Hometown Heroes: Pulaski County Sheriff John McHargue

Updated: Apr 1

End of watch: 1891

The first on our list of fallen Hometown Heroes is Sheriff John McHargue. We don’t know if he was the first officer in Pulaski to fall in the line of duty, but he is the oldest case we could find.


John H. McHargue was born in 1835 and grew up in Laurel County with his parents and four sisters. When he was 20 years old, he and Nancy J. Williams were married in Laurel County. According to records, Nancy was originally from Pulaski County, and the couple would live in both the western parts of Laurel and eastern Pulaski Counties during their marriage.


Note: Though Pulaski County was founded in 1798 and Laurel in 1825, county lines seem to have been a bit blurry into the 1800s. It is possible that the McHargues lived on the same farm in Pulaski County the entire time, with county boundaries shifting slightly. It is difficult to be sure using the census enumeration districts and data as the sole guide. Lingering address issues probably occurred along the boundary lines during the mid-late 1800s.


Off to war and back

After being married and working as a farmer for around nine years, McHargue went to war. In 1863 he was drafted to fight in the Civil War as a Union Infantryman.


Returning home after the war ended, he and Nancy continued to grow their family in the Price community of Pulaski County. In 1880, a few years before his first stint as Sheriff, the census logged McHargue (44) and Nancy (43) living on the Pulaski farm with four daughters ranging from 4 to 20 years old.


Sheriff McHargue

Just a few years later, during 1885-86, McHargue would serve his first term in office as the Sheriff of Pulaski County. Then, in 1891, he once again served as Sheriff (following the terms in between held by Sheriff Walter Elrod from 1887-1890).


The story of Sheriff John McHargue on the Officer Down Memorial Page (odmp.org) is as follows:

“Sheriff John H. McHargue assassinated by two brothers as he was putting his horse in his stable. Upon hearing the shots, his wife and daughter ran out to the stable and saw the brothers running away with pistols in their hands. Both were captured a short time later. Three days later, an angry mob seized the suspects from the county jail and hanged them both from a nearby sycamore tree. Both suspects denied killing the Sheriff and protested their innocence to the last.”

Another online source, the StrayLeaves Blogspot (ericjames.org), says that the brothers, James Harvey and Josiah Gilliland of Pulaski County, came up on Sheriff McHargue and shot him dead in his stable. The blog says that the angry mob of citizens took over the jailhouse and captured the brothers not long after they were taken to jail. After abducting the two men from the jailhouse, the mob took them to a tree near South Richardson Steet in downtown Somerset and hanged them while a crowd watched. Afterward, the brothers were left hanging since "no friend or family member was brave enough to cut them down." Finally, John Perry James, supposedly related to Jesse James, laid claim to the two men as cousins and boldly cut them down.


The Weekly News newspaper out of Mansfield, Ohio, posted a paragraph about the killing in their September 17, 1891, edition.

“Brothers Lynched.
The Murders of Sheriff McCargue [McHargue] swung from a sycamore!
Somerset -- September 16. The Gilliland gang, which has terrorized this vicinity, is broken up by the lynching of James and Josiah Gilliland at an early hour Tuesday morning for the murder of Sheriff McCargue [McHargue] of Pulaski County on Saturday. The jailer and his posse did all in their power to prevent the mob getting the murders, but it was of no avail. They hanged to a sycamore tree in a ravine near town. The murders protested their innocence to the last dying with a lie on their lips. The courthouse is draped in mourning for the dead Sheriff. The citizens of Pulaski County now feel that the community is relieved of two desperadoes who have been terrorizing that section for years.”

The two brothers were part of a large extended family farm in the eastern part of Pulaski County. The McHargues and Gillilands lived in relative proximity with the Price and Coin communities not too far apart from each other as the crow flies. James Harvey was the older of the two brothers, Josiah was 12 years his junior. Records indicate that James Harvey was around 33 and Josiah 21 when the men hanged.


The map below shows how far apart the Coin, Price, and Dabney communities were from each other.


The StrayLeaves blog explained, “After taking down the bodies of the Gilliland boys, John Perry James removed them to Dabney where he lived. The brothers were interred in the family cemetery of their father, Galen Gilliland.” The blog also reports that the reason the Gilliland boys’ cut down the Sheriff remains unknown to the present day.


Actually, we found record that Coroner Patton cut the men's bodies down around 8:00 that same evening and took them to his office for examination. The coroner reported that the prisoners did not appear to have been physically mistreated before they were hanged. It may be that John Perry James retrieved the bodies of the brothers from the coroner's office and took them to their father's farm. Tensions were high and reports had it that many of the men of the Gilliland family were wanted.


New sheriff appointed

After the office was vacated by the shooting death of the Sheriff, Judge Denton and eighteen Magistrates appointed Lincoln Denton as Sheriff to fill the unexpired term of John McHargue.


A gang in Pulaski County

Stories came out after the hangings that the Gilliland brothers were part of a gang network that terrorized the county. Later that same month, a detective was employed to find the other members of the gang, all who first reported to be in the eastern end of Pulaski County.


William and J.H. Moore, cousins of the Gillilands, gave a confession which implicated Doc Gilliland (James and Josiah’s father) along with his three sons and others as being a part of the gang. Warrants for 16 men were issued and several captured. Numerous large robberies were said to be traced back to the gang. One account said the Gilliland gang had been robbing and counterfeiting for 40 years. Two of the members was said to have been bankers in another state and one a wealthy and well-known minister of the gospel in Missouri. Not long after the first sting, Buck and Bob McAlister and Gilliam Gilliland were added to the arrests in the gang robberies. Old Dock Gilliland, was said to have fled the country.


Charges and trials continued for accused members of the Gilliland gang, with threats and intimidation from both enraged citizens and friends of the alleged gang. Finally, Doc Gilliland was captured in November 1891 on charges of several robberies. Many of the gang’s charges were upheld, but the final cases found juries failing to agree on a verdict. This wouldn’t be then end, though. Doc Gilliland and Buck McAlister would be hauled back into court for burning a man’s barn, and at least one more murder would be tied to this gang.


Ex Somerset chief of police accused of killing newspaper editor

An ex-Somerset Chief of Police, John C. Anderson, was said to have been responsible for the assassination of J.B. Rucker, the editor of the Somerset Reporter on September 15, 1892. Reports were that Anderson was affiliated with the gang after he resigned as Chief and went into the saloon business, which Editor Joseph Rucker wrote against frequently in the paper. Before his death, Rucker claimed the gang threatened to kill him on several occasions. One evening, members of the alleged gang met him on his way home and shot him several times before fleeing. Ex-Chief Anderson’s black hat was found at the scene of the murder but he was nowhere to be found. At one point, a jail in Canada notified the Pulaski County Sheriff that they had Anderson in custody, when the Sheriff showed up to take custody, Anderson was not there. Anderson was never caught, but in December of 1896, then Sheriff Cooper said that he has gotten at least 10,000 letters and telegrams concerning the whereabouts of Anderson.

 

If you want to see more posts highlighting our fallen Hometown Heroes, we will be highlighting 1-2 each week over the next few months. This does not take the place of our Hometown Murders & Mysteries series.


 

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