Editor's Note: Readers of The Kentucky Explorer have been introduced to the Rev. John J. Dickey in past issues. Remember that he was a traveling preacher throughout the eastern part of the state during the years between 1880 and 1925. He helped to establish numerous churches and at least two colleges. He was also a teacher and a newspaper editor. However, his most enduring gift to us today may well be his diary that he kept faithfully during some 50 years of his later life beginning in the 1880s. In all, over 6,000 pages written in his own hand make up this interesting digest.
In this journal of his, Dickey often wrote down accounts of events daily. Much of the material concerns his day to day life. However, during the late 1890s he began to gather family history on various families he met in his travels. We are offering these interviews to our readers in the hope that they will be appreciated in the sense that Rev. Dickey intended. These interviews were written word for word as they were given to Rev. Dickey. Nothing has been changed.
April 12, 1898
I was born in Lee County, Virginia, November 15, 1829 (1833?). My father was James Lyttle. He was a son of David Lyttle of Russell County, Virginia. My father removed to Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1846 and settled just above Mt. Pleasant where we lived two years then removed eight miles farther up the Clover Fork near the old homestead of William Turner, one of the first settlers of Harlan County. At that time he was 100 years old, and his wife was the same age. They were both paralyzed, and both died the same week when they were about 104 years old. They reared a large family, perhaps 12 in number. One daughter married John B. Clay who was murdered for his money in 1856. I saw him borrow the money, $95. He was killed by unknown parties supposed to be Joe Noland and Hezekiah Clem. They were prosecuted. D. Y. Lyttle defended them. John Dishman and others prosecuted. They were acquitted. Clem was hung in 1858 for killing Ben Irvine in Mt. Pleasant. Lyttle and Dishman prosecuted. The trial excited great interest. Clem's mother was Tupsey Hall, a sister of James, Hezekiah, Francis Hall, and others. The Halls were an early family and fighters and thieves. Tupsey Hall was a noted woman. I saw her shoot a big buck in the ford at Mt. Pleasant. When the hunters came up, she refused to give them part of it. Old Sammy Howard killed John Hensley. David Y. Lyttle defended Howard and cleared him. I rode behind Sammy Howard in Lee County, Virginia. He did not mean to kill Hensley. He struck him with a little stick to keep him from cutting him. Howard was a good, very old man.
Witches In Harlan
From 1850 for several years witches infested Harlan County. One of the witches was a sister of John B. Clay and daughter-in-law of the original William Turner. Her husband was James Turner, Sr. Their son, James, was the noted desperado of the mountains of Kentucky. He continued his work through the war and was sent to the penitentiary for life about 1869 for killing his uncles, William and David Middleton, he and Andy Fields killed them in ambush. Francis Pace (was), an accomplice, was also sent; he had served two terms. He (James) had killed from 10 to 15 men. He was in the 7th Kentucky, was also a guerrilla, killed men on both sides for money. I shot him when 13 or 15 years old. I have known him to drive 14 hogs from one man's pen in broad daylight, in Harlan County, from Jonathan Lewis of Poor Fork, and everybody was afraid to touch him. He burnt the courthouse in broad daylight about 1865 or 1866. He cut a ham out of a live cow of his uncle, Eldridge, and turned her loose and ate the beef. He was lying out to escape arrest and died. He killed the same man's sheep and hung or tacked the hide up at his gate. The authorities called for help from the governor. He got up a petition and compelled everyone to sign it, stating that troops were not needed. The guns had been ordered to London but were sent back to Frankfort, and the arms did not get any farther.
Old Aunt Dinah, a slave of the same William Turner, 104 years old was another witch. (Turner was about 100 at the time.) Salim Sturgeon, a white woman, lived as the concubine or wife of Negro George, a slave of the same William Turner, who was the third witch. It began by cattle dying and hairballs being found in them, hide whole but the internal parts being shot to pieces; horses died, hogs died, cows died, etc. Log heaps were made, and all these were burned as a torture to the witches. The hairballs were carried in people's pockets to show what happened. The people were feared, the witches kept their pockets turned wrong side outwards at night for safety. This prevented the jack o' lantern from leading them. At shooting matches, if the gun did not hit the mark, the contest was abandoned. The Middletons were especially afflicted by the witches. Women, Negro boys, and sometimes men were bewitched. The excitement was so intense that with torches they would climb the Black Mountain to go to them on Greasy Creek (now Leslie) who were afflicted with witches. They were doing this to make merry with old Tom Wells. Guards were placed around old William Turner who owned the slaves. He and his wife, who were paralyzed, were ridden by the witches. They were sincere in it.
The guard encircled the house about 500 times, so that no one could come in, because it required four days to effect a cure. If anyone inside the circle would give or sell as much as the value of a pin, this broke the charm and no cure could be effected, so no one was allowed to enter the circle so as to make the cure certain. This circle crossed the state road, and to my personal knowledge families were compelled to do without bread, because they could not pass along the road to the mill. Negro women would scream saying the witches were coming through the roof to them. The pictures of the witches would be turned into horses and hitched up to racks of fodder all night. This would seriously affect their digestion the next day. Some of these Negro women told me they pretended to be bewitched in order to keep from work. Jim Turner, the desperado, shot a Negro man's head off because he would not give up the keys to his master's meat house and that just after freedom. The Negro man said, "I will die before I will give them up." "Then you must die," said Turner. The Negro turned around, and Turner put the muzzle of his gun to the back of his head and blew the top of it off.