Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Part 1 of 2
By the time the 1950s rolled in, people were sluffing off the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. Technology was starting to take off, and families had more access to electricity, cars, phones, radios, and televisions. Having lived through lean and worrisome times, folks were ready to make leisure time and family vacations a part of life. During the early ‘50s, the Cumberland River was impounded, and Lake Cumberland was born – one of the richest recreational hotspots in rural America. Music was also starting to impact society like never before, from hairstyles and fashion to fueling teenage rebellion. It is no wonder we found the perfect setting for our first Murder and Mystery of the Month.
Now that the stage is set, let's meet Tom and Ruby Richardson.
Thomas M Richardson was born in early 1933 to John and Elizabeth Richardson in Elihu. Tom’s mother grew up on Pumpkin Hollow Road and moved to Elihu when she married Tom's father. We know from the 1940 Census that Tom, his two brothers, and two sisters were living on a farm with their parents on Cedar Grove Road. The family was making roughly $300 monthly from the farm, which wasn’t all that bad, considering the U.S. was struggling to move out of the depression.
Meanwhile, five years his junior, Miss Ruby Mae Hill was born in Pulaski County to John and Minnie Hill. We found Ruby living with her mother, father, and sister, Helen (2 years older than Ruby), in a rented house on South Main Street in downtown Somerset in 1940. John Hill was working as a private carpenter, making roughly $120 per month for the family living. Ruby’s mother, Minnie (Owens), was raised in the Nancy area, while her father, John, is thought to have roots in Wayne County. At some point, Ruby’s mother either died, or she and John were divorced. Either way, Ruby's father went on to marry Laura Pierce, formerly of Monticello. We can surmise that John and Laura likely met through common roots in Wayne County. Ruby and her sister, Helen, lived with John and Laura Hill in their Tateville home for around ten years before one, or both, would marry and leave home.
Fast foward to 1955. Ruby Hill and Thomas Richardson were married on April 30th in Campbell County, Tennessee, just a couple of weeks before her 17th birthday. At the time, Ruby lived with her father and stepmother in Tateville, and Thomas was living in Burnside. We don’t know the circumstances behind what seems to be a hasty marriage, but it was not unheard of for girls to marry at such a young age in the 1950s. Thomas, 22 years old at the time, drove Ruby to Jellico, Tennessee, where a blood test and waiting period were not required, and they appear to have eloped without family or fanfare. There is no mention of any children during the marriage.
The honeymoon did not last long, though. Early during the spring of 1956, Ruby had a falling out with Tom and went back to her father’s home in Tateville to cool her jets. We don’t know what kind of relationship Ruby and her step-mother had, but we can imagine that Ruby was likely full of piss and vinegar, as girls of 17 generally are – even girls in the mid-1950s. We know that Ruby’s step-mother, Laura, was an avid member of the Tateville Baptist Church, her brother was a reverend, and she was active in the homemaker’s club in Wayne County. If Ruby was indeed a handful and Laura the picture of piety, we could see how there may have been some friction in the house leading up to what happened next.
From newspaper reports, on the evening of June 15th, 1956, around seven o’clock, Ruby wanted to call in and request the disc jockey at a popular radio show to play a song called Don’t Fall In Love With A Married Man. For whatever reason, her step-mother firmly objected to Ruby’s request. Ruby is said to have gone into a bedroom, retrieved a shotgun, and shot her step-mother during a struggle over the gun. The newspaper report says that Mrs. Laura Hill ran out of the house into the backyard after being shot. Mrs. Hill was taken to the Somerset City hospital, where she died from her injury around ten o’clock. Meanwhile, Ruby and her sister walked to the Sam Davis Store in Tateville, where a man named Milton Bray brought Ruby to Somerset, where she gave up to deputy sheriffs. Gilmore Phelps was the Sheriff at the time.
The newspaper report gives Ruby’s account of what happened; however, Mrs. Laura Hill’s death certificate clearly shows that she was shot under her shoulder blade in the back. Whether or not Ruby shot Laura Hill in the back in cold blood is not something that can be argued today by anyone who did not witness the incident. Therefore, we are left to draw our own conclusions here.
The shooting was investigated by Sheriff Gilmore Phelps, Deputy Robert Gaddis, and Coroner Kenneth Gibbs. Ruby was processed by the Sheriff’s department and released on bond but was scheduled to go before the Grand Jury the on September 10th. Mrs. Hill's funeral services were held at the Grove Hill Baptist Church, with the Rev. Lonnie Hill conducting the service, and she was laid to rest in the Chapel Hill Cemetery in Wayne County.
It is an open and shut case and the Grand Jury would have an easy time delivering an indictment, right? Not so. There is more—much, much more to this story. We had to dive deep to unravel this complicated piece of Pulaski County history. In the second part of the September edition of Murders & Mysteries of the Month, coming later this week, Mr. Tom Richardson is left to answer some tough questions. To be continued...
Troubled Waters Murder Map
Last time, we left you with the unfortunate and untimely death of 35-year-old Mrs. Laura Hill, who was shot in an alleged scuffle with her step-daughter, Ruby Richardson, over a radio request. At least, that is what Ruby was telling the investigators.
The evidence, so far, doesn’t support an accidental shooting, and we don’t feel like investigators were buying the “scuffle” story either. After all, Ruby was arrested and charged with murder. We couldn’t find any record of where Mrs. Hill was able to give her side of the story before she was pronounced dead at the Somerset City hospital, three hours after the shooting. The death certificate details and the fact that Mrs. Hill was running into the backyard when she collapsed tells us that it is very likely she was shot in the back as she was running from the shooter.
There is no suggestion that Ruby stuck around to render aid to Mrs. Hill after she collapsed in the yard; we don’t even know who took Mrs. Hill to the hospital or if anyone else was at the house during the shooting. The Commonwealth newspaper reported that Ruby and her sister walked to the Sam Davis store sometime after the shooting and caught a ride to Somerset, where she gave herself up to deputy Sheriffs. We know from other reports that Ruby was processed, was out on bond for nearly two months, and was scheduled to appear in front of the Grand Jury on September 10th to give testimony about the shooting death of her step-mother.
Unfortunately, Ruby had a one-on-one interview with Coroner Kenneth Gibbs instead.
Sometime during the late evening of Thursday, August 30th, 1956, Mr. Marshall Hines of Burnside heard what sounded like a girl scream. Mr. Hines didn’t immediately go out to see what had made the noise, but he took off walking the lake’s shoreline after breakfast the following day. After a short search, Mr. Hines abruptly came upon Ruby’s body about 300 yards from what everyone called Meece’s Shoals. Ruby had abrasions and scratches on the left side of her neck and body, and she was lying partially in the water. Mr. Hines immediately called for the Sheriff.
We tried to figure out the location of Meece’s Shoals on Lake Cumberland. Our best guess lands us somewhere in the Boat Dock area, but we also looked at the Antioch Shores Road and somewhere on the banks of Burnside Island (see map). We searched maps of Lake Cumberland, present date, and tried to locate maps of Cumberland River before the impoundment but didn’t have any solid luck. However, we found several references to Meece’s Shoals in old newspapers in the advertisements for houses for sale. One advertisement described a cottage for sale 3 miles east of Burnside in the Meece’s Shoals area. There is mention of “Antioch campers” in the newspaper, which makes the Antioch Shores Road look like a possibility. It could be that all of our guesses are way off.
Now that we have some ideas of where her body may have been found, let’s get back to the story.
We have a step-mother killed over a risqué song, and now we have the presumed shooter dead on the southern shores of Lake Cumberland just days before she was to give testimony to the Grand Jury. We thought we had the first murder figured out, but did we?
Coroner Gibbs examined Ruby’s body and reported the scratches and abrasions along her left side. Gibbs also found portions of skin under her fingernails, which indicated she fought her attacker. Gibbs finished with his examination and immediately sent her body to Frankfort for an autopsy. The autopsy report came back the next day and reported to have found water in Ruby’s lungs, which points directly to drowning as the primary cause of death.
The coroner's report said that Ruby was found on the west shore of Lake Cumberland in the Meece Shoals area. The description related that Coroner Gibbs found a pair of red sandals 50 feet above the waterline 100 yards up the lake from her body. Gibbs also found a purse, personal effects, and beer cans in the same vicinity, some of which were covered over by leaves. Additionally, officers interviewed campers in the area who also stated they heard what sounded like a woman scream during the time frame Mr. Hines reported hearing the scream.
Officers conducted extensive interviews with local residents and campers, one of which was Jack Decker. Mr. Decker said he saw Ruby, with her husband Tom, in the general area the evening of August 30th, around the same time the campers and Mr. Hines heard the scream. Several Antioch campers said they saw the couple headed toward the lake and that Tom was carrying a small box wrapped in a newspaper. Several people reported seeing Tom Thursday night wearing a wet and bloody shirt with scratches on his face and body; when they asked what had happened to him, he said he fell over a bank into the lake. Mr. Oscar Abbot said he talked to Tom Richardson later Thursday night and Tom appeared drunk. Tom told Mr. Abbott that he had been in a fight and had killed someone but didn’t offer any more details.
After word of Ruby’s body being found, Tom Richardson gave himself up to Burnside Police Chief Herron Walden, about 24 hours after her estimated time of death. Richardson was then taken into custody by Deputy Sheriff Jess Eastham and lodged in the County Jail to await action of the Grand Jury, the same Grand Jury that was to examine Ruby. However, instead of waiting on the Grand Jury to meet on September 10th, Richardson entered a plea of guilty to the charge of wilful murder in Pulaski County Circuit Court and was sentenced to life, after a petit jury deliberated for less than 10 minutes (regarding his sentence) on September 5th, 1956. While in jail, Richardson refused to talk about the killing, and officers were never able to obtain a statement.
We will likely never know the truth behind these two murders, and we are left with more questions than answers. Did Ruby kill her step-mother? Did Tom kill Ruby? Were others involved? If Tom did kill Ruby, why? What was in the newspaper covered box? And why did Tom remain silent about it?
It appears that Tom Richardson went to prison and quietly served his time. What we could not find is how much time he served in prison. Our best guess is 15 years, and here is why: Tom pops back on the public scene on June 26th, 1967, when he once again traveled to Campbell County, Tennessee to get married. This time he married Grace Decker – a lifelong resident of the Tateville area. There’s a little twist here, though. Grace Decker was Tom Richardson’s brother’s mother-in-law. Strange huh? Maybe not. In 1967 Grace Decker was 48 and a widow. Tom was 34 and fresh out of prison and single (maybe, remember, we don’t know when he was released). We imagine that Tom’s brother may have wanted his widowed brother and his widowed mother-in-law to find happiness with each other. Whatever the circumstances, Grace (Davis) Decker Richardson would pass from this life five years later at the reasonably young age of 53. Is there another story here? We don’t necessarily think so. We found Grace in and out of the hospital during 1970 and 1971 before her death a year later. Not to worry about Tom, though; he would turn up in Tennessee again. There must have been too many hoops to go through in Kentucky for a marriage license for Tom's liking. As far as we can tell, Tom remained a resident of Burnside - he just seems he preferred Tennessee for getting hitched.
In July 1973, six months after Grace passed, Tom was in Jellico getting married. This time he married a woman by the name of Mary Joe Hutchinson. Mary Joe is a mystery to us. When we tried to track her down, we found sketchy evidence that she existed - outside of a marriage license. I am positive we are missing something because we could not confirm anything about her beyond this marriage license. One record possibly linked to her has a maiden name of Huff. We simply ran into a dead end with her. However, this marriage likely ended sometime before the next one took place a few years later.
In July 1977, Thomas Richardson, and Margaret Mason, of Parkers Lake were wed in Scott County, Tennessee. From this point on, it seems like Tom Richardson found his way and the woman he would live the rest of his days with because there was nothing else found until his death in October 1998. Tom’s obituary says he was an avid hunter and fisherman and retired as a janitor from the Burnside Hardwood Corporation. From all accounts we could find, he he did not have children with any of his wives. We think he settled with his last wife, Margaret, in Lakeview Estates, went to work every day, and kept things low key until he died at Central Baptist in Lexington (unknown circumstances). Margaret Richardson would live several more years, her obituary in 2009 being the last record we can find with Thomas Richardson’s name.
To us, this case remains a mystery, even though heavy prices were paid. We would have loved to have been able to find a dying declaration from Mrs. Hill and get Tom Richardson's side of the story. We would also like to know where Meece's Shoals is (or was) located! In the end, it does seem that the local officials did a thorough investigation, and made sure justice was served the best of their ability.
Do you have anything to add to this story? If you have a connection, a correction, or any feedback, we would love to hear from you! Leave a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for a podcast later this month where we will discuss these murders and any solid comments/feedback we receive.
Don't miss the September issue of our monthly Crime & Community Blotter next week. We have snatched news articles from a century ago for a snapshot of our past! We are already working on the October Murders & Mysteries of the Month too!
Joplin, JR, G. (1956, June 20). Shooting Follows Quarrel Over Hillbilly Song Requested On Radio. The Commonwealth, page 1 & 8. Retrieved from pulaskilibrary.advantage-preservation.com
Joplin, JR, G. (1956, September 5). Richardson Gets Life For Wife’s Murder, Girl, Also Charged With Murder Killed. The Commonwealth, page 1 & 8. Retrieved from pulaskilibrary.advantage-preservation.com
Joplin, JR, G. (1956, September 12). Grand Jury Returns 21 Indictments Many Cases Tried in Circuit Court. The Commonwealth, page 2. Retrieved from pulaskilibrary.advantage-preservation.com
Figures: Figure 1 - [Somerset 1950]. Fountain Square, Somerset, KY, USA. (1160) Pinterest Figure 2 - Lake Cumberland Tactical Innovations, LLC. (2021), September Pulaski County Murder Mystery Map. Nancy, KY.