Newspaper Articles

Turner and Howard Families of Harlan County and the Feud Between the Two

As many of you know, my Hill family was involved in a feud with the Evans family of Garrard County.  I have written several blogs concerning the matter.  It is a part of my family history and I accept it as such.  Today I thought to post photographs taken in Resthaven Cemetery, 3000 Kentucky State Highway 840, Keith, Kentucky.  I was excited to be there in this beautiful cemetery, but shortly after arriving a thunderstorm decided to deter our progress.  Ritchey and I did manage to take 132 photos.

The first photo I looked at this morning was the gravestone of William Turner, and several other Turner family members in sequence.  George Brittain Turner was the eldest, and father of the younger Turners buried there. 

I found the following obituary:

The Lexington Herald, Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky

Tuesday, October 5, 1915

News reached here today of the death of Judge George B. Turner, County Judge of Harlan County, one of the best known Democratic leaders in Southeastern Kentucky.  He was appointed last year by Governor McCreary to fill a vacancy in the office, but he had previously filled the place over thirty years ago, although a Democratic leader in the rock-ribbed Republican county.

Judge Turner’s oldest sons were killed in one of the feuds which prevailed in that section about forty years ago, but the father and younger sons survived and became prosperous and respected citizens.

Hon. Zeb. A. Stewart, leading attorney of Harlan, is being prominently mentioned as Judge Turner’s successor.

I was hooked.  I had to know more about this feud.  I started with my Stories of Kentucky Feuds by Harold Wilson Coates, published in 1923.  Although there was a chapter on the Hill-Evans feud, I found nothing about a feud with the Turner family.

Let’s check old newspapers.  I was not disappointed.  The first was this article from a Hopkinsville newspaper taken from the Louisville Times.

Semi-Weekly South Kentuckian, Hopkinsville, Hopkins County, Kentucky

Friday, July 17, 1885

Murder in the Mountains

Bloody Feud Between the Howards and Turners in Harlan County

[Louisville Times]

From a citizen of Harlan County, who arrived in this city this morning, the particulars of a bloody affray which took place last week between two families of the county, among whom a feud has for a long time existed, were learned.  The families involved are headed by George B. Turner, Sr., and Henderson Howard.  The former lives with his family in the town of Harlan, and the Howards live about three miles below the county seat.  The two factions were until late years the wealthiest people in that part of the country.  The two heads were looked upon by everyone as the representative leaders of the two opposite political parties.  Their trouble has no political significance but arose about five years ago in consequence of a difficulty between Wickliffe, Howard, son of Henderson Howard, and Robert Turner, son of George B. Turner.  They had been fast friends and boon companions and were out on a lark together.  Both had been drinking and a quarrel ensued over a trivial matter.  They separated and left for their homes.  Howard procured a musket and went into town with the avowed intention of making Turner bite the dust before returning.  He came across Turner on the street.  He called to him, and as he turned and faced him, he presented his musket and shot him dead.  For this crime Wickliffe Howard was tried for his life.  Vast sums of money were spent by both sides trying to gain their point.  The Howards were finally triumphant, and mountain justice acquitted the slayer.  The dispute had in the meantime drawn the members of each family into the feud, and as they both were largely connected nearly one-half of the community was arrayed against the other.  Last winter, William Turner, Jr., a son of George B. Turner, Sr., swore to avenge his brother’s death.  Wickliffe Howard had in the meantime married and was living along with his wife.  In the dead of night sometime in December William Turner stealthily approached his house and forced an entrance into his sleeping room with the intention of killing Howard.  Howard fortunately had been aroused a short time before by a disturbance among his stock, and had gone out to see what was the matter.  Turner’s presence in the room disturbed Mrs. Howard, and she awakened and saw him standing in the middle of the room in his stocking-feet, his pistol cocked in his hand.  Notwithstanding Turner’s threats she screamed to her husband not to come in, that Turner was there and would kill him.  Howard, however, came to the door.  There was no light in the room, except a glow made by the dying embers in the fireplace.  It was enough to show Turner standing in the center of the room, and between Howard and the place where he kept his pistol.

As soon as Howard stepped into the room Turner began to shoot.  He emptied his revolver without effect, and then tried to grapple with his enemy.  In the darkness Howard eluded him and secured his pistol and shot him in the shoulder.  Turner escaped from the house and went home.  As soon as he recovered from the effect of his would he fled the country and went to Texas.  Both sides seemed satisfied to permit things to remain as they were during William Turner’s absence, but on the night of the Fourth of July he returned.  The Howard claim that on his return the Turners sent word to them, now that he was here, they were ready to renew the conflict.  This, however, the Turners deny, and say they wanted no further trouble.  Sunday, July 5, intervening, all was quiet between the two factions, as far as outside appearances went, although it was said that both sides busied themselves in preparations and plans for what was regarded as inevitable.

Monday morning, July 6, was court day, and early in the day the Howards came into town.  They soon learned that Will Turner was on the street, and they posted themselves in several places so as to get the drop on him.  Wilson Howard, a cousin, and James Howard, a brother of Wickliffe, went into the second story of the courthouse and stood by the side of an open window overlooking the yard.  They had not long to wait.  Soon William Turner came along the graded walk leading into the courthouse.  As soon as he got into range the two Howards, who were above him, opened fire, and one of the shots struck him in the breast near the nipple, and went clear through his body.  He staggered and turned and ran about twenty yards.  The first shots were a signal for the rest of the Howards, and by this time a regular fusillade had opened on Turner.  He drew a 45-caliber pistol and returned the shots retreating as he fired into a cornfield nearby.

Two of Turner’s brothers heard of the attack, and they hastened to the rescue in time to take part in the affair, and soon brought the matter to a halt.  They formed a guard for their brother, and he was taken home, his wounds properly dressed, and he is now doing as well as could be expected.  Five of the Howards surrendered themselves to the Sheriff and were each put under a $1,000 bond to appear at the fall term of court.

Sentiment is about equally divided between the two families.  Thus far their sanguinary troubles have not involved any of their friends who are not related, but it is feared by the conservative, law-abiding people of Harlan that the feud will be continued until one or the other of the two factions is exterminated or driven out of the county.

Wow!  As with most, if not all, of the Kentucky feuds, liquor and guns made most of the beginnings of these tragedies, and most of the guilty parties were acquitted of their crimes.

Another article was interesting in the fact that elders of the two families gave their versions of events.  For the Howard family Wilkerson and E. J. Howard, brothers, told their stories, and George B. Turner gave his.  I haven’t typed the entire article, just the portions of the independent stories.

The Courier Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Sunday, October 27, 1889

In Harlan – A Story of Crime in the Mountain Section – Is Told by Those Interested In the Warfare – Both Turner and Howard Furnish Account of the Feud – Facts About the Origin of the Strife, and the Succession of Murders – Politics Said To Have Played An Important Part At the Beginning of Hostilities – An Organization of Desperadoes to Thwart the End of Justice – Interesting Family History

Wilkerson Howard’s Account

Wilkerson Howard’s statement of the origin of the feud is as follows: ‘Bob Turner, several others and myself were playing cards.  Turner and I had been on a trade for revolvers, and a few unpleasant remarks followed, but all passed off.  Turner lay down in the room to take a nap, and another of the crowd, named Little, thought to play a joke.  Little struck a match to light his pipe and the idea struck him to touch the fire to Turner’s head.  This woke Turner, and he asked who did it.  He was told I did.  More hot words passed between us, and I went off and got a musket, loaded with fox shot, and returned.  In the fight that followed I shot Bob Turner, and his death resulted.  I was tried and acquitted on the ground of self-defense.  The proof on trial showed that Turner attempted to shoot me first.  A short time after this, Will Turner, Bob’s brother, tried to kill me.  Will was a bad man.  He had been engaged in a war with the Gilbert family and had killed Will Gilbert.  He came to my house, four miles below town, on the Cumberland River, walked into the house, pulled his pistol and shot at me without saying a word.  My wife and children and mother-in-law and myself were sitting around the fireplace.  The bullet intended for me missed its mark but plowed its way across my mother-in-law’s forehead.  The would was not serious and she recovered.  I jumped up, got my pistol off the bed, where it lay, and Turner and I grappled.  In the scuffle both our pistols were fired several times, and Turner was shot in the arm.  Owing to the darkness, he succeeded in making his escape.  I had several holes in my clothes but was not hurt.  This assault on me and shooting of my mother-in-law set public opinion against Will Turner, and he went to Texas and remained some time.  He returned one Friday evening and the next day, George B. Turner, his father, sent us word that his ’bulldog’ was back and for us to come up Monday and fight it out, and to come armed, for if we did not it would not be his fault, but ours.  We were on hand Monday, ready for the fray, about twenty strong.  A fight ensued, in which Will Turner was killed.  Wilson Howard, or ‘Wils’ as he is more familiarly known, was indicted for his murder, but it was not known positively who did the killing.  The shot was fired from the old courthouse.  It was county court day, and a big crowd was in town, besides the parties in the fight.  After the fight I dropped out of the feud and Wils Howard took the leadership of the Howards.  He is no kin Howard.  The way he got into the trouble was that he and I were good friends.  One day two of the Turner sympathizers arrested him on the charge of disorderly conduct.  He was leaving town at the time for home, and they took him back.  There one held him, while the other beat him without mercy.  Wils was fifteen years old at the time.  He never forgets a friend or forgives a foe and has ever since been at war with the Turners.  From that time there has been fighting at intervals.  A most bitter feud arose between the two families, and each side has grown in numbers, until nearly every family in the county is for either one side or the other.’


What E. J. Howard Says

E. J. Howard’s statement is as follows: ‘The Howard family is very much the largest in the county.  There are three branches, and they are probably the most largely connected in the state.  Some of them occupy positions of trust, both here and in other sections of Kentucky.  Half the population, or more, are named Howard.  The Howards were the first settlers of Harlan County.  Samuel Howard, Sr., a Revolutionary War soldier, came here and made large surveys in 1800.  These surveys included the present town of Harlan Courthouse.  His son, John N. Howard, was the first Judge in Harlan County.  Another son, Wilkerson Howard, Sr., was the first white child born in the county.  John N. Howard donated the ground to the county where the present courthouse stands, in 1819.  Next year he was appointed Judge and instructed the first grand jury in Harland County.

Samuel Howard came to this county from Maryland, and his father came from England.  It is only justice to the family to say a large majority of the Howards deeply regret this terrible feud which blackens our name and the name of the county and state, and that the best part and majority of the name have taken no part in it.  On the contrary, they are peaceable citizens.  The Howards have never lost a life in the feud, though several have been wounded.’


George B. Turner’s Version

‘About sunset on March 7, 1882, Robert E. Lee Turner, then eighteen years old, walked out from supper, at the Cumberland Hotel, kept by S. C. Howard, in the town of Mt. Pleasant, now called Harlan Courthouse.  Robert boarded there.  He was accompanied, when he steeped out of the house, by S. N. French, then County Attorney.  They had reached the street in front of the hotel and were talking with some friends, when Wilkerson Howard came walking up the street with a musket on his shoulder.  It was loaded with slugs, and Howard was considerably under the influence of liquor.  He stopped and stood for a moment, then jerking his gun from his shoulder, without a word of warning, shot Bob.  When Bob saw Howard presenting his gun, he made an attempt to draw his pistol, and as Howard’s shot struck him he had it half drawn.  He drew it clear out as he fell.  Howard instantly turned and ran down the street.

‘Bob raised himself on one hand and resting the other on his knees, shot twice at Howard, striking him in the arm.  Bob lived two days.  James L. Howard, the present Sheriff of Harlan County, and a brother of Wilkerson, was with the latter and aided by his presence.  James L. ran, too, was Wilkerson fired.  Wilkerson Howard made his escape from town and a lot of his friends and relatives gathered around him, armed, and defied the law for a long time.

‘Afterward they came to town and with a picked guard of armed relatives and friends, went through the farce of an examining trial.  He was allowed bail through the intimidation of the witnesses and court, by the presence of the armed men in the courtroom and within call.  These were mainly violators of the law and had pending against them indictments in the Circuit Court.  They were all in the employ of the Howards or belonged to the family.  Wilson Howard, who is not related to Wilkerson, was not then grown.  He lived nine miles below the town.

‘On hearing of the other Howard’s armed band and what brought them together, he immediately joined them at Wilkerson Howard’s camp, fully equipped for war.  This was the advent of Wilson Howard in what is now known as the Howard-Turner feud.  After that time, being more desperate and blood-thirsty than the others, he took the lead and appeared to be the ruling spirit.  Prior to this the Turners and the Howards, of all branches, had been on the most intimate terms.  Wilkerson Howard was indicted for the murder of R. E. L. Turner but was allowed bail.  After postponing the trial from time to time for several years, he was finally tried.  The proof showed that he had killed Bob without any cause whatever, yet the jury rendered a verdict of not guilty.  The numerous and combined clans of Howards had much to do with this verdict.  Besides, there was an alliance of all the criminals in the county and their friends.

‘Not a single man under indictment for any offense, from larceny to murder, but was in it, backed by their relations.  They were all interested in seeing not only Wilkerson Howard, but all the others escape punishment.  This organization exists now and includes every man who has a charge pending against him in Harlan Circuit Court.  Another thing that had a strong bearing on the case, and contributed to the acquittal of Howard, when the law and testimony called for conviction, was politics.  Harlan County is perhaps the banner Republican County of the state.  Unfortunately for the peace of the Turners, we have always adhered to the Democratic party.  I have been Chairman of the Democratic Committee of Harlan County since 1866.

‘This is a position that is looked upon by many of the more illiterate of the mountaineers as almost criminal and all unpardonable sin.  Although the better class of Republicans rise above petty prejudices, while serving on a jury the illiterate ones, who number nine out of ten of the criminal juries, allow their political prejudices to rule them.  A large majority of the jurors are devoid of even the rudiments of a “common school education” and are wholly unfit to decide a question where a man’s life or the public safety and welfare are at stake.

‘After the acquittal of Howard, William W. Turner, another of my sons, in a fit of intoxication, went to Howard’s house, just after dark, pushed open the door and walked in.  Howard was sitting at the fireplace.  Will shot at him but missing him, Howard returned the fire, shooting my son through the arm.  Will left the premises.  Next day the Howards assembled their clans and sent for Wils Howard, Elijah Howard and brothers, who belong to another family.  With a constable of their own choosing, ten or fifteen of them, including Wilkerson, James L. Howard, the present Sheriff, Elijah and other enemies of Will Turner, they set forth with the purpose of killing him under cover of a warrant for his arrest on the charge of shooting without wounding.  Will heard of their approach and intentions and fled the state at once.  He went to Texas and remained some months, returning home in July 1885.

‘That was on Friday.  He at once gave bond to answer to the charges against him at the next term of the court.  The following Monday, while standing in the courthouse square, talking to a friend, he was shot from an upper window of the old courthouse building, which has since been replaced with a handsome new one.  He died from the wounds.  Wils and James L. Howard, now sheriff, were indicted for his murder.  Before the assembling of the grand jury, and immediately after the killing of Will Turner, the Howards again banded together and defied arrest.  Afterwards they strengthened their numbers so that at no time could E. V. King, then Sheriff, and now a United States Deputy Marshall, be induced to attempt to arrest either Wils or James L. Howard.

‘A short time afterwards the Howards marched into town, with a band of their own men, all armed, and went through another farce of an examining trail.  Not a Turner was present.  It would not have been safe to be there.  The court allowed Wils and James L. bail, and their friends and relatives went the bond.

‘Notwithstanding they shot Will Turner dead on the street, from the concealment of a building, and that the grand jury very promptly indicted them for murder, the Judge of the Circuit court allowed them bail.  Wils Howard fled and forfeited his bond.  Not a cent of that bond has ever been collected.  The Judge allowed bail in the sum of $5,000, but when the Clerk’s book was examined, it only called for $500, and even that amount could not be collected from the worthless bondsmen.  Whether Circuit Judge H. F. Finley did it on purpose or there was a mistake in the figures is not known.  The Howards are a power in political circles in Harlan County, and it may have been for that reason the figures were changed.  While Wils Howard’s bond was pending, he came to town, walked into a store where my son, George B. Turner, Jr., was and begun shooting at him.  George returned the shots, but neither were hurt.  In July 1886, Alexander Bailey and James McKnight came to town to be examined by the Superintendent for certificates to teach school.  They stayed all night at my house.

‘The next morning Baily and McKnight arose early and while standing in the kitchen door, washing his face, Bailey was shot dead by Wils Howard from ambush.  At no time had it been known that there was any bad feeling between them.  Howard then ran, and in passing a neighbor’s house, where my son Carol was, Wils Howard shot him in the arm, badly breaking it.  Howard then fled across Clover Fork, shooting all the time at men, women and children in my house, who, hearing the first shot, had gone to the doors and windows to see what had occurred.  This was one Sunday morning in July 1886.  The following Tuesday Wils Howard and Will Jennings went to the house of Judge James H. Middleton, seven miles from town on Clover Fork, and shot John S. Bailey, a brother of Alexander.

‘This was also in the early morning, and the victim was also standing in the door washing his face.  Both Bailey’s were killed instantly.  Howard and Jennings fled, and Judge Middleton quickly raised a posse, started in pursuit, but the murderers escaped after a harmless exchange of shots.  Howard and Jennings went to Missouri and remained there until April of this year [1889] when they came back to Harlan.  Again, they gathered friends and defied arrest.

‘Two months ago, Wils Howard heard that my son George had gone up on Catron’s Creek, which empties into Martin’s Fork, a mile above Harlan Courthouse.  George was walking.  Howard pursued him, stopping citizens and taking their horses from them, in order that he might have fresh mounts and travel faster.  He came in sight of George while the latter was kneeling, drinking from a spring, and shot him dead without warning.’  The Gilbert trouble happened in this way.  In 1880, on a public day, a desperado named William Gilbert, a deserter from the United States army, who boasted that he had killed seven men, and was defying everybody in general, advanced with drawn pistol on my son Robert, then a mere boy.  Gilbert was swearing he was going to kill Bob.  Will Turner, seeing his brother about to be killed, shot and killed Gilbert.  Will was tried and acquitted by a jury of good men.  I have never heard a word of censure for his killing Gilbert.  This killing was in no manner connected with the Howard-Turner troubles.  Gilbert and the Howards were in no way related.  Gilbert lived on Yokum Creek, a branch of Clover Fork, twelve miles above Harlan Courthouse, and the Howards all live below the town on Cumberland River.

‘The Howard-Turner difficulties can be summed up in no other way than cold-blooded murders by the Howards.  Without the slightest provocation, and from ambush, they stole the lives of my three sons.  The Turners could at any time have killed many of their enemies if they had stooped to the level of taking human life from ambush and giving the victims no show.

‘No Howard has ever been killed.  Why?  Does anyone say the Turners are cowards?  No.  No Turner has ever been confronted by his enemy in fair fight.  None of them that have died have seen the faces of their foes.  As the father of my three murdered boys, I feel more comfort in contemplating them in their bloody but honorable graves than had they lived through the instrumentality of ambushing and assassinating their fellow men.  No Turner died with a charge or indictment against him, and no widows or orphans, woes are chargeable to their account.  Their only offense consists in a love of honor that their adversaries could not appreciate, and bravery their foes were afraid to face.


As with any feud it depends on who is telling the story as to who did what, who killed a particular victim and if they were innocent or guilty.  In every respect they are part of our Kentucky history.

Gravestones photos of the Turner family  

George Brittain Turner, March 10, 1837 – October 2, 1915, Resthaven Cemetery, wife,

Margaret A. Crump Turner, July 12, 1834 – Jun 5, 1897.

William W. Turner, November 5, 1857 – July 12, 1885 – KILLED BY WILS OR JAMES L. HOWARD

Robert E. Lee Turner, January 7, 1864 – March 8, 1882 – KILLED BY WILKERSON HOWARD

Green J. Turner, July 16, 1873 – September 6, 1885

John E. Turner, May 30, 1868 – February 5, 1894

Nancy Turner Howard, May 14, 1855 – January 23, 1931

Moses W. Howard, January 27, 1857 – March 2, 1927, 7961

Carlo B. Turner, December 1, 1859 – July 4, 1899, buried Barker Cemetery, Lee County, VA

George Brittain Turner, Jr., October 26, 1861 – August 4, 1889 – KILLED BY WILS HOWARD

Eliza Araminta Turner Gregory, December 26, 1870 – Jun 14, 1908, not photographed.

Susan Minerva Turner Howard, March 19, 1876 – October 29, 1953, married Hiram J. Howard, 1883-1954, not photographed.

Wilkerson Howard, 1796-1880, and his wife Mary Jones Howard, 1803-1870, are buried in Wix Howard Cemetery in Harlan County.  Unfortunately, we did not visit this cemetery.  Wilkerson and Mary’s children Hiram Howard, July 3, 1820 – Jun 1, 1904, and Edmond Howard, April 11, 1830 – December 23, 1900, are also buried there.  Wilkerson’s parents, Samuel Hord Howard, July 2, 1762 – December 5, 1840, and Chloe Langley Osborne Howard, 1765-1841, are buried in Resthaven Cemetery, but I did not get photos of their gravestones due to the thunderstorm.

1 reply »

  1. I really enjoy your posts! My grandmother was from Harlan and is buried in this cemetery. I haven’t even begun to sort out all the connections between these families mentioned here, many of the folks in my family tree.
    I have found many more stories. This one going back to 1850 is very interesting:

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