The French–Eversole Feud occurred primarily from 1887-1894. The events occurred in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky and were mainly situated in Hazard, Perry County. The two instigators of this feud were Joseph C. Eversole and Benjamin Fulton French, who were both merchants and lawyers and at one time were friendly. Estimates attribute anywhere from 40 to 70 deaths to this feud over its many years.
Before the Feud
Jacob Eversole was one of the first settlers of the area and built a cabin in 1800, which was the family’s home until 1880. When Perry County was created in 1819 the town of Hazard was chosen as its seat. The small town had only one road, scattered buildings, and only a few boards to walk on over the muddy streets. It became the trading center of the county with a population of around 100 during the feud.
Joseph Eversole and French were very similar men. They were both lawyers, merchants, and very well off. Eversole was related to many in Perry and surrounding counties due to his family being in the area for so long. He married a woman from another prominent Perry County family, Susan Combs. French, however, was not a Kentuckian. He hailed from North Carolina but married Susan Lewis. She was related to many families in the surrounding counties, but the couple made their home in Perry County.
Cause of the Feud
There are two supposed causes of the feud. One is romanticized and probably not true though it is the popular and much more interesting cause. The other is a definite and more reasonable cause for the start of the feud.
The popular story for the cause of the feud is a disagreement over a woman. As the story goes a clerk that worked in French’s store was madly in love. One day the clerk saw the woman with French and he became infuriated. He went to the Eversoles and told that he had heard French say he sought to take Joe’s life. When Joe questioned the clerk about the allegations he sat silent. Eversole warned him that he was taking his silence as fact that the allegations were true. This is what caused Eversole to begin to gather his clan. French followed suit closely after and a war was unavoidable. It is believed that this was the clerk’s revenge on Fulton French.
The actual story is that the two were businessmen and they came at odds with each other. After the civil war, companies began buying huge amounts of land for the timber and coal underneath the mountains. French worked for one of these companies while Eversole was a local merchant. French was worried about getting the land at bottom dollar for the large companies. Eversole saw this practice as atrocious. He was always more worried about the welfare of the people and their treatment and he began to resent French for his unfair treatment in the business dealings with the mountain people. The resentment grew until they eventually raised their armies, which French reportedly paid $2 – $2.50 a day for his hired guns.
Ambush was the favored tactic of this feud rather than standard warfare. It was safer for the concealed perpetrators and responsibility for the attacks was more difficult to determine. Many people lived, justifiably, in fear.
The first death of the feud was one of French’s friends, Silas Gayheart. A dozen white men and a couple black reportedly ambushed and killed Gayheart. The Eversoles denied the killing and many believed it was the cause of a different dispute that Gayheart had. French however blamed the Eversole clan.
One night French left Hazard, possibly to gather more men to attack Eversole. Once Eversole discovered this he withdrew his forces and left a few men in town. He waited for French to attack the town so he could make a surprise attack of his own. Neither was fooled by these tactical maneuvers and blood was spared. When French finally reentered the town in June 1887 Eversole set out to meet him. They two sides had a shootout in town with only one of French’s men being wounded. After a day of shooting at each other French’s forces withdrew.
This type of cat and mouse scuffle happened throughout the summer of 1887. The cost of paying these men day in and day out began taking their tolls on the businessmen as they almost were bankrupt. The sides agreed to a meeting at Big Creek and a peace was formulated. The agreements would be that they could return home, would disband their armies, and surrender their guns. The grudge was still there and soon after their funds were replenished French accused Eversole of taking his guns back from Judge Josiah Combs, Eversole’s father-in-law. Eversole claimed that French hadn’t witnessed that, that he hadn’t disbanded his army, and that the deal only called for a partial surrender of arms. The short lived peace was crumbled.
The next major incident occurred on September 15, 1887. Joe Eversole and Bill G ambriel, a French supporter, began arguing in the street. This formed into a scuffle and some of Eversole’s men shot at Gambriel. While attempting to escape another man, reportedly an officer, shot him. As Gambriel turned away from his attacker, Joe Eversole pulled his pistol out and shot Gambriel in the head. One man was tried for the murder but acquitted of the charges.
There was a relative calm throughout the winter until April 15, 1888. Joe Eversole, Nick Combs, his brother-in-law, and Judge Josiah Combs were on their way to Hyden for the regular term of the circuit court which Joe and Josiah had been members of for years. Josiah was riding slightly ahead of Joe and Nick when he heard the gunfire. Josiah turned and saw Joe and Nick fall to the ground writhing in pain. Joe almost instantly died after being rattled by 8 bullets. An attacker came down from the hill, shot Nick since he was still alive even though he pleaded for his life, and then sifted through Joe’s pockets. Josiah himself had been shot along with another 5 bullet holes in his clothes. After investigating it appeared the attackers had been camping for days waiting on them. French was accused and indicted but left town with a posse in fear of retaliation. No one was ever convicted of the murders.
After Joe was gone, John Campbell took over the war against French. Campbell surrounded the town with guards, had men patrolled the streets, and took on scouting the countryside. He feared a French attack so he only left people into town who knew the password. This was his undoing however. One night Campbell found a sleeping guard and startled him. The guard shot Campbell who died a month later from his wounds.
While Campbell was still alive, Shade Combs had an idea that he could end the feud by killing French and a select few of his men. Campbell gave him men and he set out to do the deed. French got wind of the plot and set up and ambush of his own though Combs escaped only to succumb to a successful ambush soon after at his home.
Elijah Morgan, son-in-law to Josiah Combs and a French Supporter, was the next to be assassinated on October 9, 1888. He was working on an agreement between the Eversole clan and himself when he was ambushed. He wanted peace and the Eversoles told him to meet them in Hazard to discuss a deal. This was all a ploy to lure him in and he was murdered. It is widely believed this is retaliation for the death of Shade Combs since they occurred so close together.
Judge Lilly, responsible for the law in Perry along with other counties, had had enough. He dispatched state troops to Hazard which arrived in early November 1888. He wrote the governor on November 13, 1888 telling him of the need for troops and that he would not conduct court in Perry along with other counties without a state guard for fear of shootings. On November 14, 1888 Sam Hill, who was in charge of the state troops, wrote to Governor Buckner that only 35 people remained in town when they arrived. Many came back after the troops arrived and that the juries ties to the clans or fear of the accused has caused lawlessness. The November 1888 term of court went by with ease since the troops had showed.
Battle of Hazard
The Battle of Hazard occurred on the fourth day of the court, which was November 8, 1889. A supposedly inebriated Campbell was on Graveyard Hill and discharged his gun. A storekeeper saw him shooting, took aim, and killed Campbell with one shot. The people in in the courthouse heard the shot, thought it was the feud, and scattered away. The Eversole clan took control of the courthouse and French’s men captured the jailhouse. Jesse Fields and Bob Profitt, both French men, escaped from the second story of the court house and made it to the jail. That night they escaped the jailhouse to regroup with the rest of the French party. Jesse Fields and Tom Smith then took the high ground on Graveyard Hill. J. McKnight, an Eversole man, attempted to run across the street with a friend to gain some ground and was shot dead by French’s men. The Eversoles retreated across the river after their ammo was exhausted. They left Green Morris and one other along the river bank so they could escape safely. When Jesse Fields and Tom Smith pursued, Morris opened fire and hit Fields in the arm. The Battle of Hazard was over.
Following the incidents in Hazard, the courthouse was burned down on July 4, 1890 though the records were saved. Robin Cornett, an Eversole supporter, finally returned to his home hoping to be done with the feud. He was ambushed and killed in July 1890 when we went to cut a tree in the forest near his home.
This was the final straw for Judge Lilly. He appeared with state troops for a special August court term in 1890 that would be held in a tent. They quickly brought up each of the accused and sent them to Clark County to be tried. Lilly knew that there is no way any would have a fair trial in Hazard and for fear of another battle. None were allowed bail at first. The jail became so full they had to keep the men in a guarded tent. The “Blanket Court” worked well and there was little to no incidents until 1894.
In 1894, Judge Josiah Combs decided to return to the home he loved, hoping the fighting was all over. He was ambushed and killed while having a conversation with friends outside of town. Joe Adkins, Jesse Fields, and Boone Frazier are believed to be the ambushers. Tom Smith had been sentenced to death row previously and gave up that French was in on the plot with them to have Combs murdered. French was acquitted of the charges, Frazier was never caught, Fields was sentenced to life then acquitted in a second trial, and Adkins received life in both trials, though he only served 8 years before being released.
After the events in Hazard French began wearing a bulletproof vest. Years later in 1913 French came across Susan Eversole, Joe’s Widow, and her son Harry Eversole. He said “Good Morning, Mrs. Eversole” and Harry took out his pistol and shot him in the spleen as he ran. Harry was only charged a $75 disturbing the peace fine since French didn’t die right away, though he did die over a year later from the wound.
- The French and Eversole War
- Newspaper articles on French Eversole Feud in Perry County, Kentucky
- Otterbein, Keith F. Five Feuds: An Analysis of Homicides in Eastern Kentucky in the Late Nineteenth Century. Department of Anthropology, University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY 14261.
- Mutzenberg, C. (2012). Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies : Authentic History of the World Renowned Vendettas of the Dark and Bloody Ground. University of Toronto Libraries
- Griffith, P. The Hatfields & the McCoys and Other Famous Feuds of Kentucky. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Hatfields-McCoys-Famous-Kentucky-ebook/dp/B0088LKKTE
- Ed Pearce, J. (1994). Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky. The University Press of Kentucky
- Richards, B. (2012, July). French-Eversole War: Perry County was Bloody, Costly. Hazard Herald. Retrieved from http://hazard-herald.com/view/full_story/18906058/article-French-Eversole-War--Perry-County’s-own-feud-ended-several-lives