|The Murder of Hershel Deaton
By Roy L. Sturgill
No compilation of stirring events
complete without an accounting of the brutal murder of Hershel Deaton
the mob action that took the life of his slayer.
Hershel H. Deaton, about 32 years old,
an extremely popular and prominent citizen of Coeburn, VA. He was at
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
It was Sunday, November 27, 1927, when
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.
trip was no doubt a pleasant one through the
beautiful Cumberland Mountains this
fall evening, until on the mountain between Jenkins and Fleming tragedy
struck without warning.
At about 11:00 p.m. when the travelers
about half way up the steep mountain grade, they were hailed by a man
two women (all negros) who demanded that they be given a ride into
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
rear of the car's trunk, even though the car was moving. Others say
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
that one of the women handed Woods (the negro man) a gun and he shot
killed Deaton in cold blood. In the meantime, Jordan and Townsley had
out of the car and started toward the negro and
he asked, "If they too wanted to die."
holding the two men at bay, the negros fled into the darkness.
Hershel Deaton's body was returned to
and laid to rest in Laurel Grove Cemetery at Norton, VA.
The negros were promptly captured and
in jail at Fleming, Kentucky. When a crowd began to form, they were
to Jenkins and thence to Whitesburg, Kentucky jail for safekeeping.
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
November 29, 1927, when it seemed the earth opened up and there were
500 people in a motorcade of approximately 150 cars that converged on
jail. According to Mrs. Whitaker they demanded that they be given the
to the jail and when she refused they attacked the jail with axes,
cross ties and battering rams and every conceivable tool needed to
the jail and take the prisoner. The mob finally succeeded in gaining
through the roof and brought the prisoners out.
It is told that the women were soundly
and placed back in jail, but the man (Leonard Woods) was not so
A chain was placed around his neck and he was put in a car. The
after firing a few shots, promptly started for the State Line at Pound
Gap. The motorcade stopped briefly in Neon, Kentucky, where some more
Arriving at Pound Gap, the negro was
on a platform (where only a few days before, a celebration had been
with the two Governors present). Woods was asked something in
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
struck his body. The body was then hanged and burned and left for the
and vermin along the roadside. The body was literally a mass of bullet
wounds and burned beyond recognition. The following day road workers
what little remained of the corpse and buried it just to the left of
NOTE: A short while after the incident,
was traveling through Pound Gap and stopped. It was only a short
along a foot path to the shallow grave of the lynched negro. At the
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
Governor Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia
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
that the mob stood in Kentucky and fired the fatal shots. Kentucky
the mob was from Virginia. Virginia, that they were from Kentucky. So
was, no one was ever prosecuted for the act. Until this day, the
of the mob have remained anonymous, as far as can be ascertained no
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
accounts and other sources of the period in which it happened. It is
that if one is to record any of the violet days of Southwest Virginia
Eastern Kentucky, then surely this event in historic Pound Gap could
(From newspaper accounts and personal
with others in and around Coeburn.)
Historical Sketches of Southwest
published by The Historical Society of Southwest Virginia, publication
12 - 1978, pages 28 and 29.