Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 1, 2012

Event brings city history to life

Tammie Hetzer-Womack
The Independent

ASHLAND — One month from today our town marks the 130th anniversary of the bloodiest day in Ashland crime annals — bedlam unleashed on the bloody Ohio shores. Let’s stroll back just a bit.

Elders speak of “The Ashland Tragedy,” the renowned case that’s the stuff of songs, poems, and regional nonfiction. It was a bitterly-raw Christmas Eve in 1881. Fannie Gibbons, 14; her disabled brother, Robert Gibbons, 17, and a neighbor, 15-year-old Emma Carico were brutally killed in the Gibbons home at 28th Street and Carter Avenue.

Their heads heinously smashed-in with an ax and crowbar; girls viciously raped. The frame house was burned to disguise the coal oil-doused evidence, so the savage story goes.

The slain young trio are buried in sections four and five of Ashland Cemetery. Bricklayer George Ellis confessed to the slaughter before pointing his finger at work partners Ellis Craft and William Neal.

Ellis was snatched from the Boyd County jail and lynched on a sycamore tree by townsfolk. Citizens grew incensed when Neal and Craft were granted a change of venue for their capital trials.

On Nov. 1, 1882, hostility escalating in town, the predators were all set to be moved to Lexington on the steamboat The Granite State for their safety, with National Guard troops keeping watch. Around 200 men and boys climbed aboard a train to Gate City, shotguns in tow, hoping to take a whack at the killers, demanding their surrender to Ellis’s portentous sycamore. Troops refused the gun-toting throng’s mandates.

A telegram circulated The Granite State neared town — and would soon pass Ashland with fiendish prisoners aboard. An infuriated mob gathered along the riverbank and Front Street. Some hopped on a nearby ferry to run down the steamer. A gripping gun and cannon battle ensued between the two boats. Many innocent onlooker lives were lost in the river wrangle, including Col. L.W. Reppert who tried to calm the rabble of irate people. He’s also buried in  Ashland Cemetery.

This is just a small piece of the wicked Ashland Tragedy chronicle guests shall hear on the Oct. 13 Dining with the Past tour — a benefit for the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center and the cemetery.

Now in its fifth year, the event seeks to restore decaying, old monuments at the rustic cemetery. With prior endowments, its restoration committee garnered funding to recondition the founding Poage family’s headstones.

Organizer and volunteer Michael Mussetter is pleased this year’s proceeds are earmarked to mend the three degenerating Ashland Tragedy tombstones, a community plot interring the victims.

On the burial grounds walking tour, participants learn about olden times with narrated re-enactments at various graves. The beautiful, 150-year-old necropolis holds memorials of founding fathers, Civil War soldiers, business leaders, and generations of Ashlanders.

“Paul G. Blazer Sr. is buried there. Many of us know about the school but don’t know his story,” Mussetter paused. “His grandson, Stewart Webb will offer his re-enactment this year. …I have a real interest in the history of my city. It’s just so fascinating to me.”

Mussetter got involved with Dining with the Past after coordinating the Poage Family Reunion at Poage Landing Days, a picnic-style meal held annually at the Ashland Visitors Center. He works with their executive director Sue Dowdy, arranging a banquet for nearest and dearest of town founders. They share photos; relay old, hand-me-down tales of kith and kin.

Much work goes into planning. Genealogist Jim Powers decides on local ancestors buried in the cemetery, and researches their upbringings, before assigning volunteers to portray the characters. Every year, leaders change the dearly-departed personified on the expedition.

Mussetter is especially thrilled to see Helga Thomas portray the late Emma Horton. The deceased Ashlander is the first African-American woman rendered on the notable tour. She witnessed both segregated and integrated classrooms during her days at Berea College.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are; you will find something to captivate you,” assured Mussetter, saying sepulchers like the metal-crafted “The Iron Lady” or “The Weeping Widow” are highly-wrought and worthy of praise.

Back in 2009, the city of Ashland took possession of Ashland Cemetery and works to uphold, sustain, and safeguard its legacy, while also paying tribute to the many entombed in its crypts and lots.

Mussetter said we should revere and treasure Ashland Cemetery – while also contributing.

“It’s so vital to show regard to our local history,” he finished. “Dining with the Past is the perfect way to give back.”