Articles & Stories



Record Of George W. Drake,

The Mountain Detective

Deputy United States Marshal Brought

15 Desperate Murderers To Justice

The Courier-Journal - February 1897

Detective George Washington Drake, whose exploits in capturing Jacob Neace and Dan Farler, the slayers of Deputy United States Marshal William A. Byrd two weeks ago, is one of the most remarkable man-catchers in Kentucky; if not in America.

He was born in Lee County, Kentucky, on August 31, 1861. When he was two years old his parents removed to Wolfe County, where he has ever since made his home. His education was obtained in the common schools of Wolfe County. He married at the age of 19, and two years later he was a candidate for constable of the Campton district. The opposing candidate was William A. Byrd, the man recently killed. They had been schoolmates and were great friends, but both of them wanted to be the Democratic nominee for constable, and Drake won the prize by a small majority. He served two years as constable. He was then appointed deputy sheriff by Sheriff Stephen M. Tutt. He served in that capacity four years, making many arrests of minor criminals, collecting taxes, attending court, and performing the other duties that fall to a deputy sheriff. He was then appointed jailer of Wolfe County to succeed Jonathan Creach, who resigned. He was elected jailer at the regular election for a term of four years. He then made the race for sheriff, was elected, and served two years, his time expiring in 1894. He was with the Lexington and Eastern Railroad as private detective when elected sheriff, and he held that position for some time after being sworn in to his new office.
Before Drake went on the Lexington and Eastern it was dangerous for respectable people to ride on its passenger trains. The mountaineers would frequently board the trains drunk, flourish their pistols, and, in many instances, shoot every window out of the cars. It was frequently the case that the conductor could not collect fare, and the railroad company was at a loss of how to protect their patrons. After they employed Drake they had no trouble. He was always heavily armed, and understanding the natures of the mountaineers, he could pacify them when all others failed. As a result the Lexington and Eastern Railroad is now as safe to travel on as any road in Kentucky, and thousands of excursionists, who annually visit the natural wonders along its line, are never molested by the natives.
While working for the railroad Drake was also deputy United States marshal. He resigned his place with the government and with the railroad in November 1895 and took a position at the Phoenix Hotel as night watchman and private detective. He remained with the Phoenix for about six months when he resigned and became a private detective, working on his own responsibility.
Drakes Story Of His Career
In a conversation with the Courier-Journal correspondent, Drake told the following story of the murderers he had sought and their crimes:
"While I was jailer of Wolfe County I arrested several notorious murderers. The first was William Kiser, who murdered Tom Cundiff in Lee County. He left immediately after the killing, and I located him after six months at the home of his brother-in-law in Missouri, where I had no difficulty in capturing him. He got a long term in the penitentiary.
"I next captured James and Green Morris, brothers, who had killed John Hignite in Perry County. I located them at the coal mines in and around Jellico, Tennessee. I took a man with me and we went to the different mines. I found James Morris boarding at a hotel in Jellico and arrested him in the lobby. At the depot a number of miners congregated just before my train was due and swore I had to give up the prisoner. The leader drew a large revolver and told me to take the handcuffs off Morris. I tried to quiet them, but failed. I took the prisoner by the arm and pulled him in front of me, and drawing my revolver as quickly as possible, I told the miners they could get Morris, but when they got him he would be dead. Morris who knew me begged the men to stop and not have any trouble. He told them I would do what I said, and at his request they allowed us to board the train. At the next station my assistant boarded the train with Green Morris, whom he had arrested without trouble. They were both sent to the penitentiary for their crime.
A Sensational Assassination
"Shortly after this, one of the most sensational assassinations that ever occurred in Eastern Kentucky took place in Powell County on the Lexington Railroad near Clay City. John Rose, a prominent citizen, about 50 years old, had killed his son-in-law, Doc Hall, in a terrible battle with pistols. It was alleged that Hall's brother had sworn to kill Rose. One morning while Rose was walking down the railroad to catch a train at Clay City two men rose up in a cut and began shooting at him. The first shot struck him in the abdomen bringing him to his knees. He had two revolvers in his saddlepockets, and he soon had one in each hand and, although mortally wounded, began blazing away at his assailants, who ran. Rose died a few hours later. I was employed to discover the murderers. I went to Stanton, the home of Rose, where I learned that Goodloe Combs of Jackson, Breathitt County had been seen there for several days before the murder, in company with three strange men, presumably from Breathitt. The description of one man fitted that of Jesse Barnett, and I found Jesse sitting at the fence in front of the courthouse at Jackson. I told him I had a warrant for his arrest and took hold of his arm, but he pulled away, drew a big pistol, and commenced shooting at me as he ran. He failed to hit me with either of the three shots he fired, and I missed him with the two I fired. I caught him in the river bottom, and two of the chambers of his pistol were still loaded. I had learned that James Combs and Charles Wall had left Jackson with Goodloe Combs, and I suspected them of being parties to the killing. At any rate I told Barnett that Wall had been captured and had confessed to the part he took in the killing, and it was not long until Barnett told me how Goodloe Combs had agreed to pay him, Charlie Wall, and James Combs $500 each for murdering Rose. I locked Barnett up and soon captured Wall. I told him that Barnett had confessed and he soon made a clean breast of the whole matter. James Combs was next captured and like the others he made a full confession. Goodloe Combs left the county as soon as he heard I had captured Barnett.
"When the three murderers were arraigned for the examining trial in the Stanton courthouse they all confessed, and a mob, headed by Stephen Rose, son of the murdered man, started to lynch them on the spot in broad daylight and without wearing any masks. I appealed to Rose to let the law take its course and told him there was no doubt about them being convicted, and that if they were lynched then it would be impossible to bring Combs, who was the most guilty man, to justice. Rose saw the force of my argument, and he allowed the men to be taken to the Mt. Sterling (Montgomery County) jail for safekeeping. On their final trial they were all three sent to the penitentiary for life. After they had been incarcerated in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, Goodloe returned and surrendered to the authorities, believing that convicts could not testify in court. His mistake cost him dearly, for the three men he hired to kill Rose were brought out of the penitentiary and testified against him, and he also received a life sentence. James Combs has since died and the other three are still confined within the penitentiary walls. It was alleged that Hall's brother hired Goodloe Combs to kill Rose, and he sublet the job.
Strange Experience In Wisconsin
"My next trip to capture a murderer terminated badly for the man who did the killing, as he, too, got a life sentence. The murderer was Thomas Baker, who killed William Patton in Powell County. He escaped, and I located him in Bryan, Wisconsin, and I captured him without trouble. A few months after that I went back to the same town for Grant Bowman, who was charged with the murder of John Thacker in Lee County. In company with a Wisconsin sheriff I went to the home of Bowman's employer. The sheriff watched the back door while I went in at the front. Bowman was upstairs, and as I reached the head of the steps he jumped out of the window in his night clothes, although the weather was bitter cold. The sheriff failed to catch him, and when I came down we decided to wait near the house in the hope that he would come back to get his clothes. We had been waiting but a few minutes when we heard a shot 300 yards away. We ran in the direction of the sound, and just as we approached the rear of a house we saw a man coming out with a lantern in one hand and a Winchester in the other. We asked him what was the matter, and he said he thought he had shot a bear. He said bears had been after his pigs, and he fired at what he thought was a bear a few minutes before. We made a search of the barnyard and found not a bear, but Bowman lying on the ground in a great agony. He had been shot through and through with a .38 caliber bullet from the gun of George Irish, the farmer, who thought he had killed a bear. Irish was nearly beside himself over his mistake, and when Bowman died, a few hours later, I was afraid the man would go crazy. He surrendered to the authorities and was honorably acquitted, as it was clearly a case of accident.
One Of Drake's Close Calls
"I captured no more murderers until I was elected sheriff. The first man was Wick Talent, who killed John Lucas, a section hand, on the Lexington and Eastern Railroad. He escaped to Texas, where I captured him near Wichita Falls, without trouble. He got a life sentence.
"The next man I went after gave me an experience I shall never forget. His name was Mose Barnett. He had murdered a man in Lewis County and had received a life sentence. He escaped after having served 15 years, and I located him at the home of a relative at the levee near Mt. Sterling. Joe Johnson accompanied me, and we arrived at the house at 10:00 p.m. We looked through the window and saw Barnett and two other men sitting before the fire. Johnson went to the back door to prevent an escape through it, and I went in at the front with a .45 caliber pistol in my hand. Barnett sprang to his feet the instant I opened the door and tried to draw his pistol. I jumped at him and threw my left arm around him and tried to throw him to the floor, but he was a very strong man, and before I could carry out my plans he got his pistol against my abdomen and fired. I thought I had received my death wound, and I tried to shoot him in the head, but he grabbed my pistol and the bullet only plowed a furrow in his scalp. We then had a fight for life. I caught his pistol, and he still kept hold on mine, so that neither of us could shoot. I rushed him backward against the fireplace, and he knocked a lamp from the mantel, which set the floor on fire. I finally threw him on a bed and was trying to hold him there when Johnson rushed in. He told me not to shoot him anymore. I replied that I had not shot him enough; that he had shot me and probably killed me. Johnson tried to shoot him, but his pistol snapped. The two men were trying to pull me off, but Johnson knocked them down with his revolver and then struck Barnett across the head, rendering him unconscious. We took two revolvers from him and then I looked to see how badly hurt I was. I had on a heavy overcoat and the bullet had gone through that, my overcoat, vest, and the waistband of my trousers and had penetrated about half-an-inch into the flesh. When I raised up my shirt the bullet dropped out on the floor. It was badly battered by its contact with the heavy clothing, and I was severely bruised and powder-burned. Barnett was returned to the penitentiary and I spent about a week in St. Joseph's Hospital at Lexington, recovering from my wound. The pistol Barnett used on me was a .38 caliber.
Fired On From Ambush
"As deputy United States marshal I arrested Isaac Sloan, the murderer of Deputy Russell Wireman, who was killed in Knott County during Cleveland's first administration, while after moonshiners. Thomas McMillian, who is now a deputy marshal, and three or four other guards went with me. We captured Sloan near his old home in Knott County without trouble. We thought we would catch some moonshiners in Leslie County, and we did arrest five of them. The guards started with them, and I stopped to summon some witnesses. After this I was riding fast to overtake my party, when I was fired on three times from ambush with a Winchester. The first shot clipped a piece out of my hat. I saw the man behind a tree shooting at me, and I fired twice with my revolver, but missed him. My party quickly came to my rescue, but we failed to catch the would-be assassin, who proved to be one James Bailey. Marshal Byrd had a warrant for him in his pocket for shooting at me when he was killed by Neace. Sloan was tried in the United States Court at Louisville and received a life sentence in the penitentiary.
"Since I resigned my position as deputy marshal I captured John M. Sebastian in Magoffin County, who murdered a man named Scrippling at Waco, Texas, and escaped to his old home in Kentucky. I had several guards with me, including the late Deputy Marshal Byrd, when I went to make the arrest. We arrived at the house at midnight, or rather within 200 yards of it, when we were fired upon from ambush. We fired back, but Sebastian and his friends made it so hot for us that we retreated. I was slightly wounded in the knee during the battle. Two weeks later I found Sebastian at the home of his father-in-law, Brown. I had several guards with me. I went in the house and found Sebastian in the loft with three men, all heavily armed. At first they refused to surrender, but I persuaded them to let Sebastian submit to arrest. He was sent back to Texas, where he got a five-year sentence."
Counting Neace and Farler, Drake has captured 15 desperate murderers, besides many other criminals of lesser note.