April 13, 2022, marks 20 years since Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron was killed in the line of duty. In memory of his service to Pulaski County (and surrounding counties) this edition of Hometown Murders & Mysteries is dedicated to Sheriff Catron.
Our last Hometown Murders & Mysteries story was about Noble "Red" Holt, a young man from northern Pulaski County. Red found himself in the seat of the electric chair after killing a Cincinnati police detective and wounding another. While covering Red's story, we became curious about how many people from Pulaski County have been executed in the chair, so we went on the hunt for answers - and the number is two. Red doesn't count as one of those since he was a resident of Ohio and tried for his crimes in that state. This edition of Hometown Murders & Mysteries, and the next, will cover the two Pulaski County cases that carried the punishment of death by the electric chair.
Note: The very first record of a hanging sentence in Pulaski County that we could find occurred on March 14, 1884, which was Frank Slagel, who was listed as a tie cutter (there seems to be some irony in that). Slagel was hanged for murder and robbery. In total, Slagel was one of three Pulaski County executions we could find. We will cover all of them at some point.
Kentucky's electric chair is nicknamed Old Sparky and is still located at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. Eddyville opened in December 1889, but the electric chair wouldn't be operational until 1911. LCTI's chief operations officer had the opportunity to sit in the chair while on business at Eddyville during his law enforcement career. He said, "It makes chills run up your spine to even be in the presence of the chair; I could only stand to sit in it for a second. It is one of the weirdest and creepiest feelings I've ever had."
<-Click the arrow to learn more about Kentucky's electric chair and death sentence.
Before the electric chair became a source of punishment, hangings and whippings were used.
Old Sparky was first employed on July 8, 1911, when the first person to be electrocuted in Kentucky, James Buckner, took the seat. Buckner was convicted of killing a police officer only weeks before his death sentence was carried out.
On July 13, 1928, Kentucky electrocuted eight men, one right after the other, setting a record.
The electric chair was decommissioned; however, if someone currently on death row was convicted of a capital crime before March 31, 1998, they have a choice of dying in the chair or by lethal injection.
In December 1976, the Kentucky legislature repealed the mandatory death penalty statute and enacted the Commonwealth's current death penalty statute in a special legislative session.
Before the chair was decommissioned in Kentucky, the state logged 163 deaths by electrocution; the last occurred on July 1, 1997.
Harold McQueen, Jr. has the distinction of being the last electric chair death here in the state. McQueen was convicted in 1981 for shooting and killing an unarmed female store clerk while robbing the store.
In Kentucky, if someone dies while the perpetrator is in the act of committing another crime, it may be considered for capital crime, which is ultimately up to the Commonwealth's Attorney.
Several states also refer to their electric chair as "Old Sparky."
Kentucky has not executed a female in more than 150 years.
On February 7, 1868, the State executed a 13-year-old black girl, only known as Susan.
The youngest person executed in the state was an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Bill who was hanged on July 30, 1771.
Currently the only woman on death row in Kentucky is a woman named Virgina Caudill. Caudille was convicted of the brutal robbery and murder of an elderly lady – she has a choice of electrocution or lethal injection.
Now that we have the back story on the electric chair, we will get a bead on the happenings leading up to the main event and go into the story of the first Pulaski Countian to meet his end with Old Sparky.
The age-old controversy of alcohol sales in Pulaski County
Before we meet the people involved in this historical event, let's talk about the local government and the status of alcohol in Pulaski County in the early 1900s. As we know, alcohol is still a hot topic around the county!
The county government structure in Kentucky in the early 1900s was a bit different than today. The county judge was an actual judge who presided over county court, the court of claims, and quarterly court. The magistrates, also referred to as judges and justices of the peace, could sign marriage certificates, issue warrants, and perform similar duties. Magistrates also deputized the constables. Then, as it is now, we had an elected sheriff and deputies. Magistrates held offices and had preliminary sessions in courtrooms inside the Pulaski County Courthouse.
Prohibition officially lasted from 1920 to 1933, but the Christian Women's Temperance Movement, and local off-shoots of the group, were ramping up several years before alcohol sales and distribution was illegal. Around 1874 several state governments began adopting a new tactic to reduce alcohol consumption by raising the price of liquor-selling licenses. This move made smuggling and illicit distribution more widespread, leading to the creation of the speakeasies in larger towns. In our state's small towns and communities, we had something called a "blind tiger" instead of a speakeasy. A blind tiger, also called a blind pig in some communities, was an illegal whiskey shop that operated out of a private house. In 1911, we had our own somewhat secret blind tiger operating out of Burnside.
Until the 1950s, Burnside was separated from the rest of the county by the Cumberland River. Everyone living or doing business on the opposite side of the river had to take a ferry or boat to get from one side to the other.
Note: In 1975, the county judge-executive would no longer be a judicial officer, only a county administrator.
A local blind tiger
In 1911, Deputy James Ellis worked for Sheriff John Weddle, who was elected for a four-year term in 1910. Along with being a deputy sheriff, Ellis also owned and operated a small building on the southern bank of the river in Burnside where he sold "near beer." Near beer is a malt drink containing little or no alcohol and was legal to sell in dry-option territories. However, it was difficult to know if the product contained alcohol without drinking it, and rumors were flying that Ellis was spiking the beer and selling whiskey out of his near beer shop. Ellis was also accused of running an illegal gaming ring.
Unable to ignore the accusations about Ellis running a blind tiger, the magistrate of the Burnside district of Pulaski County, Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Beatty, felt forced to draw up warrants and deputize a constable to bring Ellis to court to answer to the allegations. Ellis was seemingly out of control since several Burnside citizens were coming to Magistrate Beatty to complain about his illegal liquor business and disorderly conduct. The newspapers reported that Ellis told during testimony that Magistrate Beatty swore William Fountain "Fount" Helton in as a deputy constable to bring him in on the charges of illegal alcohol sales. A court document states that Fount Helton, though a deputy constable, was crippled and could not run.
Drunk and disorderly
So it goes that on July 14, 1911, Fount Helton was sent to arrest Ellis at his "soft drink" establishment and bring him to Magistrate Beatty, whose office was located above a store in what was then downtown Burnside. However, several reputable citizens of Burnside said that instead of an arrest being made, Ellis and Helton were driving around the town in a buggy, creating a disturbance, and appeared to be under the influence of liquor.
Ms. Sallie Spencer of Burnside told the Court that she was taking some milk and butter [to the store], and as she passed by Ellis' buggy, she noticed the crippled man in it (presumably Constable Helton). As she got close to the store, she heard talking. She said, "a quick voice said, 'I would kill the damned S.O.B.s. If I make a pass, I will fill them both full.'" Sallie said that was when Ellis came out of the screen door [of the store], almost running over her before he went back to the buggy, got in, and drove off.
Ellis obviously continued to raise a ruckus after Sallie saw him outside the store. Henry Ross, a clerk at one of the Burnside shops, said that he asked Ellis if he wanted anything [from the shop], and Ellis said, "yes, I want some damned man to jump on me so that I can kill him." Another man, named Coon Ross, said that he was near Ellis when he said he was going to blow some damned man's lamp out. Dan Caskey noted that he also saw Ellis with James Blair. Dan said that Ellis told him and James, "Boys, stay in town tonight; I am going to kill some damned man."
Later in the day, Ellis and Helton must have decided to go to the magistrate's office to take care of the warrants. When Ellis and Helton finally arrived at Beatty's office, reports say that the magistrate sat at his desk, writing on some papers next to his typewriter. Constable Heath was seated nearby in a chair; no one else was in the office, but people were passing by outside. The four men were in the middle of making bond arrangements for Ellis when things went sideways, and shots started flying. When the smoke cleared, Magistrate Beatty and Constable Heath were on the floor. Dead.
Joe Lewis, the Marshall of Burnside, said that he heard the shots ring out and went in the direction of the sound, which was toward Magistrate Beatty's office. When he got there, he saw Ellis and Helton walking out of the room with pistols in hand. Marshall Lewis reported that Ellis said, "we surrender; we done what we had to do." Joe said he asked what they had done, and Ellis replied, "we have killed Esquire Beatty and Bill Heath."
Behind bars or hung high
Ellis and Helton willingly surrendered to Marshall Lewis then and there. Word was sent to Somerset, where Sheriff John Weddle and Judge R.C. Tartar, along with some deputies, took out toward Burnside after the two shooters who were with Marshall Lewis. They crossed the river in Burnside and immediately took the two into custody. However, Sheriff Weddle said that if they had been five minutes later in getting the captured men back across the river, the outraged citizens would have taken them over and hung the shooters by the neck from a tall tree right then and there. The Sheriff said they barely made it to the boat and pushed off before the crowd was at the riverbank. Once the crowd realized they weren't going to be able to get their hands on the two men, they went for Ellis' blind tiger booth and razed it to the ground.
Special session called
The two men were brought back to town and secured in a jail cell, Judge B.J. Bethurum issued an order calling a special session of Pulaski Circuit Court for July to try Ellis and Helton for the murders of the magistrate and the constable. Judge Bethurum felt that he could not wait for the regular court session to open. A special session was imperative to keep a mob of angry citizens from organizing over the death of the two respected officers. In a preliminary hearing, both waived an examining trial, Ellis and Helton were quickly arraigned before Judge R.C. Tartar; both remanded without bail to await trial. With tensions running high, the men would remain under heavy guard until after the trial.
What really took place?
While in jail, Ellis and Helton were kept apart and questioned about the shooting. After he and Helton arrived at Beatty's office, Ellis said that Constable Heath stood up and started to pull his pistol. Ellis went on to say that this is when he pulled his gun and shot Constable Heath four times. He said he had no idea how Magistrate Beatty was shot and killed.
When Helton told his version of the story, he said that the four men talked about Ellis's bond when Heath suddenly stood up and pulled his gun. He said he grabbed Heath from behind to prevent him from shooting Ellis. However, Helton said that Heath, being a much larger man (and Helton a crippled man), was able to wrench from his hold easily. When he did, Helton was scared that Heath would kill him, so he pulled his gun and shot Heath in the abdomen, and that is when Ellis began firing into Heath's body.
Well, that certainly explains how Heath ended up dead, but who shot Magistrate Beatty? Luckily there were eyewitnesses to the events in the magistrate's office that day.
One eyewitness said they saw the whole thing from a window and that Helton was shot by Ellis four times while Helton was seated in a chair. The witness also said that Beatty's shirt caught on fire from the close-range shooting. Several other witnesses rushed to aid the two dead men, and Beatty's mother was the one to put the fire out. After authorities examined the bodies, they determined that Beatty was shot three times in the back. There were no shots fired from Constable Heath's gun. The examination also showed that both men had gunshot wounds from two different pistols.
Headed to trial
As one would imagine, when the proceedings started, the courtroom was packed. Luckily, tempers were tamped down, and things remained calm throughout. But unfortunately, it proved impossible to gather a jury of Pulaski County citizens both sides could agree on, so the first jury selection came out of Lincoln County.
The men were charged on July 14 and held in a Pulaski County jail while the first part of the trial was held. However, on August 4, the case was continued until September 11 (due to the absence of witnesses); the two men were transferred to the Danville jail to protect them from a lynching mob.
Remember Sherrif McHargue and the mob who lynched the suspected killers? That took place only 20 years prior and was fresh in the minds of the authorities. No one wanted a repeat of that outcome.
While awaiting the trial, newspapers were tagging it to be the "most sensational trial ever held in Pulaski County Courthouse." It was predicted that the trial would take a week or more and stated that more than 150 witnesses had been summoned for either side. One of the witnesses was a boy who could not hear or speak; he supposedly saw the entire episode, but the prosecution would have to have him write his testimony if they could not get an interpreter for him. The prosecution was said to have had a witness whose identity could not be known ahead of his testimony; he was the only one to have seen who shot Magistrate Beatty.
One witness gave testimony, saying that they overheard the two men plotting the death of Magistrate Beatty and Constable Heath just ahead of the killings. The witness said they overheard the details discussed at Ellis' near beer stand in Burnside earlier the same day of the shooting.
Meanwhile, both Ellis and Helton continued to deny having shot the magistrate.
Lincoln County jury seated
As slated, the trial commenced on September 11, 1911. Still unable to seat a Pulaski County jury, Judge B.J. Bethurum and attorneys on both sides agreed to go to another county to secure a jury. Accordingly, 100 men were summoned from Lincoln County to appear in Pulaski County for jury duty. Three days later, a jury was finally seated, and the trial began moving forward.
Ellis' trial was held first. Witnesses were called, and testimony was given until the attorneys wrapped up and handed it over to the jury to decide Ellis' fate.
"We the jury..." part I
The Stanford Interior Journal, September 19, 1911, edition described the atmosphere in the court as the verdict was delivered:
"After being out three hours with an hour for supper, the jury in the case of James Ellis, charged with the murder of Squire Beatty at Burnside some time ago, announced at 8'oclock Saturday night that they had reached a verdict. The courtroom was crowded. Judge Bethurum sent for the prisoner and upon his arrival the jury was brought in. E. B. Denham as foreman, read the verdict. He said, 'We, the jury, find the defendant guilty and fix his penalty at death.'
Each juror said it was his verdict that Ellis showed no sign of weakening and his expression changed but little. His wife threw herself in his arms and cried. His sister also cried aloud. Ellis tried to pacify them. His children hung to his neck. On Tuesday Judge Bethurum will set the day for execution.
This is the first death penalty inflicted in the courts there for many years. A great crowd of Burnside citizens was present to hear the verdict. The jury on the first ballot voted guilty, one juryman (Mr. J.M. Pettus) holding out for a life sentence, eleven for death. On the second ballot, the verdict for the death penalty was unanimous.
The trial of Helton will be called on Tuesday. Judge Bethurum has sent to Casey County for a jury.
Most of Saturday was taken up with arguments. The defense finished its evidence at 10 o'clock, after which the prosecution offered several witnesses to prove Heath's good character. United States Edwin P. Morrow spoke first for the State, and he, in a most dramatic way, pictured the murder of Beatty and Heath and all that led up to it. His picture of the grief-stricken mother when she was brutally ordered away from the body of her son immediately following the killing brought tears to the eyes of many spectators, and Ellis's sister, who has been constantly in the courtroom could not control her emotion. The sobs of Mrs. Beatty could be heard over the hushed courtroom. Mr. Morrow spoke an hour and a half.
All the while that J.N. Sharp was speaking in his behalf Ellis held his smallest child in his lap while the others played about his knees. When Sharp would make a good point in his speech, as Ellis thought, he would smile and nod his head. Sharp spoke for nearly two hours and was the only one to speak for the defense. He said that no two witnesses had testified to the same thing in the trial that every one of them saw the tragedy in a different way; that he did not see how a jury could send a man to death in the electric chair under such circumstances. Sharp pointedly called attention of jury to array of legal talent for the prosecution that filled the entire side of the courtroom. He intimated quite broadly that Ellis was being persecuted instead of prosecuted, that wealth was arrayed against an innocent party. […]'"
"We the jury…" part II
On September 23, 1911, Helton was found guilty by a Casey County jury for the murder of Magistrate Beatty, narrowly escaping the death penalty and the same fate as Ellis. The foreman read the following statement in court,
"We the jury, find the defendant, Fount Helton, guilty of willful murder and fixed his punishment at confinement in the State penitentiary for life. W.A. Burkett, foreman."
The case against Helton for killing Constable Heath was continued until the February 1912 session.
Papers reported that Helton sat unmoved during the reading of the verdict and displayed no unusual concern. The large courtroom was crowded ahead of Helton's verdict. Both Ellis and Helton admitted killing Heath in self-defense, while both maintained that they did not shoot Beatty.
Tries to escape
Following the verdicts, the plan was to house the men in a Pulaski County jail for a short time before being sent to the penitentiary. However, Ellis was hastily sent to the Danville jail after attempting to escape in Pulaski County. Someone tipped off one of the deputy sheriffs that Ellis was planning an escape. When the deputy jailer was alerted, he checked Ellis's cell, where he found him trying to saw through the bars. The jailer also discovered a total of four saws and a bottle of acid tucked away in the cell.
In October, Judge B.J. Bethurum passed formal sentencing on Fount Helton and sent him to prison.
Appeal and execution
James Ellis appealed the conviction but lost. Much of the information in this write-up was retrieved or confirmed by the appeal information.
You can read the appeal by searching for 143 S.W. 425 (Ky.App. 1912), Ellis v. Commonwealth - Kentucky - Case Law - VLEX 615400994
On November 23, 1923, James Ellis, thirty-four years old, was electrocuted at the Eddyville penitentiary. Ellis was said to have turned to the bible for comfort while awaiting his execution in the "Death House." The death house was an annex of the penitentiary. In fact, the annex, cell block H, is still the location of death row and still referred to as the Death House.
William Fountain Helton
Fount Helton's "life in prison" sentence started in 1911 after his conviction, but he would later come up for parole. In 1926 he was released to go back to his home in McCreary County. Back in the early 1900s, the northern parts of McCreary County belonged to Pulaski until McCreary was officially formed. Fount lived in Parker's Lake in what is now northern McCreary County.
William Fountain "Fount" Helton died in 1928 at age 67.
Interesting side note
In 1935, (William) Fount Helton's son, Fount G. Helton (called Founty), committed a crime that would land him with a life sentence, too. Around 3:15 on February 15, (the day after Valentine's Day), Fount G. Helton walked over to Mark Sumner's store and called up Sheriff Tommie Roundtree, admitted to shooting his wife, and said he was ready to go to jail. By this time, McCreary County was an official county, and it was Sheriff Roundtree's jurisdiction. When Sheriff Roundtree questioned Founty, he said that his wife, Bertha Rose (nee Morgan), was lying on the bed and wouldn't cook supper for him, so he shot her in the chest with a shotgun. When asked why he would do such a terrible thing, he said, "I have so much trouble; I just wanted to get rid of part of it." Rumors had it that Founty was a jealous man, which is why he shot his wife. Bertha Rose separated from Founty and moved to Cincinnati for a time but had recently returned to try to work things out. However, neighbors said that trouble had been brewing since she returned.
Founty Helton was tried and given life in prison but landed in the Central State Hospital (an insane asylum) in Jefferson County. In 1940, we found Helton on the State Reformatory census sheets; he was 45 years old. Helton died in the asylum in 1943 when he was only 48.