Friday, June 8, 2012

The French-Eversole War


The French-Eversole War was one of several violent blood feuds that took place in eastern Kentucky throughout the last half of the 19th Century. This particular feud took place in Perry County, KY. My connection is that the father of Joseph C. Eversole (Major John C. Eversole), the leader of the Eversole clan in the conflict until his murder, was a first cousin of my great great grandfather, Robert Eversole (who was born in Perry County, and lived in the general area for years before moving to Arkansas a few years before the war began). Major John's father, Woolery, and Robert's father, Joseph, were brothers, both sons of Jacob Eversole and Mary Kessler. So although I haven't found any direct ancestors that have been documented as being directly involved with the fued, family lore indicates that some were involved to some minor extent, and many of their cousins were heavily involved. Robert's older brother, Henderson, and several of Henderon's sons lived in Perry County throughout the conflcit, so they could have been involved in any of the skirmishes that included dozens of nameless Eversole loyalists. The many courthouse fires that have been experienced in Perry and its surrounding counties have destroyed much of the information which could have indicated who exactly was involved with the feud.

What one needs to understand is that these Kentucky feuds were, for the most part, virtually nothing like the stereotypes accompanying the folklore of Kentucky family feuds, perpetuated in large part thanks to one of the more tame but infamous fueds, the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. Thanks to sensationalizing by the newspapers of the time, many began to associate Kentucky feuds with 3-toothed mem lugging their shotgun in one arm and their jug of moonshine in the other, slurring their words and shooting anyone who could read a book; unfortunately, those stereotypes have continued to the present day, but they hold little basis in fact. Most of the leaders of the clans involved were well-educated businessman, sometimes even politicians. The leaders in the French-Eversole War were both lawyers and succesful business-owners, and even the brutal murderer, "Bad" Tom Smith was a well-read poet and songwriter. And these feuds did not begin because one man gave another man's wife a funny look or one stole another man's prized goat; in the case of the French-Eversole Feud, it began because of one man's corrupt greed in the county's timber industry, and another standing up to him.

I've collected several summaries of the feud, including full chapters dedicated to the conflict in John Ed Pearce's Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky (1994) and Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies by Charles G. Mutzenberg (1917). The following are excerpts from a summary included in Clay County Family Roots and Beyond, Vol. 5 A: Jacob and Mary Eversole compiled by James E. Welch Sr; it was originally written by Mary Brewer as part of her book Rugged Trails To Appalachia:

"Hazard, Kentucky became the center of the French-Eversole Feud, which raged from 1887 to 1894. It began between two friends, Joseph C. Eversole and Fulton French, both able lawyers and merchants.

The quarrel began over a disagreement the two men had concerning land lease transactions. Companies outside Perry County and Leslie County were buying timber in Perry County, and Mr. French represented one of the companies. Mr. Eversole thought the people were being underpaid for their timber and land. Every time the interested parties held a meeting, the quarreling became more intense and feelings rose to a high pitch.

A clerk, who worked in Mr. French's store, became jealous of Mr. French over a woman and saw the quarrel as a means to get rid of his rival. He sought out Mr. Eversole and told him that Mr. French had hired an assassin to kill him. Mr. Eversole doubted this and asked the clerk to prepare an affadavit affirming what he had told him. This, the clerk skillfully rigged and presented to him. Believing his life to be in jeopardy, Mr. Eversole began recruiting and arming friends and relatives. Mr. French saw the armed gathering and also recurited and armed forces, some because of kinship or friendship and others for hire."

The aforementioned summary of how the feud began seems to be fairly well-agreed upon across the board. After this point, however, there are many different variations of what happened concerning the first victim of the feud, and the various retaliations that followed up. In an attempt to keep this brief, however, I'm going to skip ahead to the stories regarding Joseph Eversole's murder, and several years later, Fulton French's murder.

The following is an excerpt from The Hanging of "Bad Tom" Smith and the Events Leading to His Hanging Including a Brief Account of the French and Eversole Feud by Charles Hayes (1969). The 
event occurred on April 15th, 1888 in the valley of Big Creek in Perry County. The only variable of this story that seems to be disagreed on is whether or not Judge Josiah Combs, father-in-law of Joseph Eversole and uncle of Nic Combs, was also present at the time of the assassination. (Pearce and Mutzenburg contend that he was riding with Eversole and Nic Combs; Brewer and Hayes make no mention of his presence) Beyond this factor, the events summarized here are fairly well-agreed upon.

"In 1888, another more indescribable murder occurred. Again Smith was the principal. However, on
this job he had three members of the French Gang to aid him in carrying out a double killing. The
gang had tracked Joe Eversole for several days trying to get within bullet range, but always found
Eversole well protected. However, since Eversole was unaware that four manhounds were on his
trail, his usual carefulness slipped one bright summer morning. He and young Nicholas Combs [age 21] were riding from the Eversole stronghold into Hazard this fair morning when sharp sounds hushed the birds' songs. 

As the bullets sunk into their intended targets, both men slumped to the ground. At once Smith jumped from his ambush hiding place and began searching the dead body of Eversole. He took everything from the dead man's pockets worth having and turned to search young Combs' body. However, when he began searching the pockets of the young man's coat, Combs regained consciousness and recognized Tom Smith. Very weakly he asked Smith why he had shot him since the
two were somewhat distant friends? Smith answered by shooting the boy through the head killing
him instantly. Even his comrades in crime turned away from this foul deed. However, Smith was
heard to say in an undertone that he could not afford to leave any living witnesses."

The following is an excerpt from Days of Darkness by John Ed Pearce summarizing Fulton French's 
final end:

"One last episode remained to be played out as a finale to the French-Eversole war. Fult French, though wealthy and a fairly prominent attorney, feared that he might still have enemies and took to wearing a bullet-proof vest. Conscience is a merciless master, and he was still wearing it in the winter of 1913 when, in the entry hall of a boarding house in Elkatawa, he ran into Susan Eversole [wife of Joseph Eversole, daughter of Josiah Combs], the death of whose husband and father he had probably ordered. Mrs. Eversole was still in black, as was the custom of the time for widows, and was accompanied by her son Harry, a slender, one-handed man (he had shot himself in the hand, necessitating amputation). Startled, Susan stumbled slightly. "Good morning, Mrs. Eversole," he said and put out his hand. Susan stared, then turned her back on him. French turned to leave, but Harry pulled a pistol, and French bolted out the front door and jumped a low fence surrounding the yard. As he did, Harry shot him, hitting him just below the vest, apparently puncturing his liver or spleen. Harry's second shot missed, and French kept running. Since the shot had not killed French, Harry could not be tried for murder, so the judge fined him $75 for disturbing the peace. Susan paid the fine.

But in the strange if slow way in which the mills of justice sometimes grind, Fulton French died of the wound more than a year later."

For more information on this feuds and others, I recommend both Pearce's and Mutzenberg's books. There are many more fascinating events that occurred during the feud, especially the Battle of Hazard.

Originally written by Nathan Vaughan Marks 22 Nov 2011; revised 8 May 2012

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