Breathitt County Courthouse

Sensational Courtroom Drama: Mountain Woman Assassinates Son’s Killer

This Kentucky family story weaves together two tragic events from the Shepherd, Wickline, and Gabbard families. Sadly three other families, Shouse, Moore, and Noble, would be impacted by her actions.

Kentucky mountain woman, Viola Wickline, delivered justice to a young Johnny Shepherd in a 1936 Breathitt County courtroom. Days earlier, on Christmas eve, the Shepherd boy was accused of taking Harvey Gabbard’s, her son, life and now the petite, grieving Viola Wickline would have her revenge.

Wickline Waited For the Right Moment

As the preliminary hearing started that brisk December day, Judge George W. Little called the first witness in his courtroom. Viola Wickline, 40, was sitting at the prosecutor’s table silently plotting her next action. Harvey was her only son. As was custom in this area, Moses Law prevailed, which meant eye-for-an -eye.

The accused, Johnnie Shepherd, was a 19-year-old man crippled from the waist down. Before he could take the stand, Viola Wickline removed the 38-caliber pistol from underneath the embroidered handkerchief in her lap and walked over to the defense table.

She called Johnny Shepherd a “vile name” and landed two shots into his abdomen. Shepherd collapsed immediately, screaming in pain. Once the shooting started, the 150 people sitting in the courtroom were panicking and running for the door.

With a pale face and eyes bulging, her attention then turned to his older brother, Noah, charged as an accessory. He ducked, allowing the next bullets to travel past him into seats behind him. The bullets hit George Shouse in the chest, Mose Noble in the leg, and Howard Moore’s hat.

Sheriff John E. Rice seized control of the weapon and pulled her away. Judge Little was trying to get control of his courtroom. Wickline was at peace — mountain justice was delivered.

Johnny Shepherd would die three hours later. His brother, who escaped injury, wanted to return to the jail where he would be safe.

Kentucky death certificate for Johnny Shepherd, 1925
Death certificate for Johnny Shepherd, 1936, Kentucky Archives

Judge Little charged Wickline with murder. He also charged her husband, William, her neighbor, Mattie Downs Haddad, and her kin, Buck Gabbard with murder. There was confusion after the event about who was responsible and if the others had helped her. Wickline maintained she acted alone.

Wickline Impacted Three Other Families

George Spouse, 27, arrived in Jackson early because he had to have a tooth pulled. He passed the time in the courthouse. He took a seat in the front row behind the defense table, curious to see what calamities had occurred over the weekend. Bullets meant for Noah Shepherd would strike his lung and collarbone. He spent a few days in the hospital, but the doctors expected him to make a full recovery.

Several weeks later, when the father of four was traveling home to Cane Creek over the coarse dirt roads, his wound reopened and bled. They returned him to the hospital, where he would die a week later.

Howard Moore, 65, had his mining cap hanging on his knee. He planned to return to his coal mining job that afternoon. One of Wickline’s bullets pierced his miner’s helmet, leaving a bruise on his knee and traveling on to strike Mose Noble in his leg.

Noble’s injury was minor. After having the bullet removed, he went home the same day. In years to come, Noble would become a noted defense attorney in Breathitt county and even serve as US attorney for the eastern Kentucky district. He never forgot this day in court.

Shepherd Boys Accused of Killing Gabbard

Source: Lexington Herald Leader

The previous Friday night at the local hot spot, the Yellow Cat Restaurant, is where all the trouble begins. Prohibition ended three years earlier so people could now drink alcohol in public. Harvey Gabbard, 18, who worked as a truck driver to support the family, was drinking and playing pool with his friends.

The Shepherd family lived in the Lost Creek area of the county. Their father Charles was a coal miner. Their mother Cornelia had died in an automobile accident a few years earlier. The boys may have felt protective about the other women in the family.

Noah Shepherd and Gabbard started arguing about one of Shepherd’s sisters. The disagreement became so loud, the restaurant owner sent the men outside. Once outside, the two started fist-fighting.

Noah fell to the ground. Now, Gabbard had the advantage. The younger brother Johnnie, who was in a wheelchair, did the only thing he could. He shot Gabbard in the back, killing him instantly.

The brothers took off running. Within a few hours, the police picked them up. They spent Christmas day in jail.


Breathitt County Judge Takes Action

Wickline would later say she was sorry for the two victims’ injuries, but she did not regret taking Shepherd’s life.

“When I saw my boy dressed for burial, I decided then and there that his slayer should never live to take another life. I’m glad I killed him and if the thing could be done over my plans would not be changed.”

Viola Wickline
Breathitt county residents Gabbard, Downs, and Wickline were thought to be involved in the shooting.

Wickline’s first husband, Bruce Gabbard, had died unexpectedly when Harvey was a little boy. She remarried Bill Wickline, and they had a daughter. Bill was a World War I veteran. He was working for the Civilian Conservation Camp, a government program that provided work during the Depression. It did not pay well, so the family was reliant on Harvey’s salary and the food they could grow.

Two days later, the judge would send her to the Kentucky Lunatic Asylum (now called Eastern State Hospital) in Lexington, KY, to have her mental state evaluated. He also dropped the charges against the others. It was clear they were not involved.

After spending six months in the institution, the doctors released her to stand trial. The county postponed her trial multiple times. By 1941, they judged her insane. She was returned to the asylum. It is not clear how long she stayed there.

Aftermath

This event was just another chapter in the Bloody Breathitt book. Then, most people associated the area with the Hatfield-McCoy feud and other family feuds. At one point, it didn’t seem they could have an election without someone getting killed.

In the past decades, the media paid a lot of attention to the mountain area. Wickline made the local and national news for several weeks. There were even pictures of the scene being reenacted with the sheriff’s wife starring as Wickline. Life magazine had pictures of Shepherd’s wake, which was held at his father’s home. Shepherd’s father said his son was “probably better off than the rest of us”. He placed the body in a pine box so he could bury him.

Excerpt from Life Magazine about Viola Wickline and Johnny Shepherd's funeral
Life Magazine featured Viola Wickline and Johnny Shepherd’s Funeral (LIFE Jan 11, 1937

Wickline would die at 92 at her home in Michigan. Her husband, Bill, had died nearly 20 years earlier. My guess is her daughter moved there with her husband for work. Perhaps the daughter also wanted to escape the public scrutiny. Her aging parents later joined her.

It wasn’t clear if Noah Shepherd served any time for his actions. He moved to Louisville, KY after serving in World War II. In 1989, he passed away at 70 years old.

This post first appeared in Medium’s Crime Beat Magazine.

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