Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a multi-part series on the French-Eversole War of Perry County. The first part was published in the June 13, 2012 edition of the Herald, and can also be found online at hazard-herald.com. Information for this story was partly taken from Days of Darkness by John Ed Pearce, and Kentucky’s Famous Feuds and Tragedies by Charles G. Mutzenburg.
After several weeks of fighting in Perry County, in 1887 the French and Eversole families came to an agreement to lay down their arms and end what would later be known as the French-Eversole War. But it was an agreement not meant to last, and several more people would lose their lives before the feud finally ended.
Following the short-lived truce, which apparently didn’t last after each side accused the other of either re-arming themselves or not disarming at all, Bad Tom Smith became a bigger player in the feud, and his savage ambush-style killings became more frequent. On April 15, 1888, Bad Tom and several others ambushed the leader of the Eversole faction, Joseph Eversole, and a 21-year-old man named Nick Combs.
After the death of the Eversole leader, John Campbell took his place. Unfortunately, his reign was reportedly short since he was accidentally shot and killed by a startled guard at his own fort.
Shade Combs then stepped in to fill the position. He too met an untimely end when Bad Tom shot him at his home in front of his family. Bad Tom was reported to have slowly rode past Combs’ family, smiling all the way.
A retaliation killing for Combs’s death meant the end for Elijah Morgan, a relative of the French family. He had been on his way to warn French of an attack.
After nearly two years of fighting and killing, the circuit judge in Perry County was fed up and wanted to conduct trials to convict those responsible. This was made difficult by both groups’ reputation for not being shy about bringing guns into the courtroom.
Judge H.C. Lily requested that the state send troops to help keep order. Kentucky Governor Buckner, while at first hesitant, eventually filled the tiny town of Hazard with troops to help keep the peace.
General Sam Hill reported that at the time they made it to Hazard the town’s population had dropped by half due to people moving because of the violence. He wrote to the governor: “Hazard contains about 100 people when they are all in their homes. Only 35 were at home when we reached here. Ten men have died in the past two years and county authorities have failed to act.”
Gen. Hill went on to say that 20 men had been killed as a result of the feud, though not all of these were in Hazard.
A few trials were held while the troops filled the town. Included in this was Bad Tom. He was arrested and sent to jail, though by this time the Frenches had a hold over the legal system and he was quickly released.
Fulton French, the head of the French family, was reported to have sent Bad Tom to Hindman in Knott County to kill Ambrose Amburgey. This killing was apparently not related to the feud, but likely some other disagreement, according to the late John Ed Pearce, author of Days of Darkness.
Bad Tom was indicted in 1889. He ignored this indictment because everyone charged with bringing him in was threatened and left town. He nearly got away without going to trial.
On the day the trial was scheduled, both groups gathered gangs of men and waited in and around the courthouse for the violence to start. A drunken French man fired the first shots. The two sides fired at one another for around 18 hours with few casualties, except for the courthouse. The courthouse was reportedly so riddled with bullet holes that it was feared it would collapse.
This became known as the Battle of Hazard.
A second attempt at holding trials was made with more troops being brought in from Louisville.
Bad Tom was tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He was granted an appeal and left town. After he left, authorities seemed to either give up or forget about him for a time, and he was not brought back in to Hazard.
After the feud died down because so many of the men had gone to jail or died, many of the people that left Hazard came back and began to rebuild the town that had been ravaged with gunfire for so many years.
The last man to be killed during the feud was Josiah Combs, Joseph Eversole’s father-in-law. He was shot on the steps of the courthouse from a nearby cornfield in 1894. Three French men allegedly fired the deadly shot on the order of Fulton French.
In 1895, Fulton French himself was indicted for murder but acquitted, even though Bad Tom told authorities that he had been responsible for many of the murders.
Bad Tom eventually left Hazard and his wife because, as he described it, she was an Eversole woman. He then took up with the owner of a boarding house with a bad reputation in Breathitt County. While drunk one night he shot and killed Dr. John Rader in Jackson. He was arrested, tried and found guilty.
Unlike Hazard, Breathitt County was known for taking action against murderers, having hanged several members of the Bloody Breathitt Feud. Bad Tom was eventually hanged in a very public affair while copies of his life story were being sold for 25 cents a piece.
According to a Courier-Journal report from 1895, Bad Tom was reported to have confessed to killing Joseph Eversole and Nick Combs, and taking $30 from Eversole’s pocket as he lie dead. He also confessed to killing a man named John McKnight in the Battle of Hazard.
The feud had ended several years prior with very few people being convicted of the crimes. After all was said and done, over 20 people had died as a direct result of the feud, according to reports, though other accounts place that number at more than 70.
Hazard rebuilt and flourished into the 1900’s with the boom of the coal industry. The battered courthouse was demolished and a new one built.
Most of the French family eventually left Perry County, while Fulton French later died from complications he suffered a year after being shot by one of Joseph Eversole’s sons. As the story goes, French ran into Joseph Eversole’s widow, Susan, and her son at a hotel in Jackson. The son was reported to have drawn on French and shot him. Though French did not die then, it was complications from the wound that eventually took his life.
Joseph Eversole was 35 when he was killed, and both he and Josiah Combs and were buried in the old cemetery on Broadway, near Hazard’s founder, Elijah Combs, who was Josiah’s grandfather.