Jadon Gibson: Murder in Harlan

Published 1:33 pm Friday, September 23, 2022


Contributing columnist

Gus and Julia Loeb were returning home from peddling “beans, new taters and green tomaters” from the back of their one-horse wagon in the mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky in the late 1880’s.

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Times were much different then. Easy transportation wasn’t available to take housewives to run to a store for their needs. Gus raised a large garden and on Mondays and Friday’s area residents expected them to drive by with their vegetables and fruit. It was Gus and Julia’s source of income that was needed to buy items for their house and farm.

Buford Overton, not much more than a kid, was born and raised in Hancock County, Tennessee. While in his mid-teens he stole a horse and headed to Georgia with a young lady. They rode all night as Buford wanted to put as distance as possible between them and the law. Mid-morning of the following day they laid down by a spring and fell asleep.

They were surprised when awakened abruptly by the owner of the horse and two young men.

“You know what they do to folks like you?” the elderly owner said as they held guns on the couple. “They hang ‘em. I don’t know as you deserve much more but I’m gonna turn you over to the law.

“The thing of it is I’da considered helping ‘ya iffen ‘ya had you only asked. But no! You just take what you want. Well, you’re gonna hafta change or trouble will be lurkin’ at your door for the rest of your life. And that won’t be very long iffen you don’t change.”

Overton spent over 900 days in prison. Once he was released from prison he knew he had to change his way of living. Guns, knives and horses interested Buford more than anything but he didn’t have money to get them.

He went to Middlesboro, Kentucky during her economic heyday but ended up on the wrong side of the law. There was a lot gambling in the burgeoning city of Middlesboro. Investors were ballyhooing the city as “the new Pittsburgh of the south.” Buford found trouble with the gambling element of Middlesboro and abruptly left for another start in a new town.

Work wasn’t in Buford’s plans because it took too much time yet Buford hadn’t learned many of the intricacies to make him successful. He seemed to want success without the effort. The money he had was gotten by hook and crook. He was not good at that either.

He quietly left town and went to Harlan County. Let me say here that in olden times when Harlan was mentioned it meant Harlan County whereas the town of that name was referred to as Harlan-Town.

Buford’s deeds (misdeeds actually) were partially responsible in giving Harlan her sobriquet (nickname) Bloody Harlan.

Here he crossed paths with Gus and Julia Loeb, the hard-working couple we introduced at the beginning of the story this week. The Loeb’s humble, quiet demeanor in dealing with seemingly everybody at one time or another caught his eye. He’d never thought about an older couple riding around in their wagon and collecting coin after coin and occasionally paper money too, for their efforts.

He thought that was something he could learn to do but then considered he would need a horse-and-wagon and property where he could raise his produce.

He dismissed his idea after considering how much hard, hot physical work and time it would take.

Buford decided it would be easier to eliminate the work and time it would take on isolated country roads. He thought about ambushing and taking money from the Loebs instead. He picked an isolated spot where they would pass and waited.

The birds were singing as Buford lay on the soft sod of a hillside alongside a narrow pass in Harlan County waiting for the old couple.

Julia was counting coins and Gus puffed on a corncob pipe as their horse plugged along near Harlan Town. They looked forward to getting back home and to supper which Julia started early that morning. Gus planned to work a couple hours in the garden before going to bed.

The elderly Loebs generally went to bed at nightfall and got up with the rising sun.

Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, Tennessee. His writings are both historic and nostalgic in nature. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.