On the trail of tragedy in the Big South Fork
Donny Kidd, his tall frame splayed on hands and knees, considers the maps we’ve unfolded all over the laminate wood floor of the Pickett State Park visitor center in East Tennessee. “Heard they had bloodhounds after him,” Donny mutters, tracing a route off the edge of one map. “How’d he reach my mom and dad’s?”
I crawl over, smooth out a section. It’s dense with topo loops that show relentless ascent and plummet, the kind you get here where the Big South Fork River carves the Cumberland Plateau into a maze of ridge and gorge. Donny and I are blocking foot traffic in the small lobby, but the park ranger on duty has kept his placid welcome-center air. “Maybe Jerome went south, then straight to No Business,” I offer, jabbing a finger along a path. No—we both see it—that escape route ends in gorge, a sheer drop. Donny sighs. Lanky and restless, he takes up more space than I do on the visitor center floor. “Doing research?” a man asks, and Donny looks up. “We’re ’bout eat up with it,” he says.
That qualifies as understatement. We are hunting Jerome Boyatt, a Plateau fugitive who remains elusive even after his surrender and brutal death more than eighty years ago. In 1933, when he was twenty-two years old, he got into a gunfight with two county lawmen sent to arrest him at a logging camp where he was selling moonshine. He killed them both. Then Jerome hid in the rugged country around his home, No Business, a community laid along a creek hollow that joined the Big South Fork River. The manhunt for him, and the vengeance that marked it, count among the Plateau’s most infamous events.
Donny’s parents Maude and Will Kidd helped hide Jerome, risking their lives to do so. They lived near No Business, and Will Kidd sold moonshine, like Jerome. In the Depression, in harsh Plateau country, bootleg income helped feed the Kidd family. Now sixty-one, Donny was raised in town close to the Big South Fork, where he still lives. He’s been in the military, worked variously for a flooring company, a trailer manufacturing company, construction, digging graves. For five years, he played upright bass in the Bluegrass Cavaliers until his right hand got crushed at work. Although No Business is long gone, Donny can plunge into the woods and find cabin foundations or half-dismantled moonshine stills that no map knows.
The Plateau is home ground for me, too. In an outsider’s sort of way. My East Tennessee upbringing lacks the fiddle-and-banjo soundtrack people seem to expect from Appalachia; I grew up near the national labs at Oak Ridge, with its concentration of PhDs and weapons-grade uranium. I teach at a university in California now, where I live near the coast with my husband and daughter, Californians both. But four generations of my mom’s family lived on the Plateau, with Mom, born in 1940, a fifth and last. When she was three, her family moved off the Plateau to the south, where I grew up, just west of Knoxville. As a child, I registered an Otherness in my mom and her family: their clannish loyalty, their idly ornate speech (“Lord a mercy that old hornet opposed me”), their out-of-body rages. By the time I left Tennessee, in my early twenties, I had traced this temperament and its attendant toughness to Plateau ancestors. There was my great-great-great-grandmother, promised marriage and left pregnant in 1846. She went on to run her own farm and have nine children by different men who were reckoned—unlike her—respectable in the county. There was her son, a Union soldier captured in the Civil War and sent to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison south of Macon, Georgia, where thirteen thousand men died in captivity during the fourteen months it was in operation. Ill and starving, he escaped during a prisoner exchange, slipping into a line of men deemed close enough to dying that they could be traded for captured Confederates. He found his way home to the Plateau and rejoined his former troop.
I register that same Otherness of Mom’s family in the figures who populate Jerome Boyatt’s story; I’m at work on a book about it. That’s how I formed a friendship with Donny Kidd—hunting for answers to Jerome’s alleged crime, his flight, his surrender, his death. I know the tragedy begins in something that I have inherited a love for: the peculiar character of the land itself.
The Cumberland Plateau is old sea floor, jutted off the west side of the Appalachian range in Tennessee. Around the Plateau, the terrain of that vast mountain chain tends to roll, like disorderly sets of waves. The Plateau itself behaves very differently. It will run at a dull level for stretches. But add a river or even a small creek, and the land, thickly capped in sandstone and limestone, plummets. In river country, the Plateau begins to beat a flat-drop staccato. The more creek branches there are braiding into a river, the more manic that staccato gets, with gorges running in all directions. Add to this the southern Appalachian forests, lush and varied and prolific, and add under them greenbrier and ivy, the rhododendron and stands of mountain laurel so dense they’re called laurel hells. It is not country that invites access. You have to want it.
This is Jerome Boyatt country. Big South Fork River country. The part he ranged across as a fugitive included some forty thousand acres of river watershed lying between the Big South Fork gorge on the east and the Plateau’s ragged western edge. Within the river country labyrinth, small communities settled along creek hollows and homesteads scattered on the ridges. The nearest towns lay east, ten miles beyond the Big South Fork gorge.
That gorge constituted a widening rift during Jerome Boyatt’s lifetime. While Plateau towns like Oneida or Huntsville (Jerome’s home county seat) made a slow entry into the twentieth century, their automobiles, electricity, phone lines, and radios all stopped at the Big South Fork. In river country, people stayed with pioneer ways. They lived off the land and they made what they needed: single tree plow, broad ax, paling fence, home. Isolated as it was, the place had its own grid, where a neighbor meant help with livelihood (a turn at the grist mill, extra horses for planting time), or survival itself (midwife, rider bringing urgent news). Out of sight of one another, river country people were attuned to the web they lived in.
In 1979, University of Tennessee anthropologist Benita Howell detected the rift that the Big South Fork gorge had once marked. River country was abandoned by then. But in a series of interviews with people who’d lived around the Big South Fork in the 1920s and 1930s, Howell found a decades-old prejudice aimed at river communities. “Among the stereotypic Appalachian traits which the town elites attributed to ‘river people’ were lawlessness, violence, and mistrust of government authority,” Howell wrote in a 1983 article, “The Saga of Jerome Boyatt.”
It is a rich hypocrisy: Appalachians using Appalachian stereotypes to look down on other Appalachians—and all very locally, all from the Plateau. I know that places like No Business hardly rivaled Plateau towns for violence. Local newspapers from the era reported regular spectacles of shootouts and police raids on stills in town. Nevertheless, suspicion toward river country grew. As Howell told me, flatly, “The cards were stacked against people like Jerome.”
As we leave Pickett State Park, Donny is wishing I’d met his parents. They could have told me all about the manhunt. They could have told him more, if he’d thought to ask. “Coulda got their whole story,” Donny frets, craning to look out the passenger window. “That’s all gone now.”
Maude and Will Kidd left river country in 1941 to move near town; Donny was born seventeen years later, the youngest of eight children. Growing up, he was the child who would linger and listen to them talk about Jerome, but he didn’t press them for details. “Never got a bona fide interest in it until I met you a few years ago,” he muses. By then it was too late to fill in blanks that now haunt Donny. His parents died in the early 1990s.
As we often do when I’m on the Plateau and Donny’s riding shotgun, we chew over what started it all. The gunfight at the logging camp, April 1933.
The lawmen didn’t come to arrest Jerome for selling bootleg. He was, of course, selling bootleg, having hauled it with his younger brother Eugene to a far-flung Plateau logging camp in a different county. (The logging camp lay in Pickett County; No Business belonged to Scott.) The brothers had hopped the company supply train for a ride in, jugs in burlap bags between them, hand signing lazily as they rode. Eugene was nineteen years old, deaf. They’d made all kinds of runs like this.
The law came because Jerome beat up a man in camp that day, beat him almost to death. The message phoned from camp claimed something like that, dire enough to send lawmen on a jarring three-hour drive on backwoods roads. Sheriff George Winningham, his deputy (and son) Floyd, and another deputy arrived at dusk. They parked near the company supply train. Jerome was in a boxcar, out of sight, along with Eugene and several other men.
A camp employee warned Floyd not to go back there; Jerome Boyatt was a rough man. “That’s the kind of man I come for,” Floyd said. He was a forty-year-old World War I veteran who had served on the Western Front, a handsome man known for driving his Chevrolet fast and sometimes drinking too much. He disappeared around the boxcar toward its open door, his father George following. Tense quiet erupted into shouts and gunfire. Then this: Floyd falling backward, shot twice in the face, dead already as Jerome leaped past him. George Winningham staggering away, gut shot, in agony. The rest of the boxcar emptying, men scattering like quail. And Jerome, in the woods, running toward No Business.
Newspapers across the state carried the story, with Jerome as a reputed “police character” and “bad man” who’d savagely beaten his own uncle. When the Winninghams called for Jerome to surrender, they reported, he’d gunned them down from his boxcar hideout.
By morning, some one hundred forty men were combing river country for the fugitive. Posses came from four counties in Tennessee. Highway patrol officers came, a troop from the Tennessee National Guard, men with bloodhounds.
Sheriff Winningham hung on to life in a Nashville hospital. Willie, George’s only remaining child, stayed with his father, giving blood transfusions, watching him slowly fail. He died the next night. And Willie, who was a county sheriff himself in Kentucky, entered the manhunt for Jerome.
What never reached the newspapers in 1933 is that camp employees in different locations saw the first gunshot flares go upward, toward the boxcar. Floyd Winningham fired first, but he fired in the air, or toward the boxcar ceiling, these employees said. Warning shots.
One camp employee said Floyd Winningham had arrived tipsy. Another—who’d warned Floyd about Jerome—insisted Floyd had been fine.
Camp employees also knew the truth about Jerome’s fight with his uncle, another moonshiner, a known drunk. There was bad blood between them. The uncle taunted and Jerome answered, landing a punch or (depending on the witness) a pistol butt to the jaw. The uncle went down. The superintendent was enraged at the open, insolent violence in his camp. Also he was said to buy bootleg from Jerome’s uncle. A camp employee was dispatched to phone the law.
Jerome and Eugene had been waiting in the boxcar with other men to ride out of camp. No one had been holed up for a shootout.
Donny Kidd knows the first shelter Jerome Boyatt took as a fugitive. He’s heard about it all his life.
It was after midnight when the pounding on the door started. Maude Kidd had reason to be scared. Her husband, Will, was away. They didn’t have neighbors, not close. Word had reached river country of the logging camp killing the night before—also of posses pouring in. Maude tried to sound steely when she called, “Who’s there?” She knew the voice that answered and hurried toward it. “Me, Jerome. I’m freezing to death.” It was misting rain outside, late April but cold.
He was wet and shivering, the words tumbling out of him. “I’ve killed a man.”
“Two are dead,” Maude said.
“If there’s two dead, I killed them both,” Jerome answered.
But he’d seen only one man beyond the boxcar. A man appearing suddenly who’d cursed them and gone to shooting, Jerome said. Near the boxcar door, Eugene Boyatt saw the flares and stumbled back, terrified, squealing.
“Jerome thought they’d shot Eugene,” Donny tells me, now. And Jerome came up firing.
Jerome’s home county, Scott, wasn’t Willie Winningham’s jurisdiction, but Willie helped coordinate the manhunt. WANTED posters advertised Jerome’s photo and a $600 reward (worth about $12,000 now). “Will extradite from any place,” the posters promised. “If arrested, wire, collect.” They named Willie as the sheriff to contact if Jerome was captured.
Posses believed they had Jerome surrounded. “All routes were watched,” the Nashville Tennessean reported. Eugene Boyatt and other men from the boxcar had been arrested and were jailed in a county south of Pickett (a move that hinted at the danger the men might face in the Winninghams’ home county). Officers leading the posses said it would be “impossible” for Jerome to escape.
They searched for him nine straight days. They could have brought all the posses they wanted; they could have doubled the reward. They were hunting him in his own country, and Jerome knew it like a moonshiner does: which creeks cut a way through sheer cliffs; which tree tops, along a bluff, would bear a man’s weight and let him ladder down over a ledge, vanish. The men cursed their bloodhounds. They searched the scattered and taciturn houses around the Big South Fork, no warrants, guns out. They cut up feather mattresses for hidden weapons; they made terrified families fix them meals.
The posses were right to suspect Jerome was never very far off. They were wrong to think his neighbors would give up one of their own.
Dewey Slaven set out food and shotgun shells for Jerome in a secret place. Mule driver Willie Frogge left Jerome his own lunches, working all day without eating. Else Blevins packed fried potatoes and beans in a lard bucket and had her husband hide it in the woods at night. People put jars of food in hog troughs, covering them with slop. Elmira Kidd slipped from home, a full dinner pail fastened with a sturdy latch pin to the underside of her skirt. Even the postman, Lillard Human, picked up packages labeled JEROME—a whole corn pone, once—with instructions where to leave them.
“If he was such a bad character, I don’t believe people would have took care of him,” Donny tells me. “I get tickled reading those newspaper articles you gave me that the posses were closing in. They would have never ever caught him.”
That eventually grew clear to the posses. And so they came for someone else.
I met Donny in 2012 in the archives at the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a long name everyone collapses to “the Park” because the National Park Service runs it. The park archeologist knew I was working on a book and had invited me to join an interview with Donny about river country.
At one point, the archeologist slid a copy of Jerome’s WANTED poster to Donny, who had never seen it. I watched as Donny tried to conceal the look on his face, his features suddenly softening before going unreadable again. Back in California, I remembered that unguarded moment. I wrote him, sending some articles I had about Jerome. Donny wrote back. When I was in town next, I should call him. He knew a few leads.
Since then we have covered a fair amount of river country. Once we bushwhacked into No Business down a route Jerome might have used. On the steep climb out, Donny went ahead, and I climbed behind him, roughly level with the pistol he keeps tucked in the waistband of his pants, while he tried to hide the effort of breathing with chronic lung disease.
Donny brings me to local people who know some piece of the story, people in their eighties and nineties: a sheriff’s daughter, a man who lived in No Business as a child. Sometimes Donny stays with me, idly making hunting talk until the person loosens up; other times he drives ahead to show the way, disappearing before the interview. Sometimes his wife, Miss, comes. If we talk about Jerome in public, she looks around to make sure no one overhears us. It’s the reflex action of somebody who understands what it means to insult another person’s kin. Once, anyone within earshot likely had a close relative laced into the tragedy: someone who hunted Jerome or someone who shielded him. That was still true maybe two decades ago. Now Miss hardly needs that protective reflex. Most eyewitnesses and their close relatives are gone. Three generations out, with No Business only a name on a park hiking trail, Jerome’s story prompts curiosity, but rarely anything stronger.
Except for a handful of us.
Once, after I’d unearthed a missing piece of the story, Donny teased, “Well, that about makes you Sherlock Holmes, doesn’t it?”
“Then you’re Doctor Watson,” I shot back. And the monikers stuck, a lightness around the hurt the whole thing stirs up, a deadpan way of handling it, as in this voicemail Donny left some months back:
Hey Holmes! This is Watson. I was going to tell you, Big South Fork’s going to have a hike this weekend, and they’re going to be walking to the homeplace of the “outlaw” Jerome Boyatt. That makes me killing mad. And I’m going to tell ’em about it, too. He may have been an outlaw in the law’s eyes, but he only done what he needed to do. Well, I’m bent up a little about it. I hope you have a good day, Holmes. We’ll talk. This is Watson, signing off.
People ask why this story obsesses me, and I can’t explain. I say, helplessly, “Well, it’s like my mom’s family.”
Let me put it this way: I belonged to them, and also I didn’t. When Mom was little, her mother had severe diabetes. This meant constant medical bills the family never got out from under. It meant mood swings that might become furniture-throwing tantrums, and, most terrifyingly, comas, with the local ambulance (which was a hearse) arriving to take her mother to the hospital. Mom remembers in grade school being led to the hospital bed, more than once, told to say a last goodbye. Then her mother would pull through.
Around this time Mom began to challenge any kid who taunted her in school to fistfights. Which she largely won. Her crowning achievement was whipping twin boys at the same time.
My childhood was different. Mom saw to that. From the time I was little, she read poetry to me. She signed me up for ballet lessons. When I was three or four, though, she wanted me to fight a bigger neighborhood girl who used to pinch me. I preferred outrunning the girl. I remember making it home one day, the girl somewhere behind, to see and hear my mother, behind our screen door, click the lock.
I carry that moment, now turned toward the Plateau. Oh, let me in.
On the tenth day of the manhunt, a posse arrived at the home of Jerome’s parents, Poppie and Ransom Boyatt, with astonishing news: the men were taking the whole Boyatt family to Byrdstown, the Pickett County seat, forty miles west. No warrant, no charge, no explanation. The men escorted the couple and their five younger children to cars driven as close as they could get to No Business—a long, grim hike out of the hollow. The Boyatt children had never spent a night outside of No Business. They’d never seen a car.
In Byrdstown, the posse’s story changed. Poppie and the children would stay there, in a vacant apartment. But the men were taking Ransom back to No Business, apparently to help them contact Jerome.
Two weeks later, worried neighbors pushed into the Boyatts’ home and found Ransom dead, the body decomposing in the May heat. A coroner’s jury, minus a medical doctor, convened in front of the house and ruled that Ransom Boyatt’s death was “caused by violence at the hands of unknown parties.” The jury didn’t try to say how he’d died. Most people believed he’d been hanged, because his neck was limp, but the body was so swollen it was impossible to tell.
Word spread quickly. Will Kidd, Donny’s father, was among the neighbors crowding into the Boyatts’ yard that day, a sickened fury building as the inquest went on. Will helped measure the disfigured body and, with another man, built a casket for Ransom on the Boyatts’ porch.
Poppie Boyatt and her children were returned to a cabin reeking with decay, Ransom’s covered form, the casket being hammered outside. Within that horror, Poppie still moved to protect Jerome. Friends told her he was in a hiding place away from No Business, that he didn’t know his father was dead. Don’t tell him, she begged them. She knew what would happen if Jerome heard.
So did their friends. They considered the mother and children alone in the cabin, a mile from any neighbor. They respected Poppie’s wishes maybe a week. By then, Jerome had moved to a cave near the Big South Fork; Poppie’s younger sister had her family bringing him meals. “It’s time we tell him,” that aunt said. “Before they kill Poppie and the children, too.”
When he heard, Jerome did exactly what his mother feared. He sent an uncle to town to make arrangements—to a town east of river country. That was critical. West was Byrdstown, where Poppie and the children had been held against their will. The uncle went east, to negotiate in Scott County.
Then Jerome left his gun at his aunt’s, walked out of No Business, crossed the Big South Fork, and climbed out of the river gorge to where Scott County law waited to take him to jail. He had evaded posses for thirty-one days.
He had another seventeen days to live.
In stories told about him now, Jerome Boyatt rides across the landscape at full gallop, pistols blazing. He drills his initials into trees; he shoots the buttons off shirts on a clothesline. I recently read a screenplay in which Jerome ambushes the men who killed his father and blows them away.
Donny Kidd has little patience for any of this. He doesn’t want Jerome erased this way. He doesn’t want the story colorized to make the bitterness of 1933 more palatable. Not for Jerome, not for river country.
Once, riding with me, Donny talked about the life his parents had. “I thought about my mom and them over there in a one-room cabin, with just an old fireplace and the snow blowing in around the eaves,” he said. His parents had a signal when Will was out making whiskey and Maude thought the law had come: she’d fire three shots so he could hide. If Will got arrested, their family went under. “But she told me she’d be out there in knee-deep snow with a baby on her hip trying to cut wood to put it in that fireplace,” Donny said. He added, chuckling, “I don’t know why they didn’t cut enough in the summertime.”
His mother battled depression and was sent to Eastern State Mental Hospital several times. Among their neighbors, he knew two or three women around his mother’s age who “just cracked up.” He said, “I always wondered, you know, if it was because the life was so rough. They had to live rough in order to survive.” In the 1970s, when Maude and Will lived near town, Donny tried to get his father to go back to places they’d lived in river country. But Will refused. “He told me he never would go back,” Donny said. “He said, ‘Too many hard days.’”
All week the heat had been mean, spiking past a hundred on Thursday, stifling the jail. Dark arrived with fitful thunder, whipped this to storm, the black sky breaking in torrents. And then, near midnight, the man showed up outside of Jerome’s cell. Gun drawn, face covered. He unlocked the door, waved out Jerome and another prisoner, nineteen-year-old Harvey Winchester.
“A mob’s coming for you,” the man told them. “I’m taking you to a safe place.”
What other prisoners heard: out of sight, in the stairwell, a scuffle and then a ragged, pitiful howl. Downstairs more men waited, faces masked. They’d broken in, beaten the jailer, newspapers later reported—although the jailer, a Scott County officer himself, might have been sympathetic to a mob after Harvey Winchester, who was accused of killing a Scott County lawman’s son. The men dragged Jerome and Harvey to cars waiting outside.
They’d chosen a spot close by, a gravel road that cut through marshy woods. The men didn’t bother to hide their faces anymore. They were lit on whiskey, rank with sweat, beating and kicking their stumbling prisoners out of the car, across the mud, toward a sweetgum tree.
Harvey would die first. “You get to watch,” a man spat at Jerome. Somebody fumbled for the rope. The men shifted, edgy, and then something broke loose: a scuffling, cries, wild gunfire. And Jerome Boyatt was running again.
Searchers found Harvey’s body the next morning by the tree, bullet wounds down his side, a noosed rope nearby. Far in the marshy woods, Jerome lay facedown, naked. There were gunshot wounds to his back, one close range to the back of his head.
People who lived nearby had heard a volley of gunfire that night, then silence, then a second round of shots. The next day, one of Willie Winningham’s deputies died in Kentucky from a bullet wound. The deputy’s gun had accidentally gone off when he dropped it, Willie explained to newspapers. But the Nashville Tennessean reported that the bullet that killed the deputy did not match the gun he carried. A rumor surfaced, supposedly out of Kentucky, that Jerome had grabbed a gun while the men were trying to hang Harvey, shot the deputy, and run.
But five weeks later, after newspapers had gone silent on the murders, odd stories appeared in Knoxville and Nashville newspapers. They offered a different version of those last moments, citing the same anonymous source. This, from the Knoxville News Sentinel, is typical:
According to reliable information, while the mob was shooting at Harvey Winchester in the darkness one of the mob members was mistaken for either Boyett [sic] or Winchester and was shot through the groin.
The mob is then said to have stripped Boyett so that when he was turned loose to run for his life through the woods there would be no mistake about whom they were shooting at.
Jerome ran so far that search parties the next day couldn’t find his body. Not till late afternoon. They kept seeing blood spattered on different trails in the woods, trails tried and abandoned, because Jerome kept on running after he’d been shot. Ten yards, a hundred, two hundred, looking for a way out, even though he knew, from the men closing in behind, there was no hope.
Six days later, Jerome’s brother Eugene and the other men from the boxcar were exonerated of any charges by a Pickett County grand jury and released from jail. No arrests were ever made in the deaths of Ransom Boyatt, Jerome Boyatt, or Harvey Winchester.
The more I know about the tragedy, the more the grief in it multiplies. It is larger and sadder than I imagined when I started hunting its story. There is Harvey Winchester’s part of it, which I haven’t tried to tell here. There is the long-haul struggle of the survivors, the grief and bitterness and fear they lived in, widows trying to raise families inside the Great Depression. There were nervous breakdowns and deathbed ravings and shame and stony silence inside families. I know that grief and loss cut through the Winninghams, too, although I have not convinced Donny to sign on to the idea of a Winningham tragedy. He deflects it. He knows too much of the side he knows.
Two years ago, my fierce mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Of her five older brothers and sisters, the Plateau clan, only one is still alive. I know my ties with the place are ebbing. Ironically, because I really am Appalachian, I belong to California now. Home and family are what I cleave to. Mine are here.
Yet I long for the Plateau, for its isolation and wildness, its intense kinships—even though I see how these fueled the 1933 tragedy, drove Willie Winningham to atrocity, exacting lives for the lives his family lost. Still, I long for the kind of character Jerome Boyatt epitomizes—a character at once intimate and alien to me, the kind who sets off conflagration and who refuses, within that conflagration, to break. It’s the kind of character I recognize in my mom’s family, a character that a certain era of the Plateau forged.
I call Donny. “So what will we do now that the book’s nearly done, Watson?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Donny says, “but we better get back in those woods.” His breathing trouble has gotten worse. He says he has maybe four or five more years that he can hike river country.
The next time I’m back, we head for the woods. Right into No Business, the steep bluffs of the hollow rising around us, the ancient seafloor perched overhead. Donny’s good on level ground. When it’s time to leave, we pick the easiest of the ways out, one that the park service has paved, but it’s not that easy. At intervals, Donny has to drop to the path, sprawl out to stretch his lungs to breathe.
“Take your time,” I urge him. “We’ve got time.”
We both know that’s not true. I need to drive off the Plateau before dark, head to my parents’ home and then back to California. It’s late afternoon already, the shadows getting long. But neither of us wants to go. I sit down beside him and listen, worried, while he catches his breath.
Donny gets back up before I think he should. We climb another stretch, then rest, then climb all the way out of river country.
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