Life and Times of Clifton Branham, part 6

Jadon Gibson

Clifton Branham left the area and hid out for two months after shooting Rant Smallwood. Soon he was in trouble again.

“Dark clouds seemed to follow me,” Clifton wrote. “Life seemed to frown on me. I was home with my wife and family when Henry Vanover was killed.”

Authorities felt it was suspicious that Branham vanished almost immediately after Vanover’s murder. He went to Clintwood and then to Johnson County, Ky., where he was arrested. He was returned to the Whitesburg jail and held for trial. Three months later he was found guilty and received a life sentence in the Kentucky State Prison in Frankfort.

Feuding and killing was commonplace in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It led to a change in the way some authorities interpreted justice and the law.

“If a civil citizen kills another citizen and it is clearly in self-defense, don’t indict him,” a Letcher County judge instructed. “If a civil citizen kills an outlaw, don’t indict him, no matter whether he killed him in self-defense or not.

“If one outlaw kills another outlaw, indict him without questioning the motive for the killing. In such a case it would be well to sentence the outlaw for life and so get rid of him as well as his victim.

“If a civil citizen takes a bag of provisions on his back and pursues an outlaw all week or month, and then kills him as he would wild game, don’t indict him,” the judge continued. “If you want to do anything, give him a better gun and pay for his ammunition, so that he can get the next outlaw more easily.”

The Whitesburg, Ky, judge was pointedly direct with his concluding statement.

“If you do indict such a man who hunts and kills outlaws, be assured that I will file the indictment away as soon as I can reach it.”

Clifton Branham became a different man after arriving at the Kentucky State Prison.

“Soon after I was taken to the prison in Frankfort, Ky, I went to the prison library and got a Bible to read,” Clifton wrote in the weeks prior to his hanging. “I felt the Lord tugging at my heart off and on for several years and I finally decided to do something about it. I started going to Sunday School, church and any other Christian services that were available. Soon I gave my soul to the Lord and joined the Royal Christian brotherhood. It was like a huge weight was taken off my back.”

Branham began preaching, praying and witnessing for the Lord and he became an exemplary inmate.

“I prayed openly and aloud every day for 13 years,” he wrote. “God blessed me in my work.”

Clifton must have felt it was divine intervention when the Kentucky legislature established a parole law that allowed inmates to be paroled after serving 10 years or more of their sentence.

“The deputy warden and my brother-in-law, William J. Fleming, helped gain my release,” he explained. “I was in prison for 14 years and seven months.”

Branham applied himself to self-improvement and became an educated man during the years he was confined in the Kentucky capitol. Prison officials bid him a supportive farewell as he left the prison for the station and train ride that would return him to “old Virginia.”

“The nearer we got to the mountains the higher and higher they appeared,” he wrote. “After 14 years they were a beautiful sight for my eyes to see. I thanked God for the turn of events that allowed me to go free.” Copyright Jadon Gibson 2018

Editor’s note: Clifton Branham is released from prison and returns to his old ways in the issue next week. Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read regularly at Don’t miss a single issue

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