Arresting Tales

Kentucky trailer park murders: the intractable nature of poverty and crime

I was talking with my mom this morning about the recent murders at a trailer park in eastern Kentucky.  Mom was born in Ashland, Kentucky, about 100 miles north of Jackson, where the shooting occurred.  When I mentioned the Breathitt County Coroner, mom let out an "oh", followed by "bloody Breathitt."

Breathitt cartoon.jpg


Mom went on to explain that when she was a little girl, Breathitt County was known as "bloody Breathitt" and was considered, even for eastern Kentucky, to be a particularly poverty-stricken, desperate and violent place.  She told me about a young woman named Belva, who somehow ended up living with them for a short time.  Mom didn't recall the exact circumstances of why or how Belva came to stay, but presumably she had landed on some kind of hard times. 

Belva was supposed to help my grandmother with housework and cooking following the death of my great-grandmother.  Belva stayed with them for a short while, a mysterious figure to my mom as a young girl.  One day Belva simply disappeared--along with a significant amount of my grandmother's clothing, jewelry, and anything else of value she could carry with her.  They never heard from her again. 

Belva was from Breathitt County; for my mom she served as a perfect example of the tendency of folks from Breathitt to behave badly.

Breathitt has a history of feuds and violence that rivals any history of gang violence in L.A. or Chicago.  As far back as 1903 stories like this appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal: 

A Plain Story of the Deadly Quarrels That
Have Made the Name of Breathitt a By-Word

I sat down and searched "bloody Breathitt" and the first item I found was a link to this Time magazine article dated April 8, 1940:

KENTUCKY: Bloody Breathitt

To the people in "Bloody Breathitt" (pronounced breath-it) County, Ky., homicide has a purely clinical interest. They ask: How big was the gun? How big a hole was blowed in him? There is also a certain social distinction ("There goes the man who killed Little Jack Combs. He did it with a big, shiny .44. It made a big, round hole in Little Jack's belly. And Little Jack laid there on the ground, talkin' before he died").

It's clear that Stanley Neace's homicidal rampage did not lack for historical and cultural context.

In the late 1930's, homicide was consistently a leading cause of death, ahead of heart disease and other causes.  Only deadly floods managed to drive homicide as far down the ranking as 5th place.

The article references work done by a reporter named John "Sunny" Day from the Lexington Herald-Leader.  Mr. Day found a devastated place, with nearly 70% of the county's residents "on relief".  The birthrate was well ahead of the Kentucky average, while the death rate was much lower--because "a great many deaths are not reported", and only one out of ten dead were buried by an undertaker.

Here's how he describes the landscape of Breathitt County:

"Like a great walnut cleaned of its meat, it lies there a shell--no timber, no coal, no petroleum, no farm land really farmable." Twenty-five years ago, people first moved in numbers to Breathitt, to cut trees for railroad ties. The hills were stripped, the timber business expired, floods washed the topsoil off the farms. . ."

Replace cut trees and stripped hills with empty storefronts, burned-out buildings and vacant lots, and you could be talking about the poorest, most violent sections of Chicago.  Or, for that matter, any place in the nation that has experienced multiple generations of poverty, welfare dependency and violence.



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chikent said:

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I was surprised to stumble across your blog. I'm a Chicagoan now, but am originally from "bloody Breathitt". References to the term have dissipated in current times, much due to the arduous efforts of Appalachian people to dispel the terrible stereotypes that plague mainstream media. The current news story makes me very sad, since I have a personal connection to it and the people. It is a difficult situation when you have an area that is impoverished and isolated. Access to quality education, healthcare, and jobs are difficult. The most recent tragedy is a perfect example of that. The media runs with the circus and proclaims that it’s all about eggs not being properly cooked; however, the truth is this person demonstrated unpredictable and violent tendencies. The story gets trivialized into another hillbilly who went “plumb crazy”. Perhaps he wouldn’t have went “plumb crazy” if he’d had access to decent mental care rather than a gun. Sadly though, the riches of coal are taken away to benefit wealthy coal owners who mostly reside in northern, urban areas. I would be dishonest if I claimed the inbreeding, hillbilly teeth, illiterate, violent, and ignorant persons didn't exist in Appalachia. They exist in every area of the world; however, the images of Appalachia in the media only showcases that particular type. What about all of the coalminers who work hard everyday and put there kids through college? What about the teachers and the doctors and lawyers who choose to stay there in the attempts of improving the area? What about all farmers and grandparents who raised many children on little to no money without government assistance? There is violence, ignorance, and laziness in "Bloody Breathitt", but there is also a community filled with a rich culture. My family work in the coalmines everyday, still go to Grandma's house every Sunday for dinner, and would openly welcome anyone to their table. Amazingly, my family are not a novelty there. Nearly every family that I know is the same. Perhaps they're not educated and may have a rough edge, but in order to survive and stay happy in tough circumstances you have to be resilient.

Joe the Cop said:


chikent, thank you, thank you for your comment.

It was not my intention to perpetuate negative Appalachian stereotypes, or to beat up on the people of eastern Kentucky. While my mom is from Ashland, I've got other relatives from along the Big Sandy river in Kentucky and West Virginia.

I suppose that my intent in posting this was to point out that (especially in places like Chicago) we tend to think of multi-generational poverty and crime as being an urban/black issue, and it isn't necessarily.

Your comments about all the good, kind, hard-working people in the region are well-taken. You can find those same people in the most crime, dope and gang-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago as well.

chikent said:

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agreed. thanks for your blog.

irishpirate said:


Here is some 50 year old plus commentary on Appalachians in Chicago.

"Mountain Irish" as my dad would say.

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