Pearce, a Pulitzer Prize winner who formerly worked as an editorial writer for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, exhausts several sources in his attempt to flesh out the truth as to what really happened in several high profile feuds in the region, including the well-know French-Eversole feud during the late 19th century in Hazard.
The feud, according to Pearce’s research, was “waged in the years from 1887 through 1894 between the forces of Joseph C. Eversole and B. Fulton French, two bright, tough, aggressive lawyer-merchants who were in business in Hazard, the county seat of Perry County, Kentucky.”
Taking place when Hazard wasn’t much more than a county seat with muddy streets and about 200 people living within city limits, Pearce paints Hazard’s early years as fairly lawless, a time where judges seldom held court due to violence, and “people drank a lot.”
Pearce gleaned much of the information for his piece from historian Allen Watts, who supplied Pearce with copies of local newspaper stories chronicling the fight He also found other newspaper articles and archival information that added a nice richness to his condensed version of the feud.
Pearce paints French as the villain, an attorney who also worked as a representative of an English syndicate buying up mineral rights in the region, while Eversole was a community oriented man interested in improving the quality of life in Perry County.
Eventually the feud began, though over what isn’t entirely clear, but there were several casualties.
Many of those causalities were the result of one figure to whom Pearce devoted a large section of his narrative: the legendary “Bad” Tom Smith, a local gun-for-hire who killed several people, including Eversole, in the years during and after the feud. Smith eventually killed one too many people in Breathitt County, and was sent to the gallows in Jackson in 1895.
Pearce also notes the local judicial system and the great difficulty judges had in even holding court or holding people like “Bad Tom” accountable for their actions. In fact, according to the book, Smith was indicted by a local grand jury, but the charges never stuck.
Tom Smith has become something of a legend since then, having books and at least one song written about him, and his hanging in Jackson was also a big event as it drew reporters from as far away as Cincinnati.
Perry County’s famous feud is only one of several profiled in Pearce’s book, however. The front cover shows a photograph of “Devil” Anse Hatfield of Hatfield-McCoy fame, and Pearce also includes a narrative about that famous feud. There are also profiles of the Turners and Howards in Harlan County, the “Hundred Year War” in Clay County, and other tales from Breathitt and Rowan Counties.
As Pearce puts it in his opening paragraph: “The feuds of Eastern Kentucky have always been the stuff of legend and folklore.” But it’s also important to note that Pearce attempts to dispel many false inclinations regarding the feuds for which he writes, and in his opening chapter offers his own opinions on the many quarrels in eastern Kentucky while trying to answer some questions as to why they happened in the first place: Were they due to geographical concerns or old holdouts from the Civil War seeking to continue past grudges with opposing forces? Or were they simply a bunch of ragtag, uneducated heathens answering to a now stereotypical call of the Kentucky mountaineer?
Pearce doesn’t seem to think either of those questions can be applied to the feuds as a collective, as he offers: “There is no common denominator here, and no common thread.”
Except, that is, when one reaches what Pearce calls the “tangible factors” such as money and politics.
Ultimately, anyone wanting to learn more about eastern Kentucky’s feuds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be hard pressed to find a better jumping in point than Pearce’s well-written and colorfully documented book.
Days of Darkness can be purchased online at amazon.com, but is also in the Perry County Public Library’s collection.