Brave governor from Henderson once halted angry mob, prevented lynching
By Chuck Stinnett, from the Evansville Courier-Press
Even with a historical marker standing in front of his former home at 612 N. Main Street, Augustus Owsley Stanley is largely unknown in Henderson today.
But exactly a century ago, Stanley was a famed figure here. A lawyer who moved here in about 1898, he soon got himself elected to Congress and, following one of the most colorful and storied political campaigns in Kentucky history, became governor in 1915.
Then, in 1917, Stanley put on a kind of political and personal courage so extraordinary that it was reported in The New York Times and other newspapers across the country: With nothing but nerve and eloquence, he faced down an angry mob in a Western Kentucky town that was intent on lynching not only a black murder defendant, but the prosecutor and judge who stood in their way.
The drama, so far as Stanley was concerned, began with a mysterious phone call on Jan. 10, 1917, according to Paul L. Whalen, an attorney, who is an author and amateur historian from Northern Kentucky.
Stanley was meeting with legislators and others at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. At about 8 p.m., the governor received a phone call from someone named Barrard in Paris, Tenn., south of Murray, Ky.
“Barrard, over the crackling phone lines, said there was big trouble in Murray,” Whalen said. A judge’s life was in danger, the caller said.
Then came a telegram from Circuit Judge W.M. Reed in Paducah. Down in Murray, Circuit Judge Charles Bush and Commonwealth Attorney Denny Smith were prisoners of a mob that intended to hang them the next morning unless a black prisoner who had been spirited from the city by the sheriff was returned by train the next day. Reed urged the governor to try to save their lives.
At issue was the case of Lube Martin, a black man accused of killing Guthrie Duiguid, a white man who had been a policeman in Murray and who, Whalen said, had been having an affair with Martin’s wife. A grand jury indicted Martin, but rather than conduct an immediate trial, Judge Bush granted a continuance and the defendant was sent out of town for safekeeping.
A mob became enraged and not only surrounded the Murray House Hotel where the judge and prosecutor were staying, but was in the hallway outside their room, threatening to lynch them or dynamite the hotel if the defendant wasn’t immediately returned to Murray, where a lynching appeared to be intended.
Stanley had few resources with which to intervene. There was no state police force at the time, and the Kentucky National Guard had been deployed to the southwestern border to help prevent raids into the United States by the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
So with three friends, the governor chartered a special overnight train to Paducah and then Murray.
“Upon leaving the station at Louisville,” Whelan related, “Gov. Stanley said he was ‘going to give the mob the chance to lynch the governor of Kentucky first.’ ”
There were declarations on the streets of Murray that it just might happen. But Stanley had friends in Calloway County, and when he got off the train, he began shaking hands ? and deputizing trusted citizens to preserve order. The governor then walked briskly to the hotel, where an angry crowd was waiting.
“Stanley had come to town without troops or police, and armed only with his personal courage and his eloquence,” Whalen said.
The governor announced to the crowd that court would convene in the courthouse at 8 a.m., and escorted the frightened judge and prosecutor to the courtroom. Then Stanley spoke to the crowd.
“A little more than a year ago,” he said, “I put my right hand upon a Bible and called God to witness that as chief magistrate of Kentucky and supporter of the law, I would maintain its integrity. I have come here to plead with you to allow the law to take its orderly course and to declare that I am here to uphold the law and to protect this court, with my own body, if necessary.”
The eloquent Stanley spoke for more than half an hour, defusing the explosive atmosphere. When he left Murray, he took the judge and prosecutor with him.
The defendant was ultimately tried and convicted, but in a proper court.
While few in Henderson remember Stanley today, he is not forgotten. For his courage in facing down that lynch mob in 1917, as well as for his advocacy for women’s rights and opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, Stanley in 2005 was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame.