February 19, 2015

Jeff Mercer Kills Hopkins Foster, Pulaski, 1874


Click here for a list of my other Pulaski/Rockcastle/Laurel County KY articles


A group of men gathered at the Greenwood Hotel in order to investigate a rumor involving a black railroad worker and the daughter of a white railroad contractor named Clark. The meeting escalated into a drunken melee in which at least two people were injured. Factions involved in the fight left to obtain additional arms from different locations and return to fighting. When one party was returning, a man named Hopkins B. Foster who had not been involved in the melee (but worked for the railroad with some of those that were) tried to stop further fighting, but due to his "rashness" was shot and killed by Rev. T. J. Mercer.


[June 1, 1874] -

Trouble at Point Isabel.--One Man Killed and Two Wounded.

On Monday, last, a young man by the name of Walters was sent for and brought to the "Point" that he might make an explanation regarding certain remarks that he had circulated in the neighborhood about a young lady whose name he did not know. He was taken to a room by two of the Clarks and others who felt themselves aggrieved, where they met Jeff Mercer, who was there by accident quietly whittling, knowing nothing of any remarks having been made, or that there was a difficulty brewing. After reaching the room an explanation was demanded, when Walters, who is a nephew of Mercer, commenced by repeating what he had previously stated, when he was knocked down with a chair and badly beaten by two of the Clarks and perhaps others. Mercer, of course, attempted to release his nephew from his assailants, when he was also knocked down and otherwise maltreated; and while leaving the room he was shot at four or five times, none of the balls, however, taking effect. Mercer went home, a short distance from the Point, and soon returned to the scene of the late conflict, when he was accosted thus by Foster, "You had better go home; or you had better leave here, you d--d coward, and not be slipping around in the bushes trying to kill our men." Mercer being in no mood to receive such an insult--his blood being hot--boiling with rage and excitement over the treatment inflicted upon himself and nephew, replied by saying: "I'll show you whether or not I am a d--d coward," leveled his gun and fired at Foster, who was over a hundred yards distant, the ball taking effect just below the nipple, killing him instantly. In the me[a]ntime the other parties who were engaged in the first difficulty had taken refuge in safe quarters. After the killing Mercer reloaded his gun and went to the place where the unfortunate Foster had fallen, saw that he was dead, and walked quietly away.

This is certainly one of the most unfortunate and deplorable difficulties that ever took place in our county.

Foster, who was killed, was married in [?] [?] [leaves a] young wife, who fainted after hearing of the tragic end of her husband and is yet in a critical condition. Deeply do we sympathize with her in this her saddest of all bereavements. Her husband was not engaged in the difficulty with young Walters an how unfortunate that he spoke to Mercer in such a manner, he being in so terrible a rage.

The Clarks are railroad contractors and work near the Point. Foster was in their employ.

Jeff Mercer is a man well-known in our county, and highly respected as a clever gentleman and a minister of the Gospel.

About fifteen shots were fired in the first difficulty, in which old man Clark and one of his hands by the name of Dunn were wounded, the former with a knife, the latter by a pistol shot, both slight.

Old man Clark, the contractor, has the reputation also of being a clever gentleman, and, we learn, regrets the difficulty as much as any other good man, and boldly asserts that he is not to blame. Work on his sections was stopped but for a short time, and our latest advice is "all quiet at the Point."

The foregoing facts and circumstances we have from disinterested parties, from which we must condemn both parties, and by no means can we condemn the one and approve the conduct of the other.

The worst and saddest feature in the case is the killing of an innocent man, which must forever destroy the happiness of one our best citizens, who has permitted the evil of sudden heat and passion to [?] his better judgment.

None of the parties engaged in the difficulties [have?] yet been arrested. [1]


[June 5, 1874] -


LOUISVILLE, June 4. -- A special to the Courier-Journal says a fight occurred to-day between a number of citizens, at Burnside Point, Pulaski County, Kentucky, and laborers on the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. The cause of the quarrel is not given; but in the affray one railroad man was killed, and one railroad man and two citizens badly wounded. The dispatch says further trouble is hourly expected. Many citizens are in arms and declare that the railroad men must leave the county. No telegraph communications with the town. The above fact was reported at Danville by stage passengers to-night. [2]


[June 8, 1874] -


The trouble in Pulaski county, Kentucky between citizens and railroad men seems to have the result of a drunken quarrel. A railroad man named Foster was shot and killed by Jeff Mercer, a local Methodist preacher. It is reported that several others were wounded, some sixteen shots having been fired. [3]


[June 9, 1874] -

A Fight.

DANVILLE, KY., June 5.-- The citizens of Burnside Point and the railroad men are fighting. One railroad man has been killed and one wounded. Two citizens have been wounded. Many armed citizens declare that the railroaders must leave the country. [4]


[June 12, 1874] -


Corrected Version of the Recent Troubles on the Line of the Cincinnati Southern.

SOMERSET, KY., June 8.

To the Editor of the Cincinnati Gazette:

Seeing that the public are receiving great mistakes about the difficulty that occurred a week ago at Point Burnside, on the line of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, in which Foster, a man engaged on the road under Clark's contract, was killed by Mercer, a citizen living near, and understanding that the reports and impressions that have gone abroad in reference are having a damaging influence, I write to state positively that the affair did not originate not result in any general animosity or prejudice between "citizens" and "railroad men" as such. I visited the "Point" next day after the tragedy, and received accounts from persons of parties in the difficulty and citizens who were present but did not participate. There was then no hostile array.

The facts briefly are: On Sunday two young men, citizens, friends of Mercer, who had lived in his family, crossing the river, saw a colored man living with Mr. Clark, contractor, use some familiarity playfully with Miss Clark, the contractor's daughter, on the river bank. One of the young men told of it int he presence of an employe of Clark, and it got to the family in some way.

Monday, in the forenoon, several of Clark's men, foreman, &c., Clark's brother, and perhaps Clark himself, sent by some of their party to where these young men lived, some miles on the opposite side of the river, for them to come over to the Greenwood Hotel, a drinking house, and face the man who had reported their story. On their way, and near to the hotel, they were met by Mercer, on the way from his house to the river, and he thinking, as he says, that the boys might get into some trouble, turned and went with the party. After some waiting for the man who had heard and reported the day before arrived, the story was talked over and explained, and some bystanders say there was not much dispute, and that Clark, who was most interested, seemed willing to drop it without asking further satisfaction. But one Dunn, a foreman on Clark's work, who, it is said, was drinking, knocked one of the young men down with a chair. Mercer, who hitherto had not interfered, started to protect his friend from further violence, and he was struck, and the fight speedily became general. At one time Mercer was seen fighting against three, and they all using clubs; chairs, knives, and pistols were used; ten to fifteen shots were fired. After the keeper of the house had closed the door for safety (the fight began in front) the Clark party came with a rush against the door; all entered, shut the door, and began some of them to fire from the windows. Mercer and his boys now went off to M.'s house for arms. While they were gone the Clark party moved up to Clark's store, nearly half way and a little off the way to Mercer's house. When the Mercer party were returning, evidently determined "to see it out," Mr. Foster, who was not present at the former encounter, and who doubtless had received a one sided account--at least, the account from one side--of the fight, which probably led him to place himself in an indiscreet attitude, presented himself, and ordered Mercer and his men away, denouncing them as a set of d--d cowards, and while defying was shot by Mercer.

The parties were distant from 125 to 150 yards. Mercer declares he did not distinguish Foster from one who had been in the fight. In view of all the circumstances, it is no reasonable conclusion that Foster, whose death is much lamented, was wantonly shot, without provocation, even by this maddened party, because he was a railroad man simply.

Whatever the degree, and whatever the place or places of turpitude in this sad affair, I reaffirm that it is not, nor has been, any war between "citizens" and "railroad men," no attack nor threat of "Pulaski" against any stranger in any peaceful pursuit.

Pulaski's greater dissatisfaction is that more railroad men are not here with their means for forwarding the work. So far from there being any hostile spirit existing in this community, it is a fact that the residents along the line of work on a railroad have had their houses open for boarding, and the men have generally depended on them for living, and thus far have behaved themselves remarkably well.

Yours respectfully,

J. W. F. PARKER. [5]


[June 15, 1874] -


Peace and Quiet at Point Isabel.

We regret the publication of so many different versions of the late difficulty at Point Isabel in our county, between the Clark brothers, young Walters, Mercer and others, which may, perhaps cause serious impressions abroad regarding our R. R. contractors and their hands generally.

The unfortunate occurrence referred to was such an one as might have originated in any locality, and it is very wrong and unjust that all railroad men in our county should be held responsible or in bad repute because a few employees and hands were engaged in a single difficulty.

We are acquainted with James Clark, Messrs. Reed & Flannery, the Cummins' and Vaughan's, and also the Kerr Brothers, all of whom bear the reputation of being high-toned and honorable gentlemen--law-abiding men, and we can with pleasure say tot he people at large that peace and quiet now reign supreme at the Point and beyond there in our county. And from reliable information received, the most pleasant relations exist between the railroad men and our citizens not only at the Point, but throughout Pulaski county, through which sixty miles of the road is being made. Hands are daily arriving and the work progressing, while there is no probability of a renewal of the past difficulties.

Will the Courier-Journal and other Kentucky papers please publish the foregoing. [6]


[June 18, 1874] -

HORRIBLE MURDER.-- We regret to chronicle the tragic death of Mr. Hopkins B. Foster, well and favorably known to the railroad men of West Virginia. It appears from the meager facts at our hands, that Mr. Foster was connected with the building of a railroad running through Pulaski county, Kentucky, and the hands employed in the construction of the road, were on strike, and had during their strike imbibed too much whiskey, in consequence of which they became involved in trouble with the citizens of the county who lived along the line of the road.-- Mr. Foster, together with other officers of the road were endeavoring to induce the men to resume work, and cease annoying the citizens. Jeff Mercer, a local preacher of the Methodist persuasion, was very violent and turbulent towards the employers of the road, and was conspicuous for the bold manner in which he carried a double-barrelled shot gun. One morning during the strike, Mercer became involved in some difficulty with one of the hands of the road, and the railroad men fearing the result, left Mercer, at about which time Mr. Foster came upon the scene, and told Mercer that it was cowardly in a man to follow an unarmed man with a shot gun fully charged, whereupon Mercer, without any further provocation whatever, deliberately discharged both barrels of the gun at Foster, the charges taking effect and instantly resulting in his death. Mr. Foster was married in April last to Miss Columbia Maupin, eldest daughter of our esteemed friend, C. W. Maupin, Esq., of Arbuckle, Mason county [W.Va.], and shortly after his marriage took up his residence in Pulaski county, Kentucky, the scene of the tragedy. As soon as information reached Mr. Maupin of the lamentable occurrence, he left at once for Kentucky. Mrs. Foster and her family have the sympathy of the entire county in their sad bereavement. [7]


[June 25, 1874] -

Murder in Pulaski County, Ky. 

A difficulty occurred in Somerset, Pulaski county, last week, in which Jeff Mercer killed a man by the name of Foster.

It seems that Mercer has an adopted son, who in connection with another claim that they saw a railroad man kissing Mr. Clark's daughter. (Clark is a contractor on the railroad.) The railroad hands heard of what the boy had said, and one of them came over to Mercer's house while he was gone, and asked the boys as to what they saw a man kissing this girl. The man then asked the boys to go over to Clark's house and tell what they saw, and give the lie to one of the hands who had told that the boys had said they had seen something else. The boys consented and went with him. When they arrived at Clark's, it happened that Mercer was there. Clark asked Mercer's adopted boy to tell him what he saw. He did so, and when he had finished, Clark knocked the boy down with a chair. Mercer sprang in and tried to pull Clark off when he was assaulted and pretty badly beaten up, he took the boys out of the crowd and three ran, followed by rocks, sticks and other missiles. Mercer went home for his rifle, and came back. The hands that were at work on the road saw him coming and all ran, with the exception of a man by the name of Foster, who it seems had charge of this section of hands. Foster sprang out in full view of Mercer, and cursing him bitterly, told him if the "wanted anything out of him" he could get it at the same shaking his fist at him, in a threatening manner. Mercer raised his gun and fired, shooting Foster through the heart. The distance between the two was about one hundred and fifty yards. It seems that Foster had nothing whatever to do with the first fight. He brought on his death by his rashness. Mercer not knowing who he was, nor what his intentions were at the distance he was from him. Foster had only been married four months. It is feared that his young wife will become insane from shock.

Foster was said to be a very nice gentleman, and was well liked by all who knew him. [8]


[June 22, 1874] -

Jeff. Mercer's Examining Trial.

The examining trial of Jeff. Mercer, who killed the man Foster at Point Isabel, some days since, took place before Esq. Strunk and Pierce, 7 miles south of Somerset, on the 18th inst.

We were not present at the trial, but a friend who was has kindly given us a synopsis of the evidence relating principally to the facts and circumstances which occurred after the first difficulty. 

In the first difficulty, is was proven that Mercer was at the Greenwood Hotel by accident and was knocked down, shot at several times and badly wounded; in fact it was proven by one of his friends that it was thought he was killed.

It was in proof that immediately after the fight at the Greenwood Hotel, Mercer and his party started home in one direction and Clark and his party in another, saying that they would head off the Mercer party. Clark's party went to Clark's house and armed themselves; which was proven by three witnesses, and, after arming themselves, left in the direction which Mercer and his party had gone. Mercer was told of the fact that Clark and his men were armed and on the hunt of him with the avowed determination to kill him. This information was given Mercer before the killing of Foster.

It was also proven in the trial that Clark sent word up to where he had two squads of men at work, that if any of them wanted to fight to come down to the commissary and he would arm them.

The man Foster, who was killed, was in the same ditch with Clark and his men after Mercer was notified that they were on the hunt of him to kill him. Clark and three or four of his men came out on one side of the ditch and Foster on the other, Foster raising his hand like he had a pistol in it, calling Mercer and his party damned cowards, at the time which Mercer fired.

It must be remembered that Mercer was still bleeding from the wounds received in the first fight [from? in?] which he interferred only for the purpose of preventing Walters, the young man whom he had raised, from being killed, or badly beaten by Clark and his men.

The Examination was full, and every witness that could be had was present at the trial; some of them having been off since the difficulty. The Clarks were summoned, but refused to attend, stating that they did not intend to have anything further to do with the matter.

After full investigation of all the facts Mercer was discharged by the court, and we must this is an end of the unfortunate difficulty. [9]


[July 10, 1874] -

Where Does the Blame Rest?

For the past five years Pulaski county has borne a name and reputation for peace, quiet and good order that any other county in the State might have envied. Our dram shops had been exterminated and our criminal docket reduced to two or three cases. But the past can now only be remembered for its good, and we must now seek to remedy the evils of the present day.

Our county is now fast gaining a reputation for crime and bloodshed that is ruining her hitherto good name for peace, order and the protection of human life.

Every few days we are called upon to chronicle some desperate deed, that of a cold blooded murder or a justifiable homicide, happening upon the railroad line in our county and the counties south of us, while the perpetrators and offenders are running at large and persisting in their crimes and unlawful acts with impunity. But few arrests have been made either for penal or criminal offenses, and but little disposition is shown on the part of our citizens to bring these desperate characters and law-breakers who are roaming over our country seeking the life-blood of their fellow man, to trial and justice. We hear many of them remark, "That it is none of our business and let the R. R. contractors manage their own men--make their own arrests and see to their own protection. They are to blame for bringing such a class into our county, who are doing so much murder and killing." At the same time some of our native citizens are among the guilty. Others are wild in their denunciations, and boldly assert that "our civil officers are negligent and fail to discharge their sworn duties." In this they are correct to a great extent. Others attaching the blame to whisky sellers and to those who possess a discretionary power to grant or withhold the granting of liquor license. Here we will not take issue with the citizen.

With the greater number of these most damnable and wicked deeds, we condemn the lame laws of our State and blame the framers thereof for the evil consequences resulting therefrom. That of granting hotel and merchant's license all over our country, with the privilege of retailing ardent spirits to any and all applicants, without regard to moral character or other qualifications, but simply upon a little exparte proof generally, which for the time being, seems to satisfy the demands of the statute. And occasionally you may meet with a hotel keeper in the country who endeavors to comply with the conditions of his bond and keep a quiet and orderly house, if such a thing be possible where there is a drinking saloon; but we venture to say that nine out of ten of the along the railroad line would abandon their hotels were you to deprive them of the privilege of selling whisky. So we must conclude that the controlling motive power is the selling of whisky, and not the benefit and comfort of the traveling public. 

The failure to bring murderers and offenders against the law generally to trial and justice must be attributed to the citizens of our community at large, and not alone to the neglect of our Sheriff and Constables.

It is not only the duty, but the law gives the right to a private citizen to make an arrest without a warrant. See Criminal Code, section 34: 

"A private citizen may make an arrest where he has reasonable grounds for believing the person arrested has committed a felony."

"Section 35-- A Magistrate or any Judge may orally order a peace officer or private person to arrest any one committing a public offense in the Magistrate's or Judge's presence, which order shall authorize the arrest."

These sections of our Code are sufficient authority and protection to any citizen who is willing to make the arrest of any person committing a felony. "But no, we will not do it. We believe in peace and order; we have officers whose duty it is to make arrests, and we will not jeopardize our lives simply for our country's good and protection." But now let us see what will bring them to a sense of their duty and cause them to forget danger. We will add on to the crime a little inducement to catch the criminal. Say $250 or $500, will not this have the desired result? Of course it will. We immediately hear of our good, law-abiding, patriotic citizens, by the tens and hundreds, in readiness for the daring adventure, because the laws of our State must be executed and her citizens protected. In this case we must contend that the alluring greenbacks are the great incentive to action, and not the crime or criminal; and we must come to the conclusion that the mass of our people think that the Criminal Code of State confers no authority upon the private citizen to make an arrest without the addiction of a reward.

How often does it occur that when a crime or an offense against our laws is committed, that it is impossible to get an officer to make the arrest in proper time. He may be in a different part of the county, and e'er you can see him or convey him word, the desperado and murderer is out of reach--fled to the rocks and hills--defying the law and daring the officer to pursue him. 

Now, in behalf of our county and her hitherto good name, we urge upon our railroad contractors, employees, and the good citizens of our county generally to come to the rescue and aid of the civil authorities in suppressing crime in our land, and in bringing to justice the perpetrators of murder and other crimes in our county. Take charge of the felons and scoundrels at once and bring them before the nearest Magistrate or Judge that the civil authorities may take charge of them, and our laws be vindicated, then you will have done your duty; which requires no warrant, but simply having reasonable grounds for believing that a felony has been committed.

A railroad contractor, or those in his employ, can always command force sufficient to make an arrest, and it is their duty to do so; and not only their duty, but it will prove of great benefit to them in the progress of their work as well as for the good of the country, and further, it is their duty to report crime to our officers and see that the offenders are arrested, because very many of these recent crimes, in fact all of them, have been committed immediately upon the rail road line, and, we learn, close to those hells of whisky and destruction.

Again to the private citizens and railroad men, do not wait for the officer when a crime has been committed, for fear that his coming may be too late, make the arrest yourself; and when these scoundrels and murderers find out that we are making the protection of life and law a common cause, they will flee our land, and more reliable and better men will come in their stead. [10]


[January 8, 1913] -

Findagrave entry for Rev. Thomas Jeff Mercer in Barren Fork Cemetery, McCreary County, KY.  Mercer's death certificate has also been uploaded to this entry. [11]


[1] "Trouble at Point Isabel." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. June 12, 1874. Page 3. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84038328/1874-06-12/ed-1/seq-3/ (Letter to IJ from Will C. Curd dated June 1, 1874)

[2] "A Riot at Burnsides Point, Kentucky." Cleveland Leader, Cleveland, OH. June 5, 1874. Page 1. Genealogybank.com.

Source [2] also printed in: "Cincinnati Southern Railway." Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Cincinnati, OH. June 5, 1874. Page 1. Genealogybank.com.

[3] Excerpt from "General Dispatches." The Rutland Daily Globe, Rutland, VT. June 8, 1874. Page 2. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022473/1874-06-08/ed-1/seq-2/

Source [3] also printed in: Excerpt from "Telegrams to the Star." Evening Star, Washington, D.C. June 6, 1874. Page 1. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1874-06-06/ed-1/seq-1/

[4] Excerpt from "By Telegraph." Macon Weekly Telegraph, Macon, GA. June 9, 1874. Page 6. Genealogybank.com.

[5] "Point Burnside." Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Cincinnati, OH. June 12, 1874. Page 1. Genealogybank.com.

[6] "Cincinnati Southern R. R." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. June 19, 1874. Page 3. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84038328/1874-06-19/ed-1/seq-3/ (Letter to IJ from Will C. Curd dated June 15, 1874)

[7] Excerpt from "Local Matters." The Weekly Register, Point Pleasant, WV. June 18, 1874. Page 3. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026817/1874-06-18/ed-1/seq-3/

[8] "Murder in Pulaski County, Ky." Glasgow Weekly Times, Glasgow, KY. June 25, 1874. Transcription by "sgorin" posted on ancestry.com Pulaski County message board on August 4, 2003.

[9] "Jeff. Mercer's Examining Trial." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. June 26, 1874. Page 3. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84038328/1874-06-26/ed-1/seq-3/ (Letter to IJ from Will C. Curd dated June 22, 1874)

[10] "Where Does the Blame Rest?" The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. July 10, 1874. Page 3. LOC. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84038328/1874-07-10/ed-1/seq-3/ 

[11] Rev. Thomas J. Mercer. Barren Fork Cemetery, McCreary County, KY. Findagrave.com.


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