Mr. Kirk had heard a lot about Milt Haley’s trouble with the Brumfields. His version of events, along with that of Roxie Mullins, Bob Adkins and the Goldenseal article, comprised the bulk of what I knew of Milt’s death.
“I feel like that I’ve got pretty much the base of what happened, but there’ve been add-ons and deletions and so on along the way,” he said. “It was a tragic thing.”
The whole trouble had nothing to do with John Runyon, as we’d previously heard.
“The real thing behind it, them Adamses over in yonder and the Brumfields, they got into it over the timber,” Mr. Kirk said. “What they’d do, them people’d cut that big timber and put it in them creeks. Then they’d get spring floods and float them out. Brumfield had what they called a boom in down there to catch that timber. Then they’d make them into rafts and raft them down the river to the town of Guyandotte. There was a log market there. And Al got to stealing their logs.”
That was an interesting new development in the story, I thought. I mean, maybe Al Brumfield wasn’t completely innocent in the trouble. And maybe Milt was, in the eyes of at least some locals, justified in ambushing him.
“Word of mouth that’s come down to me from my mother and grandmother, some of the Adamses was supposed to hired McCoy and Haley to shoot Aunt Hollene, old man Al Brumfield’s wife. I remember her well. She had a hole in her jaw there. When she’d eat or talk, spit would work up in it. Or if she would eat candy or something, you could see the candy. She was a tough old lady. She’d been blowed up in a sawmill and had a short leg — walked with a cane. Cussed like a sailor every time she made a step. But they shot her.”
Now where did this shooting take place?
“The shooting was supposed to took place up on Big Hart there at the mouth of Thompson Branch,” Mr. Kirk said. “They was coming down the creek. They’d been up there visiting Hollene’s parents. She was one of them Dingesses from up there.”
Mr. Kirk said Al was shot in the arm and fell from his horse, while his wife was shot in the face.
Surprisingly, there were rumors of Milt and Green’s innocence, but Mr. Kirk “never did hear that expounded on.”
“I’ve heard it said a time or two, ‘Well, I doubt them being the ones that did it.’ I never would get into a discussion ’cause — not that it mattered either way to me in one sense — but I was convinced that they did it.”
Once Milt and Green were captured in Kentucky, a lynch mob formed in Harts consisting of Hugh Dingess (Hollena’s brother), French Bryant and several Brumfields. They joined up with Victor Shelton, a local lawman.
“You see, old man Victor Shelton was a constable or JP down here and he was a friend to them Brumfields,” Mr. Kirk said. “He went over there to Kentucky with them and they turned them over to Victor Shelton. When he come back across the river into West Virginia he just turned them over to the Brumfields and he come on back. They had horse roads all through these mountains and creeks everywhere. He probably left them over in there around Twelve Pole somewhere and went on back down in here around Ranger someplace where he lived. But that’s the way they got in charge of them.”
After taking possession of Milt and Green, the mob re-crossed the Tug River at the present-day town of Kermit in Mingo County and went up Jenny’s Creek (or possibly Marrowbone Creek) to Twelve Pole Creek. They entered Harts Creek at the head of Henderson Branch and made their way to Hugh Dingess’ home on Smoke House. At that location, they ate a big meal and spent the night. The next day, they headed up Bill’s Branch and crossed a mountain onto Piney Creek. They rode down Piney to the West Fork (just above Iris Williams’ home), went a short distance up Workman Fork, turned up Frank Fleming Hollow and dropped down off of the ridge to a home near the Guyandotte River. (Mr. Kirk was very adamant about this home being on the west side of the river, not at the mouth of Green Shoal where Bob Adkins had said.) By that time, “Dealer Dave” Dingess, Charley Brumfield, Burl Farley, Will Adkins and “Black John” Adkins had joined the gang.
At this home, the mob questioned Milt and Green separately and tried to secure a confession. As one was led out the door, he hollered to his friend, “Don’t tell ’em a damn thing!” — but his partner told it all, thus deciding their guilt in the eyes of the mob. (Based on what we’d heard from Bob Adkins, I figured that it was Green McCoy who made the confession.)
A host of young local ladies, including Stella Abbott, cooked a chicken supper as Milt and Green’s last meal. Either Milt or Green (undoubtedly an emotional wreck) said he wasn’t hungry, so his partner replied, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow ye may die.” Supposedly, a Brumfield nearby them then said, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow ye shall die.”
Mr. Kirk said French Bryant supposedly killed Milt and Green, although he’d also heard that Burl Farley, a timber boss from Harts Creek who was connected to the Dingess family, “gave the order” to shoot them.
“Old man French Bryant was a big old mountaineer-type fellow,” Mr. Kirk said. “Rough talking, grouchy. Most people liked him pretty good. French Bryant was married three times, I reckon. Yeah, that old man, I went to his funeral. He’s buried right at the head of Piney there.”
There was a lot of confusion over the murders. Word was spread through the community that Haley and McCoy were killed by a mob who’d taken them from the Brumfield posse. Mr. Kirk dismissed that notion, saying, “The ones who got them in Kentucky were the ones who killed them.” He was certainly a good source for that statement considering his family connection to the Brumfields.
Lawrence and I hung onto Mr. Kirk’s every word as he described Milt Haley’s burial, which he said occurred the day following the murders.
“The next morning, Melvin Kirk, who was my father’s father, and several other people — I don’t know who else — went with Ben Walker and got them either in a sled or an old wagon and hauled them around there,” he said. “My grandfather helped them take them around there and clean them up. Back then they didn’t take them to a funeral home — they just wrapped them and made a rough burial preparation. I think they made a coffin for them and buried them on the old man Walker’s property. Of course, there was a preacher at the burial because old man Ben Walker was an ordained preacher. He’s the one that married my father and mother in 1911.”
Mr. Kirk turned our attention toward a mountain across the creek.
“See that gap yonder in the hill? Right over there, they call that the Walker Branch. That’s where old man Ben Walker lived. He was an old preacher. He owned all of this land in here. You can go right over there and turn right and go up that side of the river right over to where they were killed.”
I asked Mr. Kirk whose decision it was to bury Milt and Green at that location and he said, “The old man Ben Walker decided where to put them. I never did go to their grave. A lot of people thinks it’s down in the lower end of that garden. There are some graves down there, but that’s not it.”
He wasn’t sure why they chose to bury them in a single grave.
“I guess it was just maybe the work involved. I think they’ve been quite a little bit of that done here where there was multiple deaths. Whenever I was young, my daddy and I would ride down that creek. He’d tell me, ‘Right up on that hill is where Haley and McCoy’s buried.’ He called his daddy ‘Paw.’ Said, ‘Paw and Ben Walker took them up there and buried them.’ Just got a rock for a marker.”