Did Christ Die for Sinners Weep

The Story of the First legal Hanging in Carter County

© Glen R Haney 2007

Ashland, Kentucky in 1881 was, a neat orderly little city situated on the Ohio River. Life, in general was not exciting in Ashland and that’s the way folks liked it. As in any town it had its share of crime – robberies, thefts and yes, an occasional murder. The few homicides were usually stand up fights between drunken men over a card game or a woman, and required little or no detective work to solve. And then the town would once again go back to its quiet good life.

Pick your average Ashland household and there would be the Gibbons family. Almost everyone in town knew the Gibbons family, or so they would claim after the night of the tragedy. For years after, until the story was finally put to rest, folks would reminisce about the last time they saw one or the other of the Gibbons family. There were three children. The oldest was Robert, age 17, the poor crippled boy who had lost one leg a few years earlier in a run in with a freight car. The youngest was Sterling 11, who, thankfully, had the good fortune of not being home on the night our story begins. And then there was the daughter, Fanny.

Physically developed beyond her 14 years, Fanny had already learned what it takes to get men to turn their heads. She was a neighborhood favorite with a magnetic personality and the looks to match. Outgoing and cheerful, she had many friends, and as we know now, she also had some not so welcome admirers. 


The man of the family, John Gibbons wasn’t home very much; things between him and Mrs. Gibbons worked out better that way. Working odd jobs, and often gone for weeks, he provided a meager income that supported his family about as well as anyone else in the East End of Ashland. The mother, Martha Gibbons, by all accounts, was a caring mother and the family seemed to blend right in with the rest of the neighborhood. Who would guess that this plain average family would become the center of one of the most extraordinary man made tragedies in the entire country.  


Early in the morning of December 24, 1881 while most of Ashland slumbered, neighbors were aroused by the alarm of a fire at the Gibbons small frame house. In a matter of minutes the concerned townspeople rushed to the flames that lit up the sky. Groping their way inside the burning house they were horrified to find three bodies which they quickly dragged from the flames. Those present recognized the bodies as being Fannie Gibbons 14, her brother Robert 17, and a neighbor friend, Emma Carrlco, 15.  Three physicians were soon on the scene and they made a startling announcement; all three victims had their skulls smashed, which was the cause of death. Evidence was also present to lead the physicians to conclude that the girls had been brutally raped.  The fire, it was surmised, had been set to cover up the crime.


As dawn broke, news of the crime quickly spread and the entire town was in an uproar. The public was aghast at the brutality of the murders. This was not the Ashland that they knew. The horror was almost more than could be comprehended by decent people. Who amongst them could do such a thing? No one would be safe until the murderers were brought to justice. The wildest sorts of reports were circulated. All business was suspended as the grief stricken community milled about trading rumors.


When dawn broke evidence was searched for under the smoldering house. Bloody sheets and pillows were found and there was an axe and crowbar, both covered with hair and blood. These were all were set aside, as well as the night clothing of the children, as evidence.


Mrs. Thomas, the mother of Emma was questioned. Emma Carrlco was her child from a former relationship. She said that on the previous evening at around 6 o’clock Mrs. Gibbons had stopped by her cottage and asked if Emma could stay at her house overnight to keep company with Fannie and Robert. Mrs. Gibbons and her son Sterling, were going across the River to Ironton, Ohio to visit her daughter and would be gone until the next day. As usual, Mr. Gibbons was off working somewhere, and it would be nice if the children had some company.


The Thomas house was just across the street from the Gibbons house and Mrs. Thomas readily consented. With a smile and wave, Emma put on her coat and said goodbye to her mother. It was the last time she saw her alive.


It was a frosty, clear December night and neighbors reported hearing the children talking and laughing up in the early evening until it was time to go to bed, then silence. Mrs. Thomas was up around 4 A.M. and glanced out the window and saw nothing unusual at the Gibbons house. She went about her morning chores and when she next looked out it was shortly after 6 A.M. She stood at the window in silent speculation. She could see an unnatural light flickering through the window inside the Gibbons house. Was it perhaps, a reflection of the moon? Finally, her fears now realized the hysterical woman ran across the street shrieking; Fire! Help! Fire!     


 That was all Mrs. Thomas knew, and so far, that was the most anyone knew except for the person or persons who were responsible. 


Two days later on December 26, an overflow crowd turned out for services at the Methodist Episcopal Church where services were held for the three victims. Afterwards, they were buried in a common grave at Ashland Cemetery. 


That afternoon, John Means, acting mayor, called a meeting to raise money for a reward and to hire detectives to find the murderers. Over $1000 was raised in a few days. With that much money as bait, private detectives came from all the surrounding states. Deputy U.S. Marshal Heflin of Maysville had the backing of the townsfolk because he had had some official authority. But it was another detective, J.B. Norris from Ohio, who jumped off with the first theory. The killer, according to Norris undoubtedly, was John Gibbons, the father. There was little evidence to substantiate this charge and curiously, the fact that one of the rape victims was his own daughter was overlooked. Nevertheless, with nothing else to go on much of the populace was caught up in what was purely an assumption of guilt. Even the Cincinnati Enquirer, the areas largest newspaper, was calling for the arrest of the guilty fiend Gibbons. Wanted posters were rushed to print and sent out far and wide for the arrest of John Gibbons.


Meanwhile, Marshal Heflin had serious doubts about the involvement of Mr. Gibbons. He reasoned that the crime could not have been carried out by just one person. Furthermore, a motive had not even been established. Heflin realized that before the investigation could get back on track, Gibbons would have to be found and cleared of the charge. On Saturday December 31, he located Gibbons in a remote area of West Virginia. There, Heflin broke the heartbreaking news to the Gibbons who was still unaware of the tragedy. The two rode back to Ashland where Gibbons was quickly exonerated by proof that he had been in West Virginia for the entire time.


Humiliated, Detective Norris caught the first train out of town and Heflin became the lead detective.


A few days later a man walked into the Ashland general store of Geiger, Powell & Ferguson and bought a cigar. Mr. Powell waited on the man, who he knew slightly as a regular customer by the name of George Ellis. Making conversation, Powell said, “Well, now that old man Gibbons is in the clear, I wonder who it is going to fall on now?” At this statement Ellis was clearly startled, evading the friendly gaze of Powell. Ellis turned pale and his hand began to tremble. After regaining some control he blurted out that he had a clue who it might be and then murmured something about “states evidence” before abruptly walking out the door under what he perceived were the accusing eyes of Powell. 


As Ellis began walking, it seemed to him that everyone was staring at him with accusing eyes. Did they know, he asked himself over and over? After walking the streets for hours, Ellis eventually found his way to the hotel room of Marshal Heflin who invited him in. George Ellis introduced himself and said that he lived near the Gibbons house and might know something about the killings. After being seated Ellis asked Heflin if he would be so kind as to explain to him the legal meaning of “States Evidence”.  Heflin informed him that any one guilty of a crime could inform on others involved in the crime and would likely get a lesser sentence than the other guilty party. That explanation seemed to have the desired effect on Ellis and he said that he wanted to relieve his conscience by making a statement.


Heflin, a skilled interrogator, had made a reputation for himself tracking down moon shiners over in Mason County.  He knew the law and what was required to get a confession that would impress the jurors. He at once called in some witnesses to what he hoped would be a forthcoming statement from Ellis.

There are at least two versions of the first confession that Ellis made implicating himself, William Neal and George Craft, but they vary only slightly, one being more graphic in details.  Possibly, more than one person was taking down the statement and neither was a skilled stenographer. The following is the less graphic of the two versions:    

 “A few evenings prior to the 24th I met Craft who stated that he was going to see Fanny Gibbons and take her some black candy and that he was going to have intercourse with her and he wanted me to come along. About midnight, the fatal night, we all started Craft, Neal and myself and when we got to the house Craft raised the window with an old axe and stepped in first. Neal followed and I stayed behind on the porch and afterwards I went in. Robbie was the first aroused and started to get up when Craft said “you had better lie still.” Craft then went to the bed where the two girls were sleeping and began to take improper liberties with them. Robbie said, “you had better stay away from there”, when Craft hit him with the axe. He fell back on the lounge then plunged forward and fell fully six feet from the bed under the stairs were he was found. The girls screamed when Craft jumped on the bed and they both said “George Craft, what are you here for?” Emma also started to jump from the bed when Neal choked her and pulled her onto the floor. She fought him and I held her while he outraged her. Neal then struck her on the head with the big end of the crowbar and she instantly died after throwing up her hands. Craft also had some trouble with Fanny Gibbons and called on me to come and help him. He then outraged her and killed her. Neal proposed killing the girls and after they were dead I took some coal oil, poured it over the bodies, and set fire to them with a match. We then left the house.”


Ellis claimed that they had been talking the matter over for several months, and that on one occasion, while they were all working in the back yard together, Emma Thomas passed by and Neal swore that he intended to have “carnal communication” with her before Christmas. Craft had made similar statements about Fanny Gibbons.


Ellis would subsequently make several more confessions, (or recant an earlier confession) each made to fit the prevailing circumstances.


Craft and Neal were immediately arrested and taken to the County jail in Catlettsburg; about five miles away, and remarkably, were placed in the same cell with Ellis. Not surprisingly, after a night in the same cell with Craft and Neal, Ellis repudiated his confession made the previous evening; but it was to late.


News of the confession had not been released to the public; nevertheless, word soon spread that the three men had been arrested and jailed. For many, that was sufficient to take matters in their own hands and talk of vigilante justice was in the air. Anxious courthouse officials began to receive reports of a mob being organized in Ashland with plans being laid to storm the court house and seize the prisoners. The court, fearing the worst, ordered the three to be sent to jail in Lexington, Kentucky for safe keeping. Accordingly, they were placed on the Catlettsburg Ferry and started down river but the mob got wind of it and started in pursuit in another steam boat. After an exciting chase the officers finally eluded the mob and arrived safely in Lexington.


During a stopover in Vanceburg, Kentucky a few reporters were allowed to board the vessel and interview the prisoners. Craft and Neal shackled together were eager to talk and were joking and singing with their guards. Both solemnly protested their innocence and were confident that the real murders would soon be found. Ellis, who was shackled a distance away from the other two and did not want to talk.    


In jail in Lexington George Ellis once again made a statement, in which he said that his first statement was not true and had been forced from him by George Heflin at the point of a gun.


On January 16, William Neal and Craft were brought back to Catlettsburg. Neal was put on trial first for the murder of Emma Carrico. There was little condemning evidence produced by the prosecution. One woman said that she saw Ellis, Croft and Neal the morning of the murder a half a mile away from the murder site. Others said Neal was uneasy following the murders and told them he feared suspicion. J.D. House, a man who helped remove the bodies from the burning house testified that he saw Neal standing just 50 feet away from the blaze.

There was, actually, no physical evidence presented at all. Then, the prosecution  produced their star witness, George Ellis. The defense had hoped to see a wild crazed man take the stand. Instead, Ellis was calm and composed and unwavering in his testimony.

“I have resided in Ashland since May. Have been engaged as a laborer at Powell & House’s brickyard most of the time; I am acquainted with the prisoner Neal, also with Craft; we three worked together at the brickyard; I did not see either of them during the day of December 23rd , I saw them later that night, they came to my house and called me; I was in bed and asked what they wanted, Craft told me to get up, they wanted to see me, I did so, put on my clothes and boots and went out to the gate, Craft said you must go with us , I asked him where, he said to the Gibbons’ and we will have some fun. I told him no, it was too late, I won’t go. They said I have to go and Craft drew his revolver. Neal said bring him along and we started. When we got inside the gate at the Gibbons, Craft picked up an axe and Neal got a crowbar from under the porch floor. Craft pried open the window and Neal was the first to go in, Craft next. I did not want to go in but Craft drew is revolver and said come on and I did so. They took the axe and crowbar in the house with them; we passed through the front room to the second room middle room where the girls and Robbie were asleep. Craft and Neal went to the bed where the girls where, Craft took hold of Fannie Gibbons and Neal of Emma. They stifled the girls by putting their hands over their mouths and choking them. The noise awakened Robbie who was sleeping on a lounge in the same room. Craft who had Choked Fannie near to death left her and struck Robbie in the head with the axe and killed him, and then returned to the bed. Neal dragged Emma off the bed onto the floor and Craft ordered me to hold her until Neal accomplished his purpose which I did. After Neal let her up she began to raise up, crying, and said she was going home to tell her mother. Neal said, “I guess not”, and struck her on the head with the crowbar and she fell back on the floor dead. Craft ordered me to come and help him, I went to the bed and put my hand on Miss Gibbons’ shoulder and Craft outraged her after which he got the ax and killed her. Craft then said to me, you have done none of the killing, but you must have a hand in it and ordered me to get the coal oil and pour it over the dead body of the girls. I did and Craft set them on fire and we left the house. When we got out we separated, I going home I don’t know where they went. I got home about half past three o’clock and my wife to make breakfast. I laid down but did not go to sleep. I heard the cry of fire about half past five when I was at breakfast. I went to the burning house but did not stay long. On the following Sunday morning when Craft and I met at the place where the house was burned and Craft asked me to take a walk. We went out towards the cemetery, he begin to talk about the affair and said it must be keep quiet. We met Neal and we all talked about it. They wanted me to sign a pledge never to tell about it, I told them I would think about it. They told me I better do better than that and if I did not do so by the next Saturday night they would put an end to me. We separated, I went home and Craft and Neal went away together.”


 The defense team was headed up by Thomas R. Brown. (Curiously, he was the son of the presiding Judge Brown.) The key witness for the defense was Mrs. Ellis who was called and testified that she awoke at midnight and at 4:30 A.M. and her husband was there each time She said she heard no noise and did not believe her husband left the house that night.  (Earlier, when visiting her husband in jail, Mrs. Ellis was overheard pleading with her husband to tell the “real” truth.)


Oliver Hampton was called and testified that Ellis said in front of him and A.C. Campbell that both Neal and Craft were innocent.


Several reliable witnesses were called to prove Neal’s character. Mrs. Neal was present, crying at times while Neal sat at a table scribbling on a piece of paper and conversing with his lawyer. He was described as looking much younger than his 36 years of age, with light hair and a dark mustache. He and his wife have two small children.


On February 6, 1882, after only 17 minutes of deliberation the jury found Neal guilty and sentenced him to hang on February 14, 1882. A few days later Craft was convicted on the same evidence and was also sentenced to the gallows on the same date.


George Ellis would confess, and recant at least a half dozen times, each with greater convection than the other. In February 1882, he made a statement to a Cincinnati Newspaper, in which he said that he, and two Negroes that he hired, committed the murders. That he alone raped and killed the girls while his accomplices held them down. He said, as they crept away from the Gibbons house that he saw Craft and Neal walking along the street and decided to put the blame on them. A few days later he denied he ever made the statement.  


In May 1882 Ellis was returned from Lexington to Catlettsburg to stand trial. Throughout the trial his wife sat beside him often in tears. On Friday June 2, 1882 he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Most observers felt the sentence was befitting and hoped that one chapter would now be closed. 


That night around midnight, a group of about 20 men with black hoods covering their faces men took over the engine house of the Chattaroi Railroad in Ashland, ordered the watchman to hitch up two flat-cars after which they proceeded to Catlettsburg. They arrived about 3 A.M., halting across the street from the jail. Converging on the jail they demanded admittance which was refused. Storming it by force George Ellis was soon led out. He was taken back to Ashland where he was hanged on a Sycamore tree near the scene of the murders. Witnesses said that Ellis met his fate calmly as though he knew this time was coming, and made his final statement. As in his original confession, he said that he, Craft and Neal were guilty. His last request was that his body not be mutilated. He declined the opportunity to pray saying that he was prepared to die. 


The Sycamore tree stood about a hundred yards from the burned house. On the same tree, on the same limb was a swing that neighborhood children had played on in happier days. The body of Ellis was allowed to hang until the next afternoon when it was cut down by the coroner. Death was ruled to have come at the hands of person or persons unknown.


On appeal, Craft and Neal won a new trial. Many people, both in Ashland and elsewhere   positively considered the pair to be innocent. As they saw it, if you take away the testimony of that deranged Ellis what evidence was there?  Considering that the pair won most of their appeals and execution stays, it would seem that officials in the state government were also not convinced of their guilt.


All the while, the two were becoming nationally famous and received offers to tell their stories on a lecture tour, provided, of course they won their release. Newspaper correspondents would interview them regularly whereupon they both expressed confidence that they would soon be released. 


The reward still had not been paid so there was still an occasional arrest. In June of 1882 two black men were charged, by a black detective, arrested and brought to Catlettsburg charged with the crime. At the first hearing the charges were thrown out. Afterwards, outside the courtroom, the detective was beaten and shot in the leg by supporters of the two charged men.


The case dragged on until the fall of 1882 when the prisoners were again sent to Catlettsburg for trial under the guard of five companies of state militia. Responding to threats of violence, Governor G.W. Blackburn threatened that if need be, the whole county of Boyd would be killed, if necessary to uphold the law. Mob violence, he said, would not be tolerated.  


As the trial began, an application for a change of venue was made by the attorneys of Craft and Neal. Judge George N. Brown granted the change of venue and the new trial date was set for February 1883. This time the trials would be in neighboring Carter County. The prisoners were to be transported back to Lexington to await the new trial.


In an age that was accustomed to quick justice the wheels were turning to slow to suit many in the Ashland community. Where was justice? What about the dead children and their still grieving parents? That night Major Allen, commanding the militia that guarded the prisoners received information that a mob was forming in Ashland whose aim it was to use the George Ellis Sycamore tree twice more. Abandoning the original plan of transporting the prisoners by rail which would take them through Ashland, Major Allen once again chose a river boat. A passing steamer, The Granite State, was requisitioned to make the trip up river to Maysville. 


As the steamer was being loaded a train arrived from Ashland with 200 armed men and boys. The mob demanded that Neal and Craft be handed over to them. Major Allen refused and the last of his troops boarded The Granite State and started downstream with the prisoners.


 The mob re-boarded the train which ran along side of the river between Catlettsburg and Ashland. They kept up a hail of gunfire upon the troops on the steamboat all the way to Ashland. The militia did not return the fire.


At Ashland, the mob was met by a large crowd of people who congregated along Front Street and the riverbank to watch the scene. As the Granite State came into sight it was observed that the soldiers had concealed themselves behind articles from the boat which they piled in front of them. 


About 20 men and boys from the mob took possession of a ferryboat and swung out into the river to intercept the steamboat. Cooler heads argued with the 20 hotheads to let it go but the mob was not to be contained.  As the ferryboat approached the steamer a few pistol shots rang out. With that, the troops ranged in line along the decks of The Granite State, opened fire with disastrous effect. Stunned and completely outmatched the group aboard the ferryboat dived for cover as round after round was fired in their direction. Hundreds of rounds were fired. Many, fired wildly, found a target on shore on the bank of the river and on the streets and houses of Ashland. Killed at once were Col. L.W. Reppert, an aged citizen who had earlier tried to keep the mob from boarding the ferry and George Keener, a young father. Willie Serey age 14, and Alexander Harris age 25, would die from wounds within hours. James McDonald, brother in law of the murdered Gibbons children was shot three times. Mrs. H.B. Butler was shot in the thigh while sitting in the train depot.


Leaving the scene of chaos in their wake, the boat steamed on to Maysville without further incident. There would be an inquest into the ugly shooting affair in Ashland but it was ruled justifiable.   


In early .February 1883 Craft, guarded by ten divisions of state militia, was put on trial in Grayson before Carter County Circuit Judge Rice. The militia camped north of town in what was described as “the most wretched conditions,” of ice, sleet, mud and snow. The exact location is unknown but was most likely between what is now Third and Fourth Streets .One trooper would later die from the exposure and several were hospitalized. Although unhappy about the troop occupation the Grayson citizens remained orderly. 

On Friday February 23 at 8 P.M. the case was given to the jury. After about ten minutes they returned to the courtroom and reported that one juror, a Mr. Dehart, had taken ill. (It was later asserted that one juror was opposed to capital punishment and the delay was needed to correct his misguided belief.)  Judge Rice postponed the trial until Saturday morning. The next morning, 21 minutes after the jury was out, they returned with a verdict of guilty. Everyone in attendance except for Craft and his team seemed satisfied with the verdict. There was no clapping or cheers but most observers nodded their approval. Craft was asked if he had anything to say. He stood up, cleared his throat and made a short but impassioned speech;


 “I can say one thing- I am not guilty of that charge. I did not have time to put all of my witnesses here that I ought to have had, and I consider that I have not had a fair trial for I know I am not guilty of that. I never as much as laid my hand on them. I never did. You might as well take a little innocent child and hang them as to hang me. The closest I was to Mrs. Gibbon’s house that night was when I lay in bed at home asleep. I did not see the house or George Ellis or Bill Neal or any of the children that night. The last time I saw any of Mrs. Gibbon’s children was on the Wednesday before that. I saw little Fanny and spoke to her. That was the last time. I was aroused by the alarm of fire. I could, knowing the children were burned up, stand on the scaffold and hold my hand up and swear in the sight of heaven that I did not see those children, Neal or Ellis, that night. I am as innocent as the angels of that thing.”


“I never thought of such a thing. I was better raised and had more respect for the people about me. I respected Mrs. Gibbons and her children. I am glad I can stand here and say that I am innocent. It is the truth. It is a put up job. Gentlemen, the day is coming when I will be found innocent.”


All at once his speech was interrupted by the wailing of Mrs. Gibbons “Oh, my dear children. If they were only here now,” she cried out. As she continued to sob she was led out of the courtroom. Frustrated by the interruption Craft took his seat and said no more. 

The judge then set the date for hanging for May 4, 1883.


Craft fell in with the guard and marched to camp. Before noon the soldiers struck tents, and preparations were made to leave on the Eastern Kentucky Railroad for Riverton and the Ohio River. The troops rode on flat cars with seats improvised from planks while the 

Officers and their prisoner rode in a coach.   


Governor Blackburn, evidently not wanting it on his conscience refused to confirm the May 4 date of execution, as required by law, and the execution was delayed until after his term. The next executive, Governor Knott, set the date for October 12, 1883.


Friends of Craft were untiring in their efforts to save his life, claiming they had evidence of his innocence that they would produce at Neal’s trial next February; they urged for a respite of Craft’s sentence until after the Neal’s trial. But, they were denied. On October 11, Carter Sheriff Holcomb, with an escort of special deputies, brought Craft back to Grayson for the final time. The population of the village had swollen from about a thousand inhabitants to an estimated throng of three thousand who had arrived to see the hanging.  The condemned man spent the evening with brother and two brother-in-laws singing and praying and bantering with the crowd through his open barred jail window.  He retired around midnight and rose at six in the morning. The early morning was spent with the Rev. Pinkerton, and surrounded by guard, was driven a half mile to the Little Sandy River and baptized. On the return trip many greeted him and ladies handed him flowers.


 The gallows was located on the northeast part of town, at the foot of a hill enclosed by a fence 12 feet high. The enclosure was thirty feet square. The gallows, about eight feet square, had a six foot drop and a trap in the center. The site chosen for the hanging was at the same location where the militia had camped and suffered the previous February. Craft wanted to walk to the gallows but was driven in a buggy surrounded by a strong guard. On approaching the gallows the large crowd was separated and the party entered the enclosure. Craft ascended the steps in full view of the crowd accompanied by the Rev. Pinkerton and the sheriff. In Craft the spectators saw a compact well built man in his middle thirties with black eyes and bushy black hair. He appeared calm but anxious. Quiet was called for and Craft begin a long address in which he reasserted his innocence. He than sang a hymn “Did Christ Die for Sinners Weep” and offered up a fervent prayer to God to save his soul. Then, all being prepared he stepped on the trap weeping and crying, “Lord receive my soul,” and thus was sent on his way.


The last of the trio, Neal was tried again in Grayson and on April 30, 1884 was once again sentenced to die. He was then sent to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. to await his execution. Appeals would delay the date time and time again.


On March 3 1885 Neal, who had been held in the Mt. Sterling jail, was loaded aboard the train bound for Grayson and his date with the gallows. On the train platform he made a short speech to his supporters and the curious onlookers. ”Farewell, good people, I hope to meet you in heaven. I am persecuted to my death by Campbell and Redlin, who persecuted themselves and bull-dozed that lunatic George Ellis into swearing lies against me. It’s a fearful thing to walk upon the gallows and die for a crime I did not commit. Bare in mind that I will be proved innocent of this charge just as I say now I am innocent. I have to be dragged back and hung like a dog for what I didn’t do. I thank the citizens of Mt. Sterling for their kindness to me. I hope to meet you in a better land.”


This execution was also postponed and Neal was returned to Mt. Sterling for safe- keeping. On March 28, 1885, Neal was again brought to Grayson to hang. There would be no more appeals - no more train rides.  Firm and composed he ordered eggs and bacon and coffee for supper breakfast and dinner and refused visits of ministers until morning. At 1:o’clock he was taken to gallows, escorted by 100 guards armed with double barreled shotguns where a large crowd estimated at 3000 was waiting to witness the execution. Neal ascended the scaffold with great composure and said his final words.


 “My friends, I say to one and all-you all know this is no place to tell a lie-I stand here today to suffer for a heinous crime I did not commit. One day my innocence will be established beyond a doubt. I bid you one and all goodbye. Oh Lord, thou knowest I am innocent: into thy hands I commit my soul. I am innocent.” The last words were said just as the drop fell. In ten minutes he was pronounced dead. None of his relatives were present but his body was claimed and he was buried on a hill back of his father-in-laws place near Catlettsburg. 


The scale of justice is rarely tilted far to one side. The truth of what happened that night in 1881 will never be known. Up until the time of the brutal murder, all three of the accused men had seemingly lived normal lives, with no hint in their background to suggest that they had in them such savagery. The odds that all three would expose that repressed side of their personality at the same time, seems remote.  Nevertheless, not just one, but several juries voted the same way, guilty as charged.  Surely they could not all be wrong. Or- could they? One of the detectives who worked on the case but was not called to testify, made a thought-provoking observation; “How would Ellis, Craft and Neal know the children were alone that night? Only three people knew that the children were alone, Mrs. Gibbons, her son Sterling and Mrs. Thomas.” Given that logic, it would seem that at least one of them would have been involved.

All that is certain is that after all was said and done, a dozen or so people died, a similar number were seriously wounded, and many lives were forever up-ended. The case would be debated for years after and even an occasional arrest made, until finally it was quietly nudged aside.





  1. Mrs. John Gibbons died in Ashland Sept. 18, 1903.
  2. The tree that hung Ellis was still standing in 1903, in the yard of The Standard Furniture Company.
  3. Location of Gibbons home was at 28th Street and Carter Avenue.




1. The Ashland Tragedy by   J. M. Huff  

2. Sprigs of Mistletoe by Sam F. Kibbey

3. Period newspaper accounts.


Permission is hereby granted for republication of this article for non-profit purposes as long as the source is identified.