George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”. And I say those that are not told the truth are doomed from the beginning. As life happens to individuals, stories are passed along, details are changed, and events exaggerated, all to fit some perception of how history should be. Delivering morals and lessons that are supposed to teach us how to be humans and illustrate how far society has come. History must fit a criteria of being romantic or brave, sometimes tragic, but only at a distance, it has to have a message and should never warn us of dark days that lie ahead. Millions of books and encyclopedias contain what is passed off as historically accurate information, but the facts are flawed. Most historical data actually come from rewritten accounts of events from a biased source. Even public record fails to capture the true story of how or why something may have transpired – ignoring the context in which events happen. Getting as close to the source of an event, if possible, can provide the framework needed to understand the truth and in turn, one day save our lives.
Case in point, October 1894, in Holcombe, KY, just three years after the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud in Pike County, KY, that claimed the lives of more than a dozen members of the respective families, another lesser known fight between neighbors was documented. Elvin Colville and Henry Murphy were embroiled in a bitter land dispute that turned violent, leading to the deaths of 17 people. Now, occurrences similar to this were not uncommon in this area of the country in the late 1800’s. While the lawlessness of the “Wild West” seemed a free for all of bank robberies and shootouts, back in the eastern part of the United States, violence often erupted over labor, livestock or land claims. Authorities arriving on the scene to find the Colville and Murphy families dead, would most undoubtedly feel they had an open and shut case given similarities to the Hatfield and McCoy feud. To the naked eye it was justice gone wrong over a few acres of land. Oral statements by witnesses would be interpreted and restructured to support popular theories. Death certificates were all properly notarized as public record, further cementing facts in this case. And with no more than that, this occurrence would vapor into history, as a footnote to the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, fitting neatly beside it, in a context created to teach us a lesson about “love thy neighbor”. But what was located within the record of those events, was entirely fabricated to quell something much larger and much more sinister.
There is no claim being made that the feud between the Colville and Murphy families did not happen. But the real story died with the victims on that cool fall morning in Holcombe, KY and what was discovered by authorities was covered up, made to fit neatly into some other incident – a creative and convenient slight of hand. Some thirty years after the tragedy, in 1924, an eyewitness account, that was never included in any of the public records, came to light. As horse-drawn wagons gave way to automobiles, the Bureau of Public Roads began to connect cities and towns all across the country. Surveyor’s were considering possible routes from Lexington to Knoxville, TN, one of which would run right through the land once occupied by the Colville’s and Murphy’s. At the time the government owned the properties, but some unknown legalities were holding up the process, thus halting construction of the much-needed road. A reporter from a national newspaper was investigating a story on the topic, when he came across information tying the land to the forgotten feud. He interviewed anyone still living that had first hand knowledge of the incident and uncovered an amazing unheard story. The following is from an archived transcript of an interview with Aldo Addams, son of a landowner who shared a property line with both Elvin Colville and Henry Murphy in 1894.
“Don’t know much about it (the feud), I was thirteen years old when it happened. Started in the summer, I remember that. Daddy later told me it was on account of an improper survey and fight over where their claims ended. Murphy wanted my family to get involved, but my father wouldn’t. It was scary, a lot of yelling and arguing over it, everyone was on edge. Things turned violent. A lot still bothers me, when I think back, I know this may sound strange. I saw Colville’s daughter, Ruth, get killed and I know for a fact she was dead. About a month later…I don’t really know how to put this, but she came back. So did some of the others. A lot of ‘em died, but they would show up again. We couldn’t make heads or tails of it. They would come out at night, walking around, scratch on the doors and windows, like they was trying to get in. My brother Jack and I would watch ‘em from our window. Scared the hell out of us. One of the Murphy’s, I think it was the grandfather, I can’t recall his name though. He got in our chicken coop. Killed four hens, we had to kill the rest and burn the coop. Things escalated, we couldn’t leave the house. I think towards the end, it wasn’t about feuding anymore, then Colville went crazy and killed the lot of them, turned the gun on himself. There weren’t even proper burials, authorities came in and burned the bodies and the houses. There was more to the story, but no one would say anything. The whole thing was very unsettling. “
The story never made it to print, as it was probably shut down by an editor that thought it too unbelievable or a government official that didn’t want to create questions. It certainly would not have fit into the shape of how the feud was seen in the history books, but more importantly, it may have provided clues to the undead secrets that were being concealed. We may never know the true story of what happened between Elvin Colville and Henry Murphy. The context of this account, however may point to a clear outcome that changes history greatly and may reveal a secret we all know exists.