'Bloody Breathitt' has long history of requiring state intervention

JACKSON — When the Kentucky Department of Education took over Breathitt County's failing schools in 2012, it continued a long tradition here of state intervention.

A century ago, "Bloody Breathitt" witnessed scores of murders — in street brawls and backwoods bushwhacking — as the county's large families feuded and political factions clawed for power. Elected leaders sometimes were retired with a bullet rather than a ballot. Three times between the 1870s and 1910s, Kentucky governors sent in the state militia to occupy the courthouse and restore law and order.

"It is evident that a republican form of government does not exist in Breathitt County, Ky." the New York Times reported in 1903. "Civil authority, represented in the person of the sheriff, has broken down. Martial law was proclaimed and a company of militia went into camp at Jackson. This, however, was an inadequate provision for the public peace and safety, as was demonstrated by the burning of Captain Ewen's hotel."

More recently, in the 1990s, state officials repeatedly had to travel to Jackson and order the Breathitt County Fiscal Court to obey the law by balancing its budget.

Breathitt County planned to spend $2.4 million during the 1992-93 fiscal year while taking in $1.9 million. County services shut down as several county magistrates went to jail rather than raise taxes. They spent four days in the Owsley County jail because their own jail closed for lack of funds. Grateful constituents brought the magistrates steak dinners and cartons of cigarettes to keep up their spirits.

Hoping to placate Kentucky's attorney general, who by this point was suing, the county proposed raising money by selling 21 acres it owned, then mortgaging that same land and defaulting on the loan. State officials explained at length to the magistrates why that would not work. Apart from the repercussions of loan fraud, you can't borrow money against property you already sold, the officials said.

"They seemed to understand a little better near the end, but they never grasped the principle," state finance office M.E. "Buddy" Combs told reporters at the time.

Finally, the county agreed to a 1 percent payroll tax that brought in about $400,000, on the condition that it expire in 12 months.

"I can't stay in jail," explained one of the rebellious magistrates, Arch Turner, an elementary school principal.

Turner later became Breathitt County schools superintendent. He held that post until 2012, when he went to prison for conspiring to buy votes in an election, leaving behind a school district in shambles. State auditors found incompetent management, inappropriate spending for personal benefit and a school board that sometimes met for just 10 minutes.

"It really is frustrating that literally 115 years after a feud started because of a bought school board election, we're still in this situation," said Jerry Deaton, a Breathitt County native who has produced a documentary film and written a memoir about his home county.

Deaton said Breathitt County's schools historically served as a political base. For most of the 20th century, several generations of the Turner family ruled Breathitt County through a Democratic Party machine that controlled local government. Family matriarch Marie R. Turner, who died in 1984, spent four decades as school superintendent, putting her in charge of hiring, firing and spending in one of the nation's poorest counties.

"Plain and simple, if you control jobs in an area like this, you control votes. People are beholden to whomever runs the school system," Deaton said.

However, he added, schools should focus on helping children, not adults.

"One of the most disappointing things to me is watching people be willing to sell out their children's future," Deaton said. "Breathitt does seem to struggle with that mightily, even into the 21st century."

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