Newspapers didn't always strive for accuracy

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Newspapers didn't always strive for accuracy

By Tom Watson, historian
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Journalism has changed a great deal over the years. From the early 1800s for about 100 years, editors didn't care if they had the first names of people in stories, nor were they concerned with accuracy. Nevertheless, they didn't let the lack of a few details get in the way of a good story.

This scribe is always on the hunt for stories about Taylorsville and Spencer County, Mount Washington and Bullitt County, Shelbyville and Shelby County and Bloomfield and Nelson County. Sometimes, when possible, more details are gathered to make a story more accurate, but in the this week's case, we just have to take it for what it is.

The following from 1883 caught my eye and you may find it interesting.


The story of a Shelby County crime, in Which an Attempt was Made to Poison and the Principal Convicted.


Marshal Lat. Hitt, of Oldham County, yesterday (Aug. 22, 1883) made an important arrest in the person of Sam Jones, a Negro fugitive from justice in Spencer County. In 1881, Jones was sentenced to the penitentiary for five years, for attempting to poison the family of Wm. Allen, a wealthy farmer in Shelby County.

He was placed in the Taylorsville jail after his sentence, for safe keeping, until he could be removed to Frankfort, but made his escape. He cut his way out of his cell into the main hall and hid behind the door leading out into the office. The jailer soon came in with another prisoner, and, thinking Jones was safe, left the door open, while he went back into the jail. In this way he slipped out and made his escape.

Nothing was heard of him by the officers from that time until his capture, although Marshal Hitt had an idea that he was hiding somewhere around Cincinnati. On Tuesday he received word from a man named Kavanaugh, living in Covington, saying a Negro had seen Jones pass through the stockyard at that place. Yesterday morning Marshal Hitt boarded the train and went to Milltown, about two miles this side of Covington, where he got off the cars and cut across through the bottoms.

He soon came across three negroes playing cards under a tree, and managed to get out of them that Jones was working in a coal-yard, and that a man named Collier knew all about him. The officer at once proceeded to Collier's house, and together they went to Gullion's coal-yard on the river bank, where Jones was said to be at work. Almost the first person whom he laid eyes on was his man, and he was promptly placed under arrest.

Jones went by the name of Ben Jackson in Covington, and had been working there ever since his escape. He was boss in the yard, and seemed to have plenty of money, as he had purchased a house and lot. He was brought to Lagrange and lodged in jail until today, when he will be taken back to Taylorsville.


was a very remarkable one from its surroundings and connection with another very singular crime. In order to make it clear, the circumstances preceding it must be related.

In Shelby County lived two wealthy farmers named Sam Ellis and Zack Head, both of them owning fine farms adjoining each other. They were first cousins and on the most intimate terms before an occurrence which took place in 1880. Head had a fine field of bluegrass, which he was very proud of and kept fenced in carefully to keep out all stock.

Just after the grass was well grown he began to notice that in portions of the field it was trampled down and cut up, as if a herd of stock had been in it. The fence was carefully inspected and was found to be all right, but at a certain place the ground was plainly marked with the print of hoofs. He determined to watch that night in hopes that the trespasser might be discovered.

Accordingly, soon after darkness, in company with another man, armed with a shotgun, he hid nearby where the marks were found. Nothing unusual was seen or heard until nearly midnight, when he was rewarded by hearing a noise down the road as if of the tramping of a large drove of animals. The moon was shining brightly, and in a few moments a drove of cattle came in sight, being driven up the road. They came along until the spot in the fence, near where he was concealed, was reached, when they stopped, as if by force of habit.

Soon a man rode rapidly up from behind, and coolly dismounting from his horse, proceeded to let down the fence. When the rails had all been leveled with the ground, he led his horse aside and a colored man who was with him drove the cattle into the field. Head waited almost dumbfounded until this had been done, and he recognized in the person of the invader, his cousin Sam Ellis. After the cattle had all entered the field, the men got on their horses again and started to leave, when Head jumped up from his hiding place and commanded them to halt. Instead of doing so, they put spurs to their horses and dashed down the road. He fired a couple of shots after them, but did no damage.

The affair created a terrible commotion in the neighborhood on account of the standing of the parties concerned, and was the absorbing topic for months. The case came up in the courts and was taken to Oldham County on a change of venue.

The fight now began in earnest, as each side procured the services of good lawyers and determined to fight the matter to the end. Witnesses were introduced to testify to all sorts of things, and, as one of the attorneys expressed it, 'there was more loose-jointed swearing than in any case that had ever come before the court.'

The result of the trial was that Ellis was fined $500. The case was taken to the Court of Appeals and a new trial granted. One Negro swore at the first trial that he, himself, had turned the cattle into the field, and another testified that Ellis was at home in bed at the time.

Both statements were proven to be clearly false, and the witnesses were arrested for perjury. They were released on bond and skipped out. Before the time set for the second trial arrived, the attempts at poisoning was made.

Allen was one of the chief witnesses against Ellis, and Jones was a witness on the other side. It was chiefly on the testimony of the former that Ellis had been convicted, and the attempt on his life was made before the second trial.

Allen had been in the habit of taking a drink of water every night before going to bed, and kept a bucket sitting on a stand outside the door. Jones purchased a quantity of arsenic, and, after dark, slipped up to the house and poured the poison into the water. He was seen to slip out of the yard at the time and Allen's suspicions were aroused.

As luck would have it, when he went out to get his customary drink, the thought flashed over him that there might be something in the water, so he tasted it and found it to be very bitter. He took the bucket into the house, and the next day had the contents analyzed, when the poison was discovered.

The circumstantial evidence against the negro was very strong, and he was convicted of the crime. The main case had half a dozen hearings in as many different courts at an enormous cost to Ellis, and the first judgement was finally confirmed."

So, you see, we didn't get all the details, but it's another story with a Taylorsville connection for us to enjoy. We quoted it word for word, so Negro, which would normally be capitalized, appears as lower case and we left the commas where they were put originally.

Send your photos, stories, scrapbooks, diaries, or let me know what you have and I'll come and photograph them. Tom Watson, 5225 Little Union Road, Taylorsville, Ky., 40071. (502) 252-9991 email is the website of

©2007 The Spencer Magnet

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