Breathitt's "Bad Bill"

"The following is perhaps the single most important document found during our research on Captain Bill, for here we have his version of the events he was alleged to have been associated with, in his own words, through a reporter from the Courier-Journal. As far as we know, this was the only direct interview with the Captain regarding events pertaining to the Civil War and postwar feuds. The original story was extremely long, so for the sake of brevity and space, we have included only the portion pertaining to dialogue between the reporter and the Captain. Other parts of the interview have been summarized."

- David W. Strong ("At Rest Among Thorns")

Louisville Courier-Journal

January 6, 1879

LC-J: I have seen the King Bee at last and am now ready to introduce Captain William Strong to the readers of the Courier-Journal. He came to my room this evening; just before the winter sun sank to rest beyond the western hills, sans horns, war paint and other paraphernalia. Instead of looking fierce as the lion in his native jungle, or the tiger in defense of her cub, his face was as calm as the surface of a sleeping lake and reminded me no more of war than do the innocent flowers of May. I felt considerably relieved when I shook hands with him and beheld that springtime smile upon his face, for my memory was just then quite vivid with recollection of the adverse criticisms I had indulged in toward the mountain Captain, and the smile dispelled the thought that he had come to chaw me up. After sharpening three lead pencils to be used in the approaching interview, I said, Captain Strong, candor compels me to say to you that I have heretofore criticized you freely in the columns of the Courier-Journal. The other side has been told, and yours would have been long since, if I could have had the pleasure of seeing you. The Courier-Journal always likes to give both sides to a mooted question. Hence I am now ready to hear your version of the Breathitt County troubles.

Strong: Well, sir, I am willing to tell you everything I know about it, and I will just tell you p'int blank how it was. Where shall I begin?

LC-J: Go back to the antebellum days, or at least to the days of '61, when the cry on one side was that 'one Southern man can whip five Yankees,' and on the other that 'It will only take a little picnic excursion to crush the Hydra head of the rebellion.' Remember that time, don't you?

Strong: I rather think I do. You want me to tell you about my Army record, I suppose?

LC-J: The report is generally circulated that during the war you commanded a home guard company, and that you murdered unoffending citizens and confiscated their effects. What is your plea to the indictment?

Strong: It is all an infamous lie from beginning to end. I never killed one citizen during the whole time, and my nearest neighbors know I never robbed anybody. I commanded a company in the 14th Kentucky, and when that was mustered out, I returned home to live in peace, if I could. In the 14th Regiment were several men from Breathitt County...(missing line from the photocopy)... their depredations upon the people as soon as they returned home, and I was the first man they robbed. They stole some hogs from me and I had them indicted. Just before the war closed, the Amises and their gang got to be so bad a large number of people called on me to raise a company of militia for home protection. The state issued us rations. I raised my company and it was composed of half Union soldiers and half Rebels. Their orders from me were to protect everybody from thieves and murderers, and they done it, too. One day I went with two other men to a raft where four of the Amises were getting out logs. I told them I had come to see about my hogs, and if they didn't give them up, I intended to prosecute them. One of them was willing to do so, but the others swore they wouldn't do it and drew their guns on me. We got the drop on them, and I told them if they didn't put down their guns, we would kill them. They put them down, and I went off. From that time on, we had it rough and tumble. One morning 47 of them came to my house and attacked me. I had only six men. We fought two hours and forty-six minutes (2:46), when they retired with four wounded. After that, John and Alfred Amy and Wilson Callahan were killed. I sent County Judge Ned Strong word that I was willing to surrender and submit to an investigation if he would promise us protection. He agreed to do so and both sides were bound over to appear before the Circuit Court. The court came on and the judge dismissed the charges. I went home, the Amises moved off to Kansas, and that was the end of the difficulty.

LC-J: Well, what next? What originated the difficulty between yourself and the Little party in 1874?

Strong: Bless your soul, I never had any difficulty with them at that time.

LC-J: You didn't? Why in the world do so many people say you were in that trouble? They say you were the leader of the side opposing the Littles and Akemons.

Strong: There is not a word of truth in it. I give you my word that after the difficulty between the Amises and myself was settled, I did not fire another gun at a man until the Monday not long ago, when the last murder occurred.

LC-J: Are you joking in making that statement, to enjoy the surprise it occasions me, or do you mean what you say?

Strong: I mean exactly what I say. It is just p'int blank that way, and I can prove it by a thousand men in Breathitt County.

LC-J: Why Captain, I have been told by many persons that you have been at the head of a belligerent faction ever since the war, and that you are always seeking a fight.

Strong: I have noticed such reports in the papers, but if you will ask anybody but my enemies, they will tell you that it is not true.

LC-J: Men proclaiming to be your friends have told me so.

Strong: They were not really my friends, for they knew it was untrue when they told it.

LC-J: Well, this is indeed a revelation. Then you have only had two difficulties: the Amy affair and the one you were engaged in lately?

Strong: That is all.

LC-J: Please give me your version of that matter, beginning with the election for county judge.

Believed to be a cabinet card photo (at right) of William "Captain Bill" Strong taken at a studio in Winchester, Kentucky. An inscription on the back read, "To Eliz. Jett, with full compliments, Will. Strong, July 9, 1876." Also inscribed at the bottom of the photo are the words: "Cousin Bill Strong, Capt. Compy. K." (Photo from Stephen Bowling, Jackson, KY)

Strong: When Burnett was running for judge against Ned Strong, Ned and John Strong came to my house one day and we talked the matter over. Ned said if John Burnett was elected, he would not live four years, for Shade Combs had 50 men and he would see that he (Ned) was protected. Ned further said that as we had lived boys together, and were kinfolks, I ought not to be against him. I told him I was for Burnett, and if he was elected, I intended to help protect him, no matter who molested him; and further that I was a law-abiding man, and when a man was elected, I thought he ought to be allowed to hold the office. John Hargis said he would spend $1,000 before Burnett should take his seat as county judge. He told Burnett so to his face, and I heard it. Hargis had $6,772 in his hands as County Treasurer, which belonged to the road and bridge fund, and the first court Burnett held, he appointed a commissioner to settle with Hargis. Various other persons swore that Burnett should not be county judge.

LC-J: On Monday, the day the court met in November, how did that difficulty begin?

Strong: Accompanied by three men, I came to town to attend court. Some time afterward, the Gambrel and Little faction appeared, and seeing the Freemans, commenced firing without any provocation whatever. It was then that I got into my second difficulty since the war. The killing of the Freemans was a cold-blooded murder, and the men guilty of it should be made to suffer the extreme penalty of the law.

LC-J: I have heard it said that there were other persons concerned in the matter outside of those who were engaged in the fight. For instance, that the public moneys had been misappropriated, and knowing that Judge Burnett would probe the affair to the bottom, it was determined that he should be killed. What about it?

Strong: Well, sir, that has been currently reported, and there were many men who believed it to be true.

LC-J: Please tell me, Captain, the particulars of the Tuesday fight.

Strong: I am satisfied that there was a preconcerted plan to rescue Jason Little from the sheriff, and to kill Judge Burnett also, on Tuesday. The sheriff summoned me as one of his guards. When the sheriff arrived, or a short time afterwards, firing commenced, as if by signal. Judge Burnett fell, and after he had been killed, they turned their attention to me. Without going into detail, it is sufficient to say that they came to Jackson to rescue Jason Little and kill Judge Burnett and myself. They knew that I was Burnett's friend and would always offer him my protection, and if murdered, would try to avenge his death, hence they wanted me out of the way.

LC-J: About Tom Little, Captain. They contend that he came to Jackson to counsel submission and peace, and that he made active efforts to control his friends when the fight began. Is this true?

Strong: No, sir, it is not true, by far. Monday evening, Tom Little said, "If we don't settle the matter now, I can bring two-hundred (200) of my Ku Klux and then we can settle it."

LC-J: What did he mean by saying that? What did he want to "settle?"

Strong: Well, he was simply letting out part of his secret. They had planned to rescue Jason Little and murder Burnett, and that is what he called "settling it." Tuesday morning, he said to Burnett, 'You have not been a man of your word.' He did not say in what way Burnett had deceived him, although asked to do so. He repeated several times that Burnett had not been a man of his word, and then remarked, 'Blood flowed here yesterday, and has got to flow today.' In ten minutes from that time, Burnett was killed. Tom Little was undoubtedly the ringleader of the party and did as much, if not more, toward fomenting the trouble than any other man. I tried to prevail upon Judge Burnett to keep out of the sheriff's guard, for I knew they had resolved to kill him, and I did not care for him to give them the opportunity.

LC-J: Now, Captain, while we are on this immediate subject, let me call your attention to a rumor that was first circulated a few days since. If you wish to talk about it, do so; if not, I will not press the subject. The rumor is that a few days before the fighting occurred here, they tried to get you to join in an attempted rescue of Jason Little. What truth is there in the report?

Strong: I will tell you the circumstances and you can judge for yourself. I went over to Squire Gambrel's house to get some brandy for my son, who was sick with the chills. When I arrived, I found Alfred Gambrel (who is now in jail), Squire W. E. Gambrel (brother to Alfred) and James Little (Jason's father) all there. We were all on friendly terms, but I mistrusted them. They set out some brandy and asked me to drink. I told old man Little to drink first; that I never drank before my landlord. I think he suspicioned that I mistrusted something wrong, but nothing was said, and he drank. I then took a small drink, as did the others. Then the subject of Jason Little's guilt was brought up. They all said that Jason was guilty and ought to be hung. I saw through them and thought, as they were sounding me, I would sound them. "Oh, no," I said. "Jason ought not to be hung. If he was loose, he could go way somewhere and live. I knew if they suspected I would do anything against them, they would likely kill me, so I determined to humor them until I could get away. Another glass of brandy was set out and I took another small drink, while they imbibed freely. They kept on saying that Jason Little ought to be hung, and kept on asking me if I did not think so, and I would tell them, no, he ought to get off. Finally, after taking another drink, they took me around the corner of the house and revealed to me that they intended to rescue Jason; that they had been pumping me and believed I would help them, and as I was good as planning, they wanted me to plan the rescue.

I told them the only way to do it was to charge the guard and take the prisoner. The matter was talked about for a while, then telling them my son needed the brandy, I left. I went at once to Judge Burnett and told him what I had learned. He resolved that they should not succeed, and knowing what was going on, had good reason to think that a strong guard was necessary and volunteered to assist the sheriff himself.

LC-J: What is your opinion of affairs at the present juncture? Do you think, if speedy justice is not meted out to the guilty parties now, there will be more trouble in the future?

Strong: Why, Sir, if these men are not punished, there will be the worst times hereafter in Breathitt County you ever heard of. What has been done in the past will be nothing to what will take place in the future. I certainly do not intend to run, and I know as well as I am now alive, that nothing will satisfy them until they kill me and several other citizens. I do not intend to seek a fight, but I intend to do as I have done heretofore; defend myself when attacked and give them the best I have got. There is no use for me to be backward about it. They are thirsting for my blood and will shed it as soon as they can. They murdered Judge Burnett, as clever and honest a man as ever lived, and would not hesitate to kill anybody they consider in their way.

"That was the end of the actual interview, but the reporter continues, in much detail, to talk further about the Judge Burnett and Jason Little affair and the arrival of cavalry troops in Jackson. One of the first things he did was try to corroborate Captain Bill's interview statements by asking some of the more prominent citizens in Breathitt County if they were true. They were unhesitant in saying they were indeed true, just as Captain Bill said, and with great accuracy.

"The Courier-Journal also dispelled a strong rumor that the Captain had murdered the son of a very prominent man in Breathitt. The paper's reporter went directly to the man and asked him about it, to which he replied, "Not a word of it is true. I never knew of Strong's killing any citizen during the war."

"He spoke later that same evening with Major Kinney of the state troops. Kinney said he was thoroughly convinced that "from the developments already made, the killing of Judge Burnett was an atrocious and fiendish murder, the result of a cool, deliberate conspiracy. Bill Strong, Wallace McGuire, and their friends did nothing except that which was dutiful and commendable. These are the Major's words:

"I am of the firm opinion that if Strong had not responded to the call made upon him by Sheriff Hagins on that memorable Tuesday, and by his coolness and courage had inspired the wavering sheriff's guard, many others would have been killed. Jason Little, the wife murderer and suspected assassin of the peddler, would have been liberated. There is no evidence to justify the indictment of Strong or any of his men."

"Sheriff Hagins went out of office that very day and was replaced by Charles Little. With Jason Little now in custody in Jackson, he appeared before the circuit court the next day."