Southern Ax Murder (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 1
Hometown Murders & Mysteries | October 2021
This month our story takes us back to the beginning of a new millennium to the late 1930s. We follow a man's journey from Russell County, where he was born, to the Somerset city limits, where he spent many years as a well-liked and respected community member, to his settling a farm on the banks of the Cumberland River in southern Pulaski County. From the moment we began researching his story, we felt a connection to our subject and sorrow over the unfortunate events that ended his life.
As is our usual way of telling the story, let us frame up the community and life in the 1930s. From what we have read and stories remembered and told to us from our own family and resident elders, Pulaski County in the 30s was still a time when people didn’t lock their doors; families had Sunday dinner – without fail, people worked hard and played little, and most folks tried to love thy neighbor. The Cumberland River had not yet turned into Lake Cumberland, and subdivisions were marked between the gardens, pastures, chicken and horse lots, and orchards, not the zoned lots familiar to us know. We were slowly coming out of the depression with a renewed sense of hope, but we were watching with a wary eye toward Europe and Hitler's next moves.
In 1938, nearly 2,200 licensed vehicle drivers were registered in the county, and horse-drawn buggies were quickly becoming a thing of the past. The Virginia Theater was the epicenter of entertainment, and Gregory’s Restaurant was the place to go for a good sit-down meal. The train station, Southern Railway System, ran excursions from Somerset to Cincinnati for $1.75 every Sunday from July through October. The train to Cincinnati left at 3:05 A.M, so folks who wanted to ride the train to "Queen City" needed to be up before the chickens. This schedule is similar to our modern-day version of having to leave Somerset at nearly the same time in the morning to catch the early plane out of Lexington or Louisville. Then, as now, I am sure most folks got little sleep the night before their traveling adventures.
One exciting technology we all can appreciate today began taking root in our town in the summer of 1938 - indoor air conditioning! Pulaski Drug company was one of the first businesses to get this new luxury, and they used it as a well-played marketing strategy to draw customers out of the heat and into the store. Also, in the summer of '38, brand new “Kelvinator” electric refrigerator/freezers were selling for $149.95 at Cundiff Brothers, Studebakers were $660 at Marlow Sears car lot on East Hwy 80, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog was selling everything from guns to clothes to watches from their mail-order catalog. Except for the gun purchases, it seems a lot like our modern concept of shopping, with a longer processing time, of course.
Somerset had at least two banks, one dentist, an optometrist who offered “scientific testing,” and doctors were encouraging good hygiene and handwashing in the local paper due to a small typhoid outbreak in the county (16 cases). In addition, we had the Coca-Cola Bottling Company plant on North Central Avenue, the Somerset Lumber Company on South Main Street, and the Kentucky Unemployment Commission and National Reemployment Services were getting folks back to work following the economical downturn during depression. Big things were happening in our town, but brutal murders were also taking place in the far corners of our county that summer. The October edition of LCTI’s Hometown Murders & Mysteries of the Month is rich with clues but thin on suspects.
Let’s begin by introducing Mr. Thomas Hurd, which we will refer to as Tom from here on out. Tom was born around 1870 and grew up in Russell County with his parents and several siblings. Sometime around 1910, plus or minus a few years, he married his wife, Plina. We don’t know much about Plina, other than she was a few years younger than Tom and the two had a daughter together in 1911. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a census record telling where they lived during 1910, but we can assume Tom moved his little family to Somerset sometime between 1910 and 1920.
During the 1920s, Tom, Plina, and their young daughter lived on Cherry Street inside the Somerset City limits. Between 1920 and 1930, they moved to Mill Street, which is the last place we see their 19-year-old daughter, Opal. In 1932, Tom and his wife had a small half-acre ginseng patch on Limestone Street, where they also grew strawberries. Tom would sell the strawberries to the local grocers and take the ginseng to the nearest dealer. Tom was an expert ginseng grower and was mentioned several times in the paper for bringing in substantial ginseng roots. For example, the Wednesday, March 2, 1932, edition of the Commonwealth newspaper tells of Tom bringing in a ginseng root that weighed eight and one-fourth ounces. During those days, a root with only one crown would bring in around $16 per pound. The cash value of that one root was $2.60, which the inflation rate would put the current day dollar amount at a little over $50 in 2021. Not bad for one root.
Sometime after 1932, Tom decided to buy a 77-acre farm two and a half miles east of Tateville near Shad Shoals on the Cumberland River. He and his wife sold their city property to Otis Waddle and moved out to the farm where they lived several years before she died in September of 1937. We presume that their daughter must have died or married and moved to parts unknown since she is not mentioned in any other records we could find, and she is not part of the estate records later on. Tom had an older brother, William Hurd, who lived not far from the Tateville farm on Antioch Road, just outside the Burnside city limits. William was his only living sibling and last close relative left.
Those who knew Tom described him as eccentric. After his wife died, his friends and neighbors said he became even more peculiar and preferred to live alone in his two-room house on the farm. Though he was considered an odd personality, folks found him engaging, intelligent, and a good conversationalist. Tom may have wanted to live alone, but he had many friends in Somerset, Russell County, and the community surrounding his farm, and he enjoyed spending time with them. Tom went as far as to hang an envelope with pencil and paper on a nail outside on the porch with a note telling people to “Rite when you will be back, and I’ll be home.” A somewhat antiquated version of our modern-day email or texts, but a sign of someone who is trusting, courteous, respectful of others' time, and pretty forward thinking we think. It was said that Tom enjoyed talking about current events and generally entertaining company at his little farmhouse until the day he received the wrong kind of company.
One Sunday morning, about six months after his wife passed, two of Tom’s friends, Will Thompson and Henderson Dobbs, decided to stop in and visit Tom on their way home after checking their groundhog traps. They went to the door and knocked, but Tom didn’t answer. Something didn’t feel right, so the men carefully opened the door and looked in. They found Tom lying dead on the floor in a puddle of blood in front of his dining table. Will and Henderson secured the house and left to call Somerset for the authorities.
Sheriff James Beaty was away on that particular Sunday, but other Pulaski County officers came straight to the house and started the investigation. They found Tom on the floor, where Will and Henderson had left him. Tom was bloody and bruised, with a large gash on the left side of his head, and a blood-stained ax was found under the dining table. A second, smaller ax was also located near the body covered in blood. From the look of the scene, it appeared Tom had been killed the night before.
Officers found the dining table set for two, and the meal had been mostly eaten. A half glass of milk was found opposite Tom’s position at the table, and it appeared that Tom was in the middle of drinking his own glass of milk when the killer struck him with the ax. Milk was found on Tom’s clothes and broken glass on the floor next to him. There was a wooden box next to the guest’s seat at the table, within easy reach, and officers assumed this was the usual resting place for the large ax.
The officers put together a makeshift stretcher and carried Tom’s body out to where they had to park their cars in Tateville. Tom was taken to Somerset, where the coroner would examine the body and send it on to the funeral home to prepare for burial. In the meantime, officers combed through Tom’s belongings in the house. Among his possessions, they found three dollars in the form of one-dollar bills, which made them rule out robbery as a possible motive. They also found a will and a couple of journals. Tom kept notes daily in the journal over a period of years. In hopes of finding clues, the officers bagged the journals and took them back to Somerset to read through later. Officers also boxed up the axes, dishes, and other household objects to take back to town for fingerprint processing.
Pulaski County authorities called for J.M. Burk in Monticello to bring in his bloodhounds later Sunday afternoon, but the bloodhounds weren’t able to turn up any leads of where the suspect may have gone. So after gathering the clues from the scene, the officers wrapped up and prepared to hand over the evidence to the Sheriff Monday morning.
Coroner G. Shelby Griffin examined the body and reported that Tom died by “wilful murder by party or parties unknown.” County Attorney Russel Jones, County Judge Lawrence Hail, Deputy Sheriff Oble S. Muse, and other officers conducted interviews with neighbors and friends and processed the additional evidence. To back up the assertion that this was not a robbery, they found that Tom had minimal possessions besides his farm. He was known to carry his money with him. He traded with a grocery store owner who said that Tom always paid cash for purchases, but he never spent large sums of money.
Upon examining the journal, officers found that Tom made entries regularly; he would note weather conditions and jot down his daily activities. At 5 o’clock Saturday morning, Tom recorded the temperature and weather conditions, but the remainder of the day was left blank. Neighbors said that Tom was in Tateville Saturday afternoon, and he was last seen about 5’oclock that evening, July 31st.
In part 2, we will reveal the suspects offered up to the community and discuss some thoughts about the case.
Part 2 is scheduled for release tomorrow, so if you want to know more about this murder mystery, stay tuned!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.