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Home Features Revisiting the site of a Big South Fork tragedy

Revisiting the site of a Big South Fork tragedy

What remains of the Ranse Boyatt farm on No Business Creek is a two-acre meadow that is kept cleared by the National Park Service, an impressive chimney and fireplace, and a small family burial plot in the woods nearby | IH File Photo

There are several culturally-significant sites throughout the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area backcountry that are preserved by the National Park Service. These sites — like the Armstead Blevins farm at Parch Corn Creek, Jake’s Place along the upper reaches of Station Camp Creek and the Litton/Slaven Farm near Bandy Creek — all have stories to tell.

But none of the stories is any more gripping than the tale of tragedy that included the deaths of several men — beginning with the shooting death of a Pickett County lawman and ending with the torturous death of Scott County’s Jerome Boyatt.

A wanted poster was drawn up during the manhunt for Jerome Boyatt in the spring of 1933, offering $600 reward money (the equivalent of more than $10,000 today). At a double funeral for Sheriff George Winningham and his son, Floyd Winningham, in Byrdstown, a hat was passed to raise money for the reward.

It’s been nearly 90 years since the Boyatt tragedy played out, and still there are hard feelings. Some folks who are descended from the Boyatt family don’t much like to talk about it; others whose parents and grandparents were friends of the family whisper about it but don’t say much publicly for fear of unintentionally offending someone. And throughout Scott County, there are plenty of folks who think Jerome Boyatt was as innocent as innocent can be when he was dragged from the old jail in Huntsville and shot to death by a mob of vigilantes.

Today, unaware visitors to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area may hike or ride their horse onto the old Boyatt farm near the headwaters of No Business Creek without being aware of the tragedy that played out there. There’s little left of the old farm today, of course. The park service keeps the old homeplace mowed to prevent reforestation, and the chimney of the old cabin remains.

There’s a sign denoting the location at the Ranse Boyatt farm, and Ranse himself — along with several members of his family — is buried on the edge of the farm. But there are no interpretive signs to tell the story of the grisly murder that played out on the farm during the Great Depression, when Ranse was hanged in an apparent attempt to force his son, Jerome, out of hiding.

There are different versions to the tale of tragedy, depending on who you ask. Descendants of the Boyatt family — of Ranse and Poppie Litton Boyatt — are more likely to tell one version; descendants of Pickett County Sheriff George B. Winningham are likely to tell another.

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But one thing that is undisputed is that Ranse Boyatt was murdered at the family farm near the head of No Business, his body left unattended for days before it was discovered. And that’s where the tragedy really begins.

Who was Ranse Boyatt?

Ransom Boyatt (1872-1933) was at least a third-generation resident of the Big South Fork region. His father, Jordan, enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War before returning to the Big South Fork and residing at Parch Corn Creek.

Ranse married Poppie Litton (1884-1978) in 1907. She was the daughter of George Washington and Helen Terry Litton, a niece of John Litton, the master cabin-builder who eventually settled at the afore-mentioned Litton Farm near Bandy Creek.  Ranse and Poppie Boyatt had nine children. The sixth of those was a son, Jerome Boyatt.

Who was George Winningham?

George B. Winningham, 61, was in his fifth term as sheriff of Pickett County when he was dispatched to a lumber camp near Rock Creek — on the eastern side of the county, near the Scott County line — on April 21, 1933. The report was that a murder had taken place.

Accompanying Sheriff Winningham to the lumber camp were two of his deputies: his son, 39-year-old John Floyd Winningham, and 41-year-old Bramlett Garrett.

When the trio of lawmen arrived at Rock Creek, they learned that there had been no murder, but that there had been a drunken disturbance. The man responsible was 22-year-old Jerome Boyatt, who was locked in a railroad box car.

What Happened Next?

By 1933, the Great Depression still gripped the nation, but there was work to be had in the logging and mining camps in Big South Fork Country. Most of those were operated by the Stearns Coal & Lumber Company. It was at one of those mining camps, situated across the ridge from the Boyatt family’s No Business Creek farm, where Jerome Boyatt and several other members of his family worked.

It was to that camp that Sheriff Winningham and his deputies were dispatched that April day. Boyatt and his uncle had gotten into an argument, the argument had escalated to a fight, and the camp superintendent had called for the law while locking several men inside the box car.

Folks still dispute exactly what happened when Winningham and his deputies arrived. It has been said that Jerome Boyatt opened fire as the lawmen arrived. That’s the official story, one recorded by newspaper accounts of the day and preserved by fallen officer memorials. If you were raised in Pickett County, that’s likely the account you heard.

But it has also been said that Floyd Winningham fired first — maybe not at Jerome; maybe he fired a warning shot into the air, but the first shot nevertheless — and Boyatt fired back in self-defense. If you were raised in Scott County, you probably heard that account.

What isn’t disputed is that Jerome Boyatt killed both men with a .45 caliber handgun. Deputy Floyd Winningham died instantly, of two gunshot wounds to the head. Sheriff George Winningham was shot in the abdomen and died at a Nashville hospital the following day.

Garrett, the lone surviving lawman, took three men into custody and transported them to a jail in Cookeville. One of them was Jerome Boyatt’s deaf brother, Eugene. But Jerome eluded capture and fled into the woods.

The Search for Jerome Boyatt

For more than a month, Boyatt managed to elude the posse that searched high and low for him. It was speculated that he was hiding out around No Business, but the lawmen and their teams of volunteers couldn’t find him — perhaps mainly because a lot of folks who lived in the area were slipping him food and supplies to help him elude the authorities.

Helping to orchestrate the manhunt was Sheriff Winningham’s lone surviving son, Willie. Willie McKinley Winningham was the sheriff in Clinton County, Ky. His father and brother had been killed, and he intended to find the person responsible.

Seventy years earlier, the rugged communities within the Big South Fork River gorge had found themselves cut off from the rest of civilization during the Civil War. Scott County lawmen generally didn’t venture that far west of Oneida, and places like No Business and Station Camp became lawless communities of sort — places where people were left to defend their own. That had made the region a breeding ground for guerrilla violence during the war, with roaming Confederate renegades ransacking farms and, according to legend, attempting to press young men into service for the Rebels. Most famously, there was a nighttime shootout at the home of Peter Burke — just up the river from No Business — in 1863 that resulted in the deaths of several Confederates who were taking refuge in the cabin for the night.

Years after the war — but before the Jerome Boyatt manhunt — that same isolation had inspired Isaac “Ike” King to petition Scott County government to appoint him constable so that he could help provide law enforcement for the communities within the river gorge.

But in 1933, the No Business settlement was once again the desolate land beyond — beyond the help of law enforcement in Huntsville and left to the whims of a posse hell-bent on vengeance. It wasn’t Confederate guerrillas who were terrorizing No Business in the spring of 1933, but lawmen. Their tactics, though, were every bit as ruthless. They raided homesteads, forced housewives to cook them meals, destroyed personal property in their quest for Jerome Boyatt — going about their business in a manner that wouldn’t have withstood constitutional muster in any courtroom in the United States.

Sheriff Winningham was well-liked back in Pickett County, and as the days stretched on with no arrest of Boyatt, tempers flared even more. The entire Boyatt family — Ranse and Poppie, along with their younger children — were taken captive from their home and held in the Byrdstown jail in an effort to force them into revealing Jerome’s whereabouts. They refused.

Ranse Boyatt was allowed to return to the No Business farm. It’s not clear exactly why. A newspaper account at the time said that he was freed after promising that he would talk his son into surrendering to law enforcement. It has also been written that he was allowed to go home to tend to the farm.

After a couple of weeks, when Ranse Boyatt hadn’t been heard from, neighbors became concerned and went to check on him. They found the 60-year-old Boyatt inside his home, dead. A Scott County coroner ruled the death a homicide. He had apparently been hanged, though an official cause of death was never established because he had been dead too long by the time his body was discovered.

An Arrest and Murder

The ruthless attempt to force Jerome Boyatt from hiding was successful. A few days later, on May 22, 1933, he surrendered to Scott County sheriff’s deputies. It has been written that he feared further violence against his family.

Boyatt was housed at the Scott County Jail in Huntsville — the stone fortress that still stands behind the old courthouse. Two weeks later, while Sheriff Esau Laxton was away tending to business, a group of some two dozen masked men — some of them lawmen — raided the jail, overwhelming the jailer and the sheriff’s wife. They cut the phone line to the jail, assaulted the jailer, and took Boyatt and another prisoner — 19-year-old Jerry Harvey Winchester, accused of killing a local lawman’s son — away.

The next day, the two men’s bodies were discovered not far from U.S. Hwy. 27 in Helenwood. A National Park Service archive notes that the bodies were “bullet-riddled and tortured.” Winchester was killed first; one newspaper account said he was shot more than 50 times, and another report said that it was believed a noose was placed around his neck and that he was forced to run in circles while the mob fired at him. Boyatt was stripped of his clothing and turned into the woods, according to a newspaper account, with the mob firing after him. He was shot several times in the back as he ran, then in the back of the head at close range — execution style.

Ranse Boyatt was buried in the family cemetery in the woods near his home, beside his mother and his four-year-old daughter. His is the last of six graves on the plot. Jerome Boyatt was buried at Foster Crossroads Baptist Church. No one was ever charged in their deaths. A Pickett County grand jury cleared the rest of the family, including Eugene, of wrongdoing.

Six weeks later, Sheriff Willie Winningham was killed back home in Clinton County, Ky. as he attempted to arrest a drunken man near Albany. He was 38. His wife, Anne Winningham, was appointed to succeed him as sheriff in Clinton County, just as his mother, Martha Winningham, had been appointed to succeed George Winningham as sheriff of Pickett County.

The tragedies of 1933 didn’t end there, either. Five months after Willie Winningham’s death, on Christmas Eve, his 12-year-old daughter died of heart failure as a complication of typhoid fever.

To visit the Boyatt homeplace at No Business, park at the Terry Cemetery Trailhead off Divide Road and hike the Longfield Branch Trail into No Business. After fording the creek, take a left and the trail leads directly to the home place, less than a half-mile away.

This article is the January 2021 installment of Our Back Yard, presented by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page 9 of the Jan. 7, 2021 edition of the Independent Herald.
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