My whole life I’ve heard stories of my great, great grandfather, Hezekiah Clem, the first man hanged in Harlan County, in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, (legally, anyway), after stabbing some poor, elderly man to death. Passed down through the generations were tales of the wild and wicked Clem clan, a known bunch of murderers, thieves, gamblers and ruffians with no respect for law or desire for honest work. And none were worse than the infamous, brutal murderer “Kiah”. However, recent discoveries at the Harlan Courthouse leave me wondering just how blind justice was in 1860′s Kentucky. Was my great grandfather a bloodthirsty killer, or the victim of a biased legal system?
The Story Always Told
Back in the early 1980′s the Harlan Enterprise published an article about the hanging and Hezekiah. The paper stated he was generally thought to be a tough character with a fondness for hard drink, a violent temper and a complete disregard for the law. Citing notes from the Minute Book of the Harlan Circuit Court, the article described key points of the case: Hezekiah Clem was arrested in July of 1859, for stabbing to death “old man” Irvin, a murder committed, “under circumstances yet to be discovered”. The defense had the case continued until April 1860. On April 11th, the court appointed George Turner and Hezekiah Jennings to supervise the guards and decreed Clem was to be kept safe until his execution, demanding only a sober, sensible man could be charged with the task. The next day Hezekiah Clem was escorted into court, informed about the indictment and guilty verdict. Court records then record the judge as saying Hezekiah was to be kept safe at the Harlan Country jail until June 15, 1860, when he would be hanged until dead on the banks of the Cumberland River, near Buggar Holler, above the spot where the Poor Fork cuts, less than a mile from downtown Mount Pleasant, (modern day Harlan), the exact tree to be picked by the sheriff.