all parties escaped from the scene and suspicion was directed towards the Overtons. ln attempting to arrest them Will was killed by the officers, and that left only one eyewitness, John Scott

The convicted men were confined in the old Jail which was torn down and replaced by a new jail erected on top of the Harlan Court House. This old jail was located on Second Street in Harlan near the corner of 2nd and Clover streets. In some manner Overton escaped from jail.

The jailer at the time of escape was P. Hensley. There was considerable suspicion that he had been aided by someone employed around the jail, and in view of this circumstance Hensley offered a substantial reward for the recapture of Overton. ln due time this paid off, for Overton wrote a letter to someone in Harlan County and this person turned the letter over to the proper authorlties and this resulted in the recapture and return of Overton to the Harlan County jail, where he then remained confined until the day of his execution.

Grant Smith was the sheriff of Harlan County at that time, and as directed by law, conducted the erection of the scaffold, and cut the rope that permitted Overton to drop.

William Kirk, of Lee County, Virginia, was one of the eye witnesses to the hanging, and his report was as follows:

“I left Virginia on Sunday before the Monday of the hanging. l stayed all night with Daniel Skidmore who lived on the knoll on the Skidmore Farm on Martins Fork, about four miles from town. Five or six others were there with me, some of whom accompanied me over the mountain to Kentucky. Monday was a dismal rainy day but this did not deter the people from coming out to see. The town was full of people. However, about one o’clock the sun came out, which was a lucky break for the crowd who would otherwise have gotten soaked, for rain would not have kept anybody away."

"As the time approached for the execution the officers went to the jail to bring Overton out. Somehow he had gotten possession of a knife. and he bucked up and refused to come out. This posed a problem that was solved when someone threatened to throw chloroform into his cell. After threatening and with some persuasion he finally agreed to come out, and he was conducted to the gallows.

"As was customary in legal and public hangings a sort of religious service was held at the gallows. Rev. M. C. Burkhart conducted this service, and he took for his text, “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Rev. Burkhart sang the hymn, “The Unclouded Day," and after a short talk the trap was sprung and Overton dropped out of sight through a trap door in the scaffold.”

An interesting sidelight on the escape was that as Overton was making his ecape to Tennessee through the woods he had a rifle which he had procured at the jail at the time of his escape, and as he slipped through the woods he saw a man coming towards him. This man was “Bear” Hensley, who was squirrel hunting. Fate changed his course as he neared Overton, who stated that he had intended killing Hensley if he had come much closer, and he never knew until Overton told the story later how near he had come to death.

Nothing that has ever happened before or since has created so much of an impression on the people as this hanging. The execution took place in a low place near where the City School now stands. A tremendous crowd gathered there and took vantage points where they got a good view of the entire proceedings, This occurred in 1896, and now after more than seventy years this memory is still fresh in the minds of all who witnessed it, and the story has been handed down to the succeeding generations. There have been other hangings.... [article cut off here]


The Story of Buford Overton Told Again

Henry Harvey Fuson

Copied by Steve Green from typescript “Ballads of the Kentucky Highlands, Vol. 2” by Henry Harvey Fuson (November 20, 1939). Fuson Papers, Special Collections, University of Kentucky.

Note: Fuson frequently spelled the peddlers’ name Leob. I have changed it to the correct spelling of Loeb throughout. —SG

A few days ago an interesting paper was handed to us by our fellow-townsman H. D. Scott, which consisted of a longhand affidavit of attorney T. H. Howard, of Harlan, Kentucky, for Buford Overton. The affidavit bears [the] date August 20, 1895. The affidavit was evidently gotten up by attorney Poll French and sworn to by Buford Overton before T. H. Howard for the purpose of getting his murder case put off in order to give him time to obtain witnesses for his defense.

This was written before the days of typewriters in this county and consists of eleven pages.

It will be remembered by many people here that Buford Overton was tried, sentenced to be hung, confessed to the killing, and was hung, for the slaying of the peddlers Loeb and his wife on Martins Fork of Cumberland River in Harlan County, Kentucky. He was hung in the city of Harlan near where the house of H. F. Whitehead now stands.
But, before going into some of the details of this paper, it might be well to recount something of the slaying of these peddlers, the search and arrest of the slayers, and other facts relating thereto.

Carlo B. Brittain, who was about 18 years of age at the time, was about a mile below where the killing took place, at the hollow known as Bill Lee Branch, and was at the house of George Fee. He heard about the killings and went up to the place. The bodies had not been disturbed on his reaching the place, and he found the body of Mrs. Loeb lying in the road on Martins Fork about one-fourth of a mile above the Hagan road. The horse, with the wagon (they had been traveling in a one-horse, spring-seated wagon) had gone down the road about two hundred yards and had stopped at a little ravine at the foot of the hill. Loeb was sitting upright on the wagon seat, being a large fleshy man, dead, with the check lines dropped down between his legs.

Carlo B. Brittain and others carried them to the house of Minerva Middleton, near where the horse had stopped with the dead body of Loeb. They were identified by letters in Loeb’s pockets from his brother in Philadelphia. They searched the clothes of the two dead people and found $32 and some odd cents on a belt around the waist of Mrs. Loeb and beneath her clothes.

They were buried about 200 yards from the scene of the shooting, in the Middleton Cemetery. Later, through an arrangement with Hiram Fee, of Pineville, Kentucky, the brother of Loeb had the bodies taken up and shipped to Philadelphia.

It turned out later that Loeb and his wife had been robbed the night before while staying at Charley Hensley’s house, and they were killed the next morning after they had left the Hensley house. A good many people believe that the same parties who had robbed them killed them the next day to keep them from reporting the robbery. The way in which they were killed would indicate this. They were shot till dead. Loeb was shot twice, once through the mouth and again over the eye, both shots coming out at the back of his head. Mrs. Loeb was shot four times: in the bottom of the foot through the shoe, through from one cheek to the other, in the mouth and coming out at the back of her head, and again through the breast, near or through the breast bone.

John Middleton, as a boy, was going after the cows near his father’s home and found the dead bodies, he being the first to discover them and report the deaths.

The story of the capture of these men reads like a romance. Three men were later implicated in the killings: Buford Overton, Bill Overton, his brother, and John Scott. At the time the slayers were not known and the officers had to work out the information and run down the slayers. Officers from Harlan County tracked the men into Virginia, the killings having occurred near the Virginia line. There they were joined by the Virginia officers and the man-hunt was on. The officers found their first real clue when they learned that the three men, later apprehended, had purchased cartridges at Macklin’s store in Virginia the day before the killings. The proprietor of the store was known as Captain Macklin, having been a Confederate Captain in the Civil War.

The Harlan County officers retraced their steps to the Kentucky side of the mountain and brought back with them a Virginia officer by the name of Bill Tucker. Green Smith was then Sheriff of Harlan County. He organized a posse of 46 men to hunt down the slayers. The slayers had the reputation of being bad men and it was thought a battle would ensue when they had come up with them. Grant Smith, a brother of Sheriff Green Smith, was sent with about 40 men up Puckett’s Creek, the officers having heard the slayers were on that creek. These men went horse-back, this being in the days before good roads. P. Hensley, Jailer of Harlan County, who had a posse of 8 men, was sent by foot to the head of Puckett’s Creek to cut the slayers off if they attempted to escape in that direction. This was on Sunday morning, the killings having occurred on Saturday morning. They got to the foot of the mountain that leads over to the headwaters of Puckett’s Creek and decided they did not have enough men. They felt sure they would meet the slayers coming that way. So P. Hensley sent Carlo B. Brittain, one of his men, to get Grant Smith and his men. Brittain started on horse-back for the mouth of Puckett’s Creek and had gone about one-half mile, or near where the preacher Bill Lee lived, when he heard firing back where he had left the men. He hastened back to see what had happened. While the men had been waiting for Brittain to get Grant’s men and return, the two Overton boys, Buford and Bill, had come up and opened fire on the posse. The fight was on and bullets flew fast and furious. Before Brittain got back the firing had ceased, and, just as he came up, he saw them carrying Bill Overton down the hill and Buford Overton under arrest. Bill Overton had been shot through and was in a dying condition. He was carried to preacher Bill Lee’s house where he died that night. Buford Overton was taken to the Harlan County jail.

But, before Buford Overton was brought to the jail at Harlan, the officers took him to view the bodies of Loeb and his wife. He viewed the bodies very carefully and apparently without any emotion, so says Carlo B. Brittain who was present. Overton remarked: “That is a bad thing but I never done it.”

John Scott, a son of Wilson Scott, was with the Overton boys when Loeb and his wife were slain, but Buford Overton, in his confession, said that John Scott did not do any of the shooting. John Scott was sentenced to the penitentiary for life, but was later paroled or pardoned. After getting out of the penitentiary, he married and reared a family on Browney’s Creek, and a few years ago was killed on Wallins Creek, Harlan County.

Bufiord Overton, after his incarceration in the Harlan County jail, broke jail and escaped to Virginia, but was later apprehended and returned to jail.

Buford Overton was tried in the Harlan Circuit Court, when Judge Hall was judge, and sentenced to be hung. The instructions to the jury by Judge Hall are some of the shortest on record. “The court says to the jury that they will find defendant guilty of the murder of Julia Loeb and fix his punishment at death or at confinement in the state penitentiary for life at their discretion.” After his sentence he made a confession, in which he said that he and his brother Bill slew Loeb and his wife, but insisted that Scott did not fire a shot.

Poll French, an eccentric character and who was hard of hearing, defended Overton and Scott on these trials in the Harlan Circuit Court. He made a determined defense for his clients, and, in his speech to one of the juries, he was heard to say: “You’ll hang a beardless boy—one who has been led into it by older heads.”

In the affidavit refrred to above, the opening statement runs like this: “The affiant, Buford Overton, says that he is not ready for trial at this (August) term of court; that said Buford is a stranger, and scarcely knows anyone in Harlan County; that he is an orphan boy, with neither brother or sister, father or mother, with whom to advise; that he is only twenty years of age, cannot read print nor real writing, illiterate and without any business experience; that he has neither money with which to employ counsel nor experience to prepare his case; that he had to live all his life from hand to mouth and wherever he could get anything to do for a living.”

“The affiant, Buford Overton, states that he is not able to employ and secure legal counsel to represent him until the third day of the present term of court; that since their arrest on or about the 26th day of June, 1895, he has been confined in the Harlan County jail, etc.”

“He asks that the following witnesses be subpoenaed for his defense: David Lee, Bartholomew Combs, Stephen Tipton, Elijah Howard, Leonard Harris, Walker Parrott, William Lee, James Roark, Mollie Roark, Richard Lee, Levi Lee, Sarah Scott, James Scott, John Bradford, all of whom live in Harlan County, Kentucky, and also Cicero Macklin, Floyd Jones, Archibold Gilberry, Milton Wolfenberger, who live in Lee County, Virginia, which is just across the mountains from Harlan County.”

Overton in his affidavit tells of the difficulties of getting witnesses to the trial. This description will be interesting from the fact that it speaks of conditions before the days of good roads. “Lee County, Va., which is just across the mountains from Harlan County and who are frequently in said Harlan County, Ky.; that said witnesses above named, who live in Harlan County, reside from 14 to 18 miles from the Harlan Court House and with no convenience of travel, except by foot and horse-back over and across mountains and streams of water.”

The story is related here because of its connection with a ballad that appeared after the death of these peddlers. There was published by H. H. Fuson a book of ballads, “Ballads of the Kentucky Highlands,” in the early part of 1931, from the Mitre Press, of London, England, and incorporated therein was this ballad, “The Peddler and His Wife.” The words were furnished by Milt Unthank, of Harlan. This ballad was said to have been composed by Charley Oaks, then of Harlan but later of Richmond, Kentucky, a man who composed, played and sung many ballads of his own composition, as well as having sung and played most of the older ballads now extant in the mountains of Kentucky. This ballad has gone all over this mountain country and has appeared in a second publication. Josiah H. Combs, of the University of Oklahoma, in his book of ballads, “Folk Songs,” published by the University of Paris, France, in 1925, includes this ballad as from Knott County, under the title “The Irish Peddler.” Thus the folk-song has started on its rounds and in a hundred years the wording of this ballad will be much changed, perhaps, and its original tune will have changed to some other one that is thought more appropriate; but it will remain true to the general drift of the story, if we are to judge this one from the history of the ballad in general.

THE PEDDLER AND HIS WIFE

One day the sun was rising high,
A day in merry June;
The birds set singing on a tree,
All nature seems in tune.

A peddler and his wife were traveling
Along a lonely way,
A-sharin’ each other’s trial and care,
They both were old and grey.

They were laborin’ and toilin’ hard,
A living for to make;
They did not know, nor did they think,
They their lives would take.

Just as the wagon came along,
Shots rang out upon the air;
And, while the echo died away,
Terrible was the experience there.

His wife pitched out upon the ground
And tossed her dying head.
The men rushed up to take her gold,
Poor lady she was dead.

The horse rushed on with dying man,
Till kind friends checked his speed.
Alas, alas, it was too late
To stop this horrible deed.

Now they are sleeping in the tomb,
Their souls have gone above,
Where thieves disturb them now no more,
For all is peace and love.

Bill Overton, brother of Buford Overton, was killed at the time Buford Overton was arrested. Buford Overton was hung in Harlan for the crime, after his sentence and confession. John Scott was sentenced to the penitentiary for life, but was later pardoned or paroled, married and reared a family and was killed a few years ago on Wallins Creek in Harlan County. Thus ends the tale of the slayers of Loeb and his wife, the peddlers. But the song of the tragedy goes on and has, and will and more, become a folk-song for the singers of future generations in these hills.

 


Last Update: August 26, 2011