The following article by David Strange appeared in The Courier-Journal on 28 Sep 2014. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
125 years ago there was a murder and a lynching in Bullitt County, Kentucky.
On June 20, 1889, peddler Joseph Lavine was visiting the home of the Collings family near the town of Belmont in southern Bullitt County, selling his wares. According to court and newspaper reports of the time, Thomas Mitchell, "a tramp," approached the house, asking for buttermilk.
The buttermilk was given to him and he walked away back to the railroad tracks.
When Lavine finished his business with the Collings family a few minutes later, he walked away in the same direction, surely not knowing what was about to happen.
Mitchell had rejoined a fellow tramp named Charles Ardell near a cut in the road. Together they accosted Lavine when he passed by, shooting him in the abdomen when he resisted the robbery. Hearing the shot and a shout of pain, someone nearby went to the scene and saw the wounded Mr. Lavine. Mitchell and Ardell were seen running away.
People started searching for the robbers, catching them the next day, and placed them in the jail at Shepherdsville. This jail was a brick structure that once stood on the southwest corner of the current county courthouse property. (See its location on the map here.) It was replaced less than a couple of years later, in 1891, with what we now call "The Old Stone Jail" which is a tourist stop today.
Joseph Lavine died of his wound the following Sunday at his home in Louisville and was buried at the Jewish cemetery there. He was 28 years old.
My friend, Ed Barrall, tells me that there was a Jewish peddler that visited homes in his part of rural Bullitt County long ago. "Mr. Sol" would come through the community with his two-wheel pushcart, or sometimes a mule wagon, selling dry-goods. Traveling peddlers were often appreciated in those days when it was difficult to get to town. Ed says that, though the community was "incredibly anti-Semitic," the peddlers were respected and welcome.
Such was the case for Joseph Lavine, a Jewish man originally from Poland. On the following Wednesday night a reported mob of 25 angry masked men approached the jail on horseback, demanding Mitchell and Ardell. Jailer H. Clay Bowman stood in front of the jail door with a shotgun, declaring that he would kill the first man who tried to pass. But, according to a news report found in The Galveston Texas Daily News, Mrs. Bowman ran forward and gave the threatening mob the keys to the jail, begging her husband to not resist for fear of his life.
Forced to give in to the mob, Bowman followed them as they took the two men away into the night. Bowman pleaded with them to at least not lynch Thomas Mitchell, who he declared might be innocent of the murder. The mob of men complied, and Mitchell was returned to the jail. But they took Charles Ardell. His body was found the next morning, still hanging from the tree about a mile and a half north of town.
I see no record of anyone ever being prosecuted for the lynching.
In May, 1890, Thomas Mitchell was tried in a court in Nelson County, having asked for a change of venue from Bullitt County because of the lynching. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His case was appealed but the conviction was upheld in October of that year. I do not know what happened to him after that, or to the family of Joseph Lavine.
Murder and retribution were swift in those days. Life and death were sometimes just as swift.
Additional information about this case may be found on this page.
Copyright 2014 by David Strange, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.