While browsing early 1900 Kentucky newspaper clippings, I discovered an article that unexpectedly pulled together cocaine, alcohol, and the Breathitt County court system.
Breathitt County is in the south-eastern corner of Kentucky near the Appalachian Mountains. There is a long history of lawlessness and mountain-style justice. This story offers more of a twist.
Turner Wants Relief from Toothache
In 1925, Wesley “Wes” Turner, 37, was eager to visit the Breathitt county dentist on that March day. His tooth was causing him a lot of pain. With a wife and several children to feed, the farmer wanted a quick remedy so he could return to his mountain home.
There was only one dentist in the Breathitt County, Dr. G. W. Thompson. He promised a pain-free experience using a simple injection of a local anesthetic. While many of us think the string and doorknob method was used, dental work was not as archaic as you might imagine.
After leaving the dentist’s office, Turner must have appeared drunk. The next morning he awoke in jail. A man was dead, and Wes shared some of the blame.
Jailer Joseph Lovely Wants a Safe Lockup
Joseph Lovely, 51, wanted a peaceful, clean jail operation. A religious man, Lovely held the distinction of being the first Republican jailer in the heavily Democratic Breathitt county. The paper noted that he was efficient and a man “of the highest type”.
The jailhouse was a square two-story building with a small front porch. It was near the courthouse because many detainees were awaiting trial. The county allotted $125 a month to the jailer to manage the facility and prisoners. [Bad Amos Fugate awaited trial in this jail.]
The Breathitt County Jail had a history of brutality. In 1921, some men wanted to free a family member and broke into jail. They killed three people, including the former jailer’s daughter, during the event. Lovely would not tolerate that behavior.
The US Government made it illegal to produce or sell alcohol in 1920. The Treasury department hired prohibition agents to enforce the law. Like many others, the Breathitt County Jail was overflowing with bootleggers awaiting trial.
Mountaineers had been making corn mash liquor for decades. With the sale outlawed, large cities, such as Chicago, were looking to quench a thirst. A bootlegger could earn a tidy profit, which would allure these low-income families struggling to survive. The prohibition agents were also skilled at bringing these lawbreakers forward to stand trial for their actions.
Wayne Grigsby was No Stranger to a Jail Cell
Wayne Grigsby, 38, who seemed to live his life on the wrong side of the law, was in jail awaiting charges on moon-shining. The Troublesome creek native had landed himself in a cell again.
In 1913, the state had convicted Grigsby and his brother Monroe of killing Austin Godsey. The men had been drinking moonshine on a Saturday night. Late in the night, Godsey decided he was going home and taking all the liquor with him.
While Godsey may have been joking, it didn’t sit right with Wayne Grigsby. He shot him during a scuffle. The brothers left him to die beside the road. A farmer discovered Godsey’s body the next day.
The court sentenced each Grigsby brother to twenty years for their callous actions. They would appeal the case, claiming the judge gave the jury the wrong instructions. It was denied.
In Feb 1915, after serving less than eighteen months, Governor Augustus Stanley pardoned the two. A reasonable donation to the governor often resulted in a get-out-jail-free card.
Grigsby moved to Ohio and worked in a paper mill for a few years. It seems he was trying to reform himself and follow a straight path. With a wife and eight children, he had a lot of mouths to feed and had to be responsible.
At some point, he returned to his Perry county home and began making moonshine again. Many mountain men felt their Kentucky roots calling them back from the Ohio factories.
Turner on a Cocaine Fueled Event
Most likely, Turner saw the dentist to have his tooth extracted, which is a quick procedure. The doctor applied two grains of cocaine to Turner’s gums. Besides the numbing action, Turner would experience feelings of euphoria.
After leaving the office, Turner appeared intoxicated. Deputies arrested him and took him to jail so he could sleep it off. It’s hard to believe the dentist allowed him to leave in that condition. Perhaps it was a delayed reaction.
While in jail, Turner decided he was going to clear the jailhouse single-handedly. He started fighting with the others and even bit another prisoner. Jailer Lovely went into the cell to stop the men from fighting. Turner punched Lovely in the face with such force it knocked him to the ground. As Lovely tried to stand, Turner, tried to grab the jailer’s pistol.
During the struggle, the gun fired and hit Grigsby, who was standing across the room, in the chest.
At the local hospital, they could not remove the bullet that had passed through his lung and liver. He died the next morning and later buried near his home in Lott’s Creek.
Dentist Claims Cocaine Usage is a Valid Defense
The next morning Turner awoke in jail to learn they charged him with assaulting the jailer. After leaving the dentist’s office, Turner said he recalled nothing.
When he served in World War I, the enemy had gassed his troop in France. He noted his health had been delicate ever since that event. During court, the dentist theorized the drug must have “unbalanced” the veteran. Two other physicians agreed. The jury acquitted Turner because he was under the influence.
Yes, you read that correctly. The jury acquitted him because he was on cocaine. Turner must have had an excellent reputation.
A grand jury reviewed the death of Grigsby, but they did not charge the jailer. They concluded the event was not intentional on the jailer’s part. He was respected in the community so his word was not in doubt.
When Joe Lovely ran for a third term, his opponent defeated him by a narrow margin. Lovely believed the other candidate had cheated but could not prove it in court. In 1934, Joe Lovely would die of kidney failure.
Wes Turner died of a stroke in 1965. He’s buried in Breathitt County with his family. It was unclear if he had any other visits to the dentist.
This post first appeared in Medium’s Crime Beat Magazine.
Photo Credit: Dentist Office in 1925 taken at Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, TN, Russ Glasson
- “Grigsby’s Must Serve Time for Killing Godsey”, The Courier-Journal Louisville, Kentucky 15 Jan1913
- “Governor Pardons Prisoners”, The Courier-Journal Louisville, Kentucky 09 April 1915
- Bodies that Stain the Ground of Breathitt, OH Napier, Breathitt County Library, 2018
- “Drug Given to Breathitt Prisoner By Dentist Blamed for Jail Row — Resulting Fatally for Moonshiner”, The Lexington Herald Lexington, Kentucky, 18 Mar 1925