March 9, 2015

The Rockcastle Courthouse Fires, Rockcastle, 1873


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


The Rockcastle County Courthouse burned twice in 1873, once in February and again in August. Three men, Charles Bethurum, David P. Bethurum, and Andy Cummins, were reportedly indicted for setting it on fire. Charles was killed resisting arrest in Lincoln County in 1874. Andy was lynched in the raid on the Mount Vernon Jail in 1877. David later ran for and was elected County Judge, despite this and other indictments.  


[January 17, 1873] -

Our county is to have a new court house. The court of claims appropriated sixteen thousand dollars for its construction. The contract will be let out in the spring. It is to be built of brick on the site of the old one. The enterprise reflects credit upon the officers of the county, and meets the unanimous approbation of the tax-payers of the county. [1]


[February 21, 1873] -

Fire at Mt. Vernon.

On Thursday night, the 15th instant, the County Clerk's office at Mt. Vernon, Rockcastle county, was discovered wrapped in flames by the railroad employes on the freight train, at a late hour of the night. The alarm was given in time to save the court-house, but too late to get out but a small portion of the county records. The fire was evidently the work of an incendiary. [2]


[April 18, 1873] -

The bids for the building of the Rockcastle county court-house were opened this evenings, after the arrival of the mail, by the building committee. The contract was awarded Mr. T. J. Milbourn of Paducah, formerly of Lebanon, Ky. He purposes going to work immediately, and will complete the contract before cold weather. [3]


[May 2, 1873] -

His Honor's charge to the Grand Jury was very lengthy and forcible. He especially dwelt upon the prohibitory liquor law of our county. He spoke in reference to the benefit our county had derived from the law. He urged upon them the necessity of seeing that this law was fully enforced, to shrink not from their duties as grand jurors, and to carry out zealously and honestly their onerous duties as the appointed guardians of our county. The greater portion of the Grand Jury's time was employed in reinstating the old "burnt out" indictments. They adjoined yesterday sine die [without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing].

Owing to the records having been destroyed there was no standing petit jury, and but few cases were tried. The colored boy Bill Jack, who stole $20 from Mrs. Kirtley, a few months ago, had his trial yesterday, was found guilty, and sentenced to the State's prison for one year. [4]


[May 30, 1873] -

The old Circuit Clerks office was sold a short time since, by the Sheriff. Mr. J. L. Clark bid it off at $15. [5]


[August 29, 1873] -

The county and circuit Clerks office was burned on last Thursday night a week and all the records devoured by the flames. [6]


[October 3, 1873] -

The Grand Jury returned indictments yesterday against David and Charles Bethurum and Andy Cummins, for the burning of the Clerks office. Their bail was set at $1,500 each, upon their failure to give said bail, they were remanded to jail, and a guard summoned to guard it. [7]


[March 1874] -

Lincoln County Sheriff Walter Saunders kills Charles P. Bethurum in March 1874. The March 20, 1874 article in that post says:

It will be remembered that some time since the clerk's office in Mt. Vernon, Rockcastle Co., was burned, with all of its contents. Three men were charged with the crime of firing it, and two of them, namely C. P. Berthurum and Andy Cummins, were arrested and placed in jail there. We believe the other, R. P. Berthurum, escaped. In December last, the two broke jail and have been prowling about ever since, frequently visiting the house of one Purcell, who lives near Hall's Gap, in this [Lincoln] county, and who is a brother-in-law to Berthurum.


[March 27, 1874] -

It is reported that the man Andy Cummins, who escaped from the posse of Sheriff Saunders at the time [Charles] Berthurum was killed, is now prowling about Mt. Vernon, pretending to bid defiance to the officers of the law. We have seen braver and sharper desperadoes than Andy gobbled up by a single officer. [8]


[January 26, 1876] -

[David P.?] Bethurum sued Rockcastle Jailer Black, which reached the Kentucky Court of Appeals in January 1876. See full court opinion by clicking here Bethuram v. Black, Rockcastle, 1876. Here's an excerpt from that opinion:

"This action was brought by the appellant against the appellee, E. W. Black, jailer of Rockcastle County, and the sureties in his official bond, to recover the penalty given by section 8 of the habeas corpus act for disobeying that writ. He alleged in substance that at the September term of the Rockcastle Circuit Court he was indicted by the grand jury of that county for the crime of arson; that he was committed to jail by the circuit court in default of bail in the sum of $ 1,500; that on the -- day of October of that year he presented his petition to a justice of the peace of said county, alleging that he was innocent of the crime and was unlawfully detained in jail, and that the bail required of him was excessive; that the circuit judge was then absent from the county, and the county judge had refused to grant the writ and was incapacitated to act on account of being prejudiced against him; and that the justice applied to granted the writ directed to the appellee, who held him in custody; that it was served, and the appellee made return thereon to the justice who issued the writ and another sitting with him to hear the cause; that the appellee refused to obey the writ and bring him before the justices; that they adjudged the response insufficient and ordered the appellee to bring him before them, but he refused to do so. He made his petition for the writ, the writ itself, and the appellee's return thereon part of the petition, and prayed judgment for the statutory penalty of one thousand dollars."


[October 6, 1876] -

From Mr. James N. Reynolds, Jr., who was at Mt. Vernon last week, we learn that the Records of the Rockcastle Circuit Court, which were supposed to have been lose by the burning of the Clerk's office and other public buildings there some years ago, have been found. The grand-jury of the Rockcastle Circuit Court got on the trail of the Records, and last week their foreman, Mr. Ashby Owens went about three miles from Mt. Vernon, and in a cave found the books, which he brought to town safely. This was quite fortunate.

Jim Bethurum, a desperado, charged with many offenses, was caught in a distant part of the country and safely lodged in jail there. He and his brother Dane are both now in durance vile. [9]


[October 7, 1876] -

The books and papers of the Rockcastle Circuit Court, supposed to have been lost in the burning of the clerk's office and other public buildings several years ago, were recently found in a cave, about three miles from Mt. Vernon. [10]


[November 24, 1876] -

D. P. Bethurum, of Rockcastle county, charged with burning the court-house and other public buildings, at Mt. Vernon, some time ago, was arrested about three weeks ago and placed in jail at Richmond, Ky., and was taken through here last Wednesday, en route for Mt. Vernon, where he proposes to give bail in the sum of $2,500 for his appearance at the next term of the court in Rockcastle, to answer the charge of arson. [11]


[January 26, 1877] -

The cases against the parties for burning the Court House and Clerk's office, some three years since, were continued. [12]


[May 4, 1877] -

The following felony cases were finally disposed of during the present term of Court: Commonwealth vs. F. M. Gibbs, grand larceny, acquitted; same vs. D. P. Bethuram, grand larceny, acquitted; same vs. Andrew Cummins and D. P. Bethuram, nolle prosequi entered and defendants discharged from custody. [13]


[June 30, 1877] -

Andrew Cummins is back in jail by June 30th, and is one of the men lynched in the raid on the Mt. Vernon jail. An attempt on  the life of James Bethurum, brother to Charles and David and brother-in-law to Andy, is made that same night.


[November 19, 1878] -

James Bethurum is killed by Emmett Snodgrass on November 19, 1878. The November 24, 1878 article in that post says,

"He was accused some years ago of burning the county offices here in order to destroy the papers in cases against him, and in this I learn that he was successful."


This is an article which appeared in the Mount Vernon Signal in response to D. P. Bethurum running for County Judge. (A post with more articles relating to Bethurum's legal career/troubles is here.)

[October 29, 1897] -

In the Republican of last week the editor attempted to answer the charges we made against D. P. Bethurum. In a blaze of fury he said "the charges made are as false and void of truth as the individual who idited that screed is void of honor and manly principle." In his rage he charged all Democrats with being kuklux and charged them with all the foul crimes that were ever committed in Rockcastle; charged them with killing Charley Bethurum, when the writer knew that Bethurum was killed while resisting arrest in Lincoln county. James Bethurum was killed in a fight.

The other charges prompted by the spirit of an anarchist and a bomb thrower are so false and the people know it so well that it is unnecessary to waste time in an answer. We call your attention to the fact two years ago 16 parties were charged with kukluxing and that 14 of them were Republicans, and that two of the Republicans turned States evidence and swore they were guilty and that one Democrat and one Republican were sent to the penitentiary. We mention this fact not because we believe Democrats less guilty than Republican but merely to show that they are not more guilty. It is doubtless true and all seem to agree that members of both parties have had something to do with this disreputable business. This we deplore as much as any man.

After accusing Democrats of all mean things known to the black catalogue. He says, "They are now endeavoring to foist upon the good people of Rockcastle one of their own ilk for judge."

Gentlemen of Rockcastle, is this true? Is it honesty in the man who wrote the words? Dick Williams is 27 old and you know that when the things occurred of which the editor spoke that Richard Williams was but a child. You know that "Little Dick," as they are now pleased to call him, has ever been an honest, sober, truthful, upright and hard-working boy and young man. And as a result of his faithful labors, he easily stood first in his class in College and graduated with the valedictory. He is now recognized by all as an able lawyer, a safe councilor, and above all an honest man. The old citizens of the county know that there was a large number of indictments in the Rockcastle Circuit Clerk's office against D. P. Bethurum in 1873 an that the office was destroyed by fire and that he was charged and indicted for burning it. You also know that a part of the books and a shot gun of Dock McClary's, the Clerk, was found by James Houk and Ashley Owens in a Cave on the Bethurum farm. You know of his violating the law almost constantly since he was 16 years old. You know that nearly all these charges that you find in this paper to day were made under Judge Randell and Judge Morrow, both Republicans, and not done for political effect as they charge.

You know that Judge Barr believed him guilty of forging pension papers and brought about his disbarment.  See certified copy of his disbarment in this paper.

But admit, if you like, that he is guilty of all these charges, we do not object so much on these grounds as we do on account of the way he decides many cases that come before him.

Voters, what do you think of a judge who tells a litigant how he will decide a case before he has heard the evidence, and who will turn the guilty loose and hold the innocent?

The parties who signed the article that appears in the Mt. Vernon Republican each week, as to the character of our county officials, have been asked to make affidavits that any one charge against Bethurum is not true, but they refused to do so.

In conclusion we appeal to the voters to look to the character of Bethurum and Dick Williams. Look at their walks through life.

Look at the example they have set before your bouts and mine, and vote for the man whom an honest conscience tells you is the better man.

When you do this, Dick Williams will be our County Judge. [14]


[October 29, 1897] -

We the undersigned Jonas McKenzie and C. C. Williams certify that they called at the office of S. D. Lewis, Circuit Court Clerk for Rockcastle county and requested him to give certified copy of the indictments in his office against D. P. Bethurum and that said Lewis positively refused to do so.


Subscribed and sworn to before me by Jonas McKenzie and C. C. Williams, This October 27th 1897.

J. B. FISH, J. Mt. V.P.C.

We the undersigned certify that we did, on the 26th day of October, 1897, examine the Records of the Rockcastle Circuit Clerk's office for indictments against D. P. Bethurum, the Clerk having refused to give copy of Record and while we could not find all the books, we found the following indictments against D. P. Bethurum.

Grand Larceny, Sept. term  1873
Burning Clerk's office, Sept. term.  1873
Carrying concealed weapons, Sept. term   1873
Adultry, April term  1874
Selling liquor to minor, Sept.
Selling liquor to minor, Sept. term   1875
Stealing, Sept. term  1876
House burning, Sept. term 1876
Forgery, Sept. term  1876
Fornication, Sept. term  1876
Carrying concealed weapons Sept term  1878
Selling liquor unlawfully, January term  1880
Selling liquor unlawfully, January term  1887
Selling liquor unlawfully, 25 indictments, Aug. term   1887


Subscribed and sworn to before me by Jonas McKenzie, William Poynter, James Maret and C. C. Williams, this October 27th 1897.

J. B. FISH, J. Mt. V.P.C. [15]


[1] Excerpt from "From Rockcastle." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. January 17, 1873. Page 3. LOC.

[2] "Fire at Mt. Vernon." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. February 21, 1873. Page 3. LOC.

[3] Excerpt from "From Rockcastle." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. April 18, 1873. Page 3. LOC.

[4] Excerpt from "From Rockcastle." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. May 2, 1873. Page 4. LOC.

[5] Excerpt from "From Rockcastle." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. May 30, 1873. Page 3. LOC.

[6] Excerpt from "From Rockcastle." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. August 29, 1873. Page 3. LOC.

[7] Excerpt from "From Rockcastle." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. October 3, 1873. Page 1. LOC.

[8] Excerpt from "Home Jottings." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. March 27, 1874. Page 3. LOC.

[9] Excerpt from "Local News." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. October 6, 1876. Page 3. LOC.

[10] Excerpt from "Kentucky News." The Courier Journal, Louisville, KY. October 7, 1876. Page 2.

[11] Excerpt from "Local News." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. November 24, 1876. Page 3. LOC.

[12] Excerpt from "Rockcastle County News." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. January 26, 1877. Page 2. LOC.

[13] Excerpt from "Rockcastle County News." The Interior Journal, Stanford, KY. May 4, 1877. Page 2. LOC.

[14] Columns 1 and 2. Mount Vernon Signal, Mt. Vernon, KY. October 29, 1897. Page 2. LOC.

[15] Column 5. Mount Vernon Signal, Mt. Vernon, KY. October 29, 1897. Page 2. LOC.


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