Saturday, June 2, 2012

T.J. Barnett/J.L. Combs murder trial

I had an uncle whose given name was Thomas J. Barnett. He was the son of Jackson Barnett and Lavicia Back. I descend from Jackson and his second wife, Phoebe Napier, daughter of Patrick P. Napier and Rhoda Campbell, whose son Andrew Jackson Barnett is my 2nd great grandfather.

Apparently, Thomas died without children and some of his personal effects passed down to my great grandmother, Leola Marie Barnett Marks. These included the original copies of his discharge papers after serving in the Spanish-American War, and also a handwritten account of his own personal testimony about what happened when he shot and killed W.A. Matthews in 1923 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His testimony says that he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the charges were dismissed.

Now I received this handwritten testimony and found it fascinating. I wanted to do more research on the case, so first I checked LexisNexis, an enormous online database of court cases. I figured if the case really went to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the database would have some record of it. Well, I searched and searched and couldn't find anything. So then I contacted the Garland County Law Library in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They looked and couldn't find any cases involving a T.J. Barnett or any Barnett's at all in the time frame I'd given them. Luckily, the woman I spoke to decided to look in the newspaper archives, and found the murder. But it said that the murder had been committed by a man named "J.L. Combs". I had never heard this name, and didn't know what to think. I knew my uncle's name was Thomas J. Barnett and he was claiming he killed W.A. Matthews, and then here's the newspaper saying that J.L. Combs killed W.A. Matthews. So I went back to LexisNexis and was finally able to find the case searching with "Combs" instead of "Barnett". What I found was very interesting.

"The appellant, in answer to question, stated on cross-examination, that, in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where he was born, his mother died when he was a very small boy, his father left Kentucky, and he was reared by foster parents to manhood, and took their name of Combs. His real name was Tom Barnett. His grandmother on his mother's side was named Combs, and he took the initials "J. L." of his grandfather on his mother's side, when he left Kentucky. Everybody knew the circumstances under which he was brought up. He was known in the same place -- Breathitt County -- by some people as Tom Barnett and by some as J. L. Combs."

Well, this certainly put a twist on things. The information lines up with what we know. Lavicia Back died in 1890, when Tom would have been about 13 years old. His father married Phoebe Napier not long after that, and headed off to Arkansas, with he and Phoebe each leaving all of their children behind. (Phoebe was previously married to Jackson's first cousin, James Barnett son of David. She had had 5 children by him, and Jackson had had 5 by Lavicia.) Tom's maternal grandmother's name was Combs, as she was Rachel Combs who married Isaac Back. What doesn't fit is that his maternal grandfather's name was Isaac, and therefore did not start with a "J". I originally thought that there were two answers as to why this doesn't fit. Either A) he meant to say (or did say and the transcription is wrong) "paternal" grandfather instead of "maternal", which would mean he was referring to Joshua Barnett, or B) he meant to say maternal "great"-grandfather, in which case he would likely have been referring to well-known business man John Back. However, I then hit a snag.

Tom's discharge records give his date of birth as November 15th, 1877. Well, I decided I wanted to see which name he was under when he filed his World War I Draft Registration. So then I came up with a "James L Combs", in Garland County, Arkansas, born November 15th, 1877. So he was going by James, which was not the name of any of his paternal or maternal grandfather's or great-grandfather's as far as I have been able to tell. So was he just b.s.-ing how he came up with that name and hoped no one would question it, or is there some part of his genealogy that I have wrong? It's hard to say, really. Jackson's parentage has been a tricky, mysterious undertaking that has only led to a guess based on circumstantial evidence.

That evidence is:

1. Jackson was born in 1850, almost certainly in Breathitt County, KY. In the household of Joshua Barnett and Jane Hays in the 1860 Census there is a 10 year-old "John Barnett". It has taken some convincing for me to accept that "John" could be a nickname for "Jackson", but after researching a Jackson Whitaker and finding him clearly listed in the 1900 Census on John Whitaker, I've decided it's certainly possible.

2. In the 1870 Census, Jackson Barnett is living with his wife, Lavicia, and their daughter, as well as a 12 year-old Henry Barnett, who is clearly too old to be Jackson's son. As luck would have it, in the aforementioned 1860 Census of Joshua and Jane Barnett, they have a 2-year old son named Henry Barnett, and Kentucky Birth Records prove he is their son.

3. In the 1880 Census, Jackson's household is in Enumeration District Number 16 in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky. He is household number 9. Right directly next door to him is Jane Hays Barnett and her son, William, in household number 8. And 6 households away from Jackson, in household number 3, is James Barnett, another son of Joshua Barnett and Jane Hays.

Please note: These 3 pieces of evidence were astutely compiled by my distant cousin Brittany Marschalk, who spent a long time trying to sort out Jackson's parentage, just as I have. It took me a long time to accept this evidence as "enough", but I've decided that it is. Further, in the 1900 Census, Jackson's daughter, Martha Barnett Robinson, has a "Joshua Barnett" who fits the bill as Joshua Barnett Jr., Jackson's father. The problem is Joshua was not located for the 1870 or 1880 Censuses, leading most to assume he died, but if this is the same Joshua Barnett, then clearly he did not, and must have simply abandoned his family and gone elsewhere. (A family trait that Jackson clearly inherited.) This Joshua is listed as Ancil Robinson's "Father-in-law", but it most likely was supposed to be "Grandfather-in-law", though I've not ever seen that spelled out on a Census record.

Anyway, back to Tom Barnett. Who knows why he really decided to change his name to "James L Combs"? We'll probably never know. But now I'm going to share my transcription of his handwritten account of his altercation with W.A. Matthews. Near the end, he mentions Hot Springs Chief of Police Oscar Sullivan, and says it was primarily Sullivan's false testimony that garnered him a guilty verdict originally. Well, the main reason Tom likely got off is because it was found that Oscar Sullivan was a pretty corrupt man, and he was murdered the day Tom was released from custody. Sullivan's murder became a pretty hot story around the country at the time. One of the articles written on the occurrence can be found here: http://newspaperarchive.com/palo-alto-reporter/1924-04-24/

This is Thomas J. Barnett's hand-written testimony regarding the killing of W.A. Matthews, as transcribed by myself on October 5th, 2011.


At 4:30 p.m. on the evening of August the 4th 1923, I proceeded to the office of W.A. Mathews at 222 (Valley) Street, Hot Springs, Arkansas, as prearranged with him for a settlement on staves that I had cut for him on contrast with a mill belonging to said W.A. Mathews, and for which I was to be paid $27.50 per thousand staves. Delivered on Rock Island Railway at Moore’s switch, 14 miles from Hot Springs.

On arriving at door of said office at 222 (Valley) Street. I was met at the front door by one Lem Burkes, who was at this time working for me at the mill. I stopped him and asked him the whereabouts of a boy by the name of Irving who was driving a train for me at that time hauling staves. In answer to my inquiry Burkes said he was somewhere up town. At that time, I noticed Burkes was pale and seemed to be excited, but I made no comment to him in regard to this, and he walked on up the street and I went on into the office and stopped at a long table in the front room and was getting some books out of my coat pocket which I carried on my left arm.

There was a partition across the building and in this to my left was a door leading out from a small room which Mr. Mathews used as a private office. On entering I did not see Mr. Mathews anywhere, but I had saw him while I was talking to Burks through the two open doors and I knew he was somewhere in the back of the building. Presently, while I was still getting the books out of my coat pockets, I heard footsteps coming out of the private office doors and looked up to speak to Mr. Mathews. And when I did so I saw him with a double-barreled shotgun to his shoulder and both hammers back and presented at my chest across the table. I yelled “My God! Don’t shoot me!” and at the same time turned my right side to him as he fired, the charge striking me in center of the chest, passed out under my left arm, and cut my arm half in two and passed on breaking out a window. I staggered backward and fell on a toolbox that set on the left side of the door coming in from the street.

I was almost blinded by the shock, and blood was gushing from my mouth. Mr. Mathews came around the end of the table and advanced rapidly on me fumbling and pulling at the triggers of the shotgun in an effort to shoot me again with the left-hand barrel of the gun which still had the hammer back.

For some reason he failed to pull the trigger or the gun was out of order and the hammer would not fall, I do not know which. But as he came within reach of me he jabbed me in the right side with the muzzle of the gun and at the same time I siezed the gun barrell with my right hand and pulled him closer to me, throwing my left arm over the gun barrell and at the same time catching my right hand in the waistband of his pants. And getting to my feet, we struggled across the room and into the private office where I tried (to) knock the phone off the shelf, but failed to reach it, and at the same time he was trying to get the muzzle of the gun against my head and I had to keep him pulled up close to me with my right hand which I still held to (the) waist band of his trousers. And at the same time I was calling for help all that I could, but none came. Finally after we struggled for what seemed to me like ages, we brought up against the left wall of the front room, and Mr. Matthews seemed to be out of breath and ceased in his efforts to get loose from me and stood against the wall with the gun between his body and (the) wall. It was then I let loose of my hold on him with my right hand and reached for my right front pants pocket where I had a .25 cal Colt automatic pistol containing four shells, but when fully loaded contains seven shells. The 3 missing I had fired at a rat before leaving the C___p that morning in the presence of a dozen people. After I reached the pistol and drew it out of my pocket and released the safety catch, I said “Mr. Matthews, why did you want to kill me?” and when he made no reply I said to him “You better tell me for I am going to kill you.” I already had the pistol against his left side, and as I said this I fired two shots, and as he slumped forward I tried to shoot him in the head, but was blinded so I could not see, and these two shots passed through his neck and shoulders, and when he fell on his face, I fell on him.

Mr. Mathews fell across the shotgun, and I lay on him some moments and tried to ascertain if he was killed or not and I decided that he was as I could not hear him breathe. I crawled over to the toolbox (and) pulled myself up onto it and after several efforts got to my feet and went out the door onto the sidewalk. And as I stepped out George Young came up to me and said to me “What on earth is the matter?” and I replied “Mr. Mathews shot me and I think I have killed him—go see about him.” And Mr. Young turned and went on into the office and I walked diagonally across the street to the Scott Mager Commission Co.’s wholesale place of business where a dozen or more men were in front of the building (all witnesses later). Someone called an ambulance and another placed a chair and I sat down on it and upon looking down at the wound in my chest I discerned the charge from the shotgun had cut my tie in two and carried it into me and the ends were protruding out of my chest.

Finally after what seemed like ages an ambulance arrived and I was taken to (Levi) Hospital. But in the meantime Oscar Sullivan, Chief of Police of Hot Springs had appeared and as I was getting into the ambulance I told him that Lem Burks was the closest person to the office when the shooting took place, and he took an envelope out of his pocket and asked me to repeat the name and wrote it down. He later denied this transaction on the witness stand and after, I was convicted and given a 5 year sentence. As a strange coincidence, he was shot and killed by Hubert Coats in the morning of the very day that the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed my case and I was dismissed without another trial. 

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