On May 4, 1903, a prominent and well-respected attorney and U. S. commissioner, James Buchanan Marcum, was shot and killed on the steps of the Breathitt County courthouse in Jackson, Kentucky. “The J. B. Marcum Song,” more widely known as “The Ballad of J. B. Marcum,” preserves the memory of this important Kentucky citizen and the community trauma represented by his murder.
When Alan Lomax went to Kentucky to record folksongs, local ballads like this one were exactly what he was looking for. Lomax’s recording of Maynard Britton’s performance caught my attention because it is an attempt to preserve history through song, giving us a sense of the emotions of the events as they happened and a community’s sense of loss. Many ballads are changed over time and some are combined with other ballads. This one seems to me more like treasure from a time capsule. It borrows the tune and some bits of the chorus from the ballad “Jesse James,” and I wouldn’t argue that the complex historical facts are perfectly represented. But there is something haunting about the song that made me want to learn more about the events that gave rise to the ballad.
Marcum’s murder was the most famous of a string of killings associated with the disputed election of Breathitt County Judge James Hargis in 1898. Hargis and his brother Alexander, both businessmen, had decided to go into politics and run for office as Democrats in 1898, James as County judge and Alex as state Senator. Another like-minded businessman, Ed Callahan, ran for Sheriff. This raised concerns for many of the people of the county. Both Republicans and Democrats decided to get together to oppose the elections of the Hargis brothers and Callahan. They formed what they called the Fusionist party and put up their own candidates. In spite of this strong opposition, the Hargis brothers were elected. Election tampering was suspected. Marcum, a father of five, had tried to keep out of the local disputes as he was able, but he could not avoid his responsibilities as an attorney. The Fusionists brought a suit to call into question the legitimacy of the election and hired Marcum to be their attorney. They lost.
The divisive election caused tensions leading to threats and violence in the small county. In 1902 a barroom quarrel ended with the death of a brother of James and Alex Hargis, Benjamin, shot by Jackson town Marshall, Tom Cockrell. The Hargis family filed suit and Tom Cockrell asked Marcum to represent him. Tom Cockrell was cleared, but this success may have made things worse for Marcum. Another Hargis brother, John, died the same year on a train in neighboring Lee County when he became drunk and disorderly on a train and was shot by a railroad detective.
Then people who had opposed the election of the Hargis brothers and Sheriff Callahan started being shot. These were not the result of arguments or conflicts with law enforcement, but premeditated murders. Judge Hargis and the Sheriff were suspected to be behind the killings. They had not only seen to the appointment of their cronies in powerful positions, but had increasingly surrounded themselves with a group of unsavory characters. Jim Cockrell, who had been made marshal when his brother was jailed, was shot by someone firing from inside the courthouse in Jackson. A well-liked doctor, B. D. Cox was also killed near the courthouse. These were only two of the murders that went unsolved, at least thirty are thought to have been related to the growing feud. Curtis Jett, a nephew of the Hargis brothers, was widely suspected as a shooter in many of these killings. He was known to be violent but had inexplicably been made a deputy marshal.
After the killing of his friend, Dr. Cox, Marcum filed an affidavit on behalf of his client, Moses Feltner, describing the lawlessness in Jackson as a reason Feltner feared to appear in court. He also wrote a letter to the Lexington Herald, describing the feud and saying that he feared for his own life as he was now seen as an enemy of Judge Hargis. This letter made national news. Judge Hargis dismissed Marcum’s statement as a pack of lies. Marcum moved his family out of Jackson and avoided the courthouse as much as possible. He knew he was a marked man as Feltner had told him about the plot. Feltner said he had been told to kill Marcum and had agreed, as he was afraid for his life if he refused. He showed Marcum where guns were stashed around town for various shooters to use if they had the opportunity.
On the morning of May 4, Marcum went to the courthouse to file some papers. He met a friend, Benjamin Ewan, who was a deputy sheriff and paused to talk with him at the courthouse door. He was shot in the head from behind and died instantly. He had made his own murder all the more famous by publicly predicting it.
Here is “The J. B. Marcum Song” performed by Maynard Britton. As sometimes happens with field recordings in the disc era, this was recorded on two bands on one disc with a break between verses:
It seems to me that justice in this case was far more poetic than legal. As the ballad says, Curtis Jett and another of the Judge’s men, Tom White, were tried twice. In the first trial Benjamin Ewan, although afraid for his life, testified that he had seen Jett shoot Marcum from inside the courthouse. The jury deadlocked 11 to 1 for conviction. The second trial was held at a different venue, again with Ewan’s testimony, and Jett and White were convicted as co-conspirators in the death of James Marcum and sentenced to life in prison. In order to avoid execution at sentencing, Jett confessed to killing Marcum and Dr. Cox. He named Judge Hargis and Sheriff Callahan as having ordered these murders. He was emphatic that Alexander Hargis had nothing to do with the conspiracy. James Hargis and Ed Callahan stood trial multiple times, with juries unable to return a verdict. Mrs. Marcum won a civil suit against James Hargis for wrongful death. Only White and Jett served time. Jett, who studied religion in prison, was released on parole in December 1918 and became a preacher.
The violence did not simply end with the death of Marcum. Judge Hargis was killed by his son, Beach Hargis, in 1908. Sheriff Callahan was murdered on the anniversary of Marcum’s death, May 4, 1912. His killer is unknown.
Johnson, Lewis Frederick. Famous Kentucky Tragedies and Trials: A Collection of Important and Interesting Tragedies and Criminal Trials which Have Taken Place in Kentucky, Baldwin Law Book Company, 1916, “The Hargis Cockrell Feud,” pp. 320-336.
The Lomax Kentucky Recordings, a collaborative project of the American Folklife Center, Berea College Special Collections and Archives, The Association for Cultural Equity, and The University of Kentucky Libraries. This collection includes the recording of the Ballad of J. B. Marcum in this blog and another version by an unknown performer. Readers also will find many more field recordings of folksongs recorded in Kentucky.
Nelson, Donald Lee. “The Death of J.B. Marcum,” John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly, Vol 11 part 1, no. 37, Spring 1975, pp. 7-22. Digitized by University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Made available online by Archive.org. This gives a detailed account of the events leading to the death of Marcum as well as the text of the ballad.
Pearce, John. Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
“Startling Charges in Affidavits Filed in Breathitt Circuit Court,” The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), p. 1, November 11, 1902. This article includes the letter written by J. B. Marcum describing the ongoing feud and consequent murders in Breathitt County from December 24, 1901 to the date of the letter, as well as the threat on his own life. It also includes the test of a sworn statement by Moses Feltner, who was afraid for his life and had warned Marcum about the assassination plot.