TWO FAMILIES AT ODDS


July 27, 1879

 

TWO FAMILIES AT ODDS

REIGN OF TERROR IN A WESTERN VILLAGE

THE FEUD BETWEEN THE BELTS AND THE OLDHAMS—TWO CLANS OF RUFFIANS DEFYING ALL LAW—LOGAN BELT CHARGED WITH MURDER—WITNESSES SHOT AT

From the Chicago Times, July 17 [1879]

ELIZABETHTOWN, Hardin County, Ill., July 14.--There exists in one portion of this county, known as “Cave-in-Rock,” on the Ohio River, a village of about 1,000 inhabitants, a condition of affairs bordering on barbarism. Two rival families and their adherents for years have kept the community in a state of abject fear, and a reign of terror has prevailed which is a disgrace to any civilized community. The two families whose dissensions have produced this state of things are the Belts and the Oldhams. The Belts consist of Logan Belt, H. J. Belt, James Belt, and Arthur Belt. Logan, Jonathan, and H. J. are men of from 45 to 50 years of age, and have grown-up sons and daughters. These men, with their sons and friends, make up a clan which includes, according to various estimates, from 20 to 50 persons. They are all farmers, and do not steal nor maraud. They only murder such persons as they think are in their way. Logan Belt is a man about 5 feet high, with a magnificent physique, blue eyes, and clear complexion, of fine appearance, possessed of a common school education, somewhat conversant with criminal law, very polite in his manners, an excellent teacher, and, above all, a man of unquestioned and determined bravery. He is the last man in the world that one would suspect of being a desperado. But he is always in trouble, and instead of appealing to the courts to settle his troubles, he has always settled them himself by violent means. He will not, it is said, strike a man in the dark, or behind his back, but he has many followers who will, and some of the stories told about him do not represent him as so entirely chivalrous. He is revengeful and persistent to the last degree. Old Jonathan Belt, his brother, and a man who appears prominently in all the troubles, is also brave, but while Logan has the appearance of a gentleman, Jonathan bears the imprint of a ruffian on his face. The Belts are all Baptists of the most devout kind, but, Jonathan is far beyond the rest in his religious experience. He is a preacher and Superintendent of a Sunday-school. He prays with great unction, and talks unceasingly of his “acceptance by Christ.” It is related of him that recently, while he was preaching, certain members of his congregation became unruly. He quietly stepped from his pulpit, gave them a sound thrashing, and then returned to his discourse. He believes in salvation by faith, and not by works, and carries his belief into practice. Jonathan Belt would be horrified at the blasphemy which denied the divinity of Christ, but he would not scruple to kill his enemy at sight.

The Oldhams are also farmers. There are Thomas Oldham, Jesse Oldham, John Oldham, and many others. Their number is about the same as that of the Belts, and they are equally ferocious, although not equally intelligent. They are a low, trifling set. Some of them may be respectable men, just as some of the Belts are; but the members of the family who are giving character to this trouble, seem, in spite of all that can be said in their favor, to be mean and contemptible in their modes of life, are ignorant and unscrupulous, and in every way the inferiors of the Belts. They are quarrelsome, great fighters, always in trouble, and always settling their troubles by brute force. With two such families living near together, it is but natural that bad blood should arise, and the bad blood between them has resulted in innumerable bloody crimes.

The murders committed, or alleged to have been committed, by the Belts cover a period of 16 years. In 1863 Huston Belt was shot and killed by Capt. Frank Gibson in a quarrel in this place. A week later Jonathan Belt met Gibson on a road, riding between two men, and he shot him dead. Soon after, one of the two men who witnessed this murder was assassinated, and the other mysteriously disappeared from this region. Another terrible murder which is laid at the door of Logan Belt, was perpetrated several years ago. Samuel H. Dorris was a witness in a suit against Logan, and Belt subsequently accused him of swearing to a lie. A fight followed, in which Belt was beaten. Six months afterward Dorris was called to his door one night by a man at the front gate who began a conversation with him. After the exchange of a few words the report of a gun was heard, and Dorris fell back and died almost instantly. Belt was arrested for this murder, but he proved an alibi by two witnesses, and was discharged. The two witnesses were two well-known ruffians, and although their testimony secured an acquittal, nearly everybody around here believes that Belt either did the shooting himself, or was the instigator.

But the worst affair of all—the one which has sown the seeds of more crimes than all others—was the shooting of “Doc” Oldham by Logan Belt. In December, 1875, Thomas Oldham, who had purchased a house, celebrated the event by giving a dance, to which he charged an admission fee of 25 cents. “Doc” Oldham, his brother, was the doorkeeper on this occasion. Logan Belt and another man were passing by the house, or else they went there on purpose—both stories are told—and forced their way in without paying. “Doc” Oldham was as ready to fight as Belt was, and he at once went at him. Just what ensued is not known. Some say that Oldham knocked Belt down with a pair of knuckles; others that it was Oldham who was knocked down, and that he was afterward shot. Belt's story, as told by his attorney, is that “Doc” Oldham was superintending the dance. Logan and his friend entered the house, and stood around quietly for some time. Presently Oldham, who had been drinking, remarked in Belt's hearing that there were some persons present who had not paid, and that he was going to put them out. Belt, who, according to his story, was friendly to Oldham, said to him jestingly in reply: “Doc, I haven't paid; you're not going to put me out, are you?” “Yes, by ----,” Oldham replied, “I will put you out, too.” Then followed a quarrel, in the midst of which Oldham struck Belt in the face with a pair of knuckles and knocked him down. Belt jumped up, seized Oldham, ran him backward over a chair, knocked him down, kicked him, and then started for the door. Oldham sprang up and started for him again, when Belt cried out: “Gentlemen, keep him off of me; he's coming at me with knuckles!” To this Oldham replied, “Yes, by ----, I've got 'em and I know how to use 'em, too!” He continued to advance on Belt until within five feet of him. Belt warned him to stop or he would be shot. He refused to be warned, and, continuing to advance, Belt drew a revolver and shot, inflicting a mortal wound which resulted in Oldham's death.

The consequences of this quarrel have been terrible. Belt was arrested, and an indictment was found, and at a preliminary hearing he was released on $3,000 bail. His trial has been pending thus long because he has had it continued form time to time. By a change of venue it has been transferred to Gallatin County, and will begin there today. Since the shooting, attacks have been made on all the leading witnesses in the case, for the purpose either of driving them from the country or ending their lives. The most notable of these was an attack on an old man named G. W. Covert, who was present at the dance and saw the shooting. In April, 1877, he and “Bill” Fraley, a brother-in-law of Logan Belt, was walking along the road at night when a man suddenly appeared, and raising his gun, said, “Dead men tell no tales.” Covert says that he recognized the voice as that of Logan belt. He sprang behind Fraley, who received the contents of the gun in his body. Covert then started and ran for his life. More shots followed him and his finger was shot off. Belt is now under indictment for this assault, also, and Covert has since been hiding between courts to keep out of the way of the Belts. Logan Belt says that he himself has been fired at by two concealed persons. He was on horseback on his way home, and as he passed between two trees, two shots were fired at him simultaneously from each side of the road. His horse jumped and threw him, and by running around a rock which hid him from view he escaped unhurt. He does not know who fired the shots, but he thinks that it was the Oldham boys.

Warning letters have passed between both sides. The following is a fair specimen of these documents, and will give some idea of the feeling which exists between the two factions. It was mailed from Salem , Ky.:

AT HOME IN ALL PLACES, BUT MORE ESPECIALLY IN HARDIN COUNTY, ILLINOIS.

Gents: As we desire to be friendly with all parties, we want in this epistle to warn you in the event of your attempts on our friend Logan Belt, we, the citizens of the above-named place, are fully determined to hold all of you to a strict accountability for any threat or attempt to injure our much-esteemed friend, a Lieutenant in the Army during our last war. We the aforesaid citizens of the above-named place, are fully aware of the dastardly attacks made by the “Odum stock” on account of their Lieutenant merely discharging his duty and sending one to his long home, who richly merited all he got, and, as this letter means business, you had better beware of us ++Ku-Klux++ as we have eaten nothing of any consequence since the battle of Shiloh, and we are hungry! Beware! Beware of us fellows, as the leaves are now on the trees, and as we are nothing but shadows and fearfully hungry, and as we are desirous of acting in Kuklux style, we warn you to beware of the infuriated friends of Lieut. Belt, who are and have been watching his welfare for some time. We are merely across the drink, but all attention should anything occur to our esteemed friend; and be sure to accept of this as from a friend, as we do not wish to send any of you to Shut-Eye Town unless some depredation is committed upon the person or property of our friend. Now, as you and a considerable number of your dirty acquaintances are mean enough to do anything on this earth, be sure to take this as a memento mori. And now farewell. From your only friend on this lower footstool.

A CITIZEN OF THE ABOVE PLACE.

Addressed: THOMAS and JESSE ODUM.

The Oldhams have become so terrified at the number of these threatening letters sent to them that they have not left their homes for weeks. They have feared to go to Elizabethtown lest they might be shot on the way, and to furnish evidence on the forthcoming trial to the Prosecuting Attorney they have sent their wives, and the latter have ridden into the village daily and alone. The Belts claim to have received warning letters also, but they have not shown any of them, and, so far as is know, all these letters have been sent to those opposed to them.

All these events, of course, produced great excitement in the community, and no man felt himself safe. The terror culminated, however, on June 1, when the proofs were offered that there existed among the Belts an organization with signs, grips, pass-words, and masked men and arms, the purpose of which was to intimidate and murder. The evidence was so conclusive that even the Belts were forced to admit the organization, although they assigned to it a very different object. The way in which the facts came out was this. There lived in this county two men name Frank Harding and B. Z. Jenkins, who said that they had been solicited, from time to time, by Logan Belt to join an organization of which he spoke, and finally, on the night of May 7 last, they did join. They were so horrified at the revelations made to them that they turned State's evidence, and on May 30 warrants were issued for 14 of the Belt gang, including Logan and Jonathan. The Sheriff refused to serve the warrants, either from cowardice, or because he is in collusion with the Belts. When the alleged conspirators heard that the warrants were out however, they voluntarily surrendered to J. F. Taylor, the County Judge. The examination was held on June 3 and 4, and was a curious judicial proceeding. The Belts came into the court-room armed to the teeth, and carying a carpet-bag filled with loaded pistols besides, which they placed on the floor near them. Logan Belt conducted the defense in person and his method of cross-examination was unique and effective. He would simply inform the witness that he had “sworn to an infamous lie,” and a question having arisen as to the competency of certain evidence offered by the State, he gave notice to the court that if it were admitted, he would make no further defense. He seemed to regard the affair as a purely voluntary contribution to good order o the part of himself and friends, and intimated that if they were not treated with what he considered respect, neither he nor they would stay there any longer. With 20 or 25 armed men in the room, the declaration naturally had its weight.

The testimony of the two leading witnesses was, substantially, that by various influences and false pretenses employed from time to time by “Loge” Belt and “Bob” Sheridan, they were persuaded to join the conspirators on the night of May 7 last. The place of meeting was a sequestered gulch near the Ohio, and the pretended purpose to ferret out the mysterious murder of Luke Hambrink, an old German, who had been killed at his door on the night of April 1, and whom the Belts accused the Oldhams of shooting, while the Oldhams accused Logan Belt. It was also suggested the Covert, the witness against Belt, should be whipped or killed, and that society thereabouts should be regulated generally. Grips, signs, uniforms, and pass-words were adopted. Members' faces were to be cowled, and a light was to be carried in the hat of each during their raids. Arms were to be purchased for all who were too poor to buy them, and the question of whether a man was to be whipped or killed was to be left entirely to the discretion of the clan. If one of the members were arrested, he was to be rescued with drawn pistols, and by disguised men. To avoid the inquiry of Grand Juries, the organization was to have no regular name, and no regular of place of meeting, so that the members could truthfully swear “that they knew of no Ku-klux organization in the county.” The witnesses having become satisfied that it was the intention of the conspirators to assassinate or intimidate persons who were important witnesses against Logan Belt in the pending murder trial, decided to disregard the oath which they had taken to stand by the members until death, and to make a full exposure of the conspiracy for the public good. The testimony was so strong that the defendants were bound over to the Criminal Court in the sum of $200 each. This hearing had virtually the effect to break up the organization, but for a time people were wild with terror over it.

 

Source:  The New York Times. Published: July 27, 1879.

 

[My comments are in brackets.]