County Had It's Own 'Jesse James Gang'

In the '30s, Hopkins County was not without its share of excitement where lawbreakers were concerned. Once it had its own version of Jesse James and his outlaws. The tale of three brothers -- Jesse, Hobart and Hilton -- provide just the right mix of misguided courage and bumbling shenanigans to weave an interesting tale of cops and robbers.

The Robards brothers had always been a somewhat sordid bunch. They were known to be the manufacturers of moonshine and, in illustration of their true intelligence, the brothers practiced their marksmanship by placing lit cigarettes in their mouths and letting the others shoot the fire off the end.

Never what one would call upstanding citizens, they had all been in trouble with the law for one thing or the other. But, those offenses had been minor, compared to the stunt they attempted to pull off in March of 1932.

The three brothers, looking to make some fast cash, decided the best way to accomplish their purpose was to rob a bank. Their target was the Citizens Bank in Nebo. The story goes that Jesse and hobart entered the bank while Hilton waited outside in the getaway car. Either Jesse or Hobart, depending on who tells the story, held cashier Claude Porter at gunpoint while the other looted the bank.

When Porter requested permission to move because the wood stove he had been forced to lie in front of was too hot, he was told that if he did move he'd be hotter where he was going than where he was at the moment.

The three, probably operating much more like the three stooges than they would have had anyone believe, made off with about $1,000. They sped away in a Model A Ford with a bald tire on the back. Local law enforcement was notified as soon as the robbery was over and were able to track the car because of the distinctive track left by the treadless, back tire.

When authorities arrived at the Robards' residence, the brothers, of course, denied any involvement in the crime. A moonshine still was found on the property and destroyed, but there was no moonshine in sight. Authorities later learned that the brothers, in anticipation of being caught, had loaded up all their homemade brew and hidden it in an out-of-the-way place.

The robbers' declaration of innocence fell on deaf ears. Jesse, Hobart and Hilton were placed under arrest and stood trial in Hopkins County District Court. They were all sentenced to serve time in prison, but were pardoned by governor Ruby Laffoon a short time later.

Six years after his first foiled attempt, Jesse Robards still hadn't learned his lesson. After serving about three years of a 10 year sentence, he felt compelled to try his hand at robbery again, but this time it was to be his last.

Jess's brothers, Hobart and Hilton, had moved on to other things; so, Jesse was running with a new gang. It was the last day of May 1938 and this time the target was the Planter's Bank in Mortons Gap.

Robards' new accomplices were Thomas Otho Hailey, a former Madisonville patrolman, and Charlie Rogers, a former office attache of the Independent Miners Union. Rogers had tipped off the police about three weeks prior to the robbery.

Sheriff Floyd Wilkey had advised Rogers to go along with the plan and he would be exonerated of all charges. With the help of Rogers, police were one up on Jesse and his counterparts. With police officers positioned above the bank's vault on the second floor of the store overlooking the back of the bank and the bank entrance, there was no way Robards would escape this time.

About 15 minutes after the bank opened, Robards and Rogers entered the front door of the bank. Hailey, who was driving the getaway car, circled the block, then parked the car behind the bank in an alley.

Inside the bank Robards, who had entered so quietly no one even knew he was inside, shoved a pistol in the bank president John T. Davis' back. Davis had shown up unexpectedly that morning and did not know about the setup.

Robards told Davis to put his hands in the air. A startled Davis took a couple of steps backward without raising his hands. Robards drew back the hammer of the pistol and shots rang out.

Deputy Sheriff Benjamen Ashby and State Patrolman Ed Fraelich, their guns trained on Robards, had fired at the same time. Robards, shot in the back of the head and the left side of the face, lay on the floor dying in a pool of blood.

Rogers was placed under arrest. Hailey, who waited outside in the getaway car, had turned toward the bank when the shots were fired. Before he could turn back around officers descended on the car and he was apprehended. Rogers offered no resistance and a loaded pistol was found on the car seat between his legs.

Hailey denied involvement in the conspiracy, claiming he and Rogers had picked Robards up and given him a ride from Daniel Boone. He said Robards and Rogers had wanted to get a drink in a downtown cafe so he let them out of the car, but that was all he knew.

Rogers told Sheriff Wilkey later that Hailey had wanted to get rid of him so the money would only have to be divided two ways, between Robards and Hailey. Officers Fraelich and Ashby, it was determined, were acting in the line of duty in order to save a man's life and were exonerated of all charges.

Jesse Robard's body was claimed by his widow after the coroner's examination and taken to a funeral home in Dawson Springs for preparation for burial.

Otho Hailey was tried in September 1938 in the Hopkins County Circuit Court on charges of "unlawfully, willfully and feloniously confederating himself with Jesse Robards and Charlie Rogers for the purpose of robbing Morton Gap Planter's Bank, using an offensive weapon in a forcible and violent manner."

He was found guilty and was sentenced to one year in the Eddyville State Penitentiary. He was released Aug. 16, 1939.

This feature story originally appeared in the The Messenger in the small towns section of their "Changing Face of Hopkins County" on September 6, 1996 and was written by Slone Hutchison, a summer intern from Murray State University working with The Messenger to gain practical news papering skills during her summer vacation.

My thanks to The Messenger for granting permission to publish on the Hopkins County, Kentucky KyGenWeb page.

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This page was last modified Tuesday, 30-Jun-2009 23:05:24 EDT

Nancy Trice / Madisonville, Ky