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Tom Chaney: Dark as the Inside of a Badger

Of Writers And Their Books: "Dark as the Inside of a Badger" is a review of Murder in Old Kentucky: True Crime Stories From the Bluegrass by Kevin McQueen. This column first appeared 24 February 2008
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Sue Grafton at "T"

By Tom Chaney

"Dark as the Inside of a Badger"

Kevin McQueen claims a sense of humor as "dark as the inside of a badger" which macabre condition led him to temporarily forsake his students at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as a study of Cassius Clay, giant skeletons, and other strangeness for to write a book yclept Murder in Old Kentucky: True Crime Stories From the Bluegrass [McClanahan Publishing House 2005].

His tone and style as regards murder puts me in mind of the songs of Tom Lehrer such as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" or "Be Prepared." I also think of Tiny Tim, perhaps singing, "Tiptoe through the Tulips" at a funeral.

In other words -- delightful; delicious; delectable!

I ran upon Mr. McQueen flogging his book at a Kentucky Book Fair a couple of years ago. I forked over the required price, read the first chapter, and put the book aside -- until last week. I don't aim to postpone my pleasures in such a manner, I just forgot it for other things and books and poems and such.

Generally, I am like the coal miner who takes the pie out of his lunch pail and eats it first -- in case the roof might fall.

So, I apologize to Mr. McQueen for the delay.

You see, I did read the first chapter right away, for he begins where all murder in Kentucky must begin -- with the Beauchamp/Sharpe murder celebrated by writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Robert Penn Warren.

That story, you may recall, has all that any good bodice-ripping love/murder story requires -- a woman brought low by a lover who scorns her, a child born on the other side of the blanket, a new lover who vows revenge on the first stabbing him in downtown Frankfort, a trial in which a guilty man is convicted by trumped up evidence, and finally a murder/suicide pact made between lovers and carried out in a dank cell. All overlain with frontier Kentucky politics.

While that act is a hard one to top, McQueen finds some doozies. One of my favorites is the story of Moses Caton.

Caton was a "family man" from Union County. Born in 1839, this grandson of the keeper of the county insane asylum began his career by attempting to rape an eleven-year-old girl. Escaping punishment he stole "whatever he could get his hands on," married Amanda, and had four children.

Evidently Moses beat Amanda to death, but her death was not investigated.

With his four children he moved to Crittenden County and continued his thieving ways. Moses sold butchered cattle, but never was known to own a live cow. That mystery was solved when disembodied cow heads turned up in an abandoned well. Too late for recall.

The love bug bit again. Moses took up with the widow Fritz, whose husband had left her a 125 acre farm. Rumor had it that Mrs. Fritz was a self-made widow. At any rate she moved in with Moses. The couple was brought up on a charge of fornication. "What care lovers for law."

The happy couple moved back to Webster County where his relatives urged marriage.

Moses was happy to comply -- but not to the widow with whom he lived. He had found another. This one, a Mrs. Peters, was the dim-witted, church-going daughter of an Evansville prostitute. They married, but the new bride was dismayed to find Mrs. Fritz a part of the Caton household.

Moses, Mrs. Fritz, and the Caton children made a slave of Moses' new bride, finally torturing her to her grave. The entire household save for a nine-year-old boy was brought to trial.

Moses was hanged and Mrs. Fritz sent to prison where she bore Moses a posthumous child.

From western Kentucky, McQueen traipses to Knox County in the southeast and back to poison in the Bluegrass.

Lest this part of Kentucky be neglected, he tells of the Showers-Moore murder in the Showers House, a popular hotel in E'town.

McQueen observes that, as the nineteenth century neared its end, the gallows for execution were moved inside the walls of Kentucky jails. He also discusses a couple of the early executions by the electric chair after its installation at the Eddyville prison in 1911.

I must report that McQueen's droll style coupled with extensive, if not precise, documentation makes for some pretty good reading.

Editorial note: E'town is Elizabethtown, about forty miles north of Horse Cave.

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
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-02-24 00:48:48
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