Death of Hugh O'Connor

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The death of Hugh O'Connor took place on September 20, 1967. O'Connor, a Canadian television journalist, was filming a coal miner at his rented house in Jeremiah, Letcher County, Kentucky. Hobart Ison, the property owner, arrived and told O'Connor and his crew to leave. Hobart then shot and killed O'Connor. Journalists and filmmakers had descended upon Appalachia in the late 1960s to document the living conditions during the War on Poverty. This offended many residents, who objected to stereotyping and criticism by outsiders, as well as the tendency to show only the poor side of Appalachia.[1]

O'Connor and Ison came to represent the two sides of the conflict: the outsiders who exposed wrongs in hope of righting them and the locals who believed they were only telling one side of the story.[2]


Hobart Ison[edit]

Hobart Ison was born in 1897. His family had moved to Kentucky in the late 19th century, and their wealth was tied to land. During the coal boom of the 1920s, Ison owned several local businesses including a car dealership. However, he lost everything during the Great Depression except the land he had inherited. Ison was often described as eccentric. A lifelong bachelor, he had once been engaged, but his fiancée called off the wedding. Ison had already built a home for them, and chose to leave it unoccupied for 30 years rather than live in it or rent it.[2]

In 1947 Ison used money from the sale of some of his land to a railroad company to build a number of rental cottages. By 1967 he was renting them out to mining families for just $10 a month.[3]


Hugh O'Connor was born 1924 in Scotland and worked for the National Film Board of Canada. He was recognized as one of Canada's leading filmmakers.[4] He was known for developing cutting-edge technology in his documentaries, including the five-camera, five-screen film In the Labyrinth, one of the highlights of Montreal's Expo 67. The film split elements across five screens and also combined them for a mosaic of a single image. This inspired Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison to apply similar techniques to The Thomas Crown Affair. In the Labyrinth was the earliest inspiration for the revolutionary IMAX film format.[5]

Unaware of the hostility felt for outsiders,[3] O'Connor came to the mountains of eastern Kentucky while working on a documentary called US, which had been commissioned by the United States Department of Commerce to be shown at HemisFair '68 in San Antonio, Texas. It would depict life in the United States from early pioneering days to the present.[4]

O'Connor's death[edit]

On September 20, 1967, O'Connor's film crew visited the rental homes owned by Ison. The crew obtained permission to film three residents. Each signed a release and was paid $10.[6] When Ison learned of the filming, he flew into a rage. He promptly drove to the site. Witnesses said Ison approached O'Connor and his crew as they filmed a coal miner and told them to leave his property. He then pointed a pistol at them. The crew said they could not leave without their equipment. Ison then opened fire, first at the cameras and then O'Connor. O'Connor was fatally wounded and died on the spot.[4] According to The New Yorker, O'Connor's last words were, "Why'd you have to do that?"[7]

Trial and sentencing[edit]

While many locals were shocked by the senseless killing, others rallied to Ison's defense.[3] About 100 locals attended Ison's bond hearing and offered to help pay his bond.

According to a 2001 study,

Locals defended Ison not because they approved of murder and not because of an innate, clannish suspiciousness of outsiders, but because they perceived the prying eyes of reporters to be an assault on manners, common decency, and the integrity of their communities.[8]

Unable to find an impartial jury in Letcher County, the trial was moved to Harlan County, where it was held in March 1968. The prosecution was led by Commonwealth's Attorney Daniel Boone Smith, who recalled that even in Harlan County it was assumed he would not push too hard for Ison's conviction, since many locals approached him to express sympathy for Ison. Boone said his task was to convince the jurors that O'Connor and his crew were respectable people who had been commissioned by the United States Government to make a film about the entire United States, and that the Kentucky shots would only be briefly featured.[6]

The defense tried to get surviving members of the crew to admit they were in Kentucky only to photograph poor people, asking if they intended to photograph more prosperous parts of the state. The defense also wanted to know how much money they had been paid from the filming. Ison's lawyer used his closing statement to speak more about the intrusiveness of reporters than his client's actions.[9] Nevertheless, the only legal issue was Ison's sanity. A psychiatrist testifying for the defense identified Ison as a paranoid schizophrenic, but a prosecution psychiatrist contradicted this.[6]

The trial resulted in a hung jury. The jurors later said that 11 of them wanted to convict Ison, but the twelfth held out for acquittal.[1]

On March 24, 1969, a week before a second trial was to begin, Ison pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.[4] He was paroled after serving one year, and died in 1978.[9] He never expressed any remorse for O'Connor's death.[10]


In 2000, the incident was the subject of a documentary by Elizabeth Barret called Stranger with a Camera, which aired on the PBS series P.O.V..[2]

The weapon Ison used to kill O'Connor was a 1904 .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. It was used again in 2003 when a housekeeper killed a teenager in a dispute over a house fire. The almost antique pistol had been in a safety deposit box, until its owner had removed it in the hope of selling it to Elizabeth Barret for her documentary.[7]


  1. ^ a b "Jury Split in Death Of Film Producer; Mistrial Declared". The New York Times. 1968-06-01. p. 28.
  2. ^ a b c Salomon, Julie (2000-06-11). "He Turned His Camera on Appalachia, and One Man Wouldn't Stand For It". The New York Times. pp. E2.
  3. ^ a b c Snyder, Robert E.; Barret, Elizabeth (December 2001). "Review of Stranger with a Camera". The Journal of American History. 88 (3): 1219–1220. doi:10.2307/2700585. JSTOR 2700585.
  4. ^ a b c d "Kentuckian Gets 10 Years in Jail For Killing Canada Filmmaker". The New York Times. 1969-03-25. p. 30.
  5. ^ Atherton, Tony (2000-07-10). "When camera and gun collide". Ottawa Citizen. pp. D7.
  6. ^ a b c Calvin Trillin, "U.S. JOURNAL: JEREMIAH, KY. A STRANGER WITH A CAMERA.", The New Yorker, April 12, 1969, p. 178
  7. ^ a b Lin, William (2005-05-07). "Piece of history draws new blood". The Globe and Mail. pp. A2.
  8. ^ Catherine McNicol Stock, Robert D. Johnston (2001). The Countryside in the Age of the Modern State: Political Histories of Rural America. Cornell University Press. p. 270. ISBN 0-8014-8771-4.
  9. ^ a b Rosenfeld, Megan (2000-07-11). "Killing in Kentucky: Out-of-Focus 'Camera'". The Washington Post. pp. C07.
  10. ^ Morfitt, Ian (2003-03-08). "The violent poetry of Appalachia". The Globe and Mail. pp. R13.

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