The Murder of Hershel Deaton
By Roy L. Sturgill


The Murder of Hershel Deaton
By Roy L. Sturgill

No compilation of stirring events would be complete without an accounting of the brutal murder of Hershel Deaton and the mob action that took the life of his slayer.
Hershel H. Deaton, about 32 years old, was an extremely popular and prominent citizen of Coeburn, VA. He was at the time employed as a mine foreman by the Elkhorn Coal Company at Fleming, Kentucky and was commuting between Coeburn and Fleming on weekends. The Deatons resided at Dale Ridge, a small community near Coeburn and Toms Creek, Virginia.

It was Sunday, November 27, 1927, when Deaton, along with two fellow workers, Ernest Jordan and William Townsley (both of Coeburn) set out for the return trip to Fleming and their places of employment, after spending the weekend with their wives and families. The trip was no doubt a pleasant one through the

beautiful Cumberland Mountains this late fall evening, until on the mountain between Jenkins and Fleming tragedy struck without warning.

At about 11:00 p.m. when the travelers were about half way up the steep mountain grade, they were hailed by a man and two women (all negros) who demanded that they be given a ride into Fleming. Some reports say that due to the steep grade the car could only go at a snails pace, and the negros loaded

themselves on the running boards and the rear of the car's trunk, even though the car was moving. Others say that when hailed, Deaton stopped and the negros loaded themselves on the car without invitation. In either event, the car was brought to a stop and Deaton got out and walked around the car to put the negros off. It is said that one of the women handed Woods (the negro man) a gun and he shot and killed Deaton in cold blood. In the meantime, Jordan and Townsley had got out of the car and started toward the negro and

he asked, "If they too wanted to die." While holding the two men at bay, the negros fled into the darkness.

Hershel Deaton's body was returned to Coeburn and laid to rest in Laurel Grove Cemetery at Norton, VA.

The negros were promptly captured and placed in jail at Fleming, Kentucky. When a crowd began to form, they were transferred to Jenkins and thence to Whitesburg, Kentucky jail for safekeeping. This is where Mrs. Fess Whitaker was acting jailor in place of her husband, who was known as the "jailed jailor," and who himself had only recently been an inmate of his own jail on a contempt charge. 

All was quiet until the night of Tuesday, November 29, 1927, when it seemed the earth opened up and there were over 500 people in a motorcade of approximately 150 cars that converged on Whitesburg jail. According to Mrs. Whitaker they demanded that they be given the keys to the jail and when she refused they attacked the jail with axes, hacksaws, cross ties and battering rams and every conceivable tool needed to wreck the jail and take the prisoner. The mob finally succeeded in gaining entrance through the roof and brought the prisoners out.

It is told that the women were soundly whipped and placed back in jail, but the man (Leonard Woods) was not so fortunate. A chain was placed around his neck and he was put in a car. The motorcade, after firing a few shots, promptly started for the State Line at Pound Gap. The motorcade stopped briefly in Neon, Kentucky, where some more shots were fired.

Arriving at Pound Gap, the negro was placed on a platform (where only a few days before, a celebration had been held with the two Governors present). Woods was asked something in connection with the slaying of Deaton and he replied, "he would do the same thing again." The words were hardly out of his mouth when no less than 500 bullets struck his body. The body was then hanged and burned and left for the insects and vermin along the roadside. The body was literally a mass of bullet wounds and burned beyond recognition. The following day road workers gathered what little remained of the corpse and buried it just to the left of Pound Gap.

NOTE: A short while after the incident, I was traveling through Pound Gap and stopped. It was only a short distance along a foot path to the shallow grave of the lynched negro. At the time of my visit, there were small sticks stuck all over the grave. On each stick there was an empty cartridge. The cartridges were of all calibers. (RLS)

Governor Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia condemned the cold blooded lynching, but said that it would have to be determined in what State the lynching took place before any action could be taken. The remains of the negro had been left on Virginia soil, but it was believed that the mob stood in Kentucky and fired the fatal shots. Kentucky claimed the mob was from Virginia. Virginia, that they were from Kentucky. So it was, no one was ever prosecuted for the act. Until this day, the members of the mob have remained anonymous, as far as can be ascertained no names have been mentioned. One can readily see why Woods was brought to this particular spot, since it never has been determined in which state the actual lynching took place.

This brief summary has been taken from newspaper accounts and other sources of the period in which it happened. It is felt that if one is to record any of the violet days of Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, then surely this event in historic Pound Gap could not be omitted.
(From newspaper accounts and personal contact with others in and around Coeburn.)

Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia, published by The Historical Society of Southwest Virginia, publication 12 - 1978, pages 28 and 29.

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