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Southern Ax Murder (Part 2)

Updated: Feb 1

Hometown Murders & Mysteries | October 2021

Original Image: ©CLShebley | Adobe Stock

Part 2

Yesterday in Part 1, we learned that Thomas Hurd had been brutally murdered on July 30, 1938, in his two-room Tateville home near Shad Shoals on the Cumberland River. Tom’s last journal entry was made the morning of the murder, and he was last seen by community members in Tateville Saturday evening around five o’clock. Tom was found the following day bloody and lying on the floor with two axes near his body. The officers suspected that Tom had a dinner guest who killed him before the meal was finished. There were two places set at the table for supper, most of which was eaten when Tom’s assailant struck him with one of the axes from behind. Officers were leaning away from robbery as a motive since they found three one-dollar bills and some change at the scene, which would be around the equivalent of $60 today.

The August 3, 1938, edition of The Commonwealth stated, “The victim had been struck on the left side of his head from the rear with the sharp side of an ax. The blood-stained weapon was found lying under the kitchen table. Hurd’s face showed signs of a wound apparently inflicted by the blunt end of the instrument. A second ax, smaller than the regular size, was also found covered with blood.” Furthermore, officers believed that Tom was in the motion of drinking the glass of milk when he was struck because milk was on his face and broken glass was on the floor beside him.

The coroner’s report, filed on August 1, 1938, only states. “Murdered by partys or party and unknown with axes.” The informant line was signed by the corner, G.S Griffin, which is usually signed by the person who found the body or called for the police. Not unheard of, but we expected to see one of the neighbors' or his brother’s signatures on the certificate.

Sheriff James M. Beatty (also spelled Beaty and Beatey in papers) was out of town when the murder was reported on Sunday but took over the case when he returned Monday. At the time of the August 3rd press release, the sheriff said that they had several suspects under surveillance. The sheriff also said that the ax that Tom was murdered with did not belong to him, and he believed they would soon be able to identify the owner of the murder weapon.

In a follow-on press release in the August 17, 1938, edition of The Commonwealth newspaper, titled “Continue Investigation In Hurd Murder Case”, a statement was made,

“County Officers are continuing their investigation in the case of Thomas H. Hurd, who was murdered at this home near Tateville, July 30. They have established several excellent clues and expect to make an important arrest within the next few days.”

Also, in the August 17th edition of The Commonwealth newspaper, a notice that Willie Thompson and Cora Thompson were appointed administrators of Tom’s will and the estate was published. Willie Thompson was one of the neighbors who found Tom after checking his groundhog traps that Sunday morning. However, there was still no mention of who Tom left as his beneficiary in the will.

The next and last article we found about Tom’s murder case was published on August 31, 1938. The article is short and presented in full here:

“J.H. Hurd Is Held In Ax Murder Case
August 31, 1938
Joe Haynes Hurd, 16, son of W.A. Hurd of Burnside, was arrested Wednesday afternoon at Burnside in connection with the ax murder of his uncle, Thomas H. Hurd, near Tateville, July 30. County officers have questioned the youth twice in connection with the murder, and he has denied any knowledge of the affair. He told officers that he didn’t know his uncle and had never visited his home on the banks of the Cumberland River where the alleged murder took place. Officers said, however, that Hurd had discussed the case with follow prisoners at the jail and had implicated himself in the murder while talking to other prisoners. It is alleged that the Hurd boy claimed to have spent the night of July 30 with friends in Somerset. This alibi was proven false, officers said, and Hurd later admitted that he couldn’t remember where he was on the night of the murder. He said that he hoboed to Cincinnati on a freight train the following day. Ezra Hudson, a neighbor of Hurd’s is being sought by county officers in connection with the case. They have been unable to locate Ezra Hudson since the murder.”

We continued to search the local papers for more information on Tom’s murder case but were unsuccessful. We were able to locate someone claiming to be related to the Hurd family who may be able to tell us more about what happened after Tom’s death, but our emails have not returned yet. We don’t know why the scent grew cold, but it is evident from the headlines beyond August 1938 that the sheriff had several high-profile murder cases running simultaneously. Even so, we are left with several clues and many more questions. We took some time and pulled apart some of the biggest questions we had surrounding Tom’s case.

Here is what we think of the clues so far:

  • The note pad and journal.

Tom is an eccentric, newly widowed man who enjoys company. The paper left outside on the porch in the envelope for visitors to sign interests us – a lot. Were there any names on that list? If so, were they brought in and questioned? Tom’s journal could also offer much information for the officers to go on. Or not. If Tom didn’t jot down more than the daily weather conditions, it wouldn’t provide much, but we feel in our bones that Tom was the type to write down important things that happened each day, including visitors, money or property exchanges, items bought and sold, and so on.

  • Dinner guest.

We think the evidence is clear that Tom was murdered over the evening meal and his guest likely took him unaware. We also believe the timeline is correct; the neighbors' last sight of him and his journal entry makes this an easy one to nail down.

The first newspaper article published on August 3rd indicates that Tom was struck with the sharp end of the ax in the back of the head and his face appeared to have been beaten with a blunt weapon. Two axes were found, a regular ax and a smaller one, both bloody. Since Tom had milk on his face and the broken glass was on the floor with him, it is reasonable to think that Tom was taking a drink and at ease when the killer decided to first strike him. We imagine that the first strike was likely from the back, which leads us to think that that blow did not kill him if someone felt the need to beat him in the face with the blunt object. It is painful to think that he suffered through such an initial blow, but it could be that he may have survived a little longer if neither blow instantly killed him.

Again, the paper said that Tom was struck on the left side of the head from the back. Did they re-create the scene from the position of Tom’s body? It may have been that they could suppose whether the killer was right or left-handed. It isn’t much, but if it were possible to determine that the blow was struck left-handed, it could have helped when interviewing suspects.

What about the guest dishes? The paper mentioned that the officers bagged up the dishes with other evidence Sunday and took it off for fingerprinting. The other glass of milk on the table should have yielded at least one print. It is hard to know how they handled evidence back then, and it is possible that mishandling could have rendered the evidence useless. In the 1950s, the FBI was processing evidence for the sheriff’s office; however, it is unknown to us how evidence was processed during the 1930s.

  • Robbery is not a motive.

We are not convinced that robbery was not the intention here. We have all known or had an eccentric in our family. Everyone always says, “he (or she) has their money buried in a mason jar in the backyard” or “they stuff their mattress with money.” We are told in the newspaper reports that he was known to carry his money with him and didn’t spend much at the store, so it could be that he squirreled away some money, and one of his guests, neighbors, friends, or acquaintances thought they could have a payday by killing Tom. What would three dollars be to a killer if Tom did have a load of cash stashed away? Three dollars could be enough of a sacrifice for a savvy robber/killer to throw the police off the scent and still make a good payday.

What about ginseng? Could it be that Tom had established a good cash crop of ginseng in Tateville by now, and was that the motive?

  • J.H. Hurd as the teenage nephew suspect.

After the August 31, 1938 newspaper report, the case and information get cold. Frigid. However, this is what we know about J.H. Hurd. In March of 1939 a marriage license was issued to Joe Hayes Hurd and Dorothy Marie Bolin; by 1940, J.H. was now 18, newly married to Dorothy Bolin Hurd, and living with her parents in Burnside. In 1942 we found a WWII registration card for J.H. establishing his address in West Somerset Plaster (Pulaski) County, Kentucky. By 1945, J.H. and Dorothy were living in Lexington. In 1973, J.H. died in Lexington.

It doesn’t appear that J.H. was convicted or pulled any time for the murder. However, it could be that he had a sealed juvenile record. Even if that is the case, he couldn’t have pulled any time between the murder in August 1938 and the information found on the 1940 census. We don’t know, but we do not believe he was convicted. Strangely though, he made the statement to the police that he didn’t know his uncle, who lived only a couple of miles away from his residence at the time of the murder. It is also telling that his alibi fell through and that he bragged about the murder to fellow prisoners when they initially picked him up. The fact that he was lodged seems like he was at least charged for the crime, even if he wasn’t convicted.

  • Ezra Hudson, the missing neighbor.

There are a couple of Ezra Hudsons that lived in Tateville around this time. One was a drifter around 28 years old, born near 76 Falls, who jumped from home to home while working as a farmhand. He disappears from records for a few years, possibly drafted, but shows back up in Adair County getting married somewhere in his late 60s.

The other Ezra Hudson lived in Burnside with his wife and children in 1920 but lived in Tateville between 1917-1918. He was 53 in 1930 and had six sons; not only that, but the family had also moved to Indiana by the time the census was taken. By 1940, this Ezra Hudson and his wife were divorced – she was living in Indiana. We could not find a 1940 census for Ezra Hudson, but we did see an Indiana Directory entry for Mr. Hudson in 1960. It could be that he maintained property in Tateville but commuted between Kentucky and Indiana. It is possible the sheriff's office could not locate him because he was living part-time in Indiana. We cannot find anything solid for his whereabouts around 1938-1940. We don’t believe that he was drafted since he would’ve been in his 60s in the 1940s.

  • Tom’s assets.

Who was Tom’s beneficiary? Why was his neighbor named the administrator of his estate? Was he the beneficiary named in the will? Remember, Tom’s closest living relative was his brother, William, who lived on Antioch Road just outside of the Burnside city limits. Perhaps Tom and William were not close. Was this a possible motive? People have been tempted by less than a nice 77-acre farm with a river running through it.

We would love to know that someone was brought to justice for this senseless murder, but we are only left to speculate and question the mystery surrounding this heinous act. Could this have been a crime of passion where Tom said something to infuriate his dinner guest? Maybe Tom’s guest heard that he had cash hidden in his meager two-room farmhouse. And perhaps he did have piles of hidden money. Maybe Tom was a victim of another circumstance we can’t begin to imagine. Whatever the reason for this murder, I feel like the world was a bit less interesting without Tom’s presence. While researching this case, I was drawn back to memories of my own eccentric Irish grandfather. He loved to talk to anyone and everyone; he would have been one to put a pencil and paper on his porch for visitors to leave a note, just like Tom did. My grandfather, and perhaps your own, came from nearly the same era as Tom and was an interesting character, to say the least. He had a grade school education but was insightful, wily, and a bit miserly, but he was drawn to people and drew people to him – exactly how I imagine Tom. From the research we’ve done, Thomas Hurd didn’t deserve anyone’s wrath, much less to be murdered by someone who obviously took advantage of his meager but gracious offering of hospitality. Nevertheless, we hope that Tom and Plina have been reunited in eternity to rest in peace together; we are confident that God took care of serving justice.

What do you think about this case? Do you think it was a relative, a neighbor, or someone who happened by Tom’s door? As always, we welcome different perspectives.

We do want to keep in mind that these are real events that happened in our community, with real connections to our current friends, family, and neighbors. We are not exploring these old cases to point the blame to anyone. Instead, the purpose of these posts is to learn more about our community, identify similarities between how we respond in the current day and how our predecessors responded to events that shook the community.


If you did not catch Part 1 of LCTI's Hometown Murders & Mysteries of the Month:

Summer of 1938: Southern Ax Murder you can click this direct link or you can visit the Security Matters blogspace on the website from this link.

The November Hometown Murders & Mysteries story will be a bit closer to home for us, and we are hoping to get special insight from the west end community.

Also, if time allows this month, we will be doing a Halloween post. 🎃🎃🎃

As always, we welcome community feedback and insight. If you have a connection, a correction, or more to add, please leave us a comment or email us at Unfortunately, in most cases, we have to rely on what the newspapers and other written historical resources tell us, but we all know that is only part of the story.

Joplin, JR, G. (1938, August 3). Aged Farmer Victim of Brutal Slaying East of Tateville. The Commonwealth, page 1. Retrieved from
Joplin, JR, G. (1938, August 17). Continue Investigation In Hurd Murder Case. The Commonwealth, page 1. Retrieved from
Joplin, JR, G. (1938, August 31). J.H. Hurd Is Held In Ax Murder Case. The Commonwealth, page 1. Retrieved from

Figure 1: (October 2021). Thomas H. Hurd Death Certificate [document image]., United States of America.
Figure 2: (October 2021). Joe Hays Hurd U.S., World War II Draft Registration Card, 1940-1947 [document image]., United States of America.
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