Deputy Charlie Cecil of the Bell County, Kentucky Sheriff’s Department, led a posse comprised of Lee Turner, Lew Mayes and Dave Bull in a search for Will and Alex Combs in October of 1898. The brothers were wanted for the murder of “Wild Bill” Turner, owner of the Halfway House, a loosely-run roadhouse. It was frequented by coal miners going to and from the Mingo Hollow Mine, near the Kentucky-Tennessee state line.
The search slowed before the posse found the area where the brothers `doubled back’ in an effort to lose their trackers. After several hours the trail led them to a section near the Bell County and Knox County line.
Murderers, desperadoes and others evading the law, hid out in the remote area in order to avoid capture during the early history of Bell County. Some of the lawmen dubbed it and a nearby portion of Knox County “South America” because of its isolation.
Lee Turner, brother of the slain “Wild Bill” Turner, promised his brother’s widow they would “get Will Combs dead or alive.” The fugitive’s brother, Alex Combs, was in cahoots with Will in the murder of Wild Bill Turner. Alex lost a leg a few years earlier in a mining accident and it adversely affected his mobility.
Late in the day the posse entered a clearing where they spotted a barn and instinctively Charlie Cecil said, “this looks like a place where we’ll find ‘em.”
Charlie Cecil had proven himself to be a most competent policeman as a Middlesborough officer during the city’s formative years of the 1890’s when some of the most ruthless characters showed up in “the magic city.” In just the prior year (1897) the lawman singlehandedly captured John Dugan following the murder of Middlesboro favorite son John Calvin Colson on Cumberland Avenue.
Cecil instructed members of his posse to take positions that would enable them to see the entire barn perimeter if the brothers proved to be in the barn and attempt to escape. Deputy Cecil positioned himself outside and against the front of the barn where he couldn’t be seen. His heart raced when he heard the sound of voices in the barn-loft.
“Will! Alex! This is Charlie Cecil,” the lawman said sternly. “We’ve got you surrounded. You know why we’re here. We’re taking you back. Dead or alive, you’re going back with us. Talk it over and let me know how you want to go… dead or alive.”
The direct approach had worked for Cecil at times. He preferred to complete his tasks without gunfire and bloodshed whenever possible. The Combs brothers knew he meant it. After two days of running and hiding they were hungry and tired.
“Let’s go Will,” Alex Combs pleaded with his brother.
“And be gunned down when we walk out of here, no way,” Will replied. “I trust Charlie but not some of those other guys. I wouldn’t turn my back on ‘em.”
Charlie Cecil asked the fugitives to come down but Will Combs knew there was a chance he would be shot on sight by Lee Turner or one of Wild Bill Turner’s friends. Will had gone through the pain and agony of losing his leg and learning to get along without it. He’d gritted through that and felt his captors couldn’t dish out more than he had already been through. Yet he wasn’t ready to meet his maker on this day.
“Charlie, I want you to promise me none of your boys will shoot us down when we come out,” Will answered.
The lawman actually had the same concern. Charlie didn’t trust Lee Turner either but he couldn’t admit it to the Combs brothers or they’d shoot it out for sure.
“Lissen up you guys,” Charlie spoke up for all to hear. “Will and Alex are willin’ to turn themselves in and I’m promising them we’ll take them safely to the county seat (Pineville) and they’ll get a fair trial. I’m stating officially here and now that if anyone of you harms either of ‘em, you’ll also be put in cuffs and you’ll answer to it in court.”
That pacified Combs. He felt Charlie Cecil would get him safely back to jail. Charlie was known for that, that is, unless his quarry wouldn’t go peacefully.
“Charlie, we’re going back with you,” Will spoke up.
“Then come on down slow like and leave your rifles and sidearms,” Cecil instructed. “We’ll come up and get ’em.”
Charlie Cecil saw to it that the Combs brothers were returned unharmed though comments that Lee Turner made toward them during the return trip would bristle the hair on a razorback.
The Combs were brought before the Bell County court in Pineville and were found guilty.
Lee Turner, brother of the slain man, opened his own saloon not far from the Halfway House. It was called the Quarter House and would add its own chapters to the history of violence and bloodshed in Middlesborough in the heart of the Cumberland Mountain region. Copyright 2019 Jadon Gibson
Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson is a widely read writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read regularly at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting!
A Voice for God – a Voice for Good by Jadon Gibson
I sprained my back badly a few years ago and Dr. George Day suggested that I take up running, bike riding, swimming or something to strengthen my back. We began walking regularly and after a while I began jogging some of the distance. We increased our activity, (my wife too) until we were jogging all the time.
I knew it would be easier if we had an incentive so we established a goal. The first year it was to jog to Kansas City. We picked that destination as it was the approximate distance we thought we could accomplish. All of our jogging was done locally, keeping track of how much we jogged each day and year-to-date total for the year. I can’t remember exactly but we arrived in Kansas City on or about December 6. We continued running and applied what we ran to our goal the following year.
Each year we had a longer destination such as Dodge City, Denver and eventually Los Angeles. There were other destinations and we accomplished our goal each year. As we progressed in distance we ran twice most days, once for a total of 16 miles.
The year we ran to LA it was accomplished early thus getting our feet wet in the Pacific by year’s end, figuratively that is. Really all of our running is done locally.
Our good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. I had a gimpy back for a while and it was so painful I prayed to overcome it. God led me to an exercise regimen in our national, state and city parks. That allowed us to interact with others and to witness God’s wonderful creations.
Everything changed last year as I had two major surgeries and two lesser procedures and I have neuropathy. At years end my muscle tone was depleted. Did I say I had two major surgeries last year and I’m 79 years old now.
I did a lot of praying and it led us to get back out and pound the pavement on our area walking trails like we did before. On December 22 (2018) we walked a mile. Today, December 28, 2019, we’ve walked, ran, or a combination of both, 218 consecutive days. We did this on several trails or in Turner Arena at LMU when necessary.
Some area residents see me stumbling about in public settings and wonder how I have accomplished this. It’s like riding a bike. You can ride a bike when you move along at a good speed but you begin to teeter when you go slow.
I have neuropathy so my future exercise program is questionable. I put my confidence in the Lord and what He has in store for me. My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. I recognize his presence in my life every day. I want to keep his name a’ringing, as Ralph Stanley said and sang.