Most family stories in Kentucky are interesting because of multiple characters. This story centers on one particularly curious character, Amos Fugate (1899-1926). His impact would be felt far and wide across southeastern Kentucky. Here’s his story and a start to how it intertwines with my own family member, Judge Watkins.
Perhaps you have heard the mountain lore about the Bad Amos Fugate. He’s had songs, poems, and plenty of tall tales told of his life. Fugate was handsome, with dark hair and gray eyes. He was short with a muscular build, but always well-groomed. While described as charming and good-humored, people knew he was quick to anger.
Fugate grew up in Breathitt County, Kentucky near the Appalachian mountains. He was the youngest of seven children. His mother passed away before he was ten years old. For a while, he lived with his uncle and worked as a farm laborer. His life was tragic. Nonetheless, he killed several people and showed no regard for anyone but himself.
Deputy Combs Shot Over a Pet
At the young age of 15, Fugate committed his first murder. In 1914, Andy Miller accused Fugate of stealing his dog. Most mountain men believed their most valuable possessions were a fast horse, a clean rifle, and a well-trained hunting dog. These three items could keep a family from starving during a harsh winter.
Someone stealing your best hound? No respectable mountain man would let that incident go.
It wasn’t long before Deputy William Combs arrived to serve an arrest warrant. Fugate got angry and used his trusty shotgun to take down Combs.
With Combs dying, Andy Miller turned to run, but Fugate shot him in the back and neck. While Miller would survive and get his dog back, Deputy Combs would not. This story made national news.
Within a few months, a jury would acquit Fugate of Combs murder. It seems amazing now. The police would not forget one of their own being shot.
Williams Shot Over Two Meddling Geese
The Fugate family lived in Lost Creek. If a farmer stood on his tin roof, the neighbor’s house was still out of view. Their neighbor, Minnie Williams, owned some geese who didn’t respect the property lines.
In Appalachian, your garden was your life. To survive, you grew your own food. With a lack of power tools, someone with the chore of maintaining the garden was not short of work. The Fugate family was not wealthy, so this food supply was important to them.
Besides making a lot of noise, geese peck at plants, damaging them before they can blossom. Plus, they leave behind massive splattered droppings. The path to the garden in your bare feet would be more like a game of hopscotch.
Williams should have taken action sooner. Her neighbors warned about the fate of these varmints. As promised, one July day, Fugate used his shotgun to remedy the issue. The geese would be dinner.
The audacity of the Fugates enraged Minnie Williams. With her horse saddled up, she rode over to confront the person who killed her birds. This conversation didn’t go as she had planned. Growing tired of her arguments, Fugate used the same single-barrel shotgun to end her chattering.
This story would also make national news. Years later, Fugate would say anyone allowing geese to forage in other folks’ gardens deserved to die. He seemed proud of his resolution.
He ran into the cradle of the forest. A manhunt ensued, but it would take several weeks to find him. This wouldn’t be the last time in his life that a posse would hunt him down.
Fugate Walks Away from Prison
Eventually he was brought to court, where he pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced him to twenty years in the Kentucky State Reformatory at Frankfort.
In prison, Fugate was productive learning how to become a barber. After six years in prison, Fugate decided he served enough time for a crime he didn’t commit. He claimed a sister shot Williams and as the man of the house; he took her place in prison. That doesn’t explain why he hid in the woods, but we’ll just put that fact aside.
In May 1921, he and Willie Brock walked away from the prison road camp in Rockcastle County. Over 120 prisoners escaped from the road camp that summer. Sometimes, the guards didn’t know until evening roll call there were missing men.
Initially, Fugate escaped to West Virginia. Around July rumors started that Bad Amos Fugate had returned to Breathitt County and was helping some moonshiners run their stills. There was even talk he had killed a teacher while she was ringing the school bell.
Within a few months, a posse captured Brock at his Leslie County home and returned him to the state penitentiary. Fugate would meet a similar fate, but not until he set another path of destruction.
Law Enforcement was Career Choice for Watkins Family
The Watkins Family had three brothers who chose law enforcement as a career. Samuel was a prohibition agent, while Green and Judge were deputy sheriffs. Green and Samuel had already made several moonshine busts in the past 18 months when Prohibition started.
Granville “Judge” Watkins (1881-1927) was an army veteran. After serving three years in the Philippines, the Army discharged him because of injuries. On his World War I draft card, he noted a reason not to serve was that he had issues with sound. His captain’s had said he was an excellent soldier in his reviews. Judge may have worried about being sent overseas a second time.
Family and country came first to Judge. His current job was to protect a work camp, which took him away from his wife, Malissa, and their young children. During the war, he sent his earnings home to his older sister, Emily Watkins Mann, so her young family could buy a farm. They would have a life long bond.
Judge Watkins Takes Dangerous Path to Work
Since Prohibition had started the year before in 1920, the logging and coal work camps had hired additional security. Judge worked at a coal camp as a guard during the weekends.
On July 4, 1921, Judge had stopped at the Fugate family farm on the way to his job. When he arrived, Amos was there. He spoke with the father, Henry “Black Dock” Fugate, a large, jovial man whose grandparents were Cherokee Indians. Judge later said he did not know if Amos had escaped or was out on parole.
After a brief conversation, he continued on his way to work riding along the South Fork of Quicksand creek. It was peaceful traveling through the cool mountain air. It was quiet, with only the sound of the rushing water creating a tranquil environment. The dark woods always felt like home.
Along the way, he stopped to light his pipe. His horse started shuffling. Judge tried to steady him and searched the isolated area for signs of movement.
What was upsetting the horse? Then he saw it. A shotgun aimed at him.
Bullets flew, piercing him in the face, shoulder, and chest. Since the sniper didn’t kill him, the frightened horse must have galloped toward the work camp with his injured rider.
A train took Judge to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington the next day. The wounds did not kill him, but the situation was serious. His family would not comment to the press, but I suspect a fire was lit under Green and Samuel Watkins. They would not have appreciated the cowardly attack on their beloved brother but they suspected Amos Fugate.
Samuel and Green would meet Amos within a few weeks. It would be a disastrous result.
Judge didn’t stay in the hospital long. With a bullet lodged near his heart, the doctors warned him of the danger. Judge was insistent about the annoying city noises, like the humming of the passing vehicles. His mountain home had fresh air and silence. He believed he could heal better there.
Moonshiner Dewey Noble Implicated
Everyone assumed that Amos Fugate had shot Watkins. Several years later a different man, Dewey Noble, would be charged with the crime.
In 1925, Dewey Noble was tried twice for the crime. Watkins would swear Noble levied the gun and shot him, not Amos Fugate. The first time he was tried it resulted in a hung jury. The second time, the jury acquitted him.
In the second trial, Noble had Amos Fugate’s brothers testify against their dead brother. They claimed Amos committed the crime to silence Watkins. It’s more likely that the Fugates wanted to cover up Noble’s bootlegging activities. So it is possible that Amos was helping Noble. [The Breathitt County courtroom is a dangerous place as shown in this family story. ]
Six years later, Judge Watkins would die at a mental hospital in Lexington. Once, Judge was a stocky, well-built man, but in his coffin, he looks like a skeleton. With a lead bullet lodged in his chest, it’s hard to not think that contributed to his death. Other explanations include PTSD or simple bipolar disorder. They buried him in the family cemetery in Breathitt County.
Amos Fugate would kill another deputy before federal agents could capture and kill him. They buried him in Perry County, KY in the family cemetery.
In 1923, Black Dock Fugate died from a gunshot wound at a Lexington hospital. His son, Alfred Fugate, accidentally killed him because he thought an intruder was entering the house. Black Dock lamented as he died that he was alone because his family was too poor to make the trip only two counties over. They buried him near Amos.
Note: This article first appeared at www.medium.com in Crime Beat Magazine.
- “Boy Kills Woman”, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Kentucky), 29 Jul 1915, Page 10.
- “Captured Fugitive Said to Have Operated Still”, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Kentucky), 07 Sep 1921, Page 12.
- “Shot from Ambush”, Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Kentucky), 04 Jul 1921, Page 7.
- “124 Indicted for Escaping Prison”, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), 17 Sep 1921, Page 1.
- “Mountain Girl Defies Feudist’s Death Threats to Testify Against Them”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 07 Jan 1923, Page 55.
- “Noble on Trial”, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) · 4 Feb 1925, Page 1.