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Tom Chaney, No. R727: True Crime Stories from the Bluegrass

Of Writers and Their Books. Book Review by Tom Chaney True Crime Stories from Old Kentucky. by Kevin McQueen. First printed 10 September 2006 in the Hart County Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney R725: The Help

By Tom Chaney

True Crime Store's from the Bluegrass

Kevin McQueen has written an irreverent account of Kentucky murders. The book is Murder in Old Kentucky: True Crime Stories from the Bluegrass; McClanahan Publishing House, 2005.

The murders are dead serious, but McQueen's style and tone often rise to the exotically absurd level of the lyrics of Tom Lehrer in his classic "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," or "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

He debunks myth right and left, especially about the meaning of "Kentucky" which folks have claimed to be of Indian origin meaning "Dark and Bloody Ground." This is totally without foundation, McQueen notes. "I have it on good authority that 'Kentucky' is actually an Indian word for 'basketball'."

McQueen notes that while Kentucky has a deserved reputation for serious violence from the time of the depredations of the Harp brothers, the moonshine wars, the mountain feuds, that reputation may be a bit overblown in proportion to the rest of the nation.

The newspapers of Cincinnati and Chicago delighted in publishing accounts of crime -- characterizing Kentucky as a lawless and bloody state whilst ignoring their own home-grown varieties of murder and mayhem.

Henry Watterson editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal countered that both those cities had murder rates as high as the Bluegrass state with far fewer hangings. In June of 1879 Watterson took dead aim at Cincinnati. "Several times that month the Courier-Journal made certain to mention every single crime reported from Ohio, many of them quite brutal, with the same kinds of hysterical, overwrought headlines used by Cincinnati newspapermen when reporting Southern crimes."

Having begun with this disclaimer, McQueen proceeds to discuss eighteen of the more brutal slayings which contributed to the justifiable reputation of the state for violence, but also for murder punished at the gallows or in the seat of "Old Sparky" -- the electric chair down at Eddyville.

Of course, he begins with the most romantic and most famous of the Kentucky murders -- the Beauchamp-Sharpe affair of 1825. That crime for love and politics was picked up by such notable writers as Edgar Allan Poe, William Gilmore Simms, and Robert Penn Warren.

McQueen tells the story of John Vonderheide who was executed in Shelbyville in 1881. John was born "out of wedlock to an Indianapolis prostitute named Lizzie ('Drunken Liz') Faulkner near Austin, IN, in October 1857. At birth he was named John Lewis Young, Jr., after his father."

Later Lizzie moved to Louisville to a position in the bawdy house of Julia Dean. There she was known as Lizzie Rankin. One of her favorite customers was "a local gadabout named Charles Vonderheide." In his honor, young John Lewis was given a new surname.

As John grew up he progressed from truancy, to theft, to abuse of animals. He graduated to housebreaking. His gang had a favorite trick of turning a raccoon loose in a prosperous looking house. When the lady of the place fled, terrified, to the streets seeking help, the gang, posing as would-be rescuers, would rush inside, emerging not with the raccoon, but with valuables.

Arrested several times and escaping over and over again, he eventually murdered a thirteen-year-old black girl. For this crime he was hanged at the age of twenty-three.

The other sixteen murders and executions which McQueen describes deal with both the high and low in society.

A couple of recurring themes run throughout the book. First of all, it is quite clear that most of the most vicious criminals are pretty stupid. None, of course, ever believes he will be caught. All of them lie extensively without any attempt at consistency. The other thread is that most killers, despite evidence to the contrary, rely on the idea of insanity as a defense.

McQueen, who teaches at Eastern Kentucky University, tells fine tales most irreverently. It is difficult to put this little book down. One moves from the Beauchamp-Sharpe assassination, to the Showers-Moore tragedy of Elizabethtown, to the murder of a Berea College coed, to the murder which resulted in the first electrocution in Kentucky.

If the Indian word "Kentucky" does indeed mean "basketball," then the more fatal sport of killing is yet another favorite pastime of our heritage.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-09-11 09:05:24
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