“Days of Darkness: The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky” by John Ed Pearce.
In one passage of John Ed Pearce’s “Days of Darkness,” the author retells a legend surrounding a feud between the French and Eversole families in Perry County. According to the legend, a young man who worked in Fulton French’s general store became enraged when he saw French canoodling with the woman he loved. For revenge, he went and told French’s chief competitor in the merchandise business, Joseph Eversole, that French was planning to kill him. As the legend goes, Eversole armed his employees, French armed his, and it wasn’t too long before the streets ran red with blood.
A good story, Pearce writes, one that might even make a good movie, except for the fact that it never happened. One of Pearce’s central objectives in the book, which recounts six bloody feuds between Eastern Kentucky families in the late 19th century, is to debunk legends like these and illustrate the real causes behind each feud. He achieves his objective, but that isn’t to say the result is all that compelling.
Pearce’s book is bloody, ruthless and chaotic, told in a swarm of names and events that run together hopelessly after a while. The different accounts are extremely well-researched and Pearce has an excellent grasp on each sequence of events, but there is very little on a human level to invest in here. We see plenty of colorful names for the different players in each feud (Devil Jim, Bad Tom, Baldy George) but we never get a sense for the people behind those names. They exist mostly as words on a page, abstract elements in a dry, historical retelling of events.
That’s not to say the events themselves are not sometimes compelling, but Pearce throws so much at you that it is often hard to keep up with what is happening. In the haze of the different feuds, there are so many murders, battles and disputes that the significance of each one becomes unclear. And as events unfold, different names run together until you aren’t exactly sure who is fighting for who.
Pearce recounts feuds that took place in Harlan, Breathitt, Pike, Perry, Rowan and Clay counties. The author does a good job establishing the rural wilderness in which the different families exist. Their world hangs on the brink of modernization, but day-to-day life is made up of monotonous routine. Pearce writes of Perry County that “Life was plain and hard, diversions few, and culture almost none existent. People drank a lot.” Reading Pearce’s other accounts, you get this impression about the other counties as well. These people lived in places where sudden violence was the only thing to break the monotony.
Pearce thrives when he actually slows down to immerse the reader in a particular event. My favorite passages of the book involve the Clay County feud between the Baker, White and Howard families that raged for decades. Pearce begins with an account of a pivotal moment in the feud in 1899 when Bad Tom Baker rode with his small army of mountain kinsmen into Manchester, the county seat of Clay, to stand trial on murder charges. Gov. William O. Bradley sent troops in to receive Baker and ensure that he would receive a fair trial.
Pearce brings a visceral quality to these passages, exploring the tension between Baker, who was always wary of law enforcement, and the army officials there to receive him, who knew the whole encounter could erupt into bloodshed at any moment. As he moves into his account of the Clay County feud, Pearce continually revisits this encounter, adding a visual, narrative quality to his retelling.
Human moments like these are on short supply throughout the book, though. Pearce mostly moves breathlessly through the information, stopping ever so often to accent the importance of certain events. While his pace is sometimes disorienting, it creates a chaotic tone that is very appropriate considering the
material. Pearce is expert in the way he explores a violent, merciless time where decades of bloodshed could emerge from a simple barroom brawl. While he debunks the popular myths surrounding each feud, he also understands that some of the feuds had no clear causes at all.
He does explore a few possibilities though; he looks at old Civil War animosities as a reason behind the Callahan-Strong family feud in Breathitt County, as well as a dispute over salt production as a factor in the Clay County feud. But he also entertains the idea that the violence simply stemmed from life in the rugged wilderness, an environment where an abundance of alcohol, firearms and hot tempers could easily produce a bloodbath.
It’s this feeling of brutality and senseless violence that distinguishes Pearce’s book as a historical document. There are times where even he seems bemused by the randomness of each dispute. While popular myths might grant us an easy explanation behind a feud, the truths that Pearce provides cut to the heart of each dispute, shedding light on a brutal time long forgotten.
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