Triple murder rocked Olive Hill
Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
On March 21, 1918 the Carter County Herald published a short piece calling on the people of the county to come together to “quell” crime in their communities, including “drinking, gambling, shooting and other desperate things.” It had gotten to the point, the editor believed, that it was unsafe “to go out after night unarmed,” and they weren’t the type “to ‘tote’ pistols.”
This might have seemed like a bit of hyperbole and sensationalism. The kind of thing designed to fill space and engage the readers. But two short months later three men would be dead, and two more injured, in what the paper called “the most horrible crime of eastern Kentucky.”
On May 25 a shooting spree occurred after a suspect released on a payment of $60, decided to exact his revenge on those he blamed for his arrest.
An undated clipping, with a handwritten date of May 25, 1918, noted:
“Three men are dead and two are wounded and in the hospital as a result of last Saturday’s shooting when Melvin Collins, an outlaw who had just been released in the Carter Circuit Court of a dozen or more indictments by the payment of one $60 fine, killed D.V. Carpenter, formerly Chief of Police of Olive Hill, John Howard, formerly Deputy Sheriff, of Carter County, and Cleve Sparks, an employee of the General Refractories Company.
It is thought that Collins suspected Howard as being the one who reported him to the Government for being a “slacker” as he had failed to register, and that he shot Carpenter because he had arrested him while serving as Marshal. He told Carpenter when he shot him that he had at one time swore against him in court and that he was now going to take his revenge. He shot Cleve Sparks because he had an old grudge against him.
Collins first met Sparks near the railroad at the spring, where the men go to get water and Sparks had sat down on the bank and was resting his head in his hands when Collins walked up and told him, “I’ll get even with you here,” and at that he shot him though the head two times and Sparks lay over and lived for two or three hours before he died. He then walked away to the railroad tracks where he met Milford Whitt who was with a lady and demanded that he give him a chew of tobacco, which Whitt did, and he drew his pistol from his pocket and reloaded it and told Whitt he was “going to get Vince Carpenter.”
Carpenter, who was hauling brick from the stock shed was at the time loading his wagon when Collins came up and demanded him to throw up his hands, that he had “swore against him in court one time and now that he was going to get even with him.” He fired three shots into Carpenter’s head, two after he was laying on the floor, the first shot having killed him instantly.
He then walked away through the plant and went to his home and was gone several minutes when he returned and hunted John Howard who was working on the moulder in the plant, and demanded of Ben Hensley, who was standing by Howard, that he was going to kill Howard and for him to get out of the way and Hensley moved his head and he shot Howard through the head and he fell to the floor, after which he continued to shoot two more loads into his head.
He turned away, loaded his pistol and walked through the yard and came back and looked at Howard and asked the boys is “he was sure dead?” He then walked out to the road and started for home and at the foot of the hill he met Ed Evans. When Evans asked him “where is that mule team and why are you not driving them?”Whereupon he answered, “you can drive the team now Ed, I’ve quit driving teams and gone to killing men.”
Collins was a slacker, having failed to register and he had repeatedly been to C.W. Henderson’s office, asking him to go with him to Grayson and see if the Board would not let him register or that he had registered so as to let him out of the trouble and told him that he intended to kill Henderson if he did not do it, but the morning he was there Henderson’s wife and child were with him and (that) was all that saved him from killing him then, but he left and told Henderson, “I’ll be back at noon for you to go to Grayson with me,” and left at that. Henderson would not go with him. He offered Henderson $50 in cash to tell him if he knew who had reported him to the Government for failing to register.
He disappeared and went to the home of Champ Biggs near the yard where he barricaded himself. The posse of men who had gathered to hunt him began to make all efforts to find him. He was at last located in this house and when they asked the family if he was in there they replied, “don’t shoot into this house, he is not in here.” But they were warned to get the women and children out of the house, which they did, and it was then that he shot Mr. Shields who was going toward the house preparatory to going in after him.
He was taken to Cattletsburg by Sheriff J.M. Flannery, Marshal A.M. Johnson and Constable J.W. Crawford who led the posse to capture him. He told them he would go back here and that he would try to finish the job when he came back. It is said he wanted to kill Judge R.A. Carpenter because he would not sign his bond at one time, Watt Phillips, C.W. Henderson, Juge A.J. Counts and several others just because they had done something toward him in time past. If you had arrested him in time past or helped to be the cause of same, or if he suspected it, he meant to kill you.
The posse was preparing to fire the house when he ran out with both hands up and saying, “I surrender.” Some say his pistol failed to work and some that he became excited because of his capture, the latter seems most reasonable.
The whole town and country surrounding was in a terror of excitement, but not a thought of mob violence was suspected by the prominent citizens but while it was in the daily papers there was little if any talk other than you could hear on every corner, “the ought to take him out and hang him” and such as that, but as to any forming there was nothing to it and he would have been given a fair trial right in the Court House in this city by the citizens here.
The Circuit Judge empaneled a special Grand Jury Monday and they met Tuesday morning and returned the indictment and the trial was resumed Wednesday. A speedy trial is urged by the people of the county.
Later Collins was brought to Grayson Wednesday and his trial set for next Monday. He was taken back to Catlettsburg.”
The May 25 date for the shooting was corroborated by a Friday, May 31 clipping from The Big Sandy News. A follow-up article, dated June 3, 1918 – a Monday – ran the headline “Collins To Die In Chair.”
That article clarified that while Collins had shot Carpenter for a previous arrest, and Howard for turning him in as a “slacker” for failing to register with selective service, his vendetta against Sparks was over a woman. Melvin Collins’ cousin, Hiram Collins, testified, “that Melvin cam to him and told him, ‘that he had laid three of the son of b’ch’s in the dust,’ whereupon he demanded what he had done that for and he answered, ‘because they have been monkeying in my business, and they will bother nobody else,” and that, ‘one was over a woman and the other two for reporting me for being a slacker and failing to ‘register’ (with selective service).”
Several others at the brickyard testified that, after shooting Carpenter in the back, “once in the shoulder and once in the side near his back,” Collins walked over and calmly put a bullet in the man’s head. “After which he remarked to the men who had not run during the excitement, ‘there’s another son-of-a-b’ch laying over there on the railroad dead,’ meaning Sparks… and ‘the man that follows me is going to his grave.’”
The jury deliberated three hours before returning their verdict at 7:30 on Monday evening. But earlier the jury had been “hopelessly hung” according to the Herald.
“The Court asked them if there was any of the evidence they did not understand, and there was one of the jury that reported ‘he didn’t want to kill anyone, and that he guessed they had misunderstood him in his answers that morning.” The judge cajoled the reluctant juror into a decision by asking, “what he would do if some murderer was to come into your home tonight and kill your wife and children… Would you believe in enforcing the law then, or just a part of it, as you state here you believe in?”
While the judge ordered the jury to then hold until morning and see if they could reach a verdict, “about 7:30 the jury reported to the Court that they had agreed and a verdict had been reached.”
When Collins was brought into the court and the verdict read he asked the clerk to read it again. He then responded, “I generally raise a fellow, but this time I’ll have to call you.”
The paper further reported that Collins, “laughed and talked, smoked a cigarette during the progress of the trial and when they told him that one man had hung the jury he knew which one it was and cursed him and said, ‘the fun is not all over yet.’”
Collins also told the Sheriff, when asked what he though they would do, “It’s a trip to Eddyville or something worse, I don’t give a d–m which, I’ve done what I wanted to do and let jury do what they d–m please.”
Collins was indeed taken to Eddyville “where the only electric chair in Kentucky is, and the date fixed for the electrocution of him.”
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles drawn from the historical newspaper clippings in the scrapbooks of Jack Fultz. When necessary typographical errors and misspellings in the original have been corrected for clarity. We thank Sally James of Sally’s Flowers in Olive Hill for sharing her uncle’s collected clippings with us and the community. – Jeremy D. Wells, editor, Carter County Times